Facebook says it’s against the company’s curation policy to suppress or prioritize specific political views in its Trending topics, and that it has guidelines in place to preserve consistency and neutrality there. This would imply that blame for any deviation from these guidelines would belong to the contractors paid to curate the trends it shows, though there might not have been sufficient enforcement of the rules.
In a statement to TechCrunch in response to Gizmodo’s report that conservative trends were suppressed in Facebook’s Trending section, Facebook wrote:
“We take allegations of bias very seriously. Facebook is a platform for people and perspectives from across the political spectrum. Trending Topics shows you the popular topics and hashtags that are being talked about on Facebook. 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.”
Former Facebook “news curators” told Gizmodo they were instructed to “inject” certain stories to make them appear to be Trending news topics on the platform’s homepage and search results, even if they weren’t that popular.
That’s a somewhat understandable practice as Facebook sought to improve its trends algorithm. If something was important but not yet generating loads of discussion on Facebook, or wasn’t getting picked up by the algorithm, Facebook’s editors may have added the trend artificially.
Facebook was also said to have discouraged inclusion of trends about Facebook itself. That could have been done to avoid self-promotion or to offset the propensity for Facebook users to talk about Facebook. But it also could have suppressed negative stories about Facebook.
Most damning were the accusations by former workers that some trending stories were suppressed if they didn’t agree with the political views of the contracted curators controlling the trending topics feed — especially if the stories were conservative. Though Gizmodo didn’t claim that this bias was mandated from higher-ups, Facebook’s neutrality guidelines should have prevented this from happening.
“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,” one former employee who wished to remain anonymous told Gizmodo.
The news outlet published an earlier piece about these same “curators” and their harsh working conditions, calling the company out on degrading conditions — stuck in a conference room for months, forced to speed write quick hits to fill out the trending portion found on the upper right side of Facebook’s site.
What we have from the report is anecdotal and it’s tough to know what’s going on. Facebook’s biggest problem may have been not realizing humans have biases — including political ones.
Though it may have had neutrality guidelines in place about how to curate the trends, it’s possible that contractors with inherent biases were placed on the team, then went on to bend or break the rules. A more rigorous oversight system may be necessary to ensure that the neutrality guidelines are strictly followed.
The issue is alarming because Facebook has grown to become a core way people discover news. It drives so much traffic that news outlets are pressured into publishing on the platform. Bias on the part of the platform itself could impact the minds of its 1.65 billion users.
The fact is that the employees of Facebook itself do lean liberal. At a 2011 town hall talk where Mark Zuckerberg interviewed Barack Obama at Facebook headquarters, employees could be heard loudly cheering for pro-Democrat statements and anti-Republican jabs from the president.
With the 2016 presidential election coming up, Facebook has enormous power to sway the populace. It will need to convince the public it can remain neutral, or it opens itself up to stern criticism, lost political ad dollars and increasing skepticism about its stronghold on the distribution of information.