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Facebook tweaks ‘Trending Topics’ policy: Will it restore faith in neutrality?

Facebook's Trending Topics feature came under fire earlier this month after a Gizmodo report alleged bias. Now Facebook has announced changes to its news topics feature that address concerns. 

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    Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg speaks during the keynote address at an April conference in San Francisco. Facebook say Monday, that it is dropping its reliance on news outlets to help determine what gets posted as a 'trending topic' on the giant social network.
    Eric Risberg/AP
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Facebook announced on Monday that it had changed some of its policies regarding its “Trending Topics” news section after controversy arose after reports that company employees had suppressed conservative news.

Conservative commentators praised Facebook’s policy reevaluation this week.

"Facebook was relying on a preponderance of liberal and leftist 'news' organs,” said Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center, a conservative group. “By not relying on any specific news outlets, Facebook returns to its neutral roots."

With roughly 1 billion people getting news from Facebook each day, any partisan interference in which stories users encounter could potentially alter users' political views, some say.

Although Facebook has denied allegations of bias, a report by Gizmodo earlier this month led  Sen. John Thune (R) of South Dakota to write a letter to the company, demanding it explain its hiring practices.

"Any attempt by a neutral and inclusive social media platform to censor or manipulate political discussion,” wrote Sen. Thune, “is an abuse of trust and inconsistent with the values of an open internet."

Thune sought answers by May 24. Facebook's response came on Monday, one day ahead of that deadline.

"Our investigation has revealed no evidence of systematic political bias in the selection or prominence of stories included in the Trending Topics feature," Facebook Counsel Colin Stretch wrote in a news release on Monday. "Our data analysis indicated that conservative and liberal topics are approved as trending topics at virtually identical rates."

Mr. Stretch did, however, include a caveat in his explanation: "Our investigation could not fully exclude the possibility of isolated improper actions or unintentional bias in the implementation of our guidelines or policies."

On Monday, Stretch also sent Thune a personal letter, outlining proposed changes to Facebook’s news features.

In the name of fairness, the social media platform says it will no longer weight stories from earmarked publications such as The Wall Street Journal and the Drudge Report.

"In our meetings last week, we received feedback that any list – even a good one – inherently raises questions of which publications are included versus which are not," Facebook spokeswoman Jodi Seth told the Associated Press. "Based on this feedback, we felt that the best approach would be to clear up this issue by removing these lists entirely and focus on surfacing the conversation on Facebook."

Thune, the chairman of the Senate’s commerce committee, said that changes were “encouraging.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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