Facebook caves to debunked claims of right-wing censorship

Facebook caves to debunked claims of right-wing censorship

Facebook will get advice about supposed bias from a Republican lobbyist who in 2008 alleged a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda

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Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

Axios reported on May 2 that Facebook will bring on lobbyist and former Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl to advise the company regarding claims of conservative bias on its platform -- even though the allegations have been repeatedly debunked using Facebook’s own data. As Thinkprogress noted, the effort will not include any liberals. Additionally, Facebook executives will be receiving advice from the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation on the supposed anti-conservative bias, according to the Axios report

Conservatives have been complaining about Facebook censoring them for years, and Facebook, in turn, gave in to that pressure in ways that immediately made things worse.

In May 2016, a flimsy report claimed that Facebook employees had “blacklisted” conservative outlets and stories from the platform’s Trending Topics news section. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg quickly met with conservatives, including a representative from Donald Trump's campaign, to promise that Facebook would be good to them. A subsequent internal investigation revealed “no evidence of systematic political bias” in the trending topics, but Facebook soon gave in to right-wing pressure anyway. The company fired the “news curators” of the section, instead opting to use an algorithm that routinely promoted fabricated stories from bogus sources.

After that change in 2016, fake news increasingly flooded the site. It was only after the 2016 election that Zuckerberg committed to doing something about the problem. One of the first solutions the company implemented was to add fact checks to disputed stories. When conservatives started wrongly complaining that fact-checkers were liberal, Facebook added right-wing publication The Weekly Standard -- which has a long history of pushing debunked lies -- as a fact-checker. (Facebook has since moved away from this fact-check feature as originally conceived.)

The conservative complaints against Facebook have grown into a fever pitch since Facebook tweaked its news feed algorithm again in January 2018. Pro-Trump personalities Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, who go by the moniker Diamond and Silk, repeatedly appeared on Fox News in April to complain about Facebook’s supposed censorship of their page and said the company never reached out to them to address their concern.

Zuckerberg testified before Congress in April, and right-wing sites were thrilled when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) confronted him about this alleged bias against conservatives -- and downright giddy when Zuckerberg said in response that Silicon Valley is an “extremely left-leaning” place. House Republicans repeatedly asked Zuckerberg about supposed censorship of Diamond and Silk instead of asking pressing questions about Facebook’s monopolistic role in global information and violence.

Shortly after Zuckerberg’s testimony, the entire narrative about Diamond and Silk was debunked. Judd Legum reviewed data from CrowdTangle showing that Diamond and Silk were never suppressed on Facebook and that the pair “get more video views on Facebook than Rachel Maddow, even though Maddow’s show has a much larger page and is the most popular cable news program in the country.” Erick Erickson and Andrew Kirell revealed emails from Facebook showing that contrary to Diamond and Silk’s public allegations, Facebook had tried to reach out to them regarding monetization of their videos.

None of this made any difference in the right-wing bubble. The day after their claims were debunked, the pair appeared on Fox News and restated their claims. While hosting the duo, host Neil Cavuto gave no impression that the claims had been debunked, and indeed he once even implied their page had been taken down by Facebook, which was never the case nor was it even alleged.

Conservatives also rallied around Diamond and Silk, ignoring the fact that their claims have been proved untrue. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) invited the pair to testify during an April 26 congressional hearing where they made a number of demonstrably false claims while under oath. They have since continued to appear on Fox News and are scheduled to appear at a “leadership forum” during the NRA annual meeting this week.

And right-wing claims of suppression are only growing. During a conversation with Facebook’s head of global policy management, Monika Bickert, that was hosted by the Heritage Foundation, a representative from hyperpartisan and anti-Muslim conglomerate Liftable Media asked about supposed suppression of its site Western Journalism under the new algorithm. Bickert was noncommittal, but more and more conservatives are pressing Facebook for mass distribution. Allen West, Tomi Lahren, Dan Bongino, and others have also complained on Fox News in recent days about Facebook censoring conservatives.

None of these accusations are reflected in the data. A 2017 Newswhip report found that conservative publishers receive 2.5 times the engagement that liberal sites got. (The finding mirrors internal data that Media Matters has collected.) Newswhip data for February and March 2018 show that a number of right-wing sites are among the biggest publishers on Facebook. Newswhip also noted that the top reporters on Facebook were almost all right-wing media figures.

This right-wing complaining should sound familiar. It’s the same model that conservatives have used to take on the media for decades.

Media Matters senior fellow Matt Gertz has previously examined the origins of right-wing animus toward the media:

Those attacks first boiled over at the Republican National Convention in 1964, which followed weeks of vitriolic criticism against the press by Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) and his supporters. Goldwater had been widely castigated by columnists and commentators for his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, generating a backlash from activists who believed (quite accurately) that reporters had taken sides against segregation over the previous decade.

As conservatives triumphed over the moderates who had controlled the party for decades and installed the Arizona senator as the party’s nominee, activists raged at and even assaulted the purportedly liberal press. Former President Dwight Eisenhower’s exhortation from the podium to “scorn the divisive efforts of those outside our family, including sensation-seeking columnists and commentators” drew wild applause and jeers from the crowd.

This anti-press animus would enter the White House with Richard Nixon’s election in 1968.

The line from the Nixon administration to modern right-wing media goes directly through Roger Ailes. Ailes produced Rush Limbaugh’s short-lived television show and later co-founded Fox News, before being given $40 million to leave following an investigation into reported sexual misconduct. The right-wing architecture that Ailes constructed and inspired was built on and dominated by attacks on the media. This culminated in Trump’s candidacy for president. Trump has constantly railed against the media, both on the campaign trail and in the White House, in unprecedented ways.

This pressure campaign by conservatives against the media has worked. The media take conservative criticism far more seriously than they do left-wing criticism. This is reflected in the data as well: Conservatives are far more likely to be invited onto the most prominent political talk shows. The media ignore topics like climate change until Trump brings it up. Speaking truth to conservatives just makes the media think that conservatives are being bullied, even if the conservatives in question are some of the most powerful people in the world.

Charlie Brown kept falling for Lucy’s football routine, and the media keep falling for right-wing complaints about the fake news media. We know appeasement will not work because it never has. In fact, many of the criticisms are not even made in good faith. They’re merely a strategy to assume permanent power for the far right.

And so now, by hiring Kyl, Facebook is building its own apparatus to appease conservatives. Kyl has been working at Washington lobbying firm Covington and Burling, where one of his clients is a former member of Facebook’s board, Donald E. Graham. (Graham, the former publisher of The Washington Post, in March published an op-ed in the paper decrying attempts to regulate Facebook, worrying about potential censorship of newspapers.)

It’s unclear what advice from Kyl will look like. Kyl has a track record of bigotry toward Muslims and once even gave an award to an anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist. Gizmodo has also noted that Kyl spread lies about Planned Parenthood while in the Senate. Kyl’s comments about the 2010 New START treaty between Russia and the U.S. to reduce nuclear arms were also “thoroughly debunked.” In 2008, Kyl even wrote a letter to The Washington Post asserting a connection between former Iraq President Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. This myth, which had long been debunked, was also the subject of the book The Connection: How al Qaeda’s Collaboration With Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America by Weekly Standard editor Stephen F. Hayes.

But whatever Kyl’s advice is, it won’t work. The complaints are the point. The goal is to discredit any potential news source that undermines the right-wing narrative. If Facebook gives in to this pressure and further helps out right-wing outlets, that’s a win. If Facebook does not give in, these conservatives will threaten to push right-wing audiences to other platforms, and they'll use that threat to push for more concessions from Facebook. Nothing will ever stop the complaints. Mainstream media figures have refused to learn that lesson, but it’s not too late for Facebook.

As America worries about whether the post-truth era it has found itself in can be reversed, Facebook should stop playing games with liars.

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