Facebook has agreed to improve its Trending Topics after a powerful senator pressed the social media giant for answers on how those topics were determined, though the site said there was no institutional bias.
"Our investigation has revealed no evidence of systematic political bias in the selection or prominence of stories included in the Trending Topics feature." That was the response of Facebook General counsel Colin Stretch to questions from Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.).
Following a story alleging Facebook contractors had discriminated against conservative stories from its trending feature, Thune, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, asked Facebook to respond, which it did Monday.
Stretch could not rule out the possibility that that had happened in isolated instances. "Despite the findings of our investigation, it is impossible to fully exclude the possibility that, over the years of the feature’s existence, a specific reviewer took isolated actions with an improper motive."
Thune sounded reasonably satisfied with the answers Stretch and Facebook provided, including its commitment to reform and improve the Trending Topics feature.
One of those is to eliminate reliance on outside websites and news outlets to determine 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."
“Private companies are fully entitled to espouse their own views, so I appreciate Facebook’s efforts to address allegations of bias raised in the media and my concern about a lack of transparency in its methodology for determining trending topics," Thune commented following receipt of the letter. "Facebook has been forthcoming about with how it determines trending topics, and steps it will take to minimize the risk of bias from individual human judgment. The seriousness with which Facebook has treated these allegations and its desire to serve as an open platform for all viewpoints is evident and encouraging and I look forward to the company’s actions meeting its public rhetoric."
But Thune suggested Facebook needed the legislative prompting.
“Facebook's description of the methodology it uses for determining the trending content it highlights for users is far different from and more detailed than what it offered prior to our questions," he said. "We now know the system relied on human judgment, and not just an automated process, more than previously acknowledged.
“Facebook has recognized the limitations of efforts to keep information systems fully free from potential bias, which lends credibility to its findings. While the committee remains open to new information on this matter, transparency – not regulation – remains the goal, so I thank the company for its efforts to acknowledge relevant facts and its recognition of a continuing need to transparently address relevant user questions.”
Facebook has said the allegations, in a May 9 Gizmodo story, were false, but Thune followed up on the report with a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.