May 10, 2016 Last Updated 1:09 pm

Senate Commerce Committee demands answers from Facebook for content curation practices

Gizmodo story includes interviews with former Facebook curators who say stories from conservative news sources were routinely ignored or ‘blacklisted’

The reality of news dissemination today is that a large percentage of readers today get their news filtered through third party distributors such as Facebook, Apple or Google.

According to the Pew Research Center, 63 percent of Facebook and Twitter users said they get news on the social networks rather than more traditional media outlets.

So, when a former Facebook employed reportedly told the tech site Gizmodo that that those curating the news content for the social media property routinely promoted stories that did not reflect his own conservative views, it drew the attention of the chairman of Senate Commerce Committee, Sen. John Thune (R-SD) – and he wants to know if Facebook as a political bias against the Republicans, sending a letter to Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg with a series of questions.

“Depending on who was on shift, things would be blacklisted or trending,” a former curator for Facebook told Gizmodo. “I’d come on shift and I’d discover that CPAC or Mitt Romney or Glenn Beck or popular conservative topics wouldn’t be trending because either the curator didn’t recognize the news topic or it was like they had a bias against Ted Cruz.”

Facebook-trending“I believe it had a chilling effect on conservative news,” the former curator said.

The curator, according to Gizmodo, who allowed the former employee to remain anonymous, kept a list of topics that they believed such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker or the Drudge Report. But other former curators came to a different conclusion, believing that that the news was not curated to the disadvantage of those with a politically conservative point of view.

“We were told that if we saw something, a news story that was on the front page of these ten sites, like CNN, The New York Times, and BBC, then we could inject the topic,” a Facebook curator told Gizmodo.

That makes sense up to a certain point. Certainly if something is leading the news at major news outlets it likely should be trending on a social media site, too. But there is, of course, circular effect that goes on – a story on a major news outlet has more weight than another story elsewhere, leading to more traffic for those stories.

Then there is the question of the qualifications for these news curators – are they news professionals, or more likely lower paid, less experienced employees? Who manages them and monitors their decisions? Is there an editorial board made up of news professionals that can provide feedback and advice?


Tom Stocky, VP Search

At Facebook, the team is led by Tom Stocky, VP of Search, who previously worked at Google, and who denies that there is any bias in their guidelines.

“We take these reports extremely seriously, and have found no evidence that the anonymous allegations are true,” Stocky said, communicating through his own Facebook page.

“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. These guidelines do not prohibit any news outlet from appearing in Trending Topics,” Stocky said.

The Gizmodo story, though, reinforced widely held view on the right that the media has a liberal bias. So, Sen. Thune wants some answers from Facebook, sending a letter from the committee requesting that Zuckerberg provide answers to this series of questions:

  1. Please describe Facebook’s organizational 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 over another or one news outlet over another.”
    • When did Facebook first introduce these guidelines?
    • Please provide a copy of these guidelines, as well as any changes or amendments since January 2014.
    • Does Facebook provide training for its employees related to these guidelines? If so, describe what the training consists of, as well as its frequency.
    • 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?
    • 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?
    • Please provide a list of all news stories removed from or injected into the Trending Topics section since January 2014.

Many of these questions are good ones, and should have been asked by the publishing industry itself. But, at least in the U.S., the industry trade associations have either lost all credibility, have been fearful of confronting the large tech companies despite their tremendous influence on the success of the member media companies, or have simply faded away or merged with other trade associations and have basically become for-profit event companies.

The result is that the publishing industry has few direct contacts with the big tech firms, and what contacts there are end up being one-way – that is, if a big consumer electronics company like Apple wants to talk to you they will let you know, otherwise they are unapproachable. And not accountable.

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