Legislator Wants To See Just How Facebook Curated Trending Content

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Jonah Bennett Contributor
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The Senate Committee on Commerce has asked Facebook to explain allegations the social media company’s news curators censored conservative news outlets from appearing in users’ trending feeds.

The letter, sent by GOP Sen. John Thune, who serves as Chairman for the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, directs Facebook to answer a long series of questions about news curation practices. One question asks whether curators manipulated the trending news section to exclude conservative content and boost other stories, Gizmodo reports.

Thune wants to know what Facebook will do to hold any individuals who manipulated content accountable.

In a public statement, Facebook has already said violation of company guidelines is a fireable offense.

Thune wants a copy of curation guidelines. He also wants to know if the company keeps “a record of curators decisions to inject a story into the Trending Topics section or target a story for removal.” Finally, Thune is requesting a document listing all stories removed or injected since January 2014.

The background to this controversy is two reports from Gizmodo featuring a former news curator at Facebook alleging that curators regularly, on their own volition, blocked organically popular news items from “trending,” and on instruction from management, artificially boosted topics like Black Lives Matter.

Facebook has categorically denied instructing anyone to boost Black Lives Matter, but at the same time admitted curators have a lot of discretion.

“We have in place strict guidelines for our trending topic reviewers as they audit topics surfaced algorithmically: reviewers are required to accept topics that reflect real world events, and are instructed to disregard junk or duplicate topics, hoaxes, or subjects with insufficient sources,” Facebook said in a statement.

In an op-ed published in 2009, Thune argued against the reinstatement of the Federal Communications Commission’s former policy called the Fairness Doctrine, which mandated that broadcasters include a broad variety of political perspectives.

“There are some members of Congress who have called for the reinstatement of the so-called Fairness Doctrine for talk radio and even some who want it applied to the Internet,” he wrote. “I believe that the marketplace of ideas only operates for the benefit of citizens if it is just that: a true marketplace. People have the opportunity to seek out what radio programs they want to listen to, just as they have the freedom to read particular newspapers and magazines, watch particular news television programs, and increasingly, seek out news and opinion on the Internet.”

“I believe it is dangerous for Congress and federal regulators to wade into the public airwaves to determine what opinions should be expressed and what kind of speech is “fair,”” Thune added.

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