The New Gatekeepers

Facebook kills its Trending Topics feature

June 1, 2018

Trending Topics is no more. Facebook said on Friday that it has decided to sunset the feature—which was introduced in 2014 as a way of trying to compete with Twitter as a source of breaking news—because users no longer seem interested in it. But that’s probably not the only reason Facebook decided to kill the section, which consisted of a list of trending keywords in the upper right-hand corner of the News Feed.

While it may have been unloved, Trending Topics has also been the source of significant controversy, both over what shows up in it and how the company decides to moderate or filter it.

Deciding what was trending used to be the job of a team of human editors who were hired for the task, until one staffer confessed to Gizmodo in 2016 that editors were in the habit of manually removing conservative news sites from the ranking.

The resulting storm of criticism from conservative media companies and politicians led to the firing of almost all the human editors and a high-profile meeting between CEO Mark Zuckerberg and several prominent conservative commentators such as Glenn Beck, during which the Facebook co-founder tried to convince the group his platform wasn’t biased against them.

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After the humans were fired, ranking news items was handed over to Facebook’s algorithms. But the section continued to draw complaints both for what it included as well as what it chose not to include. Among other things, the feature promoted a conspiracy theory about the 9/11 attacks, as well as a number of other false and misleading stories.

Although Facebook improved the algorithm over time, the company said it only accounted for about 1.5 percent of all clicks on news headlines.

In many ways, the controversy over Trending Topics was a taste of what was to come for the social network. The term “fake news” started to become more and more popular, and soon Facebook was put under the spotlight for its role in promoting conspiracy theories and other forms of misinformation during the 2016 election on behalf of the Internet Research Agency, an infamous group of online trolls with links to the Russian government.

Since then, the social network has repeatedly said it is committed to focusing on only high-quality news sources, including those it believes are the most trusted by a broad range of users. In place of the trending section, Facebook said in its blog post that it will be introducing several new experiments, including:

  • A “Breaking News” Label: The company says it’s currently running a test with 80 publishers across North and South America as well as Europe, India and Australia that lets publishers place a “breaking news” indicator on their posts in News Feed, combined with breaking news notifications.
  • Today In: Facebook says it is experimenting with a new dedicated section on the site that is called Today In, which the company says will “connect people to the latest breaking and important news from local publishers in their city,” as well as providing updates from local officials and groups.
  • News Video in Watch: As CJR reported after an interview with Facebook’s Head of News, Campbell Brown, the site is also rolling out a new dedicated section in Watch, its video feature, that will provide live video news coverage and analysis provided by a range of media partners.

It remains to be seen whether the new “Breaking News” category will become as clogged with questionable content as the old Trending Topics section was. Presumably Facebook is devoting considerably more resources to the new feature, but that isn’t likely to stop certain news sites and publishers from complaining if their articles aren’t highlighted and those from other news sites are.

Deciding what content is newsworthy is never an easy game for a platform to play, but Facebook is in that role whether it wants to be or not. Now it has to figure out how to live up to those commitments without starting another PR firestorm.

Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.