Representatives from Facebook recently sent a letter to Senator Thune concerning the recent allegations that the company is suppressing conservative news from its trending topics. The letter claims that Facebook found no evidence of political bias, but also stated that the company would be making changes to the guidelines and procedures governing the trending topics. A post by Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch summarizes the content of the letter.
Stretch says that the company did a thorough investigation and found no evidence of bias. He states, “Our data analysis indicated that conservative and liberal topics are approved as trending topics at virtually identical rates.” The reports from former employees also claimed specific conservative news outlets like Breitbart were blacklisted, but Stretch denies this claim as well. He states, “we confirmed that most of the subjects mentioned in media reports were included as trending topics on multiple occasions.”
Even though Stretch claims there is no systemic bias against conservatives at the company he does concede that “our investigation could not fully exclude the possibility of isolated improper actions or unintentional bias in the implementation of our guidelines or policies.” For that reason, Facebook is making a few changes to try to limit the effects of bias of individual employees. Facebook is updating the terminology in its guidelines as well as making the trending topics reviewers take refresher training to emphasize that content decisions should not be based on political ideology. The company will also be improving oversight of the trending topics team, which includes the creation of “robust escalation procedures.”
Facebook will also be making changes to the trending algorithm itself. Currently, the algorithm picks trending topics based on activity on the site itself, including likes and shares. However, the algorithm also crawls RSS feeds of over 1000 news sites to generate topics as well. One of the announced changes is that RSS feeds will no longer be used by the algorithm. Presumably, this means that topics will be generated based only on Facebook activity.
Another change concerns the use of ten major news sites to determine a topic’s importance. As was revealed when Facebook released its guidelines for the trending topics, a topic can be given a higher importance level based on how many of the ten selected outlets reported on it. A higher importance level makes the topic seen by more people. Facebook has decided to abandon the idea of assigning an importance level, and those ten news outlets will no longer have any special importance.
The final change will be to update the help center description of the trending topics. The current description mentions that trending topics are topics which recently spiked in popularity on the site, but it leaves out any mention of human involvement in the process to reject certain topics. The new description will likely give a more in-depth explanation of how topics are chosen.
The post concludes with a statement that these changes are intended to make sure that “Facebook remains a platform that is open and welcoming to all groups and individuals, but also to restore any loss of trust in the Trending Topics feature.” Stretch states that the company will continue to improve the trending topics feature and is interested in any feedback from those who use the service.
Will these changes prevent bias against conservatives in the trending topics? Leave your comments below.