Facebook Tweaks Trending Topics Out of Abundance of Caution

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Facebook this week said it would make several procedural changes to its Trending Topics feature to quell concerns that the results could be steered in a particular political direction, even though it has found no evidence of bias.

The company will retrain workers in the Trending Topics department and institute additional oversight and control to make sure trending stories are selected fairly, said Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch.

"Our investigation has revealed no evidence of systematic political bias in the selection or prominence of stories included in the Trending Topics feature," he noted. "Our data analysis indicated that conservative and liberal topics are approved as trending topics at virtually identical rates."

Facebook will update the terminology in its guidelines to make it clearer, provide refresher training to emphasize that Trending Topics should not be selected based on ideology, provide additional oversight of the review team, and add rapid escalation should a problem arise, Stretch said.

The company no longer will rely on outside websites and news outlets to validate whether a story is worthy of inclusion, he added. It also will remove the ability to assign importance levels to certain stories and will expand the help desk to provide more information on that.

Conservative topics often were suppressed in the Trending Topics section, according to a report published earlier this month by Gizmodo. Stories about Facebook also were discouraged.

Sen. John Thune, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, wrote to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, demanding a response to the allegations.

That led to a high-profile confab between Zuckerberg and some of the leading figures in conservative media, including The Blaze founder Glenn Beck.

As part of Facebook's public response, Stretch sent an extensive defense of its practices to Thune.

"I'd call it fence mending," said Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the Poynter Institute.

"Facebook wanted to show that it was open to dialogue with critics and will re-examine business practices," he told the E-Commerce Times.

Thune was not seeking to provide any legislative solution to the problem, just more transparency into the process, he said, praising the company's response to his concerns.

"Private companies are fully entitled to espouse their own views, so I appreciate Facebook's efforts to address allegations of bias raised in the media and my concern about a lack of transparency in its methodology for determining trending topics," he said.

Facebook has offered a more detailed description of the methodology it uses to come up with Trending Topics, Thune noted. "We now know the system relied on human judgment, and not just an automated process, more than previously acknowledged."

Facebook is in a very difficult situation because members always will see it as tainted, and if it tries to correct the problem, members from the left will accuse it of overcorrecting, said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

"Honestly, I don't see an easy way out of this now," he told the E-Commerce Times. "The only way you can possibly try to prove nonbias is have somebody create an algorithm that is truly independent."

The company's prior arguments that it was unbiased based on the use of computerized algorithms are not bulletproof because, depending on how they are written, they can tilt in a more liberal or conservative direction, he added.

The ACLU has questioned whether Facebook needed to be more transparent about how it decides what is trending.

"When I see a list on the side of a newspaper site that says 'most read' or 'most shared,' I assume that's a relatively dumb algorithm that is simply counting up clicks," said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has called Thune's inquiry into question on First Amendment grounds.

"It's commendable that Facebook is making internal changes and being more transparent about how it produces the Trending Topics section, but it remains improper under the First Amendment for a senator to inquire into what amounts to Facebook's editorial practices," said Sofia Cope, an EFF staff attorney.

"So while some good appears to have come from Sen. Thune's letter, that shouldn't give other government officials the green light to do the same thing in a similar situation," she told the E-Commerce Times.

Facebook's editorial decisions are protected under First Amendment case law, Cope said in a blog post published earlier this month. In a 1974 case, Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot tell a private publisher what to print or not print, nor can the publisher be punished for making certain editorial decisions.

However, it would "behoove the company to be more transparent about its content policies," she said.

The EFF has criticized Facebook in the past for how it enforces its terms of service, including which posts it chooses to delete, images it censors, or users who are tossed from the service because of some violation.

The organization tracks the actions of various social media companies at onlinecensorship.org.

David Jones is a freelance writer based in Essex County, New Jersey. He has written for Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain's New York Business and The New York Times.

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