Facebook to shutdown ‘trending’ news from its site amid fake news criticism

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Facebook’s Trending News section will be shutting down permanently next week.

The feature, which sits to the right of the status box in Facebook’s newsfeed, has frequrently been the subject of controversy since it was launched in 2014. An algorithm selects the trending topics based on how many stories have been posted about that topic and how users are interacting with those news items.

Human employees review the selections, and that has sometimes landed Facebook in hot water. In 2016 former Facebook FB, +1.15% employees told Gizmodo they routinely suppressed conservative news from the “trending” section. Facebook denied the Gizmodo story and the employee in charge of the trending topics section said the company has “found no evidence that the anonymous allegations are true.” As Facebook continued to tweak its algorithm, the trending feature was blamed for surfacing conspiracy theories following high profile news stories like the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Now the social media giant is removing the section completely. In its place it will launch a new section called Today In, which will prioritize news events happening near users as well as news from local publishers in their cities and local officials, Facebook announced in a blog post Friday. It will also be testing a “breaking news” feature — which, through a partnership with 80 publishers in North America, South America, Europe, India and Australia — will allow publications to indicate that a story is breaking news on posts they share.

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“People tell us they want to stay informed about what is happening around them,” Facebook said in a statement on its press page. “We are committed to ensuring the news that people see on Facebook is high quality, and we’re investing in ways to better draw attention to breaking news when it matters most.”

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment from MarketWatch about whether eliminating the trending section was a response to criticisms about fake news on the site.

The change comes as Facebook makes a concerted effort to crack down on “fake news,” an issue that came into focus during the 2016 presidential elections. Chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg said after the elections, the company deployed artificial intelligence tools to identify fake news. It also took down 837 million pieces of spam and disabled 583 million fake accounts in the first quarter of 2018.

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Unreliable information has been a problem across social media platforms: posts on Twitter featuring fake news were 70% more likely to be retweeted than true stories, a March 2018 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found.

Facebook has also been under fire for what it does with users’ sensitive personal data, an issue that came to the fore when news broke that data company Cambridge Analytica harvested the psychological profiles of Facebook users to attempt to influence their votes in the 2016 presidential election. But the change to Trending News seems to be unrelated, said Mark Weinstein, privacy expert and creator of social media network MeWe.

“The fundamental issue that doesn’t change with the removal of trending is Facebook’s ability to target their members,” he said. “This change is really engineered so that they can both better target their members with whatever the algorithm deems valuable for the member, and to better glean data from members regarding their thoughts and preferences.”

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