Last week, I decided to spend an entire day getting my news solely from Facebook’s trending topics. Surely the wisdom, culture and intellectual curiosity of the people of the world – the great global public – will be reflected in this collection of their favorite diverse and engaging news stories?
Here’s what greeted me at 8.15 that morning: the world, as defined by Facebook’s trending news stories:
- Gabourey Sidibe (“6k people talking about this”). Eurweb.com says the Oscar-nominated actor has posted Instagram pictures that suggest she has lost weight; somehow the story is tied to a National Enquirer cover showing fake pictures of Michelle Obama’s supposed weight gain.
- Pokémon Go (“one million people”). Forbes reports that “‘Pokémon Go’s Upcoming ‘Buddy System’ Is The Best Thing That Could Happen To The Game” – even though that’s exactly the kind of headline Facebook is trying to eliminatefrom its newsfeed.
- Kaley Cuoco (7,700 people). The Daily Mail claims Kaley Cuoco (who once portrayed William Shatner’s daughter in TV ads for Priceline.com) accidentally showed a nipple on Snapchat (though she didn’t).
- Actress Lily Tomlin (7,900 people). A four-paragraph Detroit Metro Timesarticle celebrates Lily Tomlin’s 1 September birthday.
- Jared Fogle (5,100 people). The disgraced former Subway spokesman – who has pleaded guilty to having sex with minors and possessing child abuse material – isfighting a lawsuit brought by one of his victims by claiming her terrible parents share the blame for her distress.
- Gresham, Oregon (8,900 people). A white supremacist allegedly ran down an African American teenager in Oregon.
- Steve Irwin (11,000 people). A press release about a book by the father of the crocodile hunter was disguised as a news story on Us Weekly.
- Pamela Anderson (10,000 people). Fox News reported on her anti-porn crusade in which she refers to its consumers as “losers”.
- iPhone 7 (one million people). Forbes published something about a version of the iPhone 7 that isn’t being released.
- Richard Gere (22,000 people). A Cleveland Plain Dealer slideshow marks his 31 August birthday.
Hell is truly other people.
Notably, the audience even for these “most talked about stories” isn’t that significant: one million people is only 0.088% of Facebook’s reported 1.13 billion daily users.
I refreshed my feed at 9.30. Facebook had replaced Richard Gere and Lily Tomlin with a story about the birthday of former BeeGees frontman Barry Gibb. ‘Everyone’ is talking about Rihanna’s new tattoo celebrating her unconfirmed romance with Drake. And, in the first international news story of the day, the algorithm determined I would want to know that Russian president Vladimir Putin has denied that his government hacked the Democratic National Committee’s emails. At least I think that’s what it said: MSN.com froze my browser and I had to force quit.
Shortly after that I discovered that the puppy I was dogsitting had taken a dump on my friend’s carpet, which couldn’t be a better metaphor for my day on Facebook’s trending topics.
Trending also insisted, beyond all logic, that 75,000 people were “talking about” the honeymoon photos of Katie Maloney and Tom Schwartz, who apparently “star” on the reality show Vanderpump Rules. (Wikipedia tells me she’s a server at the titular character’s restaurant, Sur – which stands for Sexy Unique Restaurant – while he is an aspiring model/actor). They put up some photos on Instagram of their time in Bora Bora, which E! helpfully set to music and posted on Facebook. And there was a day-old trend about a high school kid in Bamberg, South Carolina, (“19k people talking about this”) who slapped an elementary-schooler on the bus. The incident happened on 25 August, making it a week-old story.
By noon I didn’t care about what Facebook’s fancy algorithm thought I should know.
In the real world, the federal government had issued its latest unemployment report, moderators were selected for the official presidential and vice-presidential debates that begin later in September, a hurricane made landfall in Florida for the first time since 2005, and the Stanford student convicted of sexual assault earlier this year was released from prison after serving only three months of his significantly reduced sentence.
But, hey, Gabourey Sidibe maybe lost some weight – and this, trending topics calculated, was more important.
Mark Zuckerberg said in late August that Facebook is “not a media company”, despite the fact that 66% of their own users get their news on Facebook – about 44% of all adults in the United States. Facebook dedicates a prime spot on its desktop site for the trending module and recently fired all the human editors in favor of an algorithm that apparently judges the honeymoon photos of a reality TV couple to be more editorially valuable than news on Donald Trump.
Whether Zuckerberg wants to define Facebook this way or not, Facebook is a content provider. They are distributing news (or what counts as “news”) as fast as their users can consume it. Trending, without its human editors, attempts to abdicate responsibility for what it is distributing by claiming that popularity is the most important standard when any credible journalist will tell you about the dangers of populism. If you believe journalism has a powerful social purpose beyond entertainment, then Facebook has an obligation to reflect that in its editorial decisions, whether human or algorithmic.
If the goal of Trending is to prove that Facebook users are banal people obsessed with consuming the worst tabloid crap – celebrity social media recaps accounted for four Trending topics on Friday morning – then congratulations: the algorithm is working just fine.
But if it’s actually a tool designed to provide users with quality news of various import then, to quote HAL: “I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.”