Early this May, online social networking company Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ:FB) of Menlo Park, CA, was facing some heat for its Trending News operations. At that time, reports had come out that Trending News curators were preventing news stories on politically conservative topics from showing up in Facebook’s Trending News. Reports from that time also focused on Facebook’s poor treatment of Trending News contractors and a high rate of turnover, especially among female employees.
In response, Facebook decided to try and operate the Trending News section without the use of humans in an attempt to remove bias. On August 26th, digital news outlet Quartz reported that the 15 to 18 contractors remaining on the Trending News editorial team were laid off by Facebook. Instead, Facebook was looking to implement an algorithm that would determine which topics were driving the greatest amount of discussion online. Facebook users might note that Trending News topics no longer come with a written description, which used to be created by news curators, but instead display how many people are talking about a given topic. News reports indicated that human engineers would ensure that trending topics were actually newsworthy.
And yet, Facebook has been having trouble with this newest model despite the elimination of human bias. In late August, there were reports that Facebook’s Trending News algorithm was helping increase the spread of fake news stories from satire or non-news sites. One particularly egregious example of this was the promotion of a headline indicating that FOX News anchor Megyn Kelly had been fired from her position at the broadcast company.
It is possible that the fake news topics in Trending News issue may get fixed for Facebook in the future; after all, algorithms tend to improve with time and greater access to data and Facebook has made an official comment that it will work to improve the Trending News algorithm’s ability to weed out fake and satirical stories. But this episode does highlight the fact that simply because content is trending online doesn’t mean that content is factually accurate. So-called “clickbait” articles are able to gain traction with user engagement by appealing to strong emotional responses in readers. In early August, Facebook announced that it would work to suppress clickbait articles in news feeds by reducing the distribution of posts which withhold important information from their headlines and are designed to create misleading expectations in readers.
This is simply the latest misstep in a series of issues faced in recent months by Facebook, especially by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg has stated that Facebook would work to eliminate illicit sales of firearms conducted through the social network but reports from earlier this year indicate that private weapons sales continue to be conducted through the online social network.
Elsewhere, Facebook has done little to stem the tide of extortion and kidnappings in regions of Latin America where cartels often use social media information for criminal purposes. Also, despite Facebook’s insistence that it would work to eliminate hate speech from its social network, it was the target of a lawsuit filed this May by French Jewish youth group UEJF for its inability to remove content flagged as hateful.