A Faceoff over Facebook

April 11, 2018 - Wednesday


A Faceoff over Facebook

It's a Zuckerberg zoo on Capitol Hill again today, where the Facebook CEO sat down for his second day of questioning before dozens of House and Senate members. By far the most anticipated hearings of the year, the 33-year-old billionaire was grilled on everything from the company's privacy policy to its position on free speech. After all, if Facebook is unfriending anyone lately, it's conservatives!

Just this year, the company announced a change to its algorithm that seems to have radically affected conservative news feeds. The Western Journal's analysis points to a huge rise in liberal site promotion, while conservative publishers are losing an average of roughly 14 percent of their Facebook traffic. Coincidence? Not hardly. While the company insists it's all part of their "news curation" strategy, Hill members agree: it's more like code for political censorship. As George Upper explains:

This algorithm change, intentional or not, has in effect censored conservative viewpoints on the largest social media platform in the world. This change has ramifications that, in the short-term, are causing conservative publishers to downsize or fold up completely, and in the long-term could swing elections in the United States and around the world toward liberal politicians and policies.

Facebook has argued that the company is "taking a step to try to define what 'quality news' looks like and give that a boost." But who defines what "quality news" is? Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) made that exact point in his questioning of the tech mogul yesterday.

Mr. Zuckerberg, I will say there are a great many Americans who I think are deeply concerned that that Facebook and other tech companies are engaged in a pervasive pattern of bias and political censorship. There have been numerous instances with Facebook in May of 2016, Gizmodo reported that Facebook had purposely and routinely suppressed conservative stories from trending news, including stories about CPAC, including stories about Mitt Romney, including stories about the Lois Lerner IRS scandal, including stories about Glenn Beck.

In addition to that, Facebook has initially shut down the Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day page, has blocked a post of a Fox News reporter, has blocked over two dozen Catholic pages, and most recently blocked Trump supporters Diamond and Silk's page, with 1.2 million Facebook followers, after determining their content and brand were, quote, 'unsafe to the community. To a great many Americans that appears to be a pervasive pattern of political bias. Do you agree with that assessment?

Zuckerberg replied that he understood where the concern is coming from since "Facebook in the tech industry are located in Silicon Valley, which is an extremely left-leaning place." He told the group that he's tried to make sure "that we do not have any bias in the work that we do." Unfortunately, not very effectively. After insisting that no Republicans had not been marginalized by his new algorithms, the House's Fred Upton (R-Mich.) read a campaign announcement from a conservative candidate for state senate in his home state that mentioned being pro-life and pro-Second Amendment. Facebook said it violated its standards. Zuckerberg faltered, suggesting that it might be an error, and they would follow up.

Senator Ben Sasse (R-Nebr.) continued the theme, zeroing in on life. "There are some really passionately-held views about the abortion issue on this panel today. Can you imagine a world where you might decide that pro-lifers are prohibited from speaking about their abortion views on your content -- on your platform?" Zuckerberg replied that he "would not want that to be the case," only to go on to explain how artificial intelligence (A.I.) is proactively looking at content, which, as even he admits, will "create massive questions." No one, Sasse continued, would want the Facebook CEO to leave and think "there's sort of a unified view in the Congress that you should be moving toward policing more and more and more speech." On the contrary, he continued, "Sex traffickers and human traffickers have no place on your platform. But vigorous debates? Adults need to engage in vigorous debates." But, he shook his head:

I think you guys have a hard challenge. I think regulation over time will have a hard challenge. And you're a private company so you can make policies that may be less than First Amendment full spirit embracing in my view. But I worry about that. I worry about a world where when you go from violent groups to hate speech in a hurry -- and one of your responses to the opening questions, you may decide, or Facebook may decide, it needs to police a whole bunch of speech, that I think America might be better off not having policed by one company that has a really big and powerful platform. Can you define hate speech?

"I think that this is a really hard question," Zuckerberg replied. "And I think it's one of the reasons why we struggle with it. There are certain definitions that -- that we -- that we have around, you know, calling for violence or..." He didn't finish. Unfortunately, he didn't need to. As conservatives know, Facebook -- just like Google, YouTube, Twitter, and others -- have increasingly filtered out or shut down conversations on anything from pro-life movie trailers to its employees' pro-Trump chatroom.

At the end of the day, what most Americans want is transparency. If Facebook holds itself out as a public service, a virtual public square, then they can't have an algorithmic bouncer kicking people out just because they disagree with their political or moral views. As Senator Sasse pointed out, Facebook may be a private entity, but it's virtually monopolizing the public square. And with that responsibility comes a higher expectation that civil conversations will be allowed. Just because Zuckerberg – or his leadership team -- disagrees with someone doesn't meant he should shut them down. This growing understanding that Big Tech is picking and choosing who can speak in the virtual public square may help explain why there's been a jump in the number of Americans who want to see more government regulation. And in the end, that isn't the answer. Responsible ownership is.


Tony Perkins' Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC Action senior writers.


Also in the April 11 Washington Update:

Well Spoken, Paul Ryan

Can Evangelicals Save the GOP?


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