Facebook Claims Censoring Trending Topics Is ‘Technically Not Feasible’

Facebook continues to bat down a report that workers suppressed conservative news from showing up as trending

Last Updated: May 10, 2016 @ 9:29 AM

Facebook widened its defense of its trending news practices late Monday, saying that workers on its influential Trending Topics section couldn’t suppress particular news outlets or ideologies because of technical blockers.

Tom Stocky, vice president of search and the head of the Trending Topics team, said in a Facebook post that the company neither allows nor advises Trending reviewers to systematically discriminate against sources. “We’ve designed our tools to make that technically not feasible,” he said.

Monday, former Facebook workers said that colleagues would prevent conservative topics and publications from appearing in the Trending Topics sidebar next to Facebook’s news feed. Drudge Report, Breitbart, Washington Examiner and Newsmax are among the conservative news organizations that the former employees claimed were flagged as suspect by Facebook curators.

More broadly, the report raised questions about Facebook’s influence over filtering how millions of people get the news. Facebook is one of the most popular sources for content on the Internet, used by more than 1.5 billion people every month. The company’s decisions about what its algorithm prefers and what appears in prime real estate like the Trending Topics bar has an outsize effect on the news that its users see.

Part of Stocky’s post echoed the company’s initial statement: that Trending Topics has “rigorous” guidelines that do not permit the suppression of political perspectives nor prioritization of one viewpoint or one news outlet over another. They also do not prohibit any news outlet from appearing in Trending Topics, the company has said.

But he also gave more detail about how Facebook says its Trending Topics section operates.

Stocky said popular topics are surfaced by an algorithm, then are audited by reviewers to confirm that the topics are “in fact trending news in the real world and not, for example, similar-sounding topics or misnomers.” Those reviewers must accept topics that reflect real world events and are told to disregard “junk or duplicate topics, hoaxes, or subjects with insufficient sources.”

They’re also allowed to “make topics more coherent,” by combining related topics, giving the example of #‎starwars‬ and ‪#‎maythefourthbewithyou.

He said Facebook doesn’t allow or advise reviewers to systematically discriminate against sources of any ideological origin, and he said they instructed that they can’t insert stories artificially into trending topics.

Facebook investigated claims that it also artificially lifted progressive-leaning topic #BlackLivesMatter as trending, Stocky said, and found the charge to be untrue.

Earlier this year, CEO Mark Zuckerberg publicly scolded employees to stop defacing “Black Lives Matter” messages at its Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters.

See Stocky’s full post below.