Why Facebook Got a Letter From the Senate

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Photo: KAY NIETFELD/Getty Images

That didn’t take long: Republican Senator John Thune, chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg today requesting that Facebook arrange for “employees responsible for trending topics to brief committee staff on this issue.”

“This issue,” of course, is a Gizmodo report that editors curating the social network’s trending topics — that list of headlines and news summaries on the sidebar — avoided approving certain conservative topics or injected topics that were not actually trending on Facebook.

The committee has also requested that Facebook provide information on the Trending Topics team’s organizational structure, whether editors manipulated topics to hide certain ones, what guidelines are in place, and whether any sort of punitive action is being taken. They also requested “a list of all news stories removed from or injected into the Trending Topics section since January 2014.”

A few things are worth noting here. The first is that the Commerce Committee’s authority over Facebook’s trending topics is … unclear, at best. Facebook is a private company, and Thune’s letter, more than anything else, is a bit of political grandstanding that helps institutionalize the incorrect conspiracy theory that Facebook is actively censoring conservative news.

But the letter also gets to the heart of Facebook’s dilemma here: Is it an (implicitly neutral) platform for the exchange of all ideas? Or a publisher with editorial imperatives and ideas? Taken as the latter, the letter is ridiculous; imagine, for example, a similar missive sent to Arthur Sulzberger about the New York Times, or Jeff Bezos about the Washington Post. How horrifying to learn that editors were “injecting” stories onto the front page!

Taken as the former, though, you can see why Thune is writing in the first place: If Facebook is a truly neutral platform (whatever that would mean), at several hundred million American users it’s more akin to a utility, or a common carrier, than a private company. Thune’s letter then shows at least a modicum of legislative awareness about how influential large social platforms can be about controlling information and public opinion.

The scrutiny also highlights the dangers of Facebook’s vagueness surrounding its services. In this case, Facebook is a victim of its own actions — hiding its human editors beneath the guise of algorithmic consistency. (It’s important to distinguish between “inconsistency” and “bias.” Algorithms can be coded with biases, but they perform that function consistently.) Humans, who think and breath and act, do not act consistently, even when we like to think that we do.

Facebook, of course, would like to have it both ways, and maintain the reach, power, and broad public appeal of a utility, and at the same time the independence of a media company.

In an emailed statement from Tom Stocky, vice-president of Search at Facebook and responsible for the Trending Topics team, the company said that it had “found no evidence that the anonymous allegations are true.” Stocky also denied the suppression of certain political perspectives or specific news outlets, and countered the notion that the company forced Black Lives Matter to trend when it was not.

Stocky says he wants to ensure “consistency and neutrality,” but he doesn’t quite define what either of those mean, and, in the end, there’s no way to construct a definition of that neutrality that will satisfy everyone. “Reviewers,” Stocky writes, “are instructed to disregard junk … or subjects with insufficient sources.” But one man’s junk is another man’s trending topic; just look at conservative comedian Steven Crowder, one of the topics cited by Gizmodo as having been “suppressed.” Denying bias might be the right move for Facebook if it wants to control damage. But it’s going to be an increasingly hard line to toe.