It’s easy to dismiss the debate about Facebook’s ‘Trending’ news section and its relevance, but the fact of the matter is that more and more people are using social media – and Facebook specifically – as a news source. And another fact – Facebook has the capacity to shift opinion, even influence public behavior. It’s easy to dismiss this as not being relevant to you, that you don’t pay much attention to that Trending section anyway, but neither of the above claims are speculation, they’ve both been proven by independent research.
However you look at it, Facebook does have significant influence over the news cycle, and that makes the Trending discussion increasingly relevant. How Facebook approaches their news coverage is important.
As a quick re-cap of the current state of play, Facebook came under fire back in March after several former staffers from Facebook’s trending news team spoke out about questionable practices at The Social Network, including manual interference with trending topics which, in turn, may or may not have lead to stories getting a lot more or less coverage than they deserved, essentially angling the discussion to their benefit. Facebook has denied any such claims and conducted an investigation which, they say, found no systematic bias in their process. But the seeds had been planted, public doubt had been cast – Facebook knew they had to do something to show they were taking this issue very, very seriously.
Last week, Facebook unveiled their latest step to neutralize the issue, getting rid of manual Trending news curators and switching to a purely algorithm-fuelled feed, with the descriptions shortened to Twitter-esque, basic topic descriptions to further reduce the need for manual interference or editors.
Which seems like a safe avenue to take – this way, Facebook staff no longer play a part in the process, the trends are defined by user behavior alone and people get a pure, unfiltered reflection of what’s actually trending across The Social Network.
At least, that’s how should work in theory.
As noted by Gizmodo – who originally sparked the Facebook Trending news controversy – there are already concerns with the new approach to Trending, highlighted most specifically by a fake news story about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly.
“The words “Megyn Kelly” were trending on Sunday, but when people hovered over the phrase, it revealed a headline alleging that Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly was fired for supporting Hillary Clinton. The story was completely fabricated, and even referred to Megyn Kelly as a “traitor.”
Gizmodo says that Facebook used to have a system in place to deal with such inaccuracies, and to give preferential treatment to content from more reputable media outlets, but without manual editors around to correct such issues, the system is only able to go with what it has available – and that’s mention volume, regardless of the content.
Another story that may not have got as much recognition under the previous editorial feed is the recent #McChicken trend – if you’re not aware of why that story is trending, trust me, you don’t want to find out. Now, given the viral nature of this story, it could be argued that it should be appearing high in trends, but it’s questionable as to how much priority it should be given as a “news” item, which then leads to questions about what Facebook’s Trending section should actually be – should it be a pure reflection of what’s trending, even if a lot of what’s being discussed is low quality, clickbait-type posts, or should it be a measure of the most important news topics of discussion across The Social Network?
There’s also problems with how news stories are being categorized and displayed – or if they’re being displayed at all. Those Trending stories, of course, are algorithm driven, and as such they’re being presented to each individual user based on their interests. But when I look at my list right now, I’m getting only one political story and absolutely no Science and Technology updates (the icon is greyed out and not clickable).
For one, I’m in Australia and am not overly interested in the Anthony Weiner story, but two, while I don’t send out a heap of links from my personal Facebook account, I write about social media every day and am connected, through Pages, to various tech industry sites. Given that, you’d think there’d be something in the ‘Science and Technology’ category that would be relevant – it’s actually the first time I’ve seen a Trends section totally blank.
On categorization, Gizmodo notes that over the weekend, ‘Don Cheadle’ and ‘Beyonce’ were trending in the ‘Politics’ segment.
Cheadle gave an opinion on Trump which is likely why he’s in there, but the Beyonce mention was all about the MTV Awards – of course, there’s a strong political element to Beyonce’s latest album, but surely this is still an entertainment story.
In addition, the new system uses the entered post summary as the preview, which can lead to problems if the lead story for that trend doesn’t have a complete summary entered.
But then again, it does underline that the system is largely automated. And it likely won’t take marketers long to cotton on to that fact.
You see, if Facebook decides that this is the way to go, that they’re going to leave the Trending section as a pure reflection of what’s being discussed on the platform (which enables them to wash their hands of what’s listed), then it’ll also, inadvertently, give marketers a new way to maximize their campaigns.
Now, you would need a heap of mentions for this to happen – how many, exactly, it’s impossible to know (it’d be dependent on the news of the day and the region in which you’re based, some Australian trends are showing with only around 1k mentions), but the McChicken story shows that a brand could become a trending topic. And while that one’s definitely not a trend that McDonald’s wants any part of (again, trust me), it does show that if the trends are being selected purely on mention volume, that Trending section could become prime real estate for brand campaigns.
We already see this with Twitter’s trends – a new branded hashtag campaign will show up in the list, helping that boost that campaign’s reach. You can, of course, also pay for a promoted tweet trend, which many brands have also utilized to maximize their exposure, but that opportunity would be even more appealing on Facebook, which now counts more than 1.71 billion users.
If there were a way to boost the conversation around your brand and make it a trending topic, even for a short period of time, the increased exposure benefits of a non-curated Trending feed are significant.
It is worth noting that Facebook has said that the process is not fully automated:
“There are still people involved in this process to ensure that the topics that appear in Trending remain high-quality — for example, confirming that a topic is tied to a current news event in the real world. The topic #lunch is talked about during lunchtime every day around the world, but will not be a trending topic.”
But the examples show that that interference is minimal – and given this, it may be harder for a reduced overseeing staff to pick out non “high-quality” trends, or trends that are clearly brand-borne.
One thing’s for sure, you can bet it won’t take long for brands to start experimenting with this and testing to see if they can tie their messaging into current events more closely to boost their exposure through Trending. In the past, there’s be no chance of getting past the editorial gatekeepers, but now, with the new system in play, it seems that the gate is a little more open for marketers to creep through.
And given this, it likely won’t take long for Facebook to course-correct and update their new trending system. Or start selling promoted trends – one or the other.