Facebook has become, among other things, a source for news stories. Its trending section especially is, at least in theory, an aggregate of what everyone on the site is talking about. Except some employees have come forward claiming that the Trending section is sometimes nothing of the sort, and that Facebook is manipulating the news. But is it? Or is this just another news site, doing its job?
The claims — from former employees interviewed by Gizmodo — break down into three categories, all varying degrees of troubling. The first is that Facebook suppressed conservative news stories, the second that it suppressed news about itself, and the third is that it outright manipulated the Trending news in varying ways. But what’s left on the table is whether this is serious, or a matter of semantics.
Trending sections on any website tend to be filtered in some way for two reasons. The first is to prevent marketing departments and attention-seekers from gaming the system to exploit websites for free advertising. The second is that the raw data is often fundamentally a mess. People don’t just talk about one topic in a Facebook post, or use the same terms to discuss a topic, so the raw data is often the same story told seven different ways. At the very least, redundancies need to be trimmed.
Still, the accusations deserve consideration. The first, that conservative news is regularly kept off the Trending section, is the most splashy and will get the most attention, but if you keep reading, a few interesting points come up. The biggest, by far, is the fact that Facebook didn’t want to see stories that broke from news sites with a pronounced conservative bias in Trending before they were confirmed by sources such as the BBC or The New York Times. One source for the story claims that sometimes conservative news stories weren’t trending because whoever was on the clock didn’t recognize them as news.
Realistically, though, it’s hard to argue with any editor who wants to wait. One site supposedly kept off of Trending, The Drudge Report, has been accused of poor journalism more or less since its inception. But even if we wanted to compare this to how sites such as the Daily Kos are treated, we’ve got no way of doing so: There’s no way to access Facebook’s past trending data. Of note, however, is that on the site itself, trending items tend to refer either directly to a candidate or pundit’s Facebook posts or to a news source such as The New York Times or the BBC.
Other claims are, frankly, simply straight journalism work, but the method behind them could reasonably be viewed as problematic. For example, allegations that Facebook “injected topics” into Trending are more or less the site anticipating what will trend such as the Charlie Hebdo attacks or Flight MH370. Perhaps the least surprising is that Facebook didn’t want to report on trending news about itself. Those stories had to be approved through several channels and were often excised off the network altogether.
The main problem here is that, to be honest, if a newspaper or website were doing this and calling it “News,” nobody would care. Every website, Uproxx included, that covers the news looks for stories, looks at the quality of the source of the story, and makes a judgement call about whether that story is worth writing about, whether it’s serious news or just a movie casting rumor. Stories are often prioritized based on the traction they get, which, in turn, helps them gain more traction. What’s at issue here is really a lack of transparency: Facebook is presenting the Trending section as entirely organic, when in fact it’s curated.
This is, perhaps, not an enormous shock. But if Facebook truly wants its Trending section to be taken seriously as news, it needs to be more transparent about how that section is run.