- The Washington Times - Monday, May 16, 2016

It turns out the algorithms that govern the internet can be as biased as the people who create and update them.

That may be the most surprising takeaway from the political bias scandal that has enveloped Facebook after former employees told the tech blog Gizmodo that they would sometimes suppress conservative-friendly items and promote liberal reports on the newsfeed’s “trending topics” box.

Even if no humans were involved, however, the algorithm would not have been completely neutral because it was written by humans, digital media analysts say.

“I think there’s probably no such thing as a neutral algorithm, just like there’s probably never really such a thing as a truly neutral journalist,” said Philip Napoli, journalism and media studies professor at Rutgers University.

“They get created and they evolve over time and they get tweaked. And there’s no one author,” Mr. Napoli said. “These algorithms are the result of years and years of modification and refinement and different people coming in and contributing. It’s more dispersed.”

The question of eliminating bias in the algorithm — or at least mitigating it — is likely to be raised when leading conservative commentators such as Glenn Beck and Dana Perino meet Wednesday with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

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Mr. Zuckerberg has insisted that “rigorous guidelines” govern what appears on “trending topics,” the box in the top right corner of the Facebook feed that users have been led to believe reflects the most popular subjects on the site.

With 1.6 billion users, Facebook is the most pervasive media outlet in the world. If Facebook represents its “trending topics” feed as politically neutral but conservatives are excluded — either automatically by the algorithm or proactively by curators — implications for the free exchange of ideas are enormous, critics say.

Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican and chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, fired off a letter to Mr. Zuckerberg last week seeking answers to questions raised by the report of “political manipulation.”

“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,” Mr. Thune said in a May 10 statement.

On the left, the commentary has fallen largely in the “get over it” category. A Friday headline on ThinkProgress announced, “Yes, Facebook’s algorithm is biased. So is literally everything.”

A 28-page “Trending Review Guidelines” document released last week by Facebook instructed curators to check the importance of a national story against 10 news sources.

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Nearly all of those outlets are at least left-leaning: CNN, BBC, Fox News, the Guardian, NBC, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and Yahoo. Only one of those (Fox News) and the op-ed pages of another (The Wall Street Journal) would be considered reliably right of center.

Facebook later released a list of “1,000 reputable websites,” at least three of which must reference an item before it can be considered trending. They included several state-run media outlets in repressive regimes such as Russia and China, as well as the websites of The Onion, Tiger Woods, Perez Hilton, Muscle & Fitness, and Seventeen, according to The Washington Free Beacon.

“It’s a classic garbage in, garbage out thing,” said Dan Gainor, vice president of business and culture for the conservative Media Research Center. “If you set up an algorithm that is skewed heavily toward traditionally liberal news sources, that’s what you’re going to get. You’re going to get traditionally liberal worldviews. And so it’s not shocking they would do that.”

The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway pointed Sunday to what she described as a significant delay after the pro-life Center for Medical Progress posted its first undercover video with Planned Parenthood officials in July. The video quickly went viral.

“Perhaps the worst example was when the Planned Parenthood story broke, it went viral almost within minutes. It took a very long time for Facebook to acknowledge that this was a trending topic. And then when they did they didn’t link to the conservative sites that were actually breaking the news and doing the investigations,” Ms. Hemingway said on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”

“They linked to a few Planned Parenthood-sponsored items instead,” she said. “And that really affects the way public opinion can be shaped.”

Mr. Zuckerberg is slated to meet Wednesday with a group of conservatives at company headquarters in Menlo Park, California. In addition to Mr. Beck and Ms. Perino, the contingent includes American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks, senior Donald Trump campaign aide Barry Bennett and Targeted Victory co-founder Zac Moffatt.

“Trending Topics is designed to surface the most newsworthy and popular conversations on Facebook. We have rigorous guidelines that do not permit the prioritization of one viewpoint over another or the suppression of political perspectives,” Mr. Zuckerberg said last week in a post.

The episode has raised questions over whether it will lead to more federal regulation of the Internet, much as television and radio are now regulated by the Federal Communications Commission.

“I’m not saying that Facebook did anything anti-competitive, but they are in this incredibly influential bottleneck position, and historically these kinds of bottleneck industries have led to government oversight of some form or another,” said Mr. Napoli.

As a private company, Facebook is entitled to its political biases, but not when it represents a section as a neutral conglomeration of the day’s most discussed stories, say critics.

What heartens Mr. Gainor is Mr. Zuckerberg’s willingness to sit down with conservatives to work on fixing the problem.

“This is a big black eye for Facebook, and I am not trying to sound overly optimistic, but I am cautiously optimistic that they are indeed trying to address it since they’re meeting with people,” Mr. Gainor said.

“When’s the last time The New York Times had a huge meeting with conservatives about their coverage?” he asked rhetorically.

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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