A pillar of famously liberal Silicon Valley is underwriting Washington’s biggest gathering of conservatives.
Sources with direct knowledge of the matter tell The Daily Beast that Facebook made a six-figure contribution to CPAC, the yearly conference for conservative activists which will feature President Donald Trump, White House advisor Steve Bannon, NRA president Wayne LaPierre, and other right-wing favorites.
Facebook’s contribution is worth more than $120,000, according to our sources. Half of that is cash, and the other half is in-kind support for CPAC’s operations. Facebook will have a space at the conference for attendees to film Facebook Live videos, and will also train people on best practices for using the social network and Instagram.
Matt Schlapp—chairman of the American Conservative Union, which funds the gathering—told The Daily Beast his group welcomes Facebook’s participation.
“We are glad Facebook agreed to be at CPAC and to acknowledge the importance of conservatives to their company, and we continue to work with them on issues important to conservatives,” he said.
“Facebook participates in events hosted by organizations across the political spectrum,” a Facebook spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “Our presence allows us to facilitate an open dialogue where people can share their views and create content to engage their audiences, just as we did during other political events such as the Republican and Democratic Party conventions. Our involvement is not an endorsement of any particular position or platform.”
Facebook also regularly sponsors Netroots Nation, an annual conference for progressive activists. This isn’t the first year it has sponsored CPAC.
But that was before Facebook’s political work generated so much controversy——both inside the company and within the broader Silicon Valley community. In September of 2016, The Daily Beast revealed that Palmer Luckey—the founder of the Oculus Rift virtual reality system, bought by Facebook for $2 billion—was meeting with alt-right icon Milo Yiannopoulos and secretly funding a project to attack Hillary Clinton online; activists launched a campaign immediately afterwards to boycott the firm, and Luckey disappeared from public view for months thereafter.
The Wall Street Journal reported in October that Trump’s own Facebook posts fueled intense debate within the company about what kind of content was acceptable——particularly his calls for a ban on Muslims from entering the U.S. Mark Zuckerberg himself had to determine that Trump’s posts were okay, according to the paper’s report. And The New York Times reported that after Trump won the election, some company employees worried the spread of racist memes and fake news on the site may have boosted his candidacy.
“A fake story claiming Pope Francis—actually a refugee advocate—endorsed Mr. Trump was shared almost a million times, likely visible to tens of millions,” Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina who studies the social impact of technology, told the Times. “Its correction was barely heard. Of course Facebook had significant influence in this last election’s outcome.”
The American Conservative Union has also been highly critical of Facebook in the past. On May 26, 2016, the group announced it had declined an invitation from Facebook to participate in a roundtable meeting for conservative leaders. That was when Facebook faced significant criticism from the right for its news feed curation practices. Many argued that the social network deliberately blocked conservative outlets’ stories from widespread distribution, so Facebook held an event to try to quell conservative concerns.
“We believe this is more than just a matter of bias; in fact, we’d go so far as to say it is a matter of free speech,” the ACU said in a statement. “And while we appreciated the invitation to attend Facebook’s recent meeting with conservative leaders and members of the media, we felt it necessary to decline that invitation in lieu of some real movement by the company to make a change in their practices.”
ACU Executive Director Dan Schneider wrote a letter on May 23, 2016, to Sen. John Thune, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, asking his committee to interview Facebook whistleblowers about the controversy and “root out existing problems and then work with Facebook to fix them” so that the Federal Trade Commission would not have to intervene.
“We always believe voluntary compliance is superior to governmental intervention,” Schneider added.
CPAC this year will feature a bevy of Trump allies, including boosters of the president’s travel ban executive order. One panel at the event, featuring Republican members of Congress, is titled, “If Heaven Has A Gate, A Wall, And Extreme Vetting, Why Can’t America?”
The event will also feature Breitbart News senior editor Joel Pollak, Citizens United president David Bossie, and Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke. Clarke is famous for making incendiary comments, including for predicting that Black Lives Matter activists will team up with ISIS to destroy America.
It’s an attitude that might put Clarke at odds with a broad swath of Silicon Valley, which trends left politically.
Coraline Ada Ehmke, a software developer who also works with tech companies to limit on-platform harassment, said Facebook’s donation to CPAC is a “betrayal” of its commitment to diversity.
“They’re betraying every immigrant, every woman, every Muslim, every person of color and every transgender employee that they have,” she said.
“Facebook has been touting that they got a 100 percent ranking from the Human Rights Campaign. With this, Facebook is talking out of both sides of their mouth,” said Ehmke.
“You can’t tout diversity efforts and simultaneously work to undermine the rights of those you are trying to recruit,” she added.
CPAC generated its fair share of controversy this year, when it invited Yiannopoulos, a now-former Breitbart editor, to speak. CPAC promptly uninvited Yiannopoulos after video surfaced of him discussing favorably discussing pedophilia.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has himself publicly gone after Trump for some of his more controversial policies. Zuckerberg criticized Trump’s travel ban in a post on the social networking site, for example, saying he was “concerned” by Trump’s executive orders.
“We should also keep our doors open to refugees and those who need help,” he wrote. “That’s who we are.”
—with additional reporting by Ben Collins