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Allegations of liberal bias put Facebook's politics in conservative crosshairs

FILE - In this Tuesday, April 12, 2016, file photo, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivers the keynote address at the F8 Facebook Developer Conference in San Francisco. Facebook is under fire after a report from a Gawker site accused it of manipulating its Â?trending topicsÂ? feature to promote or suppress certain political perspectives. Facebook has denied the claims, but the GOP-led U.S. Senate Commerce Committee has sent a letter to Zuckerberg requesting answers about the matter. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

Concerns about the alleged bias of news presented on Facebook escalated Tuesday with Republicans in Congress demanding answers and broader questions being asked about the political leanings of the popular social media site.

The controversy stems from a series of reports by the tech news site Gizmodo purporting to uncover the secrets of Facebook's trending news section. The company hired a team of young journalists as contractors to write headlines and summaries for stories that its algorithms deemed to be trending.

Some former contractors interviewed for the reports were critical of the company's editorial practices, but one particular former news curator with conservative political views made the most explosive allegations.

The contractor claimed his fellow curators ignored news of interest to conservative readers, blacklisted conservative news outlets, and "injected" stories into the feed that were not actually trending but were deemed socially important.

Gizmodo reported that other former curators denied any conscious suppression of conservative news, and it was unable to determine if similar efforts were undertaken to filter out liberal news sources.

The curator who complained to Gizmodo acknowledged that he did not believe his coworkers were deliberately slanting the site to the left, and there was no evidence that Facebook management mandated or was aware of any political bias.

Facebook Vice President of Search Tom Stocky responded to the Gizmodo allegations in a lengthy post on Monday night.

"There are rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality. These guidelines do not permit the suppression of political perspectives," he wrote. "Nor do they permit the prioritization of one viewpoint over another or one news outlet over another. These guidelines do not prohibit any news outlet from appearing in Trending Topics."

Stocky denied claims that the company artificially injected topics like Black Lives Matter into trends. He said auditors reviewing news stories surfaced by the algorithms filter out "junk or duplicate topics, hoaxes, or subjects with insufficient sources," but the system is designed to make any ideological discrimination "technically not feasible."

True or not, the revelations have drawn the ire of Republicans and conservative commentators, and they have sparked action by Sen. John Thune. The South Dakota Republican sent a letter to Facebook on behalf of the Senate Commerce Committee Tuesday.

Thune's letter alleges that, if the Gizmodo report is accurate, Facebook is misleading the American public about the neutrality of its algorithms and its claim that it is "a platform for people and perspectives from across the political spectrum."

He seeks details on how trending topics are determined, who is responsible for approving them, what the company's guidelines for curators are, and what Facebook is doing to investigate the bias allegations.

"Our goal is to make sure that consumers, who believe and are at least told by Facebook that this is how their news is being put together, aren't being misled," Thune told Sinclair Wednesday.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee also reportedly plans to question Facebook representatives about the matter.

Critics noted that Thune himself has been a firm opponent of the government regulating the media to ensure fairness in the past.

First Amendment experts say Thune has the authority to make this request, but Facebook has no legal obligation to comply.

"Certainly they have a right to request information from Facebook and Facebook has a right to tell them what they want to know or tell them to take a hike," said Joel Kaplan, associate dean of the Newhouse School Of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

"Members of Congress have every right to inquire about anything in the world that might affect the life of Americans," said Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center. If Republicans escalate the matter and start issuing subpoenas for information on a news organization's editorial decisions, that would be a different matter.

"Is the next target Fox News because it claims to be fair and balanced?" said Paulson, who is a former editor-in-chief of USA Today. "Will they go after MSNBC because they profess to be objective in their journalism?"

"Facebook is absolutely protected under the First Amendment," said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. "It can refuse to answer the questions, it can refuse to even acknowledge the questions, and frankly I wish that it would."

"The First Amendment safeguards extend beyond the paradigm of a metropolitan daily newspaper or a network news organization," he added.

Still, privacy advocates say even the forcefully-worded letter from Thune could have a chilling effect.

"It's very concerning because it's important to recognize that congressional letters and things like that are not benign," said Evan Swarztrauber, communications director for the libertarian think tank TechFreedom.

If consumers want to demand that Facebook be more transparent about its editorial practices, that is fine, but he sees no need for Congress to get involved.

"The letter is exactly what we hoped would not happen, but we kind of knew it was going to happen," he said.

With 63 percent of users considering Facebook a news source, according to a recent Pew Research Center study, and 61 percent of adults under 34 saying they use it to consume political news, scrutiny of the allegations made by former contractors is reasonable.

Experts doubt that the human element can be entirely removed from the equation. Even if the process of selecting news content was fully automated, some editorial judgments would have to be made by the programmers who write the algorithms.

In the grand scheme of content on Facebook, though, political scientists are skeptical that the small trending sidebar in the corner of the page has been deeply influential on users' politics.

"Everybody gets cross-cutting information," said Martin Johnson, professor of political communication at Louisiana State University. They see stories shared by liberal and conservative friends in their news feed, which is much more prominent than the trending section, and there have been no allegations that Facebook is suppressing conservative content there.

"I suspect many people don't even know that it's there," said Kevin Wagner, professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University and co-author of "Tweeting to Power: Social Media Revolution in American Politics," of the trending section, which is even less prominent on the Facebook mobile app.

According to Nick Anspach, Ph.D, whose dissertation focused on political news on Facebook and social media sites, political psychology research suggests partisan news content does little to sway readers and often just reinforces whatever opinions they already had.

"All political news convinces the audiences that they're right and that the other side is wrong," he said.

Facebook is not required to represent all political viewpoints, but experts say it might be a wise business strategy to do so.

"[Facebook] has no interest in alienating a huge part of the American population in any way," Wagner said.

Others say there may be some sense of ethical responsibility that comes with being a communications medium for more than one billion people.

"Facebook is rapidly becoming the venue for the public square...There is a level on which they inherit this kind of social responsibility to be a conduit rather than to skew things," said Johnson, co-author of "Changing Minds or Changing Channels: Partisan News in an Age of Choice."

Paulson lamented that the Gizmodo story has generated so much attention despite having only one anonymous source and offering no actual evidence or official confirmation that any kind of suppression existed. The conservative curator supposedly provided his log of popular conservative news topics that did not trend to the site but little other proof is mentioned.

"It's astonishing to me that a single anonymous employee can lead to the kind of news coverage we've seen in the last 24 hours," he said.

If it is true that Facebook is filtering out extreme partisan content, and he emphasized that this claim has not been proven, the reason for it may not be insidious. A news service may want to give some sources more visibility than others in order to create an environment for meaningful discussion.

"What makes this muddy is the intrigue of the algorithm," Paulson said. "People don't really understand how they work and there's this sense of something mysterious going on."

Facebook is a free service provided by a private company, and any users uncomfortable with its alleged politics or its algorithms can log off if they really want.

"You can decide for yourself whether you want to be a customer or not, but nobody's being defrauded," Paulson said.

Facebook raised eyebrows last month when reports emerged that some employees wanted to ask CEO Mark Zuckerberg what responsibility Facebook has to stop Donald Trump from becoming president.

"We as a company are neutral - we have not and will not use our products in a way that attempts to influence how people vote," Facebook said in a statement at the time.

Zuckerberg's personal politics have also come under fire before. Trump's website derided Sen. Marco Rubio as "Mark Zuckerberg's personal senator" because of his support of H-1B visas.

At a conference last month, Zuckerberg laid out a long-term vision for connecting the global community and expressed strong support for immigration, free trade, and free expression.

Despite various claims of political bias, Facebook does plan to provide sponsorship for the Republican National Convention in July.

Heads of corporations and media entities vocally advocating political agendas is nothing new or unusual; one, Michael Bloomberg, even considered entering this year's presidential race himself. User perception and expectations of Facebook may be different, though.

"A Facebook user can log in for entertainment or diversionary purposes, and encounter political news as a byproduct," Anspach said. If a user's friends are discussing a political story in their news feed, they may find themselves paying more attention than they intended to.

"Facebook occupies this strange space where it's increasingly becoming a source of news for everyone, but it doesn't have the same journalistic standards as traditional media outlets," he said.

Political contributions by Stocky and other Facebook employees have raised additional concerns about their neutrality. According to the Hill, 78 Facebook staffers, including Stocky, have made donations to Hillary Clinton's campaign totaling $114,000, far more than any other candidate.

The report notes that campaigns only need to name donors who provide $200 or more, so there may be any number of smaller donations to the other candidates that were not included.

Kaplan, a former investigative journalist, observed that reporters and editors at traditional news outlets typically abstain from making political contributions to avoid any appearance of bias, but Facebook as more of a news aggregator may not follow the same conventions.

As with those other news sources, whether those donations or any perceived political spin in curated content are appropriate is a question for users, he added. Not politicians.

"Government shouldn't get involved in the news business," Kaplan said. "We've known that for a long time and this is no exception."

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