The Media Today

Should Google, Twitter and Facebook be worried about Trump’s threats?

August 29, 2018

President Trump kicked off the news cycle on Tuesday at about 5:30 AM, with a series of incensed tweets. What was the leader of the free world upset about now? This time it was Google’s supposed rigging of search results, which Trump said was being done to ensure that fake news about him showed up at the top. “Google search results for ‘Trump News’ shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake New Media,” he posted. “In other words, they have it RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD. Fake CNN is prominent. Republican/Conservative & Fair Media is shut out. Illegal?”

This theme continued in subsequent tweets, in which he alleged that 96 percent of the results for Trump News were from the left-wing media, which was “very dangerous.” Trump went on to tweet that Google and others were “suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good. They are controlling what we can & cannot see. This is a very serious situation-will be addressed!” Later, in an interview, Larry Kudlow, the president’s economic adviser, said that the administration would be “taking a look” at whether government regulation might be necessary in order to solve the problem that Trump imagined.

The president was mistaken, of course; many of the top Google search results for the term “Trump News” come from Fox News, a pro-Trump outlet. (Google issued a statement denying any bias in its results.) Several reporters noted that the president seemed to be quoting statistics from a Fox Business report that had aired on Monday, which in turn relied on some dubious statistics published by PJ Media, a conservative blog network. The Fox report included an interview with Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, also known as Diamond & Silk, a pair of pro-Trump video bloggers who believe they are being censored by Facebook. (The Diamond & Silk allegations were aired in April during a Congressional hearing, which produced no actual evidence that their videos were being censored.)

What conservatives seem to be focusing on isn’t censorship per se, but the actions of the algorithmic filters used by Facebook, Google, and Twitter, as they select what items to show a user given their search terms or profile (and the need for advertising revenue). The allegation is that these algorithms discriminate against conservative sources, and conservative pundits have parlayed this claim into closed-door meetings with Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, and Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter. Both executives have tried to reassure conservatives that no anti-Trump bias exists (in a recent interview with CNN, Dorsey undercut this argument somewhat by admitting that Twitter staff is largely left-leaning).

Trump’s comments raise the prospect that the government could investigate algorithmic filtering and impose “content neutrality” rules. Is that a realistic threat? Possibly, but Trump might find it tough going if he actually tries to legislate anything. For starters, digital platforms like Google and Facebook are insulated from legal responsibility for their content by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which would have to be altered or repealed. On top of that, they are protected by an even more powerful shield: Namely, the First Amendment, which gives them the right to publish (or not publish) whatever they wish, just as it does for regular internet users.

Here’s more about the platforms and their alleged censorship of right-wing voices:

  • A liberal slant? Trump is far from alone in his views about platform censorship. A Pew survey earlier this year found that an overwhelming majority of Republican or Republican-leaning U.S. adultsabout 85 percent of those surveyedbelieve social networks like Twitter and Facebook censor political content, and about 64 percent of Republicans believe that Silicon Valley in general favors liberals over conservatives.
  • The spark: Many believe that theories about Facebook censorship were inflamed by a 2016 Gizmodo story in which anonymous moderators said they routinely removed conservative news links from the site’s “Trending Topics” feature. Facebook later killed the feature, but the damage was done. John Cook, a former editor of Gawker, wrote recently that he had some second thoughts about the original Gizmodo piece.
  • Bending over: In a meeting in July, a number of media executives complained to Facebook that they were bending over backwards for conservatives, despite the lack of any evidence the social network is suppressing right-wing content. Ben Smith, of BuzzFeed, said that the company appeared to have bought into the idea that the press is left-leaning by nature, and therefore needs to be balanced by right-wing voices.
  • Closed door: Jack Dorsey has met with a wide range of conservatives in an attempt to show that his service isn’t biased, including closed-door meetings with Trump communications adviser Mercedes Schlapp, TV host Greta Van Susteren, and Fox News host Sean Hannity. He has also made regular trips to Washington, where he has sat down with Republican congressmen, including Senator Ted Cruz.
  • Shadow bans: Last month, Trump added fuel to a popular conservative conspiracy theory when he tweeted about rumors that Twitter uses “shadow-banning” to limit the reach of right-wing voices. The idea of shadow banning originated in early internet forums, where moderators would limit who could see a user’s posts, but did so without letting the user know about the limit. Twitter has denied using this practice.
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Other notable stories:

  • Facebook says it has banned 20 organizations and individuals in Myanmarincluding the head of the country’s armed forcesbecause they were posting hate speech and misinformation about the Rohingya people, thousands of whom have been driven from their homes and in some cases killed. A UN report has described it as genocide, and calls Facebook “a useful instrument for those seeking to sow hate.”
  • A number of former staffers of the LA Weekly are starting what they hope will be a competitor, both in print and online. Last October, LA Weekly was sold to a little-known group of investors, who almost immediately began laying off staff. One of the owners has now sued his former partners, alleging that they have mismanaged the weekly and petitioning the court to dissolve the company.
  • The Verge, which is part of Vox Media, has published an updated version of Sarah Jeong’s book The Internet of Garbage, which was first published in 2015, when Jeong was a writer for The Verge, but has since gone out of print. Jeong is now a technology writer for The New York Times, where her recent appointment caused some controversy after right-wing trolls dredged up some of old tweets.
  • A UN report on Yemen says a group of international experts who investigated the conflict there “have reasonable grounds to believe that, since September 2014, parties to the conflict in Yemen have severely restricted the right to freedom of expression.” Human rights defenders and journalists have faced harassment, threats and smear campaigns by the government of Yemen and coalition forces, the report says.
  • After struggling to survive, and laying off a number of staff, the three hyper-local news sites that are part of a collective called Spirited Media have pivoted to a subscription model, and Spirited Media founder Jim Brady says they are starting to make some headway. He tells the Nieman Lab that Bill Penn, The Incline and Denverite have a total of almost 1,500 paying members, and most have signed up as recurring subscribers.
  • James Ball writes for CJR about the thorny question of how journalists should report on notorious Twitter trolls such as Tesla CEO Elon Musk and president Donald Trump. “Musk is both a CEO and a troll,” writes Ball. “In going directly to the public via social media, and saying ridiculous things, he’s able to shape the online conversation, circumvent some internal checks on his power, and know that there’s an eager chorus of online fans online to support his position.”
  • Politico media columnist Jack Shafer writes about what he calls the outpouring of “radiant tributes” from journalists who covered or had contact with former Senator John McCain, who passed away on the weekend. “Journalists have long harbored a reputation for being hard-nosed cynics,” writes Shafer. “But as the mourning for McCain proves, scratch their surface and sentimentality runs out of them sweeter than maple sap in the spring.”

ICYMI: Twitch joins the unfortunate social media club where death happens in real time

Correction: An earlier version of this newsletter said John Cook regretted publishing a Gizmodo story about Facebook’s trending topics. Cook defends the publication of the story but had some second thoughts about the headline and the way the story was framed.

Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.