Conservatives are meeting with Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg Wednesday to voice their concerns about potential liberal bias.
The social network, which has 1.65 billion users worldwide, is responding to an anonymously sourced report in Gizmodo last week alleging that its team of human editors leaned toward liberal sources in selecting stories for the trending news topics feature.
Legally, Zuckerberg owes the conservatives nothing, despite an inquiry from a Republican senator about Facebook’s methods. The company is within its rights to order trending topics however it wants, according to First Amendment lawyers. But as a CEO, Zuckerberg has other priorities to consider. He needs to ensure that people feel like they’re using a service with no bias in what it delivers -- lest Facebook alienate those who fear their views are in jeopardy. Facebook also needs to maintain its influence with these right-leaning users so it can make money from that audience, in the form of political advertising.
Zuckerberg, who has said Facebook has so far found no evidence of a political slant in its news rankings, hopes to have a “direct conversation about what Facebook stands for and how we can be sure our platform stays as open as possible,” according to a May 12 post by the 32-year-old CEO. Among the dozen planned attendees of the meeting are talk-show host Glenn Beck, conservative think-tank leader Arthur Brooks and political commentator S.E. Cupp.
Editors vs Algorithms
So far the participants aren’t outlining specific concessions they want from Facebook. The first step is understanding how the product works, with its mix of input from human editors and algorithmic rankings. After the Gizmodo report, Facebook released internal documents that showed the process behind its trending topics section was more human than advertised.
Conservatives “want to learn more about the process and encourage them as a company to become more politically balanced,” according to Barry Bennett, a Donald Trump adviser who is also attending the meeting at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California.
For Facebook, the outcome could affect its election-year ads business. Political campaigns’ spending on digital ads is forecast to soar to $1 billion, compared with about $159 million in 2012, according to Borrell Associates, which follows media trends. About half may go to social media.
One planned meeting participant, Zac Moffatt, worked as Mitt Romney’s digital director during his 2012 presidential campaign. As co-founder of Targeted Victory, Moffatt is among the leaders in the Republican digital-ad world, focusing on programmatic media buying and influencing how millions of dollars will be spent. Since 2012, Targeted Victory has managed more than 20,000 individual digital ad campaigns on Facebook, according to the company. Targeted Victory declined to comment on goals for the meeting.