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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Facebook fires trending team, and algorithm without humans goes crazy

    Module pushes out false story about Fox’s Megyn Kelly, offensive Ann Coulter headline and a story link about a man masturbating with a McDonald’s sandwich
    Just months after the discovery that Facebook’s “trending” news module was curated and tweaked by human beings, the company has eliminated its editors and left the algorithm to do its job. The results, so far, are a disaster.
    Facebook announced late Friday that it had eliminated jobs in its trending module, the part of its news division where staff curated popular news for Facebook users. Over the weekend, the fully automated Facebook trending module pushed out a false story about Fox News host Megyn Kelly, a controversial piece about a comedian’s four-letter word attack on rightwing pundit Ann Coulter, and links to an article about a video of a man masturbating with a McDonald’s chicken sandwich.
    In a blogpost, Facebook said the decision to drop people from the news module would allow it to operate at a greater scale.
    “Our goal is to enable Trending for as many people as possible, which would be hard to do if we relied solely on summarizing topics by hand,” wrote a company representative in the unattributed post. “A more algorithmically driven process allows us to scale Trending to cover more topics and make it available to more people globally over time.”
    A source familiar with the matter told the Guardian that the trending team was fired without notice in a meeting with a security guard present. The ex-employees received four weeks’ severance.
    In May, the Guardian was the first to reveal the extent to which Facebook’s news algorithm was being guided by humans. The revelation fuelled accusations of potential bias at the social network, which has become the world’s largest distributor of news.
    The past weekend has been less than auspicious for Facebook’s new, inhuman workforce: on Saturday, the site pushed an article to some of its users entitled: “BREAKING: Fox News Exposes Traitor Megyn Kelly, Kicks Her Out For Backing Hillary.” Megyn Kelly is still employed by Fox News and has not endorsed Hillary Clinton for president.
    Facebook removed the offending article, published by a website called Ending the Fed and linking to another little known site, Conservative 101. Under Facebook’s old guidelines, news curators stuck to a list of trusted media sources. Neither of these sources were on that list.
    A Facebook algorithm-approved article.
     A Facebook algorithm-approved article. Photograph: Facebook
    A Facebook algorithm-approved article
     A Facebook algorithm-approved article. Photograph: Facebook
    A Facebook algorithm-approved article
     A Facebook algorithm-approved article. Photograph: Facebook
    Another surprising headline read: “SNL Star Calls Ann Coulter a Racist C*nt,” and referred to attacks on the author during a Comedy Central roast of actor Rob Lowe. Other trending items picked by algorithm were pegged to Twitter hashtags including #McChicken, a hashtag that had gone viral after someone posted a video of a man masturbating with a McChicken sandwich.
    Under its old, human-assisted guidelines, Facebook trends had been monitored to weed out potentially offensive or inappropriate items.
    The dismissal of the trending module team appears to have been a long-term plan at Facebook. A source told the Guardian the trending module was meant to have “learned” from the human editors’ curation decisions and was always meant to eventually reach full automation.

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