Are Political Bias Allegations Against Facebook Enough to Warrant a Congressional Probe?

Facebook Newsfeed Republican Probe
adam mccauley for Variety

Claims of political bias in how Facebook determines its influential “trending topics” list proved of enough concern for the company that CEO Mark Zuckerberg has invited prominent conservatives like Glenn Beck, Dana Perino, and S.E. Cupp to meet with him this week. But do the claims rise to the level of congressional inquiry?

In the hours after Gizmodo published a story last week contending that workers routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservatives, the Drudge Report blasted the headline. Rightward bloggers were irate. Facebook responded, with Zuckerberg posting that the company is conducting a “full investigation.”

There was also a surprise: The day after the story broke, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, fired off a letter to Zuckerberg insisting that Facebook must “hold those responsible to account if there has been political bias in the dissemination of trending news.”

Thune’s actions drew critics from the right and the left. David Harsanyi, a senior editor at the right-of-center site The Federalist, questioned whether it is the government’s place to monitor media bias. “Does Facebook even have to link to any conservative news stories?” he wrote. “And do we really want the Senate defining what constitutes ‘conservative’ news, anyway? Will the Senate next investigate Fox News for claiming to be fair and [balanced]?”

Speaking to reporters, Adam Jentleson, the deputy chief of staff for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, mocked the GOP for refusing to hold hearings on the Supreme Court appointment of Judge
Merrick Garland and on President Obama’s request for aid to fight the Zika virus while maintaining that “Facebook hearings are a matter of urgent national interest.”

Zuckerberg, meanwhile, stated in his Facebook post: “We take this report very seriously and are conducting a full investigation to ensure our teams upheld the integrity of this product. We have found no evidence that this report is true. If we find anything against our principles, you have my commitment that we will take additional steps to address it.”

The flap reflects the changing nature of Facebook — it is at once a user-generated platform for photos, opinion, and personalization, and an ever-growing part of users’ news diet.

“Facebook slants all news coverage to things that go viral on Facebook. That promotes sensationalism.”
University of Maryland law professor James Grimmelmann

Thune said that if the bias allegations are true, such actions would be an “abuse of trust, and inconsistent with the values of the open internet.”

He may be right about the “values of the open internet,” particularly since Facebook embraces the idea that it is a nonpartisan social-media platform. But rules for the open internet — namely, the set of net neutrality regulations passed last year by the FCC — apply to internet providers, not to websites, social-media platforms, or apps.

Thune sought net neutrality legislation last year but said he found the FCC’s regulatory approach heavy-handed and even suggested that it would “jeopardize the open internet we are all seeking to protect.”

The FCC did once have a set of rules, the Fairness Doctrine, that required broadcasters to present balanced points of view on controversial issues. But that was abandoned during the Reagan administration.

Ever since, conservatives have been suspicious that such regulations would return. Some lawmakers on the left have broached the idea, arguing that the demise of the Fairness Doctrine has led to the explosion of volatile talk-radio programming and today’s partisan rancor.

Frederick Hill, a spokesman for Thune and the Commerce Committee, said last week that Thune’s letter follows up on Gizmodo’s report “suggesting a process involving user data is different than described.” Thune made no mention of the Fairness Doctrine — which he opposes — and instead seems to view the Facebook flap as an issue of user expectation.

“As a private entity, Facebook has a constitutional right to determine the content it highlights,” Hill wrote in an email. “They should, however, be transparent with users about how they do so.”

Jack Lerner, a specialist in technology law at UC Irvine, called Thune’s argument ironic. “You have the same people who were protesting up and down about net neutrality, calling it a Fairness Doctrine for the internet, and now they’re saying Facebook may not be acting fairly,” he said.  “I don’t know of any law that would allow Congress to simply say, ‘You need to present news more fairly.’”

Lerner sees the uproar as driven by other considerations — one being the sheer size of Facebook, with more than 1 billion users on some days. The company’s algorithm has a “large impact on our daily lives,” he said, but exactly how that works “is incredibly opaque.”

“I want to have a direct conversation about what Facebook stands for.”
Mark Zuckerberg

He added: “Facebook’s No. 1 priority is Facebook — getting people to come to Facebook, and getting people to stay at Facebook.”

Others said the social-media giant’s algorithm can cause users to become victims of their own beliefs. “Facebook slants all news coverage to things that go viral on Facebook,” said University of Maryland law professor James Grimmelmann. “That promotes sensationalism; it promotes things that make people feel good about their political affiliations, rather than challenging their views.”

Still, it’s hard to see the government stepping in to determine whether Facebook is politically neutral — any more than it would try to make such demands of the Drudge Report or The Huffington Post. Imagine those headlines.

Emma Llansó, director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology, said the Senate cannot legally compel Facebook to describe its editorial policies. “The fact that some of these decisions are mediated algorithmically does not change the fact that they are still editorial decisions, protected by the First Amendment from government interference,” she noted.

But Llansó added that the company should consider users’ concerns. “Facebook’s users have every reason to want to understand how the company makes decisions about what information it will target to them,” she said. “People care about the influences that affect what they can read and share on a site, and it’s in companies’ best interest to make their policies and practices much more clear to their users.”

Beck believes Facebook should be free of government interference, but that it “must remain as unbiased as the telephone, otherwise it too will fracture…over time due to competitors who will carve out their own place without agenda.”

So far, in his public comments, Zuckerberg seems somewhat in sync with Thune’s concerns — that the main issue is about users’ trust.

“I want to have a direct conversation about what Facebook stands for and how we can be sure our platform stays as open as possible,” Zuckerberg wrote. “The reason I care so much about this is that it gets to the core of everything Facebook is and everything I want it to be.”