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With trending feed update, Facebook grapples with its role as a news source

Facebook Inc.'s latest revamp of its "trending" topics feed, one of a slew of updates the company has made in recent months as it grapples with its growing role as an information source, attempts to combat the spread of fake news.

The company announced Jan. 25 that the trending feed will now focus on stories that have been covered by a large number of publishers, a move intended to help stop the social media platform from being used to spread false or hoax stories.

Going forward, Facebook's trending feed will also show the same topics to every user in a particular region, the company said in a blog post. That marks a departure from previous iterations of the feed that aimed to personalize topics based on a user's interests. The move follows a controversy over the proliferation of fake news on Facebook and other social media sites.

The company repeatedly overhauled its trending topics feed in the past year after reports that the site's human moderators may have suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers. Facebook denied suppressing news stories, either through the actions of human moderators or the feed's algorithm, eventually releasing its editorial guidelines in May 2016.

One of the newly announced updates is a return of news headlines to accompany trending stories on the feed. The company had scrapped the headlines entirely in August 2016, when it also fired a team of human moderators who had overseen the feed, The Guardian reported. Now, headlines will be sourced from news publishers.

A particular concern with news on Facebook is how the site's algorithm filters stories, limiting the number of stories that users see that don't reflect their own ideological perspectives in what some have called a "filter bubble." Facebook itself has disputed that conclusion. The company earlier pointed to a 2015 study in the journal Science that found individual choice, rather than the site's algorithm, played a larger role in users' exposure to so-called "cross-cutting content" that varies from their own views.

"Despite the differences in what individuals consume across ideological lines, our work suggests that individuals are exposed to more cross-cutting discourse in social media than they would under the digital reality envisioned by some," the authors wrote.

But the study of 10.1 million Facebook users who had identified their political affiliation on the site prompted controversy. Christian Sandvig, professor at the University of Michigan who has studied the site's algorithm, referred to as the "'it's not our fault' study."

"There is no scenario in which 'user choices' vs. 'the algorithm' can be traded off, because they happen together," he wrote in a May 2015 blog post. "Users select from what the algorithm already filtered for them. It is a sequence."

The company's trending topics overhaul also comes as Facebook has announced a slew of journalism-focused initiatives amid a larger discussion of its role as a news source.

In November 2016, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that the small number of fake news stories on the site, which he said came from a variety of political perspectives "makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other."

Facebook began a partnership Dec. 15, 2016, with several independent fact-checking groups to curb the proliferation of fake news, including The Associated Press and Politifact.

In January, the company appointed former NBC and CNN anchor Campbell Brown as a news partnerships manager and unveiled the Facebook Journalism Project, which aims to "establish stronger ties between Facebook and the news industry."

Zuckerberg argued in a December 2016 video interview with COO Sheryl Sandberg that Facebook was not a "traditional media company," since it doesn't write the news that appears on its platform. But, he added that the site "does a lot more than just distribute news, and we're an important part of the public discourse."