Facebook’s Trending Topics are proving controversial once again, as it emerged that without curatorial input, seemingly inappropriate and offensive items are appearing on users’ feeds. 

Facebook recently purged its editorial staff following accusations in May, from a former Facebook journalist, that workers were encouraged to suppress topics which supported conservative or right-wing views. Unsurprisingly, given the volatile nature of American politics at the present moment, this led to a storm of protest.

Facebook conducted an internal investigation into the accusations but found no evidence of systematic bias amongst its system and guidelines. However, it reportedly fired up to 18 editorial employees, replacing them with engineers. These engineers oversaw a move to a system more heavily reliant on algorithms, with disastrous consequences.

The Old Facebook System

Prior to the accusations, the role of the editorial staff was primarily to write and attach short descriptions for each Trending Topic. The topics were produced initially by an algorithm that arranged them in order of highest volume of mentions and sharpest increase in mentions over a narrow period of time. The information for each description had to come from a minimum of three approved media outlets, the list of which Facebook has made publicly available. If ten or more news outlets were broadcasting or discussing a topic as breaking news, it was granted greater weight in the trends. 

However, Facebook staff were also instructed to remove certain trends from the list, so-called ‘Blacklisting’, and from here stemmed the controversy. According to Facebook’s guidelines, Trending Topics could be removed if they were deemed irrelevant or generic. Examples given include #lunch or #weekend, which would trend frequently if not for human involvement. However, accusations were made that this curatorial work was more extensive and involved the removal of topics deemed too conservative or right-wing by Facebook. The company refutes the allegation but did make changes.

The Trending Topics New System

Under the new system, the short descriptions have been removed altogether and replaced simply by the number of related posts. Hovering over a Trending Topic now produces an excerpt from a relevant article (decided upon by an algorithm). The personalisation of topics according to a user’s liked Pages, location and previous topic engagement remains, as does limited staff input to remove the generic.

Serious flaws in this new system were quick to emerge. Facebook’s algorithm is not capable of distinguishing between fake and real news stories, a problem only compounded by a lack of journalists to provide editorial judgement. In consequence, a fake news story about FOX News Anchor Meghan Kelly and her alleged links to Hillary Clinton was allowed to sit in the Trending Topics for several hours on Monday, accruing likes and comments. The original story was from a partisan news outlet not on the approved list. The topic was only removed during a later review, by which point some damage was almost certainly done to both their and Kelly’s reputations.

The Future of Trending Topics

As well as being rather embarrassing, this and other recent incidents call into question Facebook’s ability to compete as a reliable news provider. The inability for an algorithm to detect satire or falsehoods in an article would suggest that a return to greater human involvement is needed. Facebook is wary of this in light of their desire to be more relevant globally. A handful of staff cannot reasonably curate Trending Topics in various areas of the world efficiently. The more brutal option would of course be to remove Trending Topics altogether, but such a move would necessarily reduce its ability to compete with the likes of Twitter as a major news source.

Written by Charlotte Green September of 2016