A batch of internal documents reveals how Facebook empowers its workers to manipulate the news topics that are featured in the social network’s Trending Topics sidebar, The Guardian reported on Thursday.
Facebook bills the sidebar, which aggregates news happening around the world, as an auto-generated tool that helps people to see what topics are trending among users in real time. But in reality, the company used a small group of Ivy Leaguers and instructed them on how to manually blacklist certain topics, and how to artificially inject certain stories into the Trending Topics stream.
Facebook’s news aggregation tool has gained much attention after former workers in charge of the Trending Topics module said the company routinely suppressed conservatives news topics and outlets.
An instruction guide published by The Guardian on Thursday shows that from start to finish the Trending Topics sidebar was designed to allow a small group of Facebook “news curators” to elevate, or suppress, topics and outlets. According to the detailed instruction manual, regardless of how popular a topic or story was on Facebook, it could not be deemed a top national trending topic unless a few websites, such as the New York Times or BBC, had published articles on the topic:
National Story: You should mark a topic as “National Story” importance if it is among the 1-3 top stories of the day. We measure this by checking if it is leading at least 5 of the following 10 news websites: BBC News, CNN, Fox News, The Guardian, NBC News, The New York Times, USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Yahoo News or Yahoo. Some days, we may not have any “Top Story”-level topics.
Major Story: You should mark a topic as “Major Story” importance if it is THE top story of the day. We measure this by checking if it is leading all 10 of the above news websites. These stories appear approximately 5-7 times each week. Examples: Gunmen kill 12 at Paris satirical newspaper; Ferguson police officer not charged by grand jury.
Nuclear: Reserved for the truly “Holy S**t” stories that happen maybe 1-3 times a year. 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. A team lead must approve before a topic can be marked Nuclear
The documents included specific instructions for blacklisting topics and alluded to the existence of a database of all blacklisted topics. There were also detailed instructions on how to manually inject topics through the use of Facebook’s Trend Injector.
A Facebook executive in charge of overseeing the Trending Topics product previously said that the company’s news curators did not have the ability to “insert stories artificially into trending topics.” That same executive and his wife donated $5,400 to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign last October.