The way people receive, interact with, and share news has changed dramatically over the last couple of decades. The days when staying informed and current meant reading the heavy weekend edition of the paper have largely disappeared, as people have become not only accustomed but entitled to receiving their news digitally and in real-time.
We want to know what is happening when it is happening; we want live footage, photos, and eyewitness testimony at the click of a button. And perhaps because we have such seemingly broad and instantaneous access to news, we assume we are getting the full story. Social media websites like Facebook show us what the world is reading and watching at any given moment and we believe this to be an accurate depiction of our consumption habits. But according to former employees of the social media giant, that simply isn’t the case.
A former journalist who worked on Facebook’s relatively recent “trending” news section has revealed that Facebook workers routinely suppressed stories about conservative politicians and events, preventing stories about conservative topics from appearing in the trending section, despite being heavily read and shared among the site’s users.
Workers were also instructed to artificially create trending topics, Gizmodo reports. Known as Facebook “news curators,” these contract workers were tasked with “injecting” handpicked stories into the module, regardless of whether they were popular enough to warrant inclusion, or even trending at all.
Perhaps more disturbingly, they were also explicitly told not to include news about Facebook itself in the trending module.
Additionally, according to one former curator, who has asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from the company, “things would be blacklisted or trending” depending on who happened to be working that evening. They also remarked that they were one of the (very) few politically conservative curators working 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.”
Disturbed by this blatant manipulation, they kept a running list of every omission and have since provided these notes to Gizmodo. Suppressed topics included: “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.”
This left-leaning bias has been corroborated by another former curator. “It was absolutely bias. We were doing it subjectively. It just depends on who the curator is and what time of day it is,” they said. “Every once in awhile a Red State or conservative news source would have a story. But we would have to go and find the same story from a more neutral outlet that wasn’t as biased.” Unless mainstream websites like the New York Times, the BBC, and CNN covered trending conservative stories — featured on such outlets as Breitbart, Washington Examiner, and Newsmax — they would be excluded from Facebook’s algorithm.
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.
“We were told that if we saw something, a news story that was on the front page of these ten sites, like CNN, the New York Times, and BBC, then we could inject the topic,” revealed one former curator. “If it looked like it had enough news sites covering the story, we could inject it—even if it wasn’t naturally trending.”
The same thing would happen if a breaking story wasn’t trending quickly enough on Facebook to be featured in the module. The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, for example, weren’t trending organically on the site, so curators injected it themselves, citing a need to compete with Twitter as one major incentive for doing so. “We would get yelled at if it was all over Twitter and not on Facebook,” revealed one former curator.
Stories were also injected in order to make Facebook appear more serious, a place to find and discuss real, hard-hitting news. “People stopped caring about Syria,” said one former curator, nothing that if “it wasn’t trending on Facebook, it would make Facebook look bad.”
Gizmodo contacted Facebook in order to discuss and verify these claims, but were met only with silence.
In the grand scheme of things, these tactics are neither surprising nor innovative. Every newsroom, every publication, operates in this way to some degree, “reflecting the biases of its workers and the institutional imperatives of the corporation,” as Gizmodo writer Michael Nunez so eloquently puts it, but we have been told time and time again that Facebook does not do this. The trending module operates, according to Facebook, by listing “topics that have recently become popular on Facebook,” factoring a number of conditions into its algorithms, such as “engagement, timeliness, Pages you’ve liked and your location.”
We are being lied to.
What’s worse, we are being manipulated without our realizing it. Many people are exposed to and consume news solely through social media outlets, and they are doing so under the assumption that what they are reading represents the current conversation in its entirety. Shame on us, perhaps, for buying into the notion of unbiased journalism which, rather like unbiased history, is purely fiction. But the problem remains: Facebook dictates what its users — 167 million in the US alone — are reading at any given moment, all while offering up the false assumption that their reading has been comprehensive. And while this kind of editorial bias may be standard practice in the industry — a fact in itself which I think we should be questioning — it has previously, at least, been more transparent.
If there is any message to take away from these revelations, I think it must be caveat emptor, or ‘let the buyer beware.’ Trusting blindly in any institution, any business, or even any one person’s opinion — this author’s included — is both irresponsible and lazy. No matter how enlightened we may be, or think we may be, every one of us operates based on our own personal biases and perceives the world based on our own unique experiences. While there are absolutely degrees of editorial bias, or personal bias, rarely is a story shared without some reason, some agenda, behind that sharing. It is up to each and every one of us to think critically, to seek out multiple perspectives, and to form our own opinions, to the best of our ability, based on the information we have gathered.
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