A recent article on Gizmodo alleges that Facebook selectively chooses topics to appear in its ‘trending news’ section. This is despite Facebook claiming to utilise an algorithm which automatically selects the most posted-about news topics to appear in this section. In the article, a former Facebook employee explains how the ‘trending news’ section is subjectively selected by workers, sometimes including suppressing certain news items from the section based on the political persuasion of the particular news item. The article goes on to explain some of the specific details of the trending news curation by workers. Among these details includes claims that news on politically conservative topics and people were prevented from appearing in the trending section, even if they were among the most posted about topics on Facebook at a given time. News about Facebook was also prevented from appearing in this section. Additionally, non-trending topics were alleged to have been placed in this section, even if they were not near the most posted-about news topics.
In order to dispel concerns from conservative politicians and media figures, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg last week met with key conservatives in order to explain the situation. In the wake of the meeting, reaction among conservatives who attended the meeting was mixed. Some conservatives, such as CNN commentator S.E. Cupp and The Blaze’s Glenn Beck believed the meeting to be a positive and productive one. According to them, common ground was met and Zuckerberg took their concerns seriously. Other conservatives were more sceptical about Facebook and Zuckerberg’s promises to ensure conservative news was not being suppressed. Among those at the event with this view include the editor of conservative website, the Daily Caller and Fox News analyst Tucker Carlson. He admonished not only Zuckerberg but also Glenn Beck, accusing him of ‘sucking up’ to the Facebook CEO.
The allegations, if true are significant and a cause for concern. A website with the reach and influence of Facebook plays an important part in the news cycle and in societal discourse. One of the cornerstones of Facebook’s success as a website is as an open platform for publishing and for sharing news and information. This is also how Facebook has consistently presented itself since launching. If Facebook is now curating news on its website in a subjective manner, it is within its rights to do so as a private company. However, Facebook must clearly and openly state this to users in the interests of openness and fairness. At present, it appears that Facebook has people subjectively choosing which news appears on its trending section of the website, while at the same time claiming it is objectively chosen via an algorithm. In this sense, Facebook is operating more like a traditional news outlet rather than a news aggregator.
In order to remedy this problem, social media outlet Twitter recently created the Moments page, a human-driven aggregate of news items based on human interest stories separate to the objective, algorithm-based Trending topics on a user’s Twitter feed. As a result of this current situation, it may well be the case that Facebook soon looks to emulate Twitter’s Moments in one form or another. Regardless, it is important that Facebook remains an unbiased news content aggregator, and even more important that it does not attempt to suppress news items based on its political slant.