Yesterday, I had an opportunity to meet with some of the senior staff at Facebook, including Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg. I found the meeting deeply disturbing — but not for the reasons you might think.
Before I dig in, since I’ll be talking about bias, let me share a bit about mine. I have been an avid Facebook user for about 8 years. I have 3.2 million followers. I consistently see high engagement on my Facebook page. We have begun using Facebook’s live video streaming platform and are encouraged by the results and plan on utilizing it more. The Facebook staff has always treated me and my staff kindly. They have been responsive, helpful, and available. I came into the meeting today wanting to believe that Facebook was a good, if not perfect, actor.
Walking out of the meeting, I was convinced that Facebook is behaving appropriately and trying to do the right thing. They were humble, open, and listened intently to everyone in the room.
So what disturbed me?
Before I answer, let me give a bit more background.
I am not an expert on data or AI or algorithms. If I had all the time, data, and money in the world, I would not be able to do anything with it.
I accept the possibility there may be evidence that Facebook — or said more clearly, someone or even multiple people who work for Facebook — may have done something that skewed the output in some way to game the system. But so far, I have not seen that evidence. And we looked for it. There are people at my company who understand this stuff far better than I do and they haven’t seen that evidence.
As a reminder, this entire controversy began when one former member of the Trending team — one — claimed Faceboook was suppressing conservative voices.
Now I want to be very clear on this point. This issue, the Trending Topics issue, the reason we are supposed to be up in arms, is a relatively new product that Facebook readily admits is far from perfect. Maybe later we will go into the details of the multiple products and how each one MAY be impacted by an unconscious bias — and how Trending topics in particular MAY be vulnerable to manipulation — but the reason I went to Facebook was not to find out whether there was a small issue, but to see whether there was a real issue. A top-down initiative from management to marginalize conservative voices. We can, and will, debate the merits of some of the complaints against Facebook, but, in my opinion, there is no evidence of a top-down initiative to silence conservative voices.
Even if some employees would want to do so, it would be really hard. It does not seem reasonable to me (or the President of my company who is far more technical then I am) that this bias could have the impact some claim unless it comes from the top. Just a couple bad actors could not move the needle in a significant way.
I don’t know off the top of my head how many employees Facebook has, but it’s a lot more than one. I do know they have 1.6 billion users, and that serving those users can’t be easy. To ensure every user has the experience hoped for is no easy task, but what I saw at Facebook was a team of people who were trying.
So, why did Facebook hold the meeting at all if they are doing nothing wrong? Are they just looking for cover? Is this Kabuki Theatre? Am I a rube?
Maybe, but I’ve been called worse. If I find out there is more to the story, I will blast them — but I don’t think there is.
This is what I heard yesterday:
In a country that is deeply divided, the largest and most important company in human interaction and content consumption saw the conservative movement in an uproar over ONE person, making ONE accusation, against ONE of their products. One story and the pitchforks came out. Now that’s something we conservatives are accustomed to, but not so much for those on the left.
Sure, the purpose of the meeting yesterday was to appease the angry voices, at least to some degree. They took the opportunity to explain to us the details of their products and how they really can’t be consciously biased, although they did admit that unconscious bias can creep in. But to me, the purpose of the meeting from Facebook’s point of view was to acknowledge that if one story and one accusation can bring out the pitchforks, the more fundamental issue to address is a lack of trust.
Conservative media, which was started as a reaction to the inherent bias in the main stream media, does not trust anyone outside our circle. Hell, we don’t even trust the people inside our circle. So it’s understandable that going to Silicon Valley, for many conservatives, is like going into enemy territory.
Silicon Valley is liberal, not a little bit liberal, a lot liberal. For example, I had a lunch yesterday with the very prominent Silicon Valley entrepreneur who donates to Democrats. If the internet is to be believed, he donated $250,000 to an Obama Super PAC. And when he (or was it someone else on his team?) described San Francisco, he described it as “leaning to the left.” Conservatives see San Francisco as falling off a cliff to the left.
That difference in perception is enormous.
I understand why conservatives are suspicious of Silicon Valley. It can feel a lot like the main stream media. But I’ve told you many times that I feel at home in Silicon Valley. I love the energy. These are people who want to innovate and disrupt, they want the government to stop regulating their businesses, they want small business to succeed, they value personal responsibility, etc. Why they are liberal? I don’t know, but in general, they’re not Progressives, at least not the folks I met with today (though I’m sure there were a few).
So, as a general rule, we do not trust them. And with one story, conservatives told Facebook, “There’s nothing left in the trust bank. There’s no goodwill. You must have been scamming us this whole time.”
I know I will be blasted by people for my position on this. I will be called a sellout. I will be accused of taking money or cowering for fear of retribution. (Of course, if I took the other side — that Facebook really was out to screw us, I would also be called names. Oh well, I just call it like I see it.)
So what disturbed me about the Facebook meeting?
I sat through a meeting that, to me, felt like I was attending a Rainbow Coalition meeting, that people (not me) had come with a list of demands.
I looked around the room, I heard the complaints, I listened to the perspectives, and not a single person in the room shared evidence of any wrongdoing. Maybe they had some, but it wasn’t shared. They discussed how Facebook’s organic reach and changes in algorithms has impacted their business. While at the same time admitting that Huffington Post has been struggling with the same issues. I heard people discuss community standards, pages being shut down, posts being removed — and I do believe that happens and it’s something Facebook could do better, and I hope they will — but we were not there because of that. We were there because of this ONE accusation on Trending Topics.
I sat there looking around and heard things like:
1) Facebook has a very liberal workforce. Has Facebook considered diversity in their hiring practice? The country is 2% Mormon. Maybe Facebook’s company should better reflect that reality.
2) Maybe Facebook should consider a six-month training program to help their biased and liberal workforce understand and respect conservative opinions and values.
3) We need to see strong and specific steps to right this wrong.