Irony: Nets Shocked by Accusations of Liberal Bias...at Facebook

On Tuesday, all three network morning shows expressed shock and dismay at allegations that Facebook censored conservative political news from its supposed trending news feed. At the top of NBC’s Today, co-host Savannah Guthrie declared: “Censored by Facebook? The popular social network being accused of routinely suppressing conservative stories from its trending feed. The claim coming from former workers.”

In the report that followed minutes later, fill-in co-host Natalie Morales worried: “Well, now to this troubling accusation leveled against Facebook that's getting a lot of attention this morning.” She noted that social media company was “scrambling to respond to surprising accusations of political bias.”

Morales detailed the charges:

After a report released Monday by the website Gizmodo, which says that the team of Facebook employees in charge of the site’s trending list had intentionally suppressed articles from conservative news sources. These news curators say they’re coming forward to reveal they were also instructed to artificially inject selected stories into the trending news module....According to a former journalist who worked on the project, “Workers prevented stories about Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, and other conservative topics from appearing in the highly-influential section, even though they were organically trending among the site’s users.”

After citing denials from Facebook, Morales read a statement from the Republican National Committee: “It is beyond disturbing to learn that this power is being used to silence viewpoints and stories that don't fit someone else's agenda.”

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On ABC’s Good Morning America, co-host George Stephanopoulos announced: “...that backlash brewing against Facebook. The social media site accused of keeping conservative news stories off its trending list.” The headline on screen read: “Facebook Firestorm?; Site Denies it Censored Conservative Stories.”

Correspondent Rebecca Jarvis reported: “A former Facebook employee now speaking out anonymously to tech blog Gizmodo, claiming that Facebook workers intentionally suppressed conservative news stories from that list....The former Facebook insider calling it, quote, ‘absolutely biased,’ saying, ‘we were doing it subjectively.’”

On CBS This Morning, co-host Norah O’Donnell informed viewers: “Facebook this morning is defending itself against accusations of political bias. An article posted Monday on the tech news site Gizmodo said Facebook workers suppressed conservative-leaning news stories in its trending section.”

Despite all the headlines over claims of liberal bias at Facebook, none of the broadcasts saw the irony of their own reporting being slanted on a daily basis – especially with regard to the stories they choose to cover and ignore.

The CBS morning show actually interviewed Gizimodo editor Michael Nunez, who got the major scoop. The hosts repeatedly attempted to poke holes in the story.

After Nunez remarked “that a select group of about 20 journalists, young 20-somethings, often Ivy-League educated...are the ones that are sorting through the news feed and determining...what people are able to see,” O’Donnell pressed: “I thought that was interesting that you pointed out that they were from Ivy League schools. What are you trying to imply?”

Nunez explained: “Well, I think that there's a selection bias with these editors, right?...I think that we just tried to report the information as we saw it. So in this case, we saw that these students were primarily east-coast educated and we reported that.”

O’Donnell continued: “Now, you write, however, in your article, quote, ‘There is no evidence that Facebook management mandated or was even aware of any political bias at work’.... So there's no indication that management had anything – this was some rogue employees or?”

Nunez countered: “No, I don't think it was rogue employees. I would call it an institutional failure....that they've set up a system that allows for human bias to enter – to impact what people are able to see in their feeds.”

Fellow co-host Charlie Rose parroted Facebook talking points: “Facebook said popular topics are first surfaced by an algorithm then audited by a review team that is not allowed to discriminate. It says it has designed its tools to make discrimination technically not feasible.”

Nunez replied: “...certainly they can say that as much as they want. But you know, the fact is that we have evidence of them blacklisting, in a lot of cases, conservative news.”

Co-host Gayle King was incredulous: “And they would want to censor it why, Michael? Why would they want to censor it?” Nunez speculated:

I don't think it was an intentional bias that's at play here. I think this is just a system that they've put in place that allows people to inflate news....So they can also blacklist news. And so, you know, I think when we discovered that they were both inflating – artificially inflating and also suppressing news, that calls into question the legitimacy of the trending topics entirely, right? These aren't exactly trending topics, they're being selected by an editorial board.

Here is a full transcript of the May 10 interview with Nunez on CBS:

7:33 AM ET

NORAH O’DONNELL: Facebook this morning is defending itself against accusations of political bias. An article posted Monday on the tech news site Gizmodo said Facebook workers suppressed conservative-leaning news stories in its trending section.

GAYLE KING: Overnight, the social media giant denied the claims. Tom Stocky, who heads up the trending topics team, wrote this, “We take these reports extremely seriously. There are rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality. These guidelines do not permit the suppression of political perspectives.”

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: Facebook Bias?; Site Accused of Suppressing Conservative Stories]

Gizmodo technology editor, that’s Michael Nunez, wrote the article and joins us at the table this morning to discuss. Hi, Michael.

MICHAEL NUNEZ: Hi, how are you?

KING: So what made you guys look into it, and what exactly did you find?

NUNEZ: So this started with a leaked document that was sent to Gizmodo unsolicited and with that story that –  

KING: A leaked document from?

NUNEZ: A leaked document from a Facebook employee revealing an issue at the Menlo Park office. So it was about a Black Lives Matter note being scratched out on their famous signature wall and being replaced with “All Lives Matter.” So Mark Zuckerberg issued a statement privately in an internal document and that was leaked to Gizmodo. When we published that story, it emboldened some Facebook employees to step forward and say, “Well, you think that's good, we have more information.” And every time that we’ve published a story in the past two months, more and more employees have come forward with more revealing information. In the most recent case, we found that Facebook is sort of misleading the public about its trending news column.

KING: How?

NUNEZ: So it's misleading the public by saying that an algorithm is sorting what people are able to see, but what we found is that a select group of about 20 journalists, young 20-somethings, often Ivy-League educated or from private east coast schools, are the ones that are sorting through the news feed and determining what is – what people are able to see and, more importantly, what they’re not able to see.

O’DONNELL: I thought that was interesting that you pointed out that they were from Ivy League schools. What are you trying to imply?

NUNEZ: Well, I think that there's a selection bias with these editors, right? So these aren't seasoned  New York Times editors, they're certainly not people from The Chicago Tribune, these are contractors in a lot of cases. They're low-paid workers that don't get the same benefits as Facebook employees. And, you know, I think that we just tried to report the information as we saw it. So in this case, we saw that these students were primarily east-coast educated and we reported that.

O’DONNELL: Now, you write, however, in your article, quote, “There is no evidence that Facebook management mandated or was even aware of any political bias at work.”

NUNEZ: Correct.

O’DONNELL: So there's no indication that management had anything – this was some rogue employees or?

NUNEZ: No, I don't think it was rogue employees. I would call it an institutional failure. So, you know, when, you know, you showed a quote earlier about neutrality. Well, the fact is that they've set up a system that allows for human bias to enter – to impact what people are able to see in their feeds.

CHARLIE ROSE: Facebook said popular topics are first surfaced by an algorithm then audited by a review team that is not allowed to discriminate. It says it has designed its tools to make discrimination technically not feasible.

NUNEZ: Well, you know, I think that, that is – you know, certainly they can say that as much as they want. But you know, the fact is that we have evidence of them blacklisting, in a lot of cases, conservative news.

O’DONNELL: What's a particular story that they blacklisted?

NUNEZ: Well, so, the CPAC conference, for instance. You know, as that was going on, that was not allowed to trend in Facebook's trending news feed. In another instance –  

ROSE: Not allowed means?

NUNEZ: Not allowed means – so every single topic that is shown in the trending news feed needs to be activated by one of these curators. So they say, “Yes, this is okay, this is a news event, and we'll allow it to trend.” The problem is – and so when they do that, they write a summary of the news event, a headline, and find some corresponding stories. The problem is that there's such an emphasis on numbers among these curators, that they often choose easier stories like Kim Kardashian posting an Instagram photo. That's a lot easier to summarize than something as nuanced as Ferguson protests or, you know, the Darren Wilson case or something along those lines. Something that’s not one-dimensional.  

KING: And they would want to censor it why, Michael? Why would they want to censor it?

NUNEZ: You know, I don't think that this was an intentional – I don't think it was an intentional bias that's at play here. I think this is just a system that they've put in place that allows people to inflate news basically using something called an injection tool to force news into the trending topics and also suppress news. So they can also blacklist news. And so, you know, I think when we discovered that they were both inflating – artificially inflating and also suppressing news, that calls into question the legitimacy of the trending topics entirely, right? These aren't exactly trending topics, they're being selected by an editorial board.

ROSE: For those of us – for those viewers who don’t know, tell us what Gizmodo is.

NUNEZ: Gizmodo is a technology website that's focused on the future. We are interested in gadgets and things that will impact our future. And so, social media is definitely a part of that. It plays an important part in our political discourse and that's why we started to look into this in the first place.

KING: What are the implications here, in your opinion?

NUNEZ: Well, the implications are huge. You know, this isn't just a newspaper, right? You know, there's nothing wrong with Facebook having an editorial board and choosing what the most important stories of the day are, but they need to be transparent about it, right? You can't call that a trending news section if these topics aren't legitimately trending in the first place. You know, we found evidence of them populating the algorithm with topics that weren't trending on Facebook at all. Those are called external topics. So in several instances, we found them manufacturing trends. And so –

KING: Have you reached out to them to talk to them?

NUNEZ: Yes, we have. And I think that's another telling sign. You know, we gave them three days to respond to a series of questions about all of the facts listed in our story. They didn't respond to several e-mails and several phone calls. They still haven't. After we published the story, I tried calling them again and e-mailed, you know, a series of their communications representatives. No one has gotten back to me. And to me, that was a very telling sign.

ROSE: Thank you, Michael.

NUNEZ: Thanks.

O’DONNELL: Michael's going to be trending.

KING: Yes. Something tells me they're going to want to talk to you. Thank you, Mr. Nunez, for joining us today.

NUNEZ: Thanks.

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