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 JohnsonRemembering Tom Coburn's quiet persistence Coronavirus pushes GOP's Biden-Burisma probe to back burner GOP seeks up to 0 billion to maximize financial help to airlines, other impacted industries 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: Trump, telecom executives talk coronavirus response | Pelosi pushes funding for mail-in voting | New York AG wants probe into firing of Amazon worker | Marriott hit by another massive breach As misinformation surges, coronavirus poses AI challenge Zuckerberg, Gates team up to contribute M for research into coronavirus treatments MORE, questioned whether there are "human-driven bias within algorithms" used by the social media company.


"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 WarrenMomentum grows to change medical supply chain from China Why Gretchen Whitmer's stock is rising with Team Biden Democrats seize on Trump's firing of intelligence community watchdog MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersCampaigns face attack ad dilemma amid coronavirus crisis Cuomo's been good, but he's not going to be the Democratic nominee Does Joe Biden really want to be president? 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 TrumpCampaigns face attack ad dilemma amid coronavirus crisis Outgoing inspector general says Trump fired him for carrying out his 'legal obligations' Trump hits Illinois governor after criticism: 'I hear him complaining all the time' 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 CruzOvernight Energy: Oil giants meet with Trump at White House | Interior extends tenure of controversial land management chief | Oil prices tick up on hopes of Russia-Saudi deal Oil giants meet at White House amid talk of buying strategic reserves Florida sheriff asks for new leads in disappearance of Carole Baskin's former husband after Netflix's 'Tiger King' drops 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 ScaliseTop GOP lawmakers push back on need for special oversight committee for coronavirus aid Pelosi forms House committee to oversee coronavirus response Pelosi scrambles to secure quick passage of coronavirus aid MORE and several other GOP members of Congress, I get recommended tweets from Ted DeutchTheodore (Ted) Eliot DeutchOcasio-Cortez knocks Pence: 'Utterly irresponsible to put him in charge of US coronavirus response' Father of Parkland shooting victim calls on Congress to take action Florida 'red flag' law has removed hundreds of guns: report MORE ... Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseDemocratic senators call on domestic airlines to issue cash refunds for travelers Overnight Energy: Coronavirus package punts on environmental fights | Court sides with tribes in Dakota Access Pipeline case | Trump officials walk away from ethanol court fight Coronavirus package punts on environmental fights MORE ... Steve CohenStephen (Steve) Ira CohenMemphis congressman asks Tennessee, neighboring states to issue shelter-in-place orders Centrist Democrats insist Sanders would need delegate majority to win Clinton advises checking your voter registration during Trump's State of the Union MORE ... Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerSchumer: Fired inspector general will be remembered as a 'hero' Biden calls on Trump to appoint coronavirus 'supply commander' Democrats press Trump, GOP for funding for mail-in ballots MORE ... and Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyDemocrats seize on Trump's firing of intelligence community watchdog Testing struggles emerge as key hurdle to reopening country Democratic senators call on domestic airlines to issue cash refunds for travelers MORE?" Cruz posted, along with Twitter screenshots.

"Could be they are all members of Congress?" Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzLawmakers, labor leaders ramp up calls to use Defense Production Act Trump faces mounting pressure to unleash Defense Production Act Rand Paul's coronavirus diagnosis sends shockwaves through Senate 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.