Merely two days after Facebook fired the entire editorial team responsible for its “Trending Topics” section and replaced them with a high validity algorithm, disaster struck. The algorithm — which had been heralded as the ideal way to shift away from any possibility of editorial bias or general human-like wrongdoing — pushed a fake news story to the top of Facebook’s homepage.
This was a particularly ironic turn of events, due mostly to the fact that the switch from human oversight to machine had almost solely been made in response to the recent allegations of staff member political bias affecting the validity of trending news content. Facebook’s choice to dissolve their entire editorial staff was made with the intention of eliminating the error-prone human aspect of news gathering. This choice emphasizes the belief that they consider themselves — and by extension, their “Trending Topics” section — outside of the world of journalism and media.
However, this just isn’t true. Facebook — especially in the past few years — has become an essential part of the way Americans receive information. A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that 62 percent of adults get a large portion of their news from social media platforms, and Facebook is by far the most common source of information. However, Facebook’s replacement of its editorial team with data-driven programs is a sign that the tech giant does not view themselves as a news company, and therefore feel they are not subject to basic journalistic ethics.
This is problematic for a number of reasons. It is primarily so because the categorization of Facebook as solely a social media network — and of “Trending Topics” as merely another feature within the site — absolves the company of any responsibility for providing accurate (and therefore useful) information. This would perhaps be acceptable if the company did not constantly tout the high validity of the content delivered by this feature, and if Facebook is willing to deny its extraordinary amount of influence on the daily lives of billions of users.
If Facebook is serious about making their aggregation service a valid source of news, then they need editorial oversight. Facebook cannot rely solely on algorithms and engineers. Its reach is too wide now to leave key actions such as these up to a judgement-less algorithm. This is especially important in a time where false news and hyperpolarization can be found in essentially any corner of the web, from conspiracy sites to extremist news outlets. The current practice of tracking articles by clicks alone means that false and inflammatory information is potentially prioritized over verified information.
Facebook is no longer just another social media platform. It has grown into an essential part of how many Americans get information on a variety of topics, and therefore it has an obligation to ensure the accuracy of this information.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, September 6 print edition. Email Paris Martineau at [email protected].