Facebook has issued a lengthy denial of reports that its news curation team discriminates against conservative news stories in its “trending news” feature, which is supposed to provide users with a list of the most popular news stories across the social network.
This followed a number of damning reports from anonymous sources within the company’s news curation team, who alleged to Gizmodo that the site regularly suppressed links from conservative news sources, including Breitbart News.
The sources also claimed that the site artificially promoted stories about Black Lives Matter, a progressive cause favoured by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Furthermore, the sources told Gizmodo that Facebook regularly suppressed stories about the company itself.
Now Facebook is denying everything. In a lengthy post on his personal account, Facebook VP Tom Stocky cast doubt on the claims made by Gizmodo’s sources. Stocky specifically denied allegations that stories of interest to conservatives were suppressed, and that stories about Black Lives Matter were artificially promoted.
However, Stocky also confirmed that the Trending Topics feature doesn’t merely display what’s popular. According to Stocky, curators are “instructed to disregard junk or duplicate topics, hoaxes, or subjects with insufficient sources.”
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.
Facebook’s response followed extensive coverage of Gizmodo’s story in the conservative and mainstream press, as well as an official statement from the Republican National Convention, which called on the company to answer for “conservative censorship.”
As the story spread, one former employee of Facebook told the New York Times that the charges were false. According to the Times, the source said that any “suppression” of stories was due to “perceived credibility” and that “any articles judged by curators to be unreliable or poorly sourced, whether left-leaning or right-leaning, were avoided.”
Not all observers were convinced:
https://t.co/A3m58nzlnG "Facebook has investigated facebook and declared facebook to be innocent"
— Rikka Violet (@Ryona_Violet) May 10, 2016
However, the source added that whether an article was “unreliable” was a “personal judgement call” on the part of curators. This matches a pattern seen in other left-dominated sites like Wikipedia, where conservative sources like Breitbart are often deemed “unreliable sources” and banned from articles.
This isn’t necessarily nefarious, of course. If an organisation’s staff are left-leaning, that will colour their perception of what constitutes a “reliable source.” And Silicon Valley companies are well-known for their young, progressive workforces.
TechCrunch recounts how a Facebook town hall for President Obama in 2011 was marked by loud cheers for the president from company staffers. More recently, screenshots of internal polls at Facebook showed staffers suggesting that the CEO consider what the company might do to hinder the presidential campaign of Donald Trump.
If Facebook is serious about preventing political bias in its news curation, perhaps they should follow Jonathan Haidt’s lead and consider the importance of viewpoint diversity in its workforce.