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Facebook denies systemic bias in Trending Topics but changes how they are chosen

Facebook says it’s altering the makeup of its controversial Trending Topics section in response to a Senate inquiry over alleged censorship of conservative news sources. The company’s news operation will no longer rely on a top-10 list of websites — which includes The New York Times, CNN, and The Washington Post — to determine whether a subject is newsworthy or not. It’s also eliminating its list of as many as 1,000 websites it uses to assess the relevance of stories, as well as the RSS feeds it uses to aide its algorithms.

“Our investigation has revealed no evidence of systematic political bias in the selection or prominence of stories included in the Trending Topics feature,” Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch wrote in a statement today. Facebook says its data analysis proves liberal and conservative topics were approved for the Trending list at identical rates, while no evidence exists to substantiate the claim that certain news sources like The Blaze and Drudge Report were being suppressed. “In fact, we confirmed that most of the subjects mentioned in media reports were included as Trending Topics on multiple occasions,” Stretch added. However, he did acknowledge that Facebook “could not fully exclude the possibility of isolated improper actions or unintentional bias,” so the company is changing up the formula to rely more heavily on algorithms.

Facebook could not exclude the possibility of unintentional bias

The changes to Facebook’s Trending Topics section comes in response to an inquiry opened by the Senate Commerce Committee earlier this month. The committee, led by Senator John Thune (R-SD), sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg following a series of high-profile Gizmodo reports. The second of those stories quoted a former news curator saying the team regularly left out conservative publications when choosing which items to show to its 1.65 billion users. The aftermath resulted in a broad debate about how Facebook’s Trending list functions and whether the company should be taking more serious measures to remain balanced as it becomes a daily news source for many.

“Facebook has been forthcoming about how it determines trending topics and steps it will take to minimize the risk of bias from individual human judgment,” Thune wrote in a statement published today. “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.”

Facebook is doing all it can to squash claims of censorship

Facebook has been doing all it can the last two weeks to address the concerns of conservative leaders and users. Zuckerberg met with right-leaning luminaries last week, some of whom responded with praise for the company. It’s also acknowledged the inherent problems with a system that operates with a mix of algorithmic and human decision-making. “We now know the system relied on human judgment, and not just an automated process, more than previously acknowledged,” Thune wrote in his statement. “Facebook has recognized the limitations of efforts to keep information systems fully free from potential bias, which lends credibility to its findings.”

While Thune acknowledged that his committee could in no way regulate the views of a private company, he says the request has always been about increased transparency with Facebook’s new operation. For now, Facebook appears to have satisfied that request. Here’s Thune’s statement in full:

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. 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.

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. 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 Inc.’s general counsel Colin Stretch wrote today that the company’s two-week internal investigation “revealed no evidence of systematic political bias,” and outlined changes to protect the feature from potential misuse as part of a neutral platform going forward. The response, requested by Chairman Thune, did note that company guidance, prior to July 2015, may have in some instances led to the exclusion of popular topics because it “prevented or delayed acceptance of topics that were not covered by major news organizations,” and that the company could not “fully exclude the possibility that, over the years of the feature’s existence, a specific reviewer took isolated actions with an improper motive.


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