Facebook Faces Even More Accusations of Pro-Conservative Bias

Facebook is once again facing controversy over pro-conservative bias. The controversy stems from alleged changes to how news feeds operate.

Extreme right wing voices have loudly proclaimed that social media has an anti-conservative bias. Mounting evidence, however, suggests that the opposite might actually be true.

Earlier this month, Facebook critics launched a website called The Real Facebook Oversight Board. The idea behind it is to hold Facebook accountable for their actions. The board itself has little to no actual relationship with the internal Facebook staff, but it is headed up by scholars, reporters, and Facebook critics. Facebook responded days later by issuing a takedown notice to compel the ISP to disable the site entirely. The social media platform claimed that the site violated trademark laws while the ISP accused the site of phishing. With available evidence, neither accusation seemed that compelling. This only further inflamed accusations of this being a political move to silence criticism.

While this is a setback for Facebook critics, it seems that other problems are cropping up for the site. Back in August, we brought you a report that said that a Facebook employee was fired after leaking evidence of pro-conservative bias. The employee in question brought several moderation concerns only to be shot down for being “anti growth”.

Now, Facebook is facing even more accusations surrounding pro-conservative bias. Mother Jones is reporting that Facebook is tweaking their news feed algorithms to favor right wing “news” outlets at the expense of left leaning and centrist sources. From the report:

Near the close of the first year of the Trump presidency, executives at Facebook were briefed on some major changes to its News Feed—the code that determines which of the zillions of posts on the platform any one of us is shown when we look at Facebook. The story the company has publicly told is that it was working to “bring people closer together” by showing us more posts from friends and family, and to prioritize “trusted” and “informative” sources of news. The changes would also reduce how much news most people see, and therefore decrease revenue for many publishers.

What wasn’t publicly known until now is that Facebook actually ran experiments to see how the changes would affect publishers—and when it found that some of them would have a dramatic impact on the reach of right-wing “junk sites,” as a former employee with knowledge of the conversations puts it, the engineers were sent back to lessen those impacts. As the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday, they came back in January 2018 with a second iteration that dialed up the harm to progressive-leaning news organizations instead.

In fact, we have now learned that executives were even shown a slide presentation that highlighted the impact of the second iteration on about a dozen specific publishers—and Mother Jones was singled out as one that would suffer, while the conservative site the Daily Wire was identified as one that would benefit. These changes were pushed by Republican operatives working in Facebook’s Washington office under Vice President of Global Public Policy Joel Kaplan (who later made headlines for demonstratively supporting his friend Brett Kavanaugh during confirmation hearings).

Asked for comment, Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone would only say, “We did not make changes with the intent of impacting individual publishers. We only made updates after they were reviewed by many different teams across many disciplines to ensure the rationale was clear and consistent and could be explained to all publishers.”

Glossed over in that non-answer answer is the fact that the changes were made with at least the knowledge of the disparate impact they would have on specific publishers. And that those changes appear to have been based, at least in part, on internal partisan concerns.

Mother Jones then published a followup report from the News Editor and Union representative of Mother Jones. He says that the changes have already cost the site ad revenue:

It’s thanks to those dual roles of editor and union rep that I was so enraged when it was revealed that Facebook had changed its algorithm in such a way that boosted conservative outlets like Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire at the expense of progressive outlets, specifically us. They even made a slide deck to show which publishers would benefit and which would be hurt, as MoJo‘s editor-in-chief, Clara Jeffery, and CEO, Monika Bauerlein, discovered. “To be perfectly clear,” Clara and Monika write, “Facebook used its monopolistic power to boost and suppress specific publishers’ content—the essence of every Big Brother fear about the platforms, and something Facebook and other companies have been strenuously denying for years.”

As my colleague Ben Dreyfuss, who’s overseen our Facebook presence, put it, “It’s difficult and disheartening to keep running into walls, and to learn that the walls were placed there intentionally, so my colleagues and I would be stopped as we tried to promote our magazine’s work, makes me livid.”

It’s hard to calculate exactly what these changes mean for Mother Jones—how many people did not see our articles, how many potential subscribers and donors we did not reach—but a very conservative estimate of just the loss in advertising revenue is more than $400,000 between the time those algorithm changes were implemented and the end of our last fiscal year, this June. And it’s that specific number that particularly ate at me given my role with our union: In June, we specifically worked with management to trim our payroll by $400,000 to make ends meet for our 2020–2021 fiscal year.

After all of that, it was galling to hear that Mark Zuckerberg—a man who has spun his dorm-room version of Hot or Not for rating female classmates’ appearance into an estimated net worth of over $100 billion—personally signed off on a plan to limit our journalism from being read by our fans (since after all, our stories only show up in your Facebook feed if you’ve liked our page or a story was shared by one of your friends). Meanwhile, Zuckerberg was having conservative pundit Ben Shapiro over to his home for dinner (unclear if they killed the night’s feast together first) despite Facebook’s own fact-checkers flagging Shapiro’s Daily Wire as a peddler of misinformation, whereas we’re a publication that has staked our reputation on building a robust system of internal fact-checking. And while yes, we are up front about the fact that our journalism comes from a set of values, those values are not driven by partisan politics. I spent a good chunk of the summer working with a freelancer on a great story exploring how online school ratings could be exacerbating segregation. Can you imagine Shapiro publishing something investigative that’s not just trying to fan the flames of the right’s political grudges?

These are, of course, serious accusations being levied against the platform. If true, then this has much wider implications for journalism as a whole. Facebook, of course, has a huge number of users. If you happen to be a news reporter starting out or a reporter who is hoping to expand your readership, then doors have already closed. You basically have to ask yourself what your bias is. If the answer is anything other than hardcore conservative, then Facebook is now off limits to you. Thankfully, a site like ours depends very little on Facebook eyeballs, but for others, this is very likely devastating. If your not a far right wing political hack, then you’ll never get the reach that Facebook might initially appear to offer. You’ll simply have to come up with something else instead.

What’s more is how this isn’t the first time the platform has faced these types of accusations. The fact that we are seeing a pattern of behavior simply doesn’t bode well for those who think these are just musings of some random people who don’t know what they are talking about. This should really be worrying for those who believe in free speech.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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