Report: Facebook IS using editors to decide what’s “trending.”

So, Is US Senator John Thune justified in calling for a review of how Facebook does business? Well, there’s an interesting report out today, complete with leaked papers from Facebook itself:

The documents, given to the Guardian, come amid growing concerns over how John_Thune,_official_portrait,_111th_Congress
Facebook decides what is news for its users. This week the company was accused of an editorial bias against conservative news organizations, prompting calls for a congressional inquiry from the US Senate commerce committee chair, John Thune.

The boilerplate about its news operations provided to customers by the company suggests that much of its news gathering is determined by machines: “The topics you see are based on a number of factors including engagement, timeliness, Pages you’ve liked and your location,” says a page devoted to the question “How does Facebook determine what topics are trending?”

But the documents show that the company relies heavily on the intervention of a small editorial team to determine what makes its “trending module” headlines – the list of news topics that shows up on the side of the browser window on Facebook’s desktop version. The company backed away from a pure-algorithm approach in 2014 after criticism that it had not included enough coverage of unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, in users’ feeds.

The guidelines show human intervention – and therefore editorial decisions – at almost every stage of Facebook’s trending news operation, a team that at one time was as few as 12 people:

A team of news editors working in shifts around the clock was instructed on how to “inject” stories into the trending topics module, and how to “blacklist” topics for removal for up to a day over reasons including “doesn’t represent a real-world event”, left to the discretion of the editors.

Read the entire report here.

24 thoughts on “Report: Facebook IS using editors to decide what’s “trending.”

  1. Kevin W. Nelson

    Thank God Republicans have begun to see a double-standard in what makes news News. Conservatives have seen it for decades. For instance, during the last legislative session, the Argus Leader dedicated a large photo and story of trans-gender people protesting the recently passed trans-gender bathroom bill. The story was only one-sided. Same thing on KELO and KSRY. About 12 people on the photo, Nothing from majorities of legislators. Like what Donald Trump said, “We don’t have time for political correctness.”

  2. crossgrain

    Healthcare, unemployment, ISIS, zika, immigration, tax reform…. and he’s worried about Facebook. Government over-reach in action. Good one, Johnny.

  3. Bright Ideas

    Not a single conservative has adequately explained the difference between this Facebook situation and Fox News advertising the tagline “fair and balanced”. While one may be vaguely misleading the other is an outright lie.

    *necessary disclaimer, I think it is ok for Fox News to do their thing, just as it is for Facebook.

  4. Wayne Gilbert

    The specific point-by-point plan to replace the ACA has once again been postponed so that more important issues can be addressed. Twitter is next. I don’t know anyone except John Thune who actually pays a whit of attention to the “trending news” that shows up on the Facebook screen. Now we know what it is that Senator Thune is actually doing at his desk.

  5. Bright Ideas

    Buehler? Buehler? Traffic either non existent here or there is just no defense for this moronic political ploy when faced with even a single contradictory example.

  6. Troy Jones

    Bright ideas:

    If Facebook is representing this is an objective measurable representation of what is trending, the use of subjective use of censored is a conscious misrepresentation.

    News sources have limited time and thus must censor what they cover.

    If you needed me to point out this difference, you have an impediment to understand the obvious.

    1. crossgrain

      I bought some Chewy Chips Ahoy cookies the other day. The package clearly stated “Now Better Tasting!”

      They taste pretty much the same, in fact, I think they’re skimping on the chocolate chips. Call the FBI! Convene the Senate! Alert the Pentagon! This madness must STOP!

  7. Troy Jones

    Crossgrain,

    I presume you really aren’t that stupid but maybe I’m wrong. So I will explain, there is a difference between a subjective statement and an objective statement.

    A company is free to make subjective statements under the condition they aren’t truthful (“We make the best pizza” is usually acceptable ok but not if it isn’t pizza or it is made with ingredients that kill). A company is not free to claim it is ISO certified when they are not (objectively not true).

    Facebook’s trends OBJECTIVELY imply this is what its users are following/commenting on. Now we find out this objective “trend” (measurable and defined) is not objective.

    If Facebook discloses their trends are what they think are significant, I’m all for it. But, currently they represent it is what their users think are significant. An OBJECTIVE misrepresentation.

    But, hey, if you want to defend factual and indisputable dishonesty, go right ahead.

    1. crossgrain

      Uh huh. See, there’s the rub, innit? You rage about truth and honesty, but then you take an anonymous source quoted by Gizmodo (lol – a Gawker company – lol), and ascribe to it the full weight of truth and honesty? Dude, Gizmodo and Gawker are pretty much a joke when it comes to “credible” news sources. FFS, Gizmodo has a long-standing vendetta against FB, for instance: http://gizmodo.com/5912827/well-pay-you-for-photos-of-mark-zuckerberg, and Gawker Media is really not much more than an electronic version of The National Enquirer. So sorry that you and Johnny McEmptysuit aren’t savvy enough to discern the difference between actual tech media and click-bait garbage like Gizmodo.

      Wired (a marginally more credible source, and talking directly with a decidedly non-anonymous Mark Zuckerberg) had this to say, “In order for a topic to be eligible for Trending Topics, it must be surfaced by the company’s algorithms, based on how much engagement it’s getting. Then, the editorial team vets those topics to make sure that, for instance, they’re cited by multiple trustworthy sources and are tied to real events.” See, once people get involved, ‘objectivity’ goes straight out the window. I don’t really know why you would assume that FB only used some sort of algorithm to determine trending topics, since FB has NEVER said anything of the sort. Even then, wouldn’t an algorithm need to be programmed by humans? If so, what guarantee do you have that the programmers didn’t include some sort of bias?

      At the end of the day, there is NO SUCH THING as a truly objective news source, since news is in and of itself, a human invention. Also, for the love of whichever deity you so choose, quit taking anything Gizmodo and Gawker Media have to say as objective truth – and include Facebook while you’re at it.

      1. Anonymous

        Wasting your time debating with the Republican Excuse Maker in Chief. Or maybe it should Republican Spinster in Chief.

  8. Troy Jones

    Crossgrain:

    If it ends up that this is true (“In order for a topic to be eligible for Trending Topics, it must be surfaced by the company’s algorithms, based on how much engagement it’s getting. Then, the editorial team vets those topics to make sure that, for instance, they’re cited by multiple trustworthy sources and are tied to real events.”) AND the editorial intervention doesn’t require

    1) Intentional standards of “trustworthy source” which favors liberal news over conservative news and

    2) higher multiples of verification for conservative messages

    the investigation of Facebook will be to Facebook’s benefit.

    1. crossgrain

      Cripes. It’s FACEBOOK. This does NOT require a Senate investigation. I’m worked into a lather because the government has no business digging into FB trending topics when there are literally MILLIONS of more important things to do.

      YOU are worked into a lather over FACEBOOK. God. You’re worse than my kids. Maybe it’s time to outside and play, Troy.

  9. Bright Ideas

    …But to America’s detriment as we waste taxpayer money and valuable time and focus in Washington When the hell did conservatives flip on large government interfering in private businesses??

    Troy Jones, your attempt to defend cable news is valiant but fallacious. Facebook also has limited space, actual, physical space limitations in terms of the articles they can place in the trending stories section. Also, the term trending is, by its definition, completely subjective and definable by Facebook. It does not say “top 10 shared stories in the last hour” or anything more specific than “trending” that alone implies some sort of further, unseen by the public, paring down of all the stories that could be, and then are eventually, seen in that section. Finally, the stories that end up in the trending section can be discussed and argued about, at the very source, without Facebook hindering (they are actually enabling) the conversation, thus ensuring that everyone’s voice CAN be heard if one so chooses, thanks to Facebook.

    Cable news, on the other hand, takes the same editorial license as it decides which stories to air and cover over a given 24 hours, which they have complete control over. They go a step further in defining the system they use in that editorial process by hammering home the tagline “fair and balanced”. A consumer is much more misled switching to fox news and assuming that what they are watching has no poilitcal leanings, as the term fair and balanced suggests, than they are going to trending topics and assuming its a general collection of popular things that have been happening. Also, and more damagingly to the consumer (because that is why the federal government is getting involved right?) Is that after a cable news channel with the tagline fair and balanced, isnt that in its editorial selection process, they compound the problem by then hiring pundits, hosts, and analysts to the intepret those stories for the people watching, instead of allowing them to decide for themselves what they think, and certainly not to offer their own opinion, or hear other like theirs if they disagree with what is being said. This one sided discussion is anything but fair and balanced and a consumer looking for that would be much better served going to facebook and the trending topics feed. EVEN IF facebook were promoting liberal stories (and they arent) over conservative ones, they are still ethically and democratically miles ahead of fox news by not claiming they are “fair and balanced” and by allowing dissenting opinions and discussions of every topic, by every person, regardless of the political leanings of either.

  10. Troy Jones

    Bright Idea:

    Fox News clearly has editorial power and they do not deny it.

    All I want to know: Is Facebook’s claim they don’t exercise editorial power based on the ideology of the message of what they list as trending true or not? I don’t care what the answer so much as I just want the answer.

  11. Bright Ideas

    Troy, they dont deny they have editorial power, they deny they use it with political motivations when they use the tagline “fair and balanced” making it very clear they mislead their consumer.

    If the answer doesnt matter legally, I will ask again why the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT needs to conduct and inquiry, investigation, witch hunt, or whatever you want to call this.

  12. Troy Jones

    Bright Ideas,

    Are you saying that the news (Shep Smith in afternoon and America’s Newsroom in am) on Fox isn’t “fair and balanced” or their opinion/analysis shows aren’t “fair and balanced?” There is a difference.

    All in all, I watch MSNBC’s Kate Snow, CNN Newsroom, and Fox’s Shep & America’s Newsroom and think in general they do a good job of giving the news fairly and succinctly. Sidenote: I don’t watch the major network news shows because too much of their news is soft news and they come on at a time it is inconvenient.

  13. Bright Ideas

    I’m saying Fox News, as a whole, in a 24 hour period is much more misleading with the tagline “fair and balanced” than Facebook is with its articles under the “trending topics” section, even if the unnamed and quickly being discredited sources claiming a political bias are factual.

    Here are some solid, factual numbers

    http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/01/14/five-facts-about-fox-news/

    2 points in the article deal directly with this thread. MSNBC is more partisan than Fox News, but neither should be using the moniker fair and balanced to describe ANY of their programming.

    You also neglect to discuss the part where facebook facilitates conversation from anyone, regardless of their political view, on the trending topics. Fox news has the conversation for its viewers, making its political bias inherently much more dangerous.

    I just want to be clear on your position here, you think Facebook (a private company) calling a collection of popular articles that they may or may not edit “trending” because its possibly harmfully misleading to its consensual users. But the tagline fair and balanced to describe an openly, statisticall partisan news channel is less damaging or potentially misleading to the same consumers?