Facebook is beating back accusations of bias in its trending topics, and while that does concern some in the ad industry, it’s not for the obvious reasons.
Facebook’s editorial staff was accused by anonymous former staffers of suppressing trending topics if they promoted conservative media sources while artificially boosting more liberal stories. Marketers, for their part, are less concerned about any possible political bias than they are about a general lack of transparency at the social network.
“The editorial element is not wrong in itself, but not being transparent about it raises red flags. Facebook would be wise to reveal their editorial team and to actively cultivate diversity within it in order to reduce the cumulative bias that results,” said Liz Caradonna, director of digital strategy at DigitasLBi.
Since, the Gizmodo story came out this week accusing Facebook of controlling its trending topics, the social network has opened up more about the process. Yesterday, it denied any meddling through Tom Stocky, the head of the trending team.
“We looked into that charge and found that it is untrue. We do not insert stories artificially into trending topics, and do not instruct our reviewers to do so,” Stocky wrote in a blog post.
Yet the story still shined a light on the fact that Facebook does partly curate its trending topics — there is a human element beyond the algorithm. Twitter, not Facebook, is considered the go-to place for real-time conversations and live news reaction, and Facebook’s trends do sometimes seem to miss the daily digital pulse.
“It is a sign that the platform isn’t functioning in a way that they would like it to function. It is a big problem if Facebook is completely disconnected from the zeitgeist,” said Joe Liebman, global strategy director at Tribal Worldwide.
Noah Mallin, head of social media at MEC North America, said that Facebook was probably experimenting with trending topics, and could afford to test how different trends play among different audiences on its 1.6 billion-person platform.
“Like Google, they aren’t always forthcoming about why and how they set up what people see I think in large part to prevent attempts to game their systems. The downside is that people sometimes jump to conclusions about why and how they do what they do,” Mallin said.
Still, he doubted the story would have any impact on marketers’ ad strategies.