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When radio host Alex Jones was permanently banned from Twitter Thursday, the news generated headlines. But the "InfoWars" host, a conservative provocateur who once called the Newtown, Conn., school shooting a hoax, is just one topic in a broader debate that has escalated in recent days. President Trump said Google’s algorithm is biased against conservatives. In congressional hearings Wednesday, Republican lawmakers raised similar allegations that Facebook or Twitter have suppressed political speech, including from commentators far less incendiary than Mr. Jones. Many scholars who study the industry say they don’t see overt political bias. Rather, they say the companies face a learning curve, in balancing free speech with some oversight in an era of cyberbullying, misinformation campaigns, and offensive diatribes. One big problem is that the companies are relying heavily on technology to make human judgments about context and appropriateness. Another problem is lack of transparency. Communications expert Victor Pickard says, “How these algorithms are designed and operated by social media platforms remains largely hidden from the public.”
Two weeks ago, conservative commentator David Harris Jr. took a video of himself posting to Facebook. Why video something so common? Because he had a hunch what would happen.
Sure enough, his post went through, but a photo of a letter that accompanied the post mysteriously vanished and did not show up in his feed until days later – proof, he said, that the sharing service was biased against conservatives.
At a Wednesday House committee meeting, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was barraged with examples from Republican congressmen of how conservative voices were being suppressed on its service. On the same day, the US Department of Justice announced that Attorney General Jeff Sessions would meet with state attorneys general to discuss concerns tech companies "may be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms."
All that didn’t stop Twitter, on Thursday, from permanently banning conspiracy-monger Alex Jones – following curbs on him by other social-media networks, and after Mr. Jones sought to confront Mr. Dorsey and others outside the Capitol Hill hearing.
In a remarkable turnaround from two years ago, when conservatives hailed social media as a key factor in President Trump’s election victory, many now claim that Twitter, Facebook, Google, and others are shutting them out. On the left, lawmakers are worried about the cyberbullying of private individuals on social media – a concern echoed by first lady Melania Trump.
The immediate result is increasing and bipartisan pressure for social media platforms to be more transparent about their algorithms and how they block certain content. Longer-term, the threat is more regulation of the platforms, something that even free-market conservatives are reluctantly talking about doing if social media doesn’t clean up its act.
Are social media companies politically biased? They say they’re not. And many scholars who study them agree.
“It’s a false narrative that conservatives are bearing the brunt of some kind of campaign against them,” Ari Waldman, director of the Innovation Center for Law and Technology at New York Law School, writes in an email. “Platforms also mistakenly ban pictures of women breastfeeding. They also ban civil rights activists who post photos in order to protest police brutality. They also ban drag queens…. Content moderation is simply a difficult business.”
Lack of transparency?
One big problem is that the companies are relying heavily on technology to make human judgments about context and appropriateness. Another complicating factor is that social media’s clampdown on fake news and accounts used by Russia to meddle with US elections has caused the companies to more strictly enforce their standards on domestic users as well. A third problem is that the companies have done a poor job of making clear what’s acceptable and not acceptable on their sites.
“How these algorithms are designed and operated by social media platforms remains largely hidden from the public,” Victor Pickard, a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, writes in an email. “Within the vacuum of this lack of transparency, any number of conspiracy theories can emerge with a degree of plausibility.”
Nevertheless, the grievances of conservatives keep piling up, even among those who are far less controversial than Mr. Jones of Infowars. Last fall, US Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R) of Tennessee wanted to run an ad for her Senate bid that said she opposed “the sale of baby body parts” (fetal-tissue research). Twitter deemed that “inflammatory” and “likely to evoke a strong negative reaction,” so wouldn’t run the content as a paid ad. She was able to tweet out the ad, however.
Last month, Twitter and Facebook initially rejected an ad from California House candidate Elizabeth Heng, which showed footage of the Cambodian genocide her parents escaped. Both services reversed that decision a few days later.
In July, liberal-leaning digital site and media broadcaster Vice News found that three conservative House members – Mark Meadows of North Carolina, Jim Jordan of Ohio, and Matt Gaetz of Florida – were among prominent Republicans not showing up in the drop-down menus in Twitter searches. Although they could still be found in full search results, the lack of drop-down mentions meant it would be slower and less convenient to find them, a practice known as “shadow banning” that liberal Democrats were not experiencing. The day after the story appeared, the problem stopped, the news site reported.
It’s not just public figures who face shadow-banning. Two months ago, Maine motel owner Miles Ranger started noticing changes with his Facebook political account, Maine for Trump 2020. Posts and shares from his conservative friends dropped precipitously. Some of his posts and shares were deleted immediately without explanation, as were pictures. Followers saw some of his posts only five to six days later.
The people who post conservative material are not monolithic, he says in an e-mail. There are “bots” – computer programs that automatically post material. “More significant though are the disguised FB [Facebook] pages with real people behind them but they don’t use their real name or real personal pics of themselves,” he writes. “They are nasty, provocative, mostly ignorant and mostly FALSE. These people are on both the right and the left.”
There are others posting who are real and caught up in conspiracy theories. And then there are conservatives like him, Mr. Ranger says. “I have real friend and family – but I’ve learned to not talk politics at class reunions or family reunions – so these things are minimized” on his personal Facebook site. “The political posts stay on political groups,” such as his Maine for Trump site, he adds.
'Why does she only get the liberal suggestions?’
At a Senate Intelligence committee hearing Wednesday morning, Twitter’s Dorsey and Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg repeatedly denied that their companies were trying to tip the scales for or against any party or political ideology. But the pileup of anecdotal evidence clearly has exasperated conservative lawmakers.
In a separate hearing Wednesday, of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Jeff Duncan (R) of South Carolina told Dorsey of a test Twitter account a twenty-something conservative staffer set up, identifying herself only with an email address and a phone number with a 202 area code. She received suggestions to follow Democratic politicians, pundits, former officials, and journalists Jim Acosta of CNN and Chuck Todd of NBC. “It’s one thing not to promote conservatives, even though Donald Trump is truly the most successful Twitter user…. Why does she only get the liberal suggestions?” he asked Dorsey. “That shows bias, sir.”
“We do have a lot more work to do,” Dorsey acknowledged.
Another area of concern for conservatives is the lack of visibility of these sites in the news feeds from Google News. President Trump last week warned in a tweet that “Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good.”
Studies of Google News have found that liberals and conservatives get almost exactly the same stories in their news feeds. But those are mainly articles from traditional media, such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, and others that many conservatives call left-leaning and biased. Google’s rationale for using them is that they are reputable, large, and well-established, says Efrat Nechushtai, a PhD candidate at Columbia University and lead author of a study on Google News, via email. [Editor's note: The description of Ms. Nechushtai was altered to clarify her status and role as lead author of the study.]
“It is defensible for Google News to offer a news landscape that is based on professional and reputable sources,” she says. Still, she notes that Google News could highlight local organizations or small organizations that present alternative viewpoints from both left and right.