Humans Won’t Hand-Pick Topics in Facebook’s Trending Section Anymore

A user writes her password to enter Facebook.
TO GO WITH ASIA MALAYSIA INTERNET SOCIAL FEATURE BY SARAH STEWART A Malaysian professional writes her password to enter facebook for social networking in Kuala Lumpur on October 31, 2010. Malaysians are the most popular people on the Internet, while Japanese are the least, according to a global survey which shows how national cultures are reflected in online behaviour. Malaysians won the Internet popularity contest with an average of 233 friends in their social network, compared to 68 in China and just 29 in Japan, according to the Digital Life study by global research firm TNS. AFP PHOTO / Saeed Khan (Photo credit should read SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Photograph by Saeed Khan — AFP/Getty Images

Who would have thought that a tiny section on Facebook’s homepage would cause so much controversy?

The “Trending” feature, where a few popular news topics are listed on the social network’s homepage, is getting a makeover, Facebook said on Friday. Most notably, Facebook’s hot topics will no longer appear next to descriptions that are written by humans.

Instead, Facebook will show each subject—usually a celebrity’s latest scandal or a current event—next to the number of people discussing it on the service. Human editors will no longer play a role in hand-picking the topics featured other than for verifying quality.

These changes follow a controversy earlier this summer when tech news site Gizmodo published a report alleging that the Facebook’s Trending section was biased against conservative news outlets. According Gizmodo’s report, which cite accounts from anonymous former contract employees who worked on the Trending section, these employees were instructed to ignore topics that conservative users clicked on by keeping them out of the list.

These employees were also instructed to feature certain topics even if they weren’t popular, which also injected bias into the section.

Facebook has vehemently denied the claims of anti-conservative bias. To soften the public relations black eye, the company invited a group of influential conservatives like Glenn Beck to its headquarters to let them share feedback and grievances.

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Under the new system, employees in charge of the trending section will make sure that the hot topics reflect what people are talking about while avoiding subjects that are mundane. For example, lunch is inevitably a popular discussion topic among users every day, but Facebook employees will make sure that it doesn’t become a trending topic because it’s not exactly news.

According to news site Quartz, Facebook has laid off its team of contract workers responsible for the trending section, and instead, will assign a team of engineers to handle the quality checks. Facebook has also updated its guidelines and says that its employees will strictly follow them.

“Our goal is to enable Trending for as many people as possible, which would be hard to do if we relied solely on summarizing topics by hand,” Facebook wrote in a blog post announcing the changes. “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.”

And as before, when users hover over an individual topic in the section, they’ll see a short description pulled from a main news article or post about it, and if they click on it, they’ll see a results pages with articles and posts, ordered based on their popularity.

The topics displayed will continue to be customized for users based on their preferences and location, as their News Feed is.

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