Depending on whom you ask, Facebook is either the savior or destroyer of journalism in our time. An estimated 600 million people see a news story on Facebook every week, and the social network’s founder Mark Zuckerberg has been transparent about his goal to monopolize digital news distribution. “When news is as fast as everything else on Facebook, people will naturally read a lot more news,” he said in a Q&A last year, adding that he wants Facebook Instant Articles to be the “primary news experience people have.”
Facebook’s stranglehold over the traffic pipe has pushed digital publishers into an uneasy alliance with the $350 billion behemoth, and the news business has been caught up in a jittery debate about what, precisely, the company’s intentions are. Will it swallow the business whole, or does it really just want publishers to put neat things in users’ news feeds? For its part, Facebook—which has recently begun paying publishers including Buzzfeed and the New York Times to post a quota of Facebook Live videos every week—bills its relationship with the media as a mutually beneficial landlord-tenant partnership.
But if you really want to know what Facebook thinks of journalists and their craft, all you need to do is look at what happened when the company quietly assembled some to work on its secretive “trending news” project. The results aren’t pretty: According to five former members of Facebook’s trending news team—“news curators” as they’re known internally—Zuckerberg & Co. take a downright dim view of the industry and its talent. In interviews with Gizmodo, these former curators described grueling work conditions, humiliating treatment, and a secretive, imperious culture in which they were treated as disposable outsiders. After doing a tour in Facebook’s news trenches, almost all of them came to believe that they were there not to work, but to serve as training modules for Facebook’s algorithm.
Launched in January 2014, Facebook’s trending news section occupies some of the most precious real estate in all of the internet, filling the top-right hand corner of the site with a list of topics people are talking about and links out to different news articles about them. The dozen or so journalists paid to run that section are contractors who work out of the basement of the company’s New York office.
“We were housed in a conference room for two-and-a-half months,” said one former curator (all former curators insisted on anonymity out of concerns over violating their non-disclosure agreements with Facebook). “It was clear that Zuckerberg could squash the project at any moment.”
“It was degrading as a human being,” said another. “We weren’t treated as individuals. We were treated in this robot way.”
This section, no doubt, drives a substantial number of monthly views to news outlets. Facebook wouldn’t specify, but anecdotal evidence suggests that being featured in the trending widget boosts clicks to a story by many thousands. The trending news section is responsible for dictating many of the stories the average person reads when they’re using Facebook. But nobody really knows much about how it works—and the company isn’t telling.