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 JohnsonBiden's Commerce secretary pick says Section 230 'needs some reform' Senate committee advances Biden's DHS pick despite Republican pushback GOP senators call for commission to investigate Capitol attack 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 ZuckerbergMarkey questions Facebook on 'failed commitment' to stop recommending political groups Hillicon Valley: Biden names acting chairs to lead FCC, FTC | Facebook to extend Trump ban pending review | Judge denies request for Amazon to immediately restore Parler Facebook to extend Trump ban pending review 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 WarrenThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden argues for legislative patience, urgent action amid crisis Financial firms brace for Biden's consumer agency chief Tim Ryan says he's 'looking seriously' at running for Portman's Senate seat MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersWhat the shift in Senate control means for marijuana policy reform Business groups prepare for lobbying push against minimum wage Schumer: Senate could pave way for reconciliation on COVID relief next week 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 TrumpBlinken holds first calls as Biden's secretary of State Senators discussing Trump censure resolution Dobbs: Republicans lost in 2020 because they 'forgot who was the true leader' 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 committee advances Biden's DHS pick despite Republican pushback Google suspends donations to lawmakers who voted against certifying election The Hill's Morning Report - Biden argues for legislative patience, urgent action amid crisis 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 ScaliseBoycott sham impeachment The Memo: Biden gambles that he can do it all Biden under pressure to deliver more COVID-19 shots MORE and several other GOP members of Congress, I get recommended tweets from Ted DeutchTheodore (Ted) Eliot DeutchHouse Democrats introduce measures to oppose Trump's bomb sale to Saudis House Judiciary Democrats ask Pence to invoke 25th Amendment to remove Trump This week: Congress poised to buy more time on spending, coronavirus talks MORE ... Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseHawley files ethics counter-complaint against seven Democratic senators Biden expands on Obama ethics pledge Democrats seek answers on impact of Russian cyberattack on Justice Department, Courts MORE ... Steve CohenStephen (Steve) Ira CohenDo Democrats really want unity? Rep. Cohen responds to Denver Post editorial on criticism of Boebert Denver Post editorial board defends Boebert against 'blatantly sexist and elitist attacks' MORE ... Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerHumanist Report host criticizes 'conservative Democrats:' They 'hold more power' than progressives Bush-, Obama-era officials urge Senate to swiftly confirm Biden's DHS pick OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court upholds ruling invalidating Dakota Access, but doesn't shut down pipeline | Schumer calls for Biden to declare climate emergency | Biden seeks to bolster consultation with Indian Country MORE ... and Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden: Focus on vaccine, virus, travel Tensions running high after gun incident near House floor Democrats float 14th Amendment to bar Trump from office MORE?" Cruz posted, along with Twitter screenshots.

"Could be they are all members of Congress?" Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzFor platform regulation Congress should use a European cheat sheet Senate Democrats rebuke GOP colleagues who say they'll oppose Electoral College results 11 Senate Republicans say they will oppose Electoral College results Wednesday 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.