Facebook’s Trending Topics—an innocuous-seeming little sidebar module that has become the seething epicenter of controversy over bias and fake news—is getting another reboot.
In the past, Facebook might have identified a topic as “trending” based on a single, popular article or post. Now Facebook says designating a topic as “trending” will depend on how many publishers are posting stories on the same topic, as well as how many people are liking, sharing, and commenting on those articles.
A headline from a single article will now accompany each Trending Topic link, selected based on a mix of factors: the number of shares, “engagement” on Facebook with the publisher, and whether other articles are link to the piece. Facebook points out that headlines that appear when you hover over or click on a Trending Topic; this tweak makes the headline more visible. The company also says it won’t strictly limit which publishers’ headlines could potentially accompany a topic—a departure from the list the company reportedly once kept of sites and publications whose links it would allow in Trending Topics.
Lastly, Facebook says it will no longer personalize Trending Topics based on your interests. Instead, the module will give more prominence to the news in your region. “This is designed to help make sure people don’t miss important topics being discussed on Facebook that might not show up in their News Feed,” Will Cathcart, a vice-president of product management at Facebook, writes in a blog post.
Facebook last overhauled Trending Topics in August while still embroiled in a months-long scandal over bias stemming from a Gizmodo report that found human curators were routinely suppressing conservative news. Senator John Thune (Republican-SD) demanded an explanation from Facebook, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg met with influential conservatives in a gesture of peace-making. (Facebook said an internal investigation found no bias.) Facebook ultimately dropped the human curators in favor what it called a “more automated” approach.
Which didn’t go so well, either. Fake news stories proliferated, such as the false claim that Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly had been fired from the television network after pledging support for Hillary Clinton. Now once again the company seems to want to signal that it hasn’t forgotten all the criticism Trending Topics has faced. The question is how effective these changes will actually be at killing the spread of fake news on the social network.
Yes, Facebook has already taken a few stabs at the problem, including hiring former CNN anchor Campbell Brown to manage its relationships with news organizations. Last month, under withering criticism, Facebook revealed a plan plan to crack down on fake news by relying heavily on third-party fact checkers and choking off ad dollars to fake news peddlers. Looking to shore up its journalistic bona fides, the company this month unveiled its “Facebook Journalism Project” this month, an effort by the social network to work with news organizations on emerging business models, train journalists on Facebook tools, and visit newsrooms to discuss best practices. All of which go to show that Facebook is trying to address the hits it has taken to its reputation, especially since the election, as a venue for spreading disinformation.
Whether any of it will work is another question. The latest Trending Topics update, for instance, prioritizes aggregated news Google-style, an approach that seems at least possible to game. But the company needs to be seen as doing something, at least if it wants to be viewed as a credible platform for news at all.