Facebook’s Algorithms Officially Can’t Handle Fake News

October 12, 2016

7:30 pm

The Washington Post has been tracking Facebook’s “Trending Topics” column for the last three weeks, searching for evidence that the social media giant’s recent switch from human editors to a computed algorithm may have affected the news bulletins.

They have: The Post found five fake stores and another three that were very inaccurate.

The Study

The Trending News section is different for everyone, so the team studying it used a total of four accounts, monitoring them constantly and logging “every news story that trended” during “the workdays from Aug. 31 to Sept. 22.” What did they find?

‘There was the thinly-sourced story, on Aug. 31, of a Clemson University administrator who kicked a praying man off campus. (The sordid tale, aggregated by a right-wing outlet, has been soundly debunked by the school.)

The next week, on Sept. 8, Facebook promoted a breathless account of the iPhone’s new and literally magical features, sourced from the real news site Firstpost’s satirical Faking News page. The day after, Facebook trended a news release from the “Association of American Physicians and Surgeons” — a discredited libertarian medical organization — as well as a tabloid story claiming that the Sept. 11 attacks were a “controlled demolition.”’

What It Means

Facebook has gotten in plenty of trouble for it’s trending news earlier in 2016. First, the problem was that they acting as if they were not using human editors, but actually were. Then, they switched to an actual algorithm, stating that they would still use the human touch in their official statement:

“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.”

It looks like that claim to “high-quality” is getting some convincing rebuttals. Five mistakes over three weeks might not sound bad, but let’s not forget Facebook’s immense power over public opinion, which I’ve covered in the recent past in posts on subjects including how Facebook Massively Influenced Voter Registration Numbers and the fact that A/B Testing Facebook Headlines Could Boost Shares 580 Percent. Hopefully, the social network can continue tweaking its algorithm in order to shore up the glitches.

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Adam is a writer with an interest in a variety of mediums, from podcasts to comic books to video essays to novels to blogging — too many, basically. He's based out of Seattle, and remains a staunch defender of his state's slogan: "sayWA." In his spare time, he recommends articles about science fiction on Twitter, @AdamRRowe

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