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Facebook has been taking jabs left and right since the controversy around the ‘Trending Topics’ feature started out. If you’re unaware of the issue at hand, lets get you briefed.

The trending topics are the top headlines and trending stories of the day that are displayed on the right-hand pane of your news feed. In the past week, an anonymous ex-Trending Topics employee had tipped Gizmodo that the contractors working on the aforementioned feature were suppressing stories related to more conservative and political topics.

The report highlighted the fact that the workers were instructed to inject stories into the Trending Topics(even if they weren’t popular) to make them surface higher than some more important and controversial viewpoints on the homepage and in the search results.

But, Facebook today has issued a public statement and sent out a letter to Senator John Thune, who had met with Mark Zuckerberg to discuss at length the allegations regarding ‘Trending Topics’. The statement denies any allegations pertaining to the biasing of ‘Trending Topics’ and introduces a slew of changes to how the feature will now operate.

The statement outright denies the fact of biasing and prevention of trending news to reach the masses, by saying that its contrary to the mission and vision of the company. The social media giant started looking into the allegations and investigating any inconsistencies in the operation of the product and it indicates no instances of biasing.

Our investigation has revealed no evidence of systematic political bias in the selection or prominence of stories included in the Trending Topics feature. Our data analysis indicated that conservative and liberal topics are approved as trending topics at virtually identical rates. In fact, we confirmed that most of the subjects mentioned in media reports were included as trending topics on multiple occasions.

At the same time, our investigation could not fully exclude the possibility of isolated improper actions or unintentional bias in the implementation of our guidelines or policies.

Facebook has also cleared any and all confusion around the fact that the stories were in-fact being curated by a team of individuals and not by an AI or algorithm. The statement also mentions that the company is continuously trying to improve and minimize risks involved in making the most important news features available to the users.

To make the ‘Trending Topics’ more transparent for the public, the social networking platform is introducing not only some operational changes but a major overhaul to the product, that was long overdue.

  • Facebook will update its policies and guidelines terminologies to make them crystal clear to understand. This will help people get acquainted to the feature and avoid any further questioning into it.
  • Training sessions for all its reviewers to emphasize the importance of content discovery and curation.
  • The reviewers team will be under watch from the high command, and the additional control and oversight will also include robust escalation procedures if someone lapses on their part.
  • Facebook will no longer turn to outer news and media outlets for ‘Trending Topics’ curation. The list of RSS feeds used to supplement the algorithm that generate potential trending topics, and the top-10 list of news outlets will thus be eliminated.
  • The company is also removing the ability to assign an “importance level” to a topic through assessment of the topic’s prominence on the top-10 list of news outlets.
  • The Help Center will be updated with more information on Trending Topics and its working.

If you’re more curious to know the exact operation procedures of the ‘Trending Topics’ feature, you could look into the PDF sent by Facebook to Senator John Thune. It lists all the previous modes of operation of the feature which will now receive a new skin as mentioned above. Senator Thune has also responded to Facebook’s letter praising their efforts in briefing the people and shedding light on the capabilities of ‘Trending Topics’.

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. We now know the system relied on human judgment, and not just an automated process, more than previously acknowledged.

Facebook has recognized the limitations of efforts to keep information systems fully free from potential bias, which lends credibility to its findings.

The Senator is finally appeased and content with the company’s efforts to investigate the allegations and be forthcoming in its procedures of defining ‘Trending Topics’. He states that his meeting with the Facebook CEO was a success and he’s confident that the social media giant will be more forthcoming in its operations from now on. It won’t give people another chance to question its integrity in the open like this.

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