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9/11 hoax story tops Facebook Trending Topics

Was Facebook's choice to replace its editorial team with algorithms a mistake?

Automation may be the way of the future for many jobs today, but the Facebook “Trending Topics” feature shows that some things may still need human guidance.

Ever since Facebook removed its editorial and curation team from the Facebook Trending Topics area, the feature has been prone to featuring old news, hoaxes, and satire as actual news.

On the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the lack of oversight was especially notable. One of the top stories of the day was a hoax story about how the attacks were caused by bombs and not planes, as captured in this Tweet:

A number of news outlets reached out to Facebook in response to the hoax story appearing, and as a result Facebook quickly removed the story from the Trending Topics area, saying:

We’re aware a hoax article showed up there, and as a temporary step to resolving this we’ve removed the topic.

Leaving algorithms to try and do the work of trained editors is a risky venture. Until about May of this year, editors with journalistic training were providing context for trending stories and making sure obvious hoaxes weren’t being featured.

At the same time, the editorial staff also received criticism for having political bias, and as a result Facebook decided to remove them.

Since the editorial team left, there have been a number of hoaxes that have made it to the top of the trending topics area, including one about news anchor Megyn Kelly, with this September 11th article just being the latest.

Perhaps this may not seem like a big deal at first, but with around 1.7 billion (yes, with a B) monthly active users, Facebook has become a media giant in its own right.

For many Facebook users, their Facebook newsfeed has become their central, if not only, news outlet. So the pressure is on for Facebook to get the Trending Topics area right.


Ah – the problem with algorithms, especially when you add intelligence to them. You don’t know what they have learned – I remember a system supposedly trained to distinguish between Nato and Warsaw Pact tanks, but it turned out it had only learned the difference between sunny and cloudy days – Nato tanks were publicity shots on nice sunny days and Warsaw Pact tanks were take on murky days with a long telephoto lens. Not “garbage in, garbage out” exactly; maybe we should coin a new phrase – “massive data in, random fact masquerading as intelligence out”


Facebook’s decision to eliminate human editors is irresponsible in the extreme. If it is unwilling to endure accusations of bias (a charge leveled at every news outlet at one time or another), it needs to get out of the newsfeed business, rather than abetting hoaxes.


A hoax trending story once in a while is far better than constant political bias which is what they had.


True, kurt, but there are two problems with that line of thought: #1, the “once in a while” is questionable, and #2 (the more important issue), is the classic example of the “either/or” fallacy. Why does it have to be one or the other? Neither one is really acceptable.


Why do you promulgate the misbegotten idea that questioning the official story on 9/11 is a hoax? Surely to god supposedly independent researchers such as yourselves know better than to base judgments merely on the basis of management’s assertions. Why not apply some of that know-how to a bit of research instead?

You might be surprised (and disappointed) by what you find. Much like I’m disappointed to see you publishing irrelevant opinion pieces in a usually worthy portal. One thing in favor of automated moderation is that it corruptibility is unproven.


This was not a “questioning the official story”. This was false message about some non-existing footage. Get the difference?


so which plane hit building 7? No plane hit building 7 but it collapsed, not only did it collapse it also collapsed at free fall speed, but that’s a conspiracy theory and hoax. Go watch the collapse of building 7 there are plenty of facebook posts pointing to it.


I will use your logic on the Great Fire of London. The fire started in bakery, officials say. Hundreds of buildings were consumed by fire. Your conclusion: There must have been bakeries in hundreds of buildings or officials lie.


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