Facebook Trending Topics: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

Facebook (on trending topics) is now facing criticism all around for the allegations that it silencing conservative viewpoints, and the pressure is so great that CEO Mark Zuckerberg is trying to do damage control by inviting conservatives to share their views. In response, conservative news outlet Breitbart’s tech editor, Milo Yiannopoulos has challenged him to a debate via a YouTube video.

Facebook Trending Topics: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
Source: Pixabay

Facebook releases Trending guidelines

The flap started with Gizmodo’s article sourced from a former Facebook employee who claimed that editors in the social network’s Trending team routinely favor liberal viewpoints while burying conservatives. Then The Guardian revealed that the company’s own editorial guidelines allow editors to “inject” topics of their choosing, and Facebook went on to officially publish those guidelines, which do indeed allow for this.

And so Facebook has a huge problem. It wants in on the news business even though its primary function is as a social network. The onus of being fair and balanced is perhaps even greater on Facebook because it has situated itself in a precarious position. No one accuses NBC of being too liberal or Fox News of being too conservative because this comes as no surprise to anyone, but then these are strict media outlets and not organizations attempting to be in two place at one time.

A “social network” should be a platform where all views are heard and shared, but anytime you have a human editor, there is the opportunity to shape what the audience sees or reads. Facebook claims that the use of algorithms combined with human editors creates a sort of checks-and-balances system, but does it really?

Has Facebook set itself up to fail?

One point that I haven’t seen a lot about is the fact that so many major media outlets lean to the left. Other than Fox News, almost every other mainstream news outlet tends to be more liberal (whether they will admit it or not). In other words, Facebook’s computer algorithms have a built-in liberal engine that feeds the company’s editorial team.

And this is more than anecdotal evidence. The 1986 book The Media Elite by Robert Lichter, Stanley Rothman and Linda Lichter conducted a survey of journalists at major U.S. media outlets and found that most journalists were left-leaning Democratic voters. The more recent book Press Bias and Politics by Jim A. Kuypers contains newer findings that also indicated that American mainstream media usually favors liberal viewpoints. There have also been several other studies which seem to indicate that the American media tends to be very liberal.

Facebook mostly favors liberal news sources

Right now you’re saying that there are plenty of non-mainstream media outlets that favor conservative viewpoints, but consider this list from Facebook’s own editorial guidelines. The Trending team is told to use these media outlets as a sort of measuring stick when determining which stories are important: the BBC (liberal); CNN (liberal); Fox News (conservative); The Guardian (liberal); NBC (liberal); The New York Times (liberal); The Wall Street Journal (mixed to slightly conservative); The Washington Post (liberal); USA Today (mixed); BuzzFeed News (mixed).

Of this list, only Fox News is strictly conservative, while six of them tend to lean to the left and the others are known for mixed viewpoints or being rather fair and balanced, but this clearly means that Facebook is scraping news from sources that are mostly liberal when taken together. The chart here shows how liberal the mainstream media tends to be as well based on whether liberals or conservatives trust the various media outlets, putting this concept into pictures.

We have reached out to Facebook for a comment on this story and will update this page if one is received.

Facebook press release on trending topics issue below:

At Facebook, we stand for connecting every person — for a global community, for bringing people together, for giving all people a voice, for a free flow of ideas and culture across nations.

One of the most powerful ways people connect is around major events — in their communities and in the larger world. People also connect through conversations on the topics they are most interested in.

At its core, Trending Topics is designed to help people discover major events and meaningful conversations. Trending Topics is a feature we added in 2014 — separate from a person’s News Feed — to help people discover content that is both popular in the world and meaningful to them. Topics that are eligible to appear in the product are surfaced by our algorithms, not people. This product also has a team of people who play an important role in making sure that what appears in Trending Topics is high-quality and useful.

The Trending Topics team is governed by a set of guidelines meant to ensure a high-quality product, consistent with Facebook’s deep commitment to being a platform for people of all viewpoints. Our goal has always been to deliver a valuable experience for the people who use our service. The guidelines demonstrate that we have a series of checks and balances in place to help surface the most important popular stories, regardless of where they fall on the ideological spectrum. Facebook does not allow or advise our reviewers to discriminate against sources of any political origin, period. Here are the guidelines we use.

Here is an overview of how Trending Topics works:

Surfaced by algorithm
Potential Trending Topics are first surfaced by an algorithm that identifies topics that have recently spiked in popularity on Facebook (in other words, ones that have a high volume of mentions and a sharp increase in mentions over a short period of time). The Trending Topics algorithm also uses an external RSS website crawler to identify breaking events so that we can connect people to conversations on Facebook about newsworthy events as quickly as possible. A list of included websites is available here.

Reviewed by the Trending Topics team
Members of the Trending team look at potential Trending Topics as they are surfaced by the algorithm and do the following:

  • Confirm that the topic is tied to a current news event in the real world (for example, the topic “#lunch” is talked about during lunch every day around the world, but will not be a trending topic).
  • Write a topic description with information that is corroborated by reporting from at least three of a list of more than a thousand media outlets. A list of these media outlets is available here.
  • Apply a category label to the topic (e.g. sports, science) to help with personalized ranking and to enable suggestions grouped by category for the various tabs on the desktop version.
  • Check to see whether the topic is national or global breaking news that is being covered by most or all of ten major media outlets— and if it is, the topic is given an importance level that may make the topic more likely to be seen. A list of these outlets is available in the guidelines.

The list of Trending Topics is then personalized for each user via an algorithm that relies on a number of factors, including the importance of the topic, Pages a person