opinion

SQUEAKY WHEELS

Silicon Valley Is Bending Over Backward to Cater to the Far Right

For years now, conservatives have worked the digital refs. Their strategy is working.

opinion

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

If you are reading this, it’s more likely than not you got here through Twitter, the Facebook Newsfeed or a Google search. Multi-billion dollar tech companies don’t just control how we consume content, they increasingly determine what we consume.

These decisions are made through opaque algorithms that these companies claim are neutral. But this is not actually true. Algorithms, after all, are made by humans.

That’s why it is significant that the top executives at the nation’s most powerful tech companies have revealed themselves to be easy marks for right-wing activists. Over the last two years conservatives have launched a determined campaign to receive more favorable treatment from massive technology companies.

It appears to be working.

Facebook announced in May that it would convene a committee to study political bias on its platform. The committee will be led by Jon Kyl, a former Republican Senator who currently works as a corporate lobbyist. A Facebook spokesperson says the group “will examine concerns about alleged liberal bias on Facebook, internally and on our services.” Kyl will team with the right-wing Heritage Foundation to “get feedback directly from conservative groups and advise us on the best path forward.”

Rob Bluey, Vice President for Communications at Heritage, told The Daily Beast that he hosted a meeting with “conservative groups” to “share their experiences with Facebook” with Kyl and his team.

Facebook sees nothing wrong with forming a group to study political bias that seems to lean heavily on one side of the political spectrum. Kyl himself was a leading source of misinformation during his time in Congress, once claiming on the floor of the Senate that abortions constituted 90% of Planned Parenthood’s activities. (The actual number is 3%.)

A spokesperson for Facebook told The Daily Beast that Kyl and a team of lawyers from his firm, Covington & Burlington, are entirely responsible for designing the study and determining the process. The spokesperson did say that Facebook would provide data for Kyl and his team to review.

While Kyl is leading the effort to investigate “political bias” at Facebook, he will also be fulfilling a critical role in the Trump administration. The White House announced on Monday that Kyl would be the “sherpa” for Trump’s new Supreme Court nominee, seeking to garner support for Judge Brett Kavanaugh in the Senate. The confirmation battle, of course, will also take place on Facebook. Groups seeking to influence the process spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Facebook ads before Trump even announced his selection.

The Facebook spokesperson would not elaborate on what Kyl would actually produce, how it would be used or if any of the results would be released publicly.  Bluey said he did not expect Kyl’s work to be made public.

Facebook emphasized that it meets with a variety of interest groups from across the political spectrum. The company is currently conducting a “civil rights audit” after a number of advocacy groups expressed concern about how the platform is being used to promote “hateful content.”

The appointment of Kyl comes after Facebook faced criticism for allegedly censoring Diamond and Silk, the stage names for Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, an outspoken pro-Trump duo that makes frequent appearances at Trump campaign events and on Fox News. The proof of this censorship appears to be little more than the pair’s claim that they were censored. (Diamond and Silk did receive a communication from Facebook that their videos were deemed “unsafe to the community.” Facebook, however, said the message was sent to them in error. They attempted to contact Diamond and Silk to explain the mistake but couldn’t reach them.)

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Actual data from CrowdTangle, an analytics platform owned by Facebook, shows that Diamond and Silk were not censored and actually fared better that liberal video-centric Facebook pages like Rachel Maddow and The Young Turks. Indeed, nearly every brand and publication on Facebook have seen reduced reach since January 2017 as the platform focused on connecting “friends and family.” Diamond and Silk’s page, however, has seen a slight increase in their reach over that time.

Nevertheless, their dubious claims were accepted as fact by several members of Congress, including Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), who insisted that Facebook “blocked Trump supporters Diamond and Silk’s page.” Cruz said Diamond and Silk’s experience proved “a pervasive pattern of bias and political censorship.”

The entire episode taught a valuable lesson to right-wing political figures: that making bad faith claims of bias will result in unprecedented access—and perhaps concessions for more favorable treatment—from Facebook.

But, truth be told, they should have known this already. The company’s eagerness to please the right did not start this year. In 2017, as part of its efforts to combat “fake news,” Facebook approved the Weekly Standard to fact check articles. It made the decision after the third-party they engaged to evaluate potential partners— the International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute—said the conservative magazine was not prepared for the task.

According to Facebook’s own guidelines, if The Weekly Standard determines any article is “false” or a “mixture” of true and false that article’s “distribution is reduced. It will appear lower in News Feed, and will be accompanied by Related Articles from fact-checkers.” Domains that publish material that the Weekly Standard deems to be “false” will see the distribution of all their articles reduced. There is no ideologically liberal English language publication that fact checks articles for Facebook.

There is substantial evidence that Facebook already favors the the right-wing. Data from NewsWhip, an analytics firm, shows that there are at least five ideologically right-wing publications in the top twenty-five pages with the most engagement on Facebook. Fox News is the top publication on all of Facebook. Three other conservative sites that made that list, Breitbart, Daily Wire and Western Journalism, are ideologically aligned with the  far-right and regularly traffic in misinformation. There is only one site in the top twenty-five, HuffPost, that identifies ideologically as left-leaning.

And yet, conservative figures continue to complain. In a letter to Facebook and Twitter, Brad Parscale, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, and Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, accused both companies of “rampant political bias.” Parscale and McDaniel cited Diamond and Silk as the example of Facebook censoring conservatives. With regards to Twitter, they accused the company of “shadow banning” conservatives.

Shadow banning is a conspiracy theory advanced by the NRA’s Dana Loesch, InfoWars, Project Veritas and others. The allegation is that Twitter has simply stopped showing the tweets of prominent conservatives to their followers.

There is absolutely no evidence to support this claim.

Twitter actually introduced an algorithm that surfaces tweets that receive high engagement. So whether you are liberal or conservative, if you tweet something that doesn’t garner a lot of likes and retweets, it won’t be prominently shown to many of your followers. (This feature can be turned off.)

Conservatives were also upset that, after Twitter purged some bot accounts from its platform,  several prominent right-wing accounts lost thousands of followers.

Nevertheless, Parscale and McDaniel’s letter had an impact. Four top Facebook executives agreed to met with them—as well as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA)—to discuss their concerns.

Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey, meanwhile, convened a “private dinner with Republican leaders and conservative commentators” in D.C. last month. In attendance were Mercedes Schlapp, one of Trump’s top communications aides, Grover Norquist, the anti-tax advocate, former Fox News host Greta Van Sustren and current Fox News commentator Guy Benson. It’s unclear what was discussed but Dorsey reportedly “got an earful” and “admitted that the company has room for improvement.”

A spokesperson for Twitter, when asked if Dorsey had hosted a similar meeting for progressives, had no comment, though Dorsey has met with progressive lawmakers to discuss tech policy issues.

In April, Dorsey apologized to Candice Owens after Twitter, in a “Twitter moment,” described her as “far-right media personality.” Owens, who appears on InfoWars and goes by the name “Red Pill Black,” is, in fact, a far-right media personality.

It’s not just the social media platforms that are bending over backwards for conservatives these days. Apple, which has taken increased important role in the news ecosystem with the rapid growth of Apple News, is also walking on eggshells with the right-wing. The Editor-in-Chief of Apple News, Lauren Kern, proudly announced that the app’s new midterm section would “steer clear of rumor and propaganda.” In the same letter, Kern revealed that one of the featured partners for the section would be President Trump’s 24-hour propaganda network, Fox News.

What is motivating powerful technology companies to kowtow to the right? In a word: guilt. Silicon Valley executives view themselves as liberal and believe they have to compensate by doing everything possible to ingratiate themselves with conservatives. They’ve admitted as much.  

It’s no secret that we are largely left leaning, and we all have biases,” Dorsey said in a note to Twitter employees this June.

I understand where that concern is coming from because Facebook and the tech industry is located in Silicon Valley which is an extremely left-leaning place,” Facebook’s Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in remarks to Congress this May.

But while most Silicon Valley executives and workers identify as Democrats, there is little evidence that the companies themselves have a progressive culture that guides their work. None of these tech giants, for example, are unionized. When Zuckerberg formed a political committee a few years ago to advocate for immigration reforms, its first political ads supported Republicans and praised them for expanding oil drilling. (Another ad support Democratic Senator Mark Begich of Alaska, but also praised him for expanding oil drilling.)

The right-wing, in short, is effectively working the refs. And this is likely to only continue because, whether claims of bias are true or not, Republicans see it as an effective political strategy.

"Our supporters out there, by and large, believe that that's true — that a lot of these tech companies have an agenda. And that is to kind of censor some of the more conservative-leaning content and thought that gets put up on their platforms. I think it's a real issue, but I also think it probably has some political value," Senator John Thune (R-SD) said in a recent interview with Politico Pro.

For progressives, this isn’t a case for ignoring these platforms — certainly not when they are a key source of information for billions of people. But they do need to open their eyes to the possibility that large tech platforms, out of eagerness to demonstrate their neutrality, are subtly tilting the playing field against them.

They also need to fully recognize that, in the end, the tech industry’s courtship of the right-wing has much in common with the algorithm that probably brought you to this article — it’s been secretive, anti-democratic and it’s shaped the world in ways no one fully understands.

Judd Legum, the founder of ThinkProgress, is the creator a new political newsletter, Popular Information. You can sign up at popular.info.