The conservative movement, led by President Trump, has been engaged in a months-long campaign to intimidate tech-media platforms like Facebook out of policing disinformation, and into maximizing the reach of right-wing content, by baselessly accusing the companies of harboring liberal bias.
They aren’t even particularly subtle about it.
After Facebook changed its terms of service in late 2017, pro-Trump video-bloggers Diamond and Silk claimed, without any grounding at all, that Facebook was censoring them, and conservatives exclusively. Republicans on Capitol Hill eagerly parroted their baseless claims. When Mark Zuckerberg appeared before Congress to testify about Cambridge Analytica, Ted Cruz grilled him about it. They were rewarded for their nonsense with an invitation to headline a House Judiciary Committee hearing.
That much has been out in the open. What’s less obvious is that their campaign has succeeded: It doesn’t matter what Facebook intended to be. Facebook has become a media outlet—and, through the manipulative efforts of conservative activists, a grossly irresponsible, right-wing media outlet. It’s time to stop pretending otherwise.
Facebook’s efforts to appease right-wing critics have distorted the outlet’s political influence in many obvious ways. In response to the hearings on bias in Congress, Facebook hired conservative lobbyist Jon Kyl to lead a review. A six month study by Media Matters found that right-leaning pages continue to rack up more interactions on their posts than left-leaning or politically neutral pages, and conservative memes are by far the highest performing political content on the platform. But here’s a data point that hits close to home:
In general, Facebook treats Pod Save America the same as it treats InfoWars—the propaganda channel Alex Jones uses to spread conspiracy theories, and, more recently, to threaten violence against Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Not even our most dishonest critics on the right make that comparison, because it’s ludicrous. But if Facebook took any steps to distinguish between Pod Save America and InfoWars in their algorithms, those same critics would disingenuously accuse Facebook of being biased against conservatives.
I run social media for Crooked Media, and here’s how I discovered this ingrained false equivalence: The other day, I received a push notification from Facebook saying that one of our videos had been flagged, and rated as “18+.” The video in question was a normal episode of Pod Save America in which our hosts analyzed the latest developments in Mueller’s Russia investigation. Standard fare. They swore a couple of times. They didn’t threaten anyone with violence. They didn’t accuse anyone of being a child molester.
Confused, I looked up how Facebook’s rating system works:
Videos that carry no rating can contain “some suggestive dialogue, infrequent coarse language, some sexual situations, or moderate violence.”
Videos that receive a 14+ rating have “intensely suggestive dialogue, strong coarse language, intense sexual situations, or intense violence.”
Videos that receive the 18+ rating they tagged us with contain “crude, indecent language, explicit sexual activity, or graphic violence.”
Facebook has the capacity to distinguish between fact and falsehood, journalism and disinformation, reason and incitement, peace and violence, and turn down the volume on the latter. It can distinguish between people who use the word “fuck,” and people who engage in slander. It chooses not to because those distinctions—those values—would disfavor a right-wing media culture that embraces conspiracy theories and lies. The result is an output that places content creators who care about truth at a disadvantage, and makes Facebook a useful tool for propagandists.
We reached out to our Facebook rep to ask why our video received that rating, and got a corporate non-response in return. “[T]hanks for flagging. Looking into this.”
But we didn’t need a explanation or an excuse to see what was happening: Facebook treats our deliberately PG-13 content as if it were as offensive as “explicit sexual activity, or graphic violence,” and it suppresses us, to balance out its suppression of dangerous garbage like InfoWars.
In mid-July, Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook would not ban InfoWars outright. It recently suspended Alex Jones from personally posting for 30 days after he “violated community standards,” but has more generally turned down the volume InfoWars content algorithmically. To quote Zuckerberg, “You can put up that content on your page even if people might disagree with it or find it offensive, but that doesn’t mean that we have a responsibility to make it widely distributed in News Feed.” Yesterday, Facebook upheld the 18+ rating on our video.
The company’s lip-service defense of free speech is in practice a choice to collapse the distinction between disinformation and news-analysis. The right-wing narrative of social-media censorship is dishonest, but it has also been incredibly effective in pressuring platforms into accepting lies as opinion.
Fuck that. Pod Save America will now natively include show notes and source citations on every longform video we post. Our shows are thoroughly researched, backed by reputable sources and meant to help spread information. Crooked Media has an obvious ideological lean, but we are more transparent about it than any other media company, and it in no way conflicts with our mission of making our audiences better informed. Facebook should reward that ethic, not penalize it. It should challenge other outlets to do the same. Or it should admit that, it has chosen, out of cowardice or its own volition, to adopt the values of its most dishonest critics.