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N.Y. Times chief turns up heat on social-media algorithms

Conservatives have been raising alarms about censorship by Google, Facebook and other web giants for some time, pointing to algorithm changes that abruptly slashed traffic to their sites, confessions of left-wing bias and their collaboration with far-left groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Now the CEO of the left-leaning New York Times is complaining of the secrecy of algorithms that filter news.

“The process of citizens making up their own mind which news source to believe is messy, and can indeed lead to ‘fake news,’ but to rob them of that ability, and to replace the straightforward accountability of editors and publishers for the news they produce with a centralized trust algorithm will not make democracy healthier but damage it further,” Times CEO Mark Thompson said in a speech.

The Daily Caller reported he was casting “serious doubt” on tech companies who trust algorithms to determine what’s “fake.”

Thompson said Google and Facebook need to be much more transparent.

“We do not know, beyond inevitably imperfect and incomplete empirical observation, how the algorithms of the major platforms sort and prioritize our content, nor can we reliably predict or influence changes in those algorithms, nor in any sense hold the companies to account for them,” Thompson said.

“Full transparency about both algorithmic and human editorial selection by the major digital platforms is an essential preliminary if we are to address any of these issues. It would be best if this were done voluntarily, but even if it requires regulation or legislation, it must be done – and done promptly.”

WND reported Wednesday that publishers and others in the news industry were infuriated by a plan by Facebook to collate promoted news stories in a database for political ads.

The issue concerns items that are “in most cases just regular posts linking to news stories, which publishers pay to promote or boost so that they appear in the feeds of users.”

The News Media Alliance, a coalition of publishers and others, immediately protested, complaining it would be a “fundamental mischaracterization of journalism.”

NMA spokesman David Chavern wrote that the “treatment of quality news as political, even in the context of marketing, is deeply problematic.”

“You are forcing publishers to make a choice between labeling that is fundamentally counter to who we are and what we do, or to walk back our presence on a dominant platform for news consumption and discovery. This will have the effect of elevating less credible news sources on Facebook, the exact opposite of your stated intent,” he said.

The developments come as President Trump regularly accuses establishment media of producing “fake news.” It’s estimated that as much as 90 percent of news coverage about the president is negative.

The seven groups sending the NMA letter, including the Society of Professional Journalists, insisted that it would be a mistake to not look “at the credibility and professionalism of the source” of the content.

They suggested guidelines under which they would be exempted from Facebook’s policy.

“It is our job – in fact, our expertise – to make critical judgments across a complicated array of facts and ideas, which is what distinguishes our professional media from political advertising and other information provided by political or advocacy groups,” they said in the letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Thompson made his comments at a meeting of the New America’s Open Markets Institute and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.

Companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter have compromised their editorial judgment by relying on the “hate” designations of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

They often have been accused by conservatives of politically motivated censorship.

The tech companies claim they are trying to shut down “hate” messages, but SPLC, which once listed Dr. Ben Carson as a “hater,” classifies anyone who disagrees with its pro-homosexual, pro-abortion social agenda as a “hater.”

It even classifies as a “hate” group the Family Research Council, which was targeted by a gay activist because of that designation.

The Daily Caller reported Twitter recently blocked a user who posted harsh criticism of the terrorist group Hamas. The social media company said it was an “error” but wouldn’t clarify if the mistake was made through an algorithm or a direct staff decision.

The report said Google displayed fact checks almost exclusively for prominent conservative sites, including the Daily Caller.

“But most importantly, the attempts to verify certain claims were riddled with errors of their own, as the sidebar feature was proved to be faulty. Google eventually agreed after constant communication with TheDCNF, suspending the feature and blaming it on a flawed algorithm. Officials within the tech giant, however, declined to elaborate further as algorithms are proprietary.”

The Times’ Thompson said “the underlying danger – of the agency of editors and public alike being usurped by centralized algorithmic control – is present with every digital platform where we do not fully understand how the processes of editorial selection and prioritization take place.”

He argued the failings of the algorithms are legion, noting “an article about pornography in The New York Times is the same as pornography.”

News Corp CEO Robert Thomson called for social media platforms to “protect professional journalism.”

“If your business model is to commodify content – which is an egregious mistake because there is a hierarchy of content – and then allow a search engine or a social platform to be easily manipulated by bad actors then you’re failing a basic test of compliance,” he said, according to Breitbart News.

He called for an official “algorithm review board” to monitor the “intended and the unintended psychological, and social, and commercial, and political impact of pervasive platforms.”

The Facebook issue was just the latest controversy for the company that  has been caught setting users’ settings to public, giving data to a Chinese firm flagged by the government, giving electronic device makers deep access to users’ information, age discrimination and collusion with other big web companies to suppress conservative news, commentary and information.

That censorship has been called a war on the First Amendment by WND CEO Joseph Farah.

Facebook has been in trouble on an international scale.

A key player behind the British Brexit movement recently charged that Facebook is “doctoring” the news to conform to CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s “personal political views.”

British politician Nigel Farage, in a commentary quoted extensively by Breitbart, spoke out as Zuckerberg was grilled by the European Parliament about privacy, bias on the web and other issues.

Farage said the “value of Facebook as a political communications tool is hard to overestimate.”

“Without it, Brexit almost certainly would not have happened and Donald Trump would not be U.S. president,” he wrote, noting he “reminded Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg of this.”

“It’s fair to say that this high priest of the liberal elite did not look best pleased at my dwelling on the key role his company has played in helping to create what he would regard as these totally unacceptable democratic outcomes,” Farage said.

He said Zuckerberg’s “personal political views, and no doubt those of his close colleagues in Silicon Valley, may help to explain why in January this year Facebook announced its algorithms were going to change.”

Farage noted the tech giant said it was going to “de-prioritise” news publishers and their posts in Facebook users’ news feeds.

“In other words, it was going to doctor the kind of news to which Facebook’s 1 billion users were exposed,” he said.

“And this is exactly what it has done.”

Farage said the “impact of this decision has been swift and brutal.”

“According to analysis of Facebook engagement data using various tech programmes including BuzzSumo, conservative publishers like Breitbart and Fox News (for whom I work as a contributor) have seen a significant decrease in the numbers visiting their websites and engaging with their messages via Facebook. It is estimated that traffic to certain right-of-centre sites and commentators driven by Facebook has fallen by 25 per cent or more,” he wrote.

Consequently, opinions and reports by conservative news sites are being censored by Facebook, he said.

Breitbart reported: “You do not need to be Alan Turing to understand what Facebook’s technical tinkering has done. Whether or not you like these news sources and their opinions, they are effectively being censored – presumably because of their support for Trump or Brexit.”

Wired magazine reported it appeared Farage was correct in his understanding that Facebook’s actions knowingly have undermined conservatives.

“In the last six months, daily engagement on right-wing pages has dropped significantly, falling by 600,000, or 4.8 million a week. Overall, in the last year, engagement on these pages has fallen by 29 percent, a little more than Farage claimed,” the report said.