Mark Zuckerberg Challenged Over Political Bias at Annual Shareholder Meeting

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Mark Zuckerberg

“When pro-life actress Patricia Heaton recently tweeted support of a crisis pregnancy center, Facebook’s trending news curator somehow headlined the item, ‘Patricia Heaton shares anti-abortion message’ … That’s an outrageous characterization,” a shareholder told Zuckerberg.

A shareholder attempting to confront CEO Mark Zuckerberg about accusations of political bias at Facebook — while invoking conservative actress Patricia Heaton, no less — was thwarted Monday when a different executive stepped in to field the question.

“Until the company is completely transparent as to how it selects trending news items and why it removes certain posts, many conservative individuals and organizations will rightly feel that the company has treated them unfairly,” a shareholder said at Facebook’s annual meeting.

The issue of bias first arose after a Gizmodo report quoted a former employee disclosing that staffers routinely omitted from Facebook’s list of trending topics stories that reflected well on conservatives. Later, Zuckerberg met with conservatives like Glenn Beck to assure them that the problem was resolved.

At Monday’s meeting, though, a shareholder insisted that the problem still exists.

“Even when you include a conservative story in the trending news section, for example, Facebook’s bias is evident,” said Justin Danhof, a representative of the National Center for Public Policy Research, which owns shares of Facebook.

“When pro-life actress Patricia Heaton recently tweeted support of a crisis pregnancy center, Facebook’s trending news curator somehow headlined the item, ‘Patricia Heaton shares anti-abortion message’ … That’s an outrageous characterization,” said Danhof. “And this incident happened after your so-called summit with conservative leaders. And I have dozens and dozens of more instances since that meeting.”

“Mark, why don’t I take that one?” Facebook vp of U.S. public policy Joel Kaplan told Zuckerberg.

“We undertook an investigation of the specific allegations and determined that there was no systemic bias in the product,” Kaplan told Danhof. “When any issue comes up, we want to know about it and we want to try to address it quickly so that all the people who come on to Facebook understand that it’s a platform for them and their ideas.”

Danhof has been making the rounds at shareholder meetings of major media companies. Three months ago he confronted Disney CEO Bob Iger over alleged bias at ABC News while last week he congratulated Time Warner CEO Jeffrey Bewkes for allegedly allowing more conservatives to appear on CNN than it had in the past.

Zuckerberg was asked a couple of more politically themed questions by different shareholders at Facebook’s meeting on Monday, but he let other executives handle the answers.

One shareholder, for example, complained that liberals and conservatives are only shown ads that reinforce their political viewpoints. “They’re all stuck in their own little echo chambers,” said the shareholder.

“What Facebook does is let us hear from more people on a daily basis,” COO Sheryl Sandberg answered. “The people you went to school with, the people not in your current company but in your last job, the people who used to be in your home town. And, so, what you get are just more ability to keep in touch with more people and over time, we believe, more diverse viewpoints.”

Another shareholder wondered how Facebook prevents its platform from being used by terrorists, and Kaplan fielded that one. “We have very clear policies that there’s no place for terrorist content,” he said. “When that type of content is reported to us, we take it down.”

As for its official shareholder business, Facebook, which is controlled by Zuckerberg through his 60 percent voting power, reelected all of the board members, including Peter Thiel, despite a controversy involving him secretly funding lawsuits against Gawker Media.

Shareholders also voted in a new class of non-voting shares, which was seen as a way to ensure Zuckerberg keeps control over the company he founded by allowing him to sell shares other than the ones that give him the majority of voting power.
 

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