Should Brands Tread Lightly With AI After Facebook’s ‘Trending’ Debacle?

Algorithms occasionally need human intervention

Do Facebook's "Trending" troubles—thanks to leaning on artificial intelligence to show what content is hot—mean that AI isn't ready for prime time? Marketers this week are grappling with the question. 

A fake news story over the weekend about Fox News' Megyn Kelly was elevated to a top spot on the social platform's Trending section, raising questions about Facebook's decision to switch out human curators for machine learning. The development arrived at time when many marketers easily recall Microsoft's debacle with an AI-based chat bot last spring.

"AI will continue to improve, but it needs to start somewhere," said Tim Webster, chief strategy officer at Exchange Lab. "However, what incidents like this and Microsoft's Twitter Bot show is that it's not quite ready to go. Some human vetting and human biases can be blurred with offense and libel—as the recent hoax Megyn Kelly article shows. While the technology is in its early stages—and clearly not quite ready, there should retain a man and machine mix. It will only get better with data and user response."

The engineering prowess and data trove are the building blocks for the company's rise to power from Silicon Valley in the west to Wall Street and Madison Avenue in the east. However, days after giving artificial intelligence the keys to deciding which topics are worth showcasing, Facebook published a blog post that detailed how and why the company was updating its Trending feature, which shows the stories receiving the most traction on the platform at any given time.

The whole situation has left some wondering if Facebook unplugged humans sooner than it should have.

"Facebook has enormous power over what news is shared and where, thanks to its 1 billion daily active users," said Mikhail Naumov, chief strategy officer at DigitalGenius. "This power should not be handed over to machines and algorithms altogether in the name of efficiency. We believe in a human plus AI approach to deep learning. Machines work best when trained on historical data."

According to Naumov, Facebook's transition to an algorithm based on natural language processing—a way of ingesting language the way humans say and hear it—creates vulnerability. An algorithm should prompt human curators with news to review or recommend without being entirely automated.

"The machine will learn over time, but people should always be part of the process to avoid false positives, fakes and algorithm hacking," Naumov said.

Dave McIninch, chief revenue officer at Acquisio, disagreed. "I totally understand why Facebook would move the curation work to machines for its Trending section," he said. "For one, they have received a massive amount of push-back based on what many are claiming to be 'editorializing' versus 'curation' of trending topics, and which ones are being surfaced to users. Secondly, not only is this not scalable, but it's really not something one could expect out of Facebook … and it's the likely output of observing human curation and how people interact with the curated content to program that into an AI service that can be scaled and automated."

Added David Salinas, CEO of Digital Surgeons: "AI only gets better with time and data. It's also one of the many jobs computers will make obsolete."

To be or not to be without humans is a tough question for Facebook. As the blog post mentioned, removing people helps remove bias, which got the platform in trouble a few months ago when it was accused of placing less emphasis on conservative news. (Facebook says an internal review found that it wasn't the case.) Is AI the answer? Or is it dumbing down the section?

Anyone who has been on Facebook since Friday likely has noticed the changes to the section. Instead of full news-like headlines, there is a topic and a total number of people talking about it. But also since Friday, it's already had several unsavory topics. In addition to the faux post about Megyn Kelly endorsing Hillary Clinton for president, another item about a man doing something very, very inappropriate with a McChicken sandwich was featured in the section. (Note: Don't click on the link if you are reading this story in line at McDonald's.)

Technology-minded folks seem to think the situation will iron itself out. 

"They are creating a simpler, more platform-driven section," said Matt Lang, senior digital strategist at digital agency Rain. "By swapping immediately visible detail for conversation volume, they are providing a different type of context that is more neutral. Additionally, by pulling in write-ups from top sources versus Facebook staff, they are removing themselves from the conversation and letting the topics speak for themselves."

One thing's for sure: People will be watching how the AI performs in the near term and beyond.