A Laid-Off Facebook News Curator Reveals What Fueled 'Trending' Topics

The answer might surprise you.
A Laid-Off Facebook News Curator Reveals What Fueled 'Trending' Topics
Image credit: Justin Sullivan / Staff | Getty Images

There’s no doubt: Trending topics on Facebook get big reach. Nearly half of U.S. adults say they get their news from the social platform, and the prominently placed feature makes it more likely that a small number of stories could make their way to large numbers of Facebook’s massive user base (The network reached 1.13 billion daily active users in June).

It’s no wonder that such reach would get attention -- and scrutiny. This year, the company has faced criticism over what makes a topic or story “trend” on the News Feed’s sidebar. Some even alleged political bias, which Facebook says is unfounded. The process got extra attention recently with last week’s layoff of the contracted “news curator” team. Though the curators knew their roles were temporary and that they were essentially helping to train the algorithm, the move still came as a surprise.

Related: Facebook Trending Topics Loses Human Editors

With the shakeup, many ex-Facebook contractors are speaking out on a number of topics, from management to ethics to even late-night dance parties. Entrepreneur spoke with one former curator to answer your questions about what made stories trend -- or not -- on the world’s largest social platform. This individual spoke with Entrepreneur on the condition of anonymity.

According to our source, Trending topics begin with an algorithm. The former team would peruse an algorithm-generated list of several topics that were getting Facebook users talking, each with 10 or 20 links to media outlets covering that news. If the human curator did not deem the algorithm’s suggested links sufficient, he or she would find a more fitting one.

Part of the curators’ jobs was to fact-check to ensure that all stories selected for Trending were “real-world events” and not hoaxes, satire or duplicates of already-Trending topics. (Such a safeguard might have sidestepped a false news story about Fox News journalist Megyn Kelly that surfaced earlier this week, after the curator program was ended. Facebook still maintains a small team of people who weed out false news and mundane, everyday events such as #lunch, but that team did not detect the falsehood of the Kelly story.)

The former contractor we spoke with says the algorithm wasn’t perfect and “was a little buggy sometimes.” URLs it suggested wouldn’t always correspond to the topic or would be outdated. Human discretion helped correct the computer’s errors in those cases.

“For every topic that surfaced, we would double check if any media outlets were covering it and if enough media outlets were reporting on it,” the former curator says. Media had to be covering a topic in order for the curators to give it a Trending slot.

We reached out to Facebook for comment, and while we received a response, the representative did not address or confirm all details about the selection process that we presented to them. However, interviews and Facebook's own public materials confirm what we say here, that an algorithm generates topics and corresponding Facebook posts and news articles.

For entrepreneurs, the chips were and are stacked against your business ever trending on Facebook. As we all know, it takes universal or consequential news to earn widespread media coverage. And Facebook’s latest “Trending Review Guidelines,” updated on Friday, don’t make things easier: “Stories tagged local -- about a local business or a chain opening a store in a local area, for instance -- should not also be tagged business,” according to the guidelines.

To be sure, that doesn’t mean your content couldn’t be seen and shared by the News Feed. But interestingly, to qualify for Trending, media coverage is absolutely requisite. Getting people to talk is always essential, but in this case, it was more important for media outlets to cover that talk and give the users something to share. 

Related: 22 Hidden Facebook Features Only Power Users Know

Of course, Facebook is constantly changing how it weighs and displays content -- see its recent clickbait crackdown. But the former curator’s insight, which we corroborated with a second former member of the team, provides important background into the way Facebook thinks about what’s worth its users’ attention.

The changes this week brought their share of debates, including whether Facebook is a tech company or a media company in disguise. Regardless of that chatter, one truth holds steady: Great storytelling gets attention. And in today’s content race, even algorithms are powerless without it.

Edition: October 2016

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