Earlier today, a report from Gizmodo quoted anonymous employees saying that Facebook manipulated its “Trending News” section, blacklisting some sites, and was “artificially injecting” topics into the trending section. In a statement issued by Facebook, the company carefully avoided denying the report, instead saying that it takes “allegations of bias very seriously.”
The Gizmodo report cites several sources inside Facebook’s trending news team. The team is made up of journalist-curators, who are meant to select stories that are “organically trending” on Facebook, and write a short headline, a few sentences, and link to relevant news publications.
Inclusion on Facebook’s trending news tab is a big deal — the site has over a billion users, and the trending news is prominently displayed in the top-right corner. If Facebook messes with the trending news topics to promote stories or sites over the other, it can make or break a story.
That’s why the allegations are so serious. According to one former curator:
“I’d come on shift and I’d discover that CPAC or Mitt Romney or Glenn Beck or popular conservative topics wouldn’t be trending because either the curator didn’t recognize the news topic or it was like they had a bias against Ted Cruz.”
Facebook sells itself as an impartial platform, not a news organization that influences the news cycle. But concerns have been growing over the site’s influence over stories. Last month, an internal poll of Facebook employees revealed some workers though they should use the site’s power to stop Donald Trump.
At the time, Facebook vigorously denied that it would ever influence its users, saying “we as a company are neutral – we have not and will not use our products in a way that attempts to influence how people vote.”
But the news media is an undeniable part of the election process, and much as you might hate it, Facebook is a key part of how people these days find and react to news. The allegations of manipulation are serious, and Facebook carefully avoided denying them. In a statement given to Buzzfeed News, Facebook carefully shifts the blame away from company policy, and onto individual employees:
We take allegations of bias very seriously. Facebook is a platform for people and perspectives from across the political spectrum. Trending Topics shows you the popular topics and hashtags that are being talked about on Facebook. 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.
You’ll notice how Facebook consistently refers to what the guidelines say should happen — and as anyone who has ever stuck a Q-Tip in their ear knows, there’s a big difference between rules and reality.
Conspicuously, the story about Facebook suppressing conservative viewpoints is showing up in trending news this afternoon — although, admittedly, underneath news about Justin Bieber’s new tattoo.
UPDATE: Facebook’s VP of Search Tom Stocky, the executive ultimately responsible for Trending News, has taken to Facebook (where else?) to deny the allegations of manipulation. In a lengthy post, he claims to have conducted an investigation, and “found no evidence that the anonymous allegations are true.” Furthermore, he says “Facebook does not allow or advise our reviewers to systematically discriminate against sources of any ideological origin and we’ve designed our tools to make that technically not feasible.” The full post is available here.