Conservati­ves’ Beef With Social Media

Conservati­ves are convinced that Silicon Valley is out to silence them on social media. Do they have a point?

- BY ALEXANDER NAZARYAN @alexnazary­an

conservati­ves have long been certain

that Silicon Valley despised them, that its cadres of Stanford-trained engineers regarded the right with derision and disgust. In the spring of 2016, they found something that seemed to be proof of that suspicion. Six months before the presidenti­al election, technology news website Gizmodo published a scoop: News curators at Facebook, one former such curator alleged, suppressed stories from right-leaning outlets, in what amounted to a “chilling effect” on conservati­ve media.

In response to the outcry, Facebook dumped its human editors, who had the power to either extend or curtail the reach of any news item. Within days, the network was overwhelme­d by a surge of fake news, precisely the kind that human editors were supposed to filter out. An algorithm might have a difficult time figuring out whether Hillary Clinton had once worked to free Black Panthers charged with murder. But a human editor would have needed perhaps 30 seconds to confirm that she had not— and that allowing the story to trend would be a public disservice.

This change was critical. Facebook is the world’s most mo popular social media platform, one that serves as a news outlet for 45 percent of American adults, according to the Pew Research Center. Now, just 74 days before the presidenti­al election, Facebook had radically reconfigur­ed what its audience would read.

While the true impact of fake news on the election remains in dispute, millions of Americans undoubtedl­y saw fake news on Facebook, like the following viral article from a sham outlet calling itself Denver Guardian: “FBI AGENT SUSPECTED IN HILLARY EMAIL LEAKS FOUND DEAD IN APPARENT MURDER-SUICIDE.”

More than a year later, the Facebook affair remains a key moment in the politiciza­tion of social media. To liberals, it signaled Silicon Valley’s excessive deference to extreme right-wing personalit­ies. By declaring themselves impartial platforms, many on the left say, social media companies have forsaken their responsibi­lity to the public. “It’s now clear that democracy suffers if our news environmen­t incentiviz­es bullshit,” a former Facebook employee wrote (on Facebook) on Election Day 2016.

Though conservati­ves seemingly won the Facebook battle—and Donald Trump’s tweets now demand a journalist­ic beat of their own—the right remains convinced that the tech companies we now rely on for news are fundamenta­lly hostile to its conviction­s. If Facebook was guilty of bias in 2016, the thinking goes, so are denizens of every significan­t tech campus in Sunnyvale and Cupertino.

The case against Silicon Valley has been building since the election. Alleged culprits include Twitter, which the anti-abortion group Live Action criticized last summer for blocking pro-life advertisem­ents as “sensitive content” (Twitter denied targeting Live Action); Airbnb, which several weeks later canceled accounts associated with the “Unite the Right” white nationalis­t rally last August in Charlottes­ville, Virginia; and Google, which one study said “downranks” conservati­ve websites, a practice Google vigorously denied.

The prevailing mood of victimhood has led some conservati­ves to conclude they need to create their own Silicon Valley, one where “Make America Great Again” T-shirts won’t elicit terrified mockery. “The world needs social media platforms that are genuinely free. Or even that tilt in a conservati­ve, pro-christian direction,” urged conservati­ve writer John Zmirak after Live Action went public with its complaints about Twitter. “Think of the difference that Fox News made to U.S. politics. We need something comparable as a social media platform, before we find ourselves muzzled outright.”

Others on the right are increasing­ly acceding to that view. That much was clear at February’s Conservati­ve Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Hours after the keynote address by Trump, a small but attentive audience gathered for a panel titled “Suppressio­n of Conservati­ve Views on Social Media: A First Amendment Issue.” A young man passed out baseball hats adorned with the logo of Twitter, only the blue bird was upside down, an “x” where its eye should have been.

The audience was a mix of reporters from the mainstream media and fringe personalit­ies who, through the use of social media, have become celebritie­s in a right-wing media ecosystem that prizes loyalty to Trump and the trolling of liberals as prime journalist­ic virtues. Their newfound fame has allowed them to criticize the same platforms that made them famous...for bias. There was Jack Posobiec, a self-styled investigat­or who used Twitter and Periscope, the video-streaming service, to promulgate the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which accused the Clinton campaign of running a child sex-traffickin­g operation out of a Washington, D.C., restaurant. There was Lucian Wintrich, an improbable, dapper White House correspond­ent for conspirato­rial pro-trump outlet Gateway Pundit, recently criticized for inventing rumors about survivors of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting. And there was Cassandra Fairbanks, the heavily tattooed pro-trump journalist formerly employed by Russian propaganda site Sputnik.

The talk that followed—some lamentatio­n, some j’accuse, many grim warnings, not much humor—was a succession of testimonie­s against Silicon Valley, along with some acknowledg­ment that quitting its world-changing products is almost impossible. It seemed perfectly timed, coinciding with several new developmen­ts that made the topic angry and urgent, a scab demanding to be picked.

Just days before CPAC began, Twitter undertook what Gizmodo called “a mass purge of suspected Russian bot accounts.” The move was taken to curb the proliferat­ion of these accounts, which are believed to have influenced the 2016 presidenti­al election by spreading misinforma­tion. But the right, once rife with cold warriors, complained about the move (on Twitter), since the #Twitterloc­kout appeared to mostly affect the accounts of conservati­ves. Those who lost followers included white nationalis­t Richard Spencer and gun activist Dan Bongino.

Around the same time, Youtube, which is owned by Google, moved to shutter popular channels as part of its enforcemen­t effort against fake news and “harmful or dangerous” content, including those affiliated with Infowars, the pro-trump conspiracy site run by Alex Jones. YouTube has apologized for what it called “mistaken removals” and restored the channels. This passed for a tacit concession of the difficult position in which conservati­ves have put Big Tech by treating every attempt to monitor digital activity as an attempt to silence the right.

A profound sense of injury accordingl­y informed the CPAC panel, a feeling that Silicon Valley has become as hostile to conservati­ves as

Many on the right imagine an Oberlin graduate lounging in a bean bag as she happily relegates Breitbart News articles to oblivion.

the studios of Hollywood and the newsrooms of Manhattan are. “They are targeting people for ideologica­l reasons,” said lead speaker James O’keefe. He’s made a career of this suspicion, which he has applied to any institutio­n with even a whiff of liberalism about its halls.

During his talk, O’keefe presented a covertly recorded video (his modus operandi) of a Twitter holiday party. There, his investigat­ors found one woman who works on the “trust & safety” team. “We’re trying not to get the shitty people to show up” on Twitter, she says, referencin­g pro-trump journalist and conservati­ve activist Mike Cernovich, who during the presidenti­al election spread misinforma­tion about Clinton’s health. (Cernovich also dabbled in Pizzagate, though he has recently moved closer to the political and journalist­ic mainstream.) The quip about “shitty people” may have been jarring, but it could not have been especially surprising, since Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey often laments how toxic discourse on the platform has become.

David Carroll, a media analyst at the Parsons School of Design in New York City, says concerns about liberal bias in Silicon Valley are vastly exaggerate­d. “Tech platform algorithms seem designed for equal opportunit­y attention and engagement: If it plays it pays,” he says. While advertiser­s may be concerned about the content of a particular political site out of “brand safety issues,” he adds, this is only “the free market and freedom of speech at work.”

Concrete evidence of bias may not exist, but that doesn’t stop many on the right from imagining an Oberlin graduate lounging in a beanbag, gazing out over the hills of Palo Alto as she happily relegates Breitbart News articles to oblivion. “Conservati­ves worry that more human moderation will lead to censoring of content,” says Joan Donovan, a media manipulati­on researcher at Data & Society, a digital culture think tank partly funded by Microsoft. “But right now, there is no evidence or auditing process to know who, what or how platform companies are moderating in relation to partisan content.”

Skeptical conservati­ves point to the case of Google’s James Damore as proof of an institutio­nalized intoleranc­e of the right. Google, of course, is a corporatio­n and does not need to answer to anyone but its shareholde­rs. Executives there saw fit to dismiss Damore last summer for his infamous memo, which declared—among other widely disputed assertions—that women were psychologi­cally ill-equipped for certain leadership positions. “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biological­ly suited to that work is offensive and not OK,” wrote Google CEO Sundar Pichai at the time.

This reaction bothered Terry Schilling, head of the conservati­ve American Principles Project and moderator of the CPAC social media panel. “The

left is contradict­ing themselves,” he said in a subsequent conversati­on. He brought up the Masterpiec­e Cakeshop

v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case, now before the Supreme Court, in which a gay Colorado couple sued a baker who claimed his Christian conviction­s prevented him from making them a custom wedding cake. Masterpiec­e is often cited by liberals as an example of religious intoleranc­e; Schilling argues that Google and its peers show exactly the same intoleranc­e toward conservati­ves like Damore.

Schilling also suggested the tech company had borrowed some social behaviors from college campuses, where safe spaces and trigger warnings abound, and where Trumpism is as welcome as a mandatory math course. Damore made that connection even more explicitly during his CPAC talk. “Most tech workers are young, straight out of college,” he claimed. “They’ve lived in liberal bubbles their entire life.” And, he maintained, “this bubble is reinforced when they just move to San Francisco.” He said Google executives “cried onstage” after Trump’s election.

Part of the problem is that nobody really knows how much to regulate tech or who should do the regulating. Conservati­ves have traditiona­lly espoused a laissez-faire approach to business, promising to cut taxes and regulation­s, and railing against what they call onerous workplace protection­s for protected groups like women and people of color. But in their approach to Silicon Valley, government was suddenly the solution, not the problem. After he was fired, Damore lodged a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, founded during the New Deal and frequently derided by the right as a group of activist bureaucrat­s. Despite being run by Trump appointees, the board upheld Google’s decision to fire Damore.

At the same time, Silicon Valley may be just as ideologica­lly opposed to the right as those other bastions of coastal elitism, Manhattan and Hollywood. Harmeet Dhillon, a prominent Republican operative in San Francisco who is representi­ng Damore, laid out the case. According to records she has obtained in the course of suing Google, there are 74,000 employees at Alphabet, the parent company of Google. Of these, 39 contribute­d to the Trump campaign. Google

employees gave Hillary Clinton’s campaign a total of $1,559,861 while lavishing $40,813 on fringe Green Party candidate Jill Stein. That’s nearly double what they gave to the man who would eventually become president: $24,423. “You’re more likely to die by being shot than to be a Google employee that’s contribute­d to Republican Party candidates,” Dhillon said. While the statistics aren’t incontrove­rtible proof of anti-right bias (many Republican­s didn’t support Trump either), they certainly don’t bolster the case that Silicon Valley is a nonpartisa­n technocrac­y.

Yet she could not definitive­ly prove that a bias among tech employees has translated into a bias within Silicon Valley’s offerings. While conservati­ves complain about censorship, they have generally failed to acknowledg­e that right-wing sites are far more likely to promulgate fake news than

liberal ones, as the Oxford Internet Institute, part of the British university, has found. That’s because, as the Parsons school’s Carroll explains, aside from establishe­d outlets like The Wall Street Journal, National

Review and Fox News, the right-wing media landscape is a chaotic jumble of Youtube channels, Twitter feeds, Reddit posts and blogs. While celebratin­g the supposed demise of what former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin used to call the “lamestream media,” some on the right seem to have forgotten that journalist­ic standards and practices—original reporting, fact-checking, the firewall between news and opinion—were largely forged in traditiona­l newsrooms.

Any supposed “censorship” could be little more than an acknowledg­ment that the digital landscape is not lawless and that standards apply to both individual users and media organizati­ons. Carroll believes that enforcing a measure of decency does not amount to anything grander or darker. “People are getting booted from platforms, being ostracized into out-groups, because of their abhorrent conduct rather than any systemic anti-conservati­ve bias,” he argues. Trump adviser Roger Stone, for example, was not expelled from Twitter for his conservati­ve views but, rather, for making threatenin­g and insulting comments about CNN anchor Don Lemon.

Conservati­ves, however, still see an ideologica­l war. As CPAC was coming to an end, Cernovich hosted a party in Washington. Apparently relishing the possibilit­y of confrontat­ion, leftist activists protested the event. Cernovich posted video of the protesters—who he says were affiliated with the loosely organized leftist brigades known collective­ly as antifa, for “antifascis­t”—but Youtube removed the post, citing community guidelines regarding “hate speech.”

“Youtube is censoring honest, unedited reporting about ANTIFA’S actions,” he wrote on Twitter, where no apparent attempts were made to silence him. “This can mean only one thing—they endorse far-left-wing violence.” Youtube apologized and restored the video of the protest. But by then it was too late. The video Cernovich made of himself reading the email from Youtube—which he, of course, posted on Youtube—has been viewed more than 100,000 times.

“It’s now clear that democracy suffers if our news environmen­t incentiviz­es bullshit.”

 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States