May 18, 2016

Question of the Week: Should social media websites curate which stories are trending?

By the C|C Whistleblower Lawyer Team

Facebook recently came under fire amid accusations that its trending news section is run by a select group of contractors who exercise substantial authority in choosing what stories trend, and which news sites are hyperlinked for each trending topic. The Guardian published extensive internal documents, including a copy of Facebook’s “Trending Review Guidelines,” that seem to corroborate that a select few possess significant power in choosing which trending news items end up in the highly valuable internet real estate. Furthermore, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg seemed to acknowledge last week that the trending topics section includes topics not actually trending on Facebook.

In particular, Facebook has been forced to deny claims that the site intentionally suppresses conservative news sources. Accusations of political censorship may be particularly distressing to the public in light of Facebook’s stated goal of being the “primary news experience people have.” The social media giant is doing considerable damage control, including issuing a public invitation to conservative leaders for a private sit-down at its company headquarters. While Facebook is at the center of the current controversy, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media sites face very similar issues. Even the attempt to filter out potentially offensive or obscene items can introduce claims of bias and censorship. For instance, Instagram has faced a backlash for what many believe are sexist community guidelines.

There’s an argument to be made that consumers truly desire a more personally tailored user experience that only curation can provide. In fact, Twitter recently switched to a format in which it opts to provide the “best” tweets in users’ timelines, rather than the most recent. It would seem that with every effort to provide a more personalized user experience, there may be a corresponding opportunity to potentially bias the news that one encounters. And from a competitive standpoint, it seems highly plausible that a social media company might want to intentionally suppress trending topics related to its competitors while promoting certain topics in a trending section that could provide a very lucrative revenue stream.

Should social media websites curate which stories are trending?

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