Facebook, bias and the battle over conservative and liberal content on social media
New York Post article about the Democratic presidential nominee and son Hunter Biden is latest political flashpoint
When Facebook on Wednesday said it would “temporarily reduce distribution” of an article that could potentially damage Joe Biden’s campaign, conservatives who have long sought to prove that the company is biased against them thought they’d found not just a smoking gun, but a five-alarm blaze.
Facebook said that a New York Post article about the Democratic presidential nominee and son Hunter Biden’s dealings with Ukraine required fact-checking in accordance with new policies designed to stop the spread of misinformation.
But Missouri GOP Sen. Josh Hawley, among other Facebook critics, said the restriction was blatant censorship.
“This is BigTech control of news and speech, nationwide, in real time — all in an attempt to control an election,” Hawley tweeted.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson also recently accused Facebook of bias after the company flagged a video about the origins of COVID-19 as misinformation.
And yet Democrats and liberals accuse the company of being too accommodating to conservatives. For example, Facebook employees were so unhappy with the company’s decision to let controversial posts from President Donald Trump stay up that they staged a virtual walkout in June.
The company’s attempts to satisfy Americans on both sides of the political divide, including establishing a global oversight board, have done little to calm a volatile debate that rages most loudly among conservatives. Pew Research Center reported in August that 90% of Republicans believe it’s very or somewhat likely that social media companies censor views they don’t like, compared to 59% of Democrats.
But social media observers note that charges of discrimination against conservatives are countered by a curious fact: The most read posts on Facebook each day are overwhelmingly from conservative sources.
So why is the relationship between conservatives and Facebook so fraught, and what, if anything, can be done to fix it?
The top-performing link posts by U.S. Facebook pages in the last 24 hours are from:— Facebook's Top 10 (@FacebooksTop10) October 15, 2020
1. Donald J. Trump
2. Fox News
3. Fox News
4. Fox News
5. Dan Bongino
6. Dan Bongino
7. Dan Bongino
8. Dan Bongino
9. Fox News
10. Donald J. Trump
Drizzle to a downpour
Kevin Roose, a technology columnist for The New York Times, tracks Facebook’s 10 most popular posts each day and posts them on Twitter. On Wednesday, even as conservative lawmakers were tweeting about censorship, the top 10 on Facebook were from President Donald Trump, conservative commentator Don Bongino and Fox News.
The domination of the platform by conservatives is normal, Roose says.
“Most days, the leader board looks roughly the same: conservative post after conservative post, with the occasional liberal interloper,” he wrote recently. Roose believes that the suspected “silent majority” of support for Trump is evident on Facebook, because what people “read, watch, and click on when nobody’s looking” is a better indicator of support than polls or interviews.
“Pro-Trump political influencers have spent years building a well-oiled media machine that swarms around every major news story, creating a torrent of viral commentary that reliably drowns out both the mainstream media and the liberal opposition,” Roose wrote.
Some of that content, however, is removed by Facebook. For example, last week Facebook said it shut down 276 fake accounts that were promoting conservative positions. Facebook said the accounts did not belong to real people but were set up by an Arizona digital communications firm in violation of its community standards. The social media giant has also recently cracked down on pages that promote the group QAnon.
Steven Levy, editor at large for Wired magazine and author of “Facebook, the Inside Story,” said the performance of conservative content on Facebook isn’t proof that the complaints about Facebook are wrong. But, he said, “it’s a data point that shows conservative content not only can circulate on Facebook, but that it circulates with more velocity generally than stuff from the left or stuff from the middle.”
That doesn’t placate Dan Gainor, vice president of TechWatch at the Reston, Virginia-based Media Research Center, who believes that Facebook and other tech companies began to actively discriminate against conservatives after Trump’s election. Before the election, Gainor said, there were occasional complaints about bias; after the election, “it went from a drizzle to a downpour to the internet version of a hurricane.”
“People discovered that conservatives were online, and they weren’t just online by 10s or 20s, they were online by tens of millions. And so everything that’s been done by the Big Tech companies since then has been an attempt to prevent 2016 from ever happening again,” Gainor said.
Restricting the sharing of an article seen as damaging to the Biden campaign seems evidence to many conservatives, including talk-show host Mark Levin, that Facebook and Twitter are aligned with Democrats. Levin even said that the action amounted to “an in-kind contribution” to the Biden campaign. (By Thursday, the restrictions appeared to have been lifted; a reporter for the Deseret News was able to share the article on Facebook — and then delete it — without the post being flagged.)
In a statement provided to the Deseret News, a Facebook spokesman said, “While many Republicans think we should take one course, many Democrats think we should do the exact opposite. We’ve faced criticism from Republicans for being biased against conservatives and Democrats for not taking more steps to restrict the exact same content. We have rules in place to protect the integrity of the election and free expression, and we will continue to apply them impartially.”
Looking for proof
Proving bias on social media is difficult, Gainor said, but that doesn’t stop him from trying. He also runs a new website called CensorTrack.org that publishes information on individuals and websites that claim they have been unfairly treated by social media.
Cases currently listed on the site include the Catholic Speakers Organization, which says that Facebook has blocked ads for a livestream called “Election Truth Hour” and a Facebook video on California wildfires, by journalist John Stossel, labeled as misleading.
Gainor says that bias is evident not only in what Facebook shuts down, but in what the company leaves up. He pointed to the company’s recent crackdown on QAnon, but said that Facebook has not been similarly tough on antifa. He also said the company would not intervene when someone posted South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s home address and encouraged protesters to gather there last month.
Rob Bluey, vice president for communications for the Heritage Foundation, said the conservative think tank and its news organization, The Daily Signal, have had problems with posts being flagged on Facebook and other forms of social media.
“The problem is, can you document it? One of the things I think conservatives haven’t done well at is providing a comprehensive database of incidents,” he said.
“I know there are complaints on the Left as well, but it seems to me, conservatives frequently find themselves in a position where they’re seeing their content removed or restricted, and it is concerning,” Bluey said.
But Levy, of Wired magazine, said there is “no evidence whatsoever” that Facebook and other tech companies are writing code to sniff out conservative content so that it can be censored or limited.
“The reason why conservatives are unhappy is that more misinformation circulates from the right and some of it violates Facebook’s policy and gets taken down,” he said. Levy believes that ongoing complaints about bias is a conservative strategy to keep the heat on Facebook so the company will be more hesitant to remove their content.
“They’re trying to game the system so Facebook keeps hands off some of the most toxic, damaging, policy-breaking information that might come from the Right.”
A neutral platform?
In a recent article in The Verge, writer Casey Newton described Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as a man in the middle, struggling to deal with complaints of conservative users and policymakers while maintaining the loyalty of employees who hold different world views.
In one recording obtained by The Verge, Zuckerberg said to employees, “the community we serve tends to be, on average, ideologically a little bit more conservative than our employee base.” He then added, “Maybe ‘little’ is an understatement.”
In another, Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, said she has “a very strong point of view on this president,” but said that view should not enter into her decisions at the company. “We have to be a neutral platform and make those decisions coming from a place of rules and principles.”
In response to conservatives’ mounting complaints, Zuckerberg asked former Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl to look into alleged incidents of bias. While not definitive, the report said that “Facebook’s policies and their application have the potential to restrict free expression.”
In an interview with Bluey about the report for The Daily Signal, Kyl said that Facebook officials acknowledged that perception of bias is a problem even when bias does not exist. Kyl said he has “talked to people at the highest levels of the company, and they have the very best of intentions.”
The political ideology of Zuckerberg is a source of speculation, but The Wall Street Journal has reported that he is registered to vote in Santa Clara County, California, without designated a political party. Prior to 2014, he made contributions to both Democrats and Republicans, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and former Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah.
Zuckerberg said in 2016 that he is neither Republican nor Democrat, but “pro-knowledge economy.”
A reported private meeting with Trump last year could mean affinity for the president — or that he’s a shrewd businessman trying to keep Section 230 intact.
Section 230 is the portion of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that protects third-party publishers such as Facebook from liability for either allowing content to stay on the platforms, or taking it down.
Trump, who believes he is being treated unfairly by Twitter, has tweeted that he wants Congress to repeal Section 230.
Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah has defended the measure, saying its removal would present problems for smaller companies who don’t have Big Tech’s legal resources and need the law’s “Good Samaritan” clause, which protects them from legal action when they remove objectionable material. “This is what makes it possible for all of us to visit YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter without being inundated with obscene content,” Lee wrote on his Senate website in September 2019.
But Lee’s spokesman, Conn Carroll, said the senator “does not believe it is perfect,” and he is among legislators demanding to know more about how Facebook and Twitter operate. In a recent letter to the CEOs of Facebook and Twitter, among other tech companies, Lee asked for clarification on their content removal policies, saying that prominent conservative voices have been “deplatformed, demonetized, or otherwise penalized for expressing their opinions.”
A ‘great distribution platform’
So why do conservatives keep using Facebook if they believe the company is actively working against them?
Bluey of the Heritage Foundation said that conservatives turned to Facebook initially because they believed they were discriminated against by influential newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. “Facebook, in many ways, is a great distribution platform. You don’t have to look any farther than the president himself. There are a tremendous number of conservatives having success on the platform. But I think there are times when they also encounter challenges.”
He credits Facebook for meeting with conservatives and consulting them on policy changes. “They don’t always take our advice, but they do at least listen to what we have to say,” Bluey said.
In fact, some Facebook employees have complained that conservatives are having too much say in the company, especially with the hiring of Joel Kaplan as Facebook’s vice president of global public policy. He is a former policy adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush and is a friend of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Gainor, at the Media Research Center, said the nonprofit has a Facebook presence and has more than 13 million followers. “Why is that?” he asked. “Because we devoted a lot of energy, effort and money to build our support. It’s the reason why we have huge engagement ... because we offer something different.”
It’s also because Facebook has 2.7 billion customers, he said.
“Let’s say there are about 100 million conservatives using Facebook in America. Facebook wouldn’t want to lose them, but Facebook could survive pretty easily. Meanwhile, conservatives would lose their ability not only to communicate with their family and friends, but also their ability to share their message across the platform,” he said. “You would put the conservative movement in a ghetto. Which is what they want to do.”
Gainor said there’s a simple solution that Big Tech could employ to end the debate.
“Prove it. Prove to us it’s not true. If they want to claim they’re neutral players, then their algorithms have to be public,” he said. But even that might not work. Levy, at Wired magazine, said that even if the companies agreed to do that, “Making an algorithm public makes it easier for bad actors to game the system,” he said.