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Leaked documents show editors, not algorithms, decide Facebook’s Trending Topics

It looks like Facebook’s Trending Topics may in fact be a lot more biased than previously thought. While the company has denied accusations that it suppresses conservative news topics, leaked documents suggest that there’s human intervention at almost every stage of Trending Topics.

The documents were detailed in a report from The Guardian, and show that Facebook employs a small editorial team that essentially decides what does and does not appear in the Trending Topics box on its site. Because of this, there is plenty of opportunity for editorial bias, making Facebook more like a traditional news outlet.

Related: Claims that Facebook suppressed conservative news spur letter from Senate panel

According to the documents, the editorial team looks at a total of just 10 specified news sources, then decides if a topic has “editorial authority.” The team can either inject a topic into Trending Topics, or blacklist it for reasons including that it “doesn’t represent a real-world event,” which is left up to the editors to decide. These editors were given power over Trending Topics after Facebook was criticized for not offering enough coverage of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, back in 2014.

“You should mark a topic as ‘National Story’ importance if it is among the 1-3 top stories of the day,” say the documents. “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.”

Why is this a big deal? Facebook may not be a traditional news outlet, but the social media network is one of the primary ways that people get their news, and Trending Topics is a big part of this. A recent study by Nielsen shows that social media now only trails television as the top source of news.

Not only that, but the point of Trending Topics is to show what’s really happening in the world. Many people turn to social media for news specifically as a way to avoid bias in news. Still, critics suggest that even if Facebook did only use algorithms to determine Trending Topics, the fact that those algorithms would be written by people would still make them biased.

Since the news first broke, Facebook has published a blog post about how Trending Topics works, however the post doesn’t confirm or deny bias. Still, according to the post topics are first surfaced through an algorithm that identifies topics that have spiked in popularity on Facebook in recent times. Editors then review the topic, write a description, and see just how high-profile the story is. Depending on popularity, the story is given an importance level, which could impact how many or how few people see it.

Facebook didn’t immediately respond to our requests for comments, but we’ll update this story if we hear back.

Updated on 05-12-2016 by Christian de Looper: Added info about Facebook’s blog post detailing how Trending Topics works.