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Senate Demands Answers About 'Bias' in Facebook News Trends

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By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on May 11, 2016 3:58 PM

If the accusations of Facebook's former news curator are to believed, the social media company's news platform isn't quite as neutral as many people have come to believe. Yesterday, the US Senate Committee called for Facebook Chairman Mark Zuckerberg to respond to a Monday report that the company consistently suppressed conservative news stories from making it to the network's "trending" news section.

So far, the company has denied any allegations of intentional biased manipulation of its news feeds.

"News Curators" Spill the Beans

Former Facebook "news curators" -- the company's term for independent contract writers -- revealed to Gizmodo evidence that the company had in place biases to suppress conservative news pieces from entering into the company's "trending" feed.

The operation goes a little like this. Facebook uses a proprietary algorithm that sifts through the Internet headlines and ranks particular topics by popularity. This ranked list becomes available for the curators to write about. They write headlines, pieces, and also include links to news sites. But because of Facebook's social cache, it has what a few consider to be an unbalanced power to influence: Almost 170 million Facebook users in America alone.

The allegations are that some curators would refuse to write topics for trending pieces despite what the algorithm declared was trending, or there was a hanging incentive to write pieces biased against conservative views ... or both. Thus, instead of neutrally selecting pieces chosen without bias by a machine, curators would subjectively choose their favored topics.

What's more, allegations have arisen that stories that had absolutely no trending action at all were "injected" artificially into the stream in order to draw eyeballs to them -- inflating demand.

Facebook Responds

Tom Stocky, who heads Facebook's trending topics, acknowledged that decisions for which stories ought to trend was a mixture of machine and man, but denied company wrongdoing. He said that the human element was mostly relegated to humans double-checking the algorithm in order to ensure that the machine had not confused stories with other irrelevant but similar sounding stories.

Senate Wants to Trend

South Dakota Rep. Senator John Thune described the allegations as "serious" and quickly penned a letter straightaway to Facebook demanding answers to a series of questions, which can be seen at ArsTechnica. Facebook has acknowledged receipt and looks to formulating an answer. Maybe that will trend, too.

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