After holding a summit with conservatives this week at Facebook headquarters to prove they did nothing wrong, Zuck and company are kind of let off the hook in a new piece by the New York Times in which current and former employees confirm that yes, people intervened in organizing the Trending Topics section of the site, but that there was no institutional bias or orders from on high that led to any suppression of conservative stories or views.
The paper attempts to get more on-the-record, non-anonymous sources than the original Gizmodo story that broke last week, leading almost immediately to a Senate inquiry indicating just how influential everyone acknowledges Facebook now is when it comes to the way people consume and share media. Speaking mostly to anonymous, possibly disgruntled former contract workers at Facebook's New York office, Gizmodo had several people making the sensational assertion that the Trending news area on the site was heavily controlled by whichever curator was on duty at the time, leading to personal biases much like those that dictate what stories are covered in newsrooms.
But now, following an investigation that included a demo of the internal curating tools, the Times "found that Facebook’s employees were not directed to squelch conservative news on the site, nor would that be easily accomplished by a staff member who wished to do so."
Rather, they find,
Trending Topics was a fledgling, ill-managed group made up largely of recent college graduates with little work experience where individual judgment of news was encouraged. That led to inconsistencies in how the most popular stories were presented, along with departures from the team, eventually landing the group in the controversy [they're in now].
Curators were instructed to show some judgement in removing "noise" from the topics area, like words or hashtags that weren't related to actual news items, in favor of real stories that were reported by multiple new sources.
The paper confirms that some of these former employees, at least one of whom still speaks anonymously because of a non-disclosure agreement, had reason to be disgruntled, given the tedium of the work and their treatment at the company.
And in a show of the power of rhetoric, following this nationally reported-on controversy, Facebook's guidelines for the Trending Topics team have removed words like "blacklist" and "inject" and changed them to "revisit" and "topic correction."
Don't expect, however, for this issue to go away given that we're heading into prime time in election season and Fox News isn't ever going to believe that the NYT didn't have their own bias in investigating this thing and reaching this benign conclusion.
Conservative blowhard Glenn Beck, however, who was at the meeting this week with Zuck, came away without seeing any wrongdoing on the company's part, writing on Medium, "The Facebook staff has always treated me and my staff kindly... Walking out of the meeting, I was convinced that Facebook is behaving appropriately and trying to do the right thing... in my opinion, there is no evidence of a top-down initiative to silence conservative voices." What disturbed him most was that other conservatives in the room started sounding like liberals with their demands. "It was like affirmative action for conservatives. When did conservatives start demanding quotas AND diversity training AND less people from Ivy League Colleges."