Facebook is used by over 1 billion people — one-seventh of Earth’s population. If there’s a “front page” for the internet, it’s Facebook.
The real estate atop Facebook.com is some of the most valuable, widely seen real estate — real or virtual — on the planet.
Occupying a significant section of that real estate is the “Trending” section, dedicated to news stories that people are reading, sharing, and commenting on. This area right here:
Outside of the News Feed, this Trending section is where Facebook curates news subjects. It’s where you might see news about, say, North Korea’s leader giving himself a new title, or about UK Prime Minister David Cameron appealing to Brits to vote against an exit from the European Union.
The Trending module is different for everyone. Here’s how Facebook says it determines what you see in that extremely valuable section of internet:
Trending shows you topics that have recently become popular on Facebook. The topics you see are based on a number of factors including engagement, timeliness, Pages you’ve liked and your location.
And how does that stuff get determined? By maths! Well, algorithms, more accurately. But there are also humans behind what may or may not populate in your Trending area.
These humans tend to be of the journalist variety, and their job isn’t much different than, well, my job: to determine what readers care about, and to prioritise that stuff. These humans may also determine where that news comes from — as in, which outlets you’re seeing news from. And according to a new report at Gizmodo based on interviews with several former staff members of Facebook’s Trending editorial team, there’s an anti-Conservative bias inherent in what’s chosen for representation in the Trending area.
“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 recognise the news topic or it was like they had a bias against Ted Cruz,” one former staffer told Gizmodo. “I believe it had a chilling effect on conservative news.”
A variety of suppressed topics and outlets were noted — everything from Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to conservative news aggregation site The Drudge Report. It’s important to note that this suppression wasn’t a measure of a command from on-high handed down by management, but rather the discretion of the human beings working on the Trending section.
“It was absolutely bias. We were doing it subjectively. It just depends on who the curator is and what time of day it is,” said one former employee.
Notably, former employees also said that news about Facebook wouldn’t show up in the Trending section. “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,” said one former staffer.
The former staff members who informed this story were employed at Facebook between mid-2014 and December 2015. It’s not clear if anything has changed at Facebook since these staffers last worked at Facebook.
Of course, beyond the Trending area, there are plenty of other ways that users find and share news. Primarily: The News Feed is Facebook’s main area of interactivity, and is home to news, images, videos and text from your particular mix of friends, bands, news outlets, and whatever other stuff. Perhaps you follow Tech Insider on Facebook. Hey thanks!
More to the point, even if Facebook’s Trending section is skewing away from Conservative news and topics, your feed is entirely of your creation. If you want to fill it with Conservative viewpoints, you’re certainly able to do so.
Facebook did not respond to request for comment as of publishing.