Back in May, reports filtered out from whistleblowers through a publication called Gizmodo, that Facebook had a team of “curators” whose task was to populate the “Trending Box” that all users see upon opening their news feed. The curators would look through the algorithm that Facebook had set up to spit out what people were looking at, and cherry pick the stories they wanted people to see.
That scenario caused an uproar among conservative Americans. Why? Because stories from conservative publications and about political-right issues and people got short shrift depending on who was doing the curating at any one time. As one of the whistleblowers put it:
“Depending on who was on shift, things would be blacklisted or trending,” said the former curator. This individual asked to remain anonymous, citing fear of retribution from the company. The former curator is politically conservative, one of a very small handful of curators with such views on the trending team. “I’d come on shift and I’d discover that CPAC or Mitt Romney or Glenn Beck or popular conservative topics wouldn’t be trending because either the curator didn’t recognize the news topic or it was like they had a bias against Ted Cruz.”
Friday afternoon, word started to spread that Facebook had fired their entire team of curators – the journalists who wrote the blurbs that went with the hand-picked trending topics. This was apparently in response to the criticism stemming from the first controversy. Instead of the human condition influencing the trend, Facebook would just use the algorithm which would personalize items for any one person’s trending box based on their preferences as observed by the algorithm itself, and use descriptions from actual articles.
“based on a number of factors, including Pages you’ve liked, your location (e.g., home state sports news), the previous trending topics with which you’ve interacted, and what is trending across Facebook overall.”
One of the first days this system was put in place, a problem cropped up.
The story about Megyn Kelly being “kicked out” of Fox News was not true. In only using the algorithm there was no fact checking going into what was in the Trending box. A writer at ArsTechnica put it this way:
There were so many problems with this story, ranging from plagiarism to falsity, that even a fairly simple-minded robot editor should have caught them. The Trending algorithm is clearly not ready for prime time, or maybe Facebook is just trying to redefine what it calls “a breadth of ideas and commentary about a variety of topics.”
Facebook’s motivations aside, this incident proves that an algorithm can be a tool, but not a fix-it-all solution. There still has to be a human element of approval. In that, this attempt to control the flow of information objectively, just didn’t work.