Facebook denies political bias in hullabaloo over trending topics

10 May 2016517 Views

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. US conservatives are in uproar over allegations Facebook interferes with Trending Topics to support a liberal agenda. Facebook has denied the claims

Facebook has been forced to deny claims that it employed contractors to manipulate and suppress stories in trending topics of interest to Conservatives in the US.

Conservatives in the US have been riled up in recent days by reports claiming that Facebook contracted editors to suppress items from conservative news sources.

A report by Gizmodo, citing anonymous sources, has sparked claims that a liberal agenda is afoot at the tech giant.

‘We take these reports extremely seriously, and have found no evidence that the anonymous allegations are true’

Voices of alarm from myriad sources, including the Republican National Committee, The Drudge Report and Breitbart News, said the reports were “confirming what conservatives long suspected” – which is that Silicon Valley has a liberal bias and is manipulating the news.

Facebook is now a central force in US news consumption

Whether the claims have a grain of truth or not, there is no denying that Facebook is now a central force in terms of US media consumption.

Facebook’s vice-president of Search, Tom Stocky, has spoken out and denied reports that the social networking giant is in any way manipulating news or promoting a liberal agenda.

“We take these reports extremely seriously, and have found no evidence that the anonymous allegations are true,” Stocky said.

“Facebook is a platform for people and perspectives from across the political spectrum. There are rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality.

‘Facebook does not allow or advise our reviewers to systematically discriminate against sources of any ideological origin’

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“These guidelines do not permit the suppression of political perspectives. Nor do they permit the prioritisation of one viewpoint over another or one news outlet over another. These guidelines do not prohibit any news outlet from appearing in trending topics.

“Trending topics is designed to showcase the current conversation happening on Facebook. Popular topics are first surfaced by an algorithm, then audited by review team members to confirm that the topics are in fact trending news in the real world and not, for example, similar-sounding topics or misnomers.”

He said that, in 2015, the US general election was the most talked about subject on Facebook, and encouraging debate and discussion is what Facebook is all about.

“We have in place strict guidelines for our trending topic reviewers as they audit topics surfaced algorithmically: reviewers are required to accept topics that reflect real world events, and are instructed to disregard junk or duplicate topics, hoaxes, or subjects with insufficient sources.

“Facebook does not allow or advise our reviewers to systematically discriminate against sources of any ideological origin and we’ve designed our tools to make that technically not feasible. At the same time, our reviewers’ actions are logged and reviewed, and violating our guidelines is a fireable offense.”

Stocky pointed to other anonymous allegations that Facebook artificially forced ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter to trend.

“We looked into that charge and found that it is untrue. We do not insert stories artificially into trending topics, and do not instruct our reviewers to do so. Our guidelines do permit reviewers to take steps to make topics more coherent, such as combining related topics into a single event (such as ‪#‎starwars and‪#‎maythefourthbewithyou), to deliver a more integrated experience.

“Our review guidelines for trending topics are under constant review, and we will continue to look for improvements. We will also keep looking into any questions about trending topics to ensure that people are matched with the stories that are predicted to be the most interesting to them, and to be sure that our methods are as neutral and effective as possible,” Stocky said.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years