Making Sense Of Facebook's Trending Topics

May 13, 2016

Facebook is a massive social media heavyweight. Media organizations and Facebook realize the site has a lot of influence in shaping the news people see, react to and share every day.

One particular Facebook feature called "trending topics" is now coming under fire. The technology blog Gizmodo reports that a robotic algorithm isn't responsible for the list you see on the right hand rail of your Facebook homepage.

Instead, former employees told Gizmodo that stories with a conservative political perspective were being suppressed.

“When we discovered that they were both artificially inflating and also suppressing news, that calls into question the legitimacy of the trending topics entirely, right? These aren’t exactly trending topics,” Gizmodo Editor Michael Nunez told ‘CBS This Morning.’ “They’re being selected by an editorial board.”

Facebook denies the allegations, saying it uses staffers to look at the trending topics and then screen it for bad information, such as an unreliable news source.

This controversy caught the eye of Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, a member of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee that oversees internet communication and media. He is asking Facebook to explain how it selects trending topics and what steps the company takes to avoid the suppression of conservative viewpoints.

Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies said that Facebook is in hot water because it identifies itself as a technology platform without a specific editorial position. Facebook should be straight with the audience, she said.

“Nobody really cares if a news outlet is biased or if Facebook is biased,” she said. “But everybody cares if somebody is artificially manipulating how the democracy works and nobody knows that it’s happening.”

She said this practice also differs from how Facebook users view their own news feed, the running commentary of stories rolling down the middle of the page. That’s influenced by how users select and block friends and their opinions, McBride said, but users know it.

“The difference is that we at least have the self-awareness to know how we are filtering our own little news feed. When Facebook does it, we don’t know," she said. "There is no transparency around it at all. And that makes us distrust Facebook and wonder if our democracy is really being influenced by these unseen forces.”