Three major changes Facebook's made to trending topics in the fight against fake news

Lynsey Barber
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Facebook's fighting fake news with a trending topics update (Source: Getty)

Facebook has made some major changes to the feature which shows users what topics are trending after serious accusations of bias and amid the wider debate around fake news.

The list of topics will no longer be personalised to users' interests, and will instead be based upon their location.

Read more: Facebook steps up fake news fight in Germany as UK MPs consider inquiry

"This is designed to help make sure people don’t miss important topics being discussed on Facebook that might not show up in their News Feed," said Facebook's vice president of product management Will Cathcart.

A second change is that the topics will have more context, with headlines from publishers which have written about the story appearing underneath each one.

How will that be chosen? Here's what Cathcart had to say...

"The headline that appears is automatically selected based on a combination of factors including the engagement around the article on Facebook, the engagement around the publisher overall, and whether other articles are linking to it."

Users will also be offered further coverage of the topic when they click on it.

The third change focuses on how exactly the topics are identified as trending. Previously it was based on whether something was highly engaged with, but now it will take into account the number of publishers which are writing about an individual topic, and how much engagement they create. Cathcart said:

This should surface trending topics quicker, be more effective at capturing a broader range of news and events from around the world and also help ensure that trending topics reflect real world events being covered by multiple news outlets.

This move essentially places more trust with the media, and comes after severe criticism of the social network over its role as a media company itself.

Facebook's fake news fight

Founder Mark Zuckerberg has insisted that the company is indeed a tech, not media, company. However, its editorial control over the trending topics was questioned last year. It fired human editors which were involved in selecting the topics, reverting back to an algorithm. The latest updates are part of Facebook's ongoing work on the feature.

The social network has also been blamed for helping distribute fake news around the US election, or at least, failing to tackle it – something Zuckerberg called "crazy".

But it then said it would curtail the advertising around fake news content on the platform, which can act as an incentive to create outrageous headlines and fake articles which draw clicks and make money. Google also promised to do the same.

It has also introduced a feature which will let users flag news that they believe to be false for fact checking with a third party. These are labelled as "disputed" and are made less prominent in people's news feed.

How fundamental is Facebook in the fake news debate?

Zuckerberg claims less than one per cent of what you see on Facebook is fake, but is still clearly making efforts in trying to tackle that small percentage.

The surprise win of Donald Trump in the US Presidential election in November threw the issue into the spotlight, and has since been fuelled by the leader's own stance on truth.

A recent study by economists on the matter indicates that fake news, which some claim influenced the election, may actually have a limited impact.

Nevertheless, the company (and others) could face the scrutiny of MPs over the matter, as could traditional media companies.

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