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Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

This Is the Real Problem With Facebook's Controversial Feature

May 10, 2016
Ideas
Alex Fitzpatrick is Deputy Tech Editor at TIME, writing about business, technology and travel.

Is Facebook an impartial platform, or a curated guide to the news of the day? The world's biggest social network wants it both ways. It's about to realize that's easier said than done.

Technology news site Gizmodo reported last week that Facebook's "Trending Topics" section, ostensibly a collection of the most widely-shared stories on the social network, involves more human intervention than previously thought. In a follow-up story Monday, an unnamed source told Gizmodo that Trending Topic team members prevented some popular conservative issues from appearing in the module. (Facebook denies this.) Predictably, this story has alarmed conservatives and media reporters alike.

Let's set aside the fact that it's unclear how many Facebook users even pay attention to Trending Topics, which sits in a sidebar on Facebook's desktop interface and is completely buried in its mobile app. Let's also establish that Gizmodo's reporting has nothing at all to do with News Feed, the reason most of Facebook's billion-plus users come to the site.

Read more: It's time Facebook came clean about how it picks what you read

Gizmodo's reporting is still a big deal, because Facebook wields a potentially enormous amount of power in steering the national conversation. More than 60% of Facebook users say they get news from the site. Media outlets (like TIME) increasingly rely on Facebook as a source of traffic. Facebook also has a history of tinkering with what we see on the site, often without transparency. Some people think that a malevolent Facebook could easily tip this year's presidential election in one candidate's favor. That's in part why Republican Sen. John Thune is now demanding Facebook answer questions about the report.

The real problem with Facebook's Trending Topics isn't that it's subject to human bias. The problem is that Trending Topics is a feature that wants to be two things at once. To Facebook users, it appears to be a list of popular news stories being shared on the site at a given point in time. To Facebook's employees, the feature is an opportunity for the company to exhibit its bona fides as a reliable news source. It gives the company a place to point and exclaim, "Look, news!" While investors are largely pessimistic about Twitter, this is one space where it still leads Facebook.

The issue is that those two functions work against each other. If Trending Topics was truly a list of what's popular on Facebook, it would likely be little more than celebrity videos and reports of animals escaping from the zoo. That, of course, wouldn't make Facebook look like a hard news destination. But having human curators separate the wheat from the chaff naturally introduces bias. Curation is simply bias in action. This inherent tension invites problems for a place where Americans are now spending 50 minutes every day.

Where does Facebook go from here? Perhaps it can learn a lesson from Google. Google Trends is a publicly accessible look at the most popular search terms at any given moment. It's a window into the zeitgeist that can be at once fascinating, terrifying and depressing. But most importantly, it's objective: Google has no strategic need to filter what's shown there. (It should be said that Google has shown interest in being more like Facebook, particularly with its failed Google Plus social network.) If Facebook wants to keep Trending Topics in place, it might be time for the feature to, like Google Trends, show what's really popular on the platform.


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