A week after CEO Mark Zuckerberg's meetings with conservative leaders in a conciliatory action following reports that Facebook's news curators were instructed to suppress conservative news articles, Facebook, which initially denied the allegations but opened its own investigation into them, says it's found no evidence of bias in the process of determining trending topics.
As CNet reports, quoting from a statement regarding a letter to the US Senate Commerce Committee, Facebook says liberal and conservative issues trend at "virtually identical" rates. As Colin Stretch, Facebook's general counsel, writes:
Our investigation has revealed no evidence of systematic political bias in the selection or prominence of stories included in the Trending Topics feature. Our data analysis indicated that conservative and liberal topics are approved as trending topics at virtually identical rates. We were also unable to substantiate any of the specific allegations of politically-motivated suppression of particular subjects or sources. In fact, we confirmed that most of the subjects mentioned in media reports were included as trending topics on multiple occasions.
However, Stretch also writes that the investigation "could not fully exclude the possibility of isolated improper actions or unintentional bias in the implementation of our guidelines or policies." That seems to echo an independent assessment made by the New York Times last week.
Perhaps the most serious element of the 'Trending Topics' shitstorm is that aforementioned Senate inquiry, to which Stretch's remarks are all a response. However, Slate encourages us to see Facebook as "a publisher like any other." Or, not just like any other, but as "the world’s biggest and most-dominant publishing platform by a mile, with 1.65 billion users who share billions of pieces of content daily, including political, entertainment, and social news."
That idea — of Facebook as mega-publisher, shifting the industry — is the subject of this fascinating Recode series. But a key difference in the instance of "Trending Topics" might be that Facebook has been couching its editorial decisions, which are basically human assignments of importance, as algorithmically determined ones — decisions beyond human influence, or beyond the human influence of Facebook and only subject to the influences of the people who populate your social network.
The backlash also goes to show what can be done if people really do, as might be healthy, fear what Facebook is handing them or withholding from them. Take another debate, reported on by CNET, of a plus-size model being used as an ad in an Australian feminist group's campaign called "Feminism and Fat." Facebook rejected the ad because it it violated "health and fitness" guidelines that preclude displaying "body parts in an undesirable manner."
Following backlash, Facebook reversed its decision. "Our team processes millions of advertising images each week, and in some instances we incorrectly prohibit ads," the company said in a statement. That's understandable, even if the particular decision is not. What, after all, is more subjective than beauty guidelines?