Facebook Is Killing Trending Topics

Facebook is getting rid of its Trending Topics feature, according to a blog post the social network published Friday. The Trending sidebar, located on the right-hand side on desktop, displays popular topics users are discussing across the site. The product will officially shutter next week, including on third-party services that use the Facebook Trends API.

Alex Hardiman, Facebook's head of news products, said the company is ditching the feature because it's underused. But it has also been a major source of scandals for Facebook since it was launched in 2014. The feature, formerly run by journalists, was taken over by an automated system in 2016. After the switch, Trending Topics repeatedly surfaced conspiracy theories and outright false information. Similar trending features have caused headaches for other social networks, like YouTube and Twitter. Now, Facebook is ditching its for good.

Every social network's trending section is theoretically designed to surface newsworthy, relevant information for users. But repeatedly, they have inadvertently highlighted harmful misinformation or been gamed by bots. Trending Topics has been particularly disastrous for Facebook; in 2016, the feature thrusted the social network into a major scandal when Gizmodo revealed that the journalists who ran it were reportedly suppressing news from conservative outlets.

Three months after the revelation and one inquiry from Congress later, Facebook laid off the journalists in charge of the feature and began relying on an algorithm to surface Trending Topics. (Facebook said that an internal investigation found no bias in the product.)

Soon, the algorithm began inadvertently surfacing less than optimal results. Just days after it was instituted, Trending Topics displayed a factually incorrect story about Megyn Kelly, which purported the Fox News anchor had been fired for backing Hillary Clinton. There have been many other incidents; in one, Trending Topics highlighted a supposedly new iPhone soon to be released, which had literally "magic" features. The source was a satirical story from the real Indian news site Firstpost.

Facebook is far from alone in its struggles with Trending Topics. In the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in February, YouTube briefly awarded its top trending spot to a video that claimed one of the survivors, David Hogg, was in fact an actor. Twitter's trending feature has notoriously been manipulated by bots or swarms of organized users deliberately pushing a specific agenda.

For years though, Facebook refused to give up on Trending Topics. Last year, the social network gave the product a reboot. Facebook began designating a topic as "trending" depending not on a single article, but instead depending on how many publishers posted stories on the same topic, as well as how many people liked, shared, and commented on those articles. Facebook also stopped personalizing Trending Topics based on users' specific interests. Despite the changes, concerns over Trending Topics have lingered. The same Gizmodo article was brought up repeatedly by lawmakers during Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's hearings on Capitol Hill in April.

Despite all the trouble Trending Topics has caused, the feature was never that popular. It's only available in five countries, and accounted for less than 1.5 percent of clicks to news publishers on average, according to Facebook's blog post posted Friday. In its place, Facebook is testing a series of new features, including a breaking news label that outlets can choose to add to news stories. The social network is also testing "Today In," a section designed to connect users to news from local sources. It will include updates from lawmakers and other officials.

Despite its problems, Trending Topics wasn't all bad. The feature was an important way for people to gauge what the internet was talking about and to learn about news stories they might have otherwise missed. But in the end, the product was likely too much of a headache for what it was worth. Rest in peace, Trending Topics.


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