Facebook is in crisis management mode after Gizmodo exposed the anti-conservative bias of its “Trending News” selection process. Following the denials by the Trending News manager Tom Stocky (a major Hillary Clinton donor), newly revealed leaked documents show that the massively influential social media site does indeed “artificially inject” stories into the Trending Section and that its policies skew left.
The Guardian, which acquired the leak documents, concludes that, despite Stocky’s denials of personal and company biases influencing which stories are selected on the site, the company “relies heavily on the intervention of a small editorial team to determine what makes its ‘trending module’ headlines.”
The Guardian notes that Facebook – the world’s biggest distributor of news, with some 1 billion visitors a day – first began to move away from the pure algorithm approach in 2014 after complaints that they weren’t including enough stories about Ferguson.
Here are The Guardian’s key takeaways from the leaked documents, including using almost entirely left-leaning sites to determine if a story is worthy of listing and allowing the editorial team to determine at their own discretion what is “a newsworthy topic”:
-A team of news editors working in shifts around the clock was instructed on how to “inject” stories into the trending topics module, and how to “blacklist” topics for removal for up to a day over reasons including “doesn’t represent a real-world event”, left to the discretion of the editors.
-The company wrote that “the editorial team CAN [sic] inject a newsworthy topic” as well if users create something that attracts a lot of attention, for example #BlackLivesMatter.
-Facebook relies heavily on just 10 news sources to determine whether a trending news story has editorial authority. “You should mark a topic as ‘National Story’ importance if it is among the 1-3 top stories of the day,” reads the trending review guidelines for the US. “We measure this by checking if it is leading at least 5 of the following 10 news websites: 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.”
-Strict guidelines are enforced around Facebook’s “involved in this story” feature, which pulls information from Facebook pages of newsmakers – say, a sports star or a famous author. The guidelines give editors ways to determine which users’ pages are appropriate to cite, and how prominently.
The findings from the leaked documents clash with the claims of Stocky, who insisted in a statement, “We do not insert stories artificially into trending topics, and do not instruct our reviewers to do so.”
Gizmodo broke the original story, citing several former Facebook “news curators,” who said that they “were instructed to artificially ‘inject’ selected stories into the trending news module, even if they weren’t popular enough to warrant inclusion—or in some cases weren’t trending at all.”
One former Facebook journalist told Gizmodo specifically that conservative material was suppressed. “Facebook workers routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers from the social network’s influential “trending” news section, according to a former journalist who worked on the project,” reported Gizmodo’s Michael Nunez. “This individual says that workers prevented stories about the right-wing CPAC gathering, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, and other conservative topics from appearing in the highly-influential section, even though they were organically trending among the site’s users.”