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Zuckerberg tries to mend fences in private meeting with conservatives

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg met with prominent conservatives Wednesday in an effort to smooth over the company's strained relationship with the right. The private meeting comes one week after a report on the technology website Gizmodo alleged bias in the way the company curates news.

Zuckerberg invited more than a dozen conservative leaders to the meeting, which took place at Facebook's Menlo Park headquarters.

In a Facebook post following the meeting, he said he brought the group together "to talk about how we can make sure Facebook continues to be a platform for all ideas across the political spectrum."

He noted that the social network has more than 1.6 billion users "of every background and ideology -- from liberal to conservative and everything in between.... 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."

The meeting included prominent names from the Republican political establishment, from think tank leaders to media commentators to pollsters. The confirmed guests:

  • Kristen Soltis Anderson, Republican strategist
  • Jennifer Baceras, blogger and commentator
  • Glenn Beck, media personality
  • Barry Bennett, senior Donald Trump campaign advisor
  • Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Council
  • David Bozell, conservative activist @ForAmerica
  • Rob Bluey, blogger and editor at the Heritage Foundation
  • Mary Katharine Ham Brewer, Fox News contributor
  • Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute
  • Tucker Carlson, conservative pundit
  • S. E. Cupp, CNN contributor
  • Jim DeMint, former Republican Senator and Heritage Foundation president
  • Jonathan Garthwaite, general manager for conservative websites like Townhall and HotAir
  • Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots
  • Zac Moffatt, co-founder of Targeted Victory
  • Dana Perino, Fox News contributor and former White House press secretary
  • Alex Skatell, CEO of the Independent Journal Review

They aired their concerns with Zuckerberg and other members of Facebook's leadership team, who shared more information about how the site surfaces trending news stories for users and provided training on how to make the most of Facebook's platform to reach and engage followers. There was also a tour and a chance to test out Facebook's Oculus virtual reality system.

Arthur Brooks, president of the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute, said the meeting with Zuckerberg was "productive" and focused on potential solutions to avoid conscious and "subconscious" censorship in the future.

"I hope that this is the beginning of serious efforts to combat the risk of systemic bias," Brooks wrote on Facebook after the meeting. "Facebook has a tremendous opportunity to out-innovate old media models and win over customers who are hungry for ways to separate the signal from the noise. That won't happen if new media falls victim to the same traps that have damaged the reputation of the traditional press."

Brooks also called on Silicon Valley companies to make sure to include "intellectual, cultural, and religious diversity" in their diversity efforts, saying that otherwise "a golden opportunity will have been wasted."

The meeting was part of Facebook's effort to protect its image as a politically neutral platform and maintain the trust of its vast and politically diverse user base. The Gizmodo article, published last Monday, aired anonymous accusations from a former Facebook staffer who claimed that the company's "Trending Topics" team has a bias against featuring conservative-interest stories.

Zuckerberg meets conservatives amid Facebook bias charges

In response, Facebook said it has "found no evidence that the anonymous allegations are true" and publicly released 28 pages of internal guidelines used by the Trending Topics team, breaking down how the section comes together every day. According to the document, Trending Topics are first surfaced by Facebook algorithms, which factor in which topics are dominating Facebook users' conversation and media coverage. According to Facebook, editors have certain editorial latitude to curate how these topics are presented but do not manipulate what's "trending" in any political direction.

Brent Bozell, president of the conservative Media Research Council, went into today's meeting with skepticism.

"Facebook has a serious problem," Bozell said in a statement before the meeting. "Trust is everything and now conservatives don't trust them."

In his Facebook post, Zuckerberg tried to address those concerns. "The reality is, conservatives and Republicans have always been an important part of Facebook. 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," he wrote. "Still, I know many conservatives don't trust that our platform surfaces content without a political bias. I wanted to hear their concerns personally and have an open conversation about how we can build trust. I want to do everything I can to make sure our teams uphold the integrity of our products."

Though the Trending Topics controversy is important to Facebook and of concern to conservative activists, in many ways it remains an insider controversy within Silicon Valley and political circles.

In a poll conducted by the media and data analysis site Morning Consult, only 48 percent of respondents said they had heard about the bias allegations against Facebook. Interestingly, many of those who did know about the controversy said they heard about the bias allegations against Facebook on Facebook itself. The platform was by far the main source among 18- to 44-year-olds when asked how they first heard about the controversy.

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