The Wall Street Journal has obtained internal Facebook documents that shed light on how politics has affected the social media giant’s behavior in recent years. Some argue that the documents confirm suspicions that Facebook deliberately suppresses conservative views, but to me the story seems more complicated than that:
Many Republicans, from Mr. Trump down, say Facebook discriminates against conservatives. The documents reviewed by the Journal didn’t render a verdict on whether bias influences its decisions overall. They do show that employees and their bosses have hotly debated whether and how to restrain right-wing publishers, with more-senior employees often providing a check on agitation from the rank and file. The documents viewed by the Journal, which don’t capture all of the employee messaging, didn’t mention equivalent debates over left-wing publications.
I think that is a key point. The New York Times and Washington Post are just as partisan as Breitbart, a major focus of the WSJ story, and they are no more accurate. Yet Facebook pays them for, and features prominently, their content. Apparently no one at Facebook has ever questioned whether false and hateful reporting by the Post and the Times, such as the Russia collusion hoax to name just one example, should cause their content to be suppressed or downgraded.
Facebook employees focused special attention on Breitbart, the documents show, criticizing Facebook for showcasing the site’s content in News Tab and for helping it to sell ads. They also alleged Facebook gave special treatment to Breitbart and other conservative publishers, helping them skirt penalties for circulating misinformation or hate speech.
Right-wing sites are consistently among the best-performing publishers on the platform in terms of engagement, according to data from research firm NewsWhip. That is one reason Facebook also is criticized by people on the left, who say Facebook’s algorithms reward far-right content.
Twitter recently released a report claiming that its algorithm favors conservative content, an assertion that seems hard to believe. But perhaps it is true that conservative posts get more engagement on average than liberal ones.
In May 2016, the tech blog Gizmodo reported that Facebook’s “Trending Topics” list routinely suppressed conservative news. Facebook denied the allegations, but the ensuing controversy prompted claims of bias from Republicans that haven’t let up.
Some internal documents show employee antipathy toward conservative media. In 2018, an engineer who had claimed on a message board that Facebook was intolerant of conservatives, left the company. When he took his critique to Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, some Facebook employees criticized him for going on a network “so infamous and biased it can’t even call itself a news channel,” records from the message boards show. Various employees called Mr. Carlson a “white nationalist” and “partisan hack” who “looks as though he’s a Golden Retriever who has been consistently cheated out of a cache of treats.”
Tech companies generally have the problem that lower-level employees tend to have extreme left-wing political views. The Journal’s series–the linked article is one of several–suggests that more senior Facebook executives try to maintain some degree of objectivity in the face of rampant leftism from their employees. Then again, Mark Zuckerberg spent more than $400 million to help Joe Biden win the 2020 election, so one wonders how much faith we can put in that restraining influence.
Facebook’s influence on the news is extraordinary, and surprising to those of use who don’t use it, or use it rarely. The Journal article cites a Pew poll that says more than a third of Americans regularly get their news from Facebook. And that might be an undercount: I have read elsewhere that readership of news stories from outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post declines by 80% when stories are not featured on Facebook.
Rumor has it that Facebook employees have been told to brace for more explosive stories in the next few days, based on revelations from a couple of “whistle blowers.” But my impression is that those individuals are on the left, so their revelations may not give us a full picture of what has been happening in Zuckerville.