WHAT'S TRENDING

Beastly behaviour on the Internet

From animals to algorithms, social media had plenty to raise a ruckus over

MAN OR MACHINE: DOES IT MATTER WHO DECIDES WHAT'S TRENDING?

A curious topic has been trending on the Internet: What determines what's trending on Facebook?

The popular understanding is that a set of complex, top-secret algorithms acts as the invisible hand which draws up the influential list of trending topics appearing on the pages of its 1.6 billion users.

But it has emerged over the past weeks that there is in fact a team of men and women - known internally as news curators - behind the invisible hand.

The issue is still a talking point but the debate has shifted from who decides what's trending to what it says about what we read online, and how it shapes our views.


Social media users were outraged over Harambe's death. The boy's mother, the zoo and some innocent people were targets of online abuse. PHOTO: REUTERS

  • NOTABLE TRENDS

  • #JAPAN: The hashtag was trending as many followed the search and eventual rescue of a seven-year-old Japanese boy who was abandoned in a forest by his parents for being naughty.

    #SLD2016: Defence policymakers and security analysts gathered in Singapore this weekend for the annual IISS Shangri-La Dialogue.

    LOTTE REINIGER: Google marked what would have been the 117th birthday of German animator Lotte Reiniger with an animated doodle on June 2. She was widely credited with having made the world's first full-length animated film, The Adventures Of Prince Achmed, in 1926.

First, a quick recap of the saga.

The controversy over Facebook Trends was triggered by a Gizmodo report last month which interviewed some of Facebook's former curators.

Curators, working out of the basement of the social media giant's New York office, would decide which topics, identified by algorithms, to list as trending, and how they should be named and summarised, said the tech news site. One of them also alleged that Facebook was deliberately omitting articles with conservative viewpoints.

Facebook rejected the allegation of bias but acknowledged the role of news curators. In fact, it took the rare move of making public a 28-page internal document detailing how human editors and computer algorithms decide on trending topics.

Now, you may ask: Does it matter whether it's man or machine who decides on trending topics? Haven't editors been deciding what we read in newspapers?

A key difference, as some would argue, is the sheer reach of Facebook, and its power to shape views, especially when some rely on it as the main platform for information.

And Facebook's reach goes beyond its user base.

Both digital news websites and print media eager to expand its online footprint take reference, with varying degrees, from what's trending on Facebook because it is a key traffic driver for many.

For better or worse, it has become an integral part of the news cycle.

There is also a deeper reason why this episode has generated much discussion: It is not just about Facebook.

It is about how information is filtered and delivered to us in the digital age - whether it is through computer algorithms, browsing history, reading patterns, what we share on social media or even what we buy from online stores.

It is about how we process such information and form opinions based on it. And how it may perpetuate our biases when we are fed more of the same.

We may end up seeing the world as we already see it, as Ms Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the United Nations, put it in a recent speech.

Addressing the graduating class at her alma mater Yale University, the former journalist said: "From the Facebook and Twitter feeds we monitor, to the algorithms that determine the results of our Web searches based on our previous browsing history and location, our major sources of information are increasingly engineered to reflect back to us the world as we already see it.

"They give us the comfort of our opinions without the discomfort of thought."

UPROAR OVER GORILLA HARAMBE: WHAT IT SAYS ABOUT HUMANS

Opinions are often formed quickly, and expressed freely, in the online world.

The furore over the death of the gorilla Harambe is a case in point.

The shooting on May 28 that killed the gorilla at Cincinnati Zoo in the United States has prompted a chorus of online criticism.

The zoo said it had little choice but to kill the animal in order to protect the three-year-old boy who entered the gorilla enclosure. Non-lethal methods, such as tranquilliser darts, would be slow to take effect on the 190kg gorilla.

Some experts and people who have actually worked with gorillas have voiced support for the zoo.

Former zookeeper Amanda O'Donoughue pointed out that it was in fact dangerous to use tranquilliser darts as Harambe could have fallen on the boy, trapping him.

What needed to be examined is the safety of the animal enclosures from the visitor side, she said last week in a Facebook post which has close to 1.2 million shares.

But the zoo's explanation failed to stem the wave of online criticism.

A Facebook group called "Justice for Harambe" attracted more than 150,000 likes. An online petition on Change.org garnered nearly half a million signatures.

The online lynching, meanwhile, has started. A stream of vitriolic remarks targeted the boy's mother, who was blamed and shamed for bad parenting.

The online flaming has claimed innocent victims. A Facebook user with the same name as the boy's mother found herself the target of abuse. Another woman who merely witnessed the gorilla incident and spoke to the media was mistaken by the mob as the child's mother. She had to take down her Facebook page because of the attack.

More than anything, the episode "offers us another peek inside the zoo we call the human condition", Chicago Tribune reporter Jerry Davich wrote in a hard-hitting column. "Who we are, how we react to confrontation, what we value, how we attempt to intimidate, and how important it is for us to point blame," he wrote. "Even for the death of a gorilla we didn't know existed."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 05, 2016, with the headline 'Beastly behaviour on the Internet'. Print Edition | Subscribe