Recently, representatives from Facebook and Twitter appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to respond to claims that their companies are engaging in the censorship of conservative news and voices. For years, conservatives have lamented the power of Big Tech over political discourse and their bias against the Right.
Senator Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) made sure to point out that, in her view, the evidence conservatives have for social media bias is purely anecdotal. While Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and other Republicans agreed with her, they assert that this is due to a lack of transparency on the part of Facebook and Twitter. These sites do not release any statistics or details on who they ban or censor and what side of the aisle they are on. However, as Senator Cruz highlighted, all these anecdotes seem to come from one side of the political spectrum.
In fact, complaints arise routinely from pro-life groups and Republican officials who have their posts banned and their accounts suspended.
Some recent examples:
- Twitter took down Senator Marsha Blackburn’s (R-Tennessee) campaign launch video because it deemed her comments about Planned Parenthood to be “inflammatory.”
- The Twitter account for Unplanned, a pro-life film depicting the conversion of an abortion clinic director, saw its account suspended and its follower count disappear. Twitter also blocked users from following the account.
- The pro-life Susan B. Anthony List has had several tweets taken down. Cruz pressed Twitter’s representative, Carlos Monje Jr., on one post from the organization featuring a quotation from Mother Teresa. When Cruz asked if Mother Teresa disseminates hate speech, Monje sat in silence.
Hirono, in her opening statement, denied any bias against conservatives and instead said that they should be looking at the content that they are posting if they are getting banned. Conservatives, said Hirono, should not be “spreading lies” about Planned Parenthood selling body parts or inflaming religious tensions by misrepresenting Islam.
However, this stands in contrast with troubling statements made by the top brass at Facebook and Twitter. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is quoted as saying, “I don’t believe that we can afford to take a neutral stance anymore. I don’t believe that we should optimize for neutrality.” When Cruz pressed Monje on this quote, Monje had no clear response.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has also been quoted describing how his platform will determine the trustworthiness of news outlets and boost or downgrade their visibility based on their rankings. This is supposedly to “further [break] down polarization and find common ground,” but conservatives are right to worry about who is making these decisions.
The News Is What the Curators Decide It Is
A 2016 report from Gizmodo reveals how Facebook news curators actively suppressed conservative news stories from trending, severely decreasing their visibility and influence. Topics included, “the right-wing CPAC gathering, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul…former IRS official Lois Lerner, who was accused by Republicans of inappropriately scrutinizing conservative groups; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; popular conservative news aggregator the Drudge Report; Chris Kyle, the former Navy SEAL who was murdered in 2013; and former Fox News contributor Steven Crowder.” Certain topics would be trending or suppressed based purely on the subjective opinions of the curator.
Curators were also instructed to “inject” topics into the trending news section that the company deemed important but were not organically trending from user interactions. For example, when facing backlash for not having a Black Lives Matter trending topic, Facebook employees gave preference to this topic over others.
This is in addition to a report from the Western Journal stating that, following an algorithm change by Facebook last year, conservative publishers lost an average of 14 percent of their web traffic while liberal publishers gained about two percent. A report by The Outline shows that engagement with certain conservative outlets’ posts dropped by as much as 55 percent.
Facebook flatly denied the claims of suppressing conservative news. However, according to Gizmodo, the managers of the news team did not deny injecting stories into the trending news section in order to keep up with more real-time news platforms like Twitter.
Either way, Facebook and Twitter cannot possibly advertise themselves as a neutral public forum for debate. Based on the statements of management and the actions of their employees, it is not unreasonable to assert that ultra-liberal, Silicon Valley technocrats are deciding what news over a billion people see daily.
Cruz demanded a yes or no answer on whether the Facebook and Twitter representatives considered their platforms to be neutral public forums, but neither could give a clear answer. Facebook’s witness, Neil Potts, gave an interesting clarifying response, noting that Facebook’s mission is to “create a community” based on their community standards.
This is a far cry from a neutral public forum. Rather, these statements make it clear that we are playing by the subjective rules of Zuckerberg and his employees.
Senator Cruz revisited this when he challenged Potts on the specifics of the community standards. According to the written statement submitted to the Committee, Facebook will remove content that incites “physical, financial, or emotional injury.” Cruz rightly points out that this standard of emotional injury is as subjective as any and can easily lead to the suppression of ideas that people find offensive because they disagree with them.
As an example, Cruz explained how he is “emotionally injured” by people praising Fidel Castro, as his aunt was tortured by his soldiers. However, Cruz doubts that Facebook would consider this hate speech and remove this content. Despite how the content affects him emotionally, he contends that we should not abandon our First Amendment rights so that we can shield ourselves from speech that we do not like. Instead, we should use the tools given in the Constitution to argue against it. We should ensure that social media platforms are an appropriate place to do so, without the ideologies of those running the platforms skewing the debate.
Can This Be Fixed?
Cruz offers several remedies to fix this issue in his opening statement. The first involves section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which waives the legal responsibility platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have for the things users say on their platform. This is a protection that outlets such as the New York Times and the Washington Post do not enjoy. Cruz asserts that this was part of a bargain that Big Tech struck with Congress, promising to be a neutral public forum for debate. If they wade into political activism, they should lose this privilege of immunity.
The second solution echoes Democrats’ cries to break up Big Tech companies under antitrust laws. Cruz asserts that, with such few social media platforms the size of Facebook and Twitter, these companies can exercise near-monopoly power to regulate speech and influence debate.
The third solution involves trying these companies in a court of law for defrauding users into believing that what they said would be equally heard on a neutral public forum when, as it seems, executives have been behind the scenes deciding whose voices were silenced.
Big Tech has made some cursory attempts to rectify these issues but has also exhibited a continuing hostility to transparency, conservative voices, and the spirit of the First Amendment.
Twitter algorithms stopped the accounts of the RNC Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel, Freedom Caucus Reps. Mark Meadows (R-North Carolina) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), and a spokesperson for Donald Trump Jr. from auto-populating in the search bar, significantly decreasing their visibility on the platform. Twitter worked swiftly to fix this.
Former Republican Senator Jon Kyl is now investigating claims of bias against conservatives at Facebook.
And yet, when pressed by Senator Josh Hawley (R-Missouri), Twitter’s Monje could neither commit to a third party audit nor release the protocols of how employees review tweets and accounts.
When Heritage Foundation president Kay Cole James joined an advisory board for Google’s artificial intelligence development, Google employees launched a dishonest crusade against her that led to her ouster and the dissolution of the board entirely.
Zuckerberg is now calling on governments across the globe to determine what speech should be allowed online. Nevermind that the First Amendment would expressly prohibit this in America. Additionally, giving politicians the ability to ban ideas that cause “emotional injury” starts us down a dangerous path that ends with Big Brother-esque control over the largest forums for political discourse.
The lack of transparency on the part of Facebook and Twitter has given conservatives a deep skepticism of Big Tech and their reassurances that the Right has an equal voice on these platforms. The Senate Judiciary Committee set out to get answers from these companies but received only half-answers and talking points. If Big Tech wants to truly commit to creating a neutral public forum, they must reaffirm their commitment to the First Amendment and resolve to make transparent the standards that govern content on their platforms.
David Grogan is an intern at CPI.