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Facebook Says Investigation Revealed ‘No Evidence of Systemic Political Bias’

Facebook’s general counsel says that an investigation into its Trending Topics feature has revealed “no evidence of systemic political bias,” and that the rates of approval of liberal and conservative topics “are virtually identical” in the feature.

The comments from Colin Stretch, the company’s general counsel, came in a letter of responses to Senate Commerce Committee chairman John Thune (R-S.D.). Thune asked the company to respond to a series of questions about how selections are made for its influential Trending Topics feature after a Gizmodo story quoted unnamed former employees who said that workers skewed results to downplay conservative comments.

Stretch wrote that Facebook “spoke with current reviewers and their supervisors, as well as a cross-section of former reviewers; spoke with our contractor; reviewed our guidelines, training, and practices; examined the effectiveness of operational oversight designed to identify and correct mistakes and abuse; and analyzed data on the implementation of guidelines by reviewers.”

He wrote that they were “unable to substantiate any of the specific allegations of politically-motivated suppression of subjects or sources, as reported in the media. To the contrary, we confirmed that most of those subjects were in fact included as trending topics on multiple occasions, on dates and at intervals that would be expected given the volume of discussion around those topics on those dates.”

But he added that the investigation “could not exclude the possibility of isolated improper actions or unintentional bias in the implementation of our guidelines or policies.” He also noted that in some cases before July 2015, some popular topics may have been excluded if it did not include a post from a major news organization, a primary source or a verified profile or page. But the guidance that Facebook provided to reviewers was updated that month to allow topics not covered by major sources.

His complete letter is here.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg met last week with a group of conservative journalists and personalities, including Glenn Beck and S.E. Cupp.

Thune met with Stretch on May 18 to discuss his concerns.

In a statement, Thune said that “Facebook’s description of the methodology it uses for determining the trending content it highlights for users is far different from and more detailed than what it offered prior to our questions. We now know the system relied on human judgment, and not just an automated process, more than previously acknowledged.”

He said that Facebook “has recognized the limitations of efforts to keep information systems fully free from potential bias, which lends credibility to its findings.”

But he said that “transparency – not regulation – remains the goal.”

Stretch outlined a number of changes that Facebook is making, including a “refresher training” for reviewers to emphasize that content decisions can’t be made on the basis of politics or ideology. He also said that the company would add more controls and oversight around the review team, expand their help center, and eliminate their reliance on external websites and news outlets to assess the importance of trending topics. Facebook will discontinue the use of the top-10 mist of news outlets, the media 1K list and the RSS feed.

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