On Monday, Politico’s Natasha Bertrand and Daniel Lippman reported that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been meeting in secret with right-wing politicians and media figures over the past several months. The report notes that this is “part of Zuckerberg’s broader effort to cultivate friends on the right amid outrage by President Donald Trump and his allies over alleged ‘bias’ against conservatives at Facebook and other major social media companies.”
Among those who’ve met with Zuckerberg include Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Fox News host Tucker Carlson, CNN commentator Mary Katharine Ham, The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro, Fox News contributor Guy Benson, Washington Examiner chief political correspondent Byron York, and Media Research Center founder Brent Bozell.
If that combination of names triggers a bit of déjà vu, there’s a good reason for that. In May 2016, responding to a thinly-sourced Gizmodo report titled “Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News,” Zuckerberg convened a meeting with conservatives including Carlson, Ham, and Bozell. Others in attendance included BlazeTV’s Glenn Beck, former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), CNN host S.E. Cupp, Fox News host Dana Perino, Washington Examiner columnist Kristen Soltis Anderson, and Trump 2016 campaign adviser Barry Bennett.
There is not, nor has there ever been, a legitimate reason to believe that Facebook holds an anti-conservative bias. That might not even matter.
Just as conservatives have spent decades successfully branding mainstream news media as “liberal” in order to gain various concessions, they’ve increasingly used the same tactic on tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Media Matters has conducted multiple extensive studies into allegations that Facebook is suppressing conservative content, but every time, data simply does not support those claims. Gizmodo’s 2016 report handed right-wingers a big win, and it set off a disastrous chain of events. In a 2018 HuffPost blog, former Gawker Media Executive Editor John Cook reflected on the infamous Gizmodo post, admitting that while he stood by the story’s reporting, the incendiary headline may have caused some harm:
It was a headline written for Matt Drudge. It was engineered for direct injection into the veins of the right-wing grievance-mongers, and I knew full well when I wrote it -- Nuñez, Drummond, Dickinson, and I all puzzled over it, but I take responsibility -- that millions would see it and come to believe its most aggressive interpretation without comprehending the actual reporting. Tapping into the right-wing audience can be a huge traffic boon. Just a few weeks before the story was published, Gawker Media was hit with a $140 million verdict in Hulk Hogan’s Thiel-backed lawsuit; weeks after it was published, it declared bankruptcy. The newsroom needed a win. I didn’t want to stake the story on a more sober headline -- something like “Former Facebook Workers Say They Used Editorial Judgment” -- if it meant forgoing the traffic and impact that a Drudge hit can bring.
Facebook’s response to that article was for Zuckerberg to meet with conservatives. Three months later, the company decided to eliminate the role of humans in curating its powerful Trending topics section altogether, unleashing a torrent of chaos.
A few days after the 2016 election, Vox’s Timothy B. Lee wrote about some of the damaging hoaxes that went viral in the run-up:
Over the course of 2016, Facebook users learned that the pope endorsed Donald Trump (he didn’t), that a Democratic operative was murdered after agreeing to testify against Hillary Clinton (it never happened), that Bill Clinton raped a 13-year-old girl (a total fabrication), and many other totally bogus “news” stories. Stories like this thrive on Facebook because Facebook’s algorithm prioritizes “engagement” -- and a reliable way to get readers to engage is by making up outrageous nonsense about politicians they don’t like.
BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman also conducted a post-election analysis and found that “top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined.” Facebook incentivized misinformation, something that almost certainly worked to Trump’s favor and was the end result of right-wing advocacy against “bias.”
In 2016, the social media giant finally shuttered its Trending topics section.
Complaining about nonexistent bias worked for conservatives in 2016. Will social media giants see through the ploy in 2020? Zuckerberg’s secret meetings don’t exactly inspire optimism.
Facebook’s strategy has been to offer concessions to the conservatives in hopes of appeasing them. What Zuckerberg may not understand is that there is simply no way to quell their anger and victimhood complex.
In December 2016, Facebook announce fact-checking partnerships with ABC News, The Associated Press, FactCheck.org, Politifact, and Snopes. Facebook did it in response to the flood of false stories and propaganda being disseminated on the platform before the election. Naturally, right-wing media immediately began claiming that these fact-checkers have, as Breitbart put it, “records of left-wing partisanship -- particularly throughout the 2016 election.” Brent Bozell said he was in touch with Zuckerberg and had “expressed grave concern” about the fact-checking organizations, calling them “liberal.” Tucker Carlson’s The Daily Caller accused Snopes of being an organization guilty of “outright lying in service of a liberal narrative.”
Predictably, Facebook’s response to this criticism was to pander. In December 2017, Facebook added conservative news outlet The Weekly Standard to its fact-checking partnership despite its blatant partisanship and history of publishing false information. In April, Facebook partnered with the Daily Caller. In contrast, there are zero liberal or progressive organizations in this program.
Recently, after a third-party fact-checker correctly rated a claim that “abortion is never medically necessary” from right-wing anti-abortion group Live Action as “false,” right-wing media and Republican lawmakers accused Facebook of anti-conservative bias. A letter from Sens. Josh Hawley (R-MO), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Kevin Cramer (R-ND), and Mike Braun (R-IN) claimed that by marking the false claim as false, “Facebook’s pattern of censorship has reared its ugly head.” Facebook responded by pulling the fact check. A review by the third-party fact-checker found that Live Action's claim was false, and that the decision to check it was “not the result of any systemic bias.” But Facebook did not reapply the fact check to Live Action’s posts.
In 2018, when conservatives continued to baselessly complain about their content being suppressed on the platform, the company hired lobbyist and former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) to conduct an audit of Facebook. While working for Facebook, Kyl began working for the Trump administration to advance Kavanaugh through the Supreme Court confirmation process. Later, Kyl returned to the Senate to temporarily fill the seat vacated by Republican Sen. John McCain following his death. In August, Facebook published an interim report outlining the results of Kyl’s yearlong audit. Though he was unable to pinpoint a single concrete example of anti-conservative bias, he came back with a list of complaints including the false claim that Facebook’s Board of Directors didn’t have any conservative members. Notably, Facebook’s Board includes Peter Thiel, a 2016 Republican National Convention speaker, megadonor, and Trump supporter.
There will always be claims of bias, and Facebook only encourages more claims by caving repeatedly.
The problem of companies bending to right-wing pressure certainly isn’t limited to Facebook, but it should serve as a lesson to other tech and media platforms. These people aren’t interested in fairness, they’re interested in dominance. By complaining and threatening to use their media and political power, they compel Facebook to change policy. By changing policy, Facebook helps them attain more media and political power. This is a difficult cycle to stop, but it’s not going to get any easier as time goes on. Zuckerberg needs to put an end to his right-wing pandering.