Facebook denies censoring conservative topics

Social giant accused of manipulating its 'Trending' news sidebar to remove right-wing stories

(Image credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Facebook has denied censoring its "Trending" news sidebar after a former employee claimed the social media giant would routinely suppress stories of interest to right-wing users.

The ex-worker, a journalist employed to develop the "highly-influential" section, told Gizmodo staff would prevent stories about conservative figures and events from appearing despite trending organically among the site's users.

"I'd come on shift and I'd discover that CPAC [the Conservative Political Action Conference] or Mitt Romney or Glenn Beck or popular conservative topics wouldn't be trending because either the curator didn't recognize the news topic or it was like they had a bias against Ted Cruz", said the source.

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Gizmodo also claimed that news curators were encouraged to artificially float articles in the section, either to pick up stories dominating the front pages or to promote topics "deemed important for making the network look like a place where people talked about hard news".

The report comes just weeks after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg appeared to publicly denounce presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a developer conference.

The Guardian says the report has caused a "firestorm in conservative media circles", with prominent US conservative mouthpiece Breitbart saying it confirmed what conservatives had "long suspected".

In a statement, Facebook denied supressing conservative viewpoints and topics and said the site was a "platform for people and perspectives from across the political spectrum".

It also explained the system behind the feature, saying such censorship was "technically not feasible" as the tools used by reviewers do not allow them to discriminate against sources of particular "ideological origin".

"Popular topics are first surfaced by an algorithm, then audited by review team members to confirm that the topics are in fact trending news in the real world and not, for example, similar-sounding topics or misnomers," wrote Tom Stocky, who leads the section.

As the BBC explains, the list is "edited by humans so as to avoid regularly recurring topics – such as 'Lunch'".

Facebook also rejected claims that news stories such as the Black Lives Matter movement were artificially ranked: "We do not insert stories artificially into trending topics, and do not instruct our reviewers to do so," said Stocky.

He added: "We have in place strict guidelines for our trending topic reviewers as they audit topics surfaced algorithmically. At the same time, our reviewers' actions are logged and reviewed, and violating our guidelines is a fireable offense."

Ironically, Gizmodo's original story began trending on Facebook's trending topics section on Monday.

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