Is Facebook messing with the conversation about the Middle East?

I’ve already explained that Facebook is a passive-aggressive control freak. I’ll now try to explain why that matters.

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Last night, I noticed something funny. Facebook was doing its usual aggregation thing (see the link above and/or read on and figure out what I mean), but something seemed a little off:

Here’s what I was looking at:

For some reason, Facebook thought it would be a good idea to put together a series of posts using Izzedine al Qassam Forces — that is to say, Hamas — as the organizing element, and even link to the organization’s fan page.

On the one hand, I appreciate that Facebook is hard at work cleaning up my Newsfeed. Don’t get me wrong: the ongoing conflict in the Middle East is obviously important and troubling, but related posts should be bunched together to make room for everything else.

On the other hand, careful inspection reveals that not a single person on my Newsfeed actually used the term ‘Izzedine al Qassam Forces’ — and a few articles classified beneath that heading didn’t even use the term ‘Hamas’ — so why is Facebook going out of its way to collect these posts under a term their authors probably don’t even recognize?

Before I pretend to answer anything, I’ll introduce one more data point:

To aggregate these — and other — posts, Facebook could have easily used ‘Israel’, ‘Israelis’, ‘Hamas’, ‘Gaza’, ‘Israeli-Palestinian Conflict’ etc. — instead, it settled on ‘Izzedine al Qassam Forces’ and ‘Palestinian People’.

I’ve been checking in periodically ever since I first noticed ‘Izzedine al Qassam Forces’ — Newsfeed is sticking with its terms of choice. And in case it occurred to you that they might have been randomly generated, I would remind you that nobody — but nobody — is actually writing about the ‘Izzedine al Qassam Forces’. Someone, somewhere made the decision that this term would appear on my Newsfeed, and ‘Hamas’ wouldn’t.

And so Facebook has successfully defined the conversation taking place on my Facebook wall.

According to my Newsfeed, what’s going on isn’t a war between Gaza and Israel, or the IDF and Hamas: it’s about the IQF. And it isn’t about two civilian populations caught between relentless missile attacks and targeted killings. It isn’t even about two civilian populations at all: it’s about the Palestinian People.

The terms are important. I don’t need to rehash the world of difference between “the rich” and “job creators,” or between the “Independent Payment Advisory Board” and “death panels.” And it’s the same story here.

When you make the debate about “Palestinian people” — and not “civilians” or “Israeli and Palestinian civilians” — you define the conflict by the suffering of one people. And when you make the debate about the “Izzedine al Qassam Forces” — for one, you use an innocuous term most readers don’t recognize as the military wing of Hamas — and for two, you present “Izzedine al Qassam Forces” as an independent actor, and not as part of an organization the United States considers a terrorist organization in its entirety, i.e. you’re giving the rest of Hamas a free pass.

The point is not that Facebook is anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian or pro-Israel or anti-Palestinian, though I have no doubt someone will walk away from this post with his conclusion of choice — or even that this is all silly and doesn’t really matter. For all I know, others have been fed a different set of terms by their own Newsfeed. But I would point out that — in defining the terms of debate — Facebook is asserting its ability to subtly shape that debate, and perhaps influence what people take away from a brief scroll through their Newsfeed… in case Mark Zuckerberg’s ability to control what makes it into your Newsfeed in the first place wasn’t scary enough.

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