After Repeated Denials, Facebook Now Admits its Employees Censored Targeted News Sites Like Natural News
Facebook recently admitted in a letter to John Thune, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, that news curators hired by the company had the power to decide which stories to highlight in the Trending Topics section of the site.
The company said that some of those contractors could have used their discretion to discriminate against stories based on their political bent. The company also did not dispute claims that news curators had avoided linking to certain news sites, such as Breitbart, instead waiting for the same story to appear in a larger outlet.
Facebook said that these editorial decisions did not reflect company policy, and that news curators would be retrained to eliminate bias.
Certain sites blacklisted
Allegations of censorship surfaced following a Gizmodo article in which anonymous Facebook news curators revealed that Trending Topics are not selected solely by computer algorithm. Instead, the computer generates a list of topics for curators, who decide which stories to post and then write headlines and summaries for them.
The curators told Gizmodo that different editors imposed very different standards for what stories passed muster.
“Depending on who was on shift, things would be blacklisted or trending,” one former curator said.
That source supplied Gizmodo with a list he had made, while working for Facebook, of trending stories on conservative political topics that had never made it onto the feed.
Curators also told Gizmodo that they avoided publishing news from certain websites, including World Star Hip Hop, The Blaze, Breitbart, Newsmax and Washington Examiner, until they found a larger outlet covering the same story. It is unclear which other sites, including Natural News, might have been censored by overzealous curators.
Gizmodo noted that it was unknown whether other curators had also censored news on liberal topics or from left-leaning websites.
Human element acknowledged
In its letter to Thune, Facebook acknowledged that the Trending Topics feed is not as automated as its name might imply.
“We currently use people to bridge the gap between what an algorithm can do today and what we hope it will be able to do in the future — to sort the meaningful trends from gibberish and duplicates, and to write headlines and descriptions in clear, natural-sounding language,” company counsel Colin Stretch wrote.
The company admitted that employees had the ability to “blacklist” a story for 24 hours, ostensibly to give them time to figure out whether the story was accurate and still current.
Facebook also announced new “controls and oversight” to help eliminate bias. It said it would eliminate certain policies that had made biased curating more likely.
Among the policies to be eliminated is the ability of curators to decide that a source is unreliable, as well as a list of 10 mainstream news outlets (including Fox News, Buzz Feed, CNN and the New York Times) that could be used to judge whether a story was important.
But the company insisted that there was no “systematic political bias” at work. It said it had conducted a review of seven different topics that critics said were censored, and concluded that the topics had received just as much coverage, over time, as other news stories.