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Senate committee asks Facebook to answer questions about its Trending Topics

TechCrunch TechCrunch 10/05/2016 Kate Conger

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 North 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.

“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.”

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