Originally published: May 10, 2016
Last updated: May 10, 2016 - 4:17pm
Facebook considers itself an open marketplace of ideas. It also strives to give users what it thinks they want. The tension between those goals burst into view amid new questions about the social network’s role in the spread of news.
Gizmodo, citing anonymous former Facebook contract workers, reported that Facebook “news curators” manipulated its trending stories feature by suppressing conservative viewpoints and injecting news stories that weren’t popular. The allegations sparked criticism from Republicans and conservatives that the social network is politically biased. The Facebook executive in charge of the feature said that the company had “found no evidence that the anonymous allegations are true.” The executive, Tom Stocky, said Facebook has “rigorous guidelines in place” to ensure neutrality that “do not permit the suppression of political perspectives.” Stocky acknowledged that human editors curate the trending stories feature, but he said its technology prohibits those curators from discriminating against certain sources; he didn’t describe the technology. He said the curators work to weed out hoaxes and other “junk” stories.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-SD) sent a letter to Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg asking, “Facebook must answer these serious allegations and hold those responsible to account if there has been political bias in the dissemination of trending news. Any attempt by a neutral and inclusive social media platform to censor or manipulate political discussion is an abuse of trust and inconsistent with the values of an open Internet.” Chairman Thune asked for a response by May 24 to the following:
1) Please describe Facebook’s organizational structure for the Trending Topics feature, and the steps for determining included topics. Who is ultimately responsible for approving its content?
2) Have Facebook news curators in fact manipulated the content of the Trending Topics section, either by targeting news stories related to conservative views for exclusion or by injecting non-trending content?
3) What steps is Facebook taking to investigate claims of politically motivated manipulation of news stories in the Trending Topics section? If such claims are substantiated, what steps will Facebook take to hold the responsible individuals accountable?
4) In a statement responding to the allegations, Facebook has claimed to have “rigorous guidelines in place for the review team” to prevent “the suppression of political perspectives” or the “prioritization of one viewpoint over another or one news outlet over another.”
a. When did Facebook first introduce these guidelines?
b. Please provide a copy of these guidelines, as well as any changes or amendments since January 2014.
c. Does Facebook provide training for its employees related to these guidelines? If so, describe what the training consists of, as well as its frequency.
d. How does Facebook determine compliance with these guidelines? Does it conduct audits? If so, how often? What steps are taken when a violation occurs?
5) Does Facebook maintain a record of curators’ decisions to inject a story into the Trending Topics section or target a story for removal? If such a record is not maintained, can such decisions be reconstructed or determined based on an analysis of the Trending Topics product?
a. If so, how many stories have curators excluded that represented conservative viewpoints or topics of interest to conservatives? How many stories did curators inject that were not, in fact, trending?
b. Please provide a list of all news stories removed from or injected into the Trending Topics section since January 2014.
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