Why Facebook's Trending Topics Spam Problem Can't Be Solved With Algorithms

The decision to nix Trending’s human editors has proven controversial in mere days—but Facebook has long put too much faith in automation.

When Facebook unceremoniously fired the team of human editors responsible for curating its Trending section, surely it didn’t expect to be betrayed by its algorithm so quickly. Facebook laid off all the Trending curators on Friday, under the guise of wanting to reduce bias and “make the product more automated.” The Trending team is being repopulated with engineers, who will oversee the algorithms charged with sussing out Trending content.

It took just two days for this approach to backfire: On Sunday, “Megyn Kelly” was trending on Facebook, supported by a story that said she was fired from Fox News and supported Hillary Clinton—news that turned out to be false.

This gaffe flies in the face of Facebook’s claim that the process of choosing Trending topics has not actually changed. The Trending curators were tasked with writing descriptions and summaries for each topic; according to Facebook, the decision to automate Trending has eliminated only that step, tweaking the appearance of topics in the Trending module. Like the recently departed editorial team, the engineers who are now monitoring Trending have the ability to approve or dismiss topics—but that didn’t prevent the news about Kelly from circulating, since an inaccurate post with enough traction would technically meet the criteria for being included in Trending.

As Facebook told CBS News:

We also want to share a bit more context on how it happened. A topic is eligible for Trending if it meets the criteria for being a real-world news event and there are a sufficient number of relevant articles and posts about that topic. Over the weekend, this topic met those conditions and the Trending review team accepted it thinking it was a real-world topic. We then re-reviewed the topic based on the likelihood that there were inaccuracies in the articles. We determined it was a hoax and it is no longer being shown in Trending. We’re working to make our detection of hoax and satirical stories quicker and more accurate.

But it’s not just accuracy that has taken a hit since Facebook restructured Trending. On Monday, the latest news about the EpiPen, for example, translated to just “Mylan” in the Trending module and only appeared in the Trending vertical dedicated to politics. An editor would have also added that Trending topic to the science vertical, a source with knowledge of the matter told Fast Company—but the algorithm on its own did not know to do this. That’s why the Trending module has been more sparsely populated: Additional curators were usually assigned to verticals like science, to ensure there was enough content.

Still, the events of the past five days are unsurprising when you look at Facebook’s trajectory over the last few months, after a Gizmodo article published in May alleged that the Trending section had been burying conservative news. Though a slew of publications had written about the Kelly incident, Facebook’s own Trending fracas did not start trending until Tuesday night—and when it did, it was under the topic name “Megyn Kelly,” a misleading description that does not mention Facebook unless you click into the topic.

If you’ve been watching Facebook’s Trending topics for some time, you may have noted something that curators had noticed—and complained about—to the powers that be at Facebook: the increased presence of Trending spam. To fill the Trending module, curators had to draw from topics that were trending not on the internet, but specifically on Facebook. This was not the case prior to Gizmodo‘s story, a source told Fast Company—in fact, before the article was published, curators could introduce topics into Trending if there was major news that was not being talked about enough on Facebook or the internet as a whole. If a story was not being discussed much, the news sources included in the topic page would reflect that.

This explains why some of the topic pages include links from sites that you’ve never heard of or do not view as authoritative news sources. What it doesn’t explain is why the “public posts” section of so many Trending topics are deluged with posts from spam accounts like “Cena Fan” and “Rihanna Fan Club.”

Consider the results last week when I clicked on random trending topics related to, say, Lena Dunham or Alexa Vega. Every post I saw that appeared to be spam repeated the same text, almost verbatim, regardless of topic. And this was even before Facebook got rid of its human editors. As it turns out, the issue of spam is something the Trending curators repeatedly brought up with Facebook. The algorithms were responsible for choosing public posts for each Trending topic and additional news links; the only thing curators had a hand in was sifting through topics, writing the module topic descriptors, and putting together the story summary at the top of each topic page.

Curators, in fact, had no control over what showed up on the page, once users scrolled past the image up top—that was left to the whims and fancies of the omniscient algorithm. Any complaints about spam and questionable links fell on deaf ears, a source told us.

A Facebook representative declined to comment.

As Facebook has attempted to neutralize allegations of bias, it has doubled down on using algorithms to run the Trending section—and for what? Trending is even more muddled now than it was before, increasingly linking to irrelevant public posts. If users were not clicking on topic pages before, they certainly won’t do so now, based on just a few cryptic words and a shrinking list of Trending topics.

“To be honest, I hadn’t really clicked on too many trending topics within Facebook because I found they were usually hours or days old,” On Base Marketing CEO and former SocialTimes editor Justin Lafferty told Fast Company. “When I did, it was rare I found what I really wanted: what my friends were saying about this topic. Others I’ve talked to in the past about Facebook’s trending section reported similar issues. It just wasn’t relevant enough to be something they explore regularly.”

So what, then, is the future of Trending topics? Facebook could just ax the Trending section, rather than swallow its pride and hire back a team of editors. It’s difficult to imagine a different course of action. As has been said before, relying entirely on an algorithm does not remove humans (or bias) from the equation—algorithms are created by humans and made smarter and more effective with human input. In the case of the Trending section, the proof is in the pudding.

A Tax Expert Rips Tim Cook's EU Letter Apart Point By Point

Cook blasted an EU ruling that Apple used Irish subsidiaries to avoid billions in taxes, but his defense is only one side of the story.

Apple’s business structure and tax practices in Europe were around long before Tim Cook became CEO. He didn’t invent those things, but he’s vigorously defending them. His arguments in media interviews sound compelling, but they present only one side of a hot-button issue that’s easily relatable to the overarching wealth distribution and fair taxation themes of election cycles in both the U.S. and Europe this year.

The European Union, after a lengthy investigation, ruled Tuesday that Apple’s use of Irish subsidiary companies to avoid paying taxes amounts to the tech giant receiving “illegal state aid” from Ireland. As a result, Apple may be required to pay around $14.5 billion in back taxes dating back to 2004.

Cook had a carefully worded—and, at times, sharply worded—open letter ready to publish when the judgment was officially announced. He opens the letter by describing Apple’s history in Ireland dating back to 1980, when Steve Jobs set up the company’s first factory there. Apple employed 60 people in Cork county then, and employs more than 6,000 there now, Cook says. He points out that Apple’s Irish operations have helped create and sustain millions of app development, manufacturing, supplier, and small business jobs across Europe.

To get the other side of the argument I went to Matt Gardner, the director of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (the research umbrella for Citizens for Tax Justice). The CTJ is nonpartisan and nonprofit, and it’s funded by some of the same foundations that fund NPR. As it turns out, Gardner energetically disagrees with many of the statements in Cook’s letter. Here are his responses to Cook’s main points.

Cook: As our business has grown over the years, we have become the largest taxpayer in Ireland, the largest taxpayer in the United States, and the largest taxpayer in the world. Over the years, we received guidance from Irish tax authorities on how to comply correctly with Irish tax law—the same kind of guidance available to any company doing business there.

Gardner: We weren’t in the room, so we can’t know whether or not they [Apple] ever asked for a special deal. But it’s hard to deny that they received one, in the sense that they’re using an arcane legal structure that is simply not available to the many smaller businesses Apple competes with. When they say “the same kind of guidance” is “available to any company,” they mean that in theory any company could choose to employ their highly paid accounting and legal teams to construct the same artificial, tax-motivated network of subsidiaries that Apple did. But this is ludicrous, since most small businesses simply don’t have the resources to construct an elaborate tax-dodging scheme of this kind. It’s like saying that anyone could go start a company to send a rocket to Mars, even though only Elon Musk actually did it.

Apple created a complicated web of subsidiaries to avoid taxes, and the Irish government allowed it. Both the company and the country were complicit in this agreement. The idea that Ireland gave Apple guidance on “how to comply correctly with Irish tax law” makes both parties sound less guilty than they are. A better characterization would be that Apple cooked up a tax-dodging scheme, and Ireland allowed it.

Cook: The European Commission has launched an effort to rewrite Apple’s history in Europe, ignore Ireland’s tax laws, and upend the international tax system in the process. The opinion issued on August 30 alleges that Ireland gave Apple a special deal on our taxes. This claim has no basis in fact or in law. We never asked for, nor did we receive, any special deals.

Gardner: The interesting question is the sequence of events. Like many of the most sophisticated tax-avoiding companies in the world, they pushed the limits of what the law would allow. They set up a set of subsidiaries whose purpose was almost entirely to avoid paying taxes. And they subsequently received a ruling that the setup was within Irish law. It’s clear as day—and this was one of the findings of the 2013 Senate subcommittee—that there was no sensible business reason to set up those subsidiaries except to avoid paying taxes. It makes no difference that Ireland cheerfully agreed to it. It’s still a tax dodge, just a state-sanctioned tax dodge.

Ireland and other tax havens have built their economic development strategies on encouraging companies to shelter their profits there, and then to take their cut. Ireland has made a choice to structure their tax laws in a way that facilitates tax avoidance and that attracts tax-avoiding companies.

Cook: We now find ourselves in the unusual position of being ordered to retroactively pay additional taxes to a government that says we don’t owe them any more than we’ve already paid. The Commission’s move is unprecedented and it has serious, wide-reaching implications. It is effectively proposing to replace Irish tax laws with a view of what the Commission thinks the law should have been.

Gardner: All the EU is saying is that Ireland’s tax rate is 12.5% and wouldn’t it be nice if Apple actually paid that tax rate. It’s certainly not coming up with a new tax regime that’s never been seen before. In order to have a level playing field among companies doing business in the European Union, all companies doing business in Ireland should be subject the same tax rate.

Cook: This would strike a devastating blow to the sovereignty of EU member states over their own tax matters, and to the principle of certainty of law in Europe. Ireland has said they plan to appeal the Commission’s ruling and Apple will do the same. We are confident that the Commission’s order will be reversed. At its root, the Commission’s case is not about how much Apple pays in taxes. It is about which government collects the money.

Gardner: That’s incredible for a couple of reasons. The first is that the commission’s case is clearly about how little the company pays in taxes. The whole point is that they pay a phenomenally low rate tax rate—0.005 percent in 2015—on a very substantial amount of profits. This was the big revelation from the 2013 Senate subcommittee hearing: Apple constructed a subsidiary that was a tax resident of nowhere that would never have to pay any taxes. This is at the heart of what everyone is correctly saying Apple did wrong.

It’s notable that there’s no point in this [Cook's] very long letter where they discuss the question of tax rates. All they say is how many dollars they pay, abstracting away from their tax rate, and from the huge amounts that they avoid paying. They say they pay more taxes than any other company. This is certainly plausible, because few if any of the Fortune 500 can match their profits right now, but that doesn’t mean they’re paying anything resembling their fair share. The evidence is clear as day that they are paying one of the lowest effective tax rates in recorded history in Ireland right now. So the assertion that this isn’t about how much they’re paying is laughable.

Cook: Taxes for multinational companies are complex, yet a fundamental principle is recognized around the world: A company’s profits should be taxed in the country where the value is created. Apple, Ireland, and the United States all agree on this principle. In Apple’s case, nearly all of our research and development takes place in California, so the vast majority of our profits are taxed in the United States.

Gardner: It sounds like what they’re saying is that these ought to be thought of as U.S. profits, which makes it hard to understand why they have been so eager to report these profits in Ireland up until now. As long as Apple can pretend their profits are being earned in Ireland they won’t have to pay a dime in taxes on them.

It doesn’t appear to be even remotely truthful based on the numbers they publish in their annual reports. Each year they report that the majority of their profits are earned outside the U.S., with roughly a third (on average, over the past five years) coming from the U.S. When you look at the 10K, the annual report for 2015, you see the company reports earnings of $72 billion worldwide, and just one third of those profits are attributed to the U.S. And yet Cook’s statement says that the vast majority of their income is taxed in the U.S.

We think that is a very low estimate. It certainly appears that the company is shifting profits out of the U.S. and into tax havens overseas. So one of these things must not be true: Either the numbers presented to shareholders in their annual report are false, or Tim Cook’s new statement that the majority of its profits are taxed in the U.S is false. They both can’t be true.

Cook: European companies doing business in the U.S. are taxed according to the same principle. But the Commission is now calling to retroactively change those rules. Beyond the obvious targeting of Apple, the most profound and harmful effect of this ruling will be on investment and job creation in Europe. Using the Commission’s theory, every company in Ireland and across Europe is suddenly at risk of being subjected to taxes under laws that never existed. Apple has long supported international tax reform with the objectives of simplicity and clarity.

Gardner: That bit made me laugh out loud. When the Senate’s permanent subcommittee was describing the elaborate tax-avoidance techniques used by Apple, they had to use flowcharts to explain it. The incredible complexity and creativity in the Apple tax-avoidance scheme is almost admirable. But to say that they are interested in simplicity and clarity is laughable.

* * *

In the public policy arena we have seen two very different Tim Cooks this year. One stood up the the FBI and insisted on protecting the absolute sanctity of secure and private user data. He appeared as the frontman for a virtuous Apple. The other Cook is the person out defending Apple’s version of corporate tax responsibility. That Cook is less admirable.

Instead of defaulting to what’s become accepted behavior among the Fortune 500 to give more to shareholders and less to tax collectors, Apple should be actively working with governments to eliminate havens and loopholes and move toward fair and equitable tax policy. It should be in Washington negotiating the terms of the repatriation of its foreign profit stores back to the U.S. It should be setting an example for other multi-nationals by doing the right thing. That seems more in keeping with Apple’s culture, and more like who we believe Tim Cook to be.

(You can read Cook’s letter, “A Message to the Apple Community in Europe,” in its entirety here. You can read the full judgment announcement by the European Union here.)

Is This Sustainable Village The Future Of Retirement?

Serenbe, a planned sustainable community, is a new village designed to help its residents gracefully age in place.

Serenbe, a planned sustainable community, is a new village designed to help its residents gracefully age in place.

Fifteen years into an unplanned second career as a real-estate developer, Steve Nygren has timed his latest project perfectly. Nygren is the cofounder and developer of Serenbe, a visionary New Urbanist community in Chattahoochee Hills, outside Atlanta. Since breaking ground in 2004, Serenbe has grown to include two villages of about 500 residents. Praised by urban planners, architects, and sustainability geeks alike, Serenbe is, by most accounts, a nice place to live. (You do have to be comfortable with a certain Truman Show vibe, though.) Homes, priced from $300,000 to more than $1 million, sell briskly. Now, with construction of Serenbe’s third village—or “hamlet” in the local parlance—Nygren aims to make Serenbe a great place to grow old. And maybe a model for a new kind of retirement community.

Read Full Story

3 Design Changes To Watch For From Apple, From Incremental To Exciting

If we’re expecting new iPhones and a new Apple Watch, why are we already yawning?

If we’re expecting new iPhones and a new Apple Watch, why are we already yawning?

After sending out an event invite featuring a pretty bokeh photo of devices in a darkroom, Apple is expected to announce its latest products next week—including updates to the iPhone, MacBook Pro, Apple Watch, and more.

Read Full Story

The Next Wave Of Dutch Design

Subverting systems, tackling ethical issues, and questioning ownership: The latest crop of Dutch designers is no longer about ironic winks.

Subverting systems, tackling ethical issues, and questioning ownership: The latest crop of Dutch designers is no longer about ironic winks.

Agatha Haines’s portfolio has 3D-printed organs, hyperrealistic (but artificial) flayed faces, and surgically altered infants. The collective We Make Carpets has a rug composed of 6,000 paper drink umbrellas. Formafantasma has vases and tables made from volcanic rock. The differences in these designers’ work is obvious, but the less-apparent similarity is the focus of Dream Out Loud: Designing for Tomorrow’s Demands, an exhibition of white-hot Dutch designers at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

Read Full Story

This App Knows When The Internet Is Making You Miserable (And Blocks It)

A new plug-in blocks sites that make you frown. And I learn to stay away from Gmail, Chartbeat, and Donald Trump.

A new plug-in blocks sites that make you frown. And I learn to stay away from Gmail, Chartbeat, and Donald Trump.

“This is a test,” I write to my editor over Slack. “Does talking to you make me HAPPY? Or make me SAD?”

Read Full Story

The Octobot Is A Major Robotics Breakthrough (It's Also Pretty Cute)

Harvard’s soft 3D-printed robot is fueled by chemical reactions.

Harvard’s soft 3D-printed robot is fueled by chemical reactions.

Octomom: Frightening. Octobot, the first autonomous soft robot: Adorable. 3D printed by Harvard researchers from a malleable material and powered by chemical reactions, the robot moves without the use of electronics.

Read Full Story

Design Advice From The Women Of Mid-Century Modernism

“What works good is better than what looks good, because what works good lasts,” Ray Eames once said.

“What works good is better than what looks good, because what works good lasts,” Ray Eames once said.

The mid-20th century was filled with luminaries in design and the visual arts—Eero Saarinen, Richard Neutra, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock—and the most well-known figures are mostly men. But this is starting to change, with exhibitions and articles beginning to celebrate the accomplishments of mid-century women.

Read Full Story

Renzo Piano's Next Project: Helping Italy Rebuild

The Pritzker Prize winner is stepping in to advise on how to rebuild.

The Pritzker Prize winner is stepping in to advise on how to rebuild.

The Italian architect Renzo Piano will be a driving force behind reconstruction and disaster prevention efforts in Italy after a devastating earthquake killed at least 290 people last week, according to the Guardian.

Read Full Story