Facebook Releases Trending Topics Guidelines After Accusations of Bias

Published: May 12, 2016 11:10 PM /



After accusations that Facebook's trending topics curation team was deliberately suppressing conservative news, the company has decided to publicly release the guidelines that govern the trending topics team. The accusations against Facebook are both that conservative topics and news sources were blacklisted, while certain liberal topics, like the Black Lives Matter movement, were artificially injected into the trending topics even if they were not being widely discussed or shared on the platform. Facebook's statement on the matter denies both blacklisting and injection for political reasons.

According to Facebook, the trending topics are generated by algorithm which checks both what is being widely discussed on the site as well as crawling RSS feeds of major news sites. Conservative outlets like Breitbart and Fox News are included in the list of RSS URLs Facebook provided. Employees who curate the trending topics may blacklist topics for a narrow range of reasons. The official guidelines released by Facebook state that employees must give their reason for blacklisting a topic, and that there are only 6 acceptable reasons for doing so.

The first reason is if a topic is not connected to an actual event. An example given is that the topic "lunch" is widely talked about every day, but is not usually connected to any news story, so it doesn't show up in the trending topics. The second reason is if it is a duplicate topic that is linked to an event that is already trending. The third reason is if a topic is tangentially related to real world events. The example given is topics like "candy" or "pumpkin" which show up around Halloween but aren't clearly related to a specific news story. The fourth reason is that topics can be blacklisted if they were already trending in the past and resurfaced. An exception is made if there has been a development in the story since the last time it was trending. Reasons five and six are for insufficient sources or hoax sources, but the guidelines warn that those two reasons should be used rarely, and recommends consulting a copy editor before using those reasons.

Aside from blacklisting, Facebook also addresses the claims of artificially injecting stories into the trending topics. A Q&A section at the end of the post covers this. It states:

Q. What does ‘injecting’ mean? Could someone who is reviewing the Trending Topics artificially inject a topic into Trending Topics?

Potential Trending Topics are first surfaced by an algorithm that identifies topics that have recently spiked in popularity on Facebook or are suggested by an external RSS website crawler to identify breaking news events. If, in this process, a topic is detected that should connect to a linguistically-similar but distinct topic (e.g., the LEGO movie vs LEGO the toy), the reviewer may replace the topic ID by “injecting” a more accurate topic ID. Similarly, we might inject “#Odile” as a better way to represent a hurricane occurring in Cabo San Lucas than the topics “Baja” and “Cabo,” which might be surfaced by the algorithm. Injection helps improve Trending Topics over time by surfacing higher-quality topics. It is not used to promote articles or topics from a particular perspective.

The internal documents state two reasons that can be used to inject topics. The first is essentially the same as that given in the Q&A, and is for the purpose of making the trending topic more descriptive or more accurate. The other reason allows curators to inject topics that they deem newsworthy if the topic shows up in the demo tool, which are not picked up by the review tool. The review tool generates the potential trending topics based on the full algorithm, while the demo tool shows popular topics based on Facebook traffic, without taking into account RSS feeds like the full algorithm. The demo tool also includes blacklisted topics that do not show up in the review tool. However, curators cannot inject topics which are absent from both the review tool and the demo too.

After the topics have been chosen, the trending topics team will then write a description of the topic that is corroborated by three news sources. Again, conservative sites are included in the list of news sources that can be used. After that, a category is chosen for each topic. Finally, topics may be given a higher importance level if they are a top story on a major news outlets. Just 10 sources are used to determine a story's importance level. They are: BBC News, CNN, Fox News, The Guardian, NBC News, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Buzzfeed News. A topic's importance level will be either normal, national, major or nuclear depending on how many of those 10 sites consider the topic to be a top story. According to Facebook, a higher importance level "may make the topic more likely to be seen."

Facebook closes out the post by stating that it has found no evidence that the trending topics have been manipulating for political reasons. However, the company does state that it takes the accusations very seriously and will continue to investigate the claims, as well as review the practices governing the trending topics.

Do you believe Facebook is telling the truth, or do you believe they are manipulating trending topics for political reasons? Leave your comments below.

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I’m a technology reporter located near the Innovation District of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.