Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Foxconn replaces '60,000 Chinese factory workers with robots'

Foxconn replaces '60,000 factory workers with robots'
7 hours ago

Workers have complained in the past about conditions in Foxconn's factories
Apple and Samsung supplier Foxconn has reportedly replaced 60,000 factory workers with robots.

One factory has "reduced employee strength from 110,000 to 50,000 thanks to the introduction of robots", a government official told the South China Morning Post.
Xu Yulian, head of publicity for the Kunshan region, added: "More companies are likely to follow suit."

China is investing heavily in a robot workforce.

In a statement to the BBC, Foxconn Technology Group confirmed that it was automating "many of the manufacturing tasks associated with our operations" but denied that it meant long-term job losses.

"We are applying robotics engineering and other innovative manufacturing technologies to replace repetitive tasks previously done by employees, and through training, also enable our employees to focus on higher value-added elements in the manufacturing process, such as research and development, process control and quality control.

"We will continue to harness automation and manpower in our manufacturing operations, and we expect to maintain our significant workforce in China."

Since September 2014, 505 factories across Dongguan, in the Guangdong province, have invested 4.2bn yuan (£430m) in robots, aiming to replace thousands of workers.

Kunshan, Jiangsu province, is a manufacturing hub for the electronics industry.

Economists have issued dire warnings about how automation will affect the job market, with one report, from consultants Deloitte in partnership with Oxford University, suggesting that 35% of jobs were at risk over the next 20 years.

Former McDonald's chief executive Ed Rensi recently told the US's Fox Business programme a minimum-wage increase to $15 an hour would make companies consider robot workers.

"It's cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who is inefficient, making $15 an hour bagging French fries," he said.


Building robot McDonald's staff 'cheaper' than hiring workers on minimum wage

Building robot McDonald's staff 'cheaper' than hiring workers on minimum wage

The worrying forecast could threaten jobs at the fast food franchise, a former CEO of the company warns

BYJESSICA HAWORTH 10:18, 25 MAY 2016 UPDATED17:32, 25 MAY 2016

A former McDonald's CEO warned that robots will take over staff jobs at the fast food empire - because it's cheaper than employing humans.

Ed Rensi has said that buying highly skilled robotics is a cheaper alternative than employing people on minimum wage to work in the company's worldwide restaurants.

He warned that huge job losses are imminent, and commented that it would be 'common sense' to replace humans in the workplace.

This comes as a study into the future of human employment has predicted a surge in machine-led work such as robotic counsellors, body part makers and virtual lawyers.

The worrying research, by professor of management practice at London Business School, Lynda Gratton, and futurologist David A. Smith, suggests that humans will be replaced because robots are able to produce better results.

Prof Gratton said: "Studies have suggested that a third of jobs in Europe will be replaced by technology over the next two decades."

If the recent comments are to be believed, McDonald's staff could face the same fate.

Former CEO Ed Rensi said: "I was at the National Restaurant Show yesterday and if you look at the robotic devices that are coming into the restaurant industry.

"It’s cheaper to buy a $35,000 (£24,000) robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who’s inefficient making $15 (£10.20) an hour bagging French fries.

"It's nonsense and it’s very destructive and it’s inflationary and it’s going to cause a job loss across this country like you’re not going to believe."

He told FOX: "It’s not just going to be in the fast food business. Franchising is the best business model in the United States.

"It’s dependent on people that have low job skills that have to grow. Well if you can’t get people a reasonable wage, you’re going to get machines to do the work.

"It’s just common sense. It’s going to happen whether you like it or not. And the more you push this it’s going to happen faster."

Prof Gratton added: "As middle-skilled roles disappear, workers may find that the 'rung' above them no longer exists, and that the career ladder may begin to look more like a career web.

"The ultimate implication is that workers cannot now expect to gain seniority by moving 'up', but rather moving sideways by gaining additional complex skills."

A McDonald’s UK spokesperson said: “The suggestion that McDonald’s is planning to replace employees with robots is completely untrue.

"Our staff are vital to our business and in the UK alone we employ over 110,000 people who serve 3.7m customers every day.”


What’s driving Silicon Valley to become ‘radicalized’

What’s driving Silicon Valley to become ‘radicalized’

By Elizabeth Dwoskin May 24 at 5:00 PM

SAN FRANCISCO — Like many Silicon Valley start-ups, Larry Gadea’s company collects heaps of sensitive data from his customers.

Recently, he decided to do something with that data trove that was long considered unthinkable: He is getting rid of it.

The reason? Gadea fears that one day the FBI might do to him what it did to Apple in their recent legal battle: demand that he give the agency access to his encrypted data. Rather than make what he considers a Faustian bargain, he’s building a system that he hopes will avoid the situation entirely.

“We have to keep as little [information] as possible so that even if the government or some other entity wanted access to it, we’d be able to say that we don’t have it,” said Gadea, founder and chief executive of Envoy. The 30-person company enables businesses to register visitors using iPads instead of handwritten visitor logs. The technology tracks who works at a firm, who visits the firm, and their contact information.

In Silicon Valley, there’s a new emphasis on putting up barriers to government requests for data. The Apple-FBI case and its aftermath have tech firms racing to employ a variety of tools that would place customer information beyond the reach of a government-ordered search.

The trend is a striking reversal of a long-standing article of faith in the data-hungry tech industry, where companies including Google and the latest start-ups have predicated success on the ability to hoover up as much information as possible about consumers.

Now, some large tech firms are increasingly offering services to consumers that rely far less on collecting data. The sea change is even becoming evident among early-stage companies that see holding so much data as more of a liability than an asset, given the risk that cybercriminals or government investigators might come knocking.

Start-ups that once hesitated to invest in security are now repurposing limited resources to build technical systems to shed data, even if it hinders immediate growth.

“Engineers are not inherently anti-government, but they are becoming radicalized, because they believe that the FBI, in particular, and the U.S. government, more broadly, wants to outlaw encryption,” said prominent venture capitalist Marc Andreessen in a recent interview. Andreessen’s firm, Andreessen Horowitz, is an investor in Envoy.

The government abandoned its effort to force Apple to help unlock the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino terrorists and paid professional hackers to crack the phone instead. But experts say that the issue is far from settled, and will probably be the subject of court and legislative battles.

Start-ups are particularly wary, Andreessen said, of legislation proposed recently by Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would compel tech companies to build technical methods to share customers’ encrypted data, at a court’s request.

“They believe there’s this window of opportunity that if we build strong encryption now, we can make it a fait accompli. But if we let five years pass, it may never happen,” Andreessen said.

In the past two years, more companies have embraced encryption, which scrambles information so that it looks like a stream of unintelligible characters to an outsider who accessed it without permission. What’s changed more recently, industry officials say, is that companies are encrypting data and throwing away the key to prevent their gaining access, a move that started with Apple but is spreading across the Valley.

This latter tactic is the most worrisome to law enforcement. Government officials have said repeatedly they do not want to outlaw encryption; FBI Director James B. Comey has called strong encryption a vital means of protecting the public’s personal information from hackers.

But officials insist that there must be a technical means to access that information when companies are served with warrants. Otherwise, there will be “profound consequences for public safety,” Comey told Congress in March. Terrorists and criminals are already using messaging services to which tech companies have thrown away the key, he said. Investigators say two such services, WhatsApp and Telegram, were used by terrorists in the Paris attacks last November.

“This is a Silicon Valley delusion that the government wants to outlaw encryption,” Stewart A. Baker, a former National Security Agency general counsel, said in an interview. “I grant that there is a radicalized subculture of engineers that is very prone to that delusion, but it is a delusion.”

Surely not every company will resort to building such systems. Many simply can’t. Their business relies on targeted advertising or the mining of customer data, and cutting off access would be a recipe for failure. But many start-ups that wouldn't have considered it before the Apple FBI fight are now doing so and discussing the accompanying trade-offs, said Bret Taylor, formerly Facebook’s chief technology officer and now chief executive of the start-up Quip.

The trade-offs can be significant: Heavy encryption risks slowing down your service. It limits the ability to analyze customer behavior or introduce new features. (Encrypting email, for example, would make it harder to search through email.) Once you give customers the only key to their data, you can’t give them a backup if they lose it.

Such efforts over the past few years have been described as part of an arms race between large tech companies and potential invaders, spurred largely by the growing threat of cyberattacks. To some extent, they’ve also been prompted by a newfound wariness of government after Edward Snowden’s revelations about government surveillance, as well as a growing awareness among entrepreneurs of the sheer sensitivity of the data on their services.

Apple led the pack, launching end-to-end encryption with its popular messaging app, iMessage, in 2011. In 2014, the company blocked its own access to information stored on iPhones -- data that disappears permanently after 10 failed passcode attempts. (End-to-end encryption enables only the partners trading messages to decode them. The companies providing the means to transmit them cannot.)

WhatsApp, the global messaging service owned by Facebook, announced end-to-end encryption this year, as did Viber, a messaging app that is popular in Europe. These years-long technical efforts predated the FBI case. Cloudera and Box, two larger tech start-ups selling data storage and processing systems to large corporations, have built encrypted systems over the past year in which only the customer has the keys needed to unscramble data.

The case between Apple and the FBI and the possibility of “backdoor” legislation — mandating encryption bypasses for law enforcement — is a new inflection point. Earlier this month, Google launched Allo, a chat app that allows users to switch on end-to-end encryption, and Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos said he was exploring measures to encrypt data and throw away the keys on devices owned by the Seattle-based company.

Stealth Worker — a start-up funded six months ago by the prominent incubator Y-Combinator — provides contract cybersecurity experts to early-stage start-ups, which often operate on a shoestring budget. Stealth Worker chief executive Ken Baylor said that in the past month he had been approached by a half-dozen companies looking for ways to build tougher encryption and other secure technical architectures. But many don’t want to talk about it, he said.

“They are afraid of a phone call from someone high up saying that they are unpatriotic,” Baylor said.

Bracket Computing, a 70-person Silicon Valley start-up, embarked on an encryption project about a month ago intended to make it easier for customers to hold the keys to their own data.

That way, “I can’t get subpoenaed the way Apple did,” Bracket chief executive Tom Gillis said. “This clears up the whole issue: If you have an issue with my customer, go talk to my customer, don’t talk to me. I’m just a tech guy, and I don’t want to be in the middle of these things.”

Gillis said that initially, customers seeking the ability to hold the keys to their data were large, sophisticated financial services companies, such as Goldman Sachs and Blackstone. Today, a broader array of companies, including media and automotive firms and small banks, are making these requests. Advances in Intel’s chips, he said, have made it possible to build these complex systems 13 times as fast as in 2010.

Building systems that cut off a company’s access to customer data is time- and resource-intensive, and these systems don’t come without risks.

Envoy CEO Gadea, an engineering prodigy who was hired by Google when he was just 18, estimates that his company’s data-wiping project will take a few months and about three engineers working full time.

Currently, when a visitor enters a building with an Envoy registration system, a message is sent alerting the appropriate employee that they have a guest. Envoy can send such messages — by text, email or other messaging services — because the customer data is stored on its servers, which are hosted remotely by Amazon Web Services, the cloud division of Amazon. The information is encrypted, but Envoy holds the keys to unscramble it. (Amazon CEO Bezos owns The Washington Post).

Under the new protocol, the engineering team will have to reconfigure the system so that the keys to unscramble the data are kept by the customers on the iPads used to sign people in. Envoy will no longer have the ability to access the keys. The technical challenge will be making it possible for the iPads to alert people when they have visitors, instead of having the alerts come from Envoy’s servers. The goal is to make the change unnoticeable to users, Gadea says, but it could take months to get there.

There will undoubtedly be many trade-offs, Gadea said. Not only will Envoy sacrifice the ability to send visitor notifications directly, but customer service also could be become more challenging. Today, if one of Envoy’s 2,000 customers asks for help correcting a mistake in a visitor name or resetting a password, an Envoy customer service rep can lend a hand. Under the new system Envoy’s reps could have their hands tied.

The new system could also make it harder to fix software errors because Envoy will no longer be able to push out automatic updates from its servers. And if a customer loses its passwords or keys, Envoy won’t have the ability to restore the lost data. It will be inaccessible forever.

Gadea said he is not anti-government and would sell Envoy’s services to the FBI if the agency wished to become a customer. “It’s like with your friends,” he said, “you’re always going to find one thing you don’t like about them. But you’re not going to hate a person because of one disagreement.”

And he said he understands the trade-offs.

““For a small startup trying to iterate quickly, it definitely slows things down,” Gadea said. “But in the long run, it’s a competitive advantage and it reduces risk on our company. I can sleep better at night.”

Staff writer Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Facebook admits rogue employees may have shown bias against conservatives

Facebook admits rogue employees may have shown bias against conservatives
Social media giant denies ‘systematic’ discrimination

By Stephen Dinan - The Washington Times - Monday, May 23, 2016

Facebook announced Monday it was sending employees out for retraining and would discontinue some of its practices as it sought to defend itself against charges of political bias against conservatives.

The online giant denied that it’s shown “systematic political bias,” but admitted employees played a bigger role than previously acknowledged in determining what news is highlighted in the trending topics section.

Facebook also acknowledged that rogue employees may have unintentionally discriminated against conservative stories or even acted with malice in “isolated improper actions.”

In one instance Facebook rejected a story this year about the opening of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference — the largest gathering of right-wing activists in the country. Facebook says that was likely because there were already enough stories about the Republican presidential primary. But the company said since it allowed CPAC posts in 2015, and covered other parts of the 2016 conference, there wasn’t any discrimination.

“Our investigation has revealed no evidence of systematic political bias in the selection or prominence of stories included in the Trending Topics feature. In fact, our analysis indicated that the rates of approval of conservative and liberal topics are virtually identical in Trending Topics,” Colin Stretch, the company’s general counsel, said in an extensive reply to Sen. John Thune, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, who is probing the allegations of bias.

Former Facebook employees told Gizmodo earlier this month that they detected bias in the way news was “curated” by the site, with stories on top GOP figures, conservative commentators and right-wing causes getting short shrift.

Conservative groups chimed in, saying they’d also seen evidence that stories about their issues and actions weren’t getting the attention they’d thought warranted. The American Conservative Union, which organizes CPAC, said stories about the conference on Facebook did poorly, even though they did well on other online platforms such as Twitter — suggesting bias.

Facebook said it probed seven separate allegations, including treatment of CPAC, conservative host Glenn Beck, former IRS senior executive Lois G. Lerner, the Drudge Report and others, and concluded there were no substantiated instances of political bias.

Instead, some stories were rejected because the news sources were questionable, or because the topic was already represented, the company said.

It said liberal and conservative topics saw “virtually identical” treatment, while “moderate” topics fared the best because they were “popular across the political spectrum.”

Still, Facebook said it will retrain employees and impose new “controls and oversight” to try to cut down the chances for bias. It is also discontinuing the use of 10 outlets it used to judge stories’ importance — a list that included Fox News, but also included the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, NBC News and BuzzFeed.

Mr. Thune said the review was a good start, and said the fact that the company admitted its limitations — including the larger role employees played — “lends credibility” to the findings.

“Facebook’s description of the methodology it uses for determining the trending content it highlights for users is far different from and more detailed than what it offered prior to our questions,” the South Dakota Republican said. “We now know the system relied on human judgment, and not just an automated process, more than previously acknowledged.”

Democrats had blasted Mr. Thune’s questions to Facebook, saying he was wasting taxpayer money in pursuing the probe.

But with nearly two-thirds of Facebook users saying they get at least some of their news from the online platform, conservatives said any chance of bias could skew political conversations.

Mr. Thune said he’s open to new information, but signaled the letter answered most of his questions.

Earlier in the day, though, the ACU sent a letter of its own, asking Mr. Thune to seek out and interview whistleblowers to get to the bottom of their accusations.

“This issue it still unresolved, even after these admissions of wrongdoing by Facebook,” said ACU chairman Matt Schlapp. “Facebook has admitted to harming CPAC, but they have not called us to apologize, and they have failed to explain what they did.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arranged a meeting with conservative figures last week to talk out the issue — a meeting Mr. Schlapp sat out — and tried to assuage concerns. The company’s letter Monday to Mr. Thune also gave more detail about its operations.

Facebook said most users get their news from their news feeds. But the company also runs a “Trending Topics” section that promotes some stories, and that’s where the bias charges focused.

The section was launched in 2014, and was based on an algorithm designed to pick out popular stories.

But the company acknowledged in its reply Monday that employees play a significant role.

“We currently use people to bridge the gap between what an algorithm can do today and what we hope it will be able to do in the future — to sort the meaningful trends from gibberish and duplicates, and to write headlines and descriptions in clear, natural-sounding language,” Mr. Stretch said.

He said up to half of the topics selected by the algorithm are rejected by employees because they are duplicates or “do not make sense at the time.”

Some topics that are removed were put on a “blacklist,” meaning they couldn’t be renewed for up to 24 hours, while employees tried to figure out the sourcing of the story or whether the story was already old news.

Facebook said some stories were sidelined because employees questioned the reliability of sources, but said that put too much power in the hands of the reviewers. The company said it will cancel that power as part of its new steps.


Will This Augmented Reality Machine Really Replace Your PC?

Will This Augmented Reality Machine Really Replace Your PC?

Neuroscience-based tech may one day replace PCs and phones.
By Selina Wang May 24, 2016

Among the seagulls and pelicans of Silicon Valley’s Redwood Shores, there’s a startup called Meta that’s trying to change everything about computers and the way we use them.

Put on the Meta 2 headset, and ten holographic computer screens will hover in mid-air. Press the floating Amazon.com webpage with Nike sneakers and the shoes pop out. You can pull the image apart and examine the inner soles. A phone icon appears in front of you, ringing. Press it, and the caller appears in holographic form. She can hand you a model of the Vienna Opera House; you can hold it and turn it around.

With Meta’s technology, you become the operating system by controlling 3D content with your hands. Meta is a smaller player in the growing field of augmented reality, which puts digital images on top of the real world. (It’s not virtual reality, a more immersive experience that attempts to replace the world around you).

While bigger companies like Microsoft Corp. and Sony Corp. are using these new reality technologies for video games, Meta’s founders are pursuing practical uses. Meta Chief Executive Officer Meron Gribetz says his floating digital images can eventually replace your keyboard, computer screen and menu icon.

Meta’s goal is to make interactions with virtual objects a seamless extension of the real world. Soon, in Meta’s offices, the 100 or so employees will ditch their monitors and work exclusively through headsets. Gribetz is betting that someday, clicking, dragging, and pushing buttons on a flat screen will seem quaintly obsolete to all of us.

“My vision is to build an OS that’s 100 times easier to use than a Macintosh,” Gribetz said. "We’re excited to remove the start menu—all of these metaphors and buttons and icons that take your brain extra steps to decode, and that are making my grandmother’s job of using computers much harder.”

Gribetz, 30, founded Meta in 2012 after studying neuroscience and computer science at Columbia University and working in the Israeli intelligence corps. He built the first Meta prototype with an oven-heated knife and hot glue gun the same year he founded the startup, and in 2013 debuted its first augmented reality headset after raising funds through Kickstarter. Mann, a professor at the University of Toronto, has been inventing wearable devices for more than three decades, including his EyeTap augmented reality glasses in the late 1990s.

Since that first version, the design has been refined with the Meta 2, a lighter headset with higher resolution images and new sensors. Gribetz, who buzzes with excitement when he talks about the future of augmented reality, expects headsets to get lighter and smaller.

“Within five years I think Meta will be able to build a strip of glass that’s nearly invisible and projects holograms on your eye indoors and outdoors,” Gribetz said. “It won’t happen in one shot, but it will start being able to replace people’s phones in 5 years.”

Getting there requires overcoming a host of technical issues. While there are already multiple virtual reality devices that are consumer-ready, it’s still early days for augmented reality headsets, which have to deal with the hurdles of processing the real-world environment.

One challenge: maximizing how much of the area in front of you can contain virtual objects. If that field of view is too narrow, hovering images will disappear from peripheral vision the moment you look away. While the Meta 2 has expanded its field of view from the earlier model, it requires a PC for power so that a user is tethered to a computer and can’t move more than ten or so feet from the desktop, unlike the wireless Microsoft headset.

Both the Meta 2 and Hololens are being offered as developer editions, which means they’re sold to corporations and software developers who will create ways to use the device—whether that’s making apps for 3-D data visualization, architecture, or education. Developers have to pay $949 for Meta 2 and $3,000 for Hololens.

“Meta is definitely one of those companies that can drive whatever the next computing platform is,” said Phil Chen of Horizons Ventures Ltd., a Hong Kong firm that invested in Meta last year.

With sales of desktops and smartphones slowing, many of the tech industry’s biggest names are pouring resources into artificial reality. The market is projected to reach $80 billion within the decade.

Deep-pocketed rivals, including Intel Corp.’s Recon Instruments, are investing in the sector. Magic Leap Inc. raised $793.5 million in February, with backing from Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., Google and Qualcomm Ventures. Last year, Meta raised $23 million in a Series A funding led by Horizons Ventures, backed by Hong Kong’s richest person, along with BOE Optoelectronics and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian.

“It’s a very crowded marketplace right now. You’re also competing against significant entities like Microsoft and Google who have much more resources to drive this forward,” said Tuong Nguyen, an analyst at Gartner Inc. “Especially with some of the smaller players, it will require some help or collaboration with bigger players to get that scale.”

Gribetz is betting that Meta can stay ahead of the pack with its unique approach, where academic research drives the design decisions. Neuroscientists work closely with engineers to make sure interfaces aren’t rejected by the brain, according to Stefano Baldassi, director of user research at Meta.

“There are intimate and nontrivial connections between the human senses and this computer, said Baldassi. "They need to be studied in incredible depth for the product to succeed and to scale to the masses.”

So far, Meta says it has won some major customers, including Apple Inc., Amazon Inc., Boeing Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. The company’s headsets are being used by more than a thousand smaller developers, too.

Medical startup SimX is using Meta headsets to create simulations that train doctors, enabling them to see a virtual patient—one that could be pregnant, wounded or vomiting. The trainees interact with the patient and can take an ultrasound or use a stethoscope. Since the software projects medical machines and other characters in the room, Meta’s expansive field of vision is necessary to see the entire scene.

“Every person who puts it on takes a step back and says ‘Woah’,” Simx CEO Ryan Ribeira said. “They’re immersed in the situation and think of the person as a real person. They forget it’s an augmented reality projection.”


Pizza Hut Adding Pepper Robots to Restaurants in Asia

Pizza Hut Adding Pepper Robots to Restaurants in Asia
BY DON REISINGER MAY 24, 2016 12:48PM EST

The move is intended to push MasterCard's MasterPass digital wallet, which Pepper will accept at the pizza chain.

Hungry for a slice? Ask Pepper, the SoftBank-designed humanoid robot.

MasterCard has inked a deal with Pizza Hut to bring Pepper to restaurants across Asia by the end of 2016. The move is intended to push MasterCard's MasterPass digital wallet, which Pizza Hut patrons can use by either tapping the Pepper icon within the wallet or by scanning a QR code on Pepper's display, while connected to Wi-Fi. Pepper can also provide recommendations and offers.

"Core to our digital transformation journey is the ability to make it easier for customers to engage, connect and transact with Pizza Hut," Vipul Chawla, Managing Director of Pizza Hut Restaurants Asia, said in a statement. "With an order-and-payment-enabled Pepper, customers can now come to expect personalized ordering at our stores, reduce wait time for carryout, and have a fun, frictionless user experience."

Unveiled a year ago, Pepper can detect sadness based on your expressions and voice tones. Using built-in cameras, touch sensors, an accelerometer, and other senses, the robot is programmed to react appropriately. It comes with full humanoid traits, including eyes, a nose, and mouth, and sports a 10.1-inch display, six lasers, two sonars, and more.

Pepper went on sale last year for about $1,700, and recently had a trial run in a Japanese electronics store. Earlier this month, SoftBank opened Pepper to Android developers; a beta version of the Pepper SDK for Android Studio is available now.


Monday, May 23, 2016

WP: How Facebook can influence the news, not just share it - No way to fact check 'trending data' or Any Facebook Data...

How Facebook can influence the news, not just share it

By Callum Borchers May 22 at 8:00 AM

The big media-technology story of the moment is about the news in Facebook’s “trending” box. But what about the news stories that are influenced by what’s in that box or in the other places where Facebook tells journalists what people care about?

Conservatives have been up in arms since Gizmodo reported last week that some Facebook workers who curate the network’s trending news section allow their own (mostly liberal) biases to influence which topics in politics — and everything else — qualify for promotion in a special box on users’ homepages. The concern is that right-leaning views might be suppressed by a technology giant that wields tremendous power over what is presented to some 167 million Americans as buzzy and newsworthy.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg quickly denied censoring content but said he and his company “take this report very seriously and are conducting a full investigation to ensure our teams upheld the integrity of this product.”

All of this — the Gizmodo article, the reaction, the investigation — is important. But it’s a bit narrow. Facebook doesn’t merely have the ability to dictate which already-written stories merit inclusion in its own trending news section; in some cases, the social media juggernaut can also influence which stories journalists wind up writing — and the kinds of questions they ask — in the first place.
Facebook's trending news box showed what users were talking about on Thursday afternoon.

Last fall, the social network launched a reporting tool called Signal that is designed to help journalists “monitor what topics are trending on Facebook” and “find stories as they grow in importance.” Poynter described possible applications in an article about the rollout in September:

In advance of today’s launch, Facebook made Signal available to several beta testers. Vox.com Engagement Editor Allison Rockey was among the journalists who got a sneak peek at the tool, and she says Vox will continue to use Signal for both audience engagement and newsgathering.

“It’s very important for us to give context and background to the biggest news stories of the day,” Rockey said. “Our editors are incredibly interested in the questions and conversation that people are having outside of newsrooms and outside of the Beltway. Having insight into what people are discussing and have questions about on Facebook is really helpful.”

It is really helpful — so long as the data is legit. And, to be clear, there is no evidence that it’s not.

Robert D’Onofrio, Facebook’s director of data communications, said in a statement that the trending topics team at the center of the Gizmodo report is not the same unit that tells journalists — such as the presidential debate moderators who have cited Facebook data in their questions — which political subjects are driving conversations on the social network.

“The political conversation data Facebook shares — like we did with broadcast partners during multiple presidential primary debates — is completely separate from Trending Topics,” D’Onofrio said. “A different team works to quantify and analyze which candidates and issues people talk about most on Facebook before, during or after a debate. These data sets are an unaltered, aggregated rankings based on the number of unique people liking, posting, commenting on and sharing content about a particular subject or candidate.”

One big challenge for media outlets is that there’s no way to fact-check Facebook data because it’s proprietary. No one but Facebook knows what’s really trending on Facebook.

The inability to authenticate Facebook data means newsrooms have to think hard about how heavily they lean on it. They also have to consider how — amid intense competition for Internet traffic — the desire to produce viral content might color editorial judgments. Many news sites draw large portions of their audiences from Facebook, so the temptation is to try to create content that seems likely to be shared and liked over and over.

Upworthy built a business on this strategy. Then, when Facebook changed its news feed algorithm a couple years ago in what was widely viewed as a crackdown on clickbait, Upworthy’s traffic declined sharply. It was a high-profile illustration of how a media company can become a slave to Facebook — and a reminder that the reputation of the news media is on the line here, too.

So there is a shared responsibility where the potential for abuse exists. Facebook could theoretically nudge journalists toward the topics it wants covered by showing those topics to be trending when, in fact, they are not.

For example: One source in the Gizmodo report claimed that “the Black Lives Matter movement was … injected into Facebook’s trending news module,” even though it actually wasn’t trending at the time, according to numerical metrics. If true, the immediate consequence was that more people were exposed to existing news about Black Lives Matter. The possible long-term consequence was that journalists produced more news about Black Lives Matter because they believed a ton of people were interested.

“Nothing says you shouldn’t inject certain topics,” said Jennifer Grygiel, a communications professor at Syracuse University who specializes in social media. “Journalism certainly isn't just what people are talking about the most; it’s what people need to know. So, sure, inject topics. But be transparent if you do.”

Zuckerberg said in a statement last week that the social network has “rigorous guidelines that do not permit the prioritization of one viewpoint over another or the suppression of political perspectives.”

“We have found no evidence that [the Gizmodo] report is true,” he added. “If we find anything against our principles, you have my commitment that we will take additional steps to address it.”

The Gizmodo article, based on interviews with unnamed former contractors, noted “there is no evidence that Facebook management mandated or was even aware of any political bias at work.”

Still, facing a PR problem, Zuckerberg addressed the charge of ideological screening by employees in an off-the-record meeting Wednesday. He met with about 20 prominent conservatives, including media figures such as radio host Glenn Beck, CNN commentator S.E. Cupp and Townhall general manager Jonathan Garthwaite.

Facebook’s role in shaping the news agenda has been on display this election season during presidential debates. At a Republican debate last fall, Fox Business moderator Neil Cavuto asked for the candidates’ positions on the minimum wage. At another debate in January, Cavuto’s co-moderator, Maria Bartiromo, brought up gun control. And at a third debate in March, Fox News’s Bret Baier asked why the GOP’s White House contenders hadn’t talked more about the water crisis in Flint, Mich.

All three questions — along with several others posed in the primary debates — had something in common that was mentioned live on the air: Facebook data showing the subjects they addressed were popular on the social network.

A spokeswoman for the Fox cable channels — alone among the GOP debate media sponsors in citing Facebook trending data — said journalists “chose the topics and only used Facebook for supplementary data. We stand by the topics discussed in both debates on Fox News Channel and Fox Business.”

In other words, Facebook didn’t tell Fox to ask about the minimum wage, gun control or the Flint water crisis; it simply provided data confirming those were, indeed, topics that interested many people.

Nevertheless, the inclusion of Facebook trending data in questions posed to presidential candidates — with millions of voters watching on television — is proof of the high stakes. Moderators relied, in part, on Facebook figures to inform those candidates and voters about the priorities of the electorate.

If journalists are going to depend on Facebook to tell them what people care about, then they’ll want to feel assured that these data are accurate or, if subjective, at least openly so. Which is why there is so much on the line.

In other words, the issue is much bigger than which topics do or do not appear in a little box on your phone or computer screen.