Are tech platforms biased against conservative users? That accusation keeps coming up, and both Facebook and Twitter seem almost desperate to prove it’s not the case, to the point where they keep meeting with conservative groups and Trump supporters in an attempt to show good faith. This process is fraught with complications, however, since a) it’s not clear right-wing critics actually have a case for making such a claim, and b) bending over backwards to prove they aren’t biased has blown up in Facebook’s face in the not-so-distant past, and in the process arguably made the situation worse.
Washington Post writer Tony Romm has a story up about secret meetings that both Twitter and Facebook have had with Trump aides and other conservative leaders, including senior members of the Republican National Committee, in which they tried to ease concerns about alleged bias in their platforms and algorithms. According to Romm, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey held a private dinner that included Fox News commentator Greta Van Susteren and Trump adviser Mercedes Schlapp:
The gathering came weeks after Dorsey provoked conservatives’ ire by tweeting a story suggesting voters should elect Democrats in November… the Twitter executive heard an earful from conservatives gathered at the table, who scoffed at the fact that Dorsey runs a platform that’s supposed to be neutral even though he’s tweeted about issues like immigration, gay rights, and national politics.
The story goes on to say that Facebook sent a team to Washington to address complaints of bias, a team led by former Republican senator Jon Kyl, who met with groups like the Heritage Foundation. Conservative critics like to bring up the alleged “banning” of two right-wing video bloggers known as Diamond and Silk (even though they weren’t banned), and the fact that a conservative congresswoman was blocked from uploading a video about abortion. But some argue that this eagerness to prove they aren’t biased not only won’t actually work, but could backfire on the platforms.
The trouble is @jack’s presumption that he has some agency over the perception. He’s dealing with people whose stock-in-trade is misinformation and propaganda. They will push bias as an issue regardless of the ground truth about Twitter’s moderation practices. https://t.co/dAqV8O5Y16
— Blake Reid (@blakereid) June 27, 2018
For a glimpse of how this could backfire, all you have to do is look at what happened when conservative critics accused Facebook of rigging its Trending Topics section to remove content from certain right-wing news sources in 2016. The accusation was based on some comments made by the human editors Facebook used for the feature, who told Gizmodo they had discretion to remove some sources. The social network responded by firing almost all of its editors, then reached out to conservative pundits for meetings at which it maintained that it wasn’t biased. It recently shut down the feature altogether.
If you assume such incidents have made the issue of conservative bias a hot button for both Facebook and Twitter, it’s not hard to draw a line between the platforms’ desire to avoid such charges and criticism that they are too soft on right-wing trolls and others who take advantage of their networks. There are even those who argue Facebook’s attempt at damage control after the trending topics fiasco made it easier for the Trump administration to leverage the platform to help win the 2016 election.
Does this kind of accusation seem like a stretch? Maybe a little. But if right-wing allegations of bias are not being made in good faith, and are only another blunt instrument with which to try and hamstring political opponents, then treating those allegations as serious and bending over backwards to prove them wrong could actually cause as much or even more damage than it prevents.