Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg hosted about 20 prominent conservatives at the social network’s Menlo Park headquarters Wednesday to address recent charges of liberal bias. Gizmodo reported last week that some Facebook workers who curated the network's trending news section allow their own political views to influence which stories qualify for promotion in a special box on users' homepages.
The 75-minute session was off the record, but S.E. Cupp, a conservative CNN commentator and New York Daily News columnist who was there, agreed to share her impressions with The Fix. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
THE FIX: I know the substance of what you talked about was off the record, but what was your general impression?
CUPP: I was really pleased. I felt like this was not just a photo op. This was a group of people who are genuinely concerned — from a PR level, of course — but also from a practical level. I think the idea that there could be bias, whether intended or not, that leads to a reduction of viewpoints is completely anathema to everything the mark of Facebook stands for — and also counterproductive to their business model.
THE FIX: You don’t want to alienate half the country, right?
CUPP: Or the world. Facebook is a global platform, and whether it’s conservatives here in America or some other group somewhere else, they don’t want that. Mark wants to give as many people as big a platform to share their ideas as possible. If any group feels as though they can’t trust Facebook to do that, that’s really anathema to their goals. So I don’t question the sincerity of their effort at all. … Of all the ways you could handle this, I have no complaints. This is pretty much the best you can do, which is to address the problem head on, deal with it immediately, promise transparency, invite people into the room to have a conversation and make that conversation ongoing.
THE FIX: Was this a session where Facebook explained to you how their news curating works? Or was it mostly them fielding feedback and questions from you guys?
CUPP: It was really a mix. When we had questions, they gave direct answers. When we had suggestions, they listened. And, frankly, some of us disagreed on the conservative side about what the problem is and how to solve it. They listened to all of that.
THE FIX: When you say “they,” I take it Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t flying solo. Did he have a big team? Did he do a lot of the talking?
CUPP: He was engaged, for sure. He didn’t just sit back. It was him and about eight others. They were engaged but they really did let us drive the conversation.
THE FIX: This might seem like an obvious question, but why is it so important for the trending news box on your Facebook page to be neutral? The counter-argument would be, “What’s the big deal? You can find information in lots of places on the internet, and if you’re relying on Facebook to be your primary or even sole source of news, shame on you.”
CUPP: A couple things. If you’re purporting to present the stories that are the most talked about, then they should be the stories that are the most talked about — and not the stories you wish were the most talked about. Whatever your judgment about how people get news, I think Facebook legitimately is a good place for me to find out — maybe not the news — but what a lot of people are talking about. That’s important to me; I like to know that. So I want to know legitimately what a lot of people are talking about, not what Facebook wants me to think a lot of people are talking about.
THE FIX: Philosophically, do you feel like Facebook should use a purely statistical model — and algorithm — with no human judgment involved, or should there be some person there with the discretion to say, “Yes, this is trending, but it comes from some completely untrustworthy source and is unsubstantiated, and we don’t want to put it out there?"
CUPP: I feel like we have so many outlets that perform those functions that it’s important to have a place where people really do feel safe. You want a safe space that is not looking to promote or subvert certain ideas. I think as an ideal it is incredibly important. That’s not to say there isn’t room for the other, but I just think there is a lot of the other. What makes Facebook so unique is that ideally it’s a place where people feel safe to have those exchanges. There are issues not just around trending topics: people being able to take another person’s Facebook page down because they mark it as offensive enough. There are other issues that need to be worked out to make Facebook the best it can be.
THE FIX: If I read Facebook’s public response correctly, it seemed to be saying there isn’t an institutional mandate but there might be some individuals charged with curating news who may have injected their own personal biases. That seems like an important distinction. Maybe the effect is the same, but it seems less nefarious and grand-scheme-y. Are you satisfied that’s the case?
CUPP: That’s what we were told. We were told that according to the investigation, which is ongoing, they have not found evidence of systemic bias. I will wait for the conclusion of that investigation. They’ve been talking to contractors who no longer work there. They’ve really tried to do a conclusive investigation. They’ve just not found any evidence of that. I’ll wait for the results.