Facebook's News Feed team has been reeling since a report earlier this year argued that a team of contractors responsible for the feed's Trending Topics module routinely suppressed news of interest to political conservatives. Facebook denied the report, which was published by Gizmodo and was sourced to former contractors on the team. But the company has spent several months doing damage control, rattled by the possibility that conservative users would abandon the site over claims of bias. Today Facebook took a step to reduce the influence humans have over the module by ending its practice of writing editorial descriptions for topics, replacing them with snippets of text pulled from news stories.
Human beings will continue to be "involved" in Trending Topics, separating legitimate news events from the mundane hashtags that trend every day (#lunch). Editors will also continue to combine multiple hashtags and keywords that describe a single trend under a unified topic. But descriptions for the topics will no longer be written by editors. Instead, an algorithm will comb through news stories about an event and select a snippet to display when users click through on a trend or (on the desktop) hover over it with their mice.
"We're committed to maintaining Trending as a way for people to access a breadth of ideas and commentary."
"Making these changes to the product allows our team to make fewer individual decisions about topics," the company said in a blog post. "Facebook is a platform for all ideas, and we're committed to maintaining Trending as a way for people to access a breadth of ideas and commentary about a variety of topics."
As a practical matter, the change announced today does not address the possibility that Facebook could suppress news stories if it wanted to. Employees are still deciding which stories appear in the Trending Topics module, just as they were before the controversy arose. (The company has published the guidelines they use to make their selections.) But using other people's descriptions for those topics insulates Facebook criticism from those descriptions are biased — and will also let Facebook expand Trending Topics to other countries faster, the company said.
In the middle of the controversy, I interviewed Facebook executive Will Cathcart about Facebook's role in journalism. Cathcart made it clear that Facebook has little to no interest in making highly subjective editorial decisions for the entire world. Today's announcement shows Facebook moving even further away from editorial decision-making.
Update August 26th, 6:37PM: This article originally said Gizmodo's report that Facebook routinely suppressed conservative news was sourced to a single contractor. The author of the Gizmodo story contacted us to say that two former contractors had made that specific charge, and that the larger issue is that any human intervention in Trending Topics could lead to charges of political bias.