A Quinnipiac University survey that shows Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton effectively tied in the swing states of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania may be the biggest political story of the day, but it’s not currently a trending topic under any of Facebook’s trending categories.
Former George W. Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer first pointed out the glaring omission on Twitter.
I wonder if the Quinnipiac poll showing Trump even w Hillary in FL, OH and PA is trending on Facebook.
— Ari Fleischer (@AriFleischer) May 10, 2016
The answer, of course, is no. The question is, why not?
On Monday the tech site Gizmodo called into question Facebook’s claim that their “Trending Topics” feature is a “neutral pipeline for news.” While it was designed to showcase the current conversation happening on Facebook, former employees said personal bias often entered into the process so that conservative topics were suppressed, and conservative news sources blacklisted. “Depending on who was on shift, things would be blacklisted on trending,” said a former curator. “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.”
Interestingly, back in March, some Facebook employees used a company poll to ask CEO Mark Zuckerberg whether the company should try “to help prevent President Trump in 2017.”
And now we have a major Trump headline, which made the cover of Drudge and countless other websites and is certainly one of the top political stories being discussed on Facebook, somehow failing to make it onto their “neutral pipeline.” It’s frankly hard to believe that bias isn’t playing a part.
Yet Tom Stocky, Facebook’s vice president of search, insisted in a statement posted last night that bias is not permitted and “‘Trending Topics’ is designed to showcase the current conversation happening on Facebook.”
The following is the statement in full:
My team is responsible for Trending Topics, and I want to address today’s reports alleging that Facebook contractors manipulated Trending Topics to suppress stories of interest to conservatives. We take these reports extremely seriously, and have found no evidence that the anonymous allegations are true.
Facebook is a platform for people and perspectives from across the political spectrum. There are rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality. These guidelines do not permit the suppression of political perspectives. Nor do they permit the prioritization of one viewpoint over another or one news outlet over another. These guidelines do not prohibit any news outlet from appearing in Trending Topics.
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.
We are proud that, in 2015, the US election was the most talked-about subject on Facebook, and we want to encourage that robust political discussion from all sides. We have in place strict guidelines for our trending topic reviewers as they audit topics surfaced algorithmically: reviewers are required to accept topics that reflect real world events, and are instructed to disregard junk or duplicate topics, hoaxes, or subjects with insufficient sources. Facebook does not allow or advise our reviewers to systematically discriminate against sources of any ideological origin and we’ve designed our tools to make that technically not feasible. At the same time, our reviewers’ actions are logged and reviewed, and violating our guidelines is a fireable offense.
There have been other anonymous allegations — for instance that we artificially forced #BlackLivesMatter to trend. We looked into that charge and found that it is untrue. We do not insert stories artificially into trending topics, and do not instruct our reviewers to do so. Our guidelines do permit reviewers to take steps to make topics more coherent, such as combining related topics into a single event (such as #starwars and#maythefourthbewithyou), to deliver a more integrated experience.
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.