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 JohnsonHillicon Valley: Barr asks Apple to unlock Pensacola shooter's phone | Tech industry rallies behind Google in Supreme Court fight | Congress struggles to set rules for cyber warfare with Iran | Blog site Boing Boing hacked Congress struggles on rules for cyber warfare with Iran Senators set for briefing on cyber threats from Iran 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: Biden calls for revoking tech legal shield | DHS chief 'fully expects' Russia to try to interfere in 2020 | Smaller companies testify against Big Tech 'monopoly power' Michigan governor urges Zuckerberg to enforce community guidelines after hate speech, threats surface Smaller companies testify against Big Tech's 'monopoly power' 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 WarrenSanders to headline Iowa event amid impeachment trial Hill.TV's Saagar Enjeti rips Sanders over handling of feud with Warren On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Sanders defends vote against USMCA | China sees weakest growth in 29 years | Warren praises IRS move on student loans MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders to headline Iowa event amid impeachment trial Hill.TV's Saagar Enjeti rips Sanders over handling of feud with Warren On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Sanders defends vote against USMCA | China sees weakest growth in 29 years | Warren praises IRS move on student loans 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 TrumpNational Archives says it altered Trump signs, other messages in Women's March photo Dems plan marathon prep for Senate trial, wary of Trump trying to 'game' the process Democratic lawmaker dismisses GOP lawsuit threat: 'Take your letter and shove it' 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 CruzSenate GOP mulls speeding up Trump impeachment trial The Hill's Morning Report — President Trump on trial GOP threatens to weaponize impeachment witnesses amid standoff 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 ScaliseTrump welcomes LSU to the White House: 'Go Tigers' Republicans criticize Pelosi for gifting pens used to sign impeachment articles The Hill's Morning Report - Impeachment trial a week away; debate night MORE and several other GOP members of Congress, I get recommended tweets from Ted DeutchTheodore (Ted) Eliot DeutchBipartisan lawmakers condemn Iran, dispute State Department on number of protesters killed Bipartisan lawmakers introduce amendment affirming US commitment to military aid to Israel Ethics sends memo to lawmakers on SCIF etiquette MORE ... Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseSanders defends vote against USMCA: 'Not a single damn mention' of climate change The Hill's Morning Report — President Trump on trial Overnight Energy: Schumer votes against USMCA, citing climate impact | Republicans offer details on their environmental proposals | Microsoft aims to be carbon negative by 2030 MORE ... Steve CohenStephen (Steve) Ira Cohen2019 in Photos: 35 pictures in politics Gabbard under fire for 'present' vote on impeachment Gabbard votes 'present' on impeaching Trump MORE ... Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerSanders defends vote against USMCA: 'Not a single damn mention' of climate change Schumer votes against USMCA, citing climate implications Senators are politicians, not jurors — they should act like it MORE ... and Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyDemocrats request briefing on intel behind Trump's embassy threat claim US citizen dies in Egyptian prison after hunger strike President Trump's strike of choice MORE?" Cruz posted, along with Twitter screenshots.

"Could be they are all members of Congress?" Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzOvernight Defense: Book says Trump called military leaders 'dopes and babies' | House reinvites Pompeo for Iran hearing | Dems urge Esper to reject border wall funding request Senate Dems urge Esper to oppose shifting Pentagon money to border wall Sanders defends vote against USMCA: 'Not a single damn mention' of climate change 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.