Facebook is scrambling to contain the fallout from allegations that it has suppressed right-leaning political content on its powerful platform — a charge that hits at the social network’s image of neutrality.
CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg promised Thursday to meet with top conservatives about the allegations, a sign of how damaging any perception of political bias could be to the company.
“In the coming weeks, I'll also be inviting leading conservatives and people from across the political spectrum to talk with me about this and share their points of view.”
Facebook’s problems intensified when unnamed former workers for its "trending" topics section told tech news website Gizmodo this week that colleagues had routinely omitted topics and news sources popular with conservatives.
This came after a separate report that said Facebook employees had raised internal questions about whether the company should be doing anything to stop the rise of presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMoving the point of obligation is the latest misguided ploy to undermine the RFS 'Morning Joe' co-host: We got into Trump's head Matt Schlapp: 5 lessons Trump, Ryan must learn from healthcare debate MORE. Zuckerberg had also appeared to criticize Trump's hard-line stance on immigration at a conference in April.
Sen. John ThuneJohn ThuneOptimism rising for infrastructure deal McConnell: ObamaCare 'status quo' will stay in place moving forward This week: GOP picks up the pieces after healthcare defeat MORE (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has demanded answers about whether Facebook employees have manipulated the presentation of political content.
The controversy is a crisis for a company that portrays itself as a neutral platform for political debate.
“The reason I care so much about this is that it gets to the core of everything Facebook is and everything I want it to be,” Zuckerberg said in his statement.
The "trending" title itself suggests that users coming to Facebook are seeing news stories and subjects currently popular with other users, not that they are picked by people with inherent biases.
“To the extent that they position themselves as an impartial player at that infrastructural level with candidates and voters, any allegation of bias is explosive and, I think, undermines a lot of the ways that they’ve been positioning themselves more generally,” said Daniel Kreiss, an assistant professor at the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina.
The allegations also threaten Facebook’s bottom line.
“You don’t want to alienate half your customers, and if you were to declare an allegiance independent of the reader to whom you are supposed to be tailoring a feed, I think that could really hurt your business,” said Jonathan Zittrain, faculty director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.
Facebook has worked hard to do damage control, releasing documents and information about how trending topics are selected, an uncommon act of openness for a company that holds its cards close to the vest.
The company has committed to briefing the House Energy and Commerce Committee, according to an aide to the panel. The company said that it was looking “forward to addressing” questions posed by Thune.
Facebook has acknowledged that "curators" work on the trending topics team with a set of guidelines to determine what people see, but it argues politics does not play a role.
“The guidelines demonstrate that we have a series of checks and balances in place to help surface the most important popular stories, regardless of where they fall on the ideological spectrum,” Justin Osofsky, the company’s vice president of global operations, said in a statement. "Facebook does not allow or advise our reviewers to systematically discriminate against sources of any political origin, period.”
A story in the Guardian showed how human editors process a list of popular topics generated by an algorithm. Conservative websites Breitbart, RedState and the Drudge Report were on a list of RSS feeds purportedly used by Facebook’s system, according to a list released by Facebook.
Some Republicans say they don’t expect an epic fight on Capitol Hill over the issue.
A senior House aide said Republican lawmakers there were likely to have a measured response. Many have opposed regulations forcing broadcasters to offer contrasting points of view, and some conservatives see echoes of that debate in the Facebook controversy.
A spokesperson for the Republican National Committee, which blasted Facebook for its alleged behavior, did not respond to an email asking if the company had reached out to the party.
Still, one conservative operative indicated that the controversy was part of a growing skepticism about the neutrality of social media on the right.
“Conservatives distrust the traditional mainstream media,” wrote Vincent Harris, a digital consultant who has worked for Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulTrump: 'No doubt' we'll make a deal on healthcare Overnight Defense: General says US strike probably led to civilian deaths | Tillerson to push NATO on spending | Trump taps F-35 chief Senate backs Montenegro's NATO membership MORE (R-Ky.) and Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzFiorina calls for special prosecutor for Russia probe Lee: Nuclear option justified after Dems used it in 2013 Texas Democrat to challenge Cruz: report MORE (R-Texas), in a post on Medium on Thursday. “Online content sharing was to be the apex of free speech.”
“Online would be where our long-held, silent majority opinions would finally have an outlet! ... or, so we thought.”
This story was updated at 11:42 a.m. on Saturday, May 14.