The myth of social platform anti-conservative bias refuses to die

Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

Despite an almost total lack of evidence to support the theory, alt-right groups and mainstream conservatives alike—including the ones that currently occupy the White House—continue to promote the idea that Facebook, Twitter and Google are somehow biased against them. It’s a conspiracy theory that has cropped up in a variety of ways since at least 2016, and has led to some almost farcical situations, including a Congressional hearing in which the right-wing YouTube hosts known as Diamond and Silk argued that the platforms were censoring them, despite the fact that they had a large and growing following. In a similar way, Donald Trump has repeatedly made the case that Twitter is somehow throttling his reach on the service, despite the fact that the president has more than 60 million followers.

In the latest move in this long and tiresome parade of grievances, sources tell Politico the White House is circulating drafts of a proposed executive order that would address allegations of anti-conservative bias by social media companies, according to a White House official and two other people familiar with the matter. This comes just a month after Trump pledged to explore “all regulatory and legislative solutions” to the issue. Those comments were made when the president announced a Social Media Summit, which was supposed to look at the topic of anti-conservative bias. But the event turned into a sideshow featuring a rogue’s gallery of alt-right names, including Diamond & Silk, a meme-maker known as Carpe Donktum, and a reporter from Infowars. None of the social platforms were invited.

Politico’s sources didn’t have any real details about what the proposed executive order might say, or what penalties it might invoke for alleged anti-conservative bias, which suggests that it could be a lot of smoke and mirrors. An unnamed White House official was quoted as saying that “if the internet is going to be presented as this egalitarian platform and most of Twitter is liberal cesspools of venom, then at least the president wants some fairness in the system.” This phrasing calls to mind the Fairness Doctrine, an old FCC requirement that forced broadcast networks to air opposing viewpoints on important political topics. That rule was eventually seen as being in conflict with the First Amendment, and it’s likely that any executive order compelling the social platforms to say or not say certain things would face a similar roadblock from freedom-of-speech advocates.

There are two fronts in this particular battle: one is direct attacks on alleged bias from the platforms, and the second is an attack on Section 230, the clause in the Communications Decency Act of 1996 that protects digital service providers from liability for content posted by their users. For some time now, conservatives have been trying to make the argument that Section 230 requires platforms like Facebook and Twitter to be neutral in order to be protected from liability, suggesting that they risk losing this protection by being biased. As experts such as Jeff Kosseff have explained, this argument is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Section 230, which was designed to give the platforms wide latitude in moderating content.

That hasn’t stopped conservatives from making the argument anyway, however, and they have been assisted by a series of willing media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, which ran an opinion piece by the founder of Prager University arguing that the censorship of videos produced by his company shows YouTube and other networks are biased, and that this contravenes Section 230. The New York Times didn’t help when it ran a story arguing that the clause was to blame for a profusion of hate speech online, when in fact Section 230 is likely responsible for helping to clean up as much hate speech as it excuses. The paper later corrected the story to note that most hate speech (like every other kind of speech) is protected by the First Amendment, something you would expect the Times to know.

Here’s more on allegations of censorship and Section 230:

Going after Google: Trump levelled accusations of bias at Google in a series of tweets on Tuesday morning, claiming the search giant is anti-conservative, and that there is a conspiracy at the company to “illegally subvert the 2020 election.” The accusations appeared to be based in part on claims made by a former Google employee named Kevin Cernekee, who says the company is biased against conservatives. The tweets have since been deleted.

Your complaint here: In May, the Trump White House released an online tool designed to allow users to submit reports about anti-conservative bias on social networks and platforms. The tool has since been shut down, but a note at the site says the form got “thousands of responses,” and adds that “social media platforms should advance freedom of speech, yet too many Americans have seen their accounts suspended, banned, or fraudulently reported for unclear ‘violations’ of user policies.”

Blame Jack Dorsey: Some critics of the anti-conservative argument say the founder and part-time CEO of Twitter is responsible for helping to fuel the conspiracy, because of “his sycophantic pandering to and appeasement of bad-faith right-wing actors, the podcast tours, the meetings with Sean Hannity.” Both Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg have met with a number of different conservative groups and individuals to hear their grievances about bias.

Getting it wrong: Sarah Jeong, a technology writer and member of The New York Times editorial board, wrote a defense of Section 230 in May, noting that criticisms of it by members of Congress such as Rep. Josh Hawley perpetuate “the myth that the tech companies are legally barred from discriminating against political viewpoints — specifically, conservative viewpoints,” which she said “is running rampant, with no basis in law or even legislative intent.”

Other notable stories:

Guardian News & Media, the parent company of the British newspaper The Guardian, said on Wednesday that it broke even last year, with revenues of $273 million. The company, which until recently was losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year, said it had a small operating profit and that its digital revenues—including income from a membership program—accounted for 56 percent of its revenue, up from less than 40 percent in 2016.

The New York Times also reported its financial results, and said its revenue rose in the most recent quarter by 5.2 percent, but its operating profit fell. The company added another 197,000 digital subscribers. giving it a total of 4.7 million people paying for either the print or the digital version of the paper, or both. Digital subscription revenue rose by 14 percent to $112.6 million.

Meanwhile, two prominent media closures were announced on Wednesday: Governing magazine, which covered state and local politics out of Washington, DC, said it is shutting down after 32 years because it “has proven to be unsustainable as a business,” and the editor of Pacific Standard announced on Twitter that the magazine will be closing after its sole funder, Sage Publications, said it would no longer be able to support the magazine.

Craig Silverman of BuzzFeed writes about how an attempt by Facebook to short-circuit fake news and other behavior in the Philippines failed, resulting in “a political environment even more polluted by trolling, fake accounts, impostor news brands, and information operations, according to a new study.”

A marketing company called Hyp3r has been secretly saving content posted by millions of Instagram users, as well as tracking their location, Business Insider reports. The company was able to take advantage of “configuration errors and lax oversight,” the story says, to misappropriate “vast amounts of public user data and create detailed records of users’ physical whereabouts, personal bios, and photos.” Instagram says it has banned Hyp3r from its service.

Turkey has given its radio and television watchdog sweeping oversight over all online content, including streaming platforms like Netflix and online news outlets, Reuters reports, in a move that has raised concerns over possible censorship. The legislation says content providers that do not abide by the country’s rules could have their licenses suspended or even revoked.

False news reports about both the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas and another shooting in Dayton, Ohio circulated on private messaging networks such as Telegram, according to a report from BuzzFeed’s Jane Lytvynenko. As platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have cracked down on disinformation and hate speech, much of this kind of content has moved to private and encrypted networks such as Telegram and Facebook-owned WhatsApp.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is one of a dozen US newsrooms that have received grants to support local journalism as part of the “Bringing Stories Home” project from the Pulitzer Center, thanks to a $5 million grant from the Facebook Journalism Project. According to the social network, Sentinel reporter Rick Barrett looked at how global and market pressures “are devastating America’s dairy industry, bankrupting Wisconsin farmers, and squeezing the state’s economy.”

Nieman Lab reports that Entercom, a large owner of radio stations, has acquired two New York-based podcast companies: Pineapple Street Media, an independent podcast studio based in Brooklyn, and Cadence13, a Manhattan-based podcast network led by a group of former staffers from New York media giant Westwood One.

Meedan, a San Francisco-based startup, launched a new tool for correcting online disinformation on Thursday called Check. The tool is designed to allow users of private messaging networks to submit posts or images they find on those networks for verification by teams of journalists and trusted fact-checkers. The software was piloted during the lead-up to elections in India earlier this year.

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