Facebook users have noticed this little tool added by the social media platform in the last couple years called the “Trend Box.” When we see that, we assume (remember what that word means in street language) that the stories presented there as “hot topics” are the ones that EVERYONE wants to see. After all, Facebook has this snazzy algorithm that does have the capacity to pick out what is being shared among the peasants, uh, users.
Well…as it happens, the Facebook “Trend Box” is actually set by humans. The people in those positions are called “curators” who were/are frequently journalists graduated from private universities on the east coast and the Ivy League, and their operation, according to whistleblowers who spoke to gizmodo.com on the condition of anonymity, actually resembles that of a real news room, human subjectivity, opinion and all.
Several former Facebook “news curators,” as they were known internally, also told Gizmodo that they were instructed to artificially “inject” selected stories into the trending news module, even if they weren’t popular enough to warrant inclusion—or in some cases weren’t trending at all. The former curators, all of whom worked as contractors, also said they were directed not to include news about Facebook itself in the trending module.
The former curators also claim that conservative topics were regularly excluded from the Trend Box even though they were being shared by the users more frequently than other news.
“Depending on who was on shift, things would be blacklisted or trending,” said the former curator. This individual asked to remain anonymous, citing fear of retribution from the company. The former curator is politically conservative, one of a very small handful of curators with such views on the trending team. “I’d come on shift and I’d discover that CPAC or Mitt Romney or Glenn Beck or popular conservative topics wouldn’t be trending because either the curator didn’t recognize the news topic or it was like they had a bias against Ted Cruz.”
This particular person began keeping a log, and topics that were excluded from the Trend Box – thus giving the world an inaccurate picture of what the people are reading and wanting to know – included former IRS official Lois Lerner, the Drudge Report, Red State, Gov. Scott Walker, and a lot more. Trending stories from conservative sites were only included if outlets such as the New York Times, CNN or the BBC covered it. What was put in the trending topics instead was either what the curators thought to be important, or a story that would appear on a critical mass of websites without a conservative flair. Essentially, the Facebook Trend Box curators acted as gate-keepers of information.
Several former curators described using something called an “injection tool” to push topics into the trending module that weren’t organically being shared or discussed enough to warrant inclusion—putting the headlines in front of thousands of readers rather than allowing stories to surface on their own. In some cases, after a topic was injected, it actually became the number one trending news topic on Facebook.
“We were told that if we saw something, a news story that was on the front page of these ten sites, like CNN, the New York Times, and BBC, then we could inject the topic,” said one former curator. “If it looked like it had enough news sites covering the story, we could inject it—even if it wasn’t naturally trending.” Sometimes, breaking news would be injected because it wasn’t attaining critical mass on Facebook quickly enough to be deemed “trending” by the algorithm. Former curators cited the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris as two instances in which non-trending stories were forced into the module.
The reason given in the article for this manipulation was competition with Twitter. If a topic was trending on Twitter, there was pressure to at least make it appear that it was trending on Facebook as well. The reality that the two platforms have different audiences and move at completely different speeds did not seem to come into play. Facebook big wigs wanted it to be known as a place where hard news was discussed.
“People stopped caring about Syria,” one former curator said. “[And] if it wasn’t trending on Facebook, it would make Facebook look bad.” That same curator said the Black Lives Matter movement was also injected into Facebook’s trending news module. “Facebook got a lot of pressure about not having a trending topic for Black Lives Matter,” the individual said. “They realized it was a problem, and they boosted it in the ordering. They gave it preference over other topics. When we injected it, everyone started saying, ‘Yeah, now I’m seeing it as number one’.”
Black Lives Matter was started on Facebook, and they had to manipulate things to get it to trend. Things that make you go hmm….
The subjectivity of the curator team, naturally, included excluding stories about Facebook itself that put the platform in a bad light.
“When it was a story about the company, we were told not to touch it,” said one former curator. “It had to be cleared through several channels, even if it was being shared quite a bit. We were told that we should not be putting it on the trending tool.”
Since the departure of all of the interviewed former curators several months have passed, and all of them claim there is no way to know how the process runs now, or how improved the algorithm is, but one thing did happen after the Gizmodo story appeared: it started to surface in the trend box with links to Red State and the Faith and Freedom Coalition at the top of the story list.
For more information on this topic, please visit Gizmodo.