Gizmodo's been blowing the door open on Facebook's increasingly influential Trending news area, in which topics popular at any given moment on the network are shown, typically the top three of them anyway, in a right-hand column next to your personal News Feed. Users have fairly assumed that this area is governed solely by algorithm, and that Facebook is looking beyond your likes and interests and those of your friends to show larger, globally trending news stories in any given hour. But no! According to some anonymous former employees, all contract-based "news curators" who have journalism backgrounds, they controlled what topics and stories showed up as Trending, and as Gizmodo reports in a follow-up today, they were instructed not only to artificially inject certain kinds of stories that weren't necessarily trending, they were told to suppress stories that were about Facebook, the company, and also to suppress topics or news about people popular with conservative users like Mitt Romney or Glenn Beck, or the story about former IRS official Lois Lerner whom Republicans accused of overly scrutinizing conservative groups.
According to one former news curator at Facebook, it often had to do with whoever was on shift at the time, monitoring the trending topics and either choosing to ignore/blacklist them, or highlighting trends that were more aligned with their point of view. Given how many Americans regularly use Facebook some 167 million this person said, "I believe it had a chilling effect on conservative news."
Facebook said in a statement to CNet that they're taking the allegations "very seriously," and that the company has "rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality."
Also, allegedly, per Gizmodo, "Stories covered by conservative outlets (like Breitbart, Washington Examiner, and Newsmax) that were trending enough to be picked up by Facebook’s algorithm were excluded unless mainstream sites like the New York Times, the BBC, and CNN covered the same stories."
The "injection" of some stories that weren't naturally trending seemed to be something that was at the discretion of news curation managers, who wanted to make sure that big stories being covered by multiple major news sources like the New York Times, CNN, and others appeared in the Trending section and this makes sense if Facebook wants to maintain its relevance in the realm of disseminating news faster than its readers can necessarily catch it.
But, as Gizmodo points out, "In other words, Facebook’s news section operates like a traditional newsroom, reflecting the biases of its workers and the institutional imperatives of the corporation." It is not purely based on popularity, as the company has regularly claimed.
We may have to take some of this with a grain of salt however, given that Gizmodo's sources sound like somewhat unhappy former contractors who, as part of a new department at the company and based in the New York office, don't sound like they were treated especially well, and thus don't work there anymore. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of their non-disclosure agreements.
It's telling and potentially troubling, though, given how dearly CEO Mark Zuckerberg appears to want to move into the news business, saying that he wants the site's relatively new "Instant Articles" service in which news organizations and publishers directly publish news to Facebook saying that he hopes it will become the "primary news experience people have." The company has already partnered, in its beta phase, with the New York Times, NBC, and BuzzFeed for this instant content, in addition to weekly Facebook Live videos that you may have noticed.
But if Facebook means to be everyone's primary news source, don't they need to cater equally to the half of the country that thinks the New York Times is a pinko lefty rag hell bent on destroying America? And what happens when Facebook hires only Ivy educated, predominately white people to curate the news for everyone? Because that seems to be what they've already done.
Update: Facebook employee Tom Stocky, who is in charge of the Trending Topics section of the site, issued the following statement late Monday, which says in part:
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.
There have been other anonymous allegations -- for instance that we artificially forced #BlackLivesMatter to trend. We looked into that charge and found that it is untrue. We do not insert stories artificially into trending topics, and do not instruct our reviewers to do so.
Meanwhile, Gizmodo and others are reporting that the GOP-led Senate Commerce Committee wrote a letter to Zuckerberg shortly after the allegations surfaced, asking that committee staff be briefed on the Trending Topics debacle. See the letter in full here.