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Facebook denies manipulating trending news, but changes its policies anyway

Published May 24th, 2016 7:45AM EDT
Facebook Trending Topic Manipulation

Facebook said in an official response to US Senator John Thune that it has found no wrongdoing following an internet investigation into allegations that the social networking giant was manipulating stories in its trending news section to block conservative political content. At the same time, however, the company said that it is making big changes to the processes that power its trending news section, sending mixed messages in the process.

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Facebook issued a carefully worded non-denial following allegations earlier this month that the company routinely blocked news from conservative websites from growing popular in its trending news feed. Here’s the company’s initial response:

We take allegations of bias very seriously. Facebook is a platform for people and perspectives from across the political spectrum. Trending Topics shows you the popular topics and hashtags that are being talked about on Facebook. There are rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality.

These guidelines do not permit the suppression of political perspectives. Nor do they permit the prioritization of one viewpoint over another or one news outlet over another. These guidelines do not prohibit any news outlet from appearing in Trending Topics.

The company also released a list of roughly 1,000 feeds that it regularly monitors to pull in news for its trending section. That wasn’t enough to satisfy the US Senate Commerce Committee, however, which would launch an inquiry into the matter the very next day.

Now, Facebook has issued a response to that inquiry.

Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch explained in his response that an internal investigation found “no systematic political bias.” Even still, Stretch still said that Facebook plans to overhaul the processes behind its trending news feature even though there was no systematic wrongdoing.

Why? Stretch explained:

“Our investigation could not fully exclude the possibility of isolated improper actions or unintentional bias in the implementation of our guidelines or policies,” he wrote. “As part of our commitment to continually improve our products and to minimize risks where human judgment is involved, we are making a number of improvements to Trending Topics.”

He listed the following steps that will soon be taken:

  • Updated terminology in our Guidelines to make them more clear
  • Refresher training for all reviewers that emphasized that content decisions may not be made on the basis of politics or ideology
  • Additional controls and oversight around the review team, including robust escalation procedures

Additionally, Stretch wrote that Facebook is making the following “improvements” to trending topics and the tools used to identify trending stories:

  • We will no longer rely on lists of external websites and news outlets to identify, validate or assess the importance of particular topics. This means we will eliminate the “Media 1K” list, the list of RSS feeds used to supplement the algorithm that generates potential trending topics, and the top-10 list of news outlets.
  • We are also removing the ability to assign an “importance level” to a topic through assessment of the topic’s prominence on the top-10 list of news outlets.
  • We will expand our Help Center content on Trending Topics to provide more information about this feature and how it works.

Senator Thune issued a statement in response to Facebook’s release.

“Private companies are fully entitled to espouse their own views, so I appreciate Facebook’s efforts to address allegations of bias raised in the media and my concern about a lack of transparency in its methodology for determining trending topics,” Thune said. “Facebook has been forthcoming about with how it determines trending topics, and steps it will take to minimize the risk of bias from individual human judgment. The seriousness with which Facebook has treated these allegations and its desire to serve as an open platform for all viewpoints is evident and encouraging and I look forward to the company’s actions meeting its public rhetoric.”

Zach Epstein
Zach Epstein Executive Editor

Zach Epstein has been the Executive Editor at BGR for more than 10 years. He manages BGR’s editorial team and ensures that best practices are adhered to. He also oversees the Ecommerce team and directs the daily flow of all content.

Zach first joined BGR in 2007 as a Staff Writer covering business, technology, and entertainment. His work has been quoted by countless top news organizations, and he was recently named one of the world's top 10 “power mobile influencers” by Forbes. Prior to BGR, Zach worked as an executive in marketing and business development with two private telcos.