Facebook, Conservative Leaders Discussed Bias Accusations

Facebook hosted more than a dozen conservative newsmakers at its campus May 18 to discuss allegations that it suppresses conservative content.

Facebook, bias accusations

Facebook hosted more than a dozen leading conservatives at a meeting on its campus May 18, to foster conversation about its policies and practices, particularly concerning the content in its "Trending Topics" section.

"Trending Topics" is a small box on the right column of the site when it's viewed on a PC.

"We've built Facebook to be a platform for all ideas," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a May 18 Facebook update. "Our community's success depends on everyone feeling comfortable sharing anything they want. It doesn't make sense for our mission or our business to suppress political content or prevent anyone from seeing what matters most to them."

The meeting followed from a May 9 Gizmodo article that cited former Facebook staff members saying they had been instructed to suppress some stories from conservative news outlets, even when they were trending in Facebook's internal algorithms.

On May 12, Facebook posted the 28-page guidelines manual its editors use for the "Trending Topics" section.

Those in attendance included Dana Perino, a former White House press secretary under George W. Bush; Mary Katherine Ham, a former Fox News contributor; conservative writer and radio host Glenn Beck; and CNN commentator S.E. Cupp.

During an interview on CNN May 18, Cupp discussed the meeting, saying: "It really was an open and honest dialogue. … There was some speculation that this would be a photo opp, to put a Band-Aid on a PR problem, and that was just not the impression I got. … The idea that some points of view … would be suppressed is such an anathema to both Zuckerberg's personal philosophy and to the philosophy of the site—something that would be totally counterproductive to their business model.

"So, I didn't doubt the sincerity at all, at the meeting, when the Facebook team was telling us that this was something they were concerned about, knew was a problem, they're looking into it, they don't want it to happen again, and they're open to our suggestions on to how to prevent it and learn … how to prevent the general perception that there is a liberal bias both at Facebook and in Silicon Valley," Cupp said.

Zuckerberg, in his post, also nodded to the idea that, moral positioning aside, it would be simply bad business to operate on a political bias.

"The reality is, conservatives and Republicans have always been an important part of Facebook," Zuckerberg wrote. "Donald Trump has more fans on Facebook than any other presidential candidate. And Fox News drives more interactions on its Facebook page than any other news outlet in the world. It's not even close."

Facebook started out, in the early aughts, as a "hot or not" game for Harvard students—Zuckerberg wrote the code for the site when he was a sophomore—and it has continued to evolve. The idea that it should be a platform as unbiased and integrity-driven as any journalistic news outlet is a relatively new one. But it's the standard many now hold it to.

On May 10, U.S. Senator John Thune, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, wrote to Zuckerberg, in response to the Gizmodo allegations.

"Facebook must answer these serious allegations and hold those responsible to account if there has been political bias in the dissemination of trending news," said Thune. "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."

Thune further asked Zuckerberg to respond no later than May 24 to a series of questions, including: "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?" And, "What steps is Facebook taking to investigate claims of politically motivated manipulation of news stories in the Trending Topics section?"

Ezra Gottheil, principal analyst with Technology Business Research, wrote in an email response to an eWEEK query: "Oh, it's the outrage machine at work. I don't doubt that human editors have some biases and they may well reflect coastal liberalism, but it's not extreme.

"I suspect that they mostly edit extremists at both ends of the spectrum; that would be what Facebook wants to do. The fact that there's a congressional investigation virtually proves that this is a purely political move," Gottheil continued.