Facebook has been catching heat over allegations that its news team frequently buries conservative news topics, allegations it denies. Nevertheless, the world's top social network is making some changes to its Trending topics feature that promotes certain news stories over others in an effort to make the process more automated and presumably less prone to human bias.
It starts with news summaries. Going forward, Trending news articles will no longer require people to write descriptions of the content. Facebook skirts around the issue of bias by pitching the change as a necessary means to bring Trending stories to as many people as possible, and apparently that's "hard to do" if relying on summarizing topics by hand.
Choosing stories to promote will also become more algorithmically driven than before. Facebook's official reasoning for leaning more heavily on an algorithm is that it allows the social network to scale its Trending feature to cover a larger number of topics and make it available to more people around the globe.
"Instead of seeing a story description in Trending, you’ll now see a simplified topic—for example, #PhelpsFace or NASA—as well as the number of people talking about that particular topic on Facebook. This is based on the number of original posts that mention the topic and shares of posts about the topic," Facebook says.
Essentially what's happening here is that Facebook is trying to address the elephant in the room without drawing too much attention to it. This stems from a Gizmodo article back in May in which a former journalist who worked on Facebook's Trending feature said that Facebook workers routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers. Even though certain topics such as the right-wing CPAC gathering were trending organically among the site's users, Facebook's news curators allegedly would bury the topics and artificially add others into the Trending news module.
Facebook was swift to reject the claims made in the article, first by a comment by a company spokesperson and then with a longer statement from Tom Stocky, Vice President of Search at Facebook. But whether or not the allegations are true, even just the appearance of bias can hurt Facebook's credibility, especially considering the service's massive worldwide audience. That said, the social network isn't canning its news team and going all-in with an algorithm.
"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," Facebook added. "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. Our team will still strictly follow our guidelines, which have been updated to reflect these changes."
Humans will still play a role in the topics you see, but if Facebook has a handle on the situation, the news stories should be as diverse and widespread as its audience.