In a lengthy letter to Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune, Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch said that the now-changed guidelines for its trending topics section may have favored news coming from mainstream media outlets, and that charges that the social media giant suppressed conservative news couldn’t be substantiated through a Senate investigation:
“This guidance may have in some instances prior to that date prevented or delayed acceptance of topics that were not covered by major news organizations”
The guidelines were updated in July 2015 to permit reviewers to accept topics from a broader selection of news organizations, according to Stretch.
Thune began looking into Facebook after Gizmodo published a story quoting former employees saying that they regularly suppressed conservative news from the trending topics section. Thune then fired off a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg demanding answers to questions about how the feature operated.
Stretch told Thune that this accusation was without merit, based on Facebook’s investigation:
“In fact, our analysis indicated that the rates of approval of conservative and liberal topics are virtually identical in Trending Topics.”
“Moreover, we 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.”
The end result is that Facebook is tweaking how it curates the trending topics section by dropping some automated features—like relying on RSS feeds—and relying more on user conversations to drive what appears in the section, and trying to give each story equal weighting in the eyes of its algorithm.
Facebook’s efforts are a step in the right direction, but they will probably have to do a lot more to satisfy conservatives who have long believed that the company skews to the liberal side, just like many other companies in the social media/tech world.