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Can You Trust the News You Read on Facebook?

Facebook Updates Its Trending Topics Section Policies Following Allegations of Biased News

Update, May 24: After an investigation and a meeting with conservatives and Senator John Thune last week, Facebook is changing how its Trending Topics section operates. In a blog post posted on May 23, Colin Stretch, Facebook's general counsel, outlined what would change, namely: not relying on external websites or outlets to validate certain topics; no longer using the list of 1,000 news sources, the RSS feed, or top 10 media outlets list; no longer giving a certain topic an "importance level"; and adding in more information to its help center document on what the Trending Topics section is.

The blog post also added that it did not find any "systemic political bias in the selection or prominence of stories included in the Trending Topics feature." However, Stretch did add that the investigation "could not fully exclude the possibility of isolated improper actions or unintentional bias in the implementation of our guidelines or policies."

Hopefully now Facebook fully understands the immense power that it holds when it comes to what people see on their feeds — and just how upset it can make anyone to find out it's being deliberately manipulated.

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Update, May 18: Mark Zuckerberg put a post up on May 18 announcing that he has met with conservatives to make sure the trending news section of Facebook is fair and balanced. He wrote, "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." Here's the full post.

Original story:

Where do you get your news? My guess isn't network television, but your Facebook feed. The social network's dominance as a source of news is at the center of its latest controversy. This time Facebook isn't accused of experimenting on our emotions, but with our information. According to allegations, Facebook knowingly suppressed conservative news from its Trending Topics section and injects stories into it — even if they aren't trending. In other words, Facebook is accused of making opaque editorial decisions instead of acting as a neutral reflection of its community. Keep reading to get a full breakdown and timeline of how all this shook out.

Gizmodo publishes an account from anonymous Facebook Trending Topics employees who state they suppressed conservative news.

  • The report, published on May 9, gathered information from former Facebook "news curators."
  • Those workers told Gizmodo that they chose certain stories to put into the Trending section, even if they weren't actually trending. They were also not allowed to put news about Facebook in this section.
  • One former journalist who worked in this section stated that conservative news stories were not allowed. This included stories about people like Mitt Romney.
  • This report revealed that Facebook's Trending Topics section works like a newsroom — it has biases and will choose not to run certain stories.

A Facebook executive in charge of the Trending Topics section refutes these claims.

  • Facebook's Vice President of Search, Tom Stocky, wrote a long response on May 9 addressing several of the allegations in the Gizmodo story.
  • In the post, Stocky states that there are "rigorous guidelines" that don't let news curators omit or prioritize certain types of news.
  • Stocky writes that trending topics first bubble up by an algorithm and are then reviewed by the news curators.
  • Stocky claims that no news curator purposely puts stories into this section that aren't actually trending.

A senator wants Facebook to provide answers as to what the company is doing to address these concerns.

  • Senator John Thune of South Dakota, who is also chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, wrote a letter on May 10 that requests full transparency from Facebook on the matter.
  • Facebook let Thune know that it was "continuing to investigate whether any violations took place," according to The New York Times.

The Guardian posts exclusive internal documents that suggest the news section is programed by people, not an algorithim.

  • Published by The Guardian on May 12, the documents detail the guidelines that news curator must follow.
  • The documents show that news curators can artificially insert a story into the section even if it's not trending, essentially making a story become news.
  • To see if a trending story has any merit, Facebook turns to 10 specific sources to verify it, which include: BBC News, CNN, Fox News, The Guardian, NBC News, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Yahoo News, and Yahoo.
  • It is also dependent on a trove of RSS links.
  • The Guardian also obtained a list of 1,000 news sources the company uses to further verify stories.
  • In speaking with The Guardian, three former news curators said they did add in stories that were not trending — but had no bias to do so. They denied that conservative stories were omitted from the section.

Facebook publishes information on how the Trending Topics section works.

  • Posted on the same day as the Guardian story, Facebook published information about the Trending Topics section, detailing how it works.
  • Trending stories first bubble up by an algorithim that analyzes whether a certain topic has "spiked in popularity on Facebook."
  • Those stories are reviewed by the Trending Topics team. The team confirms the news, writes a short description, sets a category for it, and sees if it's being covered by the 10 news sources mentioned above.
  • The list of Trending Topics is "personalized for each user via an algorithim that relies on a number of factors." Those factors include what pages you've "liked," feedback you've left, and other things you do on Facebook.
  • The post also reaffirms that the guidelines for the Trending Topics team do not let anyone pick and choose which stories to surface on a bias. It also restates that the team does curate the section a bit in that it combines stories that are connected but have different keywords together. It does not "promote articles or topics from a particular perspective."
  • The post ends with a note that it is investigating whether or not news curators did not follow guidelines and suppressed conservative news. So far, it has found nothing of the sort.

Mark Zuckerberg responds to the controversy in a post on May 12.

  • Zuckerberg begins his post with the idea the Facebook is a place for everyone and the platform and all its tools need to reflect that community.
  • The post confirms again that the Trending Topics section has guidelines that do not let anyone omit or prioritize certain stories or perspectives.
  • Zuckerberg also states that they are looking into whether or not the Trending Topics team has followed these guidelines.
  • Like the FAQ page, Zuckerberg states they haven't found any evidence that anyone has manipulated the section.
  • Zuckerberg states that he wants to sit down with conservatives and other political influencers to talk about this whole mess.

What's next?

  • Facebook will no doubt continue to update people on whether or not it's found any truth to Gizmodo's original story.
  • People will most likely continue to read and be interested in the Trending Topics section.
  • This issue will definitely leave people wondering just how much curation is happening behind the scenes of many apps where we read the news, like Facebook, Twitter, and others.
Image Source: Getty / AFP
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