Facebook Trending Topics: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

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Facebook (on trending topics) is now facing criticism all around for the allegations that it silencing conservative viewpoints, and the pressure is so great that CEO Mark Zuckerberg is trying to do damage control by inviting conservatives to share their views. In response, conservative news outlet Breitbart’s tech editor, Milo Yiannopoulos has challenged him to a debate via a YouTube video.

Facebook Trending Topics: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
Source: Pixabay

Facebook releases Trending guidelines

The flap started with Gizmodo’s article sourced from a former Facebook employee who claimed that editors in the social network’s Trending team routinely favor liberal viewpoints while burying conservatives. Then The Guardian revealed that the company’s own editorial guidelines allow editors to “inject” topics of their choosing, and Facebook went on to officially publish those guidelines, which do indeed allow for this.

And so Facebook has a huge problem. It wants in on the news business even though its primary function is as a social network. The onus of being fair and balanced is perhaps even greater on Facebook because it has situated itself in a precarious position. No one accuses NBC of being too liberal or Fox News of being too conservative because this comes as no surprise to anyone, but then these are strict media outlets and not organizations attempting to be in two place at one time.

A “social network” should be a platform where all views are heard and shared, but anytime you have a human editor, there is the opportunity to shape what the audience sees or reads. Facebook claims that the use of algorithms combined with human editors creates a sort of checks-and-balances system, but does it really?

Has Facebook set itself up to fail?

One point that I haven’t seen a lot about is the fact that so many major media outlets lean to the left. Other than Fox News, almost every other mainstream news outlet tends to be more liberal (whether they will admit it or not). In other words, Facebook’s computer algorithms have a built-in liberal engine that feeds the company’s editorial team.

And this is more than anecdotal evidence. The 1986 book The Media Elite by Robert Lichter, Stanley Rothman and Linda Lichter conducted a survey of journalists at major U.S. media outlets and found that most journalists were left-leaning Democratic voters. The more recent book Press Bias and Politics by Jim A. Kuypers contains newer findings that also indicated that American mainstream media usually favors liberal viewpoints. There have also been several other studies which seem to indicate that the American media tends to be very liberal.

Facebook mostly favors liberal news sources

Right now you’re saying that there are plenty of non-mainstream media outlets that favor conservative viewpoints, but consider this list from Facebook’s own editorial guidelines. The Trending team is told to use these media outlets as a sort of measuring stick when determining which stories are important: the BBC (liberal); CNN (liberal); Fox News (conservative); The Guardian (liberal); NBC (liberal); The New York Times (liberal); The Wall Street Journal (mixed to slightly conservative); The Washington Post (liberal); USA Today (mixed); BuzzFeed News (mixed).

Of this list, only Fox News is strictly conservative, while six of them tend to lean to the left and the others are known for mixed viewpoints or being rather fair and balanced, but this clearly means that Facebook is scraping news from sources that are mostly liberal when taken together. The chart here shows how liberal the mainstream media tends to be as well based on whether liberals or conservatives trust the various media outlets, putting this concept into pictures.

We have reached out to Facebook for a comment on this story and will update this page if one is received.

Facebook press release on trending topics issue below:

At Facebook, we stand for connecting every person — for a global community, for bringing people together, for giving all people a voice, for a free flow of ideas and culture across nations.

One of the most powerful ways people connect is around major events — in their communities and in the larger world. People also connect through conversations on the topics they are most interested in.

At its core, Trending Topics is designed to help people discover major events and meaningful conversations. Trending Topics is a feature we added in 2014 — separate from a person’s News Feed — to help people discover content that is both popular in the world and meaningful to them. Topics that are eligible to appear in the product are surfaced by our algorithms, not people. This product also has a team of people who play an important role in making sure that what appears in Trending Topics is high-quality and useful.

The Trending Topics team is governed by a set of guidelines meant to ensure a high-quality product, consistent with Facebook’s deep commitment to being a platform for people of all viewpoints. Our goal has always been to deliver a valuable experience for the people who use our service. The guidelines demonstrate that we have a series of checks and balances in place to help surface the most important popular stories, regardless of where they fall on the ideological spectrum. Facebook does not allow or advise our reviewers to discriminate against sources of any political origin, period. Here are the guidelines we use.

Here is an overview of how Trending Topics works:

Surfaced by algorithm
Potential Trending Topics are first surfaced by an algorithm that identifies topics that have recently spiked in popularity on Facebook (in other words, ones that have a high volume of mentions and a sharp increase in mentions over a short period of time). The Trending Topics algorithm also uses an external RSS website crawler to identify breaking events so that we can connect people to conversations on Facebook about newsworthy events as quickly as possible. A list of included websites is available here.

Reviewed by the Trending Topics team
Members of the Trending team look at potential Trending Topics as they are surfaced by the algorithm and do the following:

  • Confirm that the topic is tied to a current news event in the real world (for example, the topic “#lunch” is talked about during lunch every day around the world, but will not be a trending topic).
  • Write a topic description with information that is corroborated by reporting from at least three of a list of more than a thousand media outlets. A list of these media outlets is available here.
  • Apply a category label to the topic (e.g. sports, science) to help with personalized ranking and to enable suggestions grouped by category for the various tabs on the desktop version.
  • Check to see whether the topic is national or global breaking news that is being covered by most or all of ten major media outlets— and if it is, the topic is given an importance level that may make the topic more likely to be seen. A list of these outlets is available in the guidelines.

The list of Trending Topics is then personalized for each user via an algorithm that relies on a number of factors, including the importance of the topic, Pages a person has liked, location (e.g.. home state sports news), feedback provided by the user about previous Trending Topics and what’s trending across Facebook overall. Not everyone sees the same topics at the same time.

The Trending search results page?
When you click on a Trending Topic, you are taken to a search results page that includes all the news sources and posts that are covering the topic. The articles and posts that appear here are also surfaced algorithmically.

Trending is also integrated into Facebook Search so you can search for any Trending topic that may not show up in your Trending suggestions.


Q. Why was Trending Topics created?

Trending Topics was launched in 2014 to surface the major conversations happening on Facebook. It has evolved over time, and remains a work in progress. Trending Topics is a relatively limited part of the Facebook experience — appearing on the right hand side on desktop as well as when you tap on the Search box in the mobile app, and primarily for people using Facebook in English (there are limited tests being run in Spanish and Portuguese).

Q: How do you protect against bias in the Trending Topics product?

First and foremost, the algorithm that surfaces topics eligible for review optimizes for popularity and frequency on Facebook and whether it is a real world event — and does not consider perspective or politics. Second, we have a series of checks and balances in place to help surface the most important popular stories, regardless of where they fall on the ideological spectrum, as well as to eliminate noise that does not relate to a current newsworthy event but might otherwise be surfaced through our algorithm. Facebook does not allow or advise our reviewers to discriminate against sources of any political origin, period.

The guidelines that govern our review:

  • do not permit the suppression of political perspectives
  • do not permit the prioritization of one ideological viewpoint over another

Lastly, we regularly audit the work of members of our review team to ensure that it complies with the guidelines. Violating the guidelines is a fireable offense.

Q. Have reviewers been instructed by Facebook to inject specific stories into Trending Topics to suppress conservative news/sites? 

No — and the guidelines do not permit reviewers to add or suppress political perspectives.

Q. What does ‘injecting’ mean? Could someone who is reviewing the Trending Topics artificially inject a topic into Trending Topics?

Potential Trending Topics are first surfaced by an algorithm that identifies topics that have recently spiked in popularity on Facebook or are suggested by an external RSS website crawler to identify breaking news events. If, in this process, a topic is detected that should connect to a linguistically-similar but distinct topic (e.g., the LEGO movie vs LEGO the toy), the reviewer may replace the topic ID by “injecting” a more accurate topic ID. Similarly, we might inject “#Odile” as a better way to represent a hurricane occurring in Cabo San Lucas than the topics “Baja” and “Cabo,” which might be surfaced by the algorithm. Injection helps improve Trending Topics over time by surfacing higher-quality topics. It is not used to promote articles or topics from a particular perspective.

Q: Can reviewers remove or suppress political topics they don’t like by “blacklisting” them? 

The guidelines do not permit the suppression of political perspectives. About 40% of the topics in the queue get rejected by the reviewers because they reflect what is considered “noise” — a random word or name that lots of people are using in lots of different ways. For example, braised, DVD, #weekend and #sale are all topics that were not accepted as trends over the past week. This tool is not used to suppress or remove articles or topics from a particular perspective.

Q. Is Facebook investigating whether employees did manipulate the Trending Topics list in ways alleged in the Gizmodo stories?

Yes. We take these reports very seriously, and will continue to investigate the allegations. We have found no evidence to date that Trending Topics was successfully manipulated, but will continue the review of all our practices.


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