Facebook’s Trending Topics Turmoil

CATEGORIES
May 2016
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Author : Pete Peranzo

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Did it ever occur to you that the news that you so eagerly look forward to on your Facebook feed might not quite comprise the headlines that are trending at that moment?

We have all heard of the big media outlets giving us biased coverage, polarizing editorials and simply behaving as the puppets of those who pump money into them. They are constantly coloring the opinions of impressionable people.

Is it time already to add Facebook to the mix? Gizmodo’s recent article accuses Facebook of curating trending topics in biased manner. The report cited a former journalist, who wished to remain anonymous, saying they were asked to suppress news from conservative outlets while promoting others.

This has prompted the Senate Commerce Committee to write to Mark Zuckerberg on the matter. They want to know, through the trending topics staffers, how the features that select the topics work.

Where does Facebook get the trending articles from? We supposed it worked organically, tracking clicks, shares, etc. Now we have to contend with the thought that this might not be the case, after all.

Regardless of whether these allegations are with or without basis, this brings to forefront  the larger question of should anyone be controlling news at all?

Facebook refutes allegations

Facebook has already dismissed these allegations. Tom Stocky, Facebook’s VP of search and the person in charge of the team responsible for trending topics, unequivocally stated thatFacebook is a platform for people and perspectives from across the political spectrum,” and that rigorous guidelines [are] in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality.”

Stocky further said in his reply that violating these guidelines is a “fireable offense.”

We have in place strict guidelines for our trending topic reviewers as they audit topics surfaced algorithmically: reviewers are required to accept topics that reflect real world events, and are instructed to disregard junk or duplicate topics, hoaxes or subjects with insufficient sources. Facebook does not allow or advise our reviewers to systematically discriminate against sources of any ideological origin and we’ve designed our tools to make that technically not feasible. At the same time, our reviewers’ actions are logged and reviewed, and violating our guidelines is a fireable offense.”

He also denied allegations that Facebook artificially promotes certain stories in order for them to gain greater visibility (in line with whoever’s agenda.)

As the comments on that page indicate, this clarification hasn’t done much to assuage people’s fears of Facebook tinkering with trending stories.

That said,  it probably naïve to have ever thought that there was no “human” element to curating trending topics, even if it wasn’t in the manner outlined in the Gizmodo article.

Manipulating trending topics – is there a case for it?

Media outlets often have vested interests in the news they publish and promote. That has largely been the nature of the beast. But if one were to be slightly less cynical, there are other considerations as well.

Media outlets, when not acting out of self-interest, regularly vet news before publishing it. Sometimes the truth is too graphic to be allowed to spread on its own without any editing to make it more palatable for general consumption.

Since Facebook is an international platform and people can actually be taken into custody for posting their political views on it in some countries, it could be a contributing factor towards the social network “choosing trending topics” (as one of the anonymous news curators alleged in Gizmodo’s article).

Here are some other reasons that come to mind:

  • Prevent news that reflects badly on Facebook from spreading.
  • Prevent dubious or duplicate content from clogging News Feeds.
  • Not support topics promoting racist, sexist, misogynist (or disturbing in any other way) views, which could also land Facebook in trouble.

 

That said, there is also a case for simply letting the trending topics behave organically, or at least with minimal human manipulation:

  • Reinforce trust in Facebook. We give Facebook a lot of our information and they have given us many a reason to distrust them. These allegations of manipulating trending topics do not help.
  • Let adults be adults and decide for themselves how to process news that could be offensive to certain communities, nations, or ethnicities. This would accurately reflect what is going on in the world, which is one of the goals of the users on social media.
  • Given the clout Facebook has, and the extent to which the views on it influence the general population, it is downright dangerous to be manipulating topics and news for trending purposes.
  • Manipulating news or tinkering with algorithm(s) to falsely promote certain topics goes against the very essence of the Internet which seeks quality and egalitarian representation for all views (as long as they do not threaten the well-being of innocent people.)

For a regular user of Facebook, one way to ascertain whether news has been allowed to trend organically on that platform or not would be to compare the trending topics with those on Twitter. I understand different stories can trend on different platforms but overall there ought to be a convergence with the biggest trends.

As people increasingly rely on social media to get their news updates, these accusations could have serious implications. That being said, it’s important to remember that Facebook is a business entity that is beholden to stockholders. It’s our responsibility to read trending news stories with an open mind and with a healthy dose of scepticism.

How do you feel to know that the “trending” news could actually not be the trending news? Please leave a comment and let us know your thoughts!

 

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