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Facebook alters 'Trending Topics' to avoid bias

May 24, 2016

Social media giant Facebook has changed the way it selects its 'Trending Topics' after a conservative senator alleged leftist bias. At the same time, the company says it found no trace of pro-liberal tampering.

Facebook Datenschutz (Symbolbild)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Weigel

Facebook would no longer rely on sites such as The Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post and Drudge Report in selecting topics for its trending feature, the company said on Monday.

Other changes include better review procedures, more training for Facebook's editors, as well as clearer guidelines to ensure the network's political neutrality.

The California-based company introduced the changes following a report on a tech website Gizmodo earlier this month. The report quoted a former Facebook contractor, who accused the company's editors of suppressing conservative news. According to the conservative leaning ex-contractor, news curators could decide to blacklist a topic or post it in the "Trending" feature based on their personal preference.

The story included several sources who allegedly worked for Facebook, although none of them were identified by name.

'Specific' reviewers might be biased

Two weeks ago, conservative Senator John Thune demanded Facebook to explain the way it curated its news content.

"If Facebook presents its Trending Topics section as a result of a neutral, objective algorithm, but it is in fact subjective and filtered to support or suppress particular political viewpoints, Facebook's assertion that it maintains 'a platform for people and perspectives from across the political spectrum' misleads the public," Thune wrote in a letter.

The company responded by conducting an internal probe, which allegedly showed that conservative and liberal topics were approved at "virtually identical" rates. Also, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg held a meeting with several conservative politicians and media pundits to address their concerns.

Although Facebook found no evidence of systematic bias, the company said it could not fully eliminate the possibility that "a specific reviewer took isolated actions with an improper motive."

@dwnews Fake news: How reliable is Facebook as a news source?

Network spanning across the globe

By removing its reliance on established news outlets, the network aims to "focus on surfacing the conversation on Facebook," said the company spokeswoman Jodi Seth.

In response, Senator Thune said that he found Facebook's reaction to be "encouraging" though it revealed that its trending topics feature "relied on human judgment, and not just an automated process, more than previously acknowledged."

Facebook has around 1.6 billion users worldwide. The network's trending feature is currently available in the US and several other countries.

dj/kms (AP, Reuters, AFP)