Facebook continues to address allegations that its editors showed political bias by keeping right-wing topics out of its Trending Topics section. On May 23, Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch responded to questions from U.S. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune and published a blog post about the letter.
Stretch reiterated sentiments shared by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg—namely, that Facebook has protocols in place to prevent bias, and that suppressing views actually would hurt its business model.
“Suppressing political content or preventing people from seeing what matters most to them is directly contrary to our mission and our business objectives and the allegations troubled us deeply,” wrote Stretch. “We are proud of the platform and community we have created, and it is important to us that Facebook continues to be a platform for all ideas.”
But Stretch also made a point that has largely been left out of the conversations over whether Facebook exercised a political agenda: Analytics offer evidence.
“Our data analysis indicated that conservative and liberal topics are approved as trending topics at virtually identical rates. … In fact, we confirmed that most of the subjects mentioned in media reports were included as trending topics on multiple occasions,” Stretch wrote in his post.
In his letter to Thune, he further explained that the analysis looked at 3,000 reviewer decisions and found liberal and conservative topics accepted at “virtually identical” rates. The only clear trend was a higher rate of boosting moderate topics, “popular across the political spectrum.”
Still, he noted, Facebook has made several changes to its Trending Topics. These include updating the terminology in its Guidelines to make them more clear (Facebook publicly released its 28-page Guidelines May 12, as evidence of its efforts to safeguard against bias); refreshing its training for all reviewers, with an emphasis on content decisions; and new controls and oversights for the review team, including “robust escalation procedures.”
Following a May 9 Gizmodo article in which anonymous former Facebook workers described a suppression of stories from conservative news outlets, Thune wrote to Zuckerberg May 10 with a list of five, multipart questions—including a request for a description of Facebook’s organizational structure for Trending Topics and how the company conducts audits of whether its guidelines are being complied with—and asked for a response by May 24.
“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, Facebook’s assertion that it maintains a ‘platform for people and perspectives from across the political spectrum’ misleads the public,” wrote Thune.
Following the allegations, Zuckerberg also made a point of hosting more than a dozen political conservatives for a meeting on the Facebook campus.
Among those present was CNN commentator S.E. Cupp, who later told a CNN colleague on the air, “It really was an open and honest dialogue. Mark and the Facebook team did less of the talking than we did. We shared our concerns. We asked questions. They were forthright in their answers, and we talked about ways that we could … work together as conservatives and Silicon Valley in the future.”
Stretch concluded his letter to Thune by writing, “We want people to feel confident that our community welcomes all viewpoints and we are committed to designing our products to give all people a voice and foster the free flow of ideas and culture.”