“We choose what’s trending”
Trending news stories are blacklisted on a daily basis by social media giant Facebook, contractors for the website say.
Speaking on condition of anonymity to Gizmodo’s Michael Nunez, several journalists, hired by Facebook in 2014 to oversee its secretive “trending news” project, revealed new details on how the company handles the day’s news.
Known internally as “news curators,” the contractors say they were given the ability to “deactivate” or blacklist any trending topic if it wasn’t being covered by minimally “three traditional news sources.”
“A topic was often blacklisted if it didn’t have at least three traditional news sources covering it, but otherwise the protocol was murky—meaning a curator could ostensibly blacklist a topic without a particularly good reason for doing so,” Nunez writes, although curators insist the system wasn’t abused.
Among other things, the journalists say they were officially tasked with examining the day’s trending topics, collected by Facebook’s algorithm, before choosing what stories get placed into the trending news section.
“We choose what’s trending,” one curator said. “There was no real standard for measuring what qualified as news and what didn’t. It was up to the news curator to decide.”
After picking what topics are permitted to trend, the contractors would next choose which articles to link to based off a “preferred” list of news organizations.
“They were also told to select articles from a list of preferred media outlets that included sites like the New York Times, Time, Variety, and other traditional outlets,” Nunez writes.
Although the contractors say they were never told to suppress certain websites, conservative outlets such as Breitbart were “regularly avoided.” Mention of fellow social media platform Twitter was also discouraged.
As noted by Nunez, Facebook likely kept the project quiet in order to create the image of a non-bias and user-controlled website.
“One reason Facebook might want to keep the trending news operation faceless is that it wants to foster the illusion of a bias-free news ranking process—a network that sorts and selects news stories like an entirely apolitical machine,” he writes.
“If an editorial team is deliberating over trending topics—just like a newspaper staff would talk about front-page news—Facebook risks losing its image as a non-partisan player in the media industry, a neutral pipeline for distributing content, rather than a selective and inherently flawed curator.”
Although the team originally held more than 20 contractors, only one dozen remain despite continued promises from Facebook to hire replacements. According to one curator, many journalists believe they’re being replaced by an algorithm they unknowingly helped create.
“We felt like we were part of an experiment that, as the algorithm got better, there was a sense that at some point the humans would be replaced.”
The news of Facebook’s rigid control and bias in regards to trending topics is unsurprising in light of recent news.
Another report from Nunez just last month showed how Facebook employees asked CEO Mark Zuckerberg whether they should attempt to derail a Donald Trump presidency.
“It’s not particularly surprising the question was asked, or that some Facebook employees are anti-Trump…” he wrote. “But what’s exceedingly important about this question being raised—and Zuckerberg’s answer, if there is one—is how Facebook now treats the powerful place it holds in the world.”
Questions were also raised late last year after Zuckerberg was overheard discussing the censorship of anti-migration posts with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the United Nations development summit.
“The Facebook CEO was overheard responding that ‘we need to do some work’ on curtailing anti-immigrant posts about the refugee crisis,” reported CNBC. “‘Are you working on this?’ Merkel asked in English, to which Zuckerberg replied in the affirmative before the transmission was disrupted.”
Controversy was also stoked after the German government and Facebook teamed up with an organization led by an ex-Stasi agent to run a new program aimed at identifying “xenophobic” posts.
Zuckerberg’s 2014 meeting with Lu Wei, the czar of China’s draconian Internet censorship system, was similarly a troubling development for users of the social network.