Illustration via Max Fleishman (Licensed)
The controversy over how Facebook presents “trending” news to its more than 1.5 billion users reached the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, with the chairman of a key committee asking Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to explain his company’s practices.
Facebook is facing accusations of “routinely suppressing” news from conservative websites after Gizmodo reported that former trending-topics curators accused coworkers of having a liberal bias.
Former contract workers for the team told Gizmodo that they routinely “injected” stories onto the list “even if they weren’t popular enough to warrant inclusion,” while trending stories from right-leaning outlets were not included on the list.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, responded Tuesday by asking Zuckerberg to brief his committee on the issue.
“Social networks such as Facebook are an increasingly important source of news for many Americans and people around the world,” Thune wrote. If Facebook was manipulating its Trending Topics list to filter or suppress particular political viewpoints, he said, it would be misleading the public when it called itself a “platform for people and perspectives from across the political spectrum.”
Thune’s letter asks Zuckerberg a series of questions, including whether its news curators “manipulated” the trending-topics list with the goal of excluding conservative views.
Reporters were quick to question the source of Thune’s proclaimed “oversight authority” given that Facebook is a private entity, and observers also noted that Thune has criticized government regulation of media content in the past.
Facebook responded to Gizmodo's report by saying that its internal guidelines did not permit either the “suppression of political perspectives” or the “prioritization of one viewpoint over another or one news outlet over another.” The company also said its rules prohibited the exclusion of “any news outlet” from the trending-topics list.
While Facebook said there was “no evidence” to support Gizmodo's allegations, it did not promise that its curators had never disregarded its guidelines in the past.
A former curator with conservative views told Gizmodo that a liberal bias pervaded the trending list because many colleagues were former journalists and graduates of Ivy League schools. But that person also admitted that there was no evidence to suggest that the company's senior management had “mandated or was even aware of any political bias at work.”
According to Gizmodo, Facebook’s curators routinely down-ranked news items that came from major right-wing websites until their reporting had surfaced at mainstream outlets like the New York Times, the BBC, and CNN.