Some people are questioning why the Women’s March was absent from Facebook’s Trending news section on Jan. 21. Other users say they failed to see the Inauguration on the list the day prior.
Journalists and onlookers are seeking answers as to why Saturday’s Women’s March—fueled by some 3 million participants in dozens of cities and towns worldwide—failed to appear on Facebook’s Trending topics list for some users during the height of the event.
According to Facebook, Trending news items are determined algorithmically based on engagement, timelines, location and Page like data. Those topics appear on the right-rail of the Facebook home screen and link to popular articles and posts that are relevant to each item. These articles generally line up with the top news stories of the day, as determined and reported on by more traditional news outlets.
But something puzzling happened on Jan. 21. Despite the Women’s March capturing mainstream and local media attention and spurring a flood of photos and commentary from those who marched, some users noted that the event was nowhere to be found within Facebook’s Trending topics list. For Pando reporter Paul Bradley Carr, it didn’t even appear within the Political sub-section of Trending topics.
Other onlookers seem to have verified Carr’s finding; however, some people did see limited coverage (within the Political sub-section, for example). So far, Facebook has declined to comment, which has left room for rampant speculation as to whether this was a mere technological glitch or something more deliberate. Note: By Sunday evening Jan. 22, the march had made its way to my News Feed.
What’s also interesting is that many people reported not seeing the Inauguration as a Trending topic the day before. Scrolling through public commentary and screenshots shared on Twitter, the situation gets even murkier. Some users saw the Women’s March trending but not the Inauguration. Others saw the opposite. The thing about a personalized “front page” is that absent a large pool of data, it’s tough to know what really went on behind the scenes.
So, why is what appears in Trending so important? As was oft-discussed during and after the last Election cycle, Americans are increasingly relying on social media as their leading source of news. A Pew study from 2015 found that 40 percent of U.S. Facebook users primarily view it as a destination for news-gathering. Among users age 34 and younger, 60 percent say social platforms like Facebook and Twitter are “the most or an important way” to get news.
Last May, Gizmodo sparked widespread conversation around the veracity of Facebook Trending by running a piece claiming that human editors were suppressing certain (mostly conservative) political viewpoints from the list, and artificially injecting other stories. Facebook formally responded, stating that the role of human editors was limited to ensuring neutrality and consistency.
For critics of Trending and its influence on the political landscape, there are two issues at play. The first involves the alleged interference of human editors in what has been positioned as an algorithmic curation by Facebook. The second debate is more philosophical in nature, as it questions the so-called “bubbles” that an algorithmic editor naturally creates.
In fairness, right now there is limited data available to prove that the Women’s March was absent in a universal capacity. That said, anecdotally, it appears that many people who should have seen the march did not. Drawing some assumptions, it would have made sense that a tech reporter living in a major metropolitan area would be exposed to news of the march—perhaps even in an over-indexed capacity—given that it’s likely he or she would have known people participating.
Other journalists noted that it seemed strange for Twitter to be showing the march on its own curated news list, but not Facebook.
I think Twitter deserves the win for the coverage around Women’s March today. Facebook? Hmm…suspect w/no mention in trending topics.
— Ken Yeung (@thekenyeung) January 22, 2017
In May 2016, Vox published an article which claimed that “Facebook has more influence over Americans than any media company in history.” Whether curated content, such as what appears in Trending, has been skewed by users’ personal data or directionally manipulated by human editors, the net effect is significant: “So many people spend so much time on Facebook that even a small shift in the platform’s approach could have a big impact on what people read online,” says Vox’s Timothy B. Lee.