May 9, 2016—According to Gizmodo, “news curators” who worked for Facebook in the past have admitted to having suppressed news stories of interest to users who leaned right. The action may have impacted the social network’s “trending” news section, which may have kept information of interest out of reach to avid conservative Facebook users.
According to the individual who spoke to Gizmodo, the network’s news curators were instructed to boost trending stories artificially, even if they weren’t popular enough. In many cases, stories that made to the “trending” list weren’t even popular at all.
“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. Imposing human editorial values onto the lists of topics an algorithm spits out is by no means a bad thing—but it is in stark contrast to the company’s claims that the trending module simply lists ‘topics that have recently become popular on Facebook.’
These new allegations emerged after Gizmodo last week revealed details about the inner workings of Facebook’s trending news team—a small group of young journalists, primarily educated at Ivy League or private East Coast universities, who curate the ‘trending’ module on the upper-right-hand corner of the site. As we reported last week, curators have access to a ranked list of trending topics surfaced by Facebook’s algorithm, which prioritizes the stories that should be shown to Facebook users in the trending section. The curators write headlines and summaries of each topic, and include links to news sites. The section, which launched in 2014, constitutes some of the most powerful real estate on the internet and helps dictate what news Facebook’s users—167 million in the US alone—are reading at any given moment.”
According to one former curator, “things would be blacklisted” depending on who was on shift.
Due to the continued suppression, the former curator told Gizmodo, he started feeling troubled. According to a list provided to the news site, some of the topics that had been suppressed include articles about former IRS official Lois Lerner, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, the Drudge Report, former Fox News contributor Steven Crowder, and Chris Kyle.
The former curator believes that the constant suppression “had a chilling effect on conservative news.”
Another source who agreed to talk to Gizmodo echoed the conservative curator’s complaints. He explained that the process “was absolutely bias.”
“We were doing it subjectively. It just depends on who the curator is and what time of day it is. … Every once in awhile a Red State or conservative news source would have a story. But we would have to go and find the same story from a more neutral outlet that wasn’t as biased.”
Gizmodo claims that stories from sites such as Red State, Washington Examiner, Breitbart, and Newsmax were excluded unless mainstream news sources such as BBC, CNN, or the New York Times also covered them.
According to the conservative curator wo spoke to Gizmodo, “there is no evidence that Facebook management mandated or was even aware of any political bias at work”
Despite this comment, managers on the trending news team reportedly instruct curators to manipulate the process.
“When users weren’t reading stories that management viewed as important, several former workers said, curators were told to put them in the trending news feed anyway. Several former curators described using something called an injection ‘tool’ to push topics into the trending module that weren’t organically being shared or discussed enough to warrant inclusion—putting the headlines in front of thousands of readers rather than allowing stories to surface on their own. In some cases, after a topic was injected, it actually became the number one trending news topic on Facebook.
‘We were told that if we saw something, a news story that was on the front page of these ten sites, like CNN, the New York Times, and BBC, then we could inject the topic,’ said one former curator. ‘If it looked like it had enough news sites covering the story, we could inject it—even if it wasn’t naturally trending.’ Sometimes, breaking news would be injected because it wasn’t attaining critical mass on Facebook quickly enough to be deemed ‘trending’ by the algorithm. Former curators cited the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris as two instances in which non-trending stories were forced into the module. Facebook has struggled to compete with Twitter when it comes to delivering real-time news to users; the injection tool may have been designed to artificially correct for that deficiency in the network. ‘We would get yelled at if it was all over Twitter and not on Facebook,’ one former curator said.
In other instances, curators would inject a story—even if it wasn’t being widely discussed on Facebook—because it was deemed important for making the network look like a place where people talked about hard news. ‘People stopped caring about Syria,’ one former curator said. ‘[And] if it wasn’t trending on Facebook, it would make Facebook look bad.’ That same curator said the Black Lives Matter movement was also injected into Facebook’s trending news module. ‘Facebook got a lot of pressure about not having a trending topic for Black Lives Matter,’ the individual said. ‘They realized it was a problem, and they boosted it in the ordering. They gave it preference over other topics. When we injected it, everyone started saying, ‘Yeah, now I’m seeing it as number one’.’ This particular injection is especially noteworthy because the #BlackLivesMatter movement originated on Facebook, and the ensuing media coverage of the movement often noted its powerful social media presence.”
Facebook released a statement after the reports flooded the news saying that “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.”
Have you ever felt that an important news had been supressed by Facebook? Let us know below!
Image credit: Robert Scoble.