Just prior to the time I first wrote this article, all hell broke loose when Gizmodo, a design and technology blog, reported that Facebook routinely suppressed news stories that would be of interest to conservative readers. It was further disclosed that editors at Facebook had been manipulating topics that “trend,” a top-ten list of the most talked-about subjects on the social media platform, something Facebook always maintained was determined by an algorithm. Far from being a mildly interesting “popularity” list, “trending topics” are used by businesses and organizations to shape marketing strategies, affect public opinion, identify target audiences, and use as a means to insert their brand into the national conversation about an issue. It’s an important tool.
Facebook vehemently denied all of it, so it was particularly awkward for the social media giant when the British daily newspaper, The Guardian, published internal guidelines leaked from Facebook that revealed the company had been doing precisely what it said it hadn’t been doing.
One might ask, “So what?”
It is one thing to determine newsworthy topics seen by millions of viewers by using a neutral calculation, but critics pointed out that Facebook had been positioning itself as a passive transmitter of noteworthy news when, in fact, it was an active participant in shaping the news. That is why there is talk of a congressional inquiry into political bias at Facebook at the time this article is being written.
There are greater ramifications to consider here than just the revelation that a social media platform tinkered with its data. Sixty-four percent of American adults use Facebook (Pew Research), and an astounding 88 percent of Millennials (Media Insight Project) get their news from Facebook regularly. When adults make decisions with far reaching consequences based on information they trust to be unbiased, this stuff matters. It matters when a small group of people affects public opinion because of their own biases, and that is why this is of particular import to purebred dog enthusiasts.
I share an experience that recently happened to a Facebook page administrator whom some of you know.
Following the “verification” of the administrator’s Facebook page (an application process that designates a page as authentic), the page’s performance numbers unexpectedly plummeted. The number of people the page “reached” dropped 52%, “post engagement” dropped 56%, and page “likes” dropped 85%. Posts were only sporadically appearing in news feeds, and some page fans had assumed the page had been discontinued altogether. When the administrator complained to Facebook, a representative told her that the drop in numbers was the result of a “system upgrade. Sorry.”
The administrator was skeptical. The process of verification puts a page under greater scrutiny. Was it possible that employees sympathetic to animal rights or an unyielding adopt-don’t-shop message didn’t take kindly to her Facebook page that extolled the virtues of purebred dogs and breeders?
When Facebook’s duplicity in the dissemination of news was disclosed weeks after the administrator’s complaint, it was no longer out of the realm of possibility that biased employees may have tinkered with the exposure of the page which included “purebred dog” as part of its name. Cynics may point out that the founder of Facebook, himself, is the owner of a purebred dog, but how likely is it that Mark Zuckerberg attends to the daily minutiae of overseeing millions of Facebook pages?
We may be too quick to think “politics” when we hear the term, “media bias,” the grown up version of peer pressure. We are bombarded with skewed messaging in ways our predecessors never were, information that covers a gamut of topics, including dog ownership.
Consider the constant drumbeat of the “adopt-don’t-shop” message, the “fact” that shelters are filled with purebred dogs there only because of a breeder, that overpopulation exists because of breeders, and that a shelter dog dies when a purebred dog is bought from a breeder. Has there ever been an assault on law-abiding citizens to rival this character assassination of our demographic?
Sometimes, media bias is an obvious attack on a topic, but more often than not, the omission of opposing viewpoints is more damaging than an open discussion inclusive of various points of view. One can’t debate what one doesn’t see. We are assailed with reports of pet overpopulation, for example, and yet little is said of the 300,000+ dogs imported into the United States annually from Europe, Mexico and the Caribbean (Center for Disease Control, 2009). The public is guilted over owning purebred dogs when mixed breeds are “so much healthier, “ but we rarely see mentioned the results of a five-year study conducted by the University of California at Davis and published in 2013 that disproved this. One popular post making the rounds maintains that breeders have ruined breeds, and to prove the point, the author compares photographs of today’s breeds with photographs of the same breeds from 100 years ago. There’s no arguing the point that the breeds of today look different than their 19th century counterparts. The average reader of the blog, however, lacks enough knowledge of canine structure to recognize that “different” isn’t always better. To an educated eye, the majority of photographs of “yesterday’s dogs” show weak top lines, unbalanced front and rear structures, broken down pasterns, and dogs that likely never knew a day without some pain. And that was better?
There is no better solution to media bias than to challenge it and outnumber it. For every article, blog or opinion piece that bashes purebred dogs, there must be a wave of responses that counter it. For every anti-purebred dog or breeder page on Facebook, or account on Twitter or Instagram, there must be two that outweigh it. There needs to be more of “us” in editorial positions than there are of “them,” and if that means starting one’s own blog, writing for a local newspaper, promoting one’s purebred dog as the next “star” of Instagram – so be it. Media bias works both ways, and in our case, it would simply balance the scales.
This piece was written for Dogs in Review and appeared in their July, 2016 issue