Skip to content

Facebook trending topics controversy a tempest in teapot


News broke a few days ago on Gizmodo that former Facebook workers were possibly suppressing news stories of interest to conservative readers from the social network’s “Trending Topics” section.

Trending topics displays three or four items on the right side of one’s News Feed that are proving popular in discussion among Facebook users. “Trending Topics” is displayed on desktops and tablets, but for lack of space not on smart phones, the leading device for Facebook use.

All Hell has broke loose since the Gizmodo story. Conservative or liberal, people are upset that Facebook was using humans to edit the news.

U.S. Senator, John Thune from South Dakota is demanding that Facebook explain how it handles its “trending” list. As reported by the New York Times, Thune wants Facebook to provide information about any articles that may have been suppressed because they were too conservative.

Facebook is supposed to go back and review every news story shared by users, except for the handful that got pushed to Trending Topics each day, to see if a story not displayed had a “conservative” bent?

The Facebook suppressing story, thinly sourced at best, is all about nothing. Of course there is going to be a human element in filtering stories. Algorithms to isolate stories for surfacing are human created. Once surfaced, there’s value in humans doing a double check to determin what goes live.

Then we have this First Amendment thing, a lynchpin for what makes this country great. People, including organizations, are entitled to say and print what they want. No matter how popular Facebook is, neither the masses nor the government can regulate its speech.

Bottom line, I don’t believe Facebook filtered out conservative stories.

From Facebook’s VP of Global Operations, Justin Osofsky, here’s how Trending Topics works,

Surfaced by algorithm

Potential Trending Topics are first surfaced by an algorithm that identifies topics that have recently spiked in popularity on Facebook (in other words, ones that have a high volume of mentions and a sharp increase in mentions over a short period of time). The Trending Topics algorithm also uses an external RSS website crawler to identify breaking events so that we can connect people to conversations on Facebook about newsworthy events as quickly as possible. A list of included websites is available here.

Reviewed by the Trending Topics team

Members of the Trending team look at potential Trending Topics as they are surfaced by the algorithm and do the following:

  • Confirm that the topic is tied to a current news event in the real world (for example, the topic “#lunch” is talked about during lunch every day around the world, but will not be a trending topic).
  • Write a topic description with information that is corroborated by reporting from at least three of a list of more than a thousand media outlets. A list of these media outlets is available here.
  • Apply a category label to the topic (e.g. sports, science) to help with personalized ranking and to enable suggestions grouped by category for the various tabs on the desktop version.
  • Check to see whether the topic is national or global breaking news that is being covered by most or all of ten major media outlets— and if it is, the topic is given an importance level that may make the topic more likely to be seen. A list of these outlets is available in the guidelines.


The list of Trending Topics is then personalized for each user via an algorithm that relies on a number of factors, including the importance of the topic, Pages a person has liked, location (e.g.. home state sports news), feedback provided by the user about previous Trending Topics and what’s trending across Facebook overall. Not everyone sees the same topics at the same time.

Facebook exists as a giant town square and forum for discussion and sharing.

People are going to differ, some vehemently, as to whether their position is aired as much as it should be. The minute someone cries evil and conspiracy in suppressing something someone said things get real crazy. It happens everywhere – television, radio, newspapers, city council meetings, school board meetings and now Facebook.

Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg posted yesterday his response to the controversy, first explaining what Facebook stands for.

Facebook stands for giving everyone a voice. We believe the world is better when people from different backgrounds and with different ideas all have the power to share their thoughts and experiences. That’s what makes social media unique. We are one global community where anyone can share anything — from a loving photo of a mother and her baby to intellectual analysis of political events.

To serve our diverse community, we are committed to building a platform for all ideas. Trending Topics is designed to surface the most newsworthy and popular conversations on Facebook. We have rigorous guidelines that do not permit the prioritization of one viewpoint over another or the suppression of political perspectives.

And then addressing the allegations on targeted content filtering on Trending Topics.

We take this report very seriously and are conducting a full investigation to ensure our teams upheld the integrity of this product.

We have found no evidence that this report is true. If we find anything against our principles, you have my commitment that we will take additional steps to address it.

In the coming weeks, I’ll also be inviting leading conservatives and people from across the political spectrum to talk with me about this and share their points of view. I want to have a direct conversation about what Facebook stands for and how we can be sure our platform stays as open as possible.

The reason I care so much about this is that it gets to the core of everything Facebook is and everything I want it to be. Every tool we build is designed to give more people a voice and bring our global community together. For as long as I’m leading this company this will always be our mission.

I take Zuckerberg at his word. He and his company are founded on free speech. Facebook gives people who have never had a voice a true voice. People can network to grow reputations and influence like they never have before.

The fact that commercial enterprises want to advertise and sell their wares around the most popular forum in the world is hardly a surprise. Look at the town squares that surround county court houses and city halls in virtually every small city in this country.

Rather than get freaked out about Facebook filtering content by algorithms and people to facilitate discussion, people ought to look at Facebook as a gift.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Allesio Jacona

Posted in: