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Facebook's Trending Topics hits turmoil over fake news story

The social network promoted a fake news story over the weekend about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. It's the latest in a string of controversies the Trending Topics feature has faced.

Ian Sherr Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. At CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
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The article as it appeared on Facebook over the weekend.

Screenshot by Ian Sherr/CNET

Can you trust Facebook's Trending Topics?

The world's largest social network hit a new snag over the weekend, promoting an erroneous news story about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. The story was put on the site's Trending Topics, a list on the top right of Facebook's main page, which is visited by more than 1.7 billion people each month.

The story claimed Fox News had fired Kelly for "backing Hillary," a reference to the Democratic candidate for president of the United States. Kelly has been criticized within conservative and right-wing political circles for asking Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a debate a year ago about disparaging comments he's made regarding women.

Fox News called the incident "an egregious mistake," and directed requests to Facebook.

So how did this happen?

Back in May, Facebook came under fire for how it chooses trending topics. Stories from the tech blog Gizmodo claimed the team that manages the feature for the social networking giant chose stories based on their political beliefs and not merely based on what was popular on the site. Facebook said it investigated the issue and found no wrongdoing.

But then last Friday, the company said its teams were no longer writing descriptions of trending topics and suggested computer algorithms would play a bigger role. Not that humans are being completely shut out, the company said. "There are still people involved in this process to ensure that the topics that appear in Trending remain high-quality."

That brings us to the weekend, when the review team approved the Kelly topic because there were enough stories written about it. After a re-review, however, Facebook discovered there was a problem with the accuracy of the stories, a spokeswoman said in a statement. The company did not immediately respond to a request about whether Facebook attempts to verify a story's veracity before promoting them.

It remains to be seen whether Facebook will take additional steps to ensure its Trending Topics list is both a list of popular items and an accurate record of the news.