Facebook Trending: your news is now gathered by robots

facebook trending employee hackathon

The big blue social media giant is changing the way its Facebook Trending feature works. Again. And while that doesn’t mean much to those who don’t get their news from Facebook, it does signal the resurgence of the algorithm.

What am I talking about? Well, Facebook is now using number-crunching computers to “scale Trending to cover more topics and make it available to more people globally over time”. Previously, Facebook relied on human hand-pick trending articles and write descriptions for each.

Speaking of those human hands, Facebook has fired between 15 to 18 staff members working on its Trending platform, according to Quartz.

“The Trending team will now be staffed entirely by engineers, who will work to check that topics and articles surfaced by the algorithms are newsworthy,” the report suggests. The move is in tune with previous reports accusing the Facebook Trending team of harbouring an anti-conservative bias.

What on earth is Facebook Trending?: According to Facebook, “Trending is on the right side of your News Feed. Trending topics are grouped into 5 categories: All News, Politics, Science and Technology, Sports and Entertainment. You can switch between categories by clicking the appropriate icon in Trending”.

“Our goal is to enable Trending for as many people as possible, which would be hard to do if we relied solely on summarizing topics by hand,” the company explains on its blog.

“This is something we always hoped to do but we are making these changes sooner given the feedback we got from the Facebook community earlier this year.”

Facebook Trending will now use computers ‘to cover more topics and make it available to more people globally over time’

“These changes mean that we no longer need to do things like write topic descriptions and short story summaries since we’re relying on an algorithm to pull excerpts directly from news stories,” it adds.

The company also notes that these employees strictly follow Facebook’s updated guidelines.

facebook trending changes august 2016

Ultimately, the experience of Facebook Trending’s news should be a more balanced experience, at least on paper.

Descriptions gone, numbers now included

For one, Facebook will now show the total number of people talking about a topic in lieu of a human-written description. These numbers are based on the “original posts that mention the topic and shares of posts about the topic.”

Facebook Trending will now be staffed by engineers, a new report suggests

Hovering over the topics also pulls up a news source with an excerpt of the article. Facebook explains that these news sources are also chosen using algorithms:

“As before, articles and posts that appear in search results are surfaced algorithmically, based on a high volume of mentions and a sharp increase in mentions over a short period of time.”

News is slanted towards your geographic and demographic info

facebook trending changes august 2016 2

While computers do have a marked role to play, Facebook suggests that the feature shouldn’t lose its air of personalisation. The company notes that Facebook Trending news will be “personalized based on a number of factors”.

This includes your current location, the Pages you’ve liked, “previous trending topics with which you’ve interacted”, and the overall status of Facebook Trending topics on the platform.

What does all this mean?

Using algorithms on social media platforms hasn’t always been greeted with acclaim from users. Notably, Instagram’s timeline algorithm as well as Twitter’s proposed move to a similar system has sparked conversation among is users.

These systems tried to guess what content users most want to see, and adjusted timelines accordingly. On Instagram at least, the system’s more of a boo than a boon, but this use of machine learning in this instance makes sense.

Not only does it take much of the erroneous human element out of determining the popularity of news, but it also organises content based on a concrete and universal comparative base — numbers.

The move will likely go a long way to help Facebook compete with its breaking news rival Twitter, but the question perhaps remains: will you actually want to get your news from Facebook?

Facebook’s hoping that its 1.7-billion users answer “yes”.

Andy Walker
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