Facebook drops news outlet input in ‘trending topics’ review

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Facebook says it is dropping its reliance on news outlets to help determine what gets posted as a “trending topic” on the giant social network, a move adopted after a backlash over a report saying it suppressed conservative views.

Facebook’s General Counsel Colin Stretch outlined the change in a 12-page letter sent Monday to Republican Sen. John Thune, chairman of the commerce committee, which oversees the Internet and consumer protections.

The move comes less than a week after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg met with Glenn Beck and more than a dozen other conservative commentators to address concerns stemming from a report in the tech blog Gizmodo. The Gizmodo report, which relied on a single anonymous former Facebook worker with self-described conservative leanings, claimed that Facebook downplays conservative news subjects on its trending feature.

As part of the changes outlined Monday, Facebook will stop looking to news outlets like The Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post and Drudge Report to automatically nominate topics for its trending feature. It also automatically nominates topics based on a spike in user posts about a subject.

“In our meetings last week, we received feedback that any list — even a good one — inherently raises questions of which publications are included versus which are not,” said Facebook spokeswoman Jodi Seth. “Based on this feedback, we felt that the best approach would be to clear up this issue by removing these lists entirely and focus on surfacing the conversation on Facebook.”

Trending topics are seen on the right side of the screen on computers, or after tapping on the search bar in a mobile app.

As part of its review, Facebook found that members of the team working on trending topics could temporarily suppress topics if news outlets weren’t reporting on them enough.

But said it found no evidence of systemic political bias, though it couldn’t discount that a lone wolf might be able to game its system.

“It is impossible to fully exclude the possibility that, over the years of the feature’s existence, a specific reviewer took isolated actions with an improper motive,” it said.

Thune said in a statement he found Facebook’s response “encouraging” though it revealed that its trending topics feature “relied on human judgment, and not just an automated process, more than previously acknowledged.”

Brent Bozell, the president of the conservative Media Research Center and who attended last week’s meeting, applauded the change.

“Facebook was relying on a preponderance of liberal and leftist ‘news’ organs. By not relying on any specific news outlets, Facebook returns to its neutral roots,” he said in a statement.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.