Facebook kills 'trending’ topics, tests breaking news label
NEW YORK (AP) — Facebook is shutting down its ill-fated “trending” news section after four years, a company executive told The Associated Press.
The company claims the tool is outdated and wasn’t popular. But the trending section also proved problematic in ways that would presage Facebook’s later problems with fake news, political balance and the limitations of artificial intelligence in managing the messy human world.
When Facebook launched “trending” in 2014 as a list of headlines to the side of the main news feed, it was a straightforward move to steal users from Twitter by giving them a quick look at the most popular news of the moment. It fit nicely into CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s pledge just a year earlier to make Facebook its users’ “personal newspaper.”
But that was then. “Fake news” wasn’t yet a popular term, and no foreign country had been accused of trying to influence the U.S. elections through social media, as Russia later would be. Trending news that year included the death of Robin Williams, Ebola and the World Cup.
Facebook is now testing new features, including a “breaking news” label that publishers can add to stories to distinguish them from other chatter. Facebook also wants to make local news more prominent.
“It’s very good to get rid of ‘trending,”’ said Frank Pasquale, a law professor at the University of Maryland and expert on algorithms and society. He said algorithms are good for very narrow, well-defined tasks. By contrast, he said, deciding what news stories should go in “trending” requires broad thinking, quick judgments about context and decisions about whether someone is trying to game the system.
In an interview ahead of Friday’s announcement, Facebook’s head of news products, Alex Hardiman, said the company is still committed to breaking and real-time news. But instead of having Facebook’s moderators, human or otherwise, make editorial decisions, there’s been a subtle shift to let news organizations do so.
According to the Pew Research Center, 44 percent of U.S. adults get some or all of their news through Facebook.