Facebook has the ability to clear up much of the controversy surrounding allegations of bias in its Trending section simply by releasing its Trending stories staff from the legal agreements currently preventing them from speaking openly about their roles.
Instead, in defending itself, Facebook has repeatedly tried to discredit the accusations by pointing to an untrustworthy bogeyman: anonymous sources. Yet it is Facebook alone that ensures that these sources — even the ones who would defend it — remain anonymous.
Multiple Facebook statements have targeted the unnamed former curators who have described, in detail, the processes behind what shows up in Trending — the implication being that if the accusations had any veracity, the accusers would attach their names to it. “Although the allegations are anonymous, we take them seriously,” Facebook said in one typical statement.
It’s a convenient line of attack, but here’s the truth Facebook knows well: the company’s own policies keep its accusers anonymous.
Facebook is holding its curators, past and present, to strict nondisclosure agreements. These NDAs — signed by all who work on Trending, according to one former curator — bar those individuals from saying anything about the inner workings of the project. The NDAs don’t have expiration dates, per the former curator, so even people no longer at the company who talk could face legal action if they come forward publicly. And the NDAs are designed to be scary.
“I remember feeling pretty intimidated by the NDA,” the former curator told BuzzFeed News. “I don’t think I’ve ever signed an NDA like that.”
Facebook could stand to benefit from releasing its curators from their NDAs. Our source said they did nothing to bias the Trending column and had no reason to believe colleagues did either. The statement would be more powerful with a name attached, but Facebook is standing in the way of that.
Since the accusations of bias first surfaced in a Gizmodo story, contradictory reports on how the Trending column really works have bounced around the media — including a story published in The Guardian today that seems to contradict a statement from Facebook VP Tom Stocky claiming that human editors didn't artificially insert topics into the Trending column.
Facebook could clear up much of this confusion by allowing its Trending editors, past and present, to go on the record. To truly ensure an open discussion, free from anonymous sources, it could release the curators from their NDAs. So far, it hasn't been willing to do that.
When asked if it would free Trending editors from the agreements it put into place that now prevent them from talking, Facebook declined to comment.
Alex Kantrowitz is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. He reports on social and communications.
Contact Alex Kantrowitz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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