Thune Seeks Answers from Facebook on Political Manipulation Allegations

“Facebook must answer these serious allegations and hold those responsible to account if there has been political bias in the dissemination of trending news”

May 10, 2016

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, today asked Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to answer questions following reports that company employees actively suppressed news stories on topics of interest to politically conservative users of the social media platform.

“Facebook must answer these serious allegations and hold those responsible to account if there has been political bias in the dissemination of trending news,” said Thune on sending the 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.”

On May 9, a story in Gizmodo reported allegations by several former unnamed Facebook employees that the company routinely worked to suppress conservative viewpoints on the social network and artificially highlighted other news stories even when objective metrics did not indicate they were “trending.”

Thune’s letter asks Zuckerberg to provide answers to the following questions no later than May 24:

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.”

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.

The Senate Commerce Committee exercises legislative and oversight jurisdiction over issues related to Internet communications, consumer protection, and media issues. Click here for Thune’s full letter to Zuckerberg.