FaceBook Elections signs stand in the media area at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, before the first Republican presidential debate.
Image: John Minchillo/AP

Facebook has been under fire recently over allegations that some of the contractors working on its “Trending Topics” had prevented conservative media outlets from showing up in the section.

On Thursday, Facebook’s internal guidelines for that section leaked, showing that while there is no top-down encouragement to ignore conservative media, its practices are heavily dependent on employees to pick the news.

The most surprising revelation from the 21-page document, which wereacquired by The Guardian,may be the lack of science behind Facebook’s system for choosing important national stories.

“You should mark a topic as ‘National Story’ importance if it is among the 1-3 top stories of the day,” the document states under the section entitled “Choose the topic’s importance level.”

That is determined “by checking if it is leading at least 5 of the following 10 news websites: BBC News, CNN, Fox News, The Guardian, NBC News, The New York Times, USATODAY, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Yahoo News or Yahoo.”

To clarify, Facebook’s guidelines used those outlets to determine a story’s importance, but not necessarily from which outlet Facebook would link to for a “national story.”

More important that a national story? The “Nuclear” story.

The notion that editors would need to wait for particular news outlets to engage on a major story provides a better understanding of why stories that often trended on Twitter were slow to arrive on Facebook.Facebook’s trending topics had often been criticized for being behind the news cycle.

Justin Osofsky, vice president of global operations, confirmed the authenticity of the documents and said they “demonstrate that we have a series of check and balances in place to help surface the most important popular stories, regardless of where they fall on the ideological spectrum.”

The complete statement from Facebook can be found at the bottom of this post.

Facebook also posted a further explanation from Osofsky on the company’s blog, in which he laid out the company’s “trending” practices.

He noted that a Facebook algorithm first finds potential trending news that is then checked to have been reported by at least three of “more than a thousand media outlets,” of which they provide a link to.

Osofosky’s post also links to Facebook’s guidelines, which are slightly different than the ones from the Guardian.Most notably, BuzzFeed has replaced Yahoo as one of the 10 news websites that determines what makes for a “national story.”

The discussion around how Facebook handles trending topics has been relatively split. Some feel that Facebook’s curation and use of editors is understandable if not entirely necessary to provide a useful news section.

Others have argued that Facebook should provide greater clarity on how that section, and the rest of Facebook, works.

The latest report from The Guardian does not further implicate Facebook, but it does suggest that there is plenty of room for the personal biases of the Trending editors.

Conservative critics argued that the list of outlets used to determine the importance of a “national story” leaned left. Among the list, Fox News and the Wall Street Journalare most often labeled as leaning to the right. The Guardian tends to be seen as left leaning.

Those in conservative circles argue that the New York Timesand many other mainstream outlets favor liberal politics. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly just on Wednesday evening stated he believed Yahoo’s news section ignored conservatives.

In his statement, Osofsky pushed back against any allegations of bias.

“The guidelines demonstrate that we have a series of checks and balances in place to help surface the most important popular stories, regardless of where they fall on the ideological spectrum. Facebook does not allow or advise our reviewers to systematically discriminate against sources of any political origin, period. What these guidelines show is that weve approached this responsibly and with the goal of creating a high-quality product in the hopes of delivering a meaningful experience for the people who use our service.”

“Trending Topics uses a variety of mechanisms to help surface events and topics that are happening in the real world. In our guidelines, we rely on more than a thousand sources of news from around the world, and of all sizes and viewpoints to help verify and characterize world events and what people are talking about. The intent of verifying against news outlets is to surface topics that are meaningful to people and newsworthy. We have at no time sought to weight any one view point over another, and in fact our guidelines are designed with the intent to make sure we do not do so.”

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