Facebook said 53,000 people were talking about Terence Crutcher’s death by police, but instead it showed me Trends about Xbox, a Game Of Thrones actor, and New Jersey’s governor, even though they all had less chatter.[Update 3:45pm PT: As of rougly 2:45pm Pacific, “Tulsa Police Shooting” become a Trend on Facebook. But the fact that it took an entire day to appear, and four hours after TechCrunch published this story, demonstrates just how badly Facebook Trends needs to be rethought. This article has been revised.]
Facebook denies it’s a media company, and has tried to distance itself from editorial decision-making by firing all its human Trend curators. But its values and stance towards important social issues are coded into the algorithms and processes that surface trends, and they’re not doing the public justice.
Hopefully this incident will spur Facebook to re-examine how it chooses trends, the way the Ferguson protests inspired Jack Dorsey to get Twitter more involved with activism for worthy causes.
Yesterday Tulsa, Oklahoma police released disturbing video footage of Terence Crutcher’s death on September 16th. Crutcher’s SUV stalled on the freeway, but when police arrived, they drew their guns on him. With his hands up, he walked towards his car, and was then tazed and shot by police. Video shows officers backing away rather than providing medical aid, and Crutcher later died in the hospital.
Video footage from a helicopter and dashboard camera exploded on Facebook Monday thanks to its auto-play feature. The story became front-page news on sites like CNN and the New York Times. But many users didn’t see anything about Terence Crutcher in Facebook’s Top or Politics trends. Facebook has not responded to a request for comment.[Update 3:35pm PT: Facebook’s data collection tool for journalists called Signal showed that Terence Crutcher was not appearing as a trend for any users this morning, but is now in the non-public “Emerging Trends” list from which Facebook’s curators choose Trends to display, and “Tulsa Police Shooting” is now an official Trend.]
While Trends are personalized, users I talked to who work in social justice also aren’t seeing Crutcher listed, and searching for stories about the incident multiple times didn’t surface him in Trends.
That seems to go against Facebook’s VP of News Feed Adam Mosseri’s statement that “we have a responsibility to make sure that people are finding value with the time they spend with News Feed and Facebook” last week at TechCrunch Disrupt SF (video below).
When asked about the impact of removing the human description writers from Trends, Mosseri insisted “I think it’s better”. Humans still help Facebook avoid highlighting common words like #Lunch as a trend. But since the change, multiple fake stories, like 9/11 being an inside job, have slipped into Facebook’s Trends.
Anybody who read the newspaper or looked at the numbers today could tell that Terence Crutcher is a trend. But Facebook’s system can’t yet, and that omission is a defacto editorial decision.