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Report: Facebook Ignored Its Fake News Problem for Fear of Conservative Blowback

STANFORD, CA - JUNE 24: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks on a panel discussion with U.S. President Barack Obama (not pictured) during the 2016 Global Entrepreneurship Summit at Stanford University on June 24, 2016 in Stanford, California. President Obama joined Silicon Valley leaders on the final day of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Forty-four percent of Americans reportedly get their news from Facebook. Of that 44 percent, a huge number read and then share blatantly and hyper-partisan fake news. Many people (with the notable exception of Mark Zuckerberg) agree that the consumption of so much false information helped sway the election last week in Donald Trump’s favor, but it was largely assumed that the problem was so widespread that Facebook was unable to come up with a viable solution.

But Gizmodo reports that, according to two company insiders, Facebook had an update to their Newsfeed that would have allowed the company to reliably identify and remove fake stories, but they refused to implement it in part because the stories it selected were disproportionately from conservative sites. From Gizmodo:

“They absolutely have the tools to shut down fake news,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous citing fear of retribution from the company. The source added, “there was a lot of fear about upsetting conservatives after Trending Topics,” and that “a lot of product decisions got caught up in that.”

“Trending Topics” is a reference to a debacle at Facebook last May, when Gizmodo reported that not only were the company’s human news “curators” influencing the stories that showed up in the Trending Stories box instead of an algorithm as the company had claimed, but also that those same curators were regularly suppressing news from conservative publications. The controversy resulted in Facebook firing its entire editorial staff and replacing it with an algorithm, which of course led to a surge in trending fake stories.

“The Trending Topics episode paralyzed Facebook’s willingness to make any serious changes to its products that might compromise the perception of its objectivity,” a source told the New York Times over the weekend.

Facebook, naturally, denied Gizmodo’s latest report in a statement:

We did not build and withhold any News Feed changes based on their potential impact on any one political party. We always work to make News Feed more meaningful and informative, and that includes examining the quality and accuracy of items shared, such as clickbait, spam and hoaxes. Mark himself said, “I want to do everything I can to make sure our teams uphold the integrity of our products.” This includes continuously reviewing updates to make sure we are not exhibiting unconscious bias.