Whistleblowers Confirm Facebook Censors Conspiracy Type News Stories
By Elizabeth Montag
Former Facebook employees who managed the “Trending News” section of the site are accusing the behemoth social media platform of censoring news stories and “injecting” others to artificially inflate their popularity. Unsurprisingly, in light of these accusations, the developing story appears to have been censored from the site’s list of popular stories, underscoring deeply-rooted problems in the way information is presented online.
Twitter trends vs Facebook trends right now pic.twitter.com/NjkiG6n8aq
— Kevin Glass (@KevinWGlass) May 9, 2016
The fresh allegations follow a story published last week by Gizmodo, which detailed how some of the journalists tasked with populating the trending news list were overworked and mistreated. The reporters, “a small group of young journalists, primarily educated at Ivy League or private East Coast universities,” select stories for the feed, and also write the headlines and three-line descriptions that show up on the right-hand side of the Facebook home screen.
Gizmodo points out the influence of this seemingly small operation, noting the list of trending stories, “constitutes some of the most powerful real estate on the internet and helps dictate what news Facebook’s users—167 million in the US alone—are reading at any given moment.”
Since the publication of last week’s initial story, other former Facebook employees have come forward to describe the types of stories that were intentionally included in — and excluded from — the feed, which purports to be determined by the stories’ popularity among users.
Rather than reflecting users’ organic interests, however, one of the most glaring components of the Facebook trending stories tool — according to the effective whistleblowers — is the company’s policy of excluding stories about Facebook. According to Gizmodo, “When stories about Facebook itself would trend organically on the network, news curators used less discretion—they were told not to include these stories at all.”
As one former news curator said, “When it was a story about the company, we were told not to touch it. It had to be cleared through several channels, even if it was being shared quite a bit. We were told that we should not be putting it on the trending tool.”
This former employee’s experience was substantiated by at least one other. “We were always cautious about covering Facebook,” another former curator said. “We would always wait to get second level approval before trending something to Facebook. Usually we had the authority to trend anything on our own [but]if it was something involving Facebook, the copy editor would call their manager, and that manager might even call their manager before approving a topic involving Facebook.”
But limiting the exposure of Facebook-centered articles is only one tactic in the social media platform’s manipulation of news stories. As Gizmodoexplained:
“When users weren’t reading stories that management viewed as important, several former workers said, curators were told to put them in the trending news feed anyway. 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.”
“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,” said one former curator. Indeed, all three of these outlets epitomize “mainstream” journalism, and, unsurprisingly — or even synonymously — all three outlets have been thoroughly accused ofcensorship, deception, and bias.
Facebook’s policy to artificially inject stories, as long as they were validated by coverage from outlets like these, reflects the platform’s clear, albeit perhaps unwitting, connection to perpetuating establishment narratives. As the former curator said, “If it looked like it had enough news sites covering the story, we could inject it—even if it wasn’t naturally trending.”
Though boosting placement of relevant news stories seems like a noble cause, the practice clearly violates Facebook’s efforts to make the trending news feed appear as strictly “topics that have recently become popular” on the site.
Whereas censoring stories on Facebook and injecting others were a matter of policy, the subjective biases of the journalists curating stories also reportedly affected the neutrality of the stories presented to users. Though no former curator interviewed by Gizmodo said this was an official protocol, many said stories from conservative outlets were routinely excluded from the trending news list.
One former curator who, as a political conservative was a minority on the curating team, said, “Depending on who was on shift, things would be blacklisted or trending.” He added, “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.”
For example, stories about Lois Lerner, the head of the IRS implicated in unfairly targeting conservative groups, were not included in trending stories. Stories from conservative aggregator, Drudge Report, were also censored, along with stories about conservatarian politician, Rand Paul. “It was absolutely bias[ed]. We were doing it subjectively. It just depends on who the curator is and what time of day it is,” a former curator said, revealing the lack of consistency in Facebook’s reporting practices.
Further highlighting Facebook’s establishment philosophies, Gizmodonoted “stories covered by conservative outlets (like Breitbart, Washington Examiner, and Newsmax) that were trending enough to be picked up by Facebook’s algorithm were excluded unless mainstream sites like the New York Times, the BBC, and CNN covered the same stories.”
While to some left-leaning Facebook users the omission of conservative stories seems like a fair — or even necessary — practice, these fundamentally exclusionary practices should be cause for concern to anyone obtaining news from the trending stories list.
Facebook declined to comment on these allegations, but the site is no stranger to accusations of censorship and manipulating information. The platform was recently caught censoring at least one story unfavorable to Hillary Clinton while multiple groups supporting presidential candidate Bernie Sanders have been suspended. On a different note, Facebook also works closely with the United States government to enable surveillance of the internet, a role that better illustrates the company’s establishment culture than the left-wing biases of individual employees.
Between the individual biases of employees and the broader, more controlling policies of injection and censoring stories about the site, Facebook has proven its incompetence in accurately informing users. Gizmodo reports some former curators said as algorithms were increasingly employed, biases became less pronounced, also noting that the employees worked for Facebook between 2014 and 2015, so if changes have been made, the whistleblowers would not be aware of them.
At the very least, however, the confessions of former curators should raise fundamental questions about journalistic integrity among users who trust the friendly social networking site to deliver information in a responsible, education-oriented manner. As Gizmodo noted, “the revelations undermine any presumption of Facebook as a neutral pipeline for news, or the trending news module as an algorithmically-driven list of what people are actually talking about.”
Perhaps most telling is the trending news section’s reaction to Gizmodo’s breaking story on Facebook news practices: it’s nowhere to be found.