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 JohnsonGOP senators call for Barr to release full results of Epstein investigation FBI Agents Association calls on Congress to make 'domestic terrorism' a federal crime Senators renew request for domestic threats documents from FBI, DOJ after shootings 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 ZuckerbergFacebook users in lawsuit say company failed to warn them of known risks before 2018 breach Social media never intended to be in the news business — but just wait till AI takes over Facebook exploring deals with media outlets for news section: report 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 WarrenPossible GOP challenger says Trump doesn't doesn't deserve reelection, but would vote for him over Democrat Joe Biden faces an uncertain path The Memo: Trump pushes back amid signs of economic slowdown MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersJoe Biden faces an uncertain path Bernie Sanders vows to go to 'war with white nationalism and racism' as president Biden: 'There's an awful lot of really good Republicans out there' 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 TrumpO'Rourke: Trump driving global, U.S. economy into recession Manchin: Trump has 'golden opportunity' on gun reforms Objections to Trump's new immigration rule wildly exaggerated 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 CruzTrump moves forward with F-16 sale to Taiwan opposed by China The Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape O'Rourke says he will not 'in any scenario' run for Senate 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 ScaliseManchin: Trump has 'golden opportunity' on gun reforms Sunday shows - Trump's Epstein conspiracy theory retweet grabs spotlight Sanders: Trump doesn't 'want to see somebody get shot' but 'creates the climate for it' MORE and several other GOP members of Congress, I get recommended tweets from Ted DeutchTheodore (Ted) Eliot DeutchHouse Democrats urge Trump to end deportations of Iraqis after diabetic man's death House conservatives call for ethics probe into Joaquin Castro tweet Democratic leaders seek to have it both ways on impeachment MORE ... Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseSenate Democrats push Trump to permanently shutter migrant detention facility To cash in on innovation, remove market barriers for advanced energy technologies Democrats give cold shoulder to Warren wealth tax MORE ... Steve CohenStephen (Steve) Ira CohenHouse Democrats inch toward majority support for impeachment The Hill's Morning Report — Mueller Time: Dems, GOP ready questions for high-stakes testimony This week: Mueller dominates chaotic week on Capitol Hill MORE ... Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerLewandowski on potential NH Senate run: If I run, 'I'm going to win' Appropriators warn White House against clawing back foreign aid Colorado candidates vying to take on Gardner warn Hickenlooper they won't back down MORE ... and Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyOvernight Defense: US, Russia tensions grow over nuclear arms | Highlights from Esper's Asia trip | Trump strikes neutral tone on Hong Kong protests | General orders ethics review of special forces White House eyes September action plan for gun proposals Trump phoned Democratic senator to talk gun control MORE?" Cruz posted, along with Twitter screenshots.

"Could be they are all members of Congress?" Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel Schatz'Medicare for All' complicates Democrats' pitch to retake Senate Criminal justice reform should extend to student financial aid Booker, Durbin and Leahy introduce bill to ban death penalty 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.