Last Friday, Facebook announced "An Update To Trending." The service's two-year-old news curation feature, which was previously run by contractors, was going to become "more automated." It would "no longer require people to write descriptions for trending topics."
The update has had a couple of immediate effects: somewhere between 15 and 18 contractors lost their jobs, and a fake story about Fox News host Megyn Kelly quickly made its way into the Trending section over the weekend. Whoops!
The story, which originated on Conservative101 dot com on Saturday morning, boldly declared "BREAKING: Fox News Exposes Traitor Megyn Kelly, Kicks Her Out For Backing Hillary."
In reality, Fox News did not expose "traitor" Megyn Kelly, because she doesn't seem to have backed Hillary Clinton at all. But that didn't stop other outlets like ETF News (that's short for End the Fed, if you're wondering about their political leanings) from running with the story, or sharing it with their 200,000 some odd Facebook fans, who excitedly passed it along on their own timelines.
By Sunday, it was a Trending topic, where it remained until early Monday morning:
The story has since been removed, presumably by one of the engineers who are reportedly staffing the Trending section after Friday's announcement. But this is a pretty inauspicious start for Facebook's newly computer-operated section, which—although the company didn't say so explicitly—could be a response to leveled accusations of anti-conservative bias among the curators running Trending. (Facebook has yet to respond to my request for comment, but I'll update this post if the company gets back to me.)
The lesson here is one that Kate Losse pointed out when the alleged Trending-bias story first broke. Even when it's run by engineers and algorithms, Trending (and Facebook as a whole) is an editorial operation. After all, the company's extensive advertising team already labels users political views, and there's an entire cottage industry built around churning out partisan chum designed to do well on Facebook. Turns out that replacing the people with news judgment working on your product has major editorial consequences 🤔.
Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at firstname.lastname@example.org