On Tuesday, Facebook published an interim report outlining the results of a yearlong audit of the social networking site in response to allegations of anti-conservative bias on the platform. The report’s author, former Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, wrote, “Facebook gave us total independence to interview persons and organizations of our choosing, and we were given complete freedom to reach any conclusions based on those conversations and offer suggestions for improvement of its platform without any interference.” Yet the eight-page report doesn’t cite a single concrete example of anti-conservative bias and is utterly bereft of data.
It is only reasonable to conclude that Facebook is not censoring conservatives. Media Matters’ own Natalie Martinez has authored numerous studies on the topic, illustrating that things like algorithm changes hit engagement figures on pages across the political spectrum in roughly equal ways. In fact, there’s even data to suggest that right-wing media outlets outperform mainstream and left-leaning outlets on topics like abortion and immigration. Additionally, Martinez found that conservative meme pages actually experienced a substantial boost thanks to algorithm changes on Facebook’s end. And viral right-wing pages known to push false and inflammatory messages about marginalized groups such as immigrants have continued to perform well.
Facebook is not censoring conservatives, but don’t expect Kyl’s report to put an end to that narrative.
While there was some mild praise from conservatives, particularly for one change announced in the report -- Facebook will apparently be relaxing restrictions on images of medical patients with tubes attached to their bodies, something anti-abortion activists had complained about -- much of the right-wing commentary about the report was negative, as it did not confirm their existing beliefs.
“Merely asking somebody to listen to conservatives’ concerns isn’t an ‘audit,’ it’s a smokescreen disguised as a solution,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) said in a press release. “Facebook should conduct an actual audit by giving a trusted third party access to its algorithm, its key documents, and its content moderation protocols. Then Facebook should release the results to the public.”
Media Research Center’s Brent Bozell slammed Facebook, expressing anger that “Facebook refuses to publicly acknowledge that conservatives have been disproportionately affected by their content policies.” Later, he continued, “While this audit may list some of the issues we’ve raised, it stunningly fails to admit fault or wrongdoing.”
If right-wing media want to continue to push the “anti-conservative bias” canard, it’s time for them to put forward some hard data supporting their positions.
The only (generously defined) data point Kyl listed in his report was the number of conservative people and organizations he interviewed. Several of the points in his “Summary of Findings” have been directly debunked or refuted by data-based reporting.
Discussing the January 2018 news feed algorithm change, he wrote that “several interviewees believe that this change disproportionately decreased the reach of conservative news content (as compared to liberal news content)." Regardless of what interviewees feel or believe, that’s simply not true.
“Interviewees expressed significant concerns about Facebook’s effort to combat what the company refers to as ‘false news.’ In particular, interviewees pointed to examples of instances when some of the third-party fact-checkers utilized by Facebook at various times … have skewed to the ideological Left,” he wrote in another one of his findings -- without providing a single example of this supposed “skew.”
On the contrary, while there were zero left-aligned fact-check organizations allied with Facebook, conservative outlets like the Weekly Standard and Daily Caller were allowed in. Kyl’s attempt to brand Facebook’s other fact-checking partners (Snopes, PolitiFact, Factcheck.org, and The Associated Press) as left-leaning fits with conservatives’ long-running strategy of labeling mainstream outlets as “liberal” in need of conservative “balance.”
Other issues outlined by Kyl in the report were simply gripes with Facebook’s terms of service. “Interviewees believed that other aspects of Facebook’s Community standards also disproportionately affect conservative content -- particularly pro-life, socially conservative, and religious content,” he wrote. At another point, he added that there were concerns about “the notion of having a ‘hate speech’ policy in the first place and from unfair labeling of certain speech as ‘hate speech.’”
Facebook’s current definition of hate speech:
[A] direct attack on people based on what we call protected characteristics — race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, caste, sex, gender, gender identity, and serious disease or disability. We also provide some protections for immigration status. We define attack as violent or dehumanizing speech, statements of inferiority, or calls for exclusion or segregation.
Finally, Kyl wrote, “Many of our interviewees’ concerns about Facebook’s content policies stemmed from their belief that the employees writing and enforcing Facebook’s policies are biased against conservative viewpoints.” The specific complaints centered around a belief that “Facebook’s Board of Directors lacks conservative members” and speculation about the personal political leanings of individual employees and what effect that may have on overall policy.
The claim that Facebook’s board doesn’t have any conservative members is plainly false. Board member Peter Thiel spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention, has advised the president, was reportedly offered a position within the Trump administration, donated more than $100,000 to Republican causes ahead of the 2018 midterms, and has already pledged his support for Trump’s reelection.
Additionally, Facebook Vice President of Global Public Policy Joel Kaplan worked in the George W. Bush administration and is so close with Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh that he attended Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing and even threw a party in his honor.
Also, none of these complaints are examples of bias. As a company, Facebook has long placed conservatives in positions of power, and its rules are the same for all people and pages. Yes, it’s true that over the past several years, a decrease in website traffic coming from Facebook has hit news organizations hard, but it’s something that’s happened across the political spectrum.
Conservative media will continue to push anecdotal evidence of “censorship,” but without hard data to back it up, Facebook and mainstream news outlets need to reject these claims outright.
Facebook handed the right wing a win by even entertaining the idea that there was anti-conservative bias on its platform. It’s getting played, just like it did in 2016.
In May 2016, Gizmodo published a piece titled “Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News.” The article, thinly sourced as it was, was seized on by right-wing media and the Republican Party. In a rush to appease conservatives, Facebook replaced its human curators with an algorithm, resulting in a flood of false and misleading stories being given prominent space on home pages across the site. There’s no way to quantify exactly how different the 2016 elections would have been had Facebook’s trending section continued relying on trusted and mainstream news sources instead of the resulting mishmash of Macedonian scammers and conspiracy theorists, but it all seemed to work out in conservatives’ favor.
Though their preferred candidates likely benefited from Facebook-induced electoral confusion, conservatives only grew louder with claims that they were being secretly discriminated against. This is how the right has “worked the refs” for decades. The medium may change -- what was once a claim that national newspapers were biased against conservatives spread to network news and online media -- but the message from conservatives has remained consistent: We are the oppressed.
They are not oppressed, and they never were.
Facebook did the American public a disservice by allowing a one-sided sham of an audit conducted by a far-right politician to take place. By caving to conservative claims of victimhood, pressure from the president, and threats of being hauled before Congress once again for sham hearings, the company just encourages these tactics even more. Transparency will always be a welcome step for tech companies to take, and any changes to policies that increase transparency should be applauded. Legitimizing a patently false claim about supposed anti-conservative bias, on the other hand, only signals to the right wing that their bullying tactics are effective.