Following years of accusations that it stifles right-wing speech, Facebook has published an audit failing to show any particular anti-conservative bias, and some conservatives are furious.
Law firm Covington & Burling LLP conducted the audit under the auspices of former Sen. John Kyl, a Republican who served in the US Senate representing Arizona from 1995-2013 and again for several months in 2018 following the death of Republican Sen.
John McCain. The interim report (PDF), released today, seeks to reconcile the different ways Facebook sorts and presents content to its billions of users with users’ perception of biased or quashed material.
Conservative politicians have for years been complaining that Facebook suppresses right-wing speech, despite nonpartisan data showing that conservative outlet Fox News is far and away the biggest English-language publisher on Facebook by user engagement. Fellow right-wing outlets Daily Wire and Breitbart also feature prominently among the top sites by engagement, mixed in among mainstream news outlets such as NBC, the BBC, CBS, and The New York Times.
Claims about alleged anti-conservative bias on social media have reached new heights in recent months, with the Trump administration and the president himself amplifying the allegations. The White House held a social media summit in July, at which Trump lambasted “the tremendous dishonesty, bias, discrimination, and suppression” practiced by Twitter, Facebook, and Google.
As “conservative” is an imprecise and flexible term, former Sen. Kyl writes, the report considered the extremely broad umbrella of “political conservatives, people of orthodox religious views, libertarians, pro-lifers, traditionalists, Republicans, and free-speech advocates.” From that pool, Covington identified 133 persons to interview in 2018, then conducted follow-up interviews in 2019.
The report generally puts the concerns interviewees identified into one of six overall buckets, such as content enforcement or ad policies. But by and large, the most frequent problem identified in every category is one of transparency. Respondents felt that the algorithms Facebook used to surface content were unclear and the mechanisms behind efforts to reduce spam “too opaque.”
Similarly, interviewees complained about Facebook’s hate-speech designations and policies, both objecting to the entire category of “hate speech” existing in the terms of service and also objecting to how organizations are categorized as “terrorist groups or hate organizations,” which are prohibited on the platform. They also took issue with the way Facebook flags content as violating one of its policies and the completely unclear and occasionally seemingly arbitrary process for appealing a takedown.
Some complaints in the report, such as the claim that fact-checking by organizations such as the Associated Press and PolitiFact skews to the left, definitely espouse a conservative point of view. Complaints about Facebook’s lack of transparency and seemingly inconsistent or arbitrary enforcement of its rules, however, have for many years been coming from all sides.
“Freedom of expression undergirds the First Amendment,” Kyl writes in his conclusion, as well as being considered a basic human right by the United Nations. But for all the complaints identified by participants in the research, the report does not actually identify any specific or consistent bias.
“Facebook’s policies and their application have the potential to restrict free expression,” Kyl notes. “Given the platform’s popularity and ubiquity, this is a danger that must be taken seriously.” The platform has made some baby steps toward transparency that help, he concludes, but “[t]here is still significant work to be done to satisfy the concerns we heard from conservatives.”
“While we err on the side of free speech, there are critical exceptions: we don’t allow content that might encourage offline harm or is intended to intimidate, exclude, or silence people,” Facebook communications VP Nick Clegg wrote in a company blog post. “And we work to slow and reduce the spread of content like debunked hoaxes and clickbait by downranking it in News Feed. We know we need to listen more as we work to strike the right balance with these policies.”
Facebook might have hoped having a staunch conservative oversee the audit and write the report would mitigate criticism by Republicans. It did not. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said in a statement that the report wasn’t a genuine audit. Instead, he called it “a smokescreen disguised as a solution.”
“Facebook should conduct an actual audit by giving a trusted third-party access to its algorithm, its key documents, and its content-moderation protocols,” Hawley added. “Then Facebook should release the results to the public.”
The Media Research Center, a conservative organization, criticized the report, saying it “stunningly fails to admit fault or wrongdoing,” and that any changes made by Facebook to date toward addressing the complaints levied by conservatives are “empty and insulting.”
Nor was the report met with open arms by left-leaning groups. The Center for American Progress told Politico the report was a “lurid fiction perpetuated within right-wing circles,” adding, “Facebook made a grave mistake in allowing external political actors to direct an assessment of company policy and practices.”