Gizmodo has been doing some fascinating reporting on Facebook's Trending Topics, a box to the right of the News Feed that shows you what's popular among the social network's billion users. Most people assumed that the box was generated algorithmically but Gizmodo revealed this month that while an algorithm surfaces suggestions, the final selection and formatting is done by human curators, most of them current or former journalists. Then this week, Gizmodo came forward with a much more shocking claim: that those human curators were actively working to suppress conservative news and popular articles from conservative news sources.
The article went hyper viral, and conservatives freaked out, as it confirmed their suspicions that the liberals of Silicon Valley were actively working to undermine them. It's had some serious repercussions: The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee announced plans to investigate, with Senator John Thune (R) sending Facebook questions about its alleged exclusion of conservative views. It has led Vox's Tim Lee to raise the idea that Facebook be regulated more like a public utility. After all, for many of its billion users, Facebook is the internet—the primary place they go to for information about their world.
Facebook immediately denied any exercise of bias. It's always good to be skeptical of CYA corporate denials, but there are some problems with Gizmodo's report and the reactions to it. The first one, as pointed out by Stratechery's Ben Thompson, is that some readers are conflating "Trending Topics" with the news that appears in users' News Feeds. Via Stratechery:
This story is not about the News Feed, that algorithmically-driven stream of content that is at the core of Facebook’s success. Rather, it is about the “Trending News” box of content placed in the upper right of a desktop Facebook page, or more pertinently for most Facebook users, what appears below an activated search box on mobile. It is valuable real estate in the way that all Facebook real estate is valuable, but it is of considerably less importance than what appears in the aforementioned feed.
Regarding the article itself, its current headline doesn't actually reflect what's described in the piece:
A more accurate headline for what's described would be:
"Former Facebook Worker: 'My colleagues suppressed conservative news.'"
The sources for the article are all anonymous (probably because Facebook had all of its news curators sign non-disclosure agreements that prohibit them from talking to the press), but the main source upon which the report relies admits that he's a conservative. We can assume the source carries some bias then. He accuses his fellow curators of suppressing conservative news, but when Gizmodo asked other former curators if they did indeed suppress conservative news, they denied it. So the headline oversells what's in the piece.
The conservative curator told Gizmodo's Michael Nunez that his colleagues blacklisted the following conservative topics:
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.
Regarding these particular topics being omitted by curators, New York Magazine's Brian Feldman writes, "Given that list of overlooked topics, which range from IRS conspiracy theories, to an unreliable news aggregator, to a brutally unfunny conservative comedian, can you blame them?"
Only one other former worker Nunez talked to offered a similar perspective, saying that if "a Red State or conservative news source would have a story[,] we would have to go and find the same story from a more neutral outlet that wasn’t as biased."
But what that suggests is that Facebook preferred that news come from non-biased sources. Which is not a crazy thing to do. And it suggests that the bias might exist for news from the other side of the aisle as well, but it seems that Gizmodo didn't rigorously assess whether liberal news and news sources were ignored by curators.
"We were unable to determine if left-wing news topics or sources were similarly suppressed," writes Nunez.
(Of course, I realize that many conservatives think all mainstream news is "liberal," but that's an argument for another day.)
It may be the case that Facebook simply avoids politically-slanted media sources in general, avoiding Breitbart on the right and Truthdig on the left, in favor of CNN, BBC, New York Times, and other mainstream publications. In fact, that's what one of the sources told Gizmodo:
Stories covered by conservative outlets (like Breitbart, Washington Examiner, and Newsmax) that were trending enough to be picked up by Facebook’s algorithm were excluded unless mainstream sites like the New York Times, the BBC, and CNN covered the same stories.
That's not a crazy thing to do. It's likely that news is more reliable if it's reported by several outlets, especially those that tend to look for multiple sources for a story. My colleagues Ethan Chiel and Kristen Brown did an analysis of news on the conservative outlets listed above and had some concerns:
[T]here 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 emphasized this in its response to the Gizmodo story. "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," wrote Facebook's VP of search Tom Stocky.
The last troubling bit about the article is that it doesn't include an independent analysis of Facebook's Trending Topics over time to see if there was indeed evidence of political bias. Personally, when I look at Trending Topics, what it seems to privilege above all else is celeb news. The current topics in the political section (ranging from the FBI director discussing the Hillary Clinton email investigation to Jon Stewart calling Donald Trump a "man baby") don't seem to present any obvious bias, but of course, this is post-allegations of conservative bias so it's harder to assess now. A better, more fair report on this would have included an independent analysis of the politics of Trending Topics over a week or month-long period, rather than primarily relying on the testimony of one, admittedly biased source.
So the Gizmodo report doesn't necessarily prove that Facebook suppresses conservative news. More so, it proves that Facebook may have a stodgy view of the media world, privileging the New York Times over the explosion of new journalism outlets online, especially when it judges those outlets to be more loyal to political perspectives than rigorous reporting.