Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, followed up his in-person questioning of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg before the Senate Judiciary Committee in April with over a 100-question (76 page-long) written interrogatory, focusing heavily on issues of political and religious bias.
Other senators also submitted questions for Zuckerberg, the answers to which were all released last Friday.
During the CEO’s appearance before the Senate in April, Cruz pressed him on the issue of political bias against conservatives and Christians.
“There are a great many Americans who I think are deeply concerned that Facebook and other tech companies are engaged in a pervasive pattern of bias and political censorship,” said Cruz.
He cited examples of the suppression, such as the Facebook pages of conservatives like pro-Trump political commentators Lynnette “Diamond” Hardaway and Rochelle “Silk” Richardson (deemed by the social media giant “unsafe to the community“), as well as the removal of a Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day page, and the taking down of certain Catholic pages.
Zuckerberg did not respond to the specific instances Cruz listed, but stated he wanted the free flow of ideas on the platform.
“I am very committed to making sure that Facebook is a platform for all ideas,” he said. “We’re proud of the discourse and different ideas that people can share on the service. And that is something that as long as I’m running the company I’m going to be committed to making sure is the case.”
“Facebook’s 2018 alteration of its algorithm has had a noted and outsized impact on traffic to conservative websites while not having a similar effect on liberal websites,” Cruz wrote.
He continued, “At least one study by The Western Journal estimated liberal publishers’ traffic from Facebook rose approximately 2% following the change, while conservative publishers’ traffic declined approximately 14%.”
“Were any components of these changes intended to have a differential impact on conservative outlets versus liberal ones?” Cruz asked.
Facebook responded that its intent was not to downgrade conservative sites when it made its “trusted sources” algorithm change in what The Western Journal determined to be early February.
“To reduce the spread of false news, one of the things we’re doing is working with third- party fact checkers to let people know when they are sharing news stories (excluding satire and opinion) that have been disputed or debunked, and to limit the distribution of stories that have been flagged as misleading, sensational, or spammy,” the social media company answered.
Campbell Brown — a former anchor on NBC and CNN who now leads Facebook’s news partnerships team — elaborated on the policy to attendees at a technology and publishing conference in February.
“This is not us stepping back from news,” she said. “This is us changing our relationship with publishers and emphasizing something that Facebook has never done before: It’s having a point of view, and it’s leaning into quality news. … We are, for the first time in the history of Facebook, taking a step to try to to define what ‘quality news’ looks like and give that a boost.”
CNN appeared to clearly benefit under the new algorithm.
According to Newswhip, CNN came in at No. 16 in the rankings of the most engaged pages on Facebook in January, while Fox News was No. 1, The Western Journal was No. 4, and the Daily Wire was No. 6.
Following the algorithm change in February, CNN shot up to the No. 2 slot, while both the conservative Western Journal and Daily Wire dropped out of the top 10.
In March — the first full month of under the new algorithm — CNN went to No. 1, NBC News to No. 2, and Fox News to No. 3, with The New York Times, Huffington Post, BBC, The Daily Mail, The Washington Post, Yahoo.com and The Guardian rounding out the top 10.
Meanwhile, The Western Journal fell back to No. 22, surpassed by the liberal site Buzzfeed, publisher of the infamous, unverified Trump dossier.
Following Zuckerberg’s testimony in April, conservative news pages saw some improvement with Fox News back at No. 1, the Daily Wire back in the top 10, and The Western Journal up seven spots to No. 15. CNN and NBC News still remained high at Nos. 2 and 3, respectively. May’s rankings were not available at the time of publishing.
In response to written questions by Cruz, specifically about Diamond and Silk, Facebook wrote, “We mishandled communication with Diamond and Silk for months. Their frustration was understandable, and we apologized to them.”
“The message they received on April 5, 2018 that characterized their Page as ‘dangerous’ was incorrect and not reflective of the way we seek to communicate with our community and the people who run Pages on our platform.”
Facebook further noted, “We have engaged an outside advisor, former (Arizona Republican) Senator Jon Kyl, to advise the company on potential bias against conservative voices. We believe this external feedback will help us improve over time and ensure we can most effectively serve our diverse community.”
Cruz also asked whether Facebook considers portions of the Bible, Torah or Koran “hate speech.”
Additionally, the senator questioned if Facebook believes that teachings from these books which call for traditional sexual mores “i.e. that sex should be had only within a marriage between one man and one woman” should be discouraged from dissemination.
Cruz also sought to know if Facebook — headquartered in Menlo Park, California — would comply if the state passes Assembly Bill 2943, which makes it a crime for businesses to engage in any “transaction intended to result or that results in the sale or lease of goods or services to any consumer” aimed at “sexual orientation change efforts with an individual.”
Goods would include any books or written materials.
According to the Los Angeles Times, “One key part of the debate centers on whether Assembly Bill 2943 would stretch beyond businesses that charge for (conversion) programs and extend to printed documents, even Bibles.”
Responding to the entire line of questioning about hate speech, the Bible and AB 2943, Facebook directed Cruz to the company’s “objectionable content” standards.
“We define hate speech as a direct attack on people based on what we call protected characteristics—race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, sex, gender, gender identity, and serious disability or disease.”
The guideline continued, “We also provide some protections for immigration status. We define attack as violent or dehumanizing speech, statements of inferiority, and calls for exclusion or segregation.”
Facebook conceded it is often a judgment call by the company in deciding what it deems to be hate speech, or otherwise objectionable, based on the guidelines it has established.
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