Facebook denies scrubbing conservative news from ‘trending’ sidebar
11th May 2016
Facebook has hit back against allegations it scrubs its site of news articles by and about political conservatives, amid outrage over the claims.
- A former news curator allegedly told Gizmodo that articles from politically conservative outlets were deliberately omitted
- Facebook says the “trending” list is assembled by an algorithm and audited by staff
- The site says it wants to encourage robust political discussion from all sides
The social media giant said the popularity of news stories is determined by an algorithm, then audited but never manipulated by review team members to confirm the topics are in fact trending news items.
The trending news feed shows “a list of topics and hashtags that have recently spiked in popularity on Facebook,” the site’s help centre said.
“This list is personalised based on a number of factors, including pages you’ve liked, your location and what’s trending across Facebook.”
But tech news outlet Gizmodo reported on Monday that a former news curator alleged articles from politically-conservative outlets, particularly when written about conservative subjects, were deliberately omitted from Facebook’s “trending news” sidebar of popular stories.
“I’d come on shift and I’d discover that CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) or (former presidential candidate) Mitt Romney or (radio talk show host) Glenn Beck or popular conservative topics wouldn’t be trending because either the curator didn’t recognise the news topic or it was like they had a bias,” the individual told Gizmodo anonymously.
According to Gizmodo, which also spoke to other former news curators, stories covered by conservative media that were trending enough to be picked up by Facebook’s algorithm were only included if also covered by “mainstream sites” such as The New York Times, the BBC or CNN.
There was no evidence management mandated or was aware of any political bias at work, Gizmodo reported, noting one former curator “described the omissions as a function of his colleagues’ judgments.”
However, Gizmodo reported that curators were told to put stories deemed as important by management in the trending news feed even if they weren’t generating much buzz.
These included the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks, as well as the war in Syria and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Guidelines ‘do not permit suppression of political perspectives’
The charges unleashed a fierce debate in the US media and on the social network itself, which has about 1.6 billion users around the globe.
But Facebook denied having an anti-conservative bias.
“We’ve looked into this and found that there is no truth to the claims in Gizmodo,” a Facebook spokeswoman said.
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.
“We take these reports extremely seriously, and have found no evidence that the anonymous allegations are true,” wrote Tom Stocky, vice president of search at Facebook, where he oversees the team responsible for engineering and designing trending topics.
“Facebook is a platform for people and perspectives from across the political spectrum,” Mr Stocky wrote on the site.
“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 prioritisation of one viewpoint over another or one news outlet over another,” he added.
“We want to encourage that robust political discussion from all sides.”
Facebook also dismissed the charges that it manipulated #BlackLivesMatter so that it would become a trending topic.
“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,” Mr Stocky said.
‘Site censors the news’
Still, the allegations caused a stir.
“You won’t read this on Facebook. Site censors the news,” the New York Post tabloid splashed across its front page.
Ari Fleischer, White House spokesman under George W. Bush, wondered on twitter if a new survey showing presumed Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump closing in on Democratic rival Hillary Clinton would be trending.
Joel Kaplan, associate dean for professional graduate studies at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, said Facebook is a private company that can do what it wants.
“If it wants to emphasise a particular story or point of view, it is in its right just as it’s fine for Fox News or the New York Times to do,” he said.
“I also think it’s good for any news organisation/curator to push stories that they think are important,” he added.