An Interview With a Former Facebook Trending Stories Curator

DigiDay’s Tanya Dua interviewed an anonymous former curator for Facebook’s now-automated Trending Stories feature. It’s a good interview that touches on the Gizmodo story from May that claimed a liberal bias from editors, but I thought this answer to a question about editorial integrity was most enlightening:

You would essentially have to have them be a completely independent team, where they had full control over the editorial process and didn’t have to answer to anybody at Facebook. It would have to function like a newsroom. Had that gap existed between editorial and the rest of the company, it would have been a more legitimate product. We never felt the support of Facebook behind the product. It was just a little tab, you couldn’t go anywhere, like, where you could read all these topics in a feed.

Facebook’s encroachment into the news reading habits of many of its users is concerning if they lack a separation of their editorial and business components, especially if their news features are supposed to be part of the business side of the company.

John Herrman, writes for the New York Times Magazine:

The Facebook product, to users in 2016, is familiar yet subtly expansive. Its algorithms have their pick of text, photos and video produced and posted by established media organizations large and small, local and national, openly partisan or nominally unbiased. But there’s also a new and distinctive sort of operation that has become hard to miss: political news and advocacy pages made specifically for Facebook, uniquely positioned and cleverly engineered to reach audiences exclusively in the context of the news feed. These are news sources that essentially do not exist outside of Facebook, and you’ve probably never heard of them. They have names like Occupy Democrats; The Angry Patriot; US Chronicle; Addicting Info; RightAlerts; Being Liberal; Opposing Views; Fed-Up Americans; American News; and hundreds more. Some of these pages have millions of followers; many have hundreds of thousands.

Using a tool called CrowdTangle, which tracks engagement for Facebook pages across the network, you can see which pages are most shared, liked and commented on, and which pages dominate the conversation around election topics. Using this data, I was able to speak to a wide array of the activists and entrepreneurs, advocates and opportunists, reporters and hobbyists who together make up 2016’s most disruptive, and least understood, force in media.

The Trending Stories feature is, ostensibly, distinct from the News Feed feature. But both are now algorithmically driven, and something that trends on Facebook’s News Feed will likely make it to the Trending Stories feature. If there is little editorial oversight, these features become less meaningful, less helpful, and more inflammatory.

A free press is vital in a democracy, yes, but that is with the assumption that the press publishes valid, true, and well-explained articles on subjects of importance. Facebook seems to think that editorial policy is either unimportant, or a job that can be done by a robot. I very much doubt that.