Mark Zuckerberg and his massive social-media site Facebook have come under strong criticism for allegedly suppressing stories of interest for conservative readers from its influential "trending" news section. Facebook has roughly 1.6 billion users worldwide, 167 million of whom are in the United States. Its "trending" section is therefore a powerful political influence.
Zuckerberg has denied the charges, and he will meet Wednesday with a handful of conservatives to discuss allegations that Facebook's "news curators" have manipulated its list of stories. The way it works at Facebook is that this powerful group of curators, or editors, who have access to a ranked list of trending topics generated by the company's algorithms, control the content of the trending-news section. In effect, these curators exercise gatekeeping powers, which amount to political news-making powers that are transmitted to Facebook's massive audience. Even The New York Times published an article this week titled "Social media finds new role as news and entertainment curator."
The anti-conservative curating bias was first reported by the tech blog Gizmodo. After that, a number of conservative outlets chimed in that the social-media giant has suppressed conservative views and related stories. This triggered news reports by the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, The New York Times, and websites The Hill and Breitbart.
Among the conservatives slated to attend the Zuckerberg meeting are Glenn Beck, Dana Perino of Fox News, Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, senior Donald Trump campaign aide Barry Bennett and former Romney digital director Zac Moffatt.
How these folks were picked for the meeting is anyone's guess. And what exactly is expected to come out of this meeting is unclear. It seems more like a public-relations gambit by Zuckerberg, who previously said Facebook will investigate all the conservative charges.
Curiously, last March, Zuckerberg gave a speech at a Facebook conference where he blasted Donald Trump and his policies. Also curious, Hillary Clinton, by a wide margin, has received the bulk of political donations from Facebook employees in this election cycle.
According to Breitbart, data from the Federal Election Commission show that Facebook staff gave $114,000 to Hillary Clinton. The next-closest recipient of political money was former Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio. He only got $16,604.
Tom Stocky, the head of the trending-topics section at Facebook, maxed out with an individual donation of $2,700 to Hillary Clinton. The Hill website found that roughly 78 Facebook employees -- from engineering, communications, public policy, strategy, marketing, human resources and other areas -- donated to Clinton.
Meanwhile, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus has tweeted, "Facebook must answer for conservative censorship." Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who is chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, warned Facebook of the need for consumer protection and an open Internet, and according to The Wall Street Journal Thune has sent a letter to Zuckerberg asking how the company chooses its trending topics and who is ultimately responsible. There are also a number of academics who have called for full transparency in the Facebook news process.
Of course, Facebook is a private company, and therefore is entitled to whatever political biases it holds. But given its gigantic scope and its power over so many people, and considering the mounting influence of all the social-media outlets, this is a very serious story.
We'll see what comes out of Wednesday's meeting. But as the American proverb goes: Where there's smoke, there's fire.