The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg meets with influential conservatives after claim of political bias in trending topics feature

People are silhouetted as they pose with mobile devices in front of a screen projected with a Facebook logo, in this file picture illustration taken October 2014. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Six months before the next U.S. presidential election, Facebook wants American conservatives to know that they are not being slighted on the world’s largest social media network.

Accusations that Facebook’s trending topics news section had a “chilling” effect on right-wing viewpoints, as an anonymous Facebook contractor first told Gizmodo, recently brought long-simmering conservative frustrations to a boil. In an attempt to make peace, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg hosted more than a dozen influential conservatives at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., on Wednesday. The gathering, according to those in attendance, was encouraging — for a first step.

Silicon Valley has a reputation for being liberal,” Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post after the meeting’s conclusion. “But the Facebook community includes more than 1.6 billion people of every background and ideology — from liberal to conservative and everything in between.” He added: “Still, I know many conservatives don’t trust that our platform surfaces content without a political bias.”

Some conservatives feel that their complaints about Facebook’s reputation, however, had gone unacknowledged for too long.“I’m not sure they recognized, in my opinion, how angry conservatives were,” Robert Bluey, vice president of publishing at the Heritage Foundation and editor in chief of Heritage’s Daily Signal told The Washington Post in a phone interview soon after Wednesday’s gathering. “They need to do a better job of interacting with these people.”

The trending topics section, introduced in 2014, occupies a small slice of real estate in the upper corner of Facebook user’s home page. It showcases personalized news as well as globally spiking trends. The company maintains that an algorithm combs Facebook to find what’s popular, and human editors play a small role in vetting or combining similar topics.

To Gizmodo, however, the unnamed contractor argued that certain conservative news outlets or news figures — such as the Drudge Report, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) and Steven Crowder, a politically conservative satirist, for instance — were intentionally omitted. Last Thursday, Zuckerberg said Facebook would investigate the claims, and the social network repeatedly denied finding evidence to support conservative suppression.

Bluey, who attended Wednesday’s meeting, said it was heartening to observe that Facebook is now paying attention. During the talks, Facebook was mostly ears — “Mark made that very clear early on in the meeting,” Bluey said — and also sketched out how algorithms power the news feed and trending topics.

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“It was an open and honest dialogue,” conservative political commentator S. E. Cupp said in a CNN interview Wednesday night. Cupp said she felt assured that suppressing conservative viewpoints would be “anathema” to Zuckerberg’s philosophy, and “counterproductive” to Facebook’s business model.

Along with Cupp and Bluey, the guests in attendance included radio host Glenn Beck, former White House press secretary Dana Perino who served under President George W. Bush, Heritage Foundation president and former senator Jim DeMint, Daily Caller editor in chief Tucker Carlson, Tea Party Patriots founder Jenny Beth Martin and Donald Trump campaign aide Barry Bennett. (“Trump’s name did not come up,” Bluey said, and the meeting “wasn’t focused on the election.”) Bluey recognized that conservatives, including many of the people in the room, have accrued massive followings on Facebook.

Zuckerberg’s data would concur. “Donald Trump has more fans on Facebook than any other presidential candidate,” he said in his Facebook post Wednesday evening. “And Fox News drives more interactions on its Facebook page than any other news outlet in the world. It’s not even close.”

Not all conservative media figures were so enamored with Zuckerberg’s efforts at reconciliation. Breitbart columnist Milo Yiannopoulos opined that those who visited Menlo Park were “obedient conservative lapdogs” attending a “photo-op.” Bluey said he understands why some right-wing pundits might be skeptical of the meeting — and, should Facebook fail to move beyond the initial discussion points, Bluey might count himself among them. He’s particularly interested in what he describes as the occasional “unusual patterns” that refer visitors to the Heritage Foundation and the Daily Signal sites.

The consternation about Facebook underscores two points.

First, Facebook may have begun as a place for college students to poke friends and share photos, but those are no longer its defining traits – it is now a major force in news consumption. Facebook’s designs for algorithmic neutrality are a “matter of presentation,” Bluey said.  

“The fear, among the conservative leaders in the room, is if Facebook wasn’t somehow being fair, they shouldn’t bill themselves as unbiased.” Had Facebook come out and stated trending topics were “liberal topics” from the start, Bluey is of the opinion it would be less of an issue. “Conservatives just want you to be honest.” Facebook, he said, was convincing in its claim there is no sinister effort to suppress a political viewpoint.

Second, despite offering glimpses of how it works, Facebook remains a black box. The company’s algorithms are “not transparent,” Mark Bartholomew, a University at Buffalo cyber law expert, told The Post in a phone interview Wednesday. In the Silicon Valley view, Facebook is a democratic tool in which the most-liked articles rise to the top. “There’s some truth to that,” Bartholomew said, “but also some anti-democratic stuff going on.”

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He pointed to Facebook’s past experiments regarding social contagion, in which nearly 700,000 users had their feeds loaded with content that skewed more positive or negative. Though within the legal bounds of a private company, the research was widely condemned as unethical.  Given Facebook’s history, Bartholomew says he would hope the recent conservative backlash might make people “more skeptical” of the influential social media site.

The political power Facebook could potentially wield is immense. Close to three in four adult Americans who use the Internet also use Facebook, according to a Pew estimate. A 2012 study published in the journal Nature concluded that in the November 2010 midterm election, a pro-voting non-partisan message shared on Facebook encouraged between 60,000 and 340,000 people to vote who would not have done so otherwise.

Bluey does not envision anyone jumping the good ship Zuckerberg soon. Facebook is a valuable tool to reach an audience, he said, that includes millions of conservatives across the country.

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