Facebook's trending topics is now coming under criticism. Although Facebook claims that trending topics simply shows what has recently become popular on the site based on mathematical algorithms, interviews with former employees reveal a large degree of human intervention. The most stunning claims are that conservative news is routinely suppressed while other news articles that are not actually popular enough to trend organically are being injected into the trending topics.
The trending topics section is overseen by a team of curators, who write headlines and summarize the articles as well as linking back to the original news source. However, some former curators have come forward with claims that conservative news was routinely suppressed by the curation team. "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," one former curator stated, "because either the curator didn’t recognize the news topic or it was like they had a bias against Ted Cruz."
"It was absolutely bias. We were doing it subjectively. It just depends on who the curator is and what time of day it is," another curator stated, "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." Other curators denied consciously suppressing conservative news. Even those who claim bias against conservative news state that it is not an official policy by Facebook management, but rather the personal biases of individual curators. Which sources get suppressed could vary significantly depending who on who was on shift, they stated.
In addition to allegedly suppressing news, the curators also claim that they often inject news that is not organically trending on the site. Unlike the supposed suppression, this injection is said to be mandated by management. Some curators argue this injection is necessary to deal with weaknesses in the trending algorithm. They cite the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 and the Charlie Hebdo attacks as two stories which were not picked up by the algorithm, but which were highly discussed on other sites. Injecting these stories was seen as a necessary step to make sure Facebook is not left out of the discussion of these major events. Some also state that injection of stories has become less common as the algorithm has improved.
However, one topic in particular is raising concerns about the injection process. Curators claim they were under pressure to promote stories concerning the Black Lives Matter movement, a movement Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has expressed support for. "Facebook got a lot of pressure about not having a trending topic for Black Lives Matter," one curator stated, "They realized it was a problem, and they boosted it in the ordering. They gave it preference over other topics." This policy may be an attempt to compete with Twitter, which often beats Facebook in trending breaking stories. Like Facebook, Twitter also has a large presence of Black Lives Matter activists. The company may have felt they would have been left behind in the conversation if they didn't give Black Lives Matter a boost on their site. However, the media often cited Facebook when covering Black Lives Matter, and artificially trending the movement may have given it popularity and notoriety it wouldn't have otherwise obtained.
Another issue raised is the exclusion of articles about Facebook itself in trending topics. While curators had broad discretion over which articles to suppress or inject, when it came to articles about Facebook itself they had to get approval from higher-ups, and generally did not include those stories at all. "When it was a story about the company, we were told not to touch it," said one former curator, "It had to be cleared through several channels, even if it was being shared quite a bit. We were told that we should not be putting it on the trending tool." Another stated, "If it was something involving Facebook, the copy editor would call their manager, and that manager might even call their manager before approving a topic involving Facebook."
In response to these allegations, Tom Stocky, Facebook's Vice President of Search, released a statement on the matter:
My team is responsible for Trending Topics, and I want to address today’s reports alleging that Facebook contractors manipulated Trending Topics to suppress stories of interest to conservatives. We take these reports extremely seriously, and have found no evidence that the anonymous allegations are true.
Facebook is a platform for people and perspectives from across the political spectrum. 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.
Trending Topics is designed to showcase the current conversation happening on Facebook. Popular topics are first surfaced by an algorithm, then audited by review team members to confirm that the topics are in fact trending news in the real world and not, for example, similar-sounding topics or misnomers.
We are proud that, in 2015, the US election was the most talked-about subject on Facebook, and we want to encourage that robust political discussion from all sides. We have in place strict guidelines for our trending topic reviewers as they audit topics surfaced algorithmically: reviewers are required to accept topics that reflect real world events, and are instructed to disregard junk or duplicate topics, hoaxes, or subjects with insufficient sources. 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. At the same time, our reviewers’ actions are logged and reviewed, and violating our guidelines is a fireable offense.
There have been other anonymous allegations — for instance that we artificially forced #BlackLivesMatter to trend. We looked into that charge and found that it is untrue. We do not insert stories artificially into trending topics, and do not instruct our reviewers to do so. Our guidelines do permit reviewers to take steps to make topics more coherent, such as combining related topics into a single event (such as #starwars and#maythefourthbewithyou), to deliver a more integrated experience.
Our review guidelines for Trending Topics are under constant review, and we will continue to look for improvements. We will also keep looking into any questions about Trending Topics to ensure that people are matched with the stories that are predicted to be the most interesting to them, and to be sure that our methods are as neutral and effective as possible.
Do you believe Facebook is manipulating news trending topics for political reasons? If so, is this a problem or are they within their rights to do so? Leave your comments below.