Facebook Trending Topics is that special box you see on the right hand side of your Newsfeed that tells you what news is trending. Most people thought it was simply an algorithmic amalgamation of what Facebook users were talking about until Gizmodo reported this month that it's actually curated by human beings. And some of those human beings have biases.
In a new report Monday, Gizmodo alleged that Facebook's Trending "news curators" had a habit of passing over news stories with a more conservative slant. Its main source for the story is anonymous but identified as one of the people who used to work on the team. An admitted conservative, he claimed that his fellow Trending Topics curators ignored stories that were of interest to conservative readers or produced by conservative news outlets. Gizmodo didn't seem to fully investigate whether curators ignored all news of an extreme political slant, writing only that "we were unable to determine if left-wing news topics or sources were similarly suppressed."
The story, as you might imagine, was something conservative news sites were not quite thrilled about.
"Facebook claims its algorithm simply populates 'topics that have recently become popular on Facebook' in its trending news section, but now we know that’s not true," Alexander Marlow, editor of the conservative news site Breitbart said in an emailed statement.
Marlow said that Brietbart is demanding answers, and has invited Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to do a Facebook Live interview with Breitbart News tech editor Milo Yiannopoulos, in order "to explain to the tens of millions of conservatives on Facebook why they’re being discriminated against."
For months, Brietbart columnists like Yiannapolis have publicly suggested that liberal-leaning social media stalwarts like Twitter go out of their way to suppress conservative voices.
“Effectively they have privileged progressive opinions over mine and reduced my power and influence in the marketplace. That’s a real thing,” Yiannopoulos, an infamous internet troll, told me after Twitter stripped him of his blue "verified" checkmark earlier this year. “They’ve done it on a whim, for political reasons, while refusing to explain why.”
Gizmodo's story only offers more concrete evidence in support of this narrative.
"We understand that we are categorized by Facebook as 'advocacy' rather than 'news,' which is the exact same way Google characterizes us," RedState editor Leon Wolf wrote in a blog post. "We aren’t CNN, and we don’t really expect to be treated like CNN – but we would hope that Facebook would treat us equivalently with similar left-leaning outlets: if TPM is 'news' then so are we."
The fallacy in the story is the assumption that Facebook promotes news with a left-leaning bias. The Gizmodo investigation doesn't actually assess that, and Facebook denies it. Facebook said in a statement that it doesn't "permit the suppression of political perspectives" nor the "prioritization of one viewpoint over another or one news outlet over another."
"We take allegations of bias very seriously," said Facebook in a statement. "Facebook is a platform for people and perspectives from across the political spectrum. Trending Topics shows you the popular topics and hashtags that are being talked about on Facebook. There are rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality."
Gizmodo's story suggests that Facebook is "suppressing" conservative news, but the way the story's source describes what happened sounds a little more like the result of unconscious bias.
“Depending on who was on shift, things would be blacklisted or trending,” said the former curator. This individual asked to remain anonymous, citing fear of retribution from the company. The former curator is politically conservative, one of a very small handful of curators with such views on the trending 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 because either the curator didn’t recognize the news topic or it was like they had a bias against Ted Cruz.”…
The former curator was so troubled by the omissions that they kept a running log of them at the time; this individual provided the notes to Gizmodo. Among the deep-sixed or suppressed topics on the list: former IRS official Lois Lerner, who was accused by Republicans of inappropriately scrutinizing conservative groups; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; popular conservative news aggregator the Drudge Report; Chris Kyle, the former Navy SEAL who was murdered in 2013; and former Fox News contributor Steven Crowder.
Facebook, Gizmodo's politically conservative source suggested, doesn't have some kind of institutional policy against promoting conservative content. It's just that Facebook's algorithm is human-powered—you need a human to parse all that data and figure out why the words "Beyonce" and "Lemonade" are trending together and then select the appropriate articles to point users to that trend. Unsurprisingly, the non-conservative members of the curation team interviewed by Gizmodo denied the accusation that their choices were colored by bias.
Gizmodo points out that this is not so different from the biases in a newsroom that determine which stories go on the front page or which get covered, but that Facebook had tried to cover up the existence of this bias with a robotic veneer.
Facebook, the source also told Gizmodo, has taken the opposite turn and artificially enhanced the popularity of stories, like the conflict in Syria, that the company deems important. It's created widgets to add a rainbow filter to your profile photo in support of the legalization of gay marriage. Mark Zuckerberg has spoken out publicly in support of Black Lives Matter. The public values of the company are clear—and clearly in conflict with many of its users. But do these values actually carry over to Trending Topics?
The Trending Topics module is one of the most influential pieces of real estate on the web. Gizmodo claims that the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag was a topic the trending news curators chose to artificially inflate. The movement first gained traction on Facebook—what would have become of it had those curators chosen to let it flounder instead? What is clear is the level of power Facebook has. Mother Jones, Truthdig, and Media Matters may be clearly liberal in their biases, but they have mainstream media equivalents in Fox News, Breitbart, and Red State. Facebook has no conservative counterpoint. It is a dictator of our social media lives, with the potential power to also dictate our point of view.
“I believe it had a chilling effect on conservative news,” the former curator told Gizmodo of his fellow curators' human failings.
But there are also clear reasons, aside from bias, why Facebook’s curators may have skipped over some of the stories and sources explicitly mentioned in the Gizmodo piece. For instance, The Washington Examiner‘s coverage of the news that the Department of Justice wouldn’t charge former IRS official Lois Lerner over mismanagement included an article about how many journalists tweeted more about a poll on killing Hitler as a baby. Breitbart coverage of the same story exclusively quoted Congress people and groups outraged at the DOJ’s decision, with the exception of an excerpt of the DOJ’s decision itself. Breitbart’s initial coverage of the death of Chris Kyle, also mentioned by Gizmodo’s source, was a brief providing fairly little information. In other words, the problem may not always be that the site is conservative, but that the reporting sometimes doesn’t quite pass muster.
Facebook may not have an obligation to strip its algorithms of bias—and how could it, really?—but we do have an obligation, to remember every time that we scroll through our News Feed that there is nothing unbiased about it at all.
Ethan Chiel contributed to this story.