Thune Statement on Facebook Response to Questions About “Trending Topics” Bias Allegations

May 23, 2016

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) released the following statement regarding Facebook Inc.’s response to his letter sent following a report of Facebook employees excluding news stories on conservative political topics from its highly visible “Trending Topics” section while favoring liberal topics. Sen. Thune met with Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch on May 18 to discuss these matters, in particular concerns that Facebook’s public descriptions about objective use of an algorithm to assemble its “Trending Topics” section could mislead users.
“Private companies are fully entitled to espouse their own views, so I appreciate Facebook’s efforts to address allegations of bias raised in the media and my concern about a lack of transparency in its methodology for determining trending topics. Facebook has been forthcoming about with how it determines trending topics, and steps it will take to minimize the risk of bias from individual human judgment. The seriousness with which Facebook has treated these allegations and its desire to serve as an open platform for all viewpoints is evident and encouraging and I look forward to the company’s actions meeting its public rhetoric.
“Facebook’s description of the methodology it uses for determining the trending content it highlights for users is far different from and more detailed than what it offered prior to our questions. We now know the system relied on human judgment, and not just an automated process, more than previously acknowledged.
“Facebook has recognized the limitations of efforts to keep information systems fully free from potential bias, which lends credibility to its findings. While the committee remains open to new information on this matter, transparency – not regulation – remains the goal, so I thank the company for its efforts to acknowledge relevant facts and its recognition of a continuing need to transparently address relevant user questions.”

Facebook Inc.’s general counsel Colin Stretch wrote today that the company’s two-week internal investigation “revealed no evidence of systematic political bias,” and outlined changes to protect the feature from potential misuse as part of a neutral platform going forward. The response, requested by Chairman Thune, did note that company guidance, prior to July 2015, may have in some instances led to the exclusion of popular topics because it “prevented or delayed acceptance of topics that were not covered by major news organizations,” and that the company could not “fully exclude the possibility that, over the years of the feature’s existence, a specific reviewer took isolated actions with an improper motive.”

Click here for Facebook’s response to the Commerce Committee.

Click here for Thune’s May 10 letter to Facebook.

The Senate Commerce Committee exercises legislative and oversight jurisdiction over issues related to Internet communications, consumer protection, and related issues.