Turns Out, Facebook’s Trending Robots Aren’t Better Than Humans

Prepare for even more viral garbage on Facebook

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg REUTERS/Stephen Lam — REUTERS
Aug 30, 2016 at 2:20 PM ET

Facebook has fired the humans who oversaw its trending topics section. The curated list of links to news stories is now what a Facebook blog post callsa more algorithmically driven process.” The move comes just a few months after a controversy over whether or not the site is biased in choosing stories to serve its massive audience—and so far, the “no human” approach is not going so well.

Over the weekend, The Guardian noted that the trending topics included an incorrect theory about Megyn Kelly being fired from Fox News, and the #McChicken, a hashtag that went viral along with a video of a man doing something rather untoward with one of the McDonald’s sandwiches. The article mentions the headline linked to on another trending topic, “SNL Star Calls Ann Coulter a Racist C*nt,” probably wouldn’t have been allowed under previous trending guidelines, which forbade offensive language.

The trending section also continues its habit of doubling up and coming a day or so behind the news. Tuesday morning, three of the top six trending stories in the politics section were about NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit down for the national anthem in protest, which he did on Friday.

Only one of the top seven trending stories in the science and technology section has to do with science, and not a tech company.

In May, Gizmodo published a story sourcing several anonymous former Facebook employees who said that they suppressed stories from conservative outlets. The news ignited an uproar, especially in the right-leaning press, and prompted an apology and explanation tour from Facebook executives. Mark Zuckerberg invited conservative tech and media figures like Glenn Beck to his office to explain, and executive Sheryl Sandberg went to smooth over her corporation’s damaged reputation by speaking at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. The Senate launched a pretty bogus inquiry.

The move comes in the middle of an election cycle where Facebook has emerged as the dominant media player. As the New York Times noted, there is a slew of low level Facebook native political pages, which in aggregate compete with traditional news media. And the site’s reach is huge: Forty-four percent of the US population get news from Facebook according to a study by Pew in 2016.

As a primary conduit of information in America, Facebook’s power is undeniable, but it’s worth remembering that trending is a relatively small part of that mix. Most of Facebook’s traffic comes on mobile, where the trending section is difficult to access. Still, for anyone worried about the influence of Facebook as a new kind of information monopoly, the end of humans vetting the trending section is an abdication of responsibility.