For almost three years, Facebook has pulled off an impressive balancing act. It has become one of the most powerful companies in media—the whims of its News Feed can determine the fate of whole news organizations—but it has never quite itself been a member of the press.
Its felicitous run may now have ended. In at least one non-negligible way, Facebook joined journalism’s dirty ranks this week, as the company found itself accused of having a liberal bias.
And perhaps it really does. A series of Gizmodo reports have raised new information about how the company’s “Trending” module works. “Trending” is the list of popular headlines that appears in the top right of Facebook.com; it also appears under the search bar in its ubiquitous mobile app. While many users believed that this module was compiled algorithmically, Gizmodo (and now The Guardian) have revealed that humans, working on contract for the company, guide its creation every step of the way. What’s more, these workers (often Ivy-educated twenty-somethings) “routinely suppressed conservative news,” according to the allegations of one former employee who talked to Gizmodo.
Facebook bills its platform as transparent and apolitical, so this could be disastrous (or at least embarrassing) for it. But as Kashmir Hill writes at Fusion, there isn’t yet definitive evidence that Facebook actually did routinely suppress conservative news. Instead, former employees and leaked corporate documents indicate the workers were told to to amplify news and stories from traditional or name-brand news organizations like CNN, Fox News, and The New York Times. At the same time, they were advised to avoid floating rumors or conspiracy theories from newer, less reliable, and ideologically slanted sites like Newsmax. (The Guardian and Gizmodo reports disagree about whether Breitbart, a far-right and factually unreliable news site, was a “trusted source” or a specifically untrusted one.)