Facebook's TrendingGate: What you need to know

Facebook’s newest controversy, TrendingGate, has seen the network accused of suppressing conservative news, despite Mark Zuckerberg’s assurances otherwise.

Facebook doesn’t have a good history with net neutrality. Before the latest storm around TrendingGate occurred, the social network’s Free Basics offering – which provides free internet access to specific partner services in certain regions – was booted out of India on the grounds that it served an unfavourable advantage to businesses that had partnered with the platform.

The Free Basics conundrum

While to some that might spell simple capitalism, it’s worthwhile to look at the facts. In data starved economies such as India – or even South Africa – Facebook’s Free Basics offering not only goes above and beyond the ability of government or internet service providers to offer access to content,  it has the potential to usher massive shifts in the use of social media, business services, or even the news.
Read: Free Basics by Facebook launches in Cape Town
Facebook began rolling out its new Trending feature earlier last year, which introduced a means for users to stay abreast of trending news topics from within Facebook’s presence on the web, as well as its mobile apps. While to some this is an added convenience of using the social network, for news agencies and media houses the ramifications are massive: writers can now reach a greater audience on the platform by writing around what Facebook says is trending, instead of providing insightful, relevant content for their own established audiences instead.

Serving up the news?

Truthfully, Facebook’s use of its Trending feature might not have caused such a stir if its introduction of Instant Articles had not compounded the problem.
Instant Articles, much like Google’s Accelerated Mobile Page project, introduces a new means for publishers to punt their work directly on Facebook’s mobile apps. The premise is this: agencies and media houses create stripped down, fast-loading articles that render within Facebook’s own app. Users stay inside the Facebook app to read third party content, and in turn, media houses are able to reach a wider constituency of individuals.
Again, on its own, Instant Articles is worthwhile addition to the platform; it increases Facebook’s own retention while serving readers a far more data-amicable page. However, studies by publishers aboard the platform have revealed significant dips in their own traffic following their conversion to the Instant Articles standard.
Between these two distant initiatives, Facebook’s newfound control over the media is troubling; the social network has managed to tether strings over the fourth estate, and now TrendingGate has seen the company accused of suppressing conservative American news.

The great suppression

With the run up to elections in the United States well underway, the implications of Facebook actively hiding conservative news are beyond count; not only now does net neutrality and media integrity run the risk of being compromised, but the potential to influence the minds of voters in one of the most anticipated elections in history is unparalleled.
TrendingGate itself first broke when Michael Nunez, Technology Editor of Gizmodo, published a piece detailing how former Facebook workers were told to suppress conservative news from the site’s Trending section.
Read Michael Nunez’ piece here
Citing the editorial decisions made by the Trending team, Nunez writes of his source that “this individual says that workers prevented stories about the right-wing CPAC gathering, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, and other conservative topics from appearing in the highly-influential section, even though they were organically trending among the site‘s users.”
Nunez cites that Facebook internal referred to their team internally as “news curators”, and “were instructed to artificially “œinject“ 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.”
Read: Facebook allegedly developing a standalone live video app
The implication of these allegations is that Facebook possesses its own internal newsroom which is capable of editorially selecting news stories from data gleaned from Facebook’s open graph – or ignoring them altogether.

A dangerous editorial precedent

The Trending sections within the Facebook app sees human writers create headlines and summaries for news stories, as well as link to news sites. Whether TrendingGate allegations prove true or not, that specific team of writers and editors holds some of the most powerful capital in the news industry; holding captive some 167 million Facebook users in the United States alone.
Nunez’ source details that “œDepending on who was on shift, things would be blacklisted or trending… 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.“
The TrendingGate controversy further touches on news surrounding Facebook as a company itself: one of Nunez’ sources states that “œWhen it was a story about the company, we were told not to touch it… 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.“
Read: Facebook unveils 10-year plan to expand its empire
With an unspoken monopoly over news sources, Facebook’s control of the media is fundamentally dangerous – regardless of whether the alleged team of journalists exercised any form of editorial control over the site’s Trending section. Between Facebook’s potential for control of vulnerable markets with Free Basics, or its use of news material as in-app content with Instant Articles, the company has a larger ethical issue on its hands than is presently being expressed.

The Facebook response

In response to TrendingGate allegations, Facebook’s Vice President of Search, Tom Stocky, wrote that “Trending Topics is designed to showcase the current conversation happening on Facebook. Popular topics are first surfaced by an algorithm, then audited by review team members to confirm that the topics are in fact trending news in the real world and not, for example, similar-sounding topics or misnomers.”
Stocky continued to state that “Our review guidelines for Trending Topics are under constant review, and we will continue to look for improvements. We will also keep looking into any questions about Trending Topics to ensure that people are matched with the stories that are predicted to be the most interesting to them, and to be sure that our methods are as neutral and effective as possible.”
Mark Zuckerberg himself wrote in an open Facebook post that “Trending Topics is designed to surface the most newsworthy and popular conversations on Facebook. We have rigorous guidelines that do not permit the prioritization of one viewpoint over another or the suppression of political perspectives.”
Read Mark Zuckerberg’s full post here
This week, there was a report suggesting that Facebook contractors working on Trending Topics suppressed stories with conservative viewpoints. We take this report very seriously and are conducting a full investigation to ensure our teams upheld the integrity of this product. We have found no evidence that this report is true. If we find anything against our principles, you have my commitment that we will take additional steps to address it.
Read: Zuckerberg aiming for 5 billion people on Facebook by 2030
While Zuckerberg has addressed the acute symptom of Facebook’s news problem, the fact remains that the social network has cultivated a wider news monopoly than perhaps it ever imagined was possible. Speaking on change, Zuckerberg continued his post to state that “In the coming weeks, I’ll also be inviting leading conservatives and people from across the political spectrum to talk with me about this and share their points of view. I want to have a direct conversation about what Facebook stands for and how we can be sure our platform stays as open as possible.”

A symptom of change

Regardless of whether media practitioners around the world will admit it, Facebook’s coming conversation around openness will be one of the most important discussions around journalism in years. With over 1 billion active users, Facebook is no longer just the world’s largest social network: it’s become the world’s biggest platform for news sharing.
In between the company’s focus on free data offerings, Instant Article news and now what TrendingGate has revealed, the company needs to begin an internal dialogue of how it will proceed to shape a changing worldwide media industry. The power Facebook has already exercised in establishing itself as a news platform is indissoluble.

Have your say!

What are your thoughts and perspectives on TrendingGate? How can Facebook steer towards a more earnest news platform? Let us know in the comments below!
Follow Bryan Smith on Twitter: @bryansmithSA