On Sunday, The Washington Post reported how President Donald Trump and Republicans have used baseless charges of anti-conservative bias to create an increasingly conservative-friendly environment at Facebook. Nothing about the Post’s reporting is particularly surprising as Facebook’s many instances of right-wing favoritism and willingness to cave to conservative demands have been public knowledge for some time.
Since 2015, the social media behemoth has wrestled with how to placate Trump. Responding to Republicans’ charges of bias against them on the platform, Facebook has largely abandoned or scaled back a number of its high-profile initiatives aimed at addressing the spread of false information and online harassment. According to the Post, this meant tweaking its news feed algorithm to “neutralize claims that it was biased against conservative publishers.”
The concessions to Trump have led to a transformation of the world’s information battlefield. They paved the way for a growing list of digitally savvy politicians to repeatedly push out misinformation and incendiary political language to billions of people. It has complicated the public understanding of major events such as the pandemic and the protest movement, as well as contributed to polarization.
And as Trump grew in power, the fear of his wrath pushed Facebook into more deferential behavior toward its growing number of right-leaning users, tilting the balance of news people see on the network, according to the current and former employees.
Former Facebook spokesperson Nu Wexler told the Post that Trump’s baseless claim of anti-conservative bias “succeeded in getting [Facebook] to revise their rules for him.”
For years, right-wing media have amplified the narrative that tech companies have an anti-conservative bias, a clear example of working the refs, and that strategy has gotten precisely the outcomes they hoped for.
Though claims of anti-conservative bias in tech companies is a relatively recent development, the playbook for this strategy was written decades ago.
What does Republican former Vice President Spiro Agnew have to do with conservatives’ current arguments against bias in tech companies? More than you probably think.
In November 1969, Agnew attended the Midwestern Regional Republican Conference in Des Moines, Iowa, and delivered the speech that would spark decades of conservative media activism. The “Des Moines speech,” as it became known, marked one of the most brazen attacks on the legitimacy of mainstream media from the right.
Agnew railed against the power of media and the “little group of men” who make editorial decisions. At the time, according to his speech, an estimated 40 million Americans watched network television news every night. Those who selected what news would be covered and whose voices it would lift had immense, concentrated power to shape public opinion. Agnew’s argument was that this “tiny, enclosed fraternity of privileged men elected by no one” did not “represent the views of America.” In other words, he argued, they were a bunch of liberals.
Now I want to make myself perfectly clear: I'm not asking for Government censorship or any other kind of censorship. I am asking whether a form of censorship already exists when the news that 40 million Americans -- when the news that 40 million Americans receive each night is determined by a handful of men responsible only to their corporate employers and is filtered through a handful of commentators who admit to their own set of biases.
Thus began the full-throated right-wing attack on the liberal media, an unending exercise in playing the refs and complaining about bias, real or imagined. Even as overtly conservative media outlets like Fox News, formed in part to protect Republicans, edged their way into what many would consider part of the political mainstream, the narrative of a “liberal media” continues to exist today. In recent years, as more people began to get their news from tech companies -- social media platforms, video streaming services, and search engines -- the right-wing playbook against mainstream media has been repurposed for the digital era, and successfully so.
The right-wing war against tech companies doesn’t end with the elimination of bias, but the expansion of it in the conservatives’ favor. Here’s what they’re doing and what they’ve gotten so far.
Former Fox News contributors Diamond and Silk are a case study in how congressional and media power can fuel a false narrative about social media.
In April 2018, Trump supporters Diamond and Silk testified before Congress that Facebook had deemed them “unsafe to the community” and supposedly blocked their page. The truth was that their page had not been blocked or suspended, but that a handful of the duo’s videos didn’t qualify for monetization under a 2017 update to Facebook’s policies, and the “unsafe to the community” message was a mistake the company admitted to. Diamond and Silk’s page continued to gain new fans and their videos continued to rack up views, but they continued to falsely claim that they had been censored. Even right-wing blogger and tech platform critic Erick Erickson conceded that Diamond and Silk were misrepresenting themselves.
Earlier that month, during what was supposed to be a hearing on Facebook’s handling of user data, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) spent his allotted time demanding that CEO Mark Zuckerberg answer for a variety of right-wing grievances, including the supposed censorship of Diamond and Silk and a six-year-old story about the page for an event called “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” being temporarily taken down. Cruz hammered home his point by saying, “To a great many Americans that appears to be a pervasive pattern of political bias.”
Cruz’s approach mirrors that of other conservatives: Find examples of people on the right who’ve had content removed or their accounts suspended and hold them up as proof that tech companies are singling out conservative views. At the same time, ignore the many examples of social media platforms taking actions against accounts of liberals and progressives. In addition to Cruz, three other Republican lawmakers asked Zuckerberg questions about Diamond and Silk and their baseless claims of social media censorship.
Writing at ThinkProgress, Judd Legum debunked Diamond and Silk’s claims of censorship. Using media analytics tools from Facebook’s CrowdTangle, Legum illustrated that the conservative duo’s content hadn’t been limited at all and was actually receiving more interactions on Facebook than ever before.
In January 2018, Facebook tweaked its algorithm to prioritize content from family and friends over brands, causing many large Facebook pages to see a major decline in interactions. Legum looked at data from March 2017 through March 2018, comparing left-leaning pages like The Rachel Maddow Show, Mic, and The Young Turks to Diamond and Silk. The Rachel Maddow Show saw its total Facebook interactions decline by 51.5%; Mic’s dropped by 94.7%; The Young Turks experienced a 66.9% decline. Diamond and Silk’s content, on the other hand, got a 2.6% increase in interactions.
One might wonder why the narrative of the unjustly censored conservative endures despite no actual evidence to support it. There are two elements at play here.
First, there’s the willingness of conservatives in government to use their power to compel tech companies to appear before congressional hearings or to hold the threat of regulation over tech CEOs’ heads, as Republicans in the House and Senate have repeatedly done throughout the past several years. This has served as a way for Republicans to not only signal to the public that conservative claims of bias must have some merit, but also to act as a show of force against the tech companies themselves by showing off just how uncomfortable the dissatisfied Republicans can make tech executives feel.
The second element is the role media plays in lending credibility to those stories.
In September 2018, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and then-CEO of Google’s parent company Alphabet Larry Page were called to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. There, GOP representatives lobbed unsupported accusations of anti-conservative bias at the three witnesses. Mainstream media outlets then reported on the hearing in neutral terms that avoided bringing attention to just how baseless its premise was, churning out headlines like The New York Times’ “Republicans Accuse Twitter of Bias Against Conservatives” and “Twitter’s Dorsey Avoids Taking Sides in Partisan House Hearing” articles. Meanwhile, conservative media outlets raged against the companies for their supposed bias before, during, and after hearings.
Hearings like these do not provide answers, nor are they designed to. They exist as a way to build on the appearance of a liberally biased tech world. For example, Fox News continued pointing to Diamond and Silk as evidence of anti-conservative bias long after the claim had been debunked.
Tech ignorance, real or feigned, provides right-wing media fodder.
On May 31, 2018, then-House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) tweeted out a screenshot of one of Google’s “knowledge panels” -- a section on the top right of the search page that summarizes basic information about search queries -- for what was presumably a search for the California Republican Party. McCarthy pointed to the “ideology” label, which contained the label “Nazism” in addition to “conservatism,” “market liberalism,” “fiscal conservatism,” and “green conservatism.” McCarthy believed this was proof that Google was biased against Republicans, seeming to suggest that the company had played a role in either inserting the word in the panel or that it had purposely left it there.
Google quickly replied to McCarthy’s accusation on Twitter, explaining that someone had apparently edited the California Republican Party’s Wikipedia entry to list “Nazism” among its ideologies and that Wikipedia change had briefly shown up in its automatically populated panel. The replies to Google’s explanation were predictably deranged, with people alleging that these sorts of “mistakes” never happen to Democrats, and even going so far as to claim that Google had manually entered that as a way to influence California primary elections.
Google’s explanation was true. As NBC’s Ben Collins noted on Twitter at the time, an anonymous user edited the party’s Wikipedia page on May 24. By May 30, someone else had caught the error and reverted the change. By the time McCarthy had tweeted about it a day later, the fix had already been made, but it just hadn’t updated on Google’s end yet. Wired also published a story explaining how this happened and why it wasn’t an example of bias.
Undeterred by reality, McCarthy has continued pointing to the error as proof of Google’s supposed anti-conservative bias. During a February 2020 panel at Conservative Political Action Conference, McCarthy claimed that Google colluded with Wikipedia to harm the party before a primary. He must know this is absolutely false, but he continues to make these allegations anyway.
Many claims of tech bias against conservatives are just tech ignorance. In March 2019, The Washington Free Beacon raged that Google’s autocomplete feature did not bring up the word “indictment” when searching for Trump’s name. The site suggested that this was proof of bias as Google should have promoted searches about the news that there were no new indictments in the Mueller probe. Almost certainly, if the reverse had happened and Google suggested “indictment” after someone typed in the word “Trump,” conservative media outlets would have taken issue with that as some sort of attempt to link Trump to indictments. Google Public Search Liaison Danny Sullivan explained that’s exactly why the word “indictment” didn’t automatically populate.
We might not show Google autocomplete predictions involving a person’s name if it might be construed as denigrating. That's why these examples were not appearing in autocomplete well before the report came out. You can learn more about this here: https://t.co/Hk6vDy8SOw
— Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) March 25, 2019
Twitter was accused of bias by a number of conservatives when the Twitter account of the anti-abortion movie Unplanned lost followers temporarily. There was a reasonable and not-at-all nefarious explanation for this, but it quickly became part of the anti-conservative bias narrative.
Conservatives have also pointed to basic functions of social media platforms such as limits on the number of actions a user can take in a short period of time as proof of bias against conservatives. Twitter, for instance, limits the number of tweets a user can send, retweet, or like over a given period of time. This is one way tech companies identify and prevent inauthentic activity. These actions have been highlighted as evidence of anti-conservative censorship even though they are applied broadly across social media regardless of a user’s political beliefs.
this is so incredibly stupid. normal people are rate-limited with reasonable frequency if they're behaving outside the norm. it has everything to do with super aggressive/abnormal user behaviors and quite simply nothing to do with political ideology. pic.twitter.com/zG8JBhZqSZ
— Charlie Warzel (@cwarzel) March 20, 2019
There are plenty of additional examples of conservative media and politicians pointing to glitches or platform rules as evidence that they are being discriminated against -- and highlighting their unfamiliarity with how the internet works in the process. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether or not these are genuine examples of tech ignorance or if they’re merely for show. What matters is that these claims help sell the narrative of tech bias against conservatives.
This campaign has been remarkably successful so far, especially with Facebook.
On May 9, 2016, Gizmodo published an article titled “Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News.” Based on the comments of two Facebook contractors, Gizmodo’s piece laid out that Facebook employees were making editorial judgments about trending stories and included the allegation that conservative stories -- including news about “American Sniper” Chris Kyle, right-wing YouTuber Steven Crowder, and a right-wing conspiracy theory involving the IRS targeting conservative groups -- were being excluded from Facebook’s trending section. Additionally, one of Gizmodo’s sources griped that legitimate news outlets like the New York Times, the BBC, and CNN were favored over hyper-partisan outlets like Breitbart, Red State, or Newsmax.
Then-Gawker Media Executive Editor John Cook would later admit in 2018 that the headline was “engineered for direct injection into the veins of the right-wing grievance-mongers,” that he knew “that millions would see it and come to believe its most aggressive interpretation without comprehending the actual reporting,” and that Gizmodo ran the headline anyway because the site needed the traffic.
But the damage was done. Within hours after the Gizmodo story was published, the Republican National Committee was running with it, demanding that Facebook “answer for its conservative censorship” in a blog post that correctly noted that “Facebook has the power to greatly influence the presidential election.” The proverbial horse had left the barn. Zuckerberg soon convened a meeting with conservatives such as Fox News hosts Tucker Carlson and Dana Perino, former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), and Trump 2016 campaign adviser Barry Bennett, in hopes of addressing their concerns. The chain of events set off in part by that Gizmodo post unleashed havoc on the world. That moment marked the realization that conservatives could bend Zuckerberg and Facebook to their will -- and they weren’t about to let up.
Facebook Vice President of Global Public Policy Joel Kaplan has reportedly come to conservatives’ rescue time and again. Kaplan, The New York Times reported in a 2016 article, was hired in 2011 to “counterbalance Facebook’s left-leaning perception.” Kaplan was responsible for organizing a meeting with conservative commentators following Gizmodo’s article about Facebook’s trending feature. Following the 2016 election, the longtime Republican operative fought Facebook’s efforts to remove pages that shared false information, lobbied for the company to tweak algorithms to favor right-leaning pages, and was behind the push to partner with The Daily Caller on fact-checking and was one of Breitbart’s champions within the company.
This weekend’s Washington Post report shows how Facebook can serve as a cautionary tale for other tech companies that hope to exist as anything more than an extension of the conservative media apparatus. The more power Trump accumulated, “the fear of his wrath pushed Facebook into more deferential behavior toward its growing number of right-leaning users, tilting the balance of news people see on the network.” But that fear -- whether of a tweet, a congressional hearing, or an angry round of Fox News segments and right-wing blog posts -- is an unsustainable long-term approach for tech companies.
Conservatives like Agnew were right to note the power of TV news more than 50 years ago, and they’re right to recognize the power of tech platforms in the present. Pat Buchanan, the man who authored Agnew’s Des Moines speech, has himself enjoyed a lengthy career in media, having worked at CNN and MSNBC. The goal was never to rid the media of bias, but to control the direction and intensity of the bias for their own ends. With decades of hindsight, this strategy should be obvious to even the most casual news consumer.
What’s happening right now is the application of Agnew and Buchanan’s war against the press to more modern mediums, and yet no tech company has had the bravery or integrity necessary to take a bold public stand against this attempt to work the refs. Instead, these companies either allow their platforms to become far-right cesspools as Facebook has done, or they provide the bare minimum pushback to blatant attempts to manipulate their platforms, as Twitter and Google have done. The leaders of tech companies have an immense amount of power, but unless they loudly push back on baseless right-wing claims of bias and attempts to rig algorithms in their favor, they risk becoming nothing more than a cog in the right-wing propaganda machine.