When the CEOs of Big Tech testify in Congress on Wednesday, they’ll almost certainly be hit with a dubious and regular Republican talking point: censorship of conservative voices on social media.

President Donald Trump and other politicians and pundits on the right love to complain that social media companies “censor conservatives.” There is no evidence that’s true. In fact, conservative news thrives on Facebook. Of Trump’s thousands of lies, Twitter had the audacity to lightly fact-check him three times.

During the hearing before the House Antitrust Subcommittee, Apple’s Tim Cook, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Google’s Sundar Pichai will try to convince lawmakers their corporate behemoths aren’t monopolies. These companies absolutely need to be interrogated about their unprecedented wealth and power. But, thanks partly to the flow of dark money, Republicans have hijacked the conversation to push the narrative that they are the real victims in all of this.

Mashable spoke to experts about the history, facts, and potential consequences of the GOP’s “bias” claims. Here’s what you need to know.

Republicans claim social media companies “silence conservative voices”

From 2016 to the present, Republicans have seized on anecdotes to claim Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google intentionally moderate content in a way that unfairly impacts conservatives. They have claimed that these companies remove or down-rank (or “shadow ban”) conservative content and profiles because “elite Silicon Valley” companies are supposedly liberal. GOP senators even had a hearing dedicated to the issue, and Sen. Josh Hawley has introduced legislation that would require companies to prove they are politically neutral. 

“[T]he only people who have been in a position to call bullshit on this, the tech companies, are too terrified to say no…”

Tech companies aren’t good at defending against these arguments — at least without trying to appease right-wingers in the process. They don’t want to piss off the people in charge of regulating and taxing them, and would prefer to avoid alienating high-profile users like Trump, and his followers, who drive engagement (and profits). When presented with cases of “bias,” in some cases, the companies backtracked — even when the content did violate some company policies. Giving in just reinforced the idea that bias existed in the first place. 

“Every one of these things reinforces the next, and at every step of the way, the only people who have been in a position to call bullshit on this, the tech companies, are too terrified to say no, so the story just keeps growing,” Berin Szóka, the president of the non-profit, non-partisan technology think tank TechFreedom, said.

There’s no evidence of systemic bias 

Proving bias is more complicated than pointing to several instances of someone’s post or profile being removed, and concluding there’s something larger at work. The problem is it’s difficult to prove a negative.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of FactCheck.org, explained that to truly assess bias, you have to establish a data set (i.e., pieces of content), find comparable content on the left and the right, and then see if they were treated the same. This has to be done multiple times. Jamieson and other scholars have successfully conducted these analyses on print media and cable news, and found there is generally bias on both sides, although not one overwhelming “liberal media” bias.

Doing the same for social media, however, is a different story. There is simply too much data. And these social networks aren’t necessarily open to outside researchers poking under the hood. There are privacy concerns, and it could jeopardize company secrets.

“From a methodological standpoint, it’s virtually impossible to do,” Jamieson said. “You’ll never capture the full base of the content in order to start your analysis.” 

Because of those challenges, Jamieson explained that people claiming bias then move to “argument by anecdote,” like when Ted Cruz complained about conservative bloggers Diamond & Silk being temporarily banned by Facebook. It made headlines, but one case does not prove that something systemic is at work.

In the absence of actual data, some conservatives have tried to create the appearance of empirical evidence. Politicians point to a 2016 Gizmodo story that showed how Facebook used human moderators — not automated systems, as it claimed — to populate its trending news tab as evidence of anti-conservative bias (helped by the article’s inflammatory headline).

Then last year, the Trump campaign solicited complaints of social media “censorship,” but that was basically just a way to get voter emails and donations. A Columbia research fellow did his own analysis on high-profile figures banned by Twitter, and found they were mostly Trump supporters. Many of them — David Duke and Richard Spencer, just to name two — also happened to be white supremacists spreading hate speech.

That’s related to another issue: people on the right may in fact experience more content moderation than people on the left because right-leaning ideologies and content overlap with behavior that’s not allowed on social networks. For example, Twitter started expanding and enforcing its policies against hate speech, and, surprise, surprise, they applied to Trump’s dog-whistle politics. Since Russian trolls successfully manipulated the 2016 election with inflammatory rhetoric and fake news alike, Facebook has been working to de-emphasize conspiracy theories and incendiary content from disreputable sources, which most often comes from right-wing sites like Gateway Pundit. 

“These people are not entirely wrong when they claim there might be some disparate effect when Facebook changes its algorithm to handle sites that use clickbaity headlines, or post conspiracy theories, or rely on bots to promote their content,” Szóka said.

Despite these instances of moderation, conservative content — the more sensationalist the better — actually thrives on social media networks, especially Facebook. Ben Shapiro and Breitbart consistently rank as top voices on Facebook.

Some conservatives have attempted to take internet companies to court. That hasn’t worked out so well. In one lawsuit against Google, and another against Twitter and others, federal judges decided in both cases that tech companies aren’t violating First Amendment rights when they make content moderation decisions, because the First Amendment protects citizens from the government dictating the parameters of their speech, not private companies.

Claims of bias are a longstanding Republican tactic

The term “liberal media” did not arise organically. Since the 1960s, conservative politicians have sought to discredit criticism from the press by calling them unfair or biased. In the 1970s, Richard Nixon accused the press of conducting a “witch hunt” (sound familiar?) as reporters pursued Watergate. Once Rush Limbaugh hit the airwaves in the 1980s, he argued that the press was not the actual arbiter of the truth — he was. Fox News shifted its tone at the time to echo Limbaugh, and the rest is history. 

Conservatives, who normally would not seek to regulate or dictate the policies of a private company, found a new target in social media and internet companies, too.

“It’s an old argument that is being revivified and applied to something that you would not ordinarily call news,” Jamieson said. “Ordinarily you would expect a conservative to say the platforms are privately owned companies, they can do whatever they want. It is a little odd to hear conservatives argue that a privately owned company should have constraints placed on it.”

Some conservatives are ready to join the fight against internet companies because decades of animosity with the press have entrenched the idea of “liberal bias” as a problem. Making these accusations also plays well with conservative voters, as does taking CEOs to task for bias in front of Congress.

“It plays well when you run in an election,” Ashkhen Kazaryan, TechFreedom’s director of civil liberties, said. “A crucial player in that ecosystem is Sen. Josh Hawley. When he ran for senator, one of his big things was that he ‘took on Google.’ He was one of the first who proved that it’s very successful messaging, especially when it comes to conservatives.”

Experts say another reason conservatives engage in these arguments is to “work the refs.” That is, if they accuse the people in charge of moderating content of bias loudly enough, moderators might be disinclined to do so again in the future to avoid looking biased. Conservatives have a huge incentive to keep social media companies from moderating untrue or bigoted posts, since the narratives created by Trump allies such as Ben Shapiro and Tucker Carlson spread so effectively online — and helped Trump and Republicans rise to power.

“Attacking somebody for being biased is effective if you can get them to change their behavior in a way that benefits you,” Jamieson said. “There’s a tactical reason to attack the platforms for bias if you increase the likelihood that they’re going to let you get away with things as a result because they’re trying so hard not to be biased.”

The strategy appears to be working. 

The consequences

Social media platforms have differed in their responses to claims of anti-conservative bias. Twitter has stood by its efforts to introduce conversational health measures, despite complaints about “shadow banning,” and has been more aggressively going after hate speech and conspiracy theories. It also appended fact-checking or warning labels to three of Trump’s recent tweets. 

Facebook, on the other hand, declined to act on the same Trump statements. The platform has largely bent over backwards to appease Republican complaints. In 2018, it hired a former Republican senator to do an audit of bias on the site. The report accused non-partisan, neutral fact checkers of “liberal bias,” and resulted in policy changes that allowed for more graphic anti-abortion ads

It has also appointed an organization affiliated with Tucker Carlson’s ultra-right wing website the Daily Caller as a “fact checking” partner, despite the Daily Caller’s status as a routine peddler of misinformation. That appointment, and the audit, result in more than just lip service to conservatives: it undermines fact-checkers and the nature of truth and accountability itself.

“When the fact-checking group holds you accountable as a candidate, your voting constituency can say, ‘Well I don’t believe that, because I don’t believe any fact checkers, they’re all liberal,'” Jamieson said. “So tactically what’s the effect of being able to discredit fact-checkers? It minimizes your accountability.”

There is a lot at stake for these social media companies. Trump took out his anger at Twitter by, well, tweeting. He also crafted an executive order that asked the Federal Communications Commission to rewrite a portion of the Communications Decency Act, Section 230, that shields social media companies from liability.

Section 230 is a cornerstone for the internet that actually protects freedom of speech, because it allows social media companies to host forums or other publishing tools for people without being liable for what users say. Amending Section 230 would not only change the internet, but could open the door for reinterpretations of the First Amendment. 

“The First Amendment and Section 230 protect free speech in our democracy as we know it,” Kazaryan said. “Messing with them based on knee-jerk reactions and feelings about how these companies conduct their business could be extremely damaging to democracy.”

Jamieson’s research has shown that bias, on both sides, is part of human nature. However, these bad faith arguments, made to work the refs, could have consequences that echo far beyond the internet.

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