Facebook Employees Say They Suppressed Conservative News. | Gradient

Facebook employees say they suppressed conservative news.


On Monday morning, Gizmodo dropped a report from some former Facebook employees claiming Facebook deliberately pushes conservative news out of their “trending” section on your timeline. The section is supposed to be a list of news items that are organically trending, but employees occasionally curate the section. And when they do, according to unnamed former employees, they clipped news about things like the right-wing CPAC gathering, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul and other conservative items.

The “news curators” (Facebook’s internal name for these guys) were also told to keep news about Facebook out of the trending section, and inject certain news stories whether or not they were popular enough to be considered. As Gizmodo reports it:

“Depending on who was on shift, things would be blacklisted or trending,” said the former curator. This individual asked to remain anonymous, citing fear of retribution from the company. The former curator is politically conservative, one of a very small handful of curators with such views on the trending team. “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.”

Other former Facebook employees provided a more nuanced take on the exclusions, saying they would ignore trending stories from hyper-conservative news outlets like Breitbart and Washington Examiner, waiting to see if the stories would get picked up by more mainstream outlets before adding them to the trending bar. There’s no evidence that Facebook mandated any of this—only that individual employees’ own biases determined their news curation. Gizmodo says they couldn’t tell whether or not any hyper-liberal outlets were likewise suppressed, although one of the Facebook “news curators” did say he was a conservative.

Perhaps the bigger news here is that there is any curation involved at all, since Facebook’s “trending” section certainly implies that the whole section is organic. And it largely is, according to former employees. But when major news outlets would cover a story that did not organically land on top of Facebook’s trending section, employees would “inject” the story on their own. As examples, they cited the missing Malaysia Airlines flight, Black Lives Matter, and the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris—two stories that did not appear on the trending section via Facebook’s algorithm, but were artificially injected anyway. (As Gizmodo notes, the inclusion of Black Lives Matter is particularly notable, since so many news outlets noted the hashtag’s “organic” growth on Facebook.)

Now on the face of it, a lot of these actions are defensible. There are some important stories that people should pay more attention to, whether or not the story is as clickable as whatever Kendall Jenner wore to the Met. And news organizations with notoriously shoddy reporting like Breitbart aren’t necessarily deserving of tons of promotion. What Facebook is doing could be considered admirable, here’s the thing: that’s not what Facebook’s for.

There’s a bias at work at Facebook, just like there’s a bias at work in almost every news organization. But Facebook isn’t a true “news organization,” a fact that remains even as Facebook has pushed old news sources into irrelevance. People are trained to look for bias in their news consuming habits—that’s why some prefer Buzzfeed to Fox News or vice versa—but Facebook is so ubiquitous and natural-seeming that people assume they’re getting an organic experience instead of a curated one. Facebook itself has spent millions communicating just that message, and “trending news” is an important part of that curated experience. Or it would be if all the news truly was trending.

If Facebook’s trending stories are truly trending, then the algorithm should suffice. If they want to offer a curated news experience, they should say so. The one thing they shouldn’t do is what they are currently doing: offering an aggregated news experience and calling it organic.

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