Facebook’s “Trending Topics” suppression story means little. Here’s why.

Did Facebook manipulate its Trending Topic section? Maybe. They deny it. Who cares?

News broke recently (trended?) that Facebook contractors had suppressed news from Conservative news sites from the social media behemoth’s Trending news section. This has caused quite a stir.

The story was reported at Gizmodo:

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.

Former Facebook curators contradicted Gizmodo’s anonymous source, while admitting to inevitable personal bias. They spoke anonymously with CNNMoney:

Another source, a former trending topic curator, said the teams prized transparency and open communication. While some stories that were trending across Facebook were blocked from appearing in the box, the intent was to weed out spam and other objectionable content.

“Blacklisted topics had to be logged by the team along with reasons,” the source said. “They were also checked… We were also very open with each other about the content we edited.”

A third source said, “no one ever told me to suppress a conservative story.”

In a statement to TechCrunch, Facebook directly rejected the accusation:

At 1pm pacific May 9th, Facebook said in a statement to TechCrunch that it was against the company’s curation policy to suppress or prioritize specific political views in its Trending topics, and that it has guidelines in place to preserve consistency and neutrality there. This would imply that any issue arose from deviation from these guidelines on the part of contractors paid to curate the trends it shows.

Facebook VP Tom Stocky unsurprisingly took to Facebook in response:

My team is responsible for Trending Topics, and I want to address today’s reports alleging that Facebook contractors manipulated Trending Topics to suppress stories of interest to conservatives. We take these reports extremely seriously, and have found no evidence that the anonymous allegations are true.

Facebook is a platform for people and perspectives from across the political spectrum. There are rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality. These guidelines do not permit the suppression of political perspectives. Nor do they permit the prioritization of one viewpoint over another or one news outlet over another. These guidelines do not prohibit any news outlet from appearing in Trending Topics.

Trending Topics is designed to showcase the current conversation happening on Facebook. Popular topics are first surfaced by an algorithm, then audited by review team members to confirm that the topics are in fact trending news in the real world and not, for example, similar-sounding topics or misnomers.

We are proud that, in 2015, the US election was the most talked-about subject on Facebook, and we want to encourage that robust political discussion from all sides. We have in place strict guidelines for our trending topic reviewers as they audit topics surfaced algorithmically: reviewers are required to accept topics that reflect real world events, and are instructed to disregard junk or duplicate topics, hoaxes, or subjects with insufficient sources. Facebook does not allow or advise our reviewers to systematically discriminate against sources of any ideological origin and we’ve designed our tools to make that technically not feasible. At the same time, our reviewers’ actions are logged and reviewed, and violating our guidelines is a fireable offense.

There have been other anonymous allegations — for instance that we artificially forced ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬ to trend. We looked into that charge and found that it is untrue. We do not insert stories artificially into trending topics, and do not instruct our reviewers to do so. Our guidelines do permit reviewers to take steps to make topics more coherent, such as combining related topics into a single event (such as ‪#‎starwars‬ and ‪#‎maythefourthbewithyou‬), to deliver a more integrated experience.

Our review guidelines for Trending Topics are under constant review, and we will continue to look for improvements. We will also keep looking into any questions about Trending Topics to ensure that people are matched with the stories that are predicted to be the most interesting to them, and to be sure that our methods are as neutral and effective as possible.

Please note: “instructed to disregard junk or duplicate topics, hoaxes, or subjects with insufficient sources.” This alone removes a significant portion of what I used to see in my Newsfeed (and sometimes still do.” Some popular sites will get dinged if accuracy and hoaxes are taken into consideration. Removing duplicate content from less credible sources is not a censorship to worry over.

It means little

Even if Facebook’s human curators were exhibiting liberal bias on Trending Topics it is not important. Here’s why:

It does not affect what is shared in your Newsfeed.

All the cat videos, historical stories, politics, satire, memes and everything else will come rolling by as they always have. The same will be true, sadly, with many of the hoaxes, badly written articles, clickbait headlines, and factually incorrect “news” stories shared every day.

You already have a good bit of control over the Trending Topics

As the following graphics show, not only can you choose what topics appear in the box, you can teach Facebook what you want to see and don’t want to see. Note the icons at the top. From left to right they represent Top Trends, Politics, Science and Technology, Sports, and Entertainment. You choose the category you want to see.

Politics trending

Although the cursor isn’t visible, by hovering over the top right corner of any story section a small “x” will appear. Clicking the x removes the story, and reveals a menu of options. In the panel below, I have hovered over a story on Reality TV star Kendra Wilkinson’s stretch marks. I’ve decided to delete this story since not in a million lifetimes do I want to see Kendra Wilkinson’s stretch marks.

wilkinson

The dropdown gives you several options all of which many be used to better design your experience with Facebook’s Trending Topics.

hidden menu

The same process works for any topic in the box. Ultimately, as with many things related to Facebook, you have control if you only know where to look.

Nothing is unbiased

Search results are biased. SEO is biased. From Tech Republic’s What Search Results are Telling You and What They’re Not:

[S]earch-engine bias can alter an individual user’s perception of what online information is available, and where that information can be found. Here is an excellent explanation of search-engine bias from Stanford University:

“[T]he phrase “search-engine bias” has been used to describe at least three distinct, albeit sometimes overlapping, concerns:

  1. Search-engine technology is not neutral, but instead has embedded features in its design that favor some values over others.
  2. Major search engines systematically favor some sites (and some kind of sites) over others in the lists of results they return in response to user search queries.
  3. Search algorithms do not use objective criteria in generating their lists of results for search queries.

“While some users may assume search engines are “neutral” or value-free, critics argue that search-engine technology, as well as computer technology in general, are value-laden and thus biased because of the kinds of features typically included in their design.”

The TEDx Talk by Andreas Ekström (below) illuminates what happens when moral value choices are injected into search results. It’s a Pandora’s Box, to be sure.

No source is 100% accurate

There is no absolute certainty in curating online news. Every user of the Internet evidences his or her own biases when choosing which source is authoritative and which is not. When we find a source that has demonstrated over and over to be accurate we trust it. And, we trust it when they get a story wrong.

We also evidence bias when we lean to sources that mirror our closely held political (philosophical, theological) persuasions. Some trust Weekly Standard more than The Nation, or Mother Jones more than National Review. Feeding confirmation bias does little to advance the truth.

It is not humanly possible to fact-check every story on the Internet, on Twitter, or on your Facebook Newsfeed. As such, every user reaches a level where, owing to a lack of time, it is necessary to be lax about the facts. Call it “complacency necessity” if you will, but try with all your might to avoid it.

The best option is to use multiple sources from all sides of the political spectrum. Read the same story from multiple sources, not all from the same slant. Track down links, and the more hyperbolic the more important it is. (One story I read said the government of a European country was “confiscating” buildings from the owners, forcing them to house refugees. After clicking through two or three links I finally found the original report from a European newspaper. The government of the country had located warehouses that were empty, then rented the empty space from the owners for temporary refugee housing. Not even close to what was claimed in the story I first read.)

Frankly, if you’ve been using Facebook’s trending stories as your main source of news, your biggest problem isn’t that Facebook secretly manipulated the trending stories and may have misled you about what stories were actually trending. It’s that you’ve been using Facebook’s trending stories as your main source of news.

If Facebook suppressed every single conservative news story that came through its curation group (and there’s no evidence it suppressed most or even many such stories) you could still find the facts with a little effort. The burden is on the information consumer, not on Facebook, Google, Bing, Twitter or any other media. Let the media consumer beware.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

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