Facebook is changing its Trending section to fight the spread of fake news

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
Robert Galbraith | Reuters
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook is updating Trending, the section of the service that highlights popular topics being discussed on Facebook, to better prevent fake news stories from appearing there.

As part of the update, Facebook says it's going to stop pulling in trending topics that surface based off a single news report. Instead, it'll feature topics that have been covered by a number of media outlets, an attempt to avoid one-off fake news stories that get lots of people talking but haven't been vetted by other media organizations.

"We think it'll help [minimize] cases where maybe one specific story goes viral even if there might not be something real going on in the world about that story," said Will Cathcart, a VP of product management at Facebook.

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As with all Facebook algorithms, the specific mix of signals that might result in something trending is kept behind a curtain. There's no hard and fast rule for how many outlets need to cover a topic or event before it qualifies as Trending, for example. And even if a bunch of publishers cover a topic because of a fake news story, that topic could still show up in Trending.

"Multiple publishers need [to be writing] about the topic," Cathcart added. "They could also say different things and have different takes on it."

"Now it will use the same list of trending topics for everybody in the same country, regardless of what topics you may enjoy most."

As part of the same update, Facebook says it'll stop personalizing trending topics for each user. Previously, it might show you stories based on the interests the company thinks you enjoy, like baseball or politics.

Now it will use the same list of trending topics for everybody in the same country, regardless of what topics you may enjoy most.

It's easy to identify the catalyst for these changes. Ever since the U.S. presidential election, Facebook has been getting blasted for doing a poor job of stopping fake news stories from spreading on its network. It announced a broader plan to fight fake news last month, and updating Trending is clearly another part of that fight.

Depersonalizing Trending also stems from controversy. Last May, a news report from Gizmodo accused Facebook of suppressing conservative news stories in Trending, a claim Facebook vehemently denied. The company has since made a number of changes to Trending, including eliminating human editors from writing the Trending topic descriptions, in an attempt to avoid bias. Giving everyone the same list of topics furthers those efforts.

By Kurt Wagner, Recode.net.

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