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The Bizarre Obsessions and Biases That Rule Facebook's Trending News

A recently leaked report reveals it's not algorithms that control Facebook's trending news scroll—it's people. And those people have some very specific interests and blind spots.

by Chris Chafin
May 17 2016, 5:20pm

Image via Stocksy/MOSUNO

It's been a rough week for Facebook. In the wake of allegations published by Gizmodo that the site routinely omitted conservative political stories from its trending news module, the social network has been attacked by Republicans and received some negative attention from Congress, in addition to getting a ton of bad press.

In the wake of all this, Facebook has released an updated and modified version of the guidelines leaked to the Guardian for editors shaping the trending news section (the Guardian's version is 21 pages; Facebook's is 28). Still, given how thoroughly Facebook has closed ranks since this scandal started, it's very difficult to get hard data on the actual people currently working on the trending team (Facebook did not reply to a request for comment). So perhaps the best way to examine the team's structure and biases is to look at its holy texts: those guidelines released this week.

The guidelines lay out in great detail how an employee on the trending team should perform her job, describing how to turn trending topics on Facebook into properly formatted, grammatically correct headlines for the trending widget, which sits in the top right corner of the feeds of the company's 1.59 billion monthly active users. While the guidelines are very thorough in some respects, they are also a bit bizarre, full of obsessions, biases, and blind spots.

A portrait of its author(s) emerges fairly quickly: They're totally obsessed with sports. Almost all questions are answered with references to sports, and sports are specifically addressed as the object of trending topics more than anything else. Relatedly, page 16 in the Guardian version, which contains mentions of Hillary Clinton, Shirley Manson, and Tyra Banks, is the only place in the entire document that acknowledges the existence of women.

There are almost two entire pages explaining how to properly write the title of a trending topic about sports games, diving into an unusually deep level of complexity. There are specific directions for updating the topic during and after the game—one must make sure to write the home team second—and more. There are no similar directions about elections, mass shootings, natural disasters, police violence, or any of the other almost innumerable events that make up the news. As an example of how to build a topic related to multiple locations, the document uses "New York Yankees: Team's Bronx, NY, Stadium Closed for 3 Days Due to Rodents Infestation," an event I strongly hope is real but which seems to be invented

Almost all questions are answered with references to sports, and sports are specifically addressed as the object of trending topics more than anything else.

This isn't terribly surprising. According to its own diversity statistics, Facebook is an overwhelmingly white, male place. Its US staff is 55 percent white and, around the globe, 68 percent male. This picture is even worse among its senior leadership, which is 73 percent white. Among its non-technical staff, however, the gender outlook brightens somewhat, with women barely eking out a majority at 52 percent, though that workforce is somehow even whiter: 62 percent white, 24 percent Asian, 7 percent Hispanic, and just 3 percent black.

What about the trending news team, specifically? Based in New York, it is made up of slightly more than two dozen journalists. According to someone with knowledge of the ethnic makeup of the trending team who requested anonymity for fear of retribution from the company, it is actually markedly diverse, featuring an unusual-for-Facebook balance of gender and backgrounds.

Without coming out and explicitly saying this, Mark Zuckerberg hinted at it in his statement earlier this week. His words were made available as a note on his Facebook wall, making it probably the year's first tech CEO announcement not published on Medium. He writes:

Facebook stands for giving everyone a voice. We believe the world is better when people from different backgrounds and with different ideas all have the power to share their thoughts and experiences. That's what makes social media unique. We are one global community where anyone can share anything -- from a loving photo of a mother and her baby to intellectual analysis of political events.

Facebook seems to have been operating under the impression that it could control what news its users read in a way that didn't involve bias or controversy. It wanted to harvest and promote stories without ever inserting anything its users could seriously be upset about. Sports news is the platonic ideal of this kind of topic. It's something about which a vast global audience gets unreasonably excited, and it requires no editorial judgment.

Sports also neatly meets Facebook's requirement that a trending topic relates to "an event in the real world." While this seems simple enough, many issues in the news are epistemologically complex depending on your politics. Is ongoing police racism "an event in the real world"? What about a Republican conspiracy to close Planned Parenthood clinics? What about Barack Obama's secret plans to confiscate all guns? While some people could argue about the veracity of those, the fact that two basketball teams played basketball against each other isn't really up for debate. It definitely actually happened.

In the past, Facebook did its best to hide behind the general public's math phobia, sagely assuring us that everything it did was based on its infallible algorithms. The truth is, people are involved at every stage, even in writing algorithms. Those people get to make reality. And some of those people really, really like sports.

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