Facebook Trending News Algorithm Promotes False Megyn Kelly Story In Absence Of Human Handlers

It looks like our would-be robot overlords aren't quite up to the task of running things all by themselves. In what could be considered a test run, Facebook recently announced less human intervention and more reliance on a computer algorithm to its Trending topics feature, a decision it made following a report alleging that its team of news editors had been suppressing stories that would be of interest to a conservative audience. That's fine and dandy, except the algorithm used its newfound power to promote a fake news store about Well, less than a week after slapping the algorithm on the backside and letting it run free, it promoted a false story about Megyn Kelly, a high profile journalist at Fox News.

The topic "Megyn Kelly" was trending on Facebook from Sunday evening to Monday morning based on a fake news headline that read, "Fox News Exposes Traitor Megyn Kelly, Kicks Her Out For Backing Hillary." To be clear, the news outlet hasn't booted Megyn Kelly.


This is a lesson learned for Facebook. The social network was in a bit of a tough spot amid allegations that its news editors routinely suppressed conservative stories. Whether or not that was happening, the very appearance of bias can damage an organization's credibility, especially one that has much social influence as Facebook.

Facebook responded by tweaking things so that its Trending topics feature would be more algorithmically driven. Humans weren't removed from the equation altogether, but the news team was no longer tasked with writing summaries of articles.

"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 said of the change.

So how did this happen? There was a recent Vanity Fair article about Kelly's contract expiring next year, as will Bill O'Reilly, another high-profile personality at Fox News. It cited an anonymous "rival news executive" as saying the news outlet might only be able to keep one of them. Several aggregated stories cited the article, while the inaccurate headline in question contained a link to one of the aggregated news articles. There's your loose connection.

Facebook will undoubtedly tweak is algorithm to prevent this sort of thing from happening again, but without more human intervention, it may suffer more embarrassing moments before finding a groove.