Facebook Addresses Trending Topics Flap in Letter to Sen. John Thune

Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch shared a letter he sent to Senate Commerce Committee chairman John Thune (R-S.D.).

Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch shared a letter (embedded below) he sent to Senate Commerce Committee chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) regarding the controversy over conservative stories allegedly being suppressed from Trending Topics.

Stretch summarized the contents of his letter to Thune in a Newsroom post, writing:

As soon as we heard of these allegations, we initiated an investigation into the policies and practices around Trending Topics to determine if anyone working on the product acted in ways that are inconsistent with our policies and mission. We spoke with current reviewers and their supervisors, as well as a cross-section of former reviewers; spoke with our contractor; reviewed our guidelines, training and practices; examined the effectiveness of our oversight; and analyzed data on the implementation of our guidelines by reviewers. We also talked to leading conservatives to gain valuable feedback and insights.

Our investigation has revealed no evidence of systematic political bias in the selection or prominence of stories included in the Trending Topics feature. Our data analysis indicated that conservative and liberal topics are approved as trending topics at virtually identical rates. We were also unable to substantiate any of the specific allegations of politically motivated suppression of particular subjects or sources. In fact, we confirmed that most of the subjects mentioned in media reports were included as trending topics on multiple occasions.

Stretch also outlined steps Facebook is taking to ensure that there are no future issues:

At the same time, our investigation could not fully exclude the possibility of isolated improper actions or unintentional bias in the implementation of our guidelines or policies. As part of our commitment to continually improve our products and to minimize risks where human judgment is involved, we are making a number of improvements to Trending Topics, including:

  • Updated terminology in our guidelines to make them more clear.
  • Refresher training for all reviewers that emphasized that content decisions may not be made on the basis of politics or ideology.
  • Additional controls and oversight around the review team, including robust escalation procedures.

In addition to these operational efforts, we are also making the following improvements to the product and tools:

  • We will no longer rely on lists of external websites and news outlets to identify, validate or assess the importance of particular topics. This means we will eliminate the “Media 1K” list, the list of RSS feeds used to supplement the algorithm that generates potential Trending Topics, and the top-10 list of news outlets.
  • We are also removing the ability to assign an “importance level” to a topic through assessment of the topic’s prominence on the top-10 list of news outlets.
  • We will expand our Help Center content on Trending Topics to provide more information about this feature and how it works.

In the actual letter to Thune, Stretch provided a clearer picture of how the Trending Topics review team is populate and how it functions:

The Trending review team contractors are hired and supervised by Accenture, which also supplies supervisors. The Accenture supervisors report to full-time Facebook employees.

Each reviewer receives initial training attended by a Facebook employee that includes a detailed review of the Trending review guidelines. Following their formal training, new hires shadow other members of the team to receive additional on-the-job training. Throughout the course of their employment, employees receive ongoing guidance and direction from team leads and one-on-one guidance as necessary.

Multiple layers of review exist to maintain quality and identify reviewer mistakes. Experienced members of the review team serve as copy editors to review the work of individual reviewers, edit copy, fix errors, respond to internal feedback in real-time and monitor and document issues for escalation. Accenture “team leads” maintain editorial guidelines, conduct trainings, track errors on an ongoing basis and address quality-of-work issues with individual reviewers. Full-time Facebook employees oversee the work of the review team, set and adjust editorial guidelines, participate in some training sessions led by Accenture and meet weekly with Accenture team leads to discuss editorial quality and consistency. In addition, members of the Facebook community may report potential issues with Trending Topics through our website.

Finally, there are procedures in place to continuously monitor review team work product and identify areas for improvement.

Readers: What did you think of Stretch’s letter to Thune?

Facebook Letter to John Thune by David Cohen