Fake news story hits Trending Topics after Facebook lays off staff

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Which of these Facebook trending topics would you be more inclined to click on: the detail-rich headline that promises a “stunning 360 degree view of Mars captured by NASA’s Curiosity rover,” or the generic “#Mars. 4.2K people talking about this”?

Joke question! Enticing you with a human-written story summary doesn’t actually matter, human.

Facebook on Friday announced that it had removed all the “by-hand” topic summaries and replaced them with the almost-pure, nearly human-free joy of algorithms…

…and laid off the 26 copyeditors and news curators that had been running the Trending topics section for about 2 years.

According to Quartz, Facebook gave them 1 hour to hand over their phones and computers and to vacate the New York office.

“#Tokyo2020: Japanese Prime Minister Appears in Surprise Performance During Rio Ceremony,” became just “#Tokyo2020.”

It was OK, for a while. Make that for a very short while. Over the weekend, it all blew up in Facebook’s face.

On Sunday, a fake news story about Fox anchor Megyn Kelly made its way into the Trending section of the social network’s homepage.

According to the Verge, the fake story was titled “”BREAKING: Fox News Exposes Traitor Megyn Kelly, Kicks Her Out for Backing Hillary.”

Nope. Didn’t happen. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

So much for leaving a robot in charge of deciding what piece of internet-borne flotsam to pluck from the flow.

Facebook apparently removed the false news story from its Trending section on Monday morning.

One assumes there are some desks that are receiving their share of head-banging. In its announcement on Friday, Facebook had assured us that there are still humans involved, somewhere, in the process:

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.

These changes mean that we no longer need to do things like write topic descriptions and short story summaries since we’re relying on an algorithm to pull excerpts directly from news stories. Our team will still strictly follow our guidelines, which have been updated to reflect these changes.

As it is, Facebook is still grappling with accusations, made in May, that the trending topics section was stifling conservative voices.

Gizmodo had reported that former Facebook contractors – known internally as “curators” – said that they’d routinely suppressed conservative news, had been told to artificially inject selected stories into the trending news module even if they weren’t popular enough to warrant inclusion or if they weren’t even trending, and that they’d been directed not to include news about Facebook itself in the trending module.

Pity whatever humans are still involved in this process: from the looks of it, they’re either not being given the right tools and processes, are overworked/overwhelmed, incompetent, or they don’t actually exist.

On Sunday night, the Atlantic asked Facebook whether a human editor approved the Megyn Kelly topic before it trended, and how it plans to screen fake news in the future.

It hadn’t responded to those queries or to my own by the time we published this piece.

Image of Megyn Kelly courtesy of Debby Wong / Shutterstock.com