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Facebook Announces Update to Trending Topics, Reduces Potential Bias

Facebook has today announced an update to their Trending News section, with the addition of publisher headlines below each topic name to provide additional context on each trend.

Facebook Announces Update to Trending Topics, Reduces Potential Bias | Social Media TodayFacebook’s also updating the way topics are identified and - maybe most important of all - they’re eliminating personalization from the Trending list.

“Everyone in the same region will see the same topics”

That’s significant, as it could help reduce the echo chamber effect.

Here’s an overview of the system and how it works.

Trending Problems

Last year, Facebook came under fire after several former staffers from Facebook’s Trending News team spoke out about questionable practices at The Social Network, including manual interference with trending topics which, in turn, may or may not have lead to stories getting a lot more or less coverage than they deserved.

Essentially, the accusation was that Facebook was angling the news discussion to their benefit. Facebook denied any such claims and conducted an investigation which, they say, found no systematic bias in their process, but even so, in the face of rising questions about how their news content was being chosen, The Social Network needed to take action to win back trust.

In response, Facebook got rid of manual news curators and switched to a mostly algorithm-fuelled Trending feed, with topic descriptions removed to further reduce the need for manual interference or editors.

Facebook Announces Update to Trending Topics, Reduces Potential Bias | Social Media TodayThat eliminated the possibility of manual manipulation and potential bias, but there were still problems with this. An algorithm doesn’t have the perceptual abilities of a human, it just pumps out a list of what’s highly shared, which resulted in false news reports showing up in the list.

Facebook Announces Update to Trending Topics, Reduces Potential Bias | Social Media TodayAnd given the focus on fake news following the 2016 US presidential Election, Facebook needed to fix this - or at least do whatever they can to improve the Trending system.

Improved Context

In order to resolve the problems with Trending, Facebook’s new system shows the headline from a publishers article about the topic – which Facebook says was the most requested feature addition since the last update.

“The headline that appears is automatically selected based on a combination of factors including the engagement around the article on Facebook, the engagement around the publisher overall, and whether other articles are linking to it.”

The back links element is similar to Google – one of Google’s search ranking factors is how many sites – and which sites – are linking to any given Page. A larger number of reputable sites linking to a page likely means it’s a more authoritative resources on the topic.

In addition, Facebook’s improved their Trending identification system to take into account more data points, including “the number of publishers that are posting articles on Facebook about the same topic, and the engagement around that group of articles”.

“This should surface trending topics quicker, be more effective at capturing a broader range of news and events from around the world and also help ensure that trending topics reflect real world events being covered by multiple news outlets.”

In summary, this means more niche news outlets will struggle to make it onto the trending list, as the algorithm will now give preference to stories being reported by multiple publishers.

But the biggest addition could be the removal of personalization from the Trending list.

As we’ve noted before, personalization of the News Feed is a key problem in the dissemination of news content, because it enables users to build their own echo chambers. Yes, fake news is a problem and it should be stamped out, but a bigger problem is the capacity for users to so easily eliminate different opinions (by unfollowing), while also being shown more of what they agree with, as the algorithm surfaces content based on past engagement.

By removing this element from Trending, Facebook is increasing the potential for users to be shown a more diverse mix of news content, rather than simply what they want to see.

News Impact

It’s easy to dismiss the impact of Facebook’s ‘Trending’ news section and its relevance, but the fact of the matter is that more and more people are using social media – and Facebook specifically – as a news source.

Facebook has the capacity to shift opinion, even influence public behavior. You might think that it's not relevant to you, that you don’t pay much attention to that Trending section anyway, but neither of these claims are speculation, they’ve both been proven by independent research.

Given this, it’s important to Facebook to do what it can to remove any potential bias and improve the diversity of the news content shown to help expose their billion plus daily users to a relevant mix of what’s happening – if they’re going to have a news section, it needs to be actual news.

These changes, along with Facebook’s recently announced measures to combat fake news, will help improve the flow of relevant information. It may not seem like much, but the improved detection algorithm and the removal of personalization could have a significant impact on how news content is spread. 

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