Leak reveals Facebook’s behind-the-scenes ‘trending’ editorial process

Brittany A. Roston - May 12, 2016, 1:55 pm CDT
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Leak reveals Facebook’s behind-the-scenes ‘trending’ editorial process

Following a recent report suggesting that Facebook suppressed conservative news stories from its Trending Topics box (and the subsequent political fallout), someone has leaked internal company documents that reveal human editors greatly aid in determining what stories you’ll see trending on the site — not just algorithms as Facebook hints. The team is said to be small, and has powers including the ability to “inject” and “blacklist” stories and topics.

The Guardian says it recently acquired the documents, and that they shed light on the human element that tweaks and adjusts Facebook’s “Trending” news section found on users’ news feeds.

At one point, the social network did leave the news selection process up to algorithms — criticism about the apparent lack of Ferguson news stories, though, prompted the social network to make a change in 2014, adding an editorial team that, according to the documents, was at one point comprised of less than a dozen people. According to Guardian, Facebook “relies heavily” on this team, and has bestowed them with considerable powers.

Because algorithms won’t always get things quite right, the editorial team can ‘inject’ specific stories into the Trending section at their discretion — things they think should be there but that algorithms may have missed, such as those aforementioned Ferguson stories. As well, the editors are able to ‘blacklist’ certain topics picked up by the algorithms that aren’t “a real-world event,” among other (unspecified) reasons.

As well, Facebook depends on a relatively small number of high-authority news sources to determine whether a story is valid and trending; those sources are CNN, BBC News, Fox News, The Guardian, NBC News, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Yahoo News/Yahoo.

Things considered a “National Story” must be in the top three stories for the day as determined by its leading presence in a minimum of five of the above publications.

Don’t expect the documents to put the political-bias accusations to rest. As shown, the editors can inject stories as they see fit, and can also decide to exclude ones at their discretion. As well, the argument will likely surface that Facebook heavily skews toward more liberal publications than conservative ones when determining which stories are authoritative and trending — Fox News is the only heavily-conservative publication on the list, after all.

In a statement following the initial allegations, Facebook’s Tom Stocky, head of the social network’s Trending Topics team, said:

We take these reports extremely seriously, and have found no evidence that the anonymous allegations are true … There are rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality. These guidelines do not permit the suppression of political perspectives. Nor do they permit the prioritization 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.


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