Some recent updates on Facebook, the for-profit panopticon and advertising company: First, BuzzFeed reported last night that Facebook has begun ranking news organizations by trustworthiness and “promotes or suppresses” content based on those rankings. Second, Axios reported this morning that Facebook will bring in outside advisers to audit the company both for civil rights violations and for, uh, anti-conservative bias. Specifically, Facebook will employ former GOP Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona and convene meetings with the Heritage Foundation, a powerful, conservative think tank in Washington. These two stories demonstrate perfectly how ill-equipped Facebook is to deal with modern conservatism.
How do we think Facebook’s internal metrics over which news outlets are trustworthy are likely to go down with conservatives? Do we think conservatives will handle it well if Facebook correctly decides that, for example, Breitbart, the Washington Times and Infowars are mostly not trustworthy but the New York Times broadly is? How would they handle the inevitable outrage—by saying no, it’s OK, these designated liberal outlets are also untrustworthy? What is its plan for responding to that? Because so far, it has not handled that sort of thing well.
In 2016, Gizmodo reported that former workers in Facebook’s “trending topics” department said employees in that section “routinely suppressed” news from conservative sources, even though the section was supposed to merely reflect what was popular. Stories from conservative outlets weren’t included if they were trending, according to their sources. There was “no evidence that Facebook management mandated or was even aware of any political bias at work,” and the company would also “inject” stories into its trending topics that had nothing to do with political bias—stories it “deemed important for making the network look like a place where people talked about hard news.”
What was initially a tech story about Facebook tacitly acknowledging things it refused to publicly admit—that an entirely algorithmic approach to news will tend to boost lots of dangerous trash and that media companies (like Facebook!) still need humans to make editorial judgment calls—became instead more grist for the conservative persecution complex mill. Facebook “censoring” conservatives, a sensationalized misreading of that story, instantly became widely accepted conservative orthodoxy, just another thing for red-faced uncles to get livid about before breakfast. The tech overlords are against us, just like the mainstream media is against us. A former Breitbart communications director founded an entire advocacy group premised on the notion that the “tech-left,” particularly Google and Facebook, and their “liberal allies on Capitol Hill” are “blocking and censoring” content, as well as stealing your data. (Curiously, the group opposes net neutrality, which it considers another far-left scheme; it’s almost like they’re full of shit.) It is all part of what Rick Perlstein calls the theology of fear: conservatism’s longstanding fear-mongering about “the conspiracy of some powerful cabal—a cabal that, wouldn’t you know it in these late-model hustles, perfectly resembles the ur-villain of the conservative mind: liberals.”
Since then, the conservative movement has clung to that story as evidence that Facebook is suppressing conservative views in a larger sense. At Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony, Ted Cruz brought up the Gizmodo story and then proceeded to rattle off an insane laundry list of persecution fantasy grievances: They “shut down the Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day page,” blocked “two dozen Catholic pages,” and, of course, banned Diamond and Silk. Imagine.
The problem with this criticism is that there is a reason why Breitbart and Newsmax shouldn’t feature in any “news” section: They’re not trustworthy or legitimate news sources. They are full of shite. A conservative or even a centrist might say, well, that’s what they’d say about Splinter or Gizmodo, so you have to take them seriously, or you don’t count either. They would say that! But they’d be wrong; just because enough people say it loudly enough doesn’t make it true. Most medium-to-large partisan liberal news organizations have higher editorial standards than nearly all of the conservative outlets that consider themselves the mainstream outlets’ counterparts. (This is, in fact, why attempts to create “a Breitbart of the left” never work; most liberal journalists don’t want to work somewhere where fidelity to the truth takes a backseat to blatant propagandizing and agenda-pushing.)
One of the biggest successes of the conservative movement, of course, is its relentless exploitation of the American tendency to see the fact that there are multiple sides of an issue as evidence that both sides are worth listening to. So, through ignorance or fear of riling up the right, large corporations and ostensibly apolitical organizations continue to ignore the obvious fact that many major conservative institutions have made hypocrisy, bad faith accusations of persecution, and straight-up lying their primary activities.
Facebook is still, two years later, struggling to counter baseless and hysterical whining about censorship from the right, to the extent that it’s now employing a conservative lobbyist to “investigate” claims of bias at the company. Asking a conservative to audit Facebook for claims of bias against conservatives is like asking the fox for his studied opinion on the fence surrounding the henhouse, and issuing a press release about how excited you are to get the fox’s opinion on this whole hen situation. You simply cannot expect Jon Kyl and the Heritage Foundation to take make any kind of good-faith study of the issue, because there is no good faith in the conservative movement, at least not among its elites. It is not possible for a conservative to remain conservative and conclude anything other than Big Media or Big Tech or Big University or Big My Doctor Telling Me I Have Heart Failure is lying to them as part of the vast liberal conspiracy to control facts and information. How Facebook could watch the election of Donald Trump and not realize the conservative movement has something of a reality problem remains bewildering.
The Kyl selection also shows clearly how the right continues to win. It is difficult to imagine them asking, say, some left-wing labor economists to conduct an internal audit on how Facebook treats its own workforce, or how its size and and influence have affected the labor markets in the various industries it has helped to Disrupt. The conservative movement has done a remarkable job over the last half century to bellow and bully its way into having its most ridiculous and reality-divorced concerns taken seriously. It lies about and distorts everything: about tax cuts, about Benghazi and her emails, about immigration, about healthcare, about Diamond and Silk. The further Facebook descends down the path of letting that screaming white face of faux outrage dictate how they run their platform, the harder it’s going to be for them to get away from them.