Senate GOP Demands Facebook Answer Questions Over News Curation Bias

Leah Barkoukis
|
Posted: May 11, 2016 8:55 AM
Senate GOP Demands Facebook Answer Questions Over News Curation Bias

The Senate GOP wants Facebook to answer some questions after allegations by an unnamed former news curator that the curation team routinely suppressed trending conservative news, or blacklisted topics altogether.

In case you missed the original Gizmodo report:

This individual says that workers prevented stories about the right-wing CPAC gathering, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, and other conservative topics from appearing in the highly-influential section, even though they were organically trending among the site’s users.

Several former Facebook “news curators,” as they were known internally, also told Gizmodo that they were instructed to artificially “inject” selected stories into the trending news module, even if they weren’t popular enough to warrant inclusion—or in some cases weren’t trending at all. The former curators, all of whom worked as contractors, also said they were directed not to include news about Facebook itself in the trending module.

In other words, Facebook’s news section operates like a traditional newsroom, reflecting the biases of its workers and the institutional imperatives of the corporation. Imposing human editorial values onto the lists of topics an algorithm spits out is by no means a bad thing—but it is in stark contrast to the company’s claims that the trending module simply lists “topics that have recently become popular on Facebook.”

Now, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee would like Mark Zuckerberg to “arrange for your staff including employees responsible for trending topics to brief committee staff on this issue.”

Sen. John Thune, chairman of the committee, specifically noted the importance of Facebook as a news source for Americans and people worldwide. Thus, Facebook has a significant influence on people’s perception of current events and political perspectives.

“If Facebook presents its Trending Topics section as the result of a neutral, objective algorithm, but it is in fact subjective and filtered to support or suppress particular political viewpoints,” Thune writes, “Facebook’s assertion that it maintains a “platform for people and perspectives from across the political spectrum” misleads the public.”  

Some of the questions the committee would like answered include:

1) Please describe Facebook’s organization 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 ver 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.

Facebook responded in a statement on Tuesday, saying it takes the allegations seriously and “looks forward to addressing [Sen. Thune’s] questions.”