Senate committee asks Facebook to answer questions about its Trending Topics

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The Senate Commerce Committee sent a letter to Mark Zuckerberg asking him to answer questions about Facebook’s Trending Topics feature. Trending Topics displays trending news headlines and story summaries in a sidebar next to the main news feed, and a former contractor who worked on Trending Topics has alleged that conservative news topics and outlets were often blocked from appearing.

The allegations, first reported by Gizmodo, have fueled speculation about suppression of conservative media on social platforms. The letter from the Senate Commerce Committee asks Zuckerberg to make Trending Topics staffers available to answer questions about how the feature works, including:

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’s Tom Stocky, who manages the Trending Topics team, responded to the concerns about censorship of conservative news items in a Facebook post. Stocky said that he has found no evidence that anyone on his team suppressed conservative stories.

“Facebook is a platform for people and perspectives from across the political spectrum. There are rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality. These guidelines do not permit the suppression of political perspectives. Nor do they permit the prioritization of one viewpoint over another or one news outlet over another,” Stocky wrote. He said that his team would continue to work to make the Trending Topics politically neutral.

The Senate Commerce Committee is tasked with consumer protection, and its interest in Facebook’s news project is likely tied to that concern. However, the committee’s letter to Zuckerberg probably has some political motivation behind it — the letter is signed by Senator John Thune, a Republican leader from South Dakota. If Facebook contractors did in fact block conservative news, it makes sense that conservative political leaders aren’t going to be happy about it.

Somewhat surprisingly, Thune’s push to investigate Trending Topics is an about-face from his previous stance on online content.

In 2009, Thune advocated against federal interference with news and opinion online when he opposed the reintroduction of the Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine was ended in 1985, but, had it been reinstated in 2009, it would have required broadcasters to include contrasting views in political coverage. Basically, the Fairness Doctrine would have forced broadcasters to represent liberal and conservative viewpoints on every issue — if it was in place today, it might have required Facebook to give equal play to conservative and liberal stories in Trending Topics.

But Thune opposed the reintroduction of the Fairness Doctrine on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment.

“I believe it is dangerous for Congress and federal regulators to wade into the public airwaves to determine what opinions should be expressed and what kind of speech is ‘fair,'” Thune wrote in an op-ed opposing the Fairness Doctrine, adding, “People have the opportunity to seek out what radio programs they want to listen to, just as they have the freedom to read particular newspapers and magazines, watch particular news television programs, and increasingly, seek out news and opinion on the Internet.”

If Thune applied the same argument to Facebook today, he might say that Facebook is allowed to stifle conservative news outlets in favor of more liberal ones. After all, he put the onus on readers to seek out the kind of content they want to read, rather than on broadcasters to present both sides of a political argument.

However, Thune appears to have changed his mind. “Facebook must answer these serious allegations and hold those responsible to account if there has been political bias in the dissemination of trending news,” Thune said in a statement announcing his letter. “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.”

This story was updated at 2:30 p.m. ET with additional details about Thune’s Fairness Doctrine advocacy.