Facebook removed one more layer of human involvement from their Trending Topics widget by getting rid of their staff of editors and rely solely on algorithms to select and display trending news stories. Theoretically, this should bring more balance and objectivity to the highly scrutinized top-right corner of the social media platform. But it looks like the transition is already running into some bumps in the road.
Just days after Facebook announced the change, the Trending section featured a story with the inflammatory title “Breaking: Fox News Exposes Traitor Megyn Kelly, Kicks Her Out For Backing Hillary” by the publication Ending The Fed. In reality, Megyn Kelly was never fired from Fox News and Facebook removed the false story a few hours later. But the incident highlights the challenges the social media platform faces in its somewhat awkward attempt at serving up news without going as far as calling itself a real publication.
Quartz reported the company has let go of the entire editorial staff of 15-18 contract workers as part of the move toward automation. Now, Trending Topics will be overseen entirely by engineers who will review topics for newsworthiness before letting them show up on Trending Topics. Though, they seem to have let the bogus Megyn Kelly story slip through the cracks.
To users, the updated Trending Topics will show only a short phrase or single word along with the number of users discussing the topic. Human-generated descriptions are gone.
“Our goal is to enable Trending for as many people as possible, which would be hard to do if we relied solely on summarizing topics by hand,” Facebook wrote in a blog post announcing the changes. “A more algorithmically driven process allows us to scale Trending to cover more topics and make it available to more people globally over time. This is something we always hoped to do but we are making these changes sooner given the feedback we got from the Facebook community earlier this year.”
Facebook is turning to its algorithmic approach in the wake of controversy earlier this year around alleged bias in the kinds of topics they displayed.
Former contractors leaked to Gizmodo in May that they routinely suppressed stories supporting conservative viewpoints while manually adding in other stories that didn’t make it to Trending Topics on their own. Facebook denied the claims, maintaining the topics were always selected by algorithms and staff only wrote corresponding descriptions. Still, the incident prompted people to ask just how unbiased the section really was. And in a highly publicized show of goodwill, CEO Mark Zuckerberg invited conservative leaders and pundits to their Menlo Park campus to air their grievances.
Now, after having completely drained out any and all semblance of personality or context-providing voice to the news widget, Facebook can at least feel safely shielded from future criticisms of bias. And for them, maybe the trade-off is worth it.