Tech companies pride themselves on their abilities to solve complex problems yet can’t seem to wrap their head around the most urgent one: diversity and inclusion
Tech companies pride themselves on their abilities to solve complex problems yet can’t seem to wrap their head around the most urgent one: diversity and inclusion

Facebook trending topics news editors fired, leading fake news and masturbation stories fill news feed

The site was criticised for the fact that its human editors were supposedly censoring conservative views – but Facebook’s robot editors seem to be even worse

Andrew Griffin
Tuesday 30 August 2016 16:01
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Facebook got a new trending algorithm over the weekend – and the site immediately filled up with fake news and stories about masturbation.

The site has previously been criticised for the fact that the human creators of its trending topics window, which sits alongside the normal news feed, were censoring news from conservative news sites. This week, it fired all of those human editors and changed the window so that it would use artificial intelligence to pick the stories instead.

The new feed works by looking at the stories that are being talked about and picking out keywords. When it spots one of those keywords that are being talked about a lot, it shows it on the trending topics bar so that people can see conversations about it.

Immediately that change ran into problems – when the robots brought up stories that were entirely fake alongside others about masturbation and swear words.

Perhaps the most controversial of the stories that the algorithm picked up was an entirely fake piece about Megyn Kelly, the Fox News anchor. It said that she had been fired from the network for declaring her allegiance to Hillary Clinton – but that hadn’t actually happened.

The fake story misspelled Ms Kelly’s name and had come from an unknown site, but because of the fact it was being shared it made its way to the top of the trending module. It was then shared yet more.

But even more offensive stories also came in the trending topics bar. One only had the title McChicken, and told users that they wouldn’t be able to “unseen” what would happen if they clicked – when they did, they saw a photo of a man masturbating with a McDonald’s sandwich.

Facebook says that there are still people involved with trending, making sure that the things that appear there are “high-quality”. Those people are there to ensure that “a topic is tied to a current news event in the real world” - but it isn’t clear that is working, based on the first weekend of the new tab.

The site previously had editors who picked out the stories that were trending on the site, highlighted those that were newsworthy, wrote small descriptions and pushed them out into people’s Facebooks. Those would then be run through an algorithm that picked out the news that people would be interested in.

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