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Amid Allegations Of Bias, Facebook Explains How 'Trending Topics' Works

Facebook is under fire after a report accused it of manipulating its "trending topics" feature to promote or suppress certain political perspectives.
Matt Rourke
Facebook is under fire after a report accused it of manipulating its "trending topics" feature to promote or suppress certain political perspectives.

Facing an uproar from conservatives and even calls for a congressional inquiry from a prominent lawmaker, Facebook is going to great lengths to explain how it decides what shows up on its trending news notifications.

On Thursday, the company released a 28-page internal document that details the instructions to the humans who shepherd the "Trending Topics" feature. It's the news section you — and Facebook's 1.6 billion users worldwide — see in the right-hand column of Facebook on desktop or when you do a search on mobile.

What we now know is that trending topics are driven in part by an algorithm and in part by humans. A Gizmodo article this week cited anonymous former contractors from the Trending Topics team, saying that human curators sometimes passed up conservative-leaning topics in favor of more liberal ones.

The release of the internal document represents Facebook's continued pushback against bias allegations. The document was made public for the first time after being shared with The Guardian. As Trending Topics' chief said on Monday, the guidelines do not allow or advise some kind of systematic discrimination against sources with particular ideologies.

What the document shows is how people are involved in the process, sometimes "injecting" newsworthy stories and sometimes "blacklisting" stories, for example for not being a "real-world" event or for being duplicative. This kind of role of human curators has drawn suggestions that Facebook was becoming more of a publisher — in a traditional sense, like the mainstream news media — than a perfectly neutral platform.

The allegations of bias arise as Facebook is deepening its relationship with some traditional media companies, including NPR, by offering incentives to produce live videos for their site.

Facebook says it hasn't found any evidence of intentional manipulations of the Trending Topics section to suppress conservative stories, the New York Timesreports. The newspaper outlines some big takeaways from the guidelines:

"For instance, after algorithms detect early signs of popular stories on the network, editors are asked to cross-reference potential trending topics with a list of 10 major news publications, including CNN, Fox News, The Guardian and The New York Times.

"While algorithms determine the exact mix of topics displayed to each person, based on that user's past actions on Facebook, a team of people is largely responsible for the overall mix of which topics should — and more important, should not — be shown in Trending Topics."

The document did not detail the inner workings of the algorithm behind Trending Topics, nor did it touch on the way Facebook determines what posts are deemed worthwhile to show up in someone's News Feed.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 14, 2016 at 12:00 AM EDT
The story has been updated to include information about NPR's involvement in a Facebook video project.
Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.
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