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The “Trending” topics section of Facebook seems such a trivial thing, and in many ways it is. It looks and feels like an afterthought—ironically, it started as an attempt to copy Twitter—and many users probably don’t even notice it’s there. But now, it has triggered a national discussion around bias and the power of social platforms.
In case you missed the brouhaha, it started with a report from Gizmodo that profiled a team of anonymous journalists working at Facebook who curate the news that shows up in the Trending section. A subsequent report quoted one of the journalists as saying the team routinely removed certain right-wing political sites from the section, even when the social network’s data showed they were trending.
The revelation seemed harmless enough, at first: Journalists hired to edit things were actually editing them! But the comment soon snowballed into a debate over Facebook’s role in news consumption, and whether its sheer size and influence brings with it some level of responsibility.
Facebook (FB) responded to the story by saying that its policy is to remain as neutral as possible editorially, and that it will look into reports of misbehavior. Then it issued a second, even more heartfelt response, after the Senate Commerce Committee sent a letter asking the company to answer some questions around political influence and the Trending section.
For more on the Senate’s investigation into Facebook’s editorial policies, watch:
The real issue, of course, isn’t the tiny section of the Facebook home page that follows trending topics. It’s the fact that the kind of editorial selection those journalists engaged in is happening every minute of every day on the main news feed, courtesy of the Facebook ranking algorithm. And that algorithm, since it is programmed by human beings, inevitably contains biases of all kinds.
The bottom line is that Facebook is more than just a social network where people exchange photos of their pets—it is the largest and most influential media entity the world has ever seen. The sooner Facebook acknowledges that, and becomes part of the discussion around how it can manage its social responsibilities, the better off we will all be.