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Facebook is making some big changes to Trending Topics, responding to conservatives

(Luong Thai Linh/European Pressphoto Agency)

Facebook said Monday it will stop relying as much on other news outlets to inform what goes into its Trending Topics section — a part of Facebook’s website that despite its small size has grown into a national political controversy amid accusations that the social network is stifling conservative voices on its platform.

Under the change, Facebook will discontinue the algorithmic analysis of media organizations’ websites and digital news feeds that partly determines which stories should be included in Trending Topics. Also being thrown out is a list of 1,000 journalism outlets that currently helps Facebook’s curators evaluate and describe the newsworthiness of potential topics, as well as a more exclusive list of 10 news sites that includes BuzzFeed News, the Guardian, the New York Times and The Washington Post.

The updates to Facebook’s curation policy highlight the difficulty the company now faces as its next stage of growth brings the social media giant, with 1.6 billion users, much closer to the kind of editorial work that traditional news outlets have historically performed. Now, Facebook’s increasing resemblance to others in the media industry has raised questions about the company’s approach to disseminating news.

Facebook’s policy change Monday appears to be aimed at defusing the palpable tension between it and Republicans outraged over reports that Facebook's Trending Topics could be biased against conservatives. Facebook's announcement ending the scraping of news sites and RSS feeds for Trending Topics came in a response to Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the top Republican on the powerful Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Thune demanded on May 10 that Facebook answer a series of questions in light of the mounting outcry over the perceived bias.

“Suppressing political content or preventing people from seeing what matters most to them is directly contrary to our mission and our business objectives,” the company wrote in its Monday response.

In addition to shutting down some of its scraping algorithms, Facebook said it would develop stronger procedures to oversee what its Trending Topics team is doing, among other things.

That response seemed to appease Thune, who said Monday in a statement that Facebook’s willingness to acknowledge the possibility of bias in its workflow “lends credibility to its findings.”

Facebook’s two-week internal investigations concluded that no “systematic political bias” existed in the way it has implemented Trending Topics and that liberals and conservatives appear to approve equally of the topics represented there.

That was the conclusion that some conservative leaders also came away with after a high-profile meeting with Facebook last week to discuss the issue of bias.

“In my opinion, there is no evidence of a top-down initiative to silence conservative voices,” conservative commentator Glenn Beck wrote in a blog post. What really disturbed him, Beck added, was the way other conservatives in the meeting demanded that Facebook take steps to enhance the visibility of right-wing voices. “It was like affirmative action for conservatives,” Beck wrote.

But in the wake of that meeting, other right-wing thinkers said that Facebook’s role as a major source of news for millions of people makes it similar to major news outlets, and it deserves to be treated that way.

“Attending a meeting with Facebook where you were invited to voice your opinions about their media activity and then voicing them is not an act of shakedown,” conservative blogger Ben Domenech wrote. “It is the same thing that would happen in a meeting with the New York Times, The Washington Post, or the mainstream television divisions.”

Facebook’s Trending Topics algorithm continually monitors users’ posts for unusual, rapid-fire mentions of a particular topic. To be considered for a place in the Trending Topics portion of the site, a topic must generally be mentioned 80 times per hour or more. Facebook takes steps to exclude repeated events that don’t constitute news, such as the hashtag “lunch,” which usually produces more activity during lunchtime, the company said in its letter to Thune.

Facebook’s system relies partly on humans who are responsible for approving topics for the Trending Topics module. The algorithms the company said it was shutting down Monday work in concert with the human curators, helping them verify that a given topic is a unique news event rather than a recurring one, such as lunch, and helping them describe it in original terms. By scanning the lists of news outlets, the algorithms also play a role in identifying possible topics that, if approved, wind up becoming Trending Topics.

The company said that from now on, Facebook will only look at user conversations taking place on the platform to identify potential Trending Topics. In describing topics, Facebook's human curators will no longer use the list of 1,000 media outlets but instead will vet the topics using Facebook search results.

Although Facebook may be changing the way its Trending Topics works, that doesn’t eliminate the much broader — and growing — question about its role in the world’s news and journalism ecosystem.