These days, it seems as if everyone is on Facebook. It’s a social meeting ground that inspires millions and millions of members to stare at their phone, iPad, and/or computer monitor for hours on end. For many, Facebook’s “trending news” sidebar is their main (or only) source of news about current events. According to The Guardian, Facebook is the top news distributor on the planet.
The question is, how reliable is the news you see on Facebook? Never mind the rabid political opinions of your Facebook friends, and forget about cute kitten images and lunch pics for a moment. Think about the “Trending Topics” that appear on your page and crawl up your screen every time you log in. Does Facebook deliver a fair accounting of current events as they happen in the world? Maybe not.
According to an exclusive report by The Guardian, Facebook editors routinely keep a lid on some breaking news stories, especially when they pertain to right-wing conservatives. Evidently — and there is evidence — former “news curators” squelched trending news about Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, a conservative CPAC [Conservative Political Action Conference] gathering, and other right-wing stories, despite the fact that algorithms indicated the topics were organically trending among Facebook users.
For a long time, many Facebook users were under the impression that they saw blurbs in their trending news sidebar based on pages and posts they had previously “liked.” It turns out that’s not exactly how it works. In fact, the way news delivery does work on Facebook doesn’t quite jibe with its own claims as to how users are shown relevant news stories. Here’s what it says on the Facebook Help page at the time of this writing.
“Trending shows you a list of topics and hashtags that have recently spiked in popularity on Facebook. This list is personalized based on a number of factors, including Pages you’ve liked, your location and what’s trending across Facebook.”
That’s not what documents leaked to The Guardian this week indicate. Leaked internal editorial guideline docs reveal a disturbing reliance on a select team of contracted editors who personally choose which stories make it to the trending sidebar and which remain relatively unreported. The leaked internal documents also show that Facebook’s “pure-algorithm approach” to determine newsworthiness was abandoned in 2014.
According to Guardian report, a team that was sometimes comprised of as few as a dozen people toiled around the clock, after being trained in how to “inject” stories into the trending topics sidebar and how to “blacklist” topics. Blacklisting news at Facebook could mean a story never made it to a news feed, or it could involve the 24-hour removal of an article “at the discretion of the editors.”
A number of former Facebook contractors recently spoke with Gizmodo, confirming the info contained in the leaked documents. The erstwhile “news curators” described the Facebook editorial team as an elite group of Ivy League-educated millennials who prioritize stories, summarize topics, write headlines and include links to news sites.
Facebook is, of course, refuting these claims.
On May 9, Tom Stocky, a team leader at Facebook’s Trending Topics department, posted the following on his Facebook page.
“My team is responsible for Trending Topics, and I want to address today’s reports alleging that Facebook contractors manipulated Trending Topics to suppress stories of interest to conservatives. We take these reports extremely seriously, and have found no evidence that the anonymous allegations are true.
“Facebook is a platform for people and perspectives from across the political spectrum. There are rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality. These guidelines do not permit the suppression of political perspectives. Nor do they permit the prioritization of one viewpoint over another or one news outlet over another. These guidelines do not prohibit any news outlet from appearing in Trending Topics.
“We will also keep looking into any questions about Trending Topics to ensure that people are matched with the stories that are predicted to be the most interesting to them, and to be sure that our methods are as neutral and effective as possible.”
Stocky went on to say that Facebook hopes to “encourage robust political discussion from all sides” and that the social media giant in no way advises “review team members” to discriminate against stories of any ideological origin. He added that it’s not even technically feasible for a Facebook news reviewer to do such a thing. According to Stocky’s May 9 post, which one may presume is approved by Facebook as a general public communique, all contracted news reviewers’ actions are logged and monitored, and any news curator found to be limiting reports based on their own personal bias would be fired.
Conservatives aren’t having it, either.
Washington Examiner reporter Paul Bedard called Facebook’s Trending section “censorship” of conservatives.
Alex Marlow, Editor in Chief at Breitbart News, said the leaked documents confirm that Facebook’s trending news sidebar artificially mutes conservatives while amplifying progressives. Marlow said that “Facebook claims its algorithm simply populates ‘topics that have recently become popular on Facebook’ in its trending news section, but now we know that’s not true.”
It may go to court
When Senate Commerce Committee chairman John Thune got wind of the way Facebook sifts the news, the South Dakota Republican sent a strongly worded letter to Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of the social networking site, demanding an explanation as to why his company “misleads the public.” Thune also demands that Facebook offer a fully quantified accounting of “all news stories removed from or injected into the Trending Topics section since January 2014.”
If this brouhaha becomes a First Amendment free speech issue, it could conceivably go go all the way to Supreme Court.
Facebook’s reply to the senator’s request will be met.
“We have received Sen Thune’s request for more information about how Trending Topics works, and look forward to addressing his questions.”
[Photo by Matt Rourke/AP Images]