Facebook denies bias in Trending Topics, but vows changes anyway

Facebook responded today to official queries regarding its Trending Topics feature, specifically allegations made over the last few weeks that the team responsible for it was deliberately suppressing conservative views and arbitrarily elevating stories with little oversight.

In a press release issued publicly and in a letter (PDF) sent directly to Senator John Thune (R-SD), Facebook denied the allegations, but nevertheless announced a number of changes to internal processes that should help appease critics.

Our investigation has revealed no evidence of systematic political bias in the selection or prominence of stories included in the Trending Topics feature. In fact, our analysis indicated that the rates of approval of conservative and liberal topics are virtually identical in Trending Topics.

At the same time, as you would expect with an inquiry of this nature, our investigation could not exclude the possibility of isolated improper actions or unintentional bias in the implementation of our guidelines or policies.

Specifically, Facebook looked at how and when stories were “boosted,” “blacklisted,” or submitted to “injection,” or correction — and found that rates “have been virtually identical for liberal and conservative topics.”

Part of the problem, as described by the anonymous ex-Trending Topics curators whose testimony informed the accusations, was a lack of oversight — and plain bad management.

Among the changes to the program are “additional controls and oversight around the review team” — and presumably further oversight of the oversight team itself, since watching the watchers is highly important in a situation like this, with an editorial team encapsulated within a decidedly non-editorial environment.

In addition to the extra red tape, the process of finding and selecting Trending Topics items is getting a makeover:

  • The huge list of RSS feeds relied on by reviewers will be retired — though what will replace it was not specified.
  • Reviewers will not be able to simply assign an “importance level” based on its position in the top 10 news outlets (a list which, per the item above, will no longer even exist).
  • Facebook’s “Help Center” page on Trending Topics will be updated to better reflect the feature — anyone who thought it was all up to some AI or algorithm will be disabused of that notion.

If you were curious about the exact process by which a story goes from hashtag or local news to Trending Topic, read the letter to Sen. Thune; it contains lots of previously unknown details, though many will now be obsolete. Specific allegations of bias — for instance, that stories about Glenn Beck (who wrote an interesting take on his own meeting with Facebook on this topic) were suppressed — are also addressed.

Senator Thune issued his own statement today as well, praising Facebook’s handling of the issue but at the same time getting a couple jabs in.

The seriousness with which Facebook has treated these allegations and its desire to serve as an open platform for all viewpoints is evident and encouraging and I look forward to the company’s actions meeting its public rhetoric.

Facebook’s description of the methodology it uses for determining the trending content it highlights for users is far different from and more detailed than what it offered prior to our questions.

In other words: why did it take a major potential scandal for Facebook to offer details on how this high-visibility feature worked? A FAQ on the topic might have avoided the controversy altogether.

No further action appears to be necessary, Sen. Thune concluded: “While the [Senate Commerce] committee remains open to new information on this matter, transparency – not regulation – remains the goal.”