Thune is chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee -- which, among other jurisdictions, oversees technology, communications and Internet issues. "If true, these allegations compromise Facebook's 'open culture' and mission 'to make the world more open and connected,'" Thune wrote Tuesday in a sharply worded letter to Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, demanding that employees responsible for Trending Topics brief the Senate committee by May 24.
A Gizmodo report caused quite a stir this week with claims from former Facebook contract employees that the social-media behemoth suppresses conservative stories in its Trending Topics feed. Facebook has denied the allegations and noted there's no evidence to substantiate the claims.
But Republicans are nevertheless throwing a fit. The Republican National Committee, among many others in the party, believe Facebook is "censoring" the right. "It is beyond disturbing to learn that this power is being used to silence view points and stories that don't fit someone else's agenda," the RNC said in a statement yesterday, operating from the assumption that the unproven charges are true.
But one key Republican senator is doing more than just complain. NBC News reported yesterday that Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) "wants to haul Facebook employees before Congress."
Senate Democrats were quick to point out that the Republican majority can't be bothered to hold a hearing on a pending Supreme Court vacancy; GOP senators still haven't dealt with the looming Zika threat; and the chamber takes an alarming number of days off; but Republicans nevertheless seem to believe "Facebook hearings are a matter of urgent national interest."
That's not a bad line, but given the circumstances, the Senate GOP's bizarre sense of priorities is the least of the troubles here.
Right off the bat, it's difficult to understand how Congress has any oversight responsibilities towards a private social-media company. I haven't the foggiest idea if Facebook puts its thumb on the scales to help the left with Trending Topics -- the evidence is thin, at best, based on the word of anonymous contractors -- but let's say for the sake of conversation that the allegations are 100% accurate. Then what? How, exactly, would federal lawmakers justify intervening in Facebook's ideological practices?
Indeed, since when does the Senate care about media companies that may or may not have political preferences? John Thune says he's concerned about Facebook's "culture" and the integrity of its mission statement, but again, how in the world is that any of his business? Isn't the Republican model based on the idea that the free market should decide and if online consumers don't like Facebook's "culture," we can take our clicks elsewhere?
But even more striking still is Thune's uniquely weak position. When the South Dakota Republican became Congress' leading opponent of net neutrality, Thune made the case that any political interference in how the Internet operates is inherently unacceptable.
Worse, in 2007, Thune railed against the "Fairness Doctrine," arguing at the time, "I know the hair stands up on the back of my neck when I hear government officials offering to regulate the news media and talk radio to ensure fairness. I think most Americans have the same reaction."
He added, "Giving power to a few to regulate fairness in the media is a recipe for disaster on the scale that George Orwell so aptly envisioned."
And yet, here we are, watching the exact same senator use his office to demand answers from a media company accused of being insufficiently "fair" towards conservative content.
If I were an attorney for Facebook, I'd encourage Thune and the Senate Commerce Committee to go jump in a lake.