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GOP sinks teeth into Facebook bias allegations

GOP sinks teeth into Facebook bias allegations
© Greg Nash

Allegations of political bias at Facebook exploded into national view on Tuesday as a Senate chairman pressed the company on whether conservative content is suppressed on the site.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneMcConnell sidesteps Trump calling him 'dumb son of a b----' Democrats face mounting hurdles to agenda The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Tax March - Congress returns; infrastructure takes center stage MORE (R-S.D.) sent a letter asking Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to address the “serious allegations” that conservative content has been excluded from the site’s “Trending Topics” section.

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“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,” Thune said in a statement.

The controversy arose from a report on the website Gizmodo. Quoting a former Facebook worker, it alleged that Facebook has routinely omitted conservative topics and media reports from the Trending section of its site.

Facebook vehemently denies the charge, with an executive stating flatly on Tuesday that the company has “found no evidence that the anonymous allegations are true.”

“Facebook does not allow or advise our reviewers to systematically discriminate against sources of any ideological origin and we’ve designed our tools to make that technically not feasible,” said Tom Stocky, vice president for search at the social network, in a post. “At the same time, our reviewers’ actions are logged and reviewed, and violating our guidelines is a fireable offense.”

The charges of bias are a serious threat to Facebook, which has long touted its platform as a neutral space where people can engage in politics by “liking” candidates, sharing articles and contributing comments.

Any perception that Facebook favors one political party could do lasting damage to its brand and its business — particularly in a year when passions are running high due to the presidential campaigns of Republican Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump: McConnell 'helpless' to stop Biden from packing court Romney on NRSC awarding Trump: Not 'my preference' McConnell sidesteps Trump calling him 'dumb son of a b----' MORE and Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHow Democrats can defy the odds in 2022 Close the avenues of foreign meddling Pelosi planned on retiring until Trump won election: report MORE.

Facebook scrambled to get ahead of the issue on Tuesday, with an aide to the House Energy and Commerce Committee saying the company would provide a briefing on issues related to the allegations.

And in a statement issued Tuesday afternoon, a Facebook spokesperson stressed that the company was “continuing to investigate” whether Trending “curators” had violated guidelines designed to guard against partisan politics.

“As we investigate, we will also keep reviewing our operational practices around Trending Topics — and if we find they are inadequate, we will take immediate steps to fix them,” the spokesperson said. “We have received Sen. Thune’s request for more information about how Trending Topics works, and look forward to addressing his questions.”

The controversy has highlighted the growing centrality of Facebook to the political process, with both parties relying on the site’s massive user base to court voters and raise money.

Facebook’s Trending section, which displays in the upper right corner of users’ News Feeds in full-size browsers, tends to drive web traffic to stories it features. It is produced by a group of curators who work from a list of stories that are popular on Facebook, as determined by an algorithm. 

“All news organizations, they have editorial filters, I think, that they use, and individual reporters obviously do as well. But when you’ve got an organization that’s predicated upon and conveys to the American public that ‘we use an objective algorithm when it comes to determining what our trending topics are going to be,’ we expect that to be followed,” Thune told reporters. “Otherwise it would be misleading to the American people.”

“Part of the jurisdiction of our committee is consumer protection, so we think it’s a perfectly legitimate line of inquiry. We’re not suggesting anything untoward on their part, we’re just simply responding to some media reports and asking them to clarify what their policy is and whether or not they’ve been following it.”

Democrats in Washington downplayed the controversy.

The White House said it was “pleased” by Facebook’s response, and an aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidWhite House races clock to beat GOP attacks Harry Reid reacts to Boehner book excerpt: 'We didn't mince words' The Memo: Biden seeks a secret weapon — GOP voters MORE (D-Nev.) accused the GOP of ignoring pressing legislative business.

“The Republican Senate refuses to hold hearings on Judge [Merrick] Garland, refuses to fund the President’s request for Zika aid and takes the most days off of any Senate since 1956, but thinks Facebook hearings are a matter of urgent national interest,” said Adam Jentleson, an aide to Reid, in a statement.

Questions about Facebook’s political leanings have been building in recent months. 

Zuckerberg, a prominent advocate of immigration reform legislation, last month criticized “fearful voices calling for building walls” in what was seen as a clear shot at Trump. A Gizmodo report subsequently said a Facebook employee had tried to pose a question to Zuckerberg asking what the company should do to stop Trump’s candidacy.

It all comes as Facebook tries to build relationships on both sides of the aisle to advance its policy goals and get a share of the estimated billion dollars that will be spent on online political advertising in this election cycle.

The company has sponsored lounges at the presidential debates and will be sponsoring both the Republican and Democratic national conventions this summer. It also has a team dedicated to selling ad products to political campaigns up and down the ballot.