On Facebook’s Influence Over the News Cycle and What it Means for Media

Over the weekend, reports surfaced that Facebook has been manipulating their ‘Trending News’ section to make certain stories appear more or less prominently, dependent on the direction of Facebook’s editorial team.

The claims stem from a report on Gizmodo in which they interviewed a group of former contractors who worked on Facebook’s ‘trending news’ team - a group of around 12 or so young journalists who select which news storied get featured in Facebook’s prominently featured ‘Trending’ news section.

In the report, the former staffers described their role, saying that their duties consisted of reading through a list of trending mentions each day, as highlighted by Facebook’s algorithm. The team would then connect those mentions to relevant, current news stories and work out which were the biggest issues of discussion across the platform. The team would then write headlines for each of the topics, along with a three-sentence summary, and they’d choose an image to link to it.

“The news curator also chooses the “most substantive post” to summarize the topic, usually from a news website. The former contractors Gizmodo interviewed said they were asked to write neutral headlines, and encouraged to promote a video only if it had been uploaded to Facebook. They were also told to select articles from a list of preferred media outlets that included sites like the New York Times, Time, Variety, and other traditional outlets.”

All of that makes sense, at least to some degree, but the more troubling claims stem from the suggestion that Facebook's editors would regularly tamper with the news headlines, inserting stories they felt should be trending and blacklisting issues they didn’t want on the network. Those claims were further reinforced by additional former team members who came forward with similar details after the initial reports surfaced – one even shared a list of the stories that Facebook’s editorial team blacklisted over time:
“Among the deep-sixed or suppressed topics on the list: former IRS official Lois Lerner, who was accused by Republicans of inappropriately scrutinizing conservative groups; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; popular conservative news aggregator the Drudge Report; Chris Kyle, the former Navy SEAL who was murdered in 2013; and former Fox News contributor Steven Crowder.”

Reactions to the report have been mixed – and it’s worth noting that Facebook has strongly denied any claims of editorial tampering, saying that they have “rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality”.

But whether that’s true or not, the discussion is worth having - Facebook has a hugely influential role in the way we consumer media and how we’re kept informed about the happenings within our world. But Facebook’s also an independent company, they can publish whatever they want, and given this, we need to take into consideration the role the platform plays in our media process – and how they could, theoretically or not, use that position to gain advantage.

In December last year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg published a post on his Facebook Page in response to US Presidential Candidate Donald Trump’s controversial call to ban Muslims from entering the United States.

At the time, BuzzFeed journalist Alex Kantrowitz raised a question about Zuckerberg’s opposition to Trump, noting that Facebook could, if it wanted to - if Zuckerberg felt strongly enough - make it much harder for Trump to actually take office:
“The company could remove Trump, or his posts, from the platform, and effectively become a censor of political speech. The company’s statement, which said it’s looking at this content on a case by case basis, already implies that this is an option.” 

As per their claims on editorial tampering, Facebook has said that it won't suppress Trump’s voice on the platform or interfere with the political process, but the fact is it could.

Some of you may be reading about the claims of manipulation and thinking “yeah, but it’s just Facebook, it’s not the only source of news”. And that’s true, but Facebook's proven in the past that it’s able to sway the political process significantly, even through the simple act of boosting a message.

Back in 2010, around 340,000 extra voters turned out to take part in the US Congressional elections because of a single election-day Facebook message. This is not speculation, this is based on researcher findings.

The process they used to determine this was relatively simple:

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