Right-wing politicians, pundits, and campaigns continually claim that Facebook and other tech platforms censor conservative content online. President Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, frequently makes this argument. At every congressional hearing about social media, Republican members reliably make the same accusation. The GOP-controlled House Judiciary Committee has already held one hearing on the supposed censorship, and they’re scheduled to hold a second on July 17. Conservatives believe that attacking tech companies about so-called censorship will rally their base, and they plan to continue the attacks.
Even though those making these accusations have offered no evidence to support censorship claims, Facebook responded by announcing a conservative bias review -- retaining former Republican Sen. Jon Kyl from Arizona and his lobbying firm to advise the company. (Kyl is now also shepherding Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh through confirmation hearings.)
It’s not the first time Facebook has reacted to claims of nonexistent right-wing censorship. In May 2016, a flimsy report claimed that conservative outlets and stories were “blacklisted” from Facebook’s Trending Topics section. To great fanfare, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg met with conservatives, including a representative from Trump's campaign, and made promises to be good to them. A subsequent internal investigation revealed “no evidence of systematic political bias” in the Trending Topics section. But Facebook soon gave in anyway and fired the curators of the section, resorting instead to using an algorithm that routinely promoted fabricated stories from bogus sources. Add this cravenness to existing confirmation bias and plenty of dishonest actors willing to take advantage, and Facebook became a cesspool of fake news.
The algorithm change that was announced in January 2018 was supposed to fix to the fake news problem, which existed only because of previous failures at Facebook. And now with Facebook rolling out the welcome mat for conservatives, we’re about to begin that cycle anew.
And once again, conservatives are pressuring Facebook with a total myth. Media Matters conducted an extensive six-month study into alleged conservative censorship on Facebook and found no evidence that conservative content is being censored on the platform or that it is not reaching a large audience.
We identified 463 Facebook pages that had more than 500,000 likes each and regularly posted content dealing with American political news. We analyzed data from these pages, week by week, between January 1, 2018, and July 1, 2018, to observe trends in post interactions (reactions, comments, and shares) and page likes. We found two key things:
- Partisan pages had roughly equal engagement, and they had more engagement than nonpartisan pages: Right-leaning and left-leaning Facebook pages had virtually identical average interaction rates -- measurements of a page's engagement -- at .18 percent and .17 percent, respectively, and nonaligned pages had the lowest interaction rates at .08 percent.
- Right-leaning pages in total have a bigger presence on Facebook: In every week but one, right-leaning Facebook pages had a higher total number of interactions than left-leaning Facebook pages. Right-leaning pages had 23 percent more total interactions than nonaligned pages and 51 percent more total interactions than left-leaning pages. Images shared by right-leaning pages -- including memes that frequently include false and bigoted messages -- were by far the highest performing content on the Facebook pages examined.
The data indicates something I’ve long assumed anecdotally: The right is out-organizing the left on Facebook. Even though the right-leaning pages had fewer page likes than the left-leaning pages, the rates of interaction are virtually identical. And when you look at the individual metrics, especially on image-based posts, the news gets even worse. Despite having a larger base of aligned supporters on Facebook in terms of page likes, left-leaning pages don't have as much impact with their base.
It’s time to end the charade. The Trump campaign and politically aligned groups aren't going to stop advertising on Facebook. They need Facebook to reach their voters. Facebook should disband the conservative bias review and stop enabling political theater. Considering how many problems Facebook as a company is facing, it's long overdue for the company to stop wasting its time and resources on a problem that doesn't exist. Political media also need to stop giving this myth oxygen. Next time Parscale or Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) start whining about bias, reporters need to ask for some actual numbers to back up their claims.