Facebook Censorship Controversy Prompts Inquiry From U.S. Senate

Allegations against Facebook that its trending news curators routinely censored or suppressed conservative-oriented topics have prompted a formal inquiry from the U.S. Senate.

Tech website Gizmodo on Monday published the accusations of what amounts to liberal bias in the social network’s influential trending news feed, which is or was supposedly automatically compiled by an algorithm.

Facebook has categorically denied the Gizmodo scoop.

According to what an unnamed whistleblower told Gizmodo, however, right-leaning topics were manually prevented from showing up in the Facebook trending section, despite actually organically trending among users of the world’s largest social media site, the Inquisitr previously explained.

The Gizmodo piece described the Facebook procedures that allegedly blacklisted news that would be of interest to politically conservative (and presumably non-conservative) readers, according to the insider.

“The former curator was so troubled by the omissions that they kept a running log of them at the time; this individual provided the notes to Gizmodo. Among the deep-sixed or suppressed topics on the list: former IRS official Lois Lerner, who was accused by Republicans of inappropriately scrutinizing conservative groups; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; popular conservative news aggregator the Drudge Report; Chris Kyle, the former Navy SEAL who was murdered in 2013; and former Fox News contributor Steven Crowder…Another former curator agreed that the operation had an aversion to right-wing news sources.”

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee launched a preliminary investigation into the matter of alleged Facebook censorship.

Senator John Thune (R-South Dakota), the committee chair, sent a letter to Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg that asks several detailed questions about the news feed controversy, including “What steps is Facebook taking to investigate claims of politically motivated manipulation of news stories in the Trending Topics section? If such claims are substantiated, what steps will Facebook take to hold the responsible individuals accountable?” Thune gave Zuckerberg a May 24 deadline to respond to the committee.

Facebook has indicated that it will address Sen. Thune’s questions.

Facebook official Tom Stocky, the exec who runs the trending topics section, posted a Facebook message yesterday as the controversy continued to rage–or trend.

“My team is responsible for Trending Topics, and I want to address today’s reports alleging that Facebook contractors manipulated Trending Topics to suppress stories of interest to conservatives. We take these reports extremely seriously, and have found no evidence that the anonymous allegations are true…There are rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality. These guidelines do not permit the suppression of political perspectives…”

Liberal website Slate apparently wasn’t convinced.

“Facebook can and will dispute the specifics of these claims, as the company’s vice president of search, Tom Stocky, did in a Facebook post Tuesday morning. But they’re missing the point entirely. Facebook’s problem is not that its ‘curators’ are biased. Facebook’s problem is that it refuses to admit that they’re biased—or even really human. The Senate inquiry is pure political theater, a delicious opportunity for Republican politicians to fuel conservatives’ media-persecution complex….Yet Facebook brought this on itself by deliberately obscuring the process behind its Trending section and pretending to have a neutrality that its underpaid nonemployees couldn’t possibly earn.”

According to the Washington Free Beacon, Stocky supports Democrat Hillary Clinton for president. “Stocky appears to be a major backer of Hillary Clinton. He contributed $2,700 to Hillary for America on October 26, 2015, Federal Election Commission records show. This is the maximum amount that can be given by an individual during a primary. Stocky is not the only Facebook employee that has given generously to Clinton’s campaign this election cycle.”

“Facebook employees as individuals have donated more than $114,000 to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton this election cycle, by far the most of any presidential candidate,” The Hill added.

A. F. Branco Facebook cartoon
[Source: Legal Insurrection/A.F. Branco]

In an interview on CBS This Morning (see the entire interview embedded below), Michael Nunez, the author of the Gizmodo bombshell, said, among other things, Facebook procedures that suppress or blacklist some stories while artificially inflating others “calls into question the legitimacy of the trending topics entirely.”

Nunez also explained that Gizmodo gave Facebook three days pre-publication notice to respond to the allegations, but never heard anything back.

“There’s nothing wrong with Facebook having an editorial board and choosing what the topics are, but they have to be transparent about it. You can’t call that a trending news section if these topics aren’t legitimately trending in the first place,” he asserted.

The above-mentioned Steven Crowder is apparently considering legal action against Facebook by filing a petition for pre-lawsuit discovery from Facebook in a Dallas County court. It remains to be seen if a court will grant such a motion, however.

Much has been written about the chummy relationship between Facebook (and Google) and the Obama administration. Critics argue that it wouldn’t be surprising that both of these powerful entities continue to tilt left as America chooses Obama’s successor.

“The White House has held more meetings with lobbyists for Google than any other top company, and nearly 250 employees have reportedly gone through the ‘revolving door’ between the Obama administration and the technology company,” the Washington Free Beacon separately reported.

Last month, Facebook employees asked their boss via an internal poll if they should actively help to prevent GOP presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump from getting elected. Zuckerberg is on record opposing Trump’s immigration policies.

“If Facebook decided to, it could gradually remove any pro-Trump stories or media off its site—devastating for a campaign that runs on memes and publicity,” Gizmodo reported at the time.

“A Facebook spokesman insisted it would remain a neutral platform open to all parties and campaigns,” the New York Post noted.

“Even if you believe that Facebook isn’t monkeying with the trending list or actively trying to swing the vote, the reports serve as timely reminders of the ever-increasing potential dangers of Facebook’s hold on the news,” the New York Times observed. “Facebook also has an unmistakable corporate ethos and point of view. The company is staffed mostly by wealthy coastal Americans who tend to support Democrats, and it is wholly controlled by a young billionaire who has expressed policy preferences that many people find objectionable.”

Joking that some are calling this controversy “Trend-ghazi,” FNC media analyst Howard Kurtz told Megyn Kelly (see clip below) that “fiddling with the formula…amounts to cooking the digital books if true,” but that the federal government should stay out of editorial decisions made by private media companies (which also have First Amendment protections ).

“As troubling as these allegations are to me, I don’t want the government mucking around in this.” Kurtz also insisted that Facebook should conduct an aggressive internal investigation into the matter.

Do you think it is appropriate for the U.S. Senate to probe Facebook over alleged censorship of conservative topics on its trending news feed and will anything actually come of it?

[Photo by Joerg Koch/AP]