Earlier this year, a report from Gizmodo suggested that Facebook had been selectively editing their Trending News section to highlight or ignore certain stories, indicative of inherent bias in their news coverage.
Such an accusation would be significant in any context, but given Facebook’s massive global reach (now up to 1.71 billion users), the platform is now in a position where it arguably has more influence over how people access news content than any other platform. Such emphasis becomes even more relevant when you consider that, according to Pew Research, more Americans than ever are getting their news via Facebook.
Gizmodo’s report sparked an internal investigation at Facebook HQ, sparked calls for an official Government inquiryand lead to CEO Mark Zuckerberg meeting with conservative groups to explain their processes. Facebook released their official guidelines on how they select trending topics and responded publicly to alleviate concerns. Their investigation, meanwhile, found no evidence of systematic bias – but still, the seeds had been planted. Public doubt had been raised.
The issue highlighted just how influential Facebook has become, and the significance of the role it plays in the wider media process. In fact, it’s not even theory that Facebook has the capacity to influence how people think, or even how they vote, they’ve actually proven such influence is possible, as part of an experiment back in 2010. And given this heightened concern, Facebook, has effectively been forced to act.
That’s why, today, The Social Network has announced a change in the way their Trending News section is presented.
In a post on the Facebook Newsroom blog, Facebook’s outlined how manual descriptions will now be removed from the Trending list, leaving just a simplified topic and the number of people talking about it.
When you hover over any topic on the list, you’ll be given more context as to what the story is about, with an automatically selected top match story preview.
And as normal, if you click through on any topic, you’ll be taken to a search results page which will include a list of the news sources covering the issue
“As before, articles and posts that appear in search results are surfaced algorithmically, based on a high volume of mentions and a sharp increase in mentions over a short period of time.”
The trending list will also remain personalized and matched to you based on your interests, your location and previously read Trending content.
Facebook also notes that humans will still have some involvement in the process:
“There are still people involved in this process to ensure that the topics that appear in Trending remain high-quality — for example, confirming that a topic is tied to a current news event in the real world. The topic #lunch is talked about during lunchtime every day around the world, but will not be a trending topic. These changes mean that we no longer need to do things like write topic descriptions and short story summaries since we’re relying on an algorithm to pull excerpts directly from news stories.”
The change effectively reduces the influence of Facebook’s human editors on the Trending section – and while that doesn’t completely eliminate the possibility that these topics could still be manually interfered with, it does give the editorial team less impetus to do so, reducing their impact on what’s trending and relying instead on algorithms to surface relevant content.
In essence, now, Facebook’s Trending Topics is exactly like Twitter’s “Trends” section.
For their part, Facebook says that this level of automation has always been the plan – by relying on automated trending topics, they can make this section more relevant to users around the world, rather than having to hire more and more local editors to produce summaries. But it’s pretty clear that the move has been inspired by the recent controversy.
Some have already derided Facebook for taking a step backwards with the change, as providing that additional context made their Trending section more useful, but really, the update seems minor.
But then again the proof, of course, will come in practice – will this change result in more people clicking on Trending stories because the single word trends will intrigue them? Or will it lead to more people simply ignoring the section because it provides no context for the mention? As Facebook works to become a bigger part of the news cycle, through getting publishers to post more content direct to its site, it’s an interesting gamble to take, though the option has been in testing for a few weeks, so they’re obviously fairly confident the impact will be minimal, if any.
Either way you look at it, Facebook is an influential news source, and as such, it’s crucially important for them to inspire trust. This announcement is another move to reinforce that element.