Leaked email shows Facebook skewed Trending Topics feature to bias against alternative views

Facebook is constantly in the midst of rebuilding its reputation after a series of controversies involving user data privacy and election meddling.

One of the biggest coming-out episodes for the company came in November 2016 when British newspaper The Guardian reported that an independent Facebook contractor allowed Russian trolls to manipulate large swaths of its site in the lead-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Facebook later admitted that more than 150 million Facebook users may have seen “inauthentic” or fake news about Hillary Clinton in its News Feed.


Facebook said last December that it was eliminating “Trending Topics” as part of the controversy.

Several states sued Facebook over alleged privacy violations, with the lead state representing a class of all users.

When it comes to politics, Facebook also admitted that it inflated its reach for a fake news story during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The company temporarily tightened down the algorithm that determined which content to prioritize on its site.

This week, a leaked email obtained by BuzzFeed News shows how Facebook adjusted the frequency of its Trending Topics feature to influence political debate.

Drew Herdener, a Facebook vice president, set up a system for the company to prioritize social and political stories. The plan was to prioritize likes, clicks and shares in order to “ratchet down” alternative perspectives on the company’s page.

One example of how this may have worked shows how fast news stories were being selected based on location.


News posts — and trending topics — were being awarded an average of 10 percent higher placement on the Trending Topics page according to a version of the Facebook engineer email included in the leaked document.

One example of this happened in March when a San Francisco Examiner story reported on a USC study that found that Donald Trump won California by only 3,567 votes. A relatively inexperienced county is responsible for 2,000 of the spread.

The Trump campaign quickly posted the article to the Trending Topics section of the social network, pushing the story to the top of the list. At the same time, the Union of Concerned Scientists posted a National Desk story related to the study. It landed at the bottom of the list.

The explanation for the difference in placement included in the leaked document appears to make sense: Facebook saw the article as popular in California and NC readers might not have been as impacted by the possible loss of the full 3,567 California votes.


More than 100,000 comments on the UC article left on the Facebook post — including some explicit complaints about the site — can be read here.

If the company has been manipulating the algorithm to favor political perspectives and fake news, then it should be rated an “F” on its transparency.

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