More has been uncovered about the small team that is responsible for Facebook’s controversial Trending Topics feature.
According to a new report by The New York Times, Facebook employees in charge of the feature “were not directed to squelch conservative news on the site, nor would that be easily accomplished by a staff member who wished to do so.”
Instead, the Trending Topics team was a fledgling enterprise made up of a small, ill-managed group of recent college graduates with little to no work experience, charged with combing through mountains of materials unearthed by algorithms.
The human component was needed, according to former employees cited by the Times, because roughly 40 percent of terms unearthed by algorithms were described as “junk,” just common phrases users happened to use around the same time across the platform.
Each Trending Topics team member was tasked with identifying topics as junk or relevant, and writing up descriptions for each, then assigning them a value to make them more or less likely to show up on individual’s home pages, depending on usage history.
The Times described the work as “monotonous” and revealed workers were incentivized to move quickly through their queues by being given points they could exchange for Facebook merchandise.
Last week, The Guardian uncovered internal Facebook files that outline editorial decisions throughout the company’s news operation, including guidelines on how to “inject” and “blacklist” particular stories.
“The guidelines are sure to bolster arguments that Facebook has made discriminatory editorial decisions against right-wing media,” The Guardian’s Sam Thielman wrote.
The revelation became a firestorm for controversy and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg subsequently invited high-profile conservatives to meet at its Silicon Valley headquarters on Wednesday to discuss the issue.
While the subsequent inspection of the Facebook machine indicated intentional company-wide bias was near impossible, “unconscious bias” may be in play, as well as the ever-updating editorial guidelines, a 28-page document that made it hard for curators to keep up.
Facebook has acknowledged making mistakes in launching this “early product.”
“I want to have a direct conversation about what Facebook stands for and how we can be sure our platform stays as open as possible,” Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post last week. “The reason I care so much about this is that it gets to the core of everything Facebook is and everything I want it to be.”