Facebook Responds to Allegations of Political Bias in Trending Topics Feature

June 06, 2016

6856181503_5b87b73925_oThe 2016 election has arguably become one of the most controversial topics in the media over the past year. Anyone who’s seen the satirical campaign signs reading “IDK not Trump tho” knows that many voters who aren’t passionately rooting for one particular candidate are now desperately trying to collect as much information as possible to confidently cast their vote come Election Day. With campaign budgets, email controversies and tax returns at the forefront of everyone’s minds, any information – or lack thereof – that could possibly sway undecided voters in one direction is being scrutinized by the media.

Facebook’s Trending Topics feature was added to the social media site in 2013 and has been touted as a reliable resource for breaking news and major stories. As of late, there’s been some question as to whether or not the feature was suppressing conservative-focused stories. It’s worth noting that Trending Topics is based on an algorithm that detects when a topic is repeatedly posted on Facebook or appearing in various news sources. A group of contractors, known as reviewers, then assesses the information and determines if it’s timely and accurate. If it is, they’ll create the headline and short description to appear in Trending Topics.

While there’s a possibility that the reviewers can manipulate the system to reflect their own personal beliefs, Facebook’s investigation into the matter proved that had not been the case.

In a letter addressed to Chairman of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee John Thune, Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch explained:

“Our investigation has revealed no evidence of systematic political bias in the selection or prominence of stories included in the Trending Topics feature. In fact, our analysis indicated that the rates of approval of conservative and liberal topics are virtually identical in Trending Topics. Moreover, we were unable to substantiate any of the specific allegations of politically-motivated suppression of subjects or sources, as reported in the media.”

Although the investigation failed to prove any sort of political bias occurring in Trending Topics, Stretch acknowledged the likelihood of it happening in the future and proposed a revised set of guidelines Facebook would follow going forward.

The new guidelines include implementing “refresher training” for all reviewers to emphasize the separation of content decisions from their personal ideology, setting up additional oversight of the review team, expanding the Help Center information regarding the Trending Topics feature, and eliminating outside news sources as the basis for information.

In his concluding statement, Stretch reiterated Facebook’s dedication to embracing all viewpoints, be it political or otherwise, to “foster the free flow of ideas and culture” and promote a sense of community.

Photo Credit: Master OSM 2011

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