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Wednesday 20 June 2018

Facebook shuts down troubled ‘trending’ section

The social media giant says the tool is outdated and was not popular four years after it was introduced.

Facebook is getting rid of its ‘trending’ section. (Dominic Lipinski/PA)
Facebook is getting rid of its ‘trending’ section. (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

By Barbara Ortutay in New York

Facebook is shutting down its ill-fated “trending” news section after four years, a company executive says.

The company claims the tool is outdated and was not popular.

It also proved problematic in ways that hinted at Facebook’s later problems with fake news, political balance and the limitations of artificial intelligence in managing the human world.

When Facebook launched “trending” in 2014 as a list of headlines to the side of the main news feed, it was a straightforward move to steal users from Twitter by giving them a quick look at the most popular news.

It fit nicely into chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s pledge just a year earlier to make Facebook a “personal newspaper” for users.

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Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg (Francois Mori/AP)

But at that time “fake news” was not a popular term and no foreign country had been accused of trying to influence the US elections through social media, as Russia would be.

Trending news that year included the death of Robin Williams, Ebola and the World Cup.

Facebook is now testing new features, including a “breaking news” label that publishers can add to stories to distinguish them. Facebook also wants to make local news more prominent.

Facebook’s head of news products, Alex Hardiman, said the company is still committed to breaking and real-time news.

But instead of having Facebook’s moderators make editorial decisions, there’s been a subtle shift to let news organisations do so.

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The ‘trending’ section will disappear from Facebook (Richard Drew/AP)

According to the Pew Research Centre, 44% of US adults get some or all of their news through Facebook.

Troubles with the trending section began to emerge in 2016, when the company was accused of bias against conservatives, based on an anonymous former contractor.

They claimed Facebook downplayed conservative issues and promoted liberal causes.

Mr Zuckerberg met prominent right-wing leaders at the company’s headquarters in an attempt at damage control. Yet two years later, Facebook still has not been able to shake the notion of bias.

In late 2016, Facebook fired the human editors who worked on the trending topics and replaced them with software that was supposed to be free of political bias.

There are other ways for us to better invest our resources Alex Hardiman, Facebook

Instead, the software algorithm began to pick out posts that were getting the most attention, even if the information was bogus.

In early 2017, Facebook made another attempt to fix the trending section by including only topics covered by several news publishers. The thinking was that coverage by just one outlet could be a sign that the news is fake.

The troubles underscore the difficulty of relying on computers, even artificial intelligence, to make sense of the messy human world without committing obvious, sometimes embarrassing and occasionally disastrous errors.

Facebook appears to have concluded trying to fix the headaches around trending was not worth the meagre benefits the company, users and news publishers saw in it.

“There are other ways for us to better invest our resources,” Ms Hardiman said.

The “breaking news” label that Facebook is testing with 80 news publishers around the world will let outlets such as The Washington Post add a red label to indicate that a story is breaking news.

“Breaking news has to look different than a recipe,” Ms Hardiman said.

Another feature, called “Today In” shows people breaking news in their area from local publishers, officials and organisations. It’s being tested in 30 markets in the US.

Ms Hardiman said the goal is to help “elevate great local journalism”.

The company is also funding news videos, created exclusively for Facebook by outside publishers it would not yet name. It plans to launch this feature in the next few months.

Facebook says the trending section was never popular. It was available only in five countries and accounted for less than 1.5% of clicks to the websites of news publishers, according to the company.

While Facebook got attention for the problems the trending section had — perhaps because it seemed popular with journalists and editors — neither its existence nor its removal makes much of a difference when it comes with Facebook’s broader problems with news.

Ms Hardiman said ending the trending section feels like letting a child go but Facebook’s focus is prioritising trustworthy, informative news that people find useful.

Press Association

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