Monday afternoon, Facebook published a blog post about its artificial intelligence system, “FBLearner Flow,” which is “part of…highlighting trending topics,” among other things. Monday morning, Gizmodo published a follow-up to an exposé about why that artificial intelligence system is neither artificial nor particularly intelligent. Those quote-unquote trending topics, to which the average consumer, upon first encounter, gives a puzzled side-eye and then thinks, “Eh, must be an algorithm” — those quote-unquote trending topics are in fact a curated list designed to both make Facebook look perennially good and to censor particular ideologies.
Which ideologies, you ask? “Facebook workers routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers from the social network’s influential ‘trending’ news section, according to a former journalist who worked on the project,” Gizmodo reports. In hindsight, Facebook higher-ups must be collectively palming their faces: when you hire journalists to do your dirty work, those journalists — once you’re through with them — are going to report on said dirty work.
The gist of how the quote-unquote Trending section reportedly works is as follows: Facebook’s hired journalist hands, upon starting a workday, would be greeted with a trending stories lineup. These writers would themselves select stories that met their superiors’ requirements. If a story came from World Star Hip Hop, for instance, they’d ignore it. If a story was from a conservative source, they’d ignore it and seek out a more “neutral” — but read “less conservative” — outlet. (“Neutrality” is scarce, remember.) If a story was about Facebook, the writers would have to jump through several clearance hoops for permission to run it within the quote-unquote Trending section.
Here’s Gizmodo’s editor in chief, Michael Nunez, who broke these stories:
When stories about Facebook itself would trend organically on the network, news curators used less discretion—they were told not to include these stories at all. “When it was a story about [Facebook itself], we were told not to touch it,” said one former curator. “It had to be cleared through several channels, even if it was being shared quite a bit.”
Now that the jig is up, Facebook, with a heavy and painful dose of irony, did not altogether conceal the fact that this Gizmodo story is trending. It was, however, showing up low in the “Science & Technology” section of the quote-unquote Trending feed at time of writing, meaning Facebook users would need to go out of their way to encounter the information.
And here’s what Facebook’s writers wrote about the story, which presumably received numerous once- and twice- and thrice-overs from the social network’s big dogs:
Facebook Trending: Platform Suppresses News Topics From Conservative Media, Report Says
“Quoting unnamed sources said to be former employees, Gizmodo reported that Trending does not allow right wing news and news about Facebook itself. Facebook did not comment on the report.”
This newfound transparency should do little to clear Facebook’s conscience.
UPDATE: BuzzFeed News has published a statement it obtained from Facebook in which the social network claims, “There are rigorous guidelines in place for the [Trending Topics] review team to ensure consistency and neutrality.”