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Facebook Tweaks Its 'Trending Topics' Algorithm To Better Reflect Real News

The Facebook logo is displayed at a startup gathering in Paris on Jan. 17.
Thibault Camus
The Facebook logo is displayed at a startup gathering in Paris on Jan. 17.

An article in an online publication accusing Facebook of suppressing the Women's March in its trending topics caused a little tempest on social media over the weekend. Facebook says it did not intentionally block any story and is revealing a new way its trending-topics algorithm will now operate.

Paul Bradley Carr, writing for online outlet Pando, on Saturday posted what he said were screen shots of his Facebook pages at the height of the worldwide marches, which brought more than a million people into the streets around the globe to protest the agenda of the Trump administration.

Despite images and stories from the marches filling many people's personal Facebook feeds and the day's media coverage, Carr's screenshots showed no signs of the march in Trending Topics — a feature supposed to reflect popular discussed topics.

And Carr says he discovered he was not the only one who didn't see the Women's March reflected on Trending Topics, accusing Facebook of trying to cozy up to the Trump administration. A very unscientific poll by this reporter found that among people in my Facebook and Twitter network most did see the Women's March or something related trending on their page. However, a few did not.

According to Facebook, the Trending Topics — seen to the right of the main news feed on desktop and in search on mobile — are "based on a number of factors including engagement, timeliness, Pages you've liked and your location." (Facebook pays NPR and other leading news organizations to produce live video streams.)

Facebook representatives told NPR that the reason why some people did not see the march as trending had to do with the algorithm behind the feature. Although it took into account major news events and what's popular on the site, it also accounted for the preferences of each person. It's possible that Carr's algorithmic profile indicated he wouldn't be interested in the Women's March.

In addition, some people may have seen trending topics they didn't realize were about the Women's March. For example, Ashley Judd and Madonna were trending — both women gave speeches at the main march in Washington, D.C.

And, Facebook says, none of this will happen in the future.

As of Wednesday, the company has once again changed its trending algorithms. Personal preferences are now out of the equation. "Facebook will no longer be personalized based on someone's interests," Facebook says in a press release. "Everyone in the same region will see the same topics." For now, a region is considered a country, so everyone in the U.S. should see the same topics.

The latest algorithm changes are part of Facebook's ongoing effort to curtail the spread of fake news. Some fabricated stories show up in Trending Topics, despite often originating on sites with no history of visitors and getting no coverage from legitimate news media. It's a lucrative business, explored by NPR in November, when we tracked down one notorious fake-news creator.

The new algorithm would make hoax articles less likely to trend because it will look at "the number of publishers that are posting articles on Facebook about the same topic," accounting for coverage by multiple news outlets, Facebook says.

According to Facebook the new algorithms will also make it easier for those who did not realize that the trends for "Ashley Judd" or "Madonna" were related to the marches to understand the context around those posts. Trending topics will now feature a headline below each topic name.

One of the updates to Trending Topics will be a display of a headline from a publisher.
/ Facebook
One of the updates to Trending Topics will be a display of a headline from a publisher.

The company says the changes are not a response to complaints about trending during the Women's March. Facebook says they have been in the works because its users — like Carr — actually expect and want to see trending topics related to the most talked-about real-world events.

Of course, algorithms are programs. While Facebook may hope that its new approach will appease critics such as Carr, the proof will be what happens in the real world of people's Facebook pages.

"I do give them credit for acknowledging, at least, users' concerns over this," says Carr, who called Facebook's change "a positive step." But, he added, "we'll see how it works in practice."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, andNPR.org.
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