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Facebook Tweaks Trending Topics in Reponse to Bias Claims

Facebook have denied claims of a left wing political bias in their trending topics section, but have pledged to improve the feature regardless. On Monday, in both a press release and a direct letter to the chairman of the US senate commerce committee, the social networking giant claimed that the allegations were directly contrary to their mission.

Colin Stretch of the Facebook General Counsel announced yesterday, via the Facebook Newsroom, that the social network had found “no evidence of systematic political bias” in the systems that the ‘trending topics’ feature uses. He then went on to explain how their data analysis had “indicated that conservative and liberal topics are approved as trending topics at virtually identical rates.”

The allegations were originally brought to media attention on the 9th May when Gizmodo posted an article entitled “Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News”.

How do trending topics work?

Trending topics appear in the upper­right hand side of Facebook. They exist as a stand­alone feature which allows users to discover current, popular news content which is both meaningful and has been approved as worthy of their time. To allow them to do this, Facebook use a combination of a system of algorithms based on how users interact with each piece of content, as well as the contributions of physical staff.

The allegations appear to have been based on the latter of these two identifiers, with headlines suggesting that staff at the network actively suppress conservative news. However, in the press release, Stretch confirmed that they [Facebook] were “unable to substantiate any of the specific allegations of politically-motivated suppression of particular subjects or sources”, having “initiated an investigation into the policies and practices around Trending Topics to determine if anyone working on the product acted in ways that are inconsistent with [their] policies and mission”. Regardless, they still concluded that they were unable to “fully exclude the possibility of isolated and improper actions or unintentional bias”, and have announced one or two changes to try and minimise the risk of these occurrences.

Full details of their updates, which include additional training, guidelines and controls for their news review team, as well as no longer relying on external sources to substantiate the importance of topics, can be found on the fb newsroom.

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