A former employee is claiming 'news curators' influence the 'Trending Topics' sidebar, pushing conservative websites out in favour of left-leaning ones
In the echo chamber and digital bubble of social media new sources, there has long been a lot of speculation about what algorithmic cogs and wheels have determined what content has been filling up Facebook’s Trending Topics sidebar. In recent years, criticism of how it works came to the forefront of media analysis when, in 2014, neither Ferguson nor the ‘Black Lives Matter’ hashtag was included in the index, despite their ubiquity elsewhere. While both terms did eventually surface on Facebook, a former employee has claimed that was a direct result of Facebook management instructing staff members to insert it there, despite the news stories not garnering enough attention for the algorithm to work its magic.
As reported on Gizmodo, the ex-employee says the Trending Topics sidebar is heavily influenced by what stories are being shared by users most often, but that it also is covered in the editorial fingerprints of the world’s biggest social medium’s “news curators,” an in-house team tasked with tailoring the feed to keep it in line with the brand’s ambitions – which, if these unnamed curators are to be believed, is biased towards promoting liberal publishers over conservative ones.
The news curators claim that Trending Topics will typically wait until an organisation like The New York Times or CNN picks up and runs a story to include that in the sidebar, even if a media outlet like Breibart, known for its conservatism, has already published the story.
Responding to the claims, a spokesperson for Facebook refuted the claims.
“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,” the company told TechCrunch.
“There are rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality. These guidelines do not permit the prioritisation of one viewpoint over another or one news outlet over another. These guidelines do not prohibit any news outlet from appearing in Trending Topics.”
In spite of Facebook’s denial and insistence on the purity of its political indifferent algorithm, these reports surfacing only weeks after another of the company’s employees leaked an internal poll asking other staffers “What responsibility does Facebook have to prevent President Trump in 2017?” doesn’t help matters.
The leaked screenshot shows that Facebook's employees were polled on whether the company has a duty to keep Donald Trump from the White House? [Gizmodo]
What is known, however, is that when it comes to its users and meeting their needs, Facebook’s billions of registered accounts are known to represent an older and less ethnically diverse base than Twitters, which explains why the micro-blogging network is more organically inviting to stories like ‘Black Lives Matter’. But whether or not Facebook has a moral duty to expose its traditionally more conservative users to stories that their own online activity would not bring them to is a far more difficult question to answer.
After all, the tech industry is known for making headlines due to its pervasive ‘bro’ culture, lacking in any sort of gender or identity pluralism. So the thoughts of the typically young, college-dropout, hoody-wearing billionaires who’ve brought these companies to the peak of cultural relevance deciding what is or is not socially significant as news gatekeepers are fraught with philosophical debate. That said, algorithms are prone to manipulation by external forces and concerted efforts to spam, so some sort of editorial influence is inescapable.
Facebook finally admitted that the Trending Topics sidebar does include news items that are not actually trending on the site. The social network's mea culpa came after The Guardian published a number of documents, including a copy of Facebook's 'Trending Review Guidelines', a guidebook for its news curators on how to "inject" and "blacklist" stories.
The company's spokesman said Facebook "will continue to investigate the allegations" that news stories from conservative publications were routinely blacklisted from the sidebar.
"We have found no evidence to date that Trending Topics was successfully manipulated, but will continue the review of all out practices," he said.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder, also addressed the controversy, promising to double down on the investigation and to continue to build a network that is "designed to give more people a voice and bring our global community together."