Social Media

Facebook's Trending Topics algorithm called into question again after it promotes 9/11 conspiracy theory


By Rebecca Stewart | Trends Editor

September 10, 2016 | 4 min read

Facebook's new Trending Topics algorithm has landed the social network in hot water once again, this time for linking to an article containing a 9/11 conspiracy theory claiming that bombs destroyed the World Trade Center towers.

The story, published by British tabloid the Daily Star, found its way on to Facebook's Trending side bar on Friday (9 September), but was removed by the site's moderators soon after. The issue is part of an ongoing problem Facebook has faced since getting rid of its team of human curators.

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Facebook's Trending Topics algorithm called into question again as it promoted 9/11 conspiracy theory

The article pushed a 9/11 conspiracy theory which claimed that the Twin Towers collapsed on 11 September 2001 due to a "controlled demolition" rather than a terrorist attack. Some of Facebook's 1.7 billion users who clicked on to the social network's featured 'September 11 Anniversary' topic were presented with the Daily Star report as well as footage which alleged that "bombs were planted in the Twin Towers."

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The 9/11 topic began trending organically ahead of the 15th anniversary of the attack, but Facebook said in a statement it was aware that a "hoax article" had been promoted in the trending section, and that as "a temporary step" to resolving this it had removed the 'September 11 Anniversary' discussion from the Trending board altogether.

Facebook's news offering has come under a lot of scrutiny over the past few months. Earlier this year former staff came forward to claim it had been expunging right wing news from Trending Topics. This was strenuously denied by chief executive and founder Mark Zuckerberg denied the reports, but the company then introduced plans to improve the feature with improved guidelines.

Soon after, Facebook made its team of human editors redundant, instead relying on an algorithm, which according to CNET is based on relevancy and time posted. The new system replaces the links after a certain period of time without anyone overseeing proceedings.

At the time, Facebook said humans would still be involved to in the process "to ensure that the topics that appear in Trending remain high-quality — for example, confirming that a topic is tied to a current news event in the real world," but the 9/11 conspiracy theory story looks to have slipped past quality control in this instance.

This isn't the first time the algorithm has gone awry, last month a fake story about Fox anchor Megyn Kelly found its way on to the list.

The company's censorship guidelines and policies were also called into question yesterday when it blocked the posting of the iconic 'napalm girl' photo taken during the Vietnam war. Following global media pressure it has made a u-turn on the decision, saying that it is looking to improve its rules to make sure they both "promote free expression" and keep the community safe.

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