Facebook is meeting resistance as it positions itself to be a news outlet—and not just the destination for engagement announcements, memes and baby pictures.
Last week, a few of Facebook’s former news curators told Gizmodo that they had suppressed conservative outlets in a feature called “Trending Topics.”
In its report, Gizmodo’s technology editor, Michael Nunez, explained how the platform’s news curators work:
The news curation team writes headlines for each of the topics, along with a three-sentence summary of the news story it’s pegged to, and choose an image or Facebook video to attach to the topic. The news curator also chooses the “most substantive post” to summarize the topic, usually from a news website. The former contractors Gizmodo interviewed said they were asked to write neutral headlines, and encouraged to promote a video only if it had been uploaded to Facebook. They were also told to select articles from a list of preferred media outlets that included sites like the New York Times, Time, Variety, and other traditional outlets. They would regularly avoid sites like World Star Hip Hop, The Blaze, and Breitbart, but were never explicitly told to suppress those outlets. They were also discouraged from mentioning Twitter by name in headlines and summaries, and instead asked to refer to social media in a broader context.
News curators also have the power to “deactivate” (or blacklist) a trending topic—a power that those we spoke to exercised on a daily basis. A topic was often blacklisted if it didn’t have at least three traditional news sources covering it, but otherwise the protocol was murky—meaning a curator could ostensibly blacklist a topic without a particularly good reason for doing so. (Those we interviewed said they didn’t see any signs that blacklisting was being abused or used inappropriately.)
“Over time, the work became increasingly demanding, and Facebook’s trending news team started to look more and more like the worst stereotypes of a digital media content farm,” Nunez wrote.
As the report spread and several news outlets wrote about Facebook’s bias, the platfom’s chief exec, Mark Zuckerberg, posted a note on Facebook denying the allegations:
On Thursday, Facebook’s internal editorial guidelines for its Trending Topics were leaked online, further fanning the controversy’s flames.
Though the guidelines showed that Facebook did not directly encourage its curators to ignore conservative opinions or publications, it did reveal that its news heavily depended on the curators—and their biases—instead of an algorithm, which is what the social platform previously led users and reporters to believe.
Facebook’s focus on transparency
Seth Fiegerman, Mashable’s senior business reporter, wrote that Facebook desires to be a news outlet, but its inability to be transparent led its project to be “tarnished with controversy”:
Facebook wanted to prove that it, like Twitter, could be a destination for hard news. With enough transparency, the hiring of a public editor or other watchdog and the right guidelines, which it seems to have had in place, that would have been viewed by the media as a difficult but commendable goal.
Now Facebook’s Trending Topics project is tarnished with controversy. Worse still: it has re-ignited trust issues with Facebook’s other news efforts, whether it be the much more influential News Feed, or more recent projects like Instant Articles and Facebook Live.
Facebook wants to build what founder Mark Zuckerberg has called “the best personalized newspaper in the world.” But until now it has done so while reflexively shying away from being viewed as a media company and putting in place the additional safeguards one would expect from a media company.
Gizmodo’s Nunez agreed, writing:
One reason Facebook might want to keep the trending news operation faceless is that it wants to foster the illusion of a bias-free news ranking process—a network that sorts and selects news stories like an entirely apolitical machine. After all, the company’s entire media division, which is run by Facebook’s managing editor Benjamin Wagner, depends on people’s trust in the platform as a conduit for information. If an editorial team is deliberating over trending topics—just like a newspaper staff would talk about front-page news—Facebook risks losing its image as a non-partisan player in the media industry, a neutral pipeline for distributing content, rather than a selective and inherently flawed curator.
Now in full damage-control mode, Zuckerberg invited influential conservatives to Facebook’s headquarters to discuss bias and address the allegations. RELATED: Keep your cool in a crisis with these 13 tips.
Some 12 “conservative thought leaders” will join the meeting with Zuckerberg on Wednesday, a Facebook spokesman said. Among the invitees are media personality Glenn Beck, Fox News Channel’s “The Five” co-host Dana Perino and Zac Moffatt, co-founder of Targeted Victory, a technology company that aims to bring transparency to media buying.
Beck posted shared the news of his invitation on his Facebook page:
In his post, Beck said we “need to see what ‘the other side’ is talking about”:
How does a company who allowed voices to be heard in Iran and Egypt which sparked revolution silence voices of anyone here?
I am trying to rearrange my schedule to see if I can make it. It would be interesting to look him in the eye as he explains and a win for all voices if we can come to a place of real trust with this powerful tool.
… Facebook truly is the only communal experience we now have in some ways. We need to see what “the other side” is talking about.
PC Magazine’s David Murphy wrote that the move seems to be a gesture of good will:
Facebook has confirmed that the Wednesday meeting is taking place, though representatives didn’t offer up who else might be attending. While it’s unclear whether anything will actually come of said meeting aside from just discussion, it’s possible that Facebook’s move is meant to be a goodwill gesture that keeps it from having to deal with Senate committees keen on looking into the alleged issue themselves.
If the Facebook brass handles it well, the move will also be a savvy crisis response.