Facebook announced on Friday that it would remove Trending: the section of its site, typically appearing to the right of the News Feed, that displays a list of the most popular news topics at a given moment.
“We’re removing Trending soon to make way for future news experiences on Facebook,” wrote Facebook Head of News Products Alex Hardiman in an official statement. “From research we found that over time people found the product to be less and less useful.”
Trending was first launched in 2014 “as a way to help people discover news topics that were popular across the Facebook community,” Hardiman wrote, but will now be phased out as Facebook introduces additional news-related products.
However, many suspect that there are other reasons for the removal of Trending from Facebook. To take a deep dive into them, I posed the question to my team: “What is this really about?”
Here's how our experts weighed in on the matter.
Why Is Facebook Really Removing Trending?
1. Negative Stories About Facebook Often Appear in Trending
Trending, according to Facebook's official description, aggregates the most popular news items among Facebook users “based on the number of publishers that are posting articles on Facebook about that subject and the engagement level of those articles.”
But Facebook has received a high degree of scrutiny and related news coverage over the past year, from a series of PR nightmares ranging from its role in election interference to the misuse of personal data by voter profiling firm Cambridge Analytica. Those stories have often taken a top position on the site's Trending list.
When news broke that Trending would be phased out, for example — it, too, was discovered by many to take a top rank withing Trending.
Trending saying goodbye in the only way it knows how pic.twitter.com/8rqzQp69Wg
— Alex Kantrowitz (@Kantrowitz)
June 1, 2018
“It seems to me like it could also be a strategic move on the brand side, given how much of the ‘trending' news over the past few months has been around the Cambridge Analytica controversy,” says Annabelle Nyst, a HubSpot content strategist. “If they’re committed to transparency, they can’t remove that content from the Trending section … but they can remove the section” itself.
2. Facebook Has Come Under Fire for Fake News Ranking on Trending
As Facebook has said itself, Trending aggregates news topics based on what's being shared on Facebook by users the most. However, much of what is often most popularly shared consists of false content; e.g., a “live feed” of the supermoon cast in February of this year that actually turned out to be a continual broadcast of a still [stolen] image with sound effects playing over it, which received at least 16 million views.
Facebook has announced a number of features and efforts to curb the spread of such false content since it was first revealed that the site was weaponized by foreign actors to spread misinformation and influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, largely through ad content.
However, despite Facebook's claims that “our team is responsible for reviewing Trending topics to ensure that they reflect real world events,” news content that was often less-than-real sometimes slipped through the cracks and still made its way onto the Trending section. The company made several efforts to fix that prior to announcing the removal of the section, including ranking only topics that were covered by several news publishers.
“The idea was that coverage by just one outlet,” wrote The Guardian‘s Press Association, “could be a sign that the news is fake.”
The removal of Trending is just the latest in a series of moves by Facebook to slow to spread of false content, the efforts for which could be expected to ramp up in the months leading to the 2018 U.S. midterm elections.
In January, the company announced that it would sharply shift its News Feed algorithm to prioritize content from a user's friends and family, and in April said it would apply more context about publishers and articles appearing there.
“I actually think it's consistent with Facebook's prior announcements that it's going to focus more on local news versus global news outlets, or news outlets that get benefits for being big in Facebook's current newsfeed algorithm,” says HubSpot Head of SEO Victor Pan, referring to Facebook's announcement that news items within a certain geographic radius would be prioritized in a user's News Feed. “Local publishers will benefit … global outlets, like Reuters, AP, AFP will get hit hardest.”
3. Authentic News Publishers Didn't Benefit From Trending
Trending, wrote Hardiman in his statement, “was only available in five countries and accounted for less than 1.5% of clicks to news publishers on average.” For that reason, it seems, the lack of benefit to authentic news outlets is part of Facebook's reasons for removing the section.
Given Facebook's other recent efforts to prioritize more authentic content — sometimes by way of personalization and localization — from various news sources, HubSpot Social Media Editor Henry Franco says that this reasoning seems legitimate.
“It’s a low traffic avenue, and with the platform catering towards video and mobile, there isn’t much of a reason to keep it,” he says, pointing to Trending's mainly desktop-experience nature. “It seems like Facebook is still prioritizing breaking and local news, so I’m not sure they’re really up to anything.”
Whether or not authentic news publishers will actually benefit from this change is another story — one that Franco doesn't think is entirely likely.
“But since Facebook has all of the leverage here,” he says, “I don’t think that matters to them.”
Looking ahead, Facebook is addressing the mobile-first preference among users to consume news content that Hardiman says it's observed.
“We’ve seen that the way people consume news on Facebook is changing to be primarily on mobile and increasingly through news video,” he wrote. “We’re exploring new ways to help people stay informed about timely, breaking news that matters to them, while making sure the news they see on Facebook is from trustworthy and quality sources.”
One of those methods, Hardiman says, is by applying a “Breaking News” label to news matching that descriptor. Facebook is currently testing that feature with 80 publishers across several countries — “North America, South America, Europe, India and Australia” — which allows the publishers to apply this label themselves.
The new features will also include a “Today In” section of the site, where Facebook users can view breaking news from local publishers as a community. If that sounds familiar, it might be due to Google's recent announcement of a similar feature in its new Google News app.
Given the sum impact of all these factors, Nyst says, the time spent on Facebook could be an underlying motivator for this latest move.
“Who knows if that’s damaging user retention at all?” she asks. “But I can’t imagine it’s helping.”
Featured image source: Facebook