Even though right-wing elites repeatedly tout claims of anti-conservative bias on Facebook and other online platforms, in reality, the bulk of data shows the opposite to be true. Per a weekend Politico report, as we near the 2020 presidential election, some of the most engaging posts on Facebook come from conservative voices outside the mainstream media, including Ben Shapiro, Dan Bongino, and David Harris, according to the Facebook-owned traffic analysis tool Crowdtangle. Engagement on Facebook is defined as likes, comments, shares, and reactions.
The company has maintained time and time again that its platform is free of political bias. Facebook says that its algorithm doesn’t favor conservatives, but it also doesn’t have to because the right has one primal advantage:
“Right-wing populism is always more engaging,” a Facebook executive told Politico. They added that conservative content caters to “an incredibly strong, primitive emotion” by referencing concepts like “nation, protection, the other, anger, fear.” Essentially, the right-wing finds so much success online because it leverages the same fearmongering tactics on which early 20th-century dictators rose to power.
“That was there in the 30's. That’s not invented by social media—you just see those reflexes mirrored in social media, they’re not created by social media. It’s why tabloids do better than the [Financial Times], and it’s also a human thing. People respond to engaging emotion much more than they do to, you know, dry coverage. ...This wasn’t invented 15 years ago when Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook.”
(Politico’s report doesn’t name the Facebook executive they spoke with. We’ve reached out to Facebook for additional information regarding these claims and will update this article with their response.)
Democrats have long been playing catch-up to try and secure the same online foothold that conservative media maintains, and in the past have accused Facebook of kowtowing to the right to avoid perpetuating the idea that they have a liberal bias. Those allegations have surfaced once more as both parties pour nearly $150 million into political ads on the platform and desperately compete for user engagement in these last weeks before the election, according to Facebook’s political ad tracker.
Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden has repeatedly denounced Facebook’s speech policies, arguing that, in its attempts to appear neutral, the tech giant has given politicians free rein to push inaccurate claims and allowed dangerous misinformation campaigns to take root and flourish on its platform.
The watchdog group Media Matters, which is known for monitoring conservative media, tracks 5,250 Facebook pages and groups determined to be either influential or of concern, an agency spokesperson told the outlet.
“There’s something [at Facebook] that reflexively or intentionally is mollifying the right-wing,” Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters, said in an interview with Politico.
A former Facebook employee, Adam Conner, echoed this sentiment. Connor, who now works as VP of Tech Policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, told the outlet that the platform is far from neutral, and that, “Facebook is not a mirror—the newsfeed algorithm is an accelerant.”
However, the Facebook executive Politico spoke to disagreed, arguing that the left’s losing battle against right-wing populism existed long before social media amplified their embarrassing struggle.
“If you’re a far-left partisan then why can’t you fight fire with fire? That debate among progressives—[and] I count myself as a center-left progressive—is as old as the hills. All center-left campaigners and politicians always ask themselves, ‘Why can’t [we] seem to rile their supporters as much as right-wing populists have?’”
Having said all that, it should be noted that Facebook has been caught relaxing its fact-checking standards for right-wing content in the past. Internal discussions reviewed by NBC News revealed that the company waived “strikes” and downgraded violations for spreading misinformation for conservative news outlets and personalities like Breitbart and Trump surrogates Diamond and Silk. A Buzzfeed investigation also alleged that a Facebook employee was fired after amassing evidence of the company’s preferential treatment for right-wing pages.
The deck certainly appears stacked in the right’s favor. Conservatives are purportedly facing less culpability online, with Facebook giving them essentially a free pass to spew any bullshit they please in the digital sphere. Typically it’s whatever’s likely to rile up their base the most. And with that content, they’re specifically tapping directly into their supporters’ lizard-brain fears to override any sense of logic or factual evidence they may otherwise come across. It’s like a perfect storm of ignorance.