Facebook reportedly suppressed news from conservative sites

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/05/09/facebook-reportedly-suppressed-news-from-conservative-sites/

It’s only fitting that Twitter should have listed “Former Facebook Workers” as trending, because Facebook initially did not. 

In fact, former Facebook workers say that the social media giant’s managers instruct online curators to manipulate news feeds and trending lists to cut or leave out conservative content, according to a Gizmodo.com report that doesn’t identify its sources by name. The report published Monday also says curators were told to insert certain articles into the trending list, whether or not those items were popular enough to merit the treatment.

Gizmodo, a popular technology blog and news website, said one former curator, a journalist, told it that stories that did meet the criteria for being included in the trending category – on topics like the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), former Massachusetts Gov. and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and items drawn from the Drudge Report – were routinely kept off the list. And it said topics that were “injected” into the system, despite not meeting selection criteria, were often about subjects that managers deemed important.

“Depending on who was on shift, things would be blacklisted or trending,” the former curator, who is politically conservative, told the website. Gizmodo said he and other sources who had worked on the project asked to remain anonymous because they didn’t want to violate separation agreements with the Silicon Valley company. The ex-curator kept a list of suppressed topics which included Lois Lerner, the Internal Revenue Service official who was accused of singling out conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, and former U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, who was murdered in 2013.

Early Tuesday, Facebook’s Tom Stocky responded to the Gizmodo report, denying that the company suppressed news stories of interest to conservatives, in a statement delivered through an outside marketing and communications agency. Stocky said company rules “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.”

Articles about Facebook itself were also banned, Gizmodo reported, citing the former workers. The news site, along with many others, also noted the extraordinary reach of Facebook, which has more than 1 billion member accounts, and its power as a driver of interest in news stories.

But one former Facebook curator told the Guardian newspaper that Facebook also relied on 10 major media outlets what were once commonly referred to as “mainstream media” – to determine whether to include an item in a news feed or the trending list. The outlets included the British Broadcasting Corp., or BBC, the New York Times and the Guardian, the newspaper reported.

Trending stories, which began appearing in list form on the social media site in January 2014, are “recently popular” and are ranked based on “a number of factors, including engagement, timeliness, pages you’ve liked and your location,” according to the company. In terms of reach, Gizmodo says as many as 167 million readers in the U.S. alone could be reading a single post simultaneously.

In his statement, Stocky said curators, or reviewers, “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.”

Gizmodo interviewed other former curators, who denied “consciously suppressing conservative news,” but did confirm that content was artificially injected into the trending module when users seemed to have lost interest, including subjects such as the civil war in Syria and “Black Lives Matter.” All the sources cited in the story were former contractors who worked on the trending project, Gizmodo said.

Stocky said the Menlo Park, California-based company looked into this particular claim “and found that it is untrue.”

“We do not insert stories artificially into trending topics, and do not instruct our reviewers to do so,” Stocky said, referring to the curators who maintain the news feeds and trending list.

In at least one instance reported by Gizmodo, an injected story was picked up by media outlets because it had a strong presence on social media such as Facebook.

“Facebook got a lot of pressure about not having a trending topic for ‘Black Lives Matter,’” one ex-curator said. Managers, the contractor said, “realized it was a problem, and they boosted it in the ordering. They gave it preference over other topics. When we injected it, everyone started saying, ‘Yeah, now I’m seeing it as No. 1.’”

Breitbart.com, a conservative news site, issued a statement noting that the Gizmodo story confirms “what conservatives have long suspected: Facebook’s trending news artificially mutes conservatives and amplifies progressives.”

Last week, Gizmodo published a piece in which former news curators described experiences ranging from “grueling work conditions, humiliating treatment,” to a “secretive, imperious culture in which they were treated as disposable outsiders.” The journalists who worked as contractors developed Facebook’s trending list in a basement room in the company’s New York office, Gizmodo said.

The project seemed to be a precarious experiment in which the social media site scooped up young journalists, often Ivy League graduates, to curate the news content, including writing headlines and summaries of each item.

“We were housed in a conference room for two-and-a-half months,” one former curator told Gizmodo. It reported that most believed they were there simply to help the company refine its software for selecting trending stories.

“It was degrading as a human being,” another former curator said. “We weren’t treated as individuals. We were treated in this robot way.”

These reports are especially interesting in light of the fact that Facebook has also been accused of actively, yet subtly, spurring people to vote in previous elections. In April, Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive, publicly criticized those who want to “build a wall,” popularly believed to be a dig at Donald Trump, the Republican presidential contender.

Another Gizmodo story in April said that Zuckerberg had been asked through an employee poll whether the company should actively try to prevent Trump from becoming president next year. The report said that Facebook didn’t respond to its inquiry about how the CEO answered that employee question, but noted that the company told other outlets it doesn’t try to influence voters.

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis.