Yesterday, a Gizmodo report alleged that Facebook’s human curators had been manipulating the trending news section to kill conservative stories — allegations that Facebook carefully didn’t deny in a blandly worded response. Now, the US Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees communications and the internet, has asked for real answers.
The Chairman of the committee, Senator John Thune (R) from South Dakota, signed the letter. In it, the Senator requests answers to a number of Gizmodo‘s allegations:
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?
The letter then goes on to call Facebook’s bluff in a rather spectacular fashion. This morning, VP of Search Tom Stocky took to Facebook to address the allegations, saying that Facebook had strict guidelines in place to prevent this kind of thing — and thereby implying that any wrongdoing was the fault of individual employees, and not Facebook policy. In his letter, Thune requests more details:
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?
It’s notable that this is a GOP-controlled committee asking the questions. Gizmodo‘s original report claimed that curators were using their control of the trending news topics to suppress more conservative stories and outlets, which is an obvious concern for Republicans. It’s also part of a larger narrative of Facebook favoring the left wing: last month, an internal poll of Facebook employees showed that some workers thought Facebook should be using its power to stop President Trump.
Either way, Facebook has until May 24th to respond to the Committee’s letter, and hopefully clear up this issue on the record.