A massive social media protest is exploding on Facebook, not Twitter for a change, yet Facebook’s dehumanized Trending system is failing to pick it up. People around the country are checking in to Facebook at the Standing Rock Native American Reservation in an effort to supposedly hinder local Morton County police from targeting protesters there in person to fight an oil pipeline through historic tribal lands.
The Morton County’s sheriff has denied using Facebook for surveillance. Still, the social media protest has proceeded to bring concerns about the environmental and cultural impact of the pipeline to national attention.
The New York Times went as far to publish a story headlined “Why Your Facebook Friends Are Checking In To Standing Rock”. Yet “Standing Rock”, “Native Americans”, “pipeline”, “Missouri River”, and related terms aren’t showing up as Facebook Trends to any users. They’re not even in the “Emerging Trends” that Facebook internally surfaces trends from, which can be seen through Facebook’s data tool for journalists called Signal.
[Update: Just as we published, terms related to the Standing Rock protest appeared in Signal. The topic still isn’t a Facebook Trend visible to the social network’s users, but is now eligible to Trend in the future.]
That’s despite Facebook’s own search tool showing “Standing Rock Indian Reservation” is a popular search with over 86,000 people talking about it. But you’d only know that if you search for it. Standing rock and related terms have much more chatter than other topics Facebook shows as Trending, such as actor Bryan Cranston saying he’ll move to Canada if Trump is elected.
The failure the identify a huge, viral protest that’s built off of Facebook’s own location check-in feature shows how badly Facebook needs to overhaul Trends. Facebook also failed to surface any trends related to the police shooting of Terence Crutcher until over a day after the news became a topic of national discussion.
Facebook continues to deny it’s a media company, repeatedly labeling itself a technology platform. While that argument may have been bolstered by its decision to fire all its human Trend curators, that move has given way to multiple instances of glaring errors in Facebook’s Trends. It’s highlighted fake news several times that a human curator could have easily debunked, while omitting critically important news stories surrounding human rights issues like the Standing Rock protest.
Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg and CPO Chris Cox again reiterated this month that Facebook is a tech company, not a media company, but admitted it has responsibilities to its readers since it’s become such a prolific distribution channel for news. Ensuring the day’s most important protests aren’t hidden behind frivolous celebrity dreck should be one of those responsibilities.