While it may not surprise NRB members who have been alerted to instances of online censorship in recent years, this problem garnered significant attention this week when a technology blog published allegations of Facebook tampering with its influential trending news feed. Indeed, the assertion by former Facebook employees that they suppressed conservative stories and injected others into their stream has led to an internal company investigation and the personal attention of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who last night pledged to reach out to conservative leaders.
After the initial Gizmodo report about Facebook’s manipulation of the trending news feed, Dr. Jerry A. Johnson, President & CEO of National Religious Broadcasters, was not pleased. Calling out the company’s “one-sided neutrality,” he said, “For some time, Facebook has shut down conservative pages or censored their comments. Now Facebook is caught burying conservative news stories and puffing liberal ones. Facebook must change if they want our trust and our participation on their platform.”
Capitol Hill leaders also expressed concern. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) sent Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg a letter with specific questions about the company’s practices. “Any attempt by a neutral and inclusive social media platform to censor or manipulate political discussion is an abuse of trust and inconsistent with the values of an open Internet,” he said. Communications & Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) also said he was looking into the issue and noted, “I don’t want the government putting their thumb on the scale on speech but I also think it’s important to know what thumbs are being put on the scale, if there are any, by organizations that have enormous market power.”
Facebook denied the allegations of manipulation were true and insisted it has “rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality.” However, in its explanation, the social media giant noted, “Reviewers are required to accept topics that reflect real world events, and are instructed to disregard junk or duplicate topics, hoaxes, or subjects with insufficient sources.”
Dr. Johnson noted the hole in Facebook’s explanation, particularly discomforting after the Gizmodo report from whistleblowers, questions raised by newly leaked documents out of Facebook, and numerous examples of censorship documented by NRB’s John Milton Project. He stated, “Facebook should take this opportunity to declare its commitment to free speech for all on its platform and to implement a transparent policy holding its employees accountable for not discriminating, consciously or subconsciously, against viewpoints they may not value or agree with — including those they may wish to be ‘hoaxes’ or have ‘insufficient sources.’”
By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations
Published: May 13, 2016