Five Things to Know About Facebook’s Trending Controversy

New questions arise about how the world’s largest social network handles news

Trending Topics is a curated list of popular news stories on Facebook, derived from user discussions. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Trending Topics is a curated list of popular news stories on Facebook, derived from user discussions. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Facebook Inc. is defending itself against claims that workers excluded politically conservative news stories from the Trending Topics sections of the company’s apps and website. The allegations come as the chatter on Facebook—and the American news media—is being dominated by the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The claims also raise public concerns over the secretive procedures the world’s largest social network uses to present the news, and whether the company manipulates the news you see, either with humans or with computer algorithms.

Here are five things you need to know to understand the controversy.

What is Facebook accused of doing?

Gizmodo, the tech news website run by Gawker Media, published a story on Monday with accusations from a person identified as a former Facebook “news curator” that fellow curators kept news stories from appearing in Trending Topics. These stories primarily related to Republican politicians such as Mitt Romney and Rand Paul, and politically conservative news events including the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.

Gizmodo also reported that curators placed non-trending news stories into Trending Topics and excluded stories relating to Facebook itself. The curators, who were contractors, not employees, worked at Facebook from mid-2014 to December 2015, Gizmodo said.

How did Facebook respond?

Tom Stocky, who runs Facebook’s Trending Topics team, said late Monday in a public post on his Facebook account that his team has “found no evidence that the anonymous allegations are true.” Mr. Stocky argued—as Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg and other company executives have in the past—that Facebook is “a platform for people and perspectives from across the political spectrum.”

He added that there are guidelines in place to “ensure consistency and neutrality” and that those guidelines make the suppression of any political perspectives a fire-able offense. Mr. Stocky also said that in 2015 the “most talked-about subject on Facebook” was the election.

What is the Trending Topics list?

Trending Topics is a curated list of popular news stories on Facebook, derived from user discussions. It’s grouped by topic and shared to Facebook users in different ways. On a desktop or laptop Web browser, Trending Topics appears to the right of your newsfeed, in a box labeled “Trending.” In Facebook’s mobile apps, the only way to see Trending Topics is by tapping the search box at the top of the app. You’ll see a list of recent people you searched for, and suggested searches with Trending Topics mixed in.

In both cases, Trending Topics items are flagged with an upward-arrow logo. Clicking or tapping one will take you to a page where news stories, photos, videos and other content related to that topic are collected. Facebook’s Trending Topics were introduced in 2014.

How did conservatives respond?

In a letter to Mr. Zuckerberg, Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota expressed concern over how Facebook’s Trending Topics and general promotion of news stories works. “With over a billion daily active users on average, Facebook has enormous influence on users’ perceptions of current events, including political perspectives,” the senator wrote.

Mr. Thune—who is the chairman of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, tasked with addressing media issues and communication on the Internet—asked Mr. Zuckerberg to explain how its Trending Topics team is structured and who approves content that appears as trending and what the moderation guidelines are. He also asked whether the allegations in Gizmodo’s report are true, and what steps the company is taking to investigate the allegations.

Other conservative voices, like the popular right-wing blog RedState, have also expressed concerns. “It would not be tremendously surprising to any of us to learn that the behavior that is discussed in the Gizmodo article is occurring,” said Leon H. Wolf, RedState’s managing editor, in a statement. How news items are selected for promotion on Facebook “is mostly a matter of public mystery.”

Is this Facebook’s first news controversy?

While Facebook is now facing pressure and questions over Trending Topics, this isn’t the company’s first news-related fracas.

Facebook tweaks its News Feed at least once a year, and just about every time it does, a significant number of users and companies using Facebook are left scratching their heads, wondering how the changes affect them. These decisions made on a user’s behalf—particularly when perceived to reinforce certain interests and play down others—are what some refer to as the “filter bubble.”

Last year, Facebook published a much-discussed academic study in the journal Science, saying that individual sharing and clicking “had a stronger effect limiting exposure to [politically] cross-cutting content” than Facebook’s algorithms.

While Facebook is generally at the center of this criticism, it isn’t the only tech company deciding what content to surface to users. These algorithms are seen as a point of differentiation as social media companies compete for our attention. Google has an ever-changing algorithm for search; Twitter and Instagram have their own algorithms for their respective feeds, too.

[By NATHAN OLIVAREZ-GILES] [From Wall Street Journal] [Read More]