New York (AFP) - Facebook on Tuesday denied allegations that it scrubs its site of news articles by and about political conservatives, amid outrage over the claims.
The social media giant said the popularity of news stories is determined by an algorithm, then audited -- never manipulated -- by review team members to confirm that the topics are in fact trending news items.
But tech news outlet Gizmodo reported Monday that a former news curator alleged that articles from politically conservative outlets -- particularly when written about conservative subjects -- were deliberately omitted from Facebook's "trending news" sidebar of popular stories.
"I'd come on shift and I'd discover that CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) or (former presidential candidate) Mitt Romney or (radio talk show host) 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," the individual told Gizmodo anonymously.
According to Gizmodo, which also spoke to other former news curators, stories covered by conservative media that were trending enough to be picked up by Facebook's algorithm were only included if also covered by "mainstream sites" such as The New York Times, the BBC or CNN.
There was no evidence that management mandated or was aware of any political bias at work, Gizmodo reported, noting that one former curator "described the omissions as a function of his colleagues' judgments."
However, Gizmodo reported that curators were told to put stories deemed as important by management in the trending news feed even if they weren't generating much buzz.
These included the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks, as well as the war in Syria and the Black Lives Matter movement.
- 'No truth' to claims -
The charges unleashed a fierce debate in the US media and on the social network itself, which has some 1.6 billion users around the globe.
But Facebook denied having an anti-conservative bias.
"We've looked into this and found that there is no truth to the claims in Gizmodo," a Facebook spokeswoman told AFP.
"We take these reports extremely seriously, and have found no evidence that the anonymous allegations are true," wrote Tom Stocky, vice president of search at Facebook, where he oversees the team responsible for engineering and designing Trending Topics.
"Facebook is a platform for people and perspectives from across the political spectrum," Stocky wrote on the site.
"There are rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality. These guidelines do not permit the suppression of political perspectives. Nor do they permit the prioritization of one viewpoint over another or one news outlet over another," he added.
"We want to encourage that robust political discussion from all sides."
Facebook also dismissed the charges that it manipulated #BlackLivesMatter so that it would become a trending topic.
"We looked into that charge and found that it is untrue. We do not insert stories artificially into trending topics, and do not instruct our reviewers to do so," said Stocky.
- 'Site censors the news' -
Still, the allegations caused a stir.
"You won't read this on Facebook. Site censors the news," the New York Post tabloid splashed across its front page.
"I wonder if the Quinnipiac poll showing Trump even w Hillary in FL, OH and PA is trending on Facebook," tweeted Ari Fleischer, White House spokesman under George W. Bush, of a new survey showing the presumed Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump closing in on Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
Joel Kaplan, associate dean for professional graduate studies at Syracuse University's Newhouse School, said Facebook is a private company that can do what it wants.
"If it wants to emphasize a particular story or point of view, it is in its right just as it's fine for Fox News or the New York Times to do," he told AFP.
"I also think it's good for any news organization/curator to push stories that they think are important," he added.