In a stunning revelation that has left your weird uncle that lives in rural Montana completely speechless, it turns out the world’s largest social media platform doesn’t just turn on its computers each morning and then give everybody the day off. Gizmodo reports Facebook’s “trending” news curation team engaged in the same bias-driven behaviors of cherry-picking news stories to promote as any other news aggregator. (Here’s a brand-new example of that very same bias at work, for what it’s worth: The A.V. Club is not going to report on today’s news from Variety that digital company Fullscreen is changing its name to Fullscreen Media, because that story sounds boring as hell.) What makes this noteworthy is less the fact of Facebook’s internal practices than its claims to neutrality, in which the online giant states the trending news section, in the upper right-hand corner of the main page, simply “shows you topics that have recently become popular on Facebook.”
In interviews with several former employees (known internally as “news curators”), Gizmodo claims conservative news stories in particular were routinely suppressed from the trending news feed, due not to any instructions from the company but simply because of bias on the part of whoever was manning the feed. “Depending on who was on shift, things would be blacklisted or trending,” said the ex-staffer, remaining anonymous for fear of retribution. “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.” Perhaps it was an equally shocking discovery on the part of this former worker, who admits to being one of the few politically conservative people on the team, to learn that roughly 99 percent of humanity has a natural bias against Ted Cruz.
This conservative former news curator for Facebook provided Gizmodo with a list they had kept during their employment, counting stories they had registered as being suppressed by the trending feed. It includes topics like right-wing muckraker site The Drudge Report, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, and Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL murdered in 2013. But while another former curator agreed with the anti-conservative bias in curation (“It was absolutely bias… It just depends on who the curator is and what time of day it is”), other former curators denied consciously suppressing conservative news, and it was unclear if liberal news stories received similar treatment by politically conservative curators.
In a further turn that just flabbergasted your Aunt Esther who assumed Facebook was ideologically pure, the curators also said they were instructed to put stories considered important into the trending feed, regardless of whether users were reading them. “People stopped caring about Syria,” explains one former employee. “[And] if it wasn’t trending on Facebook, it would make Facebook look bad.” This was also the case with breaking news, which would often take too long to gain momentum organically and thus would be dropped into the feed via an “injection tool.” Opportunities for Archer-style “phrasing” aside, the injection tool reportedly was used to boost the profile of stories like the Black Lives Matter movement.
And in a final reveal that our Luddite cousin Derrick will probably describe as “utterly unbelievable,” the curators say they had explicit instructions from the company not to include any news about Facebook itself. So you likely won’t be seeing this story about the unsurprising but still newsworthy exposé on Facebook’s trending news practices in the trending news section of the site, regardless of how many times it gets organically shared—which, feel free to go ahead and do that. The former curators agree that the algorithm improved over time, resulting in less instances of injecting stories into the feed. Also, the process was in such constant flux that it’s difficult to say how it may be different now. What’s not difficult to say—as Gizmodo notes—is that Facebook engages in the same news practices involving personal bias and preference as any traditional news organization. Which might be a reasonable thing to admit, if you were Facebook, perhaps via one of the site’s descriptive options, “It’s complicated.” Aunt Esther is always stressing honesty, after all. Honesty and conspiracy theories about Benghazi.