GOP senator presses Instagram, Facebook over alleged bias in content recommendations

GOP senator presses Instagram, Facebook over alleged bias in content recommendations
© Stefani Reynolds

Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonSondland could provide more clues on Ukraine controversy 10 top Republicans who continue to deny the undeniable GOP braces for impeachment brawl MORE (R-Wis.) on Monday pressed the heads of Instagram and Facebook over how their platforms recommend content to users, alleging, based on anecdotal evidence, that their algorithms may be biased against conservatives.

Johnson, in a letter to Instagram head Adam Mosseri and Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergHillicon Valley: FCC approves T-Mobile-Sprint merger | Dems wrangle over breaking up Big Tech at debate | Critics pounce as Facebook's Libra stumbles | Zuckerberg to be interviewed by Fox News | Twitter details rules for political figures' tweets Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg to be interviewed on Fox News On The Money: Tax, loan documents for Trump properties reportedly showed inconsistencies | Tensions flare as Dems hammer Trump consumer chief | Critics pounce as Facebook crypto project stumbles MORE, questioned whether there are "human-driven bias within algorithms" used by the social media company.

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"Policymakers and the American public deserve to understand the facts behind the content and suggestions they are served on these internet platforms," the senator wrote.

The Wisconsin Republican said one of his staffers — a "conservative woman in her late 20s" — received a host of liberal-leaning recommendations from Instagram's "Suggestions for You" feature.

He also brought up the issue at a recent Senate Energy and Commerce hearing about "persuasive technology," or tech that social media companies deploy to change the attitudes or behaviors of its users.

According to screenshots, when Johnson's staffer followed political news organization Politico on Instagram, the platform recommended that she follow figures including Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenButtigieg tweeted support for 'Medicare for All' in 2018 Overnight Health Care — Presented by National Taxpayers Union — House Dems change drug pricing bill to address progressive concerns | Top Republican rejects Dem proposal on surprise medical bills | Vaping group launches Fox News ad blitz Hillicon Valley: FCC approves T-Mobile-Sprint merger | Dems wrangle over breaking up Big Tech at debate | Critics pounce as Facebook's Libra stumbles | Zuckerberg to be interviewed by Fox News | Twitter details rules for political figures' tweets MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight Health Care — Presented by National Taxpayers Union — House Dems change drug pricing bill to address progressive concerns | Top Republican rejects Dem proposal on surprise medical bills | Vaping group launches Fox News ad blitz Democrats have reason to worry after the last presidential debate Krystal Ball on Sanders debate performance: 'He absolutely hit it out of the park' MORE (I-Vt.) as well as news organizations such as the BBC and Reuters.

A Facebook spokesperson confirmed the company has received the letter, offering an explanation of Instagram's "Suggested for You" feature. Facebook owns the Instagram platform.

"When you follow an account on Instagram, we show you additional accounts you may be interested in following as well in a feature called 'Suggested for You,' " the spokesperson said in an email to The Hill. "To decide which accounts to show in 'Suggested For You,' we look at signals like who else follows the account you just followed, and then suggest other accounts that those people also follow." 

"We do this to help our community discover relevant accounts," they added.

Johnson in the letter pointed to a recent Pew study that found Americans have "broad concerns over the fairness and effectiveness of computer programs making important decisions in people's lives."

"As we become aware of the society-wide significance of this influence, the lack of transparency regarding human bias and the use of algorithms and artificial intelligence is troubling," he wrote. "As a result, policymakers and the American public deserve to understand the facts behind the content and suggestions they are served on these Internet platforms."

Johnson is requesting a staff briefing on the issue by July 10, as well as answers to six specific questions about how Instagram and Facebook's algorithms work.

Top GOP lawmakers, including President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP congressman slams Trump over report that U.S. bombed former anti-ISIS coalition headquarters US to restore 'targeted assistance' to Central American countries after migration deal Trump says lawmakers should censure Schiff MORE, have long raised concerns that social media companies like Facebook and Twitter routinely censor right-wing voices. But the companies have pushed back aggressively against those allegations, saying there is no evidence to substantiate claims of bias.

Several Democratic senators piled on to Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzThe Hill's Morning Report - Dem debate contenders take aim at Warren The Hill's Morning Report - Trump grapples with Turkey controversy This week: Congress returns to chaotic Washington MORE (R-Texas) when he implied last month that Twitter's recommendation algorithms were biased against conservatives because Twitter suggested that he follow several Democrats.

"Because I follow Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseSchiff says committees will eventually make impeachment inquiry transcripts public Kinzinger challenges Trump's defense chief on Syria in closed-door meeting House Republicans expected to force vote on revised Schiff censure MORE and several other GOP members of Congress, I get recommended tweets from Ted DeutchTheodore (Ted) Eliot DeutchBacklash erupts at video depicting Trump killing media, critics House Ethics Committee reviewing two GOP lawmakers over campaign finance House Ethics panel reviewing Tlaib over campaign salary MORE ... Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseDemocrats urge Rick Perry not to roll back lightbulb efficiency rules Trump DOJ under fire over automaker probe The Hill's Morning Report - Trump eyes narrowly focused response to Iran attacks MORE ... Steve CohenStephen (Steve) Ira CohenThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump eyes narrowly focused response to Iran attacks Lewandowski, Democrats tangle at testy hearing Trump probes threaten to overshadow Democrats' agenda MORE ... Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerPelosi fires back after Trump 'meltdown': 'We have to pray for his health' 5 big wins in US-China trade pact Trump defends 'crime buster' Giuliani amid reported probe MORE ... and Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyBacklash erupts at video depicting Trump killing media, critics Congress set for showdown with Trump over Kurds Administration to give 'top secret' briefing on Syria amid pushback MORE?" Cruz posted, along with Twitter screenshots.

"Could be they are all members of Congress?" Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzSchumer seeks focus on health care amid impeachment fever CNN catches heat for asking candidates about Ellen, Bush friendship at debate NBA draws bipartisan backlash over China response MORE (D-Hawaii), a vocal tech critic, replied.

"I think, no snark, it’s just 'you like following politicians, here are some more politicians,' " he added.