Facebook has investigated Facebook and judged that Facebook is not guilty.
The findings have been released in a letter to Senator John Thune, who earlier this month called the social network to account for allegations that it artificially suppresses conservative topics on its “Trending News” feed, and artificially promoted progressives ones.
In the letter, which can be read in full here, Facebook reiterated their long-standing claim that there is no bias in the way they select Trending Topics.
Our investigation has revealed no evidence of systematic political bias in the selection or prominence of stories included in the Trending Topics feature. 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.
However, the letter did acknowledge that their curation process may have been affected by “unintentional bias.” To resolve the issue, the company has promised to alter its curation process in a number of ways.
At the same time, as you would expect with an inquiry of this nature, our investigation could not exclude the possibility of isolated improper actions or unintentional bias in the implementation of our guidelines or policies. As part of our commitment to continually improve our products and to minimize risks where human judgment is involved, we are making a number of changes:
- We have already updated terminology in our Guidelines and conducted refresher training for all reviewers that emphasized that content decisions may not be made on the basis of politics or ideology. We will institute additional controls and oversight around the review team, including robust escalation procedures.
- We will expand our Help Center content related to the Trending Topics feature to provide additional information about this feature.
- We will eliminate our reliance on external websites and news outlets to identify, validate, or assess the importance of trending topics. This means that we will discontinue use of the top-10 list of news outlets, the Media 1K list, and the RSS feed.
These improvements and safeguards are designed not only to ensure that Facebook remains a platform that is open and welcoming to all groups and individuals, but also to restore any loss of trust in the Trending Topics feature.
To prove their innocence, Facebook pointed to a number of occasions in which conservative news topics and sources have trended on the site. For example, Facebook claims that their news curators accepted trending topics regarding IRS official Lois Lerner on “at least 15 occasions,” links from The Drudge Report on “at least 11 occasions,” and “twenty-seven topics” related to the late Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle.
Facebook says that news about Republican political candidates also trended on the site, although, interestingly, they did not provide a specific figure for the number of times Donald Trump had trended on the platform.
Ted Cruz was accepted as a trending topic more than 160 times; Rand Paul was accepted on 50 occasions; Mitt Romney was accepted more than 40 times; and Scott Walker was accepted as a trending topic nearly three dozen times. In fact, the two most frequently accepted topics since early 2015 are presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and #GOPDebate.
Despite Facebook’s assurances, concern about bias on the platform seems unlikely to dissipate. Attention has now shifted beyond bias in the “Trending News” feature and towards bias on the platform as a whole. There is now considerable focus on the unfair suspensions of users over anti-immigration or right-wing posts, with one recent incident attracting coverage in multiple outlets.
Elsewhere, Breitbart London editor Raheem Kassam has reported that a link to a story about a Muslim activist’s anti-semitic social media posts was suppressed on the platform due to alleged “abusiveness.”
— Raheem Kassam (@RaheemKassam) May 21, 2016
With rising public and media awareness of political bias – unconscious or otherwise – at Facebook, there is likely to be a renewed focus on similar incidents in the future. Facebook’s investigation of itself may be over, but its problems with conservatives may only be beginning.