If you’re a Facebook user, who (like me) enjoys being aggravated every day by your “Trending” toolbar, you’ve probably been seeing Facebook write trending stories about itself for the past couple of weeks. The initial story was plastered across not only Facebook’s meta-reporting sidebar but news sites all over the Internet: “Facebook employee says trending bar has bias against conservative media.”
But if you’re a member of any oppressed group, ever went through any sort of childhood trauma, or just in general aren’t a shitty person at heart, you’ve definitely noticed by now that the Facebook trending bar listing popular news items is often comprised of more than 50% conservative hot topics. Anytime someone in the media or the government has something to say about trans people and treating us like humans, Facebook immediately conjures up 3 retired hair metal musicians or reality stars to tell us how the damned transgenders are just gonna use the bathroom to look at kids—because gosh golly, that’s what they would’ve done! It’s become obvious at this point that the Facebook trending feed is not just a randomly generated smorgasbord of posts populated by whatever’s the hottest topic—it’s a carefully curated list, and like most other features of Facebook, this curation is definitely more right-leaning than left.
Facebook has already demonstrated this in big ways by their constant refusal to block TERFs, racists, and fascists from their platform—yet they ban trans folk who make jokes about certain fake goths being posers. Facebook has a policy on the books about accounts using fake names, but rather than using this to delete accounts belonging to people who impersonate ordinary folks to harass them—people who use names like Thunderfuck Chickendong and use their accounts to post graphic images of sexual assault and gore on the timelines of others—it chooses to frequently delete the accounts of trans people and people of color (especially indigenous people) who are using their genuine names, on the basis that they “sound” fake.
It’s clear that most of the staff at Facebook believe themselves to be liberal in theory, based on Mark Zuckerberg’s defensiveness and the site’s stated commitment to neutrality, but in practice the staff is full of some of the most malicious administrators to organize any site. Sites that are actually built for pornography often take care to remove instances of rape or otherwise shocking/illegal content, yet there are dozens of Facebook pages both public and private dedicated to posting this content that stay up despite repeated reports from users (as I can tell you from personal experience). A former Facebook “community” called simply “R△pe” took months of reports from me and my Facebook friends to be taken down, despite the page consisting entirely of images of women being assaulted and abused. I and many of my friends have been harassed on posts and been unable to take any recourse against the people threatening to kill or assault or sexually harass us, because their posts have been deemed not to “violate the community standards,” yet posts from trans people saying things as simple and comparatively innocuous as “cis people suck” or posts from people of color saying “white people suck” have been removed countless times. It’s time for Zuckerberg to put his money where his mouth is: if you really want to prove your site doesn’t have a bias, prove that it isn’t biased against the oppressed, either. The millions of Facebook users who use your site to communicate with friends and family and share ideas shouldn’t have to be inundated with news stories telling us that we and our brothers and sisters don’t deserve to use public bathrooms, that we should be banned entry to America, or that some guy who made a fortune off duck calls thinks we’re rapists. Stop patting yourself on the back and padding the trending feed with stories of how you’re wholly neutral, and stand up for people who need support.
Of course, Facebook isn’t the only social media platform, but I’m not exactly in a rush to defend any of the others. Tumblr’s policy of dealing with harassment has historically been to pretend their site has no users and thus never moderate anything. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a racist, homophobic or transphobic post be removed from Tumblr, and it’s got so many different user subgroups that Neo-Nazis basically have a safe haven there—not only for commiserating but for sharing violent and graphic pornography with racist captions overlaid on it, which is probably the most common example of completely unacceptable content that most Tumblr users have seen. Twitter has a more active moderation team, but only in cherry-picked incidents. The most common example is one that has, incidentally, been featured on Facebook’s trending bar: Azealia Banks was recently suspended from the service due to her racist and homophobic tweets. But while Twitter prides itself on removing this admittedly very virulent user, it doesn’t stop people like Donald Trump, Milo Yiannopolous (although it did remove his “verified” checkmark, which prompted a fairly amusing hissy fit), Iggy Azalea, Tila Tequila, or other open racists and fascists from using their platform—and because of the nature of retweets and trending hashtags, these users are often amplified more visibly than on sites like Facebook.
Still, the advantage sites like Tumblr and Twitter have are their functioning block and mute systems—while they’re not foolproof, it’s a lot easier to blacklist content on Tumblr and block violent users on Twitter than it is on Facebook. If you’re being harassed by an individual on Facebook, blocking them is often your only recourse (since reports are ignored), but there is currently no easy way to filter content on all browsers. Some Facebook users do use third-party blacklisting apps, but I don’t think that a user should have to gut features of a website to feel safe. Trending news on Facebook should be carefully curated, rather than full of toxic content that users cannot ignore. There’s also no implementation of a way to block pages, meaning that TERFs and racists can operate pages, promote posts, and force their vitriolic content into the feeds of innocent readers. All social media sites need to put more emphasis on user safety and protection from violent users, but it is absolutely heinous that Facebook itself harms marginalized users with its trending toolbar.
Art by Rilo Harris.