Leaked Facebook Documents Reveal Human Control Over Trending Topics

The Guardian obtained social network’s internal editorial guidelines, which contradict company’s previous claims

Last Updated: May 13, 2016 @ 5:13 AM

On the heels of allegations that Facebook has been programming left-wing bias into its Trending Topics system, leaked documents confirm that the social network’s news operation is run like a traditional media organization, with humans –rather than a disinterested algorithm — making coverage decisions.

The Guardian uncovered internal Facebook files on Thursday 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.

While many users have been led to believe Facebook’s Trending Topics feature is based on an objective algorithm, the documents reveal that a small editing staff is largely responsible for what appears in the now-controversial section of the social network’s newsfeed.

The leaked, 21-page document, which is clearly marked “Internal Facebook Use Only,” details that the editorial team is responsible for accepting all topics that reflect “real-world events.” It describes a “real-world event” as something that happened recently, is happening now or will happen in the near future.

The document notes that it is “intentionally broad,” to allow Facebook to include a wide range of interests. Blacklisted subjects include “junk topics” and “duplicate” items without specifying a liberal bias.

The document contradicts a recent statement by Facebook VP Tom Stocky, who said, “We do not insert stories artificially into Trending Topics, and do not instruct our reviewers to do so.”

The documents, if nothing else, highlight the company’s lack of transparency regarding what appears in newsfeeds and why. According to the guidelines, Facebook considers a story important if it is covered by at least five of the following 10 websites: BBC News, CNN, Fox News, The Guardian, NBC News, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Yahoo News or Yahoo.

“Conservatives would label the majority of Facebook’s primary sources as liberal,” Thielman says in his exclusive.

Facebook VP of global operations Justin Osofsky issued a new statement Thursday afternoon, saying, “The guidelines demonstrate that we have a series of checks and balances in place to help surface the most important popular stories, regardless of where they fall on the ideological spectrum.”

He went on to say, “Facebook does not allow or advise our reviewers to systematically discriminate against sources of any political origin, period.”

Gizmodo reported on Monday that former Facebook workers claimed colleagues would prevent conservative topics and publications from appearing in the Trending Topics sidebar next to users’ primary news feeds.

The very next day, the Senate Commerce Committee sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg requesting information regarding accusations that the social media platform purposely keeps conservative news out of its Trending Topics section.

Sen. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota who chairs the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, signed the letter asking for detailed information on how the Trending Topics are selected.

The Guardian might have expedited the Senate’s request with today’s report.

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