Thursday, May 12, 2016

Senator Demands Answers From Facebook ..

Senator Demands Answers From Facebook on Claims of ‘Trending’ List Bias
Facebook intentionally suppress conservative articles

Senator John Thune, a Republican and chairman of the Commerce Committee, wants Facebook to respond to a report that staff members suppressed articles from conservative sources. 

WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee demanded on Tuesday that Facebook explain how it handles news articles in its “trending” list, responding to a report that staff members had intentionally suppressed articles from conservative sources.

In a letter, the chairman, Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, asked Facebook to describe the steps it was taking to investigate the claims and to provide any records about articles that its news curators had excluded or added. Mr. Thune also asked directly whether the curators had “in fact manipulated the content,” something Facebook denied in a statement on Monday.

“If there’s any level of subjectivity associated with it, or if, as reports have suggested that there might have been, an attempt to suppress conservative stories or keep them from trending and get other stories out there, I think it’s important for people to know that,” Mr. Thune told reporters on Tuesday. “That’s just a matter of transparency and honesty, and there shouldn’t be any attempt to mislead the American public.”

Mr. Thune’s actions raised further questions about the content seen by the 1.6 billion people who regularly use Facebook. The platform’s growing role as an arena for news distribution has raised some concerns that it could have undue influence over the flow of information, but any effort by the federal government to regulate or investigate editorial decisions could run into First Amendment protections.

Among Facebook users, 63 percent consider the platform to be a news service, according to a Pew Study. The company could ignore or refuse to comply with Mr. Thune’s requests on First Amendment grounds, said Floyd Abrams, a leading First Amendment lawyer.

“The notion of Congress looking into or investigating how a medium of communication decides what to say threatens on its face First Amendment rights,” said Mr. Abrams, a partner at the law firm Cahill Gordon & Reindel.

Facebook, in a response to Mr. Thune’s letter, said that it was “continuing to investigate whether any violations took place” and that it looked forward to addressing his questions. The company is also planning to brief the House Energy and Commerce Committee about the allegations, according to a congressional aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“Trending Topics is designed to surface popular conversations — no matter where they fall on the political spectrum — and our guidelines require the review team members to allow all points of view,” Debbie Frost, Facebook’s vice president for international and policy communications, said in a statement.

Other social media companies have faced questions about their editorial guidelines and the ability to give some content a more prominent place on their platforms. Last fall, Twitter started “Moments,” a section of the app and website in which it displays the latest noteworthy tweets and news stories collected by a team of journalists. Snapchat, a messaging app, employs a former CNN reporter for its political coverage.

But none of those companies have faced the same level of scrutiny as Facebook. The social media giant was accused of liberal bias after the leaking of a memo from Mark Zuckerberg, its chief executive, in which he called for employees to stop crossing out Black Lives Matter slogans on the walls of the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif.

Asked about the claims that conservative articles were suppressed, which were first reported by the website Gizmodo, the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, demurred, encouraging the news media to take up the investigation.

“Obviously, we were pleased to see the statement from Facebook, you know, making pretty clear that this was not something that they engaged in,” he said on Tuesday. “You know, obviously, we can — you can ask them directly for a better explanation of what people may be seeing.”

Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, fired back at Republicans, not over the substance of their inquiry, but over focusing on Facebook instead of on other issues facing the country.

“The Republican Senate refuses to hold hearings on Judge Garland, refuses to fund the president’s request for Zika aid and takes the most days off of any Senate since 1956, but thinks Facebook hearings are a matter of urgent national interest,” he wrote in an email to reporters. “The taxpayers who pay Republican senators’ salaries probably want their money back.”


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