What makes a "truly Holy S**t" story worthy of immediately dominating Facebook's trending news section, according to the company?
Facebook relies on 10 specific news outlets—which are all mainstream old media—to help it decide the importance of any given story, according to leaked documents obtained by The Guardian. Update: Facebook just posted its current guidelines; Buzzfeed News has replaced Yahoo on the 'most trusted' list and is now the only new media outlet on Facebook's top 10 list.
Motherboard has asked Yahoo if Facebook notified the company of the change. Yahoo did not immediately respond. Buzzfeed's Ben Smith told me that Facebook did not notify the company that it was on the list.
Since a Gizmodo report earlier this week that said the editors of Facebook's "trending" section have killed important conservative news stories and put important liberal ones at the top of the section, lots of people have been wondering: Do Facebook's journalists actually suppress conservative news? Does Facebook attempt to influence how news spreads throughout its site, and thus the internet as a whole?
The Guardian got its hands on a leaked version of Facebook's internal "Trending Review Guidelines," a 21-page document that lists best practices for what is allowed to go into the trending section. Lots of it is about how to source photos and videos and how to use the internal tech system Facebook has built for its trending section.
But, interestingly, Facebook relies on 10 specific news outlets to determine if a story is actually important.
Those outlets are BBC News, CNN, Fox News, The Guardian, NBC News, The New York Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Yahoo News (or Yahoo.com).
If a story is leading (i.e. if it's the most prominent story on the homepage) at least five of those outlets, it's classified as a "National Story," which often will get it marked as the top story on its trending section.
Facebook also has two higher levels of importance above "National Story:" A topic becomes a "Major Story" if it's leading at least seven of the 10 outlets, and "Nuclear" stories must lead all 10 outlets and be approved by an editor on the Facebook news team.
"Nuclear: Reserved for the truly "Holy S**t" stories that happen maybe 1-3 times a year," the guidelines say. "Leading all 10 websites AND requires editor approval before marking as 'nuclear.' Extreme examples are 9/11; major country's president is shot; Russia declares war with Ukraine, etc."
Of those news outlets, only Fox News and the Wall Street Journal are widely considered to be "conservative" news sources—but all of them are undoubtedly major mainstream news outlets.
These are all legacy old media, save for maybe Yahoo, which also has very old media tendencies. Most of Yahoo's top journalists, such as Katie Couric, come from old media, and Yahoo has been laying off many of the journalists it employs. What's left are stories reprinted from wire services such as Reuters, supplemented by some original reporting. Motherboard has reached out to Yahoo to learn how many journalists still work there. Update: Yahoo is no longer on the list. A Yahoo spokesperson told me that Yahoo has between 150 and 200 journalists around the world.
There's nothing specific in these particular guidelines that suggest Facebook is suppressing specific types of news as a matter of policy, which of course doesn't mean that it never happened.
Facebook also says that story summaries for all trending topics should be "corroborated by reporting from at least three Media 1K outlets." Facebook doesn't define in the guidelines what a "Media 1K outlet" is or whether there's a difference between a Media 1K outlet and the 10 news outlets the site considers to be the most trustworthy.
I asked Facebook the following questions in an email:
- How did you come up with the list of the 10 news outlets that can determine a "major," "national," or "nuclear" story? Was there one specific person who came up with this list? Do the companies on this list know that they are on this list?
- What is a "Media 1K Outlet?" Do you have a list of them? How are they determined?
- How does Facebook determine what is "clickbait?"
Facebook did not immediately respond. I will update the post if and when it responds. Update: Facebook has provided slightly more information in a blog post.
It's still a bit too early to make complete sense of what Facebook is doing with the trending news section and how outraged we should be. But, thanks to the Gizmodo reporting and these Guardian documents, we're learning that Facebook relies much more heavily on the journalists it hired to make editorial decisions about what goes on trending news, raising the question of to what degree the stories are truly "trending" on Facebook or whether it's simply a list of stories that have been hand picked by humans who work for Facebook.