SAN FRANCISCO (Bloomberg) - Conservatives are meeting with Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday (May 18) 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 US$1 billion (S$1.37 billion), compared with about US$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.
Republicans' perception of Facebook dropped 60 per cent since the controversy emerged, while Democrats' views have slightly improved, according to YouGov's BrandIndex, which tracks brand health.
The index calculates its score by asking 4,800 people each weekday about their perceptions, using a scale of 100 to negative 100. On May 8, Facebook had a score of 19 among Republicans. By May 16, it had fallen to 7.4.
"Certainly it's impacting conservatives' viewpoint of Facebook," said Buzz Jacobs, co-founder of Strategic Storytelling Co. and former adviser to Republican Senator Marco Rubio's presidential campaign.
"When you have people saying that Facebook can't be trusted and Twitter can't be trusted because they have a liberal bent, and then something like this comes out - it certainly gives people pause."
Since Democrat Barack Obama first used Facebook to help win the White House in the 2008 race, the social network has been working in Washington to try to bridge the gap with Republicans.
There was some initial frostiness, in part because the company was co-founded by Chris Hughes, who played a high-profile role as a volunteer on the Obama campaign.
But the power of the company's targeting tools appealed to political operatives. Facebook's page promoting its political advertising, for instance, highlights Republican Rick Scott's campaign for governor of Florida. The candidate, elected in 2011, was able to use Facebook to show ads to non-Cuban Latino voters by syncing them with content about the World Cup, with messages like "Buena suerte, Team USA!" - or "good luck" in Spanish.
He saw a 22 per cent increase in Hispanic support, according to Facebook.
Surgeon Ben Carson ran more than 600 different ad campaigns on Facebook during his unsuccessful bid for the Republican Party's 2016 nomination for president, according to Ken Dawson, who served as the campaign's chief marketing officer.
"We placed millions of dollars of media on behalf of the Carson campaign on Facebook alone," said Dawson, the president of Eleventy Marketing Group. "From my experience, I've found that Facebook has been highly effective and I've not experienced what I would perceive as tamping down of any content that we've tried to put out there."
Facebook's biggest threat is losing the trust of its user base through promises that may prove difficult to keep. There are benefits to being transparent about a process, but ultimately all parties might disagree on whether news topics are liberal or conservative in the first place, said David Greene, civil liberties director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
And no matter how neutral the site intends to be, there's no such thing as an algorithm or human decision-making system that is completely objective, according to Emma Llanso, director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology.
Readers wouldn't expect complete freedom from bias at the New York Times or Fox News, she said.
"Facebook, like all of the social-media companies, is, at the end of the day, a media company," she said.
"And the kinds of editorial decisions we know and expect a media company to make are also going on at the Internet companies we use, and it's very important for us to understand as we look at where we get our news."