When Facebook removed human editors from its Trending News feature, many experts expressed skepticism that an algorithm could do the same job. Those fears were proven correct when a fake news story about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly began trending only days after the automated system took over. Facebook played it off as an unfortunate hiccup in its new system, but as a stunning new report in The Washington Post found, that fake story was anything but the exception.
The publication decided to audit Facebook’s Trending topics by logging every news story that trended across four accounts during the workdays from August 31 to September 22. During that time, the Post found five completely fake stories and three that were highly inaccurate, plus other weird trending content like blog posts and links to online stores.
“I’m not at all surprised how many fake stories have trended,” a former Facebook employee anonymously told the paper. “It was beyond predictable by anyone who spent time with the actual functionality of the product, not just the code.”
Some of the fake content Facebook promoted include a story claiming the 9/11 attacks were a “controlled demolition” and a debunked story from a right-wing publication alleging that a Clemson University administrator kicked a man off campus for praying. The social media giant also promoted a satirical (and completely fake) story about the Buffalo Bills NFL team.
Of course, Facebook shows every user different Trending topics, so the newspaper’s audit most likely didn’t catch all of the phony stories. Indeed, this fake content may get promoted more often than initially thought.