Facebook’s trending bar deliberately suppresses conservative news, according to a new report.
Facebook, now arguably the most important distributor of news online, has cultivated the idea that its bar is an impartial algorithm that responds to “likes” and gives users only what they’ve indicated they want.
But in a bombshell confession on the tech blog Gizmodo, a former editor says popular conservative news would be kept off the “trending news” sidebar.
“I’d come on shift and I’d discover that CPAC [Conservative Political Action Conference] 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,” the former news curator told Gizmodo.
The news started a firestorm in conservative media circles. The Drudge Report ran the piece in its top slot with a picture of Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and the headline: “Not Leaning In … Leaning Left!” a reference to her bestselling book, Lean In.
Breitbart News editor in chief Alex Marlow said the report confirmed “what conservatives have long suspected: Facebook’s trending news artificially mutes conservatives and amplifies progressives.
“Facebook claims its algorithm simply populates ‘topics that have recently become popular on Facebook’ in its trending news section, but now we know that’s not true.”
Paul Bedard, DC reporter for the Washington Examiner, accused the social media network of “censoring conservatives”.
Hugo Gurdon, the Washington Examiner’s editorial director, said: “We’ve read the report, and it is obviously of considerable interest to us. We plan on working with Facebook to ensure Washington Examiner’s valuable content gets the attention it obviously deserves.”
Leon Wolf, an author at Redstate, one of the publications listed by the Gizmodo interviewees as having been targeted for exclusion, said he had not seen evidence of the kind of tampering mentioned by Gizmodo. “I watch our Facebook stats very closely,” Wolf told the Guardian.
“The troubling thing about this is that Facebook is such a huge deal,” Wolf said. “They can make or break success in a way that nobody else can. There’s a lot of scrutiny that people have on CNN, they’re several orders of magnitude less influential than Facebook is.”
The rise of Facebook as a dominant player in news has already worried some media watchers who are concerned the social network could become too powerful and set the news agenda and potentially block news that might not fit its corporate agenda.
Emily Bell, director of the Tow centre for digital journalism at Columbia journalism school, said on Twitter that she questioned whether algorithms could ever be impartial.
But Gizmodo’s report was challenged by one ex-Facebooker who took issue with its characterization in an interview with the Guardian, saying that newsworthiness was determined by how often a story appeared on a list of trusted news outlets including this publication, the New York Times and the BBC. If five of the 10 put a story on the front page, it could be made to appear more often on Facebook Paper; if 10 put the story on the front page, it was added to the “trending” bar.
Beyond the list of 10 internationally trusted publications was another list of a thousand news sources that showed the editors where stories were trending; that list was more fungible and could be added to or subtracted from.
The former news curator interviewed by the Guardian hadn’t seen evidence that conservative stories were being blacklisted. “I was only there for four or five months, but I didn’t see that happening,” the person said. The employee added, however that the job was to identify pertinent news stories based on a strict set of criteria. “But also whenever we started a shift you’d go through stories that had been greenlit, and you had to prove yourself to be consistent enough to be a competent editor.”
The former contractor maintained that the unit had enough power to push back when others in the company asked for a story to be removed. “The one time when we had intervention on a story we did was when Sheryl Sandberg’s husband died,” the ex-employee said. “We reported it as a news story – ‘COO’s husband died in location X.’ A whole bunch of people said, ‘We shouldn’t report on that story,’ and we said, ‘Well, it’s news, so we’re covering it.’ We kept it up and we never got any flack from Sheryl or anyone else.”
The feeds, the ex-employee said, were pure popularity among Facebook users, but popularity as determined by human curators: “Beyoncé trends most days, but that’s just because people are posting pictures of Beyoncé.”