Recently Facebook made a surprise overhaul of its “Trending Stories” feature. Trending stories is the sidebar which highlights some of the popular things people are talking about on Facebook. Previously the company had a short description of what each trending topic was about, however that description has now been removed.
Facebook decided to remove any human element from the equation and wanted trending stories to be guided by algorithms. The company laid off 26 employees who worked on and ran the trending stories feature – 19 curators and 7 copyeditors.
Facebook stated that there were still people working on trending stories to make sure that high quality content is trending and is tied to a real life world event. However, whoever is working on the feature at the moment must not be paying much attention.
A fake story about Fox News commentator Megyn Kelly’s supposed secret affinity for Hillary Clinton blew up on Facebook and the topic landed on the top of the trending story list. Whoever is responsible for the curation of the trending stories now, be it a human or an algorithm, failed to catch the mistake. The story sat at the top of the trending list for several hours and Facebook essentially gave enormous viral exposure to a damaging piece of false information.
Over the course of a single weekend, Facebook attempts to restructure one of its most prominent news products backfired in a big way. Facebook loves algorithms, we all know that. However, in placing too much reliance on algorithms they have shown just how bad things can get when it all goes wrong.
When Facebook decided to lay off 26 members of staff tied to this project, they essentially decided that their algorithmic approach was more favourable, cost efficient and less damaging. Now we can see just how important the human element was.
Social media outlets such as Facebook have become a primary news source for nearly half of the adult population in America and millions of people all around the world. Spreading misinformation is more than a little stumble, it is a big fall and does a lot of damage to people’s opinion of Facebook as a source of reliable information.
Facebook says that trending topics has been stripped so that it can be scaled for more users around the world, something which can’t be done when it has to have people pick headlines and write descriptions manually. Facebook has attempted to clarify how this story made it in to the trending section of the site.
The piece started to gain traction on Facebook and it checked all the right boxes Facebook uses to flag stories that are generating a lot of conversation on the platform. At this point a human decided to pin the story into the trending list and not until reviewing at a later point did the trending team notice the error.
So how can Facebook fix the damage that has been caused? They could forswear any promise of accuracy. Just like Twitter who have never promised that their own trending section is the truth, it is simply what a large number of users on Twitter are talking about at any given moment.
Facebook could decide to ditch the trending feature completely. It holds a very small footprint on the site at the moment anyway and is even less visible on mobile apps. Does Facebook really desperately need a trending topics feature? Probably not, by removing it entirely they can remove the PR headache it causes when things go wrong.
At the moment algorithms are simply not smart enough to handle tasks like this themselves. They have no editorial judgement and they simply check the boxes which are presented to them. Maybe one day there will be algorithms which can manage tasks like this, I’m almost sure that day will come.
However, until then we are left with algorithms performing a job that they are not equipped to handle and an employee has to clean up the mess afterwards.