According to an Axios report, conservative groups are planning to make supposed social media censorship a crucial part of their 2020 campaign. But the report also says that tech companies are conducting outreach with conservatives and “trying to push hard on data showing that conservative voices often outperform liberal ones.”
Just weeks ago, Facebook released its preliminary report into alleged anti-conservative bias by Trump ally and former Republican Sen. Jon Kyl. The report had no data whatsoever.
Axios’ report says that conservative “charges of overt bias by social media platforms are way overblown.”
This is an understatement. The data is clear: There is no censorship of conservatives on social media platforms. To the contrary, the existing data does show that conservatives receive equal or greater engagement than others.
I. Facebook organic content
Media Matters conducted three extensive studies of political pages on Facebook (pages that post about politics or news regularly), all finding that left-leaning and right-leaning content performed about the same. Those same studies show that right-wing meme pages are the most engaged-with content on Facebook.
Facebook has allowed these meme pages to regularly push false, nativist, and racist messaging.
Specific investigations of topics found an even wider gap. Right-wing sources dominated social media discussions of abortion in April and about the Central American migrant caravan around the 2018 midterm election.
II. Facebook advertising
Facebook has also allowed the Trump campaign and Republicans to break its advertising rules.
Donald Trump’s campaign ran over 2,200 ads this year referring to immigration as an invasion -- a white supremacist dog whistle later echoed in the manifesto of the El Paso, TX, mass shooter. Nine other Republicans ran similar ads since May 2018. Facebook’s advertising policies and community standards prohibit attacks which target a group of people based on their immigration status. The policy clearly states that “violent” or “dehumanizing” attacks against a group of people based on immigration status are prohibited.
Trump is able to get away with this because Facebook refuses to do the work to enforce its policies. Facebook still relies on algorithms to approve these ads even after promising to add human reviewers.
III. Twitter and Youtube
It’s not just Facebook. A Vice piece in April reported that Twitter has avoided taking an aggressive stance against neo-Nazis because any such algorithmic sweep would flag Republican politicians or their supporters as well.
And it’s not just Jones. YouTube made a big show of banning some extremists a few days ago, only to relent and let some of them back. The platform is still full of white nationalists whom YouTube empowers to make money.
The impact of YouTube is not in doubt. A massive New York Times report found that YouTube fueled the rise of the far-right in Brazil. Another report examined how YouTube radicalized a West Virginia man. The Daily Beast’s Kelly Weill spoke to people who were radicalized on YouTube. “I’d met a neo-Nazi and didn’t even know it,” one told her.
Following pressure about all of this radicalization, YouTube said that it would stop recommending conspiracy theory videos. A HuffPost investigation by Jesselyn Cook and K. Sophie Will found that the channel was instead pushing viewers towards Fox News videos.
To be brief: Fox News is a pro-Trump propaganda operation that regularly peddles lies and conspiracy theories. In fact, Fox News’ entire digital footprint is currently overseen by Porter Berry, who was the executive producer of Sean Hannity’s show when Hannity went all-in on pushing the Seth Rich conspiracy theory.
IV. Getting gamed
Everywhere you look, extremists who spin wild pro-Trump conspiracy theories are empowered on social media and rewarded by the platforms.
And yet, it’s never enough. Tech platforms will never appease this right-wing complaints about being censored because it’s not actually about being censored; it’s about getting favorable treatment -- being allowed to run racist ads, post racist memes, and push extremism to millions in the U.S. and even billions around the globe.
This is rank bullying, and the only way to stop bullies is to stand up to them.
This will require some reassessment because these companies are deeply committed to caving. Facebook capitulated during the 2016 election and is doing the same thing now. Facebook has Joel Kaplan, former aide to President George W. Bush, in a position of power. The company has also elevated Campbell Brown, who has “close ties to conservative politics” and a history of campaigning against teachers unions. In 2015, Brown launched a “non-partisan” news site and hired a Daily Caller writer with a lengthy anti-LGBTQ history as a contributor. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has said that conservative employees at Twitter “don’t feel safe to express their opinions.” Both Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg have personally met with conservatives in an attempt to appease them. And YouTube has made its promise to finally crack down on extremism into an annual tradition. Its CEO met with conservative YouTuber Dave Rubin in July, and the platform had a truly terrible, confusing response to Carlos Maza highlighting anti-LGBTQ bullying on its platform. In fact, LGBTQ YouTubers are now suing over alleged discrimination.
Instead of conducting vigorous outreach to conservatives who have no interest in being appeased, the tech companies should share with the rest of us what everyone already knows: Their platforms enable hate.