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Claims that Facebook suppressed conservative news spur letter from Senate panel

Recent claims that Facebook routinely suppresses conservative news has caught the eye of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee. The committee has sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, inquiring into how the Trending Topics section works.

If you didn’t catch the news, Gizmodo reported on May 9 that several former Facebook employees claim the social media giant has a list of preferred news outlets it picks articles from for its trending topics section, such as The New York Times, the BBC, and CNN.

In addition to citing poor working conditions for journalists contracted by the company to maintain this section, former employees said articles from right-wing sites like Breitbart, the Washington Examiner, and Newsmax were rejected, according to Gizmodo.

Facebook denied the accusations, and said Trending Topics shows popular topics and hashtags that are being talked about on Facebook.

“There are rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality,” the company said. “These guidelines do not permit the suppression of political perspectives. Nor do they permit the prioritization of one viewpoint over another or one news outlet over another. These guidelines do not prohibit any news outlet from appearing in Trending Topics.”

The accusations rippled across many media sites, and now the Commerce Committee has sent a letter to Zuckerberg to glean more information about the Trending Topics tool, according to Gizmodo. The committee oversees communication, among a host of other fields, and wants to know the company’s organization structure for the topics feature and the steps for determining those topics.

“Social networks such as Facebook are an increasingly important source of news for many Americans and people around the world,” Committee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., writes in the letter. “The ability to connect with others to discuss and debate the issues of the day that such services offer has created a powerful platform for civic engagement. Indeed, with over a billion daily active users on average, Facebook has enormous influence on users’ perceptions of current events, including political perspectives.”

Since Facebook claims it is a platform “for people and perspectives from across the political spectrum,” the committee says if the Trending Topics feature indeed suppressed conservative viewpoints, then Facebook misled the public.

The former workers also claimed Facebook had an “injection tool” to push important stories that weren’t organically being shared. Stories that were sitting on the front page of the New York Times, BBC News, and CNN, but weren’t popular on Facebook, were “injected” into the Trending Topics ticker. Sometimes, these stories would rise to the top after being injected.

The committee is also interested in this injection tool, and is asking Facebook for a list of all stories removed from or injected into Trending Topics.

“How many stories have curators excluded that represented conservative viewpoints or topics of interest to conservatives? How many stories did curators inject that were not, in fact, trending?” one of the questions from the committee’s letter asked.

Facebook has to file a response by May 24, but as Politico reports, the Senate committee can’t actually force Facebook to change its practices. Sen. Harry Reid, D-NV, said the issue is not of urgent national interest.

“The Republican Senate refuses to hold hearings on (Supreme Court nominee) Judge (Merrick) Garland, refuses to fund the President’s request for Zika aid, and takes the most days off of any Senate since 1956, but thinks Facebook hearings are a matter of urgent national interest,” Reid’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Adam Jentleson said. “The taxpayers who pay Republican senators’ salaries probably want their money back.”