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Facebook’s attempts to appease the GOP over mythical conservative censorship claims have the opposite effect. It’s time for the tech giant to push back.
Facebook has a bullying problem. No, not the one you’ve heard so much about that it’s the preferred tech platform of bullies. Facebook the company is being bullied by the Republican Party. And only Facebook can put a stop to it.
The GOP -- from Trump’s campaign manager, to the Republican National Committee chairwoman, to apparently every member of the GOP House Judiciary Committee -- continually make this claim, despite offering no data or evidence to back it up. As research from Media Matters definitively shows, there is no conservative censorship on Facebook and I strongly suspect the same is true on Twitter and Google. The tech companies know that the GOP officials aren’t being truthful when they make these claims, but instead of calling them out, they continue a public face of working with the party as honest brokers. Facebook has gone above and beyond to address the GOP’s faux concerns, creating an anti-conservative bias review led by lobbyist and former Republican Sen. Jon Kyl and his firm.
Yesterday, the GOP-controlled House Judiciary Committee held a second hearing devoted to supposed anti-conservative bias on the tech platforms. Unlike the first hearing, which the tech companies sat out, Facebook, Google, and Twitter all sent representatives to testify. Republicans repeatedly made the same false claims about anti-conservative bias on tech platforms. Democrats on the committee came out in force, calling their Republican colleagues out for their evidence-free claims. But the tech companies refused to stand up for themselves. As I watched the hearing, I wondered why the tech platforms had even bothered to show up. If you’re not going to stand up to the schoolyard bully, why show up at the playground at all?
Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) highlighted the repercussions of Facebook’s bowing to conservative pressure over the last two years. He pressed Facebook, in particular, on its decision to fire its human editors who reviewed content for its Trending Topics section after conservative leaders complained in 2016 that the company was biased against conservative publishers.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) pressed Facebook about it hiring Kyl to lead the review of supposed anti-conservative bias and asked if the tech giant had “engaged any former Democratic members of the House or the Senate to participate in this exercise.” Facebook’s representative responded that “we do have conversations on both sides of the aisle” and pointed to a civil rights audit the company has also started -- implying that civil rights are a partisan issue. Facebook’s representative dodged a question about Kyl’s also acting as the “sherpa” for the White House to steer President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh through the Senate confirmation process. Jeffries also asked the Facebook representative that since it has engaged a “right-wing conservative-leaning organization” among other nonpartisan outlets for its fact-checking initiative, whether Facebook has engaged any “left-leaning progressive” outlets for the program. The company’s representative dodged the question.
Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL), whose district includes the city of Parkland, pressed Facebook and Google on the platforms’ inability to protect the student survivors of the February Parkland school shooting, many of whom are still minors, from being the subject of conspiracy theories and from misinformation being spread about their personal lives, among other similar attacks. Deutch asked Google and Facebook representatives what it would take, in particular, for conspiracy theory outlet Infowars to be banned from their platforms.
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) also highlighted the hollowness of conservative claims of bias at the tech platforms.
To give you a flavor of what the other side brought to the table, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) asked Facebook about claims made by Jim Hoft of the highly disreputable conspiracy theory site Gateway Pundit, that Facebook traffic to his website has decreased by 54 percent since 2016.
As Verge’s Casey Newton tweeted while referring to our study that debunked claims of conservative censorship on Facebook,“the most important fact to keep in mind” regarding the hearing is that conservative content performs really well on Facebook. Republicans should be more than happy with the engagement they’re seeing.
— Casey Newton (@CaseyNewton) July 17, 2018
But this hysteria about anti-conservative bias isn’t about the truth. Republicans continue to harp on the myth because they know it will rally their base. They continue to peddle a myth and tech companies continue to let them. It’s long past time to end the charade. Facebook needs to stand up for truth and call the right-wing lie out. Objective truth isn’t a partisan issue. Tech companies must do right by their users and take a stand for it. The only way to win against a bully is to stand up to them.
It's not clear that Facebook has gotten the message.
This post has been updated for clarity.