Facebook could kill fake news -- but they're too afraid of conservative backlash
Facebook Mark Zuckerberg gestures during a presentation in New Delhi on Oct. 9, 2014. (Photo by Chandan Khanna for Agence France-Presse)

Facebook could put an end to fake news, according to sources -- but chose not out of fear of conservative backlash.

The social media company and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, have come under heavy criticism for promoting bogus and hoax articles as "Trending Topics," and some critics have suggested that fake news on Facebook helped get Donald Trump elected.

Zuckerberg has twice addressed the issue since the election, saying that 99 percent of Facebook content was "authentic" -- and he denied claims that conservative sites were more likely to promote phony stories

"Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes," Zuckerberg said. "The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics.”

But two sources with direct knowledge of Facebook’s decision-making told Gizmodo the social media company decided not to roll out changes to its News Feed because it would have disproportionately targeted right-wing news sites.

The changes would have downgraded or removed hoax content, making Facebook users less likely to see those stories.

“They absolutely have the tools to shut down fake news,” one source told Gizmodo. "There was a lot of fear about upsetting conservatives after Trending Topics, (and) a lot of product decisions got caught up in that.”

Facebook declined to answer specific questions about a News Feed update or whether those changes would disproportionately impact conservative websites, saying the company continuously worked to improve the quality of shared content.

But the sources told Gizmodo that Facebook was terrified of appearing politically biased against conservatives after former employees revealed Trending Topics were curated by a team who exercised editorial judgment.

One of those former curators accused colleagues of suppressing conservative topics, and Facebook fired its trending news team during the resulting controversy and automated Trending Topics using a secret algorithm.

A current employee told the New York Times that the controversy had "paralyzed" Facebook's willingness to change anything about its product that could re-ignite claims of political bias.

A Buzzfeed News analysis showed the average engagement on fake news stories fell after Facebook introduced a tool so users could report phony content, but the reach of hoax reports skyrocketed during the presidential campaign -- many of them aimed at Trump supporters.