Facebook launched the "Trending" section, which features trending news topics, in 2014. Much like on Twitter, the section would feature topics along with a short summary. Two years later, people who worked on the section have alleged that the social media giant suppressed and promoted certain topics irrespective of whether they were trending or not.
Gizmodo reported on Monday that several former Facebook workers were instructed by the company to "inject" certain topics and suppress right-wing and conservative stories, as well as ones about Mitt Romney, Rand Paul and other conservative figures.
The formers workers who were reportedly on contract with Facebook were also asked by the company not to allow stories about the company itself gather in the section.
The allegations made by the "news curators," as they were informally referred to, aren't that big a deal, as any news publication would do the same thing, taking an editorial call on what is relevant. Where things become a tad problematic is when one directs attention to Facebook's help section, where the company claims the Trending topics are personalised to users' tastes, taking into consideration "a number of factors including engagement, timeliness, Pages liked and location."
"It was absolutely bias. We were doing it subjectively. It just depends on who the curator is and what time of day it is, [sic]" Gizmodo quoted a curator as saying. The curator added that they were also instructed to prefer to present the points of view put forward by more neutral outlets over conservative ones.
According to Reuters, Facebook claims there are "rigorous guidelines in place" to maintain neutrality with regards to trending topics and that the guidelines do not prevent them to include or suppress topics.
After the report became public, Facebook's VP of Search Tom Stockey took to his Facebook account to deny the allegations.
"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. These guidelines do not permit the suppression of political perspectives. Nor do they permit the prioritisation of one viewpoint over another," Stockey wrote.
Gizmodo quoted one of the curators as saying that "Facebook got a lot of pressure about not having a trending topic for Black Lives Matter." Stockey said the allegation was looked into and found to be 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," Stockey wrote.
Whether or not these allegations are true, the company will surely not be viewed the same way by conservative users, especially during the ongoing presidential election season in the U.S.