Algorithms can’t always do the job of a human.
Facebook says it’s removing its controversial “Trending” section because no one was actually using it. Over the past few years, the feature, which displays news stories popular on the platform, has become a case study for why algorithms can’t always do the job of a human, and why they can’t solve Facebook’s problems.
The feature caused Facebook a massive headache in 2016, after Gizmodo reported that the humans hired to moderate content featured in the section were suppressing conservative sources. Facebook fired the team, and since then, algorithms have been largely responsible for governing what goes into the Trending sidebar, which is prominently displayed at the top of the desktop site. But only two days after the company stopped using humans to curate the list, a fake news item made its way into the section. The Washington Post reported that this was not a one-time fluke, with multiple similar examples several months later.
The algorithm-driven sidebar ultimately didn’t serve its purpose. In its announcement on Friday, Facebook said the section was driving only marginal traffic to news publishers.
“From research we found that over time people found the product to be less and less useful,” wrote in a post Alex Hardiman, head of news products. When asked by Quartz, a spokesperson would not comment on whether the traffic was higher when it was using human moderators.
One reason the feature is so little used could be that it’s not immediately visible on Facebook’s app or mobile version, where most people use the site. Indeed, in its announcement, Facebook noted that the way people consume news on Facebook is changing. In response, the company is investing in other news products, such as the “Breaking News” label, a local news tab, and news programs within Facebook Watch, its video service.
Removing the section comes as Facebook continues to grapple with questions of liberal bias, likely a remnant of the 2016 Trending controversy. During CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent hearings before the U.S. Congress and EU parliament, purported prejudice against conservative-leaning posts was repeatedly brought up by lawmakers.