Fox News has a well-earned reputation as one of the most egregious distributors of COVID-19 misinformation, and yet that’s the network Facebook decided to partner with for Thursday night’s virtual town hall about the pandemic. Moderated by Fox anchor Martha MacCallum and featuring the likes of White House coronavirus task force members Dr. Deborah Birx and Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, as well as Mike Rowe, the event was billed as a chance for “an informative, interactive and innovative television experience while all participants are adhering to social distancing guidelines and ‘stay-at-home’ orders.” Rowe, it should be noted, has shared COVID-19 misinformation on his Facebook page.
The event itself wasn’t particularly newsworthy. It aired commercial-free, and Fox News and Facebook announced a $1 million donation to Feeding America’s COVID-19 Response Fund. It also effectively doubled as an hourlong promotion of Facebook's “Portal” device, which people used to submit questions to the town hall.
But Facebook’s decision to team up with Fox News is just the latest gesture pandering to conservatives by the company and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
In the Trump era, Facebook has repeatedly caved to right-wing pressure campaigns built on the faulty premise that the site has a bias against conservatives. In January, The Washington Post reported that actually, the opposite is true: Facebook favors conservative viewpoints. The Post article featured a series of damning quotes from Facebook insiders, including former Republican operative and current Facebook Vice President for Global Public Policy Joel Kaplan, who defended the site’s hands-off approach to dealing with hoaxes and fake stories by saying, “We can’t remove all of it because it will disproportionately affect conservatives.” A former Facebook chief security officer said he believed that the site’s political advertising policies were built around an “explicitly partisan” fear of angering Republicans, and a former member of Facebook’s “Integrity Team” said that the company’s approach to Republicans was to “tell them ‘yes’ or they will hurt us.”
In April 2019, at the behest of Kaplan, Facebook added Check Your Fact, a division of Fox host Tucker Carlson’s far-right website The Daily Caller, to its list of fact-checking partners. (Prior to that, Facebook had been partnered with The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine that had since shuttered.) This created an obvious disparity in Facebook’s fact-checking roster, which did not include any explicitly left-wing partners. Check Your Fact has used the power given to it by the social media platform to apply “false” labels to legitimate articles from outlets like Politico and NBC News. When asked about The Daily Caller’s involvement in its fact-checking program during an October appearance before the House Financial Services Committee, Zuckerberg falsely claimed that Facebook wasn’t responsible for choosing fact-checkers and incorrectly said that this was up to the International Fact-Checking Network.
In October, Bloomberg reported that Facebook would be including Breitbart in the Facebook News curation program. The addition of the far-right site once dubbed “the platform for the alt-right” came despite the fact that Facebook supposedly requires outlets featured in this new category “to abide by Facebook’s Publisher Guidelines, these include a range of integrity signals in determining product eligibility, including misinformation — as identified based on third-party fact checkers — community standards violations (e.g., hate speech), clickbait, engagement bait and others.”
Also in October, Facebook refused a request from Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s campaign asking to remove an ad posted by President Donald Trump’s campaign falsely suggesting that Biden had offered Ukraine $1 billion to fire a prosecutor investigating a company connected to his son. Instead, Facebook left the ad up, a decision defended by the company’s head of global elections policy, Katie Harbath, on the basis of a “fundamental belief in free expression” and “respect for the democratic process.” (Harbath, like Kaplan, is a former Republican operative.) This decision came a month after Facebook lifted its ban on ads that include “deceptive, false, or misleading content, including deceptive claims, offers, or methods” by politicians and their campaigns.
In September, after correctly flagging posts claiming “abortion is never medically necessary” as false, Facebook caved in response to a right-wing pressure campaign accusing the social media site of anti-conservative bias. Misinformation from right-wing outlets has long dominated abortion news coverage on Facebook. (More recently, right-wing Facebook pages and groups have also been a home for misinformation about the census and the global coronavirus pandemic.)
Facebook has allowed conservative sites like The Daily Wire to run inauthentic page networks in violation of its own rules to boost their numbers and amplify right-wing talking points to millions of Facebook users, even though the platform has previously “taken down smaller and less coordinated networks that promoted liberal content.” Though reports have shown that social media companies have access to data disproving the “anti-conservative bias” charge, Facebook has repeatedly crumbled under right-wing pressure to favor conservatives in a Sisyphean effort to stop the false cries of unfairness.
Media Matters has conducted a number of studies finding the same thing each time: Conservatives are not being discriminated against on Facebook. Still, the platform hired former Republican Sen. Jon Kyl to conduct an audit looking for examples of nonexistent conservative bias.
Fox News is under increasing scrutiny over the network's reckless coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. Facebook’s decision to join forces with the network right now should make clear where the company stands politically.