Facebook upgrade spurs fears of political bias

Facebook’s managers are deploying a new software upgrade that will dismantle myriad groups of like-minded political activists unless they get a special software-key from the company.

But Facebook managers are providing very limited information about which groups are being favored with the new key, prompting some activists to complain about possible political favoritism among Facebook managers, and many other activists to experiment with techniques and tricks to get the needed upgrade-key.

“Who is being given the upgrade?” asked Pamela Geller, the New York organizer of a 15,000-member group opposed to Islamist political groups. Without the special key, groups lose access to their members, she said. “I’ve seen people really freaking out.”

Facebook’s software changes do not impact the individual pages that Facebook subscribers use to stay in contact with friends and to tout their relationships, statuses and accomplishments. The upgrade only effects the software that links Facebook’s “groups” of like-minded people, each of which is managed by one or more group administrators.

The groups vary in size from a single person to more than one million people. They have varying levels of activity from nothing to very active.

The new software-upgrade will automatically archive all groups. Once archived, each group’s past activity will be still be visible on Facebook, but the groups’ administrators will lose access to their lists of group members. That means the administrators lose contact with everyone in their groups, and will be forced to recruit all those members again – unless Facebook provides them with the special upgrade software.

With the upgrade, group-administrators can keep in contact with their original members, and get to use the upgraded software to help the group become more active.

That’s why the upgrade software is so important to Geller and other activists. More than 700 administrators and Facebook-users have signed up with a new Facebook page, titled “Stop Them Trashing Our Groups,” to protest the company’s upgrade plans.

Geller’s “Stop Islamization of America” group has 15,062 members, but no upgrade-key, she said. If Facebook archives her group without allowing her to reach its members, she’ll have to rebuild the group from scratch, one e-mail at a time, she said. “I can’t just sit down and write a message to 15,000 members,” she said. “Why not just give us the upgrade option?”

“The Coalition to Save Marriage in New York” is a group of 1,163 social-conservatives seeking to preserve traditional marriage’s role as an institution for parents and child-rearing. The group has been very active this year trying to derail a gay-marriage push in the state assembly, but the group doesn’t have the upgrade, said the group’s administrator, Jason McGuire in Rochester, N.Y. “Nobody else that I know got one,” he said. “You do have to wonder if Facebook is leaning towards liberal positions, instead of being on open format,” he said.

Chicago libertarian activist Eric Odom has built an active 60,000-member group, but is not being offered an upgrade key.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence got the upgrade for its 1,000-member group. “We changed over very smoothly,” said David Churchill, the network-manager at the D.C.-based gun-control group. “We just basically clicked the upgrade button, checked it over, and we have a tremendous increase in participation,” he said.