“Oh yeah, I’ve been meaning to ask you why you’re getting off Facebook,” is the guilty and reluctant question I’m hearing a lot these days. Like we kinda know Facebook is bad, but don’t really want to know.
I’ve been a big Facebook supporter – one of the first users in my social group who championed what a great way it was to stay in touch, way back in 2006. I got my mum and brothers on it, and around 20 other people. I’ve even taught Facebook marketing in one of the UK’s biggest tech education projects, Digital Business Academy. I’m a techie and a marketer — so I can see the implications — and until now, they hadn’t worried me. I’ve been pretty dismissive towards people who hesitate with privacy concerns.
With this latest privacy change on January 30th, I’m scared.
– From last year’s piece: A Very Disturbing and Powerful Post – “Get Your Loved Ones Off Facebook”
Facebook is a private company and has every right to do as it pleases with its platform, even if that means pushing a political agenda via its “news” feed. That said, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been explicit with his intention to dominate news dissemination to his users. For example, we learned the following in last year’s post, Facebook Reveals its Master Plan – Control All News Flow:
In recent months, Facebook has been quietly holding talks with at least half a dozen media companies about hosting their content inside Facebook rather than making users tap a link to go to an external site.
The new proposal by Facebook carries another risk for publishers: the loss of valuable consumer data. When readers click on an article, an array of tracking tools allow the host site to collect valuable information on who they are, how often they visit and what else they have done on the web.
And if Facebook pushes beyond the experimental stage and makes content hosted on the site commonplace, those who do not participate in the program could lose substantial traffic — a factor that has played into the thinking of some publishers. Their articles might load more slowly than their competitors’, and over time readers might avoid those sites.
One of the ways Facebook has been pursuing its news push is through its trending tool. The idea is that a neutral algorithm determines what readers are interested in and talking about at a grassroots level, then place position those stories appropriately within the trending feed. That’s how you’d hope it work, but the reality appears to be far different.
Facebook workers routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers from the social network’s influential “trending” news section, according to a former journalist who worked on the project. This individual says that workers prevented stories about the right-wing CPAC gathering, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, and other conservative topics from appearing in the highly-influential section, even though they were organically trending among the site’s users.
Several former Facebook “news curators,” as they were known internally, also told Gizmodo that they were instructed to artificially “inject” selected stories into the trending news module, even if they weren’t popular enough to warrant inclusion—or in some cases weren’t trending at all. The former curators, all of whom worked as contractors, also said they were directed not to include news about Facebook itself in the trending module.
In other words, Facebook’s news section operates like a traditional newsroom, reflecting the biases of its workers and the institutional imperatives of the corporation. Imposing human editorial values onto the lists of topics an algorithm spits out is by no means a bad thing—but it is in stark contrast to the company’s claims that the trending module simply lists “topics that have recently become popular on Facebook.”
If this is true, it should be seen as a credibility disaster for the site. Of course, they could always just delete all stories referring it.
The former curator was so troubled by the omissions that they kept a running log of them at the time; this individual provided the notes to Gizmodo. Among the deep-sixed or suppressed topics on the list: former IRS official Lois Lerner, who was accused by Republicans of inappropriately scrutinizing conservative groups; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; popular conservative news aggregator the Drudge Report; Chris Kyle, the former Navy SEAL who was murdered in 2013; and former Fox News contributor Steven Crowder. “I believe it had a chilling effect on conservative news,” the former curator said.
Stories covered by conservative outlets (like Breitbart, Washington Examiner, and Newsmax) that were trending enough to be picked up by Facebook’s algorithm were excluded unless mainstream sites like the New York Times, the BBC, and CNN covered the same stories.
Managers on the trending news team did, however, explicitly instruct curators to artificially manipulate the trending module in a different way: When users weren’t reading stories that management viewed as important, several former workers said, curators were told to put them in the trending news feed anyway. Several former curators described using something called an “injection tool” to push topics into the trending module that weren’t organically being shared or discussed enough to warrant inclusion—putting the headlines in front of thousands of readers rather than allowing stories to surface on their own. In some cases, after a topic was injected, it actually became the number one trending news topic on Facebook.
Very disturbing considering the company’s enormous user base.
When stories about Facebook itself would trend organically on the network, news curators used less discretion—they were told not to include these stories at all. “When it was a story about the company, we were told not to touch it,” said one former curator. “It had to be cleared through several channels, even if it was being shared quite a bit. We were told that we should not be putting it on the trending tool.”
Makes you wonder if this Gizmodo story will likewise be shoved down the memory hole.
Several former curators said that as the trending news algorithm improved, there were fewer instances of stories being injected. They also said that the trending news process was constantly being changed, so there’s no way to know exactly how the module is run now. But the revelations undermine any presumption of Facebook as a neutral pipeline for news, or the trending news module as an algorithmically-driven list of what people are actually talking about.
Rather, Facebook’s efforts to play the news game reveal the company to be much like the news outlets it is rapidly driving toward irrelevancy: a select group of professionals with vaguely center-left sensibilities. It just happens to be one that poses as a neutral reflection of the vox populi, has the power to influence what billions of users see, and openly discusses whether it should use that power to influence presidential elections.
First they came for the conservative stories…