Facebook Makes Changes To Trending Section After Bias Accusations

The social network launched an investigation into its trending news section after allegations that conservative stories were suppressed.

Facebook said Monday it will make changes to its Trending Topics section after allegations surfaced that it suppressed conservative content.

Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch announced the changes Monday in a statement, and a letter to Sen. John Thune. According to Stretch, the changes will include improvements to both training, terminology, and practices.

Earlier this month, former members of Facebook's news curation team told Gizmodo they were ordered to manipulate the site's powerful "trending" section. One staffer described suppressing conservative stories on topics including Mitt Romney and Rand Paul, and others said they were ordered to inject stories into the section even if those stories weren't actually trending.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation demanded answers in the wake of the allegations. Thune, chairman of the committee, said 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."

In his statement Monday, Stretch said Facebook would no longer use a list of external websites to "identify, validate or assess the importance of particular topics." The company is also removing the ability to assign an "importance level" based a topic's prominence on top news sites.

While the social network reiterated it had not found any evidence of political bias in its trending section, it acknowledged it was possible.

"We could not fully exclude the possibility of isolated improper actions or unintentional bias in the implementation of our guidelines or policies," Stretch wrote.

The company is updating the terminology used in guidelines for curation staffers as well, Stretch said, and will provide training emphasizing "that content decisions may not be made on the basis of politics or ideology."

The letter also describes the investigation into the allegations, stating that both current and former members of the curation team "confirmed that they are not aware of any ideological bias in the review process." Facebook also reviewed data and found no evidence of "systematic" political bias. The letter addresses specific allegations that surfaced during the controversy, pointing to instances when content related to or by conservative figures such as Glenn Beck and Matt Drudge appeared in the trending section.

"The only clear trend revealed by the analysis was that moderate topics — that is, those that are popular across the political spectrum — are approved and boosted at a higher rate than liberal or conservative topics," Stretch said.

A "specific reviewer" might have taken "isolated actions with an improper motive," Stretch added, but if the company learns of an instance in which political bias was a factor, "we will take prompt remedial actions."