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Facebook Changes Trending Topics After Bias Row

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

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Less human input after accusation that Facebook hid conservative opinions in its Trending news feed

Facebook has announced a change to the way the Trending Topics feature that appears in user news feed is formulated.

The social networking giant announced the change after it was alleged earlier this year that ‘left-wing’ editors responsible for the content often chose to bury stories they did not agree with.

Trending Changes

Facebook denied the charges that it was politically biased against conservative political opinions and said that an investigation had “found no evidence that the anonymous allegations are true”.

But the firm has now announced that it scaling back the human element, and will “make the product more automated and will no longer require people to write descriptions for trending topics.”

Facebook users have had to contend with personalised trending topics in their news feed ever since 2014.

“Trending was designed to help people discover interesting and relevant conversations happening on Facebook, about breaking news and events from around the world,” said the social network.

Facebook - Shutterstock - © Pan Xunbin / Shutterstock.com“Our goal is to enable Trending for as many people as possible, which would be hard to do if we relied solely on summarising topics by hand,” it said. “A more algorithmically driven process allows us to scale Trending to cover more topics and make it available to more people globally over time. This is something we always hoped to do but we are making these changes sooner given the feedback we got from the Facebook community earlier this year.”

For example, users will still see the story title such as “Mars”, but instead of a story description (“NASA Rover captures incredible 360 view of Mars”), the description will be dropped and the user will in future see simply how many people are talking about that particular topic.

If the user hovers over the topic (or clicks on it), they will see the usual description.

Facebook said it would still tailor these Trending stories to the individual user, based on a number of factors, including the Pages the user has previously liked, their location, previous trending topics with which they have interacted, and what is trending across Facebook overall.

And Facebook said that there will still be people involved in this process to ensure that “the topics that appear in Trending remain high-quality.”

“These changes mean that we no longer need to do things like write topic descriptions and short story summaries since we’re relying on an algorithm to pull excerpts directly from news stories,” said Facebook. “Our team will still strictly follow our guidelines, which have been updated to reflect these changes.”

Politically Neutral?

“Earlier this year, we shared more information about Trending in response to questions about alleged political bias in the product,” it added. “We looked into these claims and found no evidence of systematic bias. Still, making these changes to the product allows our team to make fewer individual decisions about topics.”

Facebook is keen to be seen as politically neutral, especially in light of the fractious Presidential campaign currently underway in the United States.

Matters were not helped earlier this year when Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg publicly denounced the policies of Republican nominee Donald Trump.

“I hear fearful voices calling for building walls and distancing people they label as ‘others’,” Zuckerbeg said at Facebook’s a developers conference.

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