Yes, Facebook has editors who pick news articles

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has promised "a full investigation" into accusations that the social networking website's editors omitted news stories from conservative outlets.
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has promised "a full investigation" into accusations that the social networking website's editors omitted news stories from conservative outlets. PHOTO: REUTERS

Social networks' editorial teams in spotlight after Facebook accused of omissions

NEW YORK • Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has promised "a full investigation" into accusations that the social networking website's editors omitted news stories from conservative outlets.

But the question likely to be on the minds of Facebook's 1.65 billion monthly users around the world is: Facebook has editors?

It does, and it is not alone. Most major social media platforms have, in recent years, amassed editorial teams of their own - groups that select, tame and fill gaps in the material produced by users and media outlets.

The teams are often tiny compared with the rest of their sprawling organisations. But most of these employees - whether they are called curators, reporters, editors or something else - make editorial choices that reach huge audiences.

How and why these decisions are made are generating new questions for the companies, and their users, to grapple with.

  • Social media platforms' content producers

  • NEW YORK • Who has how many editors? Facebook and Instagram declined to say, but Snapchat said it has about 75 people who produce content, collecting and annotating videos and photos of live events and sometimes adding on-the-scene reporting themselves.

    Twitter employs just under a dozen people in the United States and about two dozen worldwide to collect and describe postings.

    Vine, the video service owned by Twitter, has five to 10 people to highlight videos and producers that might have been overlooked by the audience.

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"Mainstream news organisations have endured a sceptical public for decades," said Assistant Professor Kjerstin Thorson, from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. Now, she said, social media firms may face similar, and perhaps jarring, scrutiny.

Facebook declined to say how many people have editorial roles, as did Instagram, which Facebook owns. "Where curation picks up is that you need human eyes and ears to pick up on a cultural trend a machine might not see," said Mr Ankur Thakkar, the editorial lead of Vine, a video service owned by Twitter.

In some cases, these teams coexist with media professionals working elsewhere on the platform. Former CNN political reporter Peter Hamby oversees a team of six journalists within Snapchat, while media companies - including CNN - produce content for the company's Discover feature.

Facebook's Trending Topics, the feature that drew all the attention last week, is relegated to a small box in desktop browsers and users' search page on mobile devices.

But the positioning provides confirmation, in the language of Facebook's own guidelines, "that the topic is tied to a current news event in the real world."

The report accusing suppression of news stories within Trending Topics was published by the website Gizmodo on Monday last week, prompting a denial by Facebook and the release of its 28-page set of internal editorial guidelines.

Facebook last Thursday said the guidelines "do not permit the suppression of political perspectives". Mr Zuckerberg said he would meet with conservatives in the media tomorrow, Reuters reported, to address the allegations of political bias.

Broad guidelines for Twitter curators are published on the site and state that their posts, called Moments, "will not take a view on a controversial subject" and that curators will "select tweets that represent all sides of the argument" in Moments that reflect a public debate.

Snapchat did not share editorial guidelines but pointed to a team of experienced reporters as evidence of its standards.

"Each of these companies has to give people that aren't going there a reason to go there - new users, or infrequent users," said Mr Michael Pachter, an analyst for Wedbush Securities.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2016, with the headline 'Yes, Facebook has editors who pick news articles'. Print Edition | Subscribe