Facebook is facing criticism, after a Gizmodo report claimed that links to ‘conservative articles’ in the ‘Trending’ Topics Section were suppressed. While Facebook has denied all charges, a US Senator has demanded an explanation from the company.
Gizmodo, which spoke to the team that curated the trending topic, notes that the members usually ignored the more conservative news outlets in the US, and that they routinely stopped stories around conservative leaders from trending prominently in the section. The report indicated that the ‘trending section’ often reflected biases of those who were responsible for curating it. Here’s what has happened in the controversy so far.
Gizmodo report on Facebook’s Trending News Section
On May 3, Gizmodo first published a report offering an insight into how the trending section on Facebook works. The report says, it was managed by a bunch of former journalists, all in their 20s and 30s, who were deciding what would trend on the website. Trending is an important section for Facebook, which has recently become a mainstream platform for news source and sharing, both for readers and publishers.
The report hinted that the curators had some guidelines wherein they were avoiding conservative news outlets, and they also had powers to deactivate a topic from trending on the site. The report added that Facebook wanted to keep the team a secret, and the members weren’t allowed to put the organisation’s name on their resume.
Then on May 9, Gizmodo followed it up with another story which said that the team suppressed links to more conservative news reports and articles. This story quoted a former team member as saying, “I’d come on shift and I’d discover that CPAC or Mitt Romney or Glenn Beck or popular conservative topics wouldn’t be trending because either the curator didn’t recognise the news topic or it was like they had a bias against Ted Cruz.” The team member added, “I believe it had a chilling effect on conservative news.”
Gizmodo does notes that Facebook per se did not mandate that conservative articles or news reports should be suppressed, but the trends were artificially manipulated, meaning they represented the biases of the editor or curator in charge, and quite often it was not in favour of right-wing views.
US Senator takes note of Gizmodo report, calls for an explanation
A day after the report, the US Senate Republicans took note of the Gizmodo story and demanded an explanation from Facebook. In a letter to chairman and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, South Dakota Senator John Thune requested information on who at the company made the decisions on stories for Facebook’s Trending Topics feature, what training is provided to employees, whether the company is investigating, and what steps it will take to hold people accountable.
“If Facebook presents its Trending Topics section as a result of a neutral, objective algorithm, but it is in fact subjective and filtered to support or suppress particular political viewpoints, Facebook’s assertion that it maintains ‘a platform for people and perspectives from across the political spectrum’ misleads the public,” wrote Thune, who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. He asked for answers by May 24. Read more here.
Facebook denies charges, Zuckerberg issues statement
On May 13, Zuckerberg wrote on his Facebook wall addressing the issue of trending topics, denying all claims of an-inbuilt bias. “Facebook stands for giving everyone a voice. We believe the world is better when people from different backgrounds and with different ideas all have the power to share their thoughts and experiences. That’s what makes social media unique. We are one global community where anyone can share anything — from a loving photo of a mother and her baby to intellectual analysis of political events,” he wrote.
He also said that the social media site has “rigorous guidelines that do not permit the prioritization of one viewpoint over another or the suppression of political perspectives.” Zuckerberg said that they were taking the Gizmodo report very seriously and have launched an investigation to ensure the “integrity of this product,” is taken seriously.
According to the Facebook founder, the company has not found any evidence to support the claims made in the Gizmodo report. He also said that he will invite “leading conservatives and people from across the political spectrum” for a conversation.
“The reason I care so much about this is that it gets to the core of everything Facebook is and everything I want it to be. Every tool we build is designed to give more people a voice and bring our global community together. For as long as I’m leading this company this will always be our mission,” wrote Zuckerberg at the end of his statement. Read more here.
Facebook to meet conservative leaders
Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg will meet this week with prominent conservatives in the media to address allegations of political bias. Some 12 “conservative thought leaders” will join the meeting with Zuckerberg on Wednesday, a Facebook spokesman said. Among the invitees are media personality Glenn Beck, Fox News Channel’s “The Five” co-host Dana Perino and Zac Moffatt, co-founder of Targeted Victory, a technology company that aims to bring transparency to media buying.
For Facebook, which has emerged as a major news source for its 1.6 billion users, the report that it might be leaning in favour of a certain view-point is damaging. It raises questions on how the algorithms work on the social media platform, and whether there is any editorial bias on what content becomes ‘trending’, and whether the platform is truly neutral.
With agency inputs