Facebook is including the far-right website Breitbart as part of a new initiative to curate news on the platform, despite supposed standards concerning misinformation and community guidelines against hate speech.
Facebook's news tab will feature Breitbart
Although according to Nieman Lab, “Facebook isn’t offering a full list of the publishers it’s working with” on the launch of Facebook News, Bloomberg reported that in addition to mainstream outlets, it “will feature conservative-leaning sites, including Breitbart News.” The move is the latest instance of Facebook kowtowing to far-right voices and represents a boon for the beleaguered Breitbart website.
To get a sense of what is currently happening at Breitbart, a cursory look at what is pushed on the website today shows a constant drumbeat of articles that demonize immigrants as violent criminals. The outlet is also cheering a right-wing campaign to spread revenge porn photos of Rep. Katie Hill (D-CA).
Facebook purports to set several requirements for outlets that will be featured in Facebook News. As the company’s press release explains, outlets “need to abide by Facebook’s Publisher Guidelines, these include a range of integrity signals in determining product eligibility, including misinformation — as identified based on third-party fact checkers — community standards violations (e.g., hate speech), clickbait, engagement bait and others.”
Breitbart is disreputable and has a long history of hate
Breitbart is certainly a disreputable website known for spreading misinformation. Infamously, Breitbart was the source for a false story that made national headlines that claimed an Obama defense secretary nominee accepted donations from a group called “Friends of Hamas.” In 2017, Breitbart’s editor-in-chief admitted that the website’s all-in defense of Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore was not a product of any news judgment about whether Moore had been accurately accused of child molestation, but instead was a political calculation meant to protect President Donald Trump against reports of his own sexual misconduct.
In fact, Breitbart is a political operation under the guise of a news outlet, as Facebook apparently considers it. In 2017, the credentials committee for Capitol Hill reporters denied Breitbart a permanent press pass on the grounds that it could not show it was editorially independent from key Trump supporters. Peter Schweizer, who is identified both as a senior contributor and an editor-at-large to Breitbart, has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary for running the Government Accountability Institute (GAI), a right-wing nonprofit group funded by Rebekah Mercer. Breitbart is currently in “24-7 campaign mode” for Trump, and its sham polling has been cited extensively by the president to push back against the impeachment inquiry.
Breitbart has also attacked Facebook’s use of fact-checkers, calling its fact-checking effort part of the platform's “continued attempts to censor content on its platform.” (In fact, the opposite is true -- Facebook’s fact-checking initiative, which recently tapped a division of bigoted website The Daily Caller to help in its efforts, has been criticized for its ineffectiveness at stemming the spread of misinformation.)
However, what stands out most in Breitbart’s inclusion in Facebook News is the supposed prohibition on hate speech. Breitbart editor-in-chief Alex Marlow has previously criticized attempts to crack down on online hate speech, calling Twitter’s claims it was working to reduce hate speech on its platform “extremely anti-American.” Regulation of hate speech would also be bad news for Breitbart’s ability to spread its message. Here are some of Breitbart’s more infamous associations with hate speech:
In 2016, then-Breitbart head Steve Bannon called Breitbart “the platform for the alt-right,” which is a misogynist, white nationalist movement.
Indeed, an expose published by BuzzFeed revealed that Breitbart employees actively courted neo-Nazis and white supremacist leaders for stories, allowing them to contribute ideas, ghostwrite content, and even kill stories.
Breitbart previously featured a section on its website devoted to “Black Crime.”
The content at Breitbart is so toxic that an online campaign led 4,000 companies to stop advertising on the website as of September 2018, a boycott reportedly comprising at least 90% of Breitbart advertisers.
Facebook's history with Breitbart
It is worth also considering Facebook's history with Breitbart. Bannon directly credited Facebook with Breitbart's growth, but the posture changed when the right-wing narrative over censorship kicked off with a misleading Gizmodo article about right-wing news in Facebook's Trending Topics. After that, Facebook started outreach to conservative media figures through CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Joel Kaplan, Facebook's head of global public policy and a former official in the George W. Bush administration; Breitbart refused to attend. Ever since then, Facebook has made a conscious effort to reach out to the site. Kaplan reportedly made an effort to “protect” Breitbart's account in 2018 from being downsized in the news feed. As Wired reported:
Supporting high-quality outlets would inevitably make it look like the platform was supporting liberals, which could lead to trouble in Washington, a town run mainly by conservatives. Breitbart and the Daily Caller, Kaplan argued, deserved protections too. At the end of the climactic meeting, on July 9, Zuckerberg sided with Kaplan and announced that he was tabling the decision about adding ways to boost publishers, effectively killing the plan. To one person involved in the meeting, it seemed like a sign of shifting power. Cox had lost and Kaplan had won. Either way, Facebook’s overall traffic to news organizations continued to plummet.
It's also worth unpacking how Kaplan relies on Breitbart. The New York Times reported in 2018 that Facebook hired Definers Public Affairs, which then pushed a document to reporters which “cast [George] Soros as the unacknowledged force behind what appeared to be a broad anti-Facebook movement.” Definers also funneled attacks on Facebook's competitors through NTK Network to Breitbart. From the Times report:
Then Facebook went on the offensive. Mr. Kaplan prevailed on [Facebook executive Sheryl] Sandberg to promote Kevin Martin, a former Federal Communications Commission chairman and fellow Bush administration veteran, to lead the company’s American lobbying efforts. Facebook also expanded its work with Definers.
On a conservative news site called the NTK Network, dozens of articles blasted Google and Apple for unsavory business practices. One story called [Apple CEO Tim] Cook hypocritical for chiding Facebook over privacy, noting that Apple also collects reams of data from users. Another played down the impact of the Russians’ use of Facebook.
The rash of news coverage was no accident: NTK is an affiliate of Definers, sharing offices and staff with the public relations firm in Arlington, Va. Many NTK Network stories are written by staff members at Definers or America Rising, the company’s political opposition-research arm, to attack their clients’ enemies. While the NTK Network does not have a large audience of its own, its content is frequently picked up by popular conservative outlets, including Breitbart.
[Definer's Tim] Miller acknowledged that Facebook and Apple do not directly compete. Definers’ work on Apple is funded by a third technology company, he said, but Facebook has pushed back against Apple because Mr. Cook’s criticism upset Facebook.
If the privacy issue comes up, Facebook is happy to “muddy the waters,” Mr. Miller said over drinks at an Oakland, Calif., bar last month.
Facebook would later drop Definers.
Mark Zuckerberg personally defended including Breitbart in Facebook News
At an October 25 discussion with News Corp. CEO Robert Thomson, Zuckerberg personally defended including Breitbart in the news tab. In response to a question from a New York Times reporter about Breitbart, Zuckerberg claimed that the news tab “needs to have a diversity of, basically, views in there. ... You want to have content that represents different perspectives but is doing so in a way that complies with the standards that we have for this.”