Facebook denies suppressing trending conservative news

by Matt Klassen on May 11, 2016

facebook-newsfeed7-ss-1920-800x450Several weeks ago I wrote about dangers of Facebook operating as a news delivery platform, as the private enterprise with its own clear biases has little to no obligation to remain neutral, particularly when it comes to offering bipartisan coverage on election issues.

While at the time my concern was that Facebook could unduly influence ethical discussions by altering the content available on its social network, a report surfaced last week that Facebook may be actively censoring news related to Conservative political issues as well, meaning that while such news was trending among the network users, Facebook actively removed such content from its trending topics.

Although former Facebook employees, internally dubbed “news curators,” had reported that they “routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers from the social network’s influential ‘trending’ news section,” the social network itself has stated that there is no evidence any such action was taken, even going as far as to say its network management tools are designed in a way that such hand-crafting of trending stories is “technically not feasible.”

These allegations emerged last week when tech site Gizmodo revealed details about the operations of Facebook’s trending news team, a small group of young journalists responsible for overseeing perhaps the most influential piece of online real estate in existence, the Facebook trending news feed. These curators manage the algorithm that generates trending topics, and write headlines and summaries for each topic that appear on users’ news feeds.

The report states that these curators are not as neutral as they might first appear, with former insiders claiming that they routinely censored or suppressed certain Conservative opinions that ran contrary to Facebook’s own philosophies. “Depending on who was on shift, things would be blacklisted or trending,” said one anonymous former curator. 

In fact, it seems that the news delivered to millions of people each day was wholly dependent on the whims and bias of the curators working that day. “It was absolutely bias. We were doing it subjectively. It just depends on who the curator is and what time of day it is,” said the former curator.

But the devious role of these curators goes beyond simply suppressing unpopular stories, the report claims, it includes artificially injecting non-trending stories into the news module as well, as well as actively excluding stories about Facebook itself from the trending news list.

So in other words Facebook delivers the news in the same way that every major media outlet in the world does, in a way that reflects the “biases of its workers and the institutional imperatives of the corporation.”

But problems arise when people don’t view Facebook as a curator of the news, but instead largely see it as a neutral social network crafted uniquely to each individual. Most Facebook users, I would guess, have no idea that someone is crafting the news that is delivered to the trending topics list, and no idea that the private enterprise known as Facebook is attempting to influence them through such select delivery of the news.

Not only that, but the practice runs in contrast to Facebook’s own claims, that the trending module is nothing more than a neutral delivery system for “topics that have recently become popular on Facebook.

Now Facebook has denied these claims, with VP of search Tom Stocky, who oversees the Trending Topics department, stating, “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.”

He goes on to say, “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.

But true or not, it raises serious questions about Facebook’s power, for when you control the news you control opinions, and when you control opinions, well then you control just about everything.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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