A group of Republican Senators have recently fired a series of questions to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in response to allegations that the social networking giant wilfully suppresses specific news stories from appearing in its 'Trending Topics section'. The news stories in question are based on topics of interest to politically conservative users and the letter to Facebook follows a story on Gizmodo yesterday which covered allegations of former Facebook employees that Facebook actively suppresses conservative news stories and replaces them with other news stories even if objective metrics do not indicate that such stories are trending. Facebook has already responded to the story on Gizmodo and maintains that its trending topics section reflects topics based on factors like engagement, timeliness, Pages liked and locations and its internal guidelines do not permit suppression of political perspectives.
The letter signed off by a group of Republican Senators contains a list of questions which they demand Facebook must answer to maintain values of the open internet. “Any attempt by a neutral and inclusive social media platform to censor or manipulate political discussion is an abuse of trust and inconsistent with the values of an open Internet,” said Senator John Thune, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. The list of questions in the letter includes one on how Facebook determines which topics to include in its trending section, who approves such topics, whether content has indeed been manipulated, if Facebook is taking any steps to investigate such allegations and the number of conservative news stories which were removed from the trending topics section since January 2014. The letter also mentions Facebook's earlier comments through which the company has stressed that it has guidelines in place to regulate trending topics. Referring to these guidelines, the Senators have also asked when such guidelines were introduced, if they were amended after January 2014 and if Facebook provides training to employees on such guidelines.
The fact that the letter was sent to Facebook did not go down well with Democrats in the Senate. Senator Harry Reid has argued that the Senate had more pressing issues to discuss and the issue with trending topics on Facebook isn't a matter of urgent national interest. However, Facebook has decided to respond to the Senators' letter in detail and will provide the committee with added information on the functioning of its trending topics section. In a statement given to The Verge today, a Facebook spokesman also said that the company has 'seen allegations that people did not honor the intent' of guidelines on trending topics and is 'continuing to investigate whether any violations took place.' This isn't the first time that Facebook is at loggerheads with representatives at the Senate. A couple of years ago, CEO Mark Zuckerberg lashed out at the government for undermining individual privacy and bypassing Facebook's data encryption practices, which he said would result in loss of transparency as well as security for millions of users.