Facebook continues to be the largest media outlet in the world.
Yes, Facebook is a massive social network. It’s a place to post baby photos and rage about the US election, all at once. It’s also the number one place where humans get news online in 2016. Whether Facebook admits it or not, it’s responsible for disseminating news to millions of people all over the world.
There are two ways to encounter news on Facebook: through your News Feed (posted by friends or media outlets you follow), or through the “Trending Topics” section.
When you land on Facebook.com, you see both:
Since the News Feed is customised to each Facebook user based on how you use Facebook, that section is entirely on you. (Sorry!) But when it comes to Facebook’s “Trending” section, things get a bit more complicated.
The Trending section is intended to highlight actual news that lots of Facebook users are reading and sharing. And up until a few months ago, that section was overseen by a handful of actual human beings — editors, even!
But back in August, Facebook fired its editorial staff after reports surfaced on Gizmodo that the section actively leaned toward liberal news (and away from conservative news). And then things got worse. The weekend following the firing of the editorial staff, a false news story became a top hit on Facebook’s Trending section.
Facebook’s response to the false report? To remove it. No editorial update. No mea culpa. The millions of people who read it had no way of knowing they’d read a false report.
And in the weeks since Facebook’s big change, the situation has only gotten worse. In a new report from The Washington Post, a variety of false stories have been surfaced on Facebook’s Trending section over the past several weeks.
“In the six weeks since Facebook revamped its Trending system — and a hoax about the Fox News Channel star subsequently trended — the site has repeatedly promoted ‘news’ stories that are actually works of fiction,” WaPo’s Caitlin Dewey writes.
What kinds of stories?
They range from satirical stories being picked up as legit news to conspiracy-theorist nonsense (like this one claiming that the September 11 terrorist attack in New York City was a controlled demolition). And then there’s the issue of press releases being included with actual news, to say nothing of Trending links pushing directly to company stores.
As the report admits, each person’s Trending section is slightly different. Unfortunately for Facebook, that doesn’t excuse the situation; it actually may make things worse.
“The observation that Facebook periodically trends fake news still stands — if anything, we’ve underestimated how often it occurs,” Dewey writes.
It’s not clear exactly what changes are coming to Facebook’s Trending section, but they are coming. As Forbes reported in mid-September, the section is being re-worked with a focus on making it more like News Feed. Here’s hoping that results in less fake news being disseminated to Facebook’s 1.7 billion users.
We’ve reached out to Facebook about this issue; we’ll update this story if we hear back.
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