Facebook Trending topics show algorithms still have a long way to go before replacing human editors

Algorithms and bots are great at number crunching, but understanding a nuance in a news story - that's an altogether different skill.


Soon after the iPhone 7 launch, this Faking News story was picked up by Facebook's trending algorithm and was the top of its trends. Faking News is one of the most well known satire sites in India, but for Facebook's bots, this seemed real enough to make it climb the trending charts globally.

Earlier, Facebook algorithms had pushed a fake Megyn Kelly story about Fox News having kicked her out for supporting Hillary Clinton - the news organisation hadn't.

Facebook Trending topics show algorithms still have a long way to go before replacing human editors

This satire on the iPhone made it to Facebook's global Trending topics on 8 September

On 26 August, Facebook announced that it would be removing all human editors looking after Trending Topics and instead be handing that task over to its algorithm. Trending topics are decided based on the volume and momentum of the story along, with original mentions around that story as well has the number of shares of that story on Facebook. While the topics are personalised to your taste, a lot also depends upon your location, pages you have liked and other factors.

According to Quartz, the editorial team has been replaced by an engineering team which takes care of the algorithm and preventing mundane or repetitive stories from making it to the top of trends.

Facebook's justification to removing any sort of human intervention in the process was, "A more algorithmically driven process allows us to scale Trending to cover more topics and make it available to more people globally over time."

But this can lead to trending of not only satirical stories but also hoax stories.

Algorithms don't get nuance

Washington Post is running a series on Facebook Trending topics. Its latest finding just confirms the fact that the two cases mentioned above are not an exception, but slowly becoming a norm.

"The Intersect logged every news story that trended across four accounts during the workdays from 22 Aug to 22 Sept. During that time, we uncovered five trending stories that were indisputably fake and three that were profoundly inaccurate," said the Post's findings.

Well, that is bound to happen if you replace news editors - who are trained to identify the news worthiness in a story - with algorithms.

If an algorithm is not able to distinguish between a genuine news website and a satirical news website, then such cases will repeat.

Algorithms and bots are great at number crunching, but understanding a nuance in a news story - that's an altogether different skill. The underlying AI is not yet that advanced to identify sarcasm. For better or worse, you need someone with a news sense overlooking the stories that the algorithm is throwing up.

Balancing human biases and algorithmic data

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Facebook's decision to switch completely to algorithms rather than having human editors write news precis under the Trending topics, could be attributed to the allegations which implied that human editors were biased. In May this year, Gizmodo had reported that Facebook's Trending topics was suppressing conservative stories for liberal ones.

In a Guardian piece, an ex-employee pointed at things such as favouritism and sexism that were more rampant in the 'Trending topics' team than political biases. "There is no political bias that I know of and we were never told to suppress conservative news," say the ex-employee.

Zuckerberg has always maintained that Facebook isn't a media company. Having humans to identify trending news requires investments. And have a news editorial team by its very nature makes you a media company in some regards. According to Gizmodo, human curators were hired to train the algorithm.

Looks like Facebook thinks its algorithms are ready to replace human editors. But according to this paper, human biases can also be introduced into an algorithm. So at the end of the day, it's really all about balancing human biases and algorithmic data.

Caution in India

An algorithm pushing satirical stories to the top of trends can be particularly problematic in a country like ours. We have been known to flare up on the silliest of topics. Politics and religion are hot topics in India. If a satirical news or worse hoaxes or rumours, on either of these topics trends, no one is going to bother with checking facts. Things could take a disastrous turn as has been observed time and again in India.

Facebook has high ambitions and it wants the Trending topics to achieve a higher scale. Investing in human editors across geographies goes against Facebook's claims that it's not a media company. But for a platform which has over a billion people on it, it makes little sense to leave something as important as news to algorithms and bots.

If satire coming out of non-media setups is making to the top of Trending topics, then it is clear that the algorithms have much to learn. Maybe firing all the news editor contractors working on Trending topics happened a bit too soon.

Disclaimer: Faking News is part of Firstpost from the Network18 Digital boquet, which also comprises tech2

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