In an interview with marketing website Contently, Peter Rojas, founder of tech sites Engadget, Gizmodo, Joystiq, and gdgt, said Mark Zuckerberg has the power to sway the upcoming presidential election if he decides to do so.
The topic came up in the context of a question about the recent “Trending Topics” controversy at Facebook. Rojas was asked about the line between tech and media companies and whether there is one anymore, especially at Facebook.
“The question of whether Facebook is tech company or a media company, I’m not sure it’s a meaningful question at this point,” he said. “What would that accomplish in terms of helping us understand Facebook?”
“Facebook is a better platform through which an enormous percentage of the world’s media now flows, whether you like it or not. The idea that Facebook is neutral or that its algorithms are neutral, I think anybody who believed that was just kidding themselves. No company is ever neutral.”
Former editors in the news aggregation department at Facebook recently told Gizmodo that they had “the power to choose what stories make it onto the trending bar and, more importantly, what news sites each topic links out to.” Even though part of the process is automated, they claimed that some topics and sources are “blacklisted.” (And realistically, even the automated processes are controlled by human programmers who create the algorithms.)
While Rojas acknowledged that it would be to Facebook’s advantage to “try to diminish the perception” of having a lot of power, “the truth is that if Mark Zuckerberg wanted to tilt this election to Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, he could do that,” he said.
Rojas was asked about Facebook employees recently asking Mark Zuckerberg if he felt he had a moral obligation to stop Donald Trump. Do companies have an obligation to reflect the views of their employees?
First of all, Rojas said, “there’s no way for them to be this completely neutral vessel that has no impact on the rest of the world.”
“Let’s say Mark Zuckerberg came out and said, ‘I’m going to tilt this election,’ or he just decided, ‘I’m going to throw this election to Hillary Clinton because that’s the right thing to do, not just for our site but for democracy.’ Maybe he did it quietly, and then it got out. Then it becomes a question of, what else does he have an obligation to support or help enable? I think that becomes a slippery slope,” Rojas said.
He said he thinks people at Facebook are trying to avoid a situation where the company is pressured to supported all sorts of causes. “I think that’s what they’re worried about more than anything else.”
“If you were going to do it, you should do it as quietly as possible,” he suggested. “Obviously it’s in their interest not to expose or be very up front about the power they have, but I don’t think the rest of us should stick our heads in the sand and pretend that they don’t.”
With that in mind, Rojas thinks there should at least be “some transparency or some, I don’t want to say, accountability. That’s not quite the right word.” He said, “entities like this have power, and for all of us to pretend that they don’t is just silly. For them to pretend that they don’t is sort of silly also. One hundred years ago, newspapers helped us get into the Spanish American War, right? I don’t think anybody pretended that newspapers didn’t have that power.”
He added that “we all know” that oil companies control the direction of the world, “so why shouldn’t Facebook or Google or Apple have similar abilities?”