Saturday, 14 May 2016

Facebook Publishes Its Policy On 'Trending Topics'

Responding to a media firestorm that erupted this week over how Facebook FB -0.37% puts together its prominent ”Trending Topics” section for its 1.7 billion users, the company publicly shared its internal guidelines for running the feature.

The document expands on statements made earlier this week by Facebook FB -0.37% officials, who denied reports that human reviewers it uses to compile topics were instructed to suppress conservative news.

In a post linking to the 28-page document titled  “Trending Review Guidelines”  Facebook FB -0.37% noted that Trending Topics are first surfaced by an algorithm, which is based both on topics that have recently spiked in popularity on Facebook FB -0.37% and on an external RSS website crawler of a wide range of sites to identify breaking events. Then, members of Facebook’s Trending team review the topics to ensure they are tied to current news event in the real world, write a description based on reporting from at least three media outlets among a list of 1,000 outlets and categorize the news with a topic such as “sports” or “science” to improve personalized rankings. The team also checks whether that the algorithmically-generated topic is national or global breaking news that should be given a high importance level based on how widely it is covered by most or all of ten major media outlets, such as CNN, The Guardian, Fox News, and The New York Times NYT -0.33%, a classification which could cause the story to be surfaced more broadly.

Facebook FB -0.37% first introduced Trending Topics in 2014 to help users discover content that is both popular in the world and of interest to them, Facebook’s VP of global operations Justin Osofsky said in a blog post.

The guidelines suggest Facebook FB -0.37% has put considerable thought into how it publishes the Trending section, and seem designed to bar against the prioritization of any viewpoints. Publishing the document is likely to be a positive step for Facebook FB -0.37%, which is working to build the trust of users and publishers as the company is emerging as the most powerful and influential distributor of news and information in the world. However, it not clear that it will put an end to the controversy.

“Topics that are eligible to appear in the product are surfaced by our algorithms, not people,” Osofsky said. “This product also has a team of people who play an important role in making sure that what appears in Trending Topics is high-quality and useful. The guidelines demonstrate that we have a series of checks and balances in place to help surface the most important popular stories, regardless of where they fall on the ideological spectrum.”

Facebook said the algorithm that surfaces topics to be reviewed for the section do not consider perspective or politics. The company said it also regularly audits the work of the review team to ensure it is following the guidelines, and that workers can be fired for breaking them. Facebook also said it has never instructed reviewers to inject specific stories into the section to suppress or amplify any political perspective. The company said topics can only be injected to reduce duplication or to more logically refer to an event or topic that the algorithm has produced, for example, referring to a hurricane in Cabo San Lucas as #Odile instead of “Baja” or “Cabo.” Facebook said reviewers are only allowed to “blacklist” topics considered to be “noise,” such as a random word one like #sale or #weekend, which aren’t referring to a specific event.

“Facebook does not allow or advise our reviewers to discriminate against sources of any political origin, period,” Osofsky added.

The company said it will continue to investigate the allegations in Gizmodo’s report on Monday, which cited anonymous sources who claimed that conservative viewpoints were being suppressed in Trending Topics and that workers were at times “injecting” topics into the section.


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