Facebook is in the news again…big surprise. Although they are many times in the spotlight for positive reasons, this time it isn’t quite so pleasant. Following reports that came out at the beginning of May in which former Facebook employees claimed they were told to diddle with the trending news stories by inserting less controversial ones, some feel the news feed appears rigged… especially to the conservative base.
Image from gizmodo.com
In this article from crossmap.com, a Christian Living site, there are allegations of exclusions on Facebook’s news feed relating to religious topics.
Earlier this month, a report from Gizmodo dropped the equivalent of a social media bomb – several former Facebook employees said the company routinely suppressed conservative news in the social media giant’s “trending news” section.
These former Facebook news curators said they were sometimes instructed to insert stories into the “trending” section that had not earned enough attention to be a trending topic, or that they had the freedom to “blacklist” topics that they didn’t want to appear in the section, meaning that the section was not organically curated by the interests of other Facebook users, contrary to popular thought.
And since the majority of news curators at Facebook are 20 and 30-something Ivy League graduates who skew left-of-center politically: “I believe it had a chilling effect on conservative news,” one former curator told Gizmodo.
Although the former curators did not say whether or not the social media network also suppressed news from religious outlets and or with religious topics, some Catholic leaders think that faith groups could have been inadvertently targeted in the news selection process.
Ashley McGuire, a Senior Fellow with The Catholic Association, said the news is troubling because people’s religious beliefs often inform their political views.
This makes it sound as though there was a conspiracy to provide news that is skewed toward one side or the other. As Americans, we have become more and more divided as to what “side” we are on. (I guess I always thought we were all on the same team.) But, because there are topics that are controversial and debatable, they evoke high levels of emotions from some people.
In this article from the New York Times, it explains a little more about how the trending news started on Facebook. It appears it was ultimately decided on by people whose job it was to comb through the info that was provided to them by the computer algorithm based on what people were searching for. It refers to it as more of a human choice than a conspiracy.
Trending Topics, introduced in a handful of countries in January 2014 with a small staff based in New York, was Facebook’s first major attempt to comb through the avalanche of information being posted on the social network and to make it easier for people to find current events – such as the pope’s visit to the United States and anything involving the Kardashians – and to read and talk about them on Facebook.
It was a shot at competitors like Google and Twitter, according to two former news curators who spoke on condition of anonymity because they had signed nondisclosure agreements. Facebook wanted people to search for more content – like news – on its own site instead of on Google, the search king, or Twitter, which was widely regarded as better for real-time news, they said.
There was one big problem: Facebook’s trending algorithms, which identify the most-talked-about terms, were not very good at discerning what was and was not news. Left to their own devices, roughly 40 percent of what Facebook’s algorithms dug up would be junk or “noise,” a result of many people using the same word at the same time across the network. The algorithm might pick up a sharp rise in the word “Skittles” and deem it a trending topic – not exactly the events Facebook had in mind.
That is where humans came in. Facebook enlisted a set of 20-somethings as curators, copy editors and team leads, charged with sifting through the material the algorithms unearthed. They were crucial, they were told, to improving Facebook’s ability to discern, over time, what constitutes news.
So, Mark Zuckerberg hosted a group of conservatives a couple weeks later and then posted this on Facebook:
This afternoon I hosted more than a dozen leading conservatives to talk about how we can make sure Facebook continues to be a platform for all ideas across the political spectrum.
Silicon Valley has a reputation for being liberal. But the Facebook community includes more than 1.6 billion people of every background and ideology — from liberal to conservative and everything in between.
We’ve built Facebook to be a platform for all ideas. Our community’s success depends on everyone feeling comfortable sharing anything they want. It doesn’t make sense for our mission or our business to suppress political content or prevent anyone from seeing what matters most to them.
The reality is, conservatives and Republicans have always been an important part of Facebook. Donald Trump has more fans on Facebook than any other presidential candidate. And Fox News drives more interactions on its Facebook page than any other news outlet in the world. It’s not even close.
Still, I know many conservatives don’t trust that our platform surfaces content without a political bias. I wanted to hear their concerns personally and have an open conversation about how we can build trust. I want to do everything I can to make sure our teams uphold the integrity of our products.
Thank you to everyone who rearranged their schedules and made sacrifices to be here today. It’s important that Facebook remains a platform for all ideas and that we continue to give every person a voice.
And the meeting appears to have been a success.
So the same site that broke the original story on Facebook’s news feed, Gizmodo, posted this article saying that Facebook is now completely changing the way it manages its trending news. It shows that they want change and will invest resources into a more automated process so they can keep everyone happy. It has two main factors: Stories that you would rate highly and be most likely to engage with, which is basically stories you like, comment on, and click or share similar posts.
Facebook is enacting a number of changes to its trending news module following a two-week internal investigation. The company’s announcement comes in response to a letter of inquiry from the US Senate Commerce Committee, issued one day after Gizmodo reported on the allegations of one former “news curator” for the trending section, who alleged coworkers regularly suppressed topics of interest to conservative readers.
Facebook will no longer rely on external news websites or RSS feeds to “identify, validate, or assess the importance of trending topics” according to a statement from the company. Former news curators who spoke to Gizmodo on the condition of anonymity said that these websites and RSS feeds were sometimes used to insert trending topics into the section that were not organically trending on the site. And Facebook later stated that a select group of 10 publications, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Buzzfeed, were used to determine whether a story was important enough to be included in the trending section.
Facebook is also renaming some of the tools its curators use to moderate the trending news section, in order to “better reflect the real nature of the action[s].” Most notably, the “blacklisting” tool—used to block naturally trending topics from inclusion in the trending section—will be renamed “revisit.” The “injection” tool, used to insert trending topics or combine several topics into one, is also being reframed as a “topic correction” tool.
The company’s 12-page report also details the results of its internal investigation, which sought to determine whether any bias had impacted its trending news section. Facebook states that this investigation found no evidence of “systematic bias,” and that conservative and liberal topics were approved for the trending section in equal frequencies. As Gizmodo originally reported, several former news curators said they’d never been instructed to systematically suppress conservative news, but one former curator kept a running list of topics the curator felt were inappropriately blacklisted or disregarded by colleagues.
Facebook said in its report that prior to July 2015, topics could have been prevented from the trending module if they weren’t covered by major news organizations: