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Acknowledging that "many conservatives don't trust that [Facebook] surfaces content without a political bias," Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg met with about a dozen prominent right-wingers Wednesday at the company's California headquarters.
The meeting — on the fourth anniversary of the day Facebook issued its initial public offering and became a public company — was closed to reporters, but in a statement afterward, Zuckerberg noted that "Donald Trump has more fans on Facebook than any other presidential candidate. And Fox News drives more interactions on its Facebook page than any other news outlet in the world. It's not even close."
Facebook has been under pressure since the tech news site Gizmodo, citing an unnamed former employee, reported May 9 that conservative news sources had been regularly demoted and that liberal sources had been promoted in its "Trending Topics" section — the box to the right of a user's main news feed, packaged with birthday notices and invitations.
Zuckerberg promised Wednesday that Facebook would always be "a platform for all ideas, saying, "It doesn't make sense for our mission or our business to suppress political content or prevent anyone from seeing what matters most to them."
In a signal of just how important Facebook is to political movements, including the conservative, many of those at the meeting announced and discussed their attendance on Facebook.
Zuckerberg several times mentioned how important it was for the company to win back the trust of Republicans and other conservatives.
The site initially said it wasn't technologically possible for content reviewers to manipulate the results of the internal Trending Topics algorithms. But as more information emerged, it released the feature's internal guidelines (PDF), which explicitly reveal that unspecified topics are sometimes "blacklisted" and that human editors are instructed to look beyond what the algorithms suggest to find "any newsworthy topics that aren't showing up in the review tool."
Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, chairman of the Commerce Committee — which, among other jurisdictions, oversees technology, communications and Internet issues — has demanded that employees responsible for Trending Topics brief his committee by next Tuesday.
The uproar put Facebook on the defensive and led to Wednesday's meeting with some of the most prominent representatives of conservative political thought in the country, including:
- Glenn Beck
- Former White House press secretary Dana Perino, now of Fox News
- Former Sen. Jim DeMint, R-South Carolina, president of the nonprofit Heritage Foundation
- Robert Bluey, editor of the Heritage Foundation news site The Daily Signal
- L. Brent Bozell, president of the nonprofit Media Research Center
- Arthur Brooks, president of the nonprofit American Enterprise Institute
- Jenny Beth Martin, chief executive of Tea Party Patriots
- CNN commentator S.E. Cupp
- Barry Bennett, an adviser to Donald Trump's presidential campaign and former campaign manager for Ben Carson.
Andy Stone, a spokesman for Facebook, said the company took the visitors on a tour and offered them special training "to help participants better utilize Facebook to best engage their audiences and increase reach, including Facebook Live and Instant Articles."
Leaders of the influential conservative site Breitbart.com and the American Conservative Union both said they declined invitations. Beitbart said it didn't want to be part of a "pat conservatives on the head session," while the ACU said, "This is much bigger than just having a meeting with 'leading conservatives' and winning the day's news cycle."
Facebook has a reputation for supporting broadly liberal viewpoints, as seen in Zuckerberg's recent comments about "fearful voices" that were widely taken to be aimed at Trump. And Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes left the company to build out Barack Obama's online campaign ahead of the 2008 presidential election.
"If you look at Facebook employees' political giving, it certainly indicates that it is an overwhelmingly liberal employee base that they have," Bluey told NBC News, adding that his readers "have a certain perception that Facebook is a liberal organization, that Zuckerberg's own personal views are liberal, and for that reason they don't trust him."
Even so, Bluey said, "we have a stake at The Daily Signal in Facebook. It's a huge audience that we're trying to reach, and we're trying to make sure the news we're producing reaches those conservatives that want to consume it."
Bozell said before the conference: "Facebook has a serious problem. Trust is everything and now conservatives don't trust them. ... My hope is that today's meeting will begin to put concerns to rest."
Political contribution records, however, show that the company's relationship to politics has always been more complicated.
The site was heavily criticized by civil rights and liberal activists in 2014 for appearing to have been slow off the mark in recognizing the significance of the Black Lives Matter movement. Facebook, in fact, said it introduced human oversight of its Trending Topics algorithms in response to that backlash.
Prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who made a key early investment in Facebook and sits on its board of directors, has been listed as a pledged Republicans delegate for Trump.
And Facebook Inc. PAC, a political action committee founded in 2011, has given more money to Republicans than to Democrats running for federal office in the last two election cycles, according to data compiled by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.
It's on track to do so again in 2016, according to campaign finance reports, which reveal that its only donation in the presidential race this year was to Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
(Disclosure: NBC News is listed in Facebook documentation as one of 10 news sites that editors are to consult when choosing so-called Top Stories in Trending Topics. The others are BBC News, CNN, Fox News, The Guardian, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and "Yahoo News or Yahoo.")