Leaked to the Guardian are documents showing editors, not algorithms, decide Facebook’s Trending Topics. It seems that accusations stemming from a Gizmodo report this week about bias in the way the stories for the social network’s Trending news section are chosen were backed up by the documents leaked to the Guardian about Facebook’s editorial processes.
The Guardian leaked documents confirm the charges by unnamed former curators cited by Gizmodo in its report that Trending news curators are asked to use their editorial judgment when they choose the topics that appear in the section. News flash: This is what happens at all purveyors of news.
But the flap is over whether news from conservative media outlets were suppressed, as one former curator told Gizmodo. The leaked documents will be perceived by the outraged as proof that the accuser was right. They show that Facebook’s curators were asked to judge the importance of topics based on whether they were covered in the following publications: BBC News, CNN, Fox News, The Guardian, NBC News, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Yahoo News or Yahoo. Of those, only the Wall Street Journal is widely considered as conservative.
But Facebook provided a longer list, of 1,000 publications deemed “trusted” sources, to the Guardian. They include conservative outlets such as Redstate, Breitbart and the Drudge Report.
However, the documents also contradict a statement by Facebook executive Tom Stocky, who earlier this week denied that the curators are asked to “artificially” insert topics into the Trending section even when they weren’t trending. The unnamed former curator in the Gizmodo report claimed they were asked to insert topics such as Black Lives Matter and Syria into the section. Within the documents is a section called “Injecting Topics,” with details on when it’s supposed to be OK to do so.
From the Guardian: Justin Osofsky, Facebook’s vice-president of global operations says however;
“The guidelines demonstrate that we have a series of checks and balances in place to help surface the most important popular stories, regardless of where they fall on the ideological spectrum. Facebook does not allow or advise our reviewers to systematically discriminate against sources of any political origin, period. What these guidelines show is that we’ve approached this responsibly and with the goal of creating a high-quality product – in the hopes of delivering a meaningful experience for the people who use our service.”
Other former Facebook employees also told the Guardian they disagreed with the charges of “partisan misconduct” from the Gizmodo report. They said it was sometimes necessary to use their judgment “because the company’s algorithm did not always create the best possible mix of news.” As an example, they cited the apparent prioritization of the Ice Bucket Challenge over clashes between police and protesters in Ferguson in 2014.
Now that Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who has asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for details about the social network’s Trending news section’s editorial process, has probably read the leaked documents, it’ll be interesting to see what he does next. Fellow conservatives have warned against government meddling into all the brouhaha. Others have defended Facebook’s editorial rights under the First Amendment.
Update: Justin Osofsky just released a statement that echoes his statement above, plus a short summary of how the company handles Trending Topics: It starts with an algorithm that identifies what’s popular on Facebook, the editors do their thing, then the information is personalized by another algorithm.