In a new interview with Mike Allen of Axios, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended the social media platform from accusations of being a “right-wing echo chamber,” explained why the site doesn’t treat anti-vaccination content the same way it treats COVID-19 misinformation, and contemplated whether history will look back on the company as “an accelerant of social destruction.” But contrary to what Zuckerberg said, Facebook is a right-wing echo chamber, even if he doesn’t like that characterization.
During the most recent episode of Axios on HBO, host Mike Allen confronted Zuckerberg with some uncomfortable truths about what sort of content is currently thriving on his platform. Zuckerberg’s counter-argument was not especially strong.
MIKE ALLEN (HOST): President Obama very effectively leveraged Facebook for two elections, but now that’s flipped. And Facebook, the reality is, is a real right-wing echo chamber. If you look at some of the loudest voices on Facebook, it’s your Breitbart, and it’s Sarah Palin, and it’s Franklin Graham, and that part of the spectrum has figured out Facebook in this moment. Your liberal friends must hate it.
MARK ZUCKERBERG (FACEBOOK CEO): Well, look, I think your characterization, frankly, is just wrong. I don’t think that the service is a right-wing echo chamber, to use your words. I think that everyone can use their voice and can find media that they trust that reflects the opinions and the life experiences that they’re having. Some people, I think, had found before that their experiences weren’t being covered by traditional media and now are able to find voices and follow them that resonate more with their life experience. It’s not clear to me that that’s a bad thing. But look, I mean, the stories that get the most reach on a day-to-day basis are the same things that people talk about in the mainstream. They’re not highly partisan political issues. It’s just meaningful news that’s happening on a day-to-day basis.
But Zuckerberg’s denial that the platform presents “highly partisan” stories in a right-wing media echo chamber is simply false. New York Times technology columnist Kevin Roose has been documenting Facebook’s best-performing content. Day after day, the results tell a tough truth: Facebook is overflowing with right-wing content.
Since July 2018, Media Matters has published multiple studies countering claims that conservatives were somehow being censored on Facebook, finding each time that the opposite was actually the case. In fact, Axios itself reported in September 2019 that tech companies have secret data showing that conservative pages outperform liberal ones.
Media Matters’ coverage illustrates just how much of a right-wing echo chamber Facebook has become.
- In August, Media Matters published a 19-month timeline of Facebook’s failures and reported that a pro-Trump PAC was being allowed to run hundreds of ads lying about Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s policy positions. Facebook also refused to take action for months on a manipulated video made to look like Biden was introducing a singer in blackface.
- We’ve found that on certain topics, such as reproductive rights, immigration, and trans issues, right-wing outlets have dominated the conversation on Facebook entirely, even when the information they publish is misleading or outright false.
- Despite bans on promoting anti-LGBTQ conversion therapy, the QAnon conspiracy movement, misleading claims about voting, and misinformation about the census, Facebook has struggled with enforcement and continued to enable such dangerous right-wing content to spread on its platform.
- Earlier this year, Facebook teamed up with Fox News for a coronavirus town hall, despite Fox’s long record of COVID-19 misinformation. (This follows last year’s exclusive interview between Zuckerberg and Fox anchor Dana Perino.)
Even worse, the social media giant has actively worked with far-right outlets to run its news and fact-checking programs. Last year, Facebook partnered with far-right haven of misinformation Breitbart as a trusted partner for Facebook News. And Facebook has continued to allow one of The Daily Caller’s subsidiaries to participate in its independent fact-checking program, despite the right-wing website continuing to receive money from Trump and GOP groups.
At another point in the interview, Zuckerberg claims that he believes the site’s moderation policies are set and applied “evenly and fairly” to all users. But this is another lie.
In August, BuzzFeed News reported that Facebook had repeatedly sidestepped its own policies to intervene “exclusively” on behalf of conservative publishers by removing fact checks from right-wing content found to be false by the company’s independent fact-checking partners. The Facebook pages for far-right media figures and groups such as Breitbart, Diamond and Silk, Charlie Kirk, and PragerU all benefited from Facebook’s internal help. Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of global public policy and a former member of President George W. Bush’s administration, was reported to have been involved in this operation. Facebook reportedly fired one employee who collected evidence of the preferential treatment the platform gave exclusively to conservative pages.
Since 2016, Facebook has taken an increasingly conservative bent, with much of the internal activism reportedly the result of Kaplan and Katie Harbath, Facebook’s public policy director for global elections and former chief digital strategist for the Republican National Committee. In January, Facebook hired former Fox & Friends senior producer Jennifer Williams to head video strategy for Facebook News, joining the company’s extensive staff of former figures from right-wing media and Republican politics. In February, The Washington Post published a bombshell report detailing some of their behind-the-scenes conservative advocacy at Facebook.
Zuckerberg may disagree with the characterization of Facebook as a right-wing echo chamber, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Conservatives are thriving on Facebook, and they’re able to do this thanks to inconsistently applied policy enforcement, internal ideological advocacy, and general right-wing favoritism.