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Facebook Faces Trending News Problems After Firing Curators

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

If you've been on Facebook in the last few days, you might have noticed the trending news section has changed. Gone are these succinct summaries of news articles chosen and written by humans and weighted towards traditional outlets like The New York Times, the BBC. In their place, there are now just names - names of celebrities, new tech gadgets, viral videos. Click on the name, and you're led to a page full of news stories and Facebook posts about it.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Over the weekend, one of those names was Fox News host Megyn Kelly. NPR's Aarti Shahani says users who clicked on her name saw this news story.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Fox News commentator Megan Kelly is a Hillary Clinton supporter.

SHAPIRO: And that she had been fired from Fox News for it. To be clear, that is false.

SIEGEL: Now, how could a fictitious article from a sketchy web site make its way to such a prominent place on people's Facebook feeds? Well, back in May, Facebook was accused of suppressing conservative news media in its trending feeds. Facebook denied it.

SHAHANI: But that got members of Congress very upset. Inquiries were started. Testimony had to be given. So basically it became a huge political issue, and for Facebook as a business, it's an issue because Facebook is not trying to be the platform for just one political party or the other. Facebook wants to be everyone's social network.

SHAPIRO: So how do you eliminate bias from a list of the biggest news stories of the day? Leave it up to computers. This past Friday, Facebook made the switch. The company fired its human news curators and publicly announced that algorithms, computer code would be finding and posting the hot topics of the day - no more news curators, no more bias. All it takes for a story to hit the trending list is enough people sharing it with their friends.

SHAHANI: Basically Facebook was hoping that algorithms are going to do more. Humans are going to do less. Bam - problem solved. And you know, within a day or two, we see, no, that's not actually solving the problem. It just creates a new one.

SIEGEL: It turns out if you can't trust a small group of humans not to make errors of judgment, you definitely can't trust a billion people. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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