Despite reportedly being part of a media consortium behind the Facebook Papers, the project analyzing a trove of documents released by whistleblower Francis Haugen, Fox News is spreading a false narrative about the project’s findings to its audience – even misleading about a news article on Facebook in its sister publication The Wall Street Journal.
Fox is still claiming that Facebook discriminates against conservatives, when in fact the platform is dominated by right-wing content, and the company has gone out of its way to coddle right-wing actors spreading misinformation. Fox News’ coverage of the company’s internal document has predictably become just another extension of the right-wing playbook in which they claim anti-conservative bias on part of tech companies even though the facts do not support it.
On Monday’s edition of America’s Newsroom, co-anchor Dana Perino cited a “blockbuster” story in The Wall Street Journal, “unleashing more allegations of political bias.” But instead of speaking with the Journal’s reporters who wrote the story, Perino instead brought on Gerri Willis of Fox Business.
“Despite what Facebook has said in the past,” Willis said, “in fact, there are employees at Facebook that are trying to curb conservative news outlets,” citing the far-right Breitbart News as an example.
While Fox’s chyron claimed “WSJ: Facebook tried to curb conservative outlets,” the actual report from the Journal showed that Facebook executives went out of their way to avoid enforcing any standards on Breitbart, even though the company’s own internal analysis had ranked it as the least trusted of all publishers. (While the Journal is a corporate cousin of Fox News, its news pages are routinely ignored or contradicted by both the paper’s opinion section as well as Fox’s own “straight news” coverage.)
The specific controversy that Perino and Willis cited was about an effort by a Facebook employee to remove Breitbart’s content from the company’s “News Tab” feature. The employee argued in the company’s internal chats that Breitbart’s content on the protests and civil unrest after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020 was “emblematic of a concerted effort at Breitbart and similarly hyperpartisan sources (none of which belong in News Tab) to paint Black Americans and Black-led movements in a very negative way.”
However, a Facebook researcher argued in the same chat that removing Breitbart could result in political blowback: “At best, it would be a very difficult policy discussion.” The company did not remove Breitbart from the News Tab, and a company spokesperson said that Breitbart’s content published on Facebook met its rules against misinformation and hate speech.
In a separate incident, a former staffer in Facebook’s integrity team specifically cited the company’s treatment of Breitbart as a problem in their 2020 farewell memo: “We make special exceptions to our written policies for them, and we even explicitly endorse them by including them as trusted partners in our core products.”
In a similar distortion of the Journal’s reporting, Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo cited the Journal’s reporting to tell her viewers that Facebook had “introduced two tools after the 2016 election that disproportionately harmed conservative outlets. They cut traffic to Breitbart by 20%, the Washington Times by 18%, Western Journal by 16%, and the Epoch Times by 11%.”
In this case, the two Facebook tools Bartiromo mentioned had been based on ideologically nonaligned criteria: One initiative, “Sparing Sharing,” reduced the reach of users who posted too frequently; the other, “Informed Engagement,” was described by the Journal as having “reduced the reach of posts that people were more likely to share if they hadn’t read them.” (The company eventually discontinued the Informed Engagement measure, but it kept Sparing Sharing.)
The Journal’s reporting said that Facebook’s internal study found that the two measures had disproportionately brought down the traffic of far-right publishers, “even though that wasn’t its intent, according to the documents.” Furthermore, the study found that cable news channel MSNBC had been impacted even more by the changes than Breitbart, a key fact Bartiromo ignored to make it appear as if the measures had targeted right-wing outlets.