Facebook prevents conservative stories and news outlets from appearing in its hugely influential "Trending" section, according to several ex-staffers who requested anonymity when speaking with Gizmodo's Michael Nunez.
Though the site has pushed the idea that an in-house algorithm detects news stories which are being organically shared by users, and then promotes them as trending, it appears the human element is plenty significant. If true, this would make Facebook more akin to a traditional news outlet, rather than a social media portal, complete with its own value system which allows it to promote some ideas and exclude others.
According to one self-described conservative ex-Facebook news curator, "Depending on who was on shift, things would be blacklisted or trending." The former curator, who reportedly provided notes to Gizmodo containing logs of suspiciously omitted topics, cited news stories relating to "CPAC or Mitt Romney or Glenn Beck" which were popular at the time but did not appear in the Trending section because of the "bias" of certain curators.
Another ex-curator (whose political affiliation was not described by Gizmodo) said if stories by right-of-center news sites were popular enough to be recognized as trending-worthy by the Facebook algorithm, staffers had to "find the same story from a more neutral outlet that wasn't as biased" or the story wouldn't make it to Trending.
It is important to note that Gizmodo writes "there is no evidence that Facebook management mandated or was even aware of any political bias at work," and that they "were unable to determine if left-wing news topics or sources were similarly suppressed." But last week in a profile laying out how the Trending sausage is made, Gizmodo presented a rough bio of the news curators in charge of the U.S.' primary source for online news:
The trending news section is run by people in their 20s and early 30s, most of whom graduated from Ivy League and private East Coast schools like Columbia University and NYU. They've previously worked at outlets like the New York Daily News, Bloomberg, MSNBC, and The Guardian.
Facebook's news curation is not limited to just picking and choosing which political points of view are promoted or excluded. Stories like the missing Malaysia Airlines plane were reportedly "injected" into the Trending section when the algorithm wasn't picking them up fast enough to compete with more breaking news-friendly sites like Twitter. The ex-curators also told Gizmodo that stories about Facebook itself were to be kept off the Trending section. One ex-curator told Gizmodo that the Black Lives Matter movement, which is publicly supported by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, was given its own trending topic and subsequently received huge media traction.
Predictably (and understandably), conservative websites are howling at this news today, but this story carries bigger connotations than just the usual "left-wing media bias" chatter. If Facebook is just another left-of-center newsroom, will conservatives flee the site? Or is the social network simply too big and ubiquitous for people to do without?
Also, in an increasingly consolidated new media world, clicks equal revenue which equal compensation. Even if you're not a conservative writer, merely covering conservative topics could leave you at a pronounced disadvantage if Facebook's news curators are excluding your stories from the site's biggest driver of news traffic. This could lead to editors and journalists being disincentivized from covering conservative topics, which would stand a worse chance of generating a large audience.
Ultimately, Facebook is a big business, one that has survived repeatedly alienating an even infuriating its customers. If what the former curators told Gizmodo is accurate, the company would have a hard time selling itself as a neutral portal for news. But in the long run, will it matter as long as the baby photos and cat memes remain?