The real problem (or problems) with Facebook’s ‘Trending Topics’
- A social media Goliath briefly stumbles
When the U.S. Senate starts exploiting "hot" cultural topics, democracy is in trouble. (The New York Times) That's now true with the mini-brouhaha over Facebook perhaps rigging its "Trending Topics" feature. Conservatives think they're being screwed because of what one anonymous soul asserted is an ideologically based tinkering with the list. (Gizmodo)
Implicit in some responses is the fear, loathing and rank hypocrisy toward Facebook among established media. They both thumb their noses and turn cartwheels to cut deals to benefit from its astonishing reach even while fretting they're making a pact with a devil that could undermine their own enterprises. (The New York Times) Then there are conservatives, who are outraged with the suggestion some of their favorite organs get short shrift, but don't have any similar reservations about ideological priorities at, say, Fox News. At minimum, it's all "a reminder of the extent that we look to Facebook to learn about what’s happening in our world." (The New Yorker) But there are interesting questions that go far beyond the uninspiring "Trending Topics" feature.
"The real problem with Facebook’s Trending Topics isn’t that it’s subject to human bias. The problem is that Trending Topics is a feature that wants to be two things at once. To Facebook users, it appears to be a list of popular news stories being shared on the site at a given point in time. To Facebook’s employees, the feature is an opportunity for the company to exhibit its bona fides as a reliable news source. It gives the company a place to point and exclaim, 'Look, news! While investors are largely pessimistic about Twitter, this is one space where it still leads Facebook. The issue is that those two functions work against each other." (TIME)
But at least you can talk to human beings who curate that one feature that's chagrined Republican politicians. Not so with its more telling News Feed. "With the News Feed, there’s no such luck. The algorithm that drives it makes just as many editorial choices as the trending topic curators, but you can’t interview it to ask why. It will never be fired and decide to speak out about its decisions under the cloak of anonymity. Instead, it just sits there, day in day out, totally dictating the content seen by more than a billion users of the biggest social network in the world. These decisions don’t feel outrageous, because Facebook sells them under the veneer of neutrality." (The Guardian)
"Perhaps because of that, the majority of Facebook users don’t even realize that the News Feed is edited at all. A 2015 study suggested that more than 60% of Facebook users are entirely unaware of any algorithmic curation on Facebook at all." Heaven forbid if we asked any headline-grabbing U.S senators. Our best hope is that their grandchildren use Facebook.
- The Meeting
You'd think that Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill were meeting at Yalta as World War II was winding down. All the cable news networks were consumed this morning with Donald Trump meeting House Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republicans in Washington today. News about the mega international saga of the Brazilian president being impeached and stepping down? (The Washington Post)
You serious? It was all Trump's trek, or the issue of forking over his tax returns, or maybe rank speculation about how Hillary Clinton will run against him. But it was mostly about The Meeting, with the rest of the planet seemingly be damned.
The Meeting is "pivotal for the future of the Republican Party," said Willie Geist on "Morning Joe." "Can GOP Unite Behind Trump?" asked CNN's "New Day." "Fox and Friends" went live to the capital to set matters up, while co-host Ainsley Earhardt said this could be just like her first TV station where a new boss came in, folks were scared but everything turned out hunky dory. Got that? Meanwhile, some real smart political scientists and consultants offered differing takes on who's got the leverage when Trump and Ryan meet. (U.S. News & World Report)
- A landmark story
President Obama will visit Hiroshima. If he hasn't, he surely should read the stunning 1946 New Yorker piece, "Hiroshima," by John Hersey. (Poynter) It opens, "At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk." It then tells you where five others were and how these six survived as 100,000 people were killed by the atomic bomb. (The New Yorker)
- An amazing career
Morley Safer, the longest-serving correspondent in the history of "60 Minutes," is retiring at age 84. He'd been a radio stringer shortly before going to CBS News and made the most of a subsequent posting to the Vietnam War. "It's been a wonderful run, but the time has come to say goodbye to all of my friends at CBS and the dozens of people who kept me on the air." He's got the reputation as a really good, smart guy with a finely-honed edge of sarcasm and taste for the finer things in life, including good food and wine. And he's really been prolific. When I asked how many pieces he's done, the answer: 919. Even over 46 years, that's a whole lot. After this week's edition, CBS will air an hour-long special on him. Again, 919.
- Questions of the night
Megyn Kelly's detente with Donald Trump has quickly slid into virtual abject sycophancy. Last night brought a softball interview with son Eric Trump. It was squashier than some grapes I just threw out. Or at least as soft as those Tempur-Pedic mattresses they're hawking all over cable TV.
"When you were raised what role did your father play?" Then there was, "How are you not a spoiled brat, because you're not?" We learned from Eric that dad was a warm, fun, loving guy who took the kids to construction sites to play on the big equipment (I guess the Occupational Safety & Health Administration inspectors weren't around). Dad also sent roses to girls he wanted set Eric up with. "He's my mentor, he's my best friend, I'm so proud of everything he's accomplished." This ended with the host referencing Eric and his sibs. "The three of you have turned out so beautifully. The best to all you guys." Don't worry, Megyn, they surely will be back.
- A data-inspired kerfuffle
"FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver ripped into The New York Times in general — and the paper’s new media columnist, Jim Rutenberg, in particular — on the FiveThirtyEight election podcast on Monday. The minutes-long rant included loaded words like 'dishonest' and 'unethical.'" (CJR) It's all a footnote to Silver's brief, apparently mutually unsatisfying stint at the newspaper, before he split for ESPN, and includes some of the lingering qualms among those of an older journalism tradition about his data-driven modus operandi.
- Is this Bud for you?
The Brazilian-Belgian beer goliath that bought Anheuser Busch in 2008 will rename Budweiser "America" from May 23 until mid-November, or as some of us get tanked on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day and Election Day, not to mention during the Summer Olympics and family spats over real and imagined slights while on vacation. "But from a legal perspective, can they do that? Can you just name your product after a country?" The answer is yes, "but it’s unlikely they’d be able to register it as a trademark or have any protectable trademark rights," given the link to a geographical region. (Law Newz)
- A highbrow take on Trump
What do I have a sneaking suspicion that Donald Trump doesn't subscribe to The New York Review of Books? Well, there's a long take on him concluding, "After Paris, Trump declared last fall, “security is going to rule.” However unlikely Trump’s candidacy may be — and we have seen over the past ten months how the unlikely can be overtaken by reality television politics—such a nominee, despite his negative poll numbers among women and minorities and all the other factors that, we are told, will make his election impossible, might stand only one highly telegenic terrorist attack away from becoming the national embodiment of all our fears." (New York Review of Books)
- Tribune-Gannett face-off
Assessing Tribune Publishing's spurning of Gannett's takeover bid, which now includes instituting a so-called "poison pill," Crain's Chicago Business offers a sharp take that analogizes to Groupon, "onetime wunderkind of Chicago's tech scene. Groupon seemed unstoppable back when Google offered to buy it for $6 billion. You also know what happened next: a year later, investors piled into Groupon's highly anticipated IPO, only to flee after a string of dismal quarterly earnings reports revealed the gaps in co-founder and Chairman (and later CEO) Eric Lefkofsky's strategic dreamscape. Today, the stock market values Groupon at not even a third of the price Google offered." It argues that Tribune is making a similar mistake, especially as it builds a moat around a very troubled castle, namely a newspaper company. (Crain's)
- Media gullibility further revealed
The press by and large gave carte blanche to Theranos and its telegenic CEO Elizabeth Holmes. Now there are serious allegations of rigging its claims. "On Wednesday, the blood-testing startup said that Sunny Balwani, the company's president and chief operating officer, is stepping down and retiring." (Business Insider) It's also beckoning three new directors.
- FTC wondering about Google
"Federal Trade Commission officials are asking questions again about whether Google has abused its dominance in the Internet search market, a sign that the agency may be taking steps to reopen an investigation it closed more than three years ago, according to sources familiar with the discussions." (POLITICO)
- A Detroit story rewarded
David Maraniss of The Washington Post wins the 2016 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award for "Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story," "an insightful look at Detroit’s history as a once-powerful manufacturing metropolis fueled by the motor industry, but with foreshadowing of an imminent decline." This is a terrific effort by the journalist-author of stellar biographies of Bill Clinton, Vince Lombardi, Barack Obama and Roberto Clemente, as well as books on the Vietnam War the 1960 Rome Olympics. “Throughout his life, my father held a deep commitment to freedom of expression and freedom of the press,” said Kerry Kennedy, who runs the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights. “He would invite reporters and news crews to join him in the most impoverished city neighborhoods, to Indian reservations and communities in Appalachia, California’s Central Valley or rural Indiana — places that often lacked electricity and plumbing — and he would ask the press corps why it wasn’t covering those issues and these places." If you want to understand where Detroit's at now by fully understanding where it once was, get the book.
- Disclosing facts about OxyContin
Boston Globe Life Sciences Media, which is producing the fine new site STAT, took OxyContin creator Purdue Pharma to court over documents thought to reveal lots about what the company knew about the painkiller's addictive elements. The perils of the drug have been a subject of media investigations, most recently by The Los Angeles Times. (The Los Angeles Times) Now a Kentucky state judge has ordered the release of records in the 2007 lawsuit filed against the company by the state (actually, commonwealth) of Kentucky. (DocumentCloud) “The court sees no higher value than the public (via the media) having access to these discovery materials, so that the public can see the facts for themselves,” Judge Steven Combs wrote. He put the ruling on hold until next month to give time for an appeal of a decision that follows a $24 million settlement of the case and Kentucky agreeing to destroy many of the same records.
- Job moves, edited by Benjamin Mullin
Garrin Marchetti is joining the staff of Bleacher Report. He is a reporter at the Wyoming Eagle Tribune. (@GarrinMarchetti) | Zach Kahn is now coordinator for brand partnerships at Vox Media. Previously, he was a marketing specialist at Google. (@zkahn94) | Katherine Lehr is joining Matter Studios. She is vice president of operations at POLITICO States. (Email) | Job of the day: The Washington Post is looking for a local enterprise reporter. Get your resumes in! (WashPost PR) | Send Ben your job moves: firstname.lastname@example.org.