Facebook upgrade spurs fears of political bias

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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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.

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s “GLAAD open group” also got an upgrade for its 300 members. The group’s administrator did not respond to TheDC’s emails.

The “Labor Express Radio” group also got the upgrade after its 104 members post on the site to demonstrate their activity. The group was established by  “Chicago’s only English language labor news and current affairs radio program… [it] addresses issues of concern to working people such as housing, education, health care, immigrants rights, the environment and U.S. foreign policy.”

These five groups are only a small proportion of all Facebook groups. The new upgrade has only just started, so few groups have migrated over the new software, making it impossible to tell if Facebook is favoring Democratic-allied groups over conservative or free-market groups. An informal survey of groups showed that more than twenty groups with progressive, liberal, environmentalist, gay or Islamist members have not upgraded to the new software, for example.

The groups with the upgrade are easy to spot, because they have a very different layout, in which the list of members is placed on the right side of the computer-screen, not the left.

But the activists’ worries about Facebook’s neutrality are enhanced by Facebook’s reluctance to explain which groups get the upgrade key.

“Some groups will be given the opportunity to upgrade into the new design while others will need to re-create their groups,” said a statement from Andrew Noyes, the company’s manager for public policy communications.

The award of the upgrade-software is determined by the activity on each group, he said. “We determined what groups to archive based on a number of factors, including the amount of recent activity [and] we’re currently working on ways to refine our systems so as to not accidentally archive or move groups that were incorrectly characterized and we appreciate user feedback as we do so,” he said.

But that argument is unpersuasive, said Geller, because her group is large and active, yet still does not have the key that smaller groups have already received.

The activists’ worries about Facebook’s possible political tilt are fortified by the political activities of its founders and employees. The company’s employees donated heavily to the Obama campaign in 2008, just as did the employees of Google and Microsoft. Facebook-founder Chris Hughes workers as head of the online-organizing campaign for the Obama campaign, while company chief Mark Zuckerberg has declared himself to be an Obama supporter.

In the same election, Google‘s YouTube subsidiary also used its video-sorting technology to demote online-ads run by GOP candidate John McCain, even as Obama’s online-ads dominated YouTube’s display pages. Google’s website-ranking system is similarly opaque, fueling claims of political bias by pro-life groups and by groups that championed Hillary Clinton’s primary run in 2008.

The companies’ officials can also quietly provide valuable advice and favors for groups they personally support, or that can provide support to their company. For example, Noyes worked with gay-advocacy groups to add “domestic partnership” and “civil union” to Facebook’s option “status” description buttons, and also worked with federal officials to add notification-software to Facebook as part of a White House “anti-bullying” event in March.

Noyes also worked informally with gay activists to knock down Facebook pages they disliked. “We had a sort of informal relationship with GLAAD based around things people were seeing on Facebook that they believed needed to come down,” Noyes told Metro Weekly, according to a March 2011 article. “It was a very important, informal relationship that we had, because nine times out of 10, the content did violate our terms and we did take it down,” he said.

When asked about the new group software, Noyes said the “groups migration process is apolitical [and] any assertion to the contrary is false.” But he also said that “we encourage people who are trying to engage with large numbers of people to create [a] Page,” rather than a group.

The company does seem to be pushing large groups of Facebook users to migrate from the “group” software and to instead create individual pages, said Steve Cox, a group-administrator living in Mesa, Arizona. The upper-limit for groups may be set at only 250 users, according to online discssons among Facebook administrators.

Cox managed to win an upgrade key for one group by getting several members of the group for Mormon missionaries to post a burst of several trivial messages. That group has several hundred members, but he has so far failed to win an upgrade key for his second group, which consist of several hundred people who graduated from a Mesa high-school in 2003. The administrators of other groups that have up to 100,000 active people, can’t get the upgrade either, he said.

That judgment is bolstered by the state of another Facebook group, “Barack Obama (One Million Strong for Barack)” which has 988,671 members, but no upgrade.

That company pressure has already pushed McGuire and his Save Marriage NY group way from his the group-software and towards greater reliance on a Facebook page, he said. The page format, he said, does produce more interaction from members than the old group-software, so he’s not too worried about losing contact with some members of his group once it is archived.

But Facebook’s online help-pages continue to show worried group-administrators, and online-political activists continue to protest the company’s unwillingness to explain the upgrade process. “I’d love to see the complete list” of the groups given the software upgrade, said Geller. The company’s behavior, she said, “is very uncool.”

But over at the Brady campaign, activists laud the Facebook upgrade. “We’ve had more people come back” to the group following the upgrade, said Churchill. The changeover, he said, “was very smooth for us.”

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Neil Munro