Facebook’s Trending Topics box, which tracks what’s hot in the news at any given moment, has itself been in the media a lot recently. A report in May alleged that Facebook contractors working on Trending Topics were suppressing conservative news and last month, the social network got rid of the human editors who wrote news item descriptions. The Washington Post even started a really interesting newsletter that tracks what news is trending on Facebook versus Twitter and Google.
The Washington Post journalists who write that newsletter track what’s trending based on what they see showing up on the Facebook homepage of their own accounts. That’s limiting because the Trending Topics box is personalized, showing you just 10 topics in the main box, depending on what Facebook thinks you’re interested in. What they and other journalists don’t seem to realize is that there’s a tool called Signal they can use that shows them all the stories that are trending across the site. It’s only available to the media, and according to a person that previously worked on the Trending Topics team, it looks a lot like the internal tool that Facebook news curators used to do their job in the first place. (I found out about the tool after doing an investigation of Trending Topics’ political leanings.)
Case in point: On Tuesday, a journalist reported that Facebook was not displaying in his Trending Topics box the death of Terence Crutcher, a man who was shot and killed by police in Oklahoma after his SUV stalled on the side of the road. But Crutcher’s death was front page news and searching his name on Facebook revealed “54,292 people” were talking about him.
“While Trends are personalized, users I talked to who work in social justice also aren’t seeing Crutcher listed, and searching for stories about the incident multiple times didn’t surface him in Trends,” wrote TechCrunch’s Josh Constine.
Checking Signal, the tool that Facebook made available to journalists in 2015, it’s true that of over 80 topics listed, Terence Crutcher’s story is not among them, meaning his death is not “trending” for anyone. But in a second column called “Emerging,” which shows journalists topics that are likely to trend, his name does appear, grouped with topics that Facebook’s algorithms have determined are related:
Crutcher and these other topics are currently at the bottom of the Emerging Topics column. According to a person who used to work on the Trending Topics team, contractors looked to “Emerging Topics” to determine which stories warranted being moved to Trending, starting at the top of the column and moving to the bottom. So Crutcher’s death is currently at the end of the list for evaluation, whether by humans or Facebook’s algorithm, depending on what the set-up is there now. (Facebook has not yet responded to a media inquiry.)
Unfortunately, regular humans who want to have a broader view of Trending Topics don’t have access to the tool. It’s available by request to journalists only here.