Technology

Facebook: Trending feature may have favored mainstream media

Facebook said in a Monday letter that now-changed guidelines for its trending topics feature may have favored stories coming from mainstream media outlets.

But the company maintained that an investigation had turned up no evidence to support allegations that stories popular with conservatives had been systemically downplayed on the trending list.

Guidance for the editors of the trending topics feature, changed almost a year ago, said a topic could not be added to the list "if one of the first 12 posts (the 'feed') associated with that topic did not include a post from a news organization, a primary source, or a verified profile or page," according to a letter from Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.).

"This guidance may have in some instances prior to that date prevented or delayed acceptance of topics that were not covered by major news organizations," he wrote. "This guidance ... was updated in July 2015 to permit reviewers to accept topics even if those topics were not being covered by major news organizations or verified pages or profiles."

Thune's scrutiny of Facebook began last week after the tech website Gizmodo published a story quoting a former "curator" for the trending section who said colleagues had omitted stories and outlets popular with conservatives from the list. The next day, the South Dakota Republican sent Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg a letter demanding answers to questions about how the feature operated.

Trending topics are produced by a team of editors based on a list of popular issues generated by an algorithm. Those editors work under guidelines, which have in the past included using different news outlets to understand or validate a story.

The company has repeatedly said that an investigation into the charges turned up no evidence of wrongdoing, which it again said in Monday's letter.

"In fact, our analysis indicated that the rates of approval of conservative and liberal topics are virtually identical in Trending Topics," said Stretch.

"Moreover, we were unable to substantiate any of the specific allegations of politically-motivated suppression of subjects or sources, as reported in the media.

"To the contrary, we confirmed that most of those subjects were in fact included as trending topics on multiple occasions, on dates and at intervals that would be expected given the volume of discussion around those topics on those dates."

He acknowledged, however, that Facebook's "investigation could not exclude the possibility of isolated improper actions or unintentional bias in the implementation of our guidelines or policies."

The company also committed to making new changes Monday to how it runs the feature, some directly aimed at the sources for trending stories.

The company said it would no longer rely "on external websites and news outlets to identify, validate, or assess the importance of trending topics."

A list of 10 prestigious news outlets will no longer be used to determine the importance of a story, the company said. The company will also stop drawing on a list of RSS feeds for the trending algorithm or will draw from a list of 1,000 media outlets while summarizing stories.

The company said it would "institute additional controls and oversight around the review team, including robust escalation procedures" and that it had already conducted training for the team that reviews the topics.

Zuckerberg also met last week with a group of influential conservatives to discuss both the allegations and the more general lack of trust between the right and the social platform, which now has more than 1.6 billion users.

Stretch offered the company's most detailed description to date of the inquiry into the allegations. He said the company had looked at "data logs" of more than 600 decisions made by editors about topics at the heart of the allegations, as well as other decisions made on the team.

"We also reviewed a selection of communications between reviewers involved in decisions to temporarily sideline the topics at issue to identify any evidence of political bias or reviewer misconduct," he said.

The company interviewed every current reviewer and copy editor on the trending topics team, according to Stretch, and spoke to a "cross-section" of former curators. Stretch said every person the company spoke to said they had not been aware of ideological bias in the process surrounding the trending feature.

If that changes, Stretch said, the company will move quickly.

"Should we learn of evidence of improper actions taken on the basis of political bias, we will take prompt remedial actions," he said.

Thune said his effort, which some conservatives have said was government overreach, had born fruit and praised the company's response in a statement.

"Facebook's description of the methodology it uses for determining the trending content it highlights for users is far different from and more detailed than what it offered prior to our questions," he said. "We now know the system relied on human judgment, and not just an automated process, more than previously acknowledged.

"While the committee remains open to new information on this matter, transparency - not regulation - remains the goal, so I thank the company for its efforts to acknowledge relevant facts and its recognition of a continuing need to transparently address relevant user questions," he said.

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