Depending on how you use Facebook, you might never notice its trending news sidebar. Theoretically a marker of what users are discussing, the feature came under fire in June when Gizmodo reported on its supposed liberal bias. In August, the company sacked its human editors, replacing them not, as some erroneously claim, with purely algorithmic curation, but instead shifting to a team with more “technical skillsets.” The results were immediate and disastrous, with the site promoting a false story claiming that Fox News had fired Megyn Kelly.
Unsurprisingly, things have only gotten worse for the site in the weeks since. On Friday, Sara Morrison reported in Vocativ that Facebook was featuring an article pinned to the trending topic “September 11th Anniversary” that claimed to discuss footage revealing that the Sept. 11 attacks had been the product of a planned demolition. In other words, Facebook, just short of its 13th birthday, has officially (if inadvertently) risen to the level of a teen joking about jet fuel and steel beams.
While it’s tempting to blame algorithms for Facebook’s mistake, it was, in fact, a more human inside job. According to a press release from the company, while the humans currently on the trending team review topics, they’re mostly working to make sure that those topics correspond to “current news event[s]” or are otherwise of immediate interest. Accordingly, curators are looking for events that are currently unfolding, or that are actively generating conversations. As Morrison notes, seeing Sept. 11 in the trending feed “makes sense, as the 15th anniversary of the attack is in a few days.”
In this case, however, it’s not clear that the trending staffers followed their company’s own best practices. In a more comprehensive PDF explaining its guidelines, the company lays outs a multistage process for accepting a topic. During the NBA Finals, for example, curators wouldn’t promote an article about LeBron James just because he was playing in the game—only if he actually did something of note, like hitting a “game-winning shot in Game 2 of finals.”
Accordingly, the erroneous Megyn Kelly article was presumably accepted in accordance with these principles because it appeared to correspond with an actual event (Fox firing its star anchor), even if that event didn’t happen. It’s considerably less obvious how the 9/11 article made it past muster, though it seems possible that Facebook employees—acceding to the company’s ongoing attempt to counteract accusations of bias—really were trying to show both sides of the story here. In this case, however, the other side of the story just happens to be one that’s comically, perhaps even offensively, wrong.
For now, Facebook has apparently responded by removing its entire 9/11 anniversary topic tag from the trending stream:
A Facebook spokesperson confirmed that the topic was no longer active, telling Slate, “We’re aware a hoax article showed up there and as a temporary step to resolving this we’ve removed the topic.” It seems possible that Facebook trending itself won’t be long for the world either.