Why the Facebook Trending Topics controversy won’t go away

We are still realizing how much Facebook could be steering popular opinion. Even if there is no bias, Facebook still dominates the discussion.

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at the company's F8 conference in San Francisco on April 12, 2016. Credit: Facebook/IDGNS

Facebook is still in the deep stuff.

The massive social media juggernaut, now with over 1.5B active users, recently met with conservative news channel personalities after it was discovered that a group of contractors may have censored some of the topics you see on the right hand panel. Many people (including myself) use those links as a quick check on what is happening in the world, and we trust that they are generated automatically based on interest level and some sort of AI-driven algorithm.

When Facebook released their editorial guidelines, we discovered that Trending Topics are not so automated. In fact, they are placed there by a team who functions more like a news agency than a robot. Facebook is denying there was any bias, but the controversy is far from over. The company recently revised some of their practices to reduce the potential for bias. It may seem like a minor squabble over the links you see (and from which outlets), but there is a deeper problem.

For starters, no one seemed to realize this process was not highly automated and bot driven, so we’re still a bit surprised. We now imagine that Facebook -- a company that is developing A.I. chatbots and already has the M bot in Messenger that can take your flower-shop order -- is not quite as technically advanced as we figured they would be. There are real people, some of them outside contractors, pulling levers and switches to make the magic work. It should not be a big surprise. News-gathering is not merely in exercise in adding up the numbers. If that were the case, most of the trending topics in Facebook would cover the Kardashians and the Apple iPhone.

Instead, it reveals how much human involvement is required. Why is this news? Why is this interesting? How is this different from other news? What sparks the most interest? Part of the process involves determining which news topics have already made the rounds. The real goal? It’s to get you clicking in Facebook and to stay within the hallowed halls of Mark Zuckerberg land. There’s a reason clicking on a link does not take you to any real information about that news but instead to comments from other users, many of them about as helpful as talking to someone in a gas station line.

We’re still grappling with this realization because Facebook is so dominant. Let’s say the company has steered news in a certain direction. That’s huge! The influence on popular thinking is enormous, especially for the millions and millions of people who pop onto a computer only to check Facebook and nothing else. It’s becoming a closed system that looks like an open system. If this chink in the armor is real, it makes me wonder what else could be happening. We already know the sponsored ads match up with our interests. We suspect Facebook has a detailed dossier of every user and our interests. That’s not exactly a secret.

Where it gets more nefarious is when you consider that there could be a political agenda. The people who run Facebook might even be steering the political process and we don’t even know it. Think that’s overstating the problem? It’s possible because of how many people rely on Trending Topics as a primary channel for news discovery. I haven’t noticed a serious bias myself, although there does seem to be quite a few stories about Donald Trump’s latest escapades. (It makes sense that these links would pop up since there are so many stories about him in general.) Yet, what if we've all been steered and we don't even realize it? The truth is: We have been steered simply by the fact that we use that panel on the right. Every news source steers to some extent. The question is whether we have been steered in one particular direction on purpose and at the hands of a select few.

I don’t see this issue going away anytime soon, mostly because more and more people stay within Facebook and check the news that way. What I want to see is more proof that the company is not steering at all; the goal should more of a pure play to provide value and no bias, even if they weed out Kardashian news.

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