Three months after Gizmodo reported that the editors of Facebook’s Trending Topics suppressed conservative news stories and outlets, the social network announced today that humans will no longer write the summaries for trending topics.
In the past, a combination of algorithmic surfacing and human editorial judgement worked in concert to determine what appeared in the sidebar. The small summaries — “Go Topless Day: Sunday Marks Annual Day of Support for Public Female Toplessness,” read one from today — were written by humans. Now, though, such poetry will disappear from our screens, and Facebook will use computer programs to automatically excerpt story summaries.
It is not, however, cutting out humans entirely. In fact, Facebook employees will still select which stories ultimately make it into the trending section. An algorithm will surface popular stories, but Facebook editors will weed out the inappropriate or fake ones. “There are still people involved in this process to ensure that the topics that appear in Trending remain high-quality,” the company’s blog reads.
This doesn’t sound like it’s going to quell conservative fears. Arguably, it was news selection that got Facebook in trouble in the first place, not the actual wording of the summaries themselves.
So far, what’s replacing story summaries on the homepage is just a number: “11K people talking about this” (Sarah Jessica Parker) or “1M people talking about this” (Netflix). And, while that may not quite address the political or editorial concerns, it’s a welcome change. The root problem of Trending Topics has always been Facebook’s lack of transparency. “5.6K people” might not tell you why Republican Party of Minnesota is trending — but it does tell you that it’s a relatively small number of people who are discussing it, which is much more useful information than a short summary written in the alien’s-first-day-on-Earth tone of Trending Topics past.