Besides checking on your friends, what do you do on Facebook? Well, if you check the upper right corner of your screen, you will see one-eighth of the page devoted to “Trending News,” which supposedly shows a selection of the days' most popular stories. But a recent article in Gizmodo, revealed that this “Trending News” isn’t actually trending at all. Instead, Facebook hired a team of “news curators,” to handpick which stories “trend” each day.
News curators are the journalists behind these 'trending' topics. They must meet certain quotas for posting—most must post 20 times a day. For the first two and a half months, they worked in an unused conference room instead of the more private desks afforded to other employees of Facebook, which made some curators uneasy.
“It was clear that Zuckerberg could squash the project at any moment,” said a former curator.
The curators are contractors, not regular Facebook employees. They get some benefits, such as limited medical insurance, but are excluded from most of the rewards other Facebook employees enjoy.
Another former curator told Gizmodo “A company [get-together] would begin at 8p.m., and we'd still be working.”
These curators are young, in their 20’s and 30’s. Most are recent graduates from Ivy League and private East Coast schools. The majority eventually quit or find a job elsewhere; the rest are fired. In fact, none of the original team of curators remain. This is especially significant, because Facebook hired them when it was most lenient. As time passes, curators claim that Facebook becomes more aggressive, demanding more posts from them. In addition, curators are forbidden from using this job on their resume or public profiles. It seems Facebook wishes to keep their curators hidden.
Curators begin their workday by scanning a list of topics from most to least popular according to Facebook's algorithm. They determine who or what the topic is related to. Then, they write a headline and a very short summary for it. The next step is to add a graphic, a video or photo. To finish the post, the curator links a source for interested readers to find out more about the topic. This sounds simple, but there are specific rules that must be followed when posting. For example, curators are discouraged from using certain sources. They are told to refer to Twitter as social media, instead of using the actual term “Twitter.” These rules and others manipulate the information the users see.
For me, this is especially troubling because curators are not bias-free. The fact that Facebook has so much power over the news we see may give some people an advantage over others. For example, when given the choice to post a story from a Facebook supporter or sponsor compared to an ordinary person, Facebook will most likely promote the supporter’s point of view. Because of this, only the supporter’s story will reach Facebook users, giving him, or her, an advantage over the ordinary person. You can already see evidence of this in the rule about what kind of sources can be used. Facebook tends to lean towards more traditional outlets, which contain different perspectives from the views other kinds of outlets have.
Many former employees claim Facebook is trying to replace its human curators with a robotic one. They believe they are temporary guinea pigs until Facebook can perfect the algorithm and program a machine to do the work.
One former curator said, “It was degrading as a human being. We weren't treated as individuals. We were treated in this robot way.”
Managers have hinted about a “more streamlined process” in meetings, and the number of curators on the team is decreasing. Multiple curators were promised work for a year, but fired after only three months.
Facebook should stop this dishonesty. They are giving an illusion of a bias-free source of news to the public, when in truth contracted curators hold the power to veto any article for no reason whatsoever. Facebook should come clean about the news selection process or make it bias-free, whether they use a robot or not. Additionally, current curators should be treated better. Michael Nunez, author of the Gizmodo article that broke this story, wrote “...former curators described grueling work conditions, humiliating treatment, and a secretive imperious culture in which they were treated as disposable outsiders.” The news curators should also be allowed to receive the same benefits as other Facebook employees. By disrespecting the journalists, they disrespect journalism. There is hope for “Trending Topics”. According to another Gizmodo article that contained a statement from Facebook, the company plans to investigate the claims and review their practices. From there, they will make changes as needed. Maybe one day, the “Trending Topics” will really be trending.