On Friday, August 26th, Facebook announced that they were making “some changes” to their popular, and sometimes controversial, Trending news feature. On the same day, the entire team in charge of managing the Trending feature was suddenly laid off. The layoffs came as a surprise to the team who were told of their new unemployment status at a meeting that day. In their official update announcement on Friday, Facebook did not include any mention of this restructuring of its labor force.
Facebook first introduced the Trending feature in 2014, but in the past year, they have been focused on refining the algorithm that once worked alongside its human coworkers. Only recently has Facebook publically expressed its desire to rely more on its special news-sorting algorithm, due to allegations of censoring conservative political news articles made several months earlier.
Anonymous members of the curator team had revealed to reporters that such censorship was actually “routine,” which finally force Facebook to publically admit to inserting news stories into its Trending feature that were not actually trending. Changes to the Trending feature can have a substantial impact on society, as 63% of Facebook users get their news from the social media site.
The effects of the change were noticeable during that same weekend as the unmonitored algorithm began posting questionable news stories, including a completely fictitious news story claiming that Fox News’ Megyn Kelly had been fired. The debacle was not limited to fake news stories, as the algorithm sometimes used bewildering judgement in assessing the popularity of news stories, such as when it announced to the world that actor Will Smith had attended a party.
One of the main tasks of the humans working on the Trending team was to write brief descriptions of news headlines that would appear underneath the headline itself. The algorithm never played a role in these summary descriptions, since it was only ever meant to sort news headlines. However, instead of replacing human description writers with computers, Facebook decided to simply remove descriptions from its Trending feature altogether.
In keeping with this new “less is more” philosophy, Facebook shortened the length of the headlines displayed by the Trending feature, and as a result, inadvertently transformed the Trending feature from news summary system to a cryptic list of one and two-word “headlines.”