Facebook attracts swift blowback from report on anti-conservative bias

  • Invited guests take photos as President Donald Trump speaks during the "Presidential Social Media Summit" in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, July 11, 2019, in Washington.

    Invited guests take photos as President Donald Trump speaks during the "Presidential Social Media Summit" in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, July 11, 2019, in Washington.

 
 
Updated 8/21/2019 11:56 AM

Aspen, Colo. -- Facebook is caught in a political tight spot once again after releasing a report aimed at assuaging conservative criticisms that its algorithms and policies are biased against them.

The report -- conducted by ex-Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and a law firm -- showed no evidence of that bias, but that didn't stop Republicans and left-leaning civil rights groups alike from slamming it for being insufficient. Facebook commissioned the report last year, and Kyl and his team met with more than 130 conservatives to compile their concerns. However, critics said that the report would have been more effective if it relied more heavily on internal data provided by the company.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who has emerged as one of the most vocal opponents of the tech industry on Capitol Hill, blasted the report. He challenged the methodology of the third-party audit, which relied heavily on interviews with conservatives about their concerns.

"Merely asking somebody to listen to conservatives' concerns isn't an 'audit,' it's a smokescreen disguised as a solution," Hawley told me in a statement. "Facebook should conduct an actual audit by giving a trusted third party access to its algorithm, its key documents, and its content moderation protocols. Then Facebook should release the results to the public."

Meanwhile, civil rights groups on the left were also critical of the report, with the group Muslim Advocates also calling it a "smokescreen" -- for very different reasons. The groups accused the company of pandering to conservatives and argued that the report could undermine efforts by Facebook to address other content problems on its platform -- including hate speech and disinformation.

"This review is a make-believe solution in search of a phantom problem," said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, in a statement. "Rather than allowing baseless allegations of so-called anti-conservative bias to distract them, Facebook officials should focus on the civil and human rights problems and white supremacist propaganda overrunning its platform."

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The swift blowback highlights the fact that Facebook seems to consistently find itself in lose-lose positions in Washington as it tries to appease both political parties on a host of issues, from privacy to content moderation to disinformation and the scope of its power. Skepticism of the tech industry is increasing on both ends of the political spectrum -- but the parties have very different motivations for targeting tech that can often conflict.

Republicans are most worried about perceived anti-conservative bias, while Democrats on the Hill and running for president are primarily concerned about addressing election-related disinformation and online extremism, especially as social media's role in recent mass shootings is increasingly in the spotlight.

Facebook is not the only tech company navigating this tension. Google and Twitter have also denied repeated allegations that they're censoring conservatives while facing criticism from the left they're not doing enough to stamp out problematic content. But Facebook is the only prominent company to proactively try to address these concerns and announced it would tweak an ad policy in response to its report.

The report highlighted the fact that Facebook has the power to limit free speech, although there isn't evidence that it has. The report also said Facebook has taken some small steps to address conservatives' concerns, including loosening its policies around shocking and sensational content to allow the appearance of some anti-abortion ads showing infants receiving medical treatment.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Facebook noted the study began well before headlines about anti-conservative bias increased in recent weeks. President Donald Trump has been escalating his accusations against the industry, recently hosting a "Social Media Summit" at the White House where he blasted tech companies for silencing conservative voices. None of the tech companies attended the event.

It doesn't appear the report will slow down Team Trump's attacks on Big Tech. Hours after Facebook rolled it out, Donald Trump, Jr., was on Twitter criticizing Facebook's power, apparently in response to the company's new news curation feature.

Republican anger threatens to boil over on the Hill, though threats don't always mean tangible action. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, one of the lawmakers most concerned about anti-conservative bias, has suggested Congress may need to consider changes to a key legal shield that protects companies from lawsuits for content others post on their websites. He's also floated the possibility of antitrust action, which is something Democrats and the Trump Justice Department are also examining. Cruz did praise the report for accurately identifying many of the concerns he has about bias at Facebook.

"It is good to see Facebook is taking those concerns seriously," his office said in a statement. "Sen. Cruz looks forward to seeing how Facebook's announced policies will be implemented, and for future reports and installments from Sen. Kyl."

Here in Aspen, a top Justice Department official signaled the administration's review of competition in the tech industry is intensifying. Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim also expressed support for a review of the legal shield that protects the tech companies, known as Section 230, but noted it wasn't an antitrust issue.

"I don't think back when that law was passed the type of online information services that we see today was anticipated by Congress," Delrahim said. "But we should take a look, at almost I think every law, but particularly this law, to see does it make sense?"

"I'm not a huge fan of private lawsuits ... but to the extent that companies internalize externalities of their offerings and make them improve and be more responsible, that can be a positive thing," he said. "So I think a review of Section 230 by those people who care about it is perfectly appropriate."

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