If so, they’re not doing their jobs very well. From Sunday evening to early Monday morning, Facebook allowed the topic “Megyn Kelly” to trend. Driving the trend was an article claiming that Kelly had been fired by Fox News for supporting Hillary Clinton. The story, hosted by endingthefed.com, was completely inaccurate: Kelly has not endorsed Clinton, and she has not been fired by Fox. Yet with the assistance of Facebook’s algorithmic editors, it garnered 200,000 likes.
On Sunday night, I asked Facebook whether a human editor approved the topic before it trended, and how it plans to keep this from happening in the future; it had not responded by press time.
For Facebook’s now out-of-work contractors, the irony must be painful. Earlier this year, Gizmodo reported that the Facebook Trending Topics staff were biased against conservatives in their story selection. Among the allegations: the team didn’t let a story trend if it was reported only by a rightwing site like Breitbart; the news in question also had to be covered by a reputable source like the AP, The New York Times, or The Washington Post. As Kashimir Hill wrote at Fusion when the news broke, this didn’t reveal anti-right bias so much as good journalistic instinct. Had the wise algorithm obeyed this tenet, this whole mess could have been avoided.
For Facebook, this scandal isn’t inherently embarrassing because the Megyn Kelly story was fake. Rather, it’s a negative story because the company has primed users to expect—and also told them outright, just last week—that the stories that trend should be accurate. For an inaccurate story to trend so soon after all the experienced workers were fired? It prompts anyone who’s been on the wrong side of a corporate consultant’s Excel-driven downsizing to go: har, har, sob.
But maybe the answer isn’t just that Facebook should rehire its contractors. Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard professor of law and computer science, said that he thinks Facebook is too important, too powerful, for any one editorial approach to hold sway. Describing the sum of all conversation on the world’s biggest message board—which is, after all, what Trending Topics does—might be too weighty a task for any single decision-making schema, he said. What if there was a blank spot on the Facebook homepage, and the user could fill it with their own favorite “Trending Topics” algorithm?
“Facebook could say, ‘Trending Topics go here, and we’re going to fill it in with a default—but now you should choose your disk jockey,’” he said. A user could swipe between different algorithmic approaches or even add their own. So one option might be a generic “most popular” feed, another might be a human-edited approach, and two more could focus only on sports or business news. This diversity of approaches would let Facebook off the hook for any individual trending decision, and it could create a better survey of the whole conversation.