Senate Is Investigating Whether Facebook Censored Conservative News

Facebook Zuckerberg
Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg at a town hall meeting at the company's headquarters in Menlo Park, California, on September 27. Stephen Lam/Reuters

The U.S. Senate took action on Tuesday to press Facebook for answers to allegations that its news curators for the Trending Topics section suppressed articles from right-wing news outlets.

Republican Senator John Thune sent CEO Mark Zuckerberg a letter with questions asking Facebook to explain its editorial process and whether the Menlo Park, California, company "in fact manipulated the content of the Trending Topics section" in an anti-conservative manner. Thune, a Republican who has been a South Dakota senator since 2005, is chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over media and internet communication matters.

"Social networks such as Facebook are an increasingly important source of news for many Americans and people around the world," reads Thune's letter. "If Facebook presents its Trending Topics section as the result of a neutral, objective algorithm but is in fact subjective...Facebook's assertion that it maintains 'a platform for people and perspectives from across the political spectrum' misleads the public."

Thune's letter was sparked by a Gizmodo article in which a former Facebook curator said other members of the curating team routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative Facebook users. The curating journalists had the power to "inject" selected stories into the Trending Topics section—even if the stories were not going viral.

On Monday, Facebook released a statement saying its guidelines "do not permit the suppression of political perspectives"—echoing what one former Facebook employee told Newsweek about the allegations. Facebook's head of Trending Topics, Tom Stocky, responded on his profile late Monday night, denying that his team engaged in political bias.

"There have been other anonymous allegations—for instance, that we artificially forced ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬ to trend. We looked into that charge and found that it is untrue," Stocky wrote. "We do not insert stories artificially into Trending Topics, and do not instruct our reviewers to do so."

Following the Gizmodo article, many conservative outlets released statements expressing outrage and concern. Some outlets, like RedState, expressed shock at the news, stating they have enjoyed a "good and healthy working relationship with Facebook." Others, like Breitbart, were more confrontational; it said the news confirms "what conservatives have long suspected." Breitbart also asked Zuckerberg to do a Facebook Live interview with its tech editor, Milo Yiannopoulos.

Despite the conservative backlash, Facebook is a sponsor of the Republican Convention in in July. Peter Thiel, the PayPal founder who was one of the first investors in Facebook, is going to the convention in Cleveland as a California delegate pledged to Donald Trump. In April, Zuckerberg took some indirect shots at Trump in his keynote speech at the Facebook F8 developers' conference.