Facebook has been forced to make sweeping changes to the way it identifies ‘trending topics,’ on the back of a Congressional enquiry. U.S Senator John Thune requested the enquiry after members of Congress expressed outrage following an investigative piece by online blog Gawker which claimed that Facebook was exhibiting political bias and suppressing conservative views with regards to trending topics.
Facebook’s legal counsel Colin Stretch, in his follow-up letter to a Senate Committee Chairman, said that Facebook had conducted an exhaustive internal investigation, but had found, “No systematic political bias.” However, Stretch also acknowledged that the system itself was prone to manipulation, and that there was the possibility of, “Isolated improper actions or unintentional bias in the implementation of our guidelines or policies.” Likewise, in a 12-page response to Sen. Thune, Facebook acknowledged shortcomings in the hierarchy of trending topics, stating they had, “Spoken with current reviewers, supervisors, former reviewers and contractors to understand if anyone working on the product acted in a way inconsistent with our policies and mission.”
According to the response, improvements to trending topics will include the removal of the so-called “Media 1K” list – the RSS feeds used to fill gaps in the Facebook algorithm. In fact, Facebook will bring much of it’s content sourcing work in house. Stretch said Facebook, “Will no longer rely on external websites and news outlets to identify, validate or assess the importance of particular topics.”
Also gone will be the ability to assign importance to topics from top 10 news outlets. There will also be increased checks and balances internally, ensuring that content decisions are not in the hands of an individual, or external third-party. Additional training for all reviewing staff and more of a focus on best practice for media oversight will also be implemented.
For his part, Sen. Thune issued a statement applauding the social network’s response to the allegations, but reminding them of their responsibility to take action.
“Facebook has been forthcoming about how it determines trending topics and the steps it will take to minimise the risk of bias based on human judgement. The seriousness which Facebook has treated these allegations, and its desire to serve as an open platform for all viewpoints is evident and encouraging. I look forward to the company’s actions meeting it’s public rhetoric.”
Facebook is now well and truly an uncharted territory. As one of the world’s most influential businesses, and arguably it’s most powerful media company, it will be subject to increased scrutiny as to how it communicates news and opinion to the public. It will be a difficult, if not impossible balancing act, to allow users the individualism of preferencing what they see – a cornerstone of Facebook’s offering – against ensuring there is no perception of political, or any other form of bias.
In the past, Facebook has been somewhat lazy in its content management – preferring to outsource externally and empower internally. That now has to change.