Facebook’s decision to make changes to its Trending section could be interpreted as an implicit acknowledgement that reports it was previously selective over the news that it chose to promote were correct.
The news that Facebook was selective in suppressing certain stories – and certain media channels – in favour of other, mainly left wing, stories – broke two weeks ago.
Although Facebook subsequently carried out an internal investigation, which revealed no such evidence of bias (internal investigations rarely do), it has nonetheless made a number of alterations to the way it curates news.
These include updated guidelines that content decisions may not be based on personal politics, the review team will be subject to more controls and headlines from an exclusive handful of media outlets, like the BBC and the New York Times, will no longer define the newsworthiness of trends.
It followed Mark Zuckerburg holding meetings with leading American Conservatives in an attempt to reassure them of Facebook’s editorial, and political, independence.
As a piece of prime content real estate, the Trending section of Facebook is one of the world’s most valuable so it’s little wonder that here was so much interest when Gizmodo’s story originally broke. It was based on (anonymous) interviews with former members of staff who claimed there were topics that were felt inappropriate and blacklisted.
While Facebook has moved quickly to reassure politicians and its user base that it welcomes viewpoints from across the political spectrum and is a broad church, the revelations that the Trending algorithm could be manipulated exposes the fact that it wasn’t really an algorithm in the first place.
Only Facebook knows if it was deliberately skewing its news feed to the perceived left-wing prejudices of its users. But the irony of a company that paid only £4,327 in corporation tax in the UK in 2014 – one of the most right-wing business corporate decisions ever – and continues to minimise its tax exposure will surely not be lost on many.
Perhaps it has been so swift to reassure the Republican establishment in the US in order to prevent those same politicians retaliating by legislating to hit Facebook where it clearly feels the pain most – in the wallet.