Wall Street Journal Provides New Evidence of Facebook Politically-Driven Intervention in Content

The Wall Street Journal just published a detailed story substantiating what many have suspected of Facebook, that it’s been censoring right-wing content. Admittedly, this finding is in “dog bites man: terrain. Gizmodo had ascertained that through an analysis of “Trending Topics” in May 2016, meaning well before the Trump win led Democratic/establishment screeching about Russian influence and clamping down on opinion suddenly deemed responsible and necessary.

However, Facebook operates on the premise that it can tell howlers to Congress and the public and large, and no one heretofore has been able to disprove its self-serving and dubious claims. So lifting the veil on Facebook’s process, such as it is, for booting content and providers from its platform serves to restrict its ability to prevaricate. It could even lead to a sensible policy or two.

The Journal story relies on internal chats and focuses on Breitbart as an object of Facebook restrictions. The picture is not pretty. Facebook appears to lack any clear-cut policies, which means employees views and arguments held way too much sway. Fox also gets hated-on by Facebook staffers, but there’s no indication in this story that there’s any smoking gun as far as Fox is concerned.

It’s no surprise that Facebook’s efforts at moderation are a train wreck. This tiny site has highly experienced moderators make considerable effort to keep the discussion civil and informative. Moderation does not scale.

And that’s before the wee problem of Facebook having what sure sounds like unduly fuzzy objectives. I find it hard to understand, save its presumably huge legal budget, why Facebook has put itself in the position of intervening in content as much as it does. This degree of control over content makes it hard for Facebook to deny that it’s a publisher, as opposed to a platform.

It’s puzzling that Facebook hasn’t attempted to stare down the thought police and banned content and sites only that peddled hate speech (as in the kind that could be successfully prosecuted) and exhortations to commit violence. Cracking down on misinformation? Seriously? After two plus years of Russiagate fabrications? As Lambert points out, the discussion among scientists on Covid aerosol transmission would have been expunged under the “misinformation” standard because both the CDC and WHO rejected it.

In fact, the Journal story both points out how Breitbart and other conservative sites were down-metered, yet also suggests they were treated too timidly because revenues:

In many of the documents reviewed by the Journal, employees discussed whether Facebook was enforcing its rules evenly across the political spectrum. They said the company was allowing conservative sites to skirt the company’s fact-checking rules, publish untrustworthy and offensive content and harm the tech giant’s relationship with advertisers, according to records from internal Facebook message boards.

The Journal account focuses on its new trove, and hence does not step back to give context. We’ve avoided saying much about Google and Facebook censorship of supposedly right wing and left wing sites because it’s at least as much an effort to winnow the Web down to fewer, orthodox voices But the interests of the officialdom don’t fully align with those of the tech platforms. For instance:

Right-wing sites are consistently among the best-performing publishers on the platform in terms of engagement, according to data from research firm NewsWhip. That is one reason Facebook also is criticized by people on the left, who say Facebook’s algorithms reward far-right content.

Facebook says it enforces its rules equally and doesn’t consider politics in its decision making…

Breitbart was included in News Tab, which was launched in 2019. The product contains a main tier with curated news from publishers including The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post, which are paid for their content. Breitbart is part of a second tier of news designed to deliver news tailored to a user’s interest, and isn’t paid.

Facebook said it requires sites included on News Tab to focus on quality news reporting and bars those that repeatedly share what it deems misinformation or violate its public list of community standards.

One thing that is sorely missing is what exactly Breitbart was publishing that was deemed to rise to the level of “misinformation” and hate speech. There’s not a single example of a debate over a particular Breibart story and how it wound up. Instead, Facebook performed a study….we aren’t told how…and Breibart got the worst marks in terms of trust:

Interestingly, around the time of the George Floyd protests, the Journal found one employee calling for using them to purge Breitbart. The response was that Facebook needed to stick to its algos:

A senior researcher wrote in the chat that it would be a problem for Facebook to remove Breitbart from News Tab for the way it framed news events…because “news framing is not a standard by which we approach journalistic integrity.”

He said if the company removed publishers whose trust and quality scores were going down, Breitbart might be caught in that net. But he questioned whether the company would do that for all publishers whose scores had fallen. “I can also tell you that we saw drops in trust in CNN 2 years ago: would we take the same approach for them too?” he wrote.

What this article never states clearly is the elephant in the room, that Facebook’s users skew conservative, putting the more liberal moderators at odds with them. For instance, Breitbart retorts to the Journal that it is rated better among Facebook’s own readers than many mainstream media publications, which could be true. The flip side is that Facebook went so far as to insert conservative pundits into “Feed Recommendations” allegedly out of fear (I have difficultly believing the fear part, I am sure the operative reasons were mercenary).

The article discusses how many advertisers tried to avoid placement on Breitbart, yet wound up there. Facebook staffers try blaming that on Breitbart machinations. Huh? This sounds like dog ate my homework. And in any event, the advertisers should have stared Facebook about paying for ads they explicitly did not want placed.

There are only two news items mentioned: one a video of Trump reposting a Breitbart clip saying masks were unnecessary and touting hydroxychloroquinine, which was widely viewed across the Internet before being taken down and this one at the close of the story:

….regarding pro-Trump influencers Diamond and Silk, third-party fact-checkers rated as “false” a post on their page that said, “How the hell is allocating 25 million dollars in order to give a raised [sic] to house members, that don’t give a damn about Americans, going to help stimulate America’s economy?” When fact-checkers had rated that post “false,” a Facebook staffer involved in the partner program argued there should be no punishment, noting the publisher “has not hesitated going public about their concerns around alleged [anti-]conservative bias on Facebook.”

Diamond and Silk were able to lobby the third-party fact checker to change the rating down to “Partly False” and, with the help of the managed partner escalation process, all its strikes were removed, according to the posted summary and escalation documents…

The chat conversations the Journal reviewed show that inside the company, Facebook employees demanded that higher-ups explain the allegations.

“We are apparently providing hate-speech-policy-consulting and consequence-mitigation services to select partners,” wrote one. “Leadership is scared of being accused of bias,” wrote another.

This sort of thing is worth litigating? Seriously? First, it’s a pervasive conservative trope to accuse government officials of spending too much on themselves. Calling it hate speech is simpy hysterical.

And it is true that the March 2020 Covid stimulus bill contained $25 million for “salaries and expenses” for the House. But an actual pay increase would require approval of the House Appropriations Committee, and that didn’t happen. The money instead was going for stuff like pay to furloughed food workers and funding to kit out remote connectivity. One could argue that House members should worry about their own computers just like other employees told to work at home, but that wasn’t the point made.

USA Today quotes much greater exaggerations about House spending in the CARES Act from Facebook that appear to have been untouched by the moderators.

Oh, and as part of the CARES Act, which Trump had to sign before it became law, how was this a clean conservative shot even if accurate? Seems like this claim would set up for an easy rejoinder from someone on the other side of the ideological divide. But apparently goodthinking liberals have already written off the deplorables as beyond redemption.

In the hothouse world of the Beltway, the video bloggers Diamond and Silk matter because they are among the few black supporters of Trump, and have earned a perverse badge of honor of being booted from Fox for questioning Covid data (they are now on NewsMax). The Journal also fails to provide some key backstory, that Diamond and Silk claimed that they had been censored by Facebook and had received a message stating their content and message were “unsafe to the community.” That got them a Congressional audience. I am in no position to get to the bottom of this, but Wikipedia strongly insinuates that the Diamond and Silk claims of Facebook downranking are exaggerated if not fabricated.

In other words, Diamond and Silk’s off the mark shot at the House may seem important to the likes of Media Matters, but this is a nothingburger to most Americans. And a lot of people would find it disturbing that Facebook is engaging what looks like sentence-level policing.

I wish the Wall Street Journal would publish all the documents to allow for broader reading and calibration. But not surprisingly, what they’ve served up so far is true to Facebook’s unsavory brand image.


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  1. Eric377

    Facebook did not restrict Rep. Maxine Waters statements that explicitly called out Blacks who did not vote for Democrats as betraying the “community” during the 2020 election, at a time when many, many more people had executable ballots in the “community”, far removed from the supervision and protection of the election booth. So Diamond and Silk were more of a danger to civic life somehow?

  2. Louis Fyne

    I’ve off-and-on browsed Breitbart—and IMO, it’s milquetoast conservatism that’s been around since the John Birch days (if not earlier) with some peppering of click-bait headlines and click-bait op-eds here and there.

    IMO, Facebook throttling any content gives authority/legitimacy to those throttleds. Streisand Effect strikes again! YMMV.

    1. Soredemos

      Uh, in what world was the ‘Eisenhower is a Soviet agent’ John Birch Society ever ‘milquetoast’? Breitbart is a cesspit. The man himself was an extraordinarily dishonest actor.

      (Incidentally, Breitbart, Bloomberg, Huffington. What is it with narcissistic these days owning new sources named after themselves? Even Hearst didn’t do this.

      1. ambrit

        Hearst bought already functioning newspapers and remade them into His own image. Hearst headed, wait for it, Hearst Corporation. So, he did name “it” after himself. The “Corporation” owned, and still does own, newspapers, magazines, video companies, and much more.
        Interestingly, W R Hearst was the son of the mining entrepreneuer George Hearst, who was the big villain in the limited television series “Deadwood.”

  3. flora

    Thanks for this post. Facebook has powerful friends in high places, imo, like most of the major digital tech companies – the FAANGs. This long, 2008 Guardian article names one of FB’s powerful backers.

    “… Facebook’s most recent round of funding was led by a company called Greylock Venture Capital, who put in the sum of $27.5m. One of Greylock’s senior partners is called Howard Cox, another former chairman of the NVCA, who is also on the board of In-Q-Tel. What’s In-Q-Tel? Well, believe it or not (and check out their website), this is the venture-capital wing of the CIA. After 9/11, the US intelligence community became so excited by the possibilities of new technology and the innovations being made in the private sector, that in 1999 they set up their own venture capital fund, In-Q-Tel, which “identifies and partners with companies developing cutting-edge technologies to help deliver these solutions to the Central Intelligence Agency and the broader US Intelligence Community (IC) to further their missions”.


    Here’s a much shorter 2008 ZDNet article about the longer Guardian article. A good quick take.


  4. Carolinian

    It’s puzzling that Facebook hasn’t attempted to stare down the thought police

    Well they do have Congress people breathing down their necks demanding that they censor. And for Facebook government and antitrust are a real threat.

    This is an interesting post by suggesting that Facebook’s natural audience is a lot more conservative than people think. I can’t claim to know anything about Facebook since I don’t use it but logically an older cohort would be the ones who have time to sit around and chat on the internet. And older people are often more conservative. Whereas it’s a safe bet that there probably aren’t that many Facebook employees who are over fifty. So Facebook must truly be fearful of Congress if they are doing something so self defeating as censoring the right. This is of course pleasing to the Dems but the way things are going the Dems may not be in charge of Congress in a year from now. And if the rightwingers bestir themselves they can surely come up with their own Facebook just as Trump is launching his own Twitter.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      No, you are assuming there are votes to do anything about FB in Congress. They like to talk but voting is another matter.

      FB has not attempted a campaign the way Big Pharma did in the early 1990s. If they started running ads about government censorship, the votes would collapse.

      As for antitrust, those are hard to win. Look at the Microsoft case. The government “won” yet lost in the remedy phase.

      And what would the remedy be? The issue is FB proper. Making it spin off its acquisitions does nothing to solve the problem of FB.

      1. Objective Ace

        Wouldnt facebook’s monopolistic/antitrust practices be primarily FTC’s purview?.. and thus not dependent on Congress.

        Agreed antitrust is hard to “win”, but putting Lina Khan on as the FTC chair serves notice to Facebook that theyre being monitored so they better not get too far out of line.. at least that was my take.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          The most that I think Khan would do even in an ideal world is force Facebook to hive off its recent acquisitions. I have never heard anyone propose how to break up or rein in Facebook proper.

          In fact, cynics would argue, and they have a plausible case, is that all Dems want to do is bully FB into censoring political types they don’t like, most of all Trump allies. The rest is noise to cover the real aim.

  5. Matthew G. Saroff

    There are three issues here:
    * Right wing sites promote more engagement, which is why the Macedonian trolls found out that the right-wing material got click through, while the left wing stuff did not. (Probably the major reason)

    * Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s global head of public policy clearly has a direct line to Zuckerberg, and he is interested in creating a right wing advantage on Facebook. (I would argue that the Cossacks work for the Tzar, but YMMV).

    * Facebook’s advertising metrics are complete ##familytblog##t, and arguably could be seen as criminal fraud, as was noted in today’s links, and vengeful the right wing would be far more likely to ramp up criminal enforcement against them than would the left, which still buys into FB’s vision of techno-eutopianism.

    Because of this Facebook is hard wired to favor the right wing.

  6. Mike H

    The right-wing content mill the Daily Wire is consistently the most-shared publication on Facebook. After that it’s CNN (mainstream/”centrist”) and then Fox News (right-wing) and Daily Mail (right-wing).

    Zuckerberg has personally met with Ben Shapiro, the head of the Daily Wire, and other conservative figures, to discuss issues of bias in Facebook. I wonder how much face time Zuckerberg has had with left-wing journalists to discuss the same matter.

    1. Matthew G. Saroff

      Daily Wire has been allowed to create fraudulent engagement numbers on Facebook for years.

          1. Yves Smith Post author

            Those pages are certainly promoting Daily Wire but Legum does not have a smoking gun, that Daily Wire is behind them. PACs also support candidates but are legally and operationally separate from them.

            Facebook got Metcalf from using his network of left-ish echo sites to promote his own site, not for operating a leftish echo chamber.

            Legum makes a stronger claim than his evidence supports. This for instance could be an independent actor in the Koch universe.

  7. Dave in Austin

    Yves said: “I wish the Wall Street Journal would publish all the documents to allow for broader reading and calibration.” This is true of almost every political disagreement we’re served up, by either the left or the right. None of them EVER give us the original documents so we can make our own judgement on them. Instead they give us the second-hand editorialization we get instead of facts.

    I wish there was just one site dedicated to giving us the originals of everything from the “racist screed” that got so-and-so fired to the Chinese Prime Minister’s “direct threats” (which when I track down the language on the mainland government site) are usually no direct threat at all.

  8. Kevin Carhart

    Yes, and same with the recent release by the ICIJ. However, pull up muckrock.com and documentcloud.org if you don’t know about them already.

    You can read more of things that are no longer the hottest and newest. Enron is old, and I haven’t read that much of it, but it’s out, in a post-branding and post-spin form. They are half hearted about embargoing something once fickle attention has moved to something else. I think the real benefits of very large document releases are in something a little broader than the moment. We can learn about the unicorns period by studying the dotcom period and find things out that creates insights into how people probably will still tick, three years from now. Some aspects are different over intervals like a year or a decade, and some are not.

  9. Fred

    @Yves: You make a good point. Breakup serves little, as the nano-bot fragments sekk out others and re-fuse.

    I’d like to propose /Carter/ as a solution: interoperability. It’s a propeller-head suggestion to a social ill, but it seems to have had a positive effect.

    Of course, it doesn’t really solve the problem, and only increases the rate at which we are “Amusing Ourselves to Death”

  10. Benjamin

    wow, it’s almost like Facebook is some profit driven entity and not a public service…

    It’s almost like they know people are free to go read some independent non-associated media and use click bait-y tactics to try and prevent that from happening.

    None of this should be surprising or even bother you (other than as social commentary of the times we live in).

    There are really only two legal questions here.
    1) Did Facebook try to defraud investors by lying about user metrics? (probably)
    2) Does Facebook exercise sufficient editorial control that they should be treated as a “publisher”? (again, probably)

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      You really don’t understand what “monopoly” and “abuse of monopoly power” means, do you? The evidence of that is that advertisers continue to flock to FB despite it having obviously bogus ad metrics.

      1. Benjamin

        Sure, I understand monopoly.

        The local power company. The water company. The wired internet provider. The only towing company that is allowed to get your car on the NJ turnpike. All heavily regulated, gov’t anointed, companies I am forced to do business with for a basic necessity.

        Putting some, social garbage, meta-whatever thing, that no one is forced to use for a basic necessity, in the same category belittles the power of true monopolies that really hold significant power over people’s lives.

        The MS IE dominance faded while the gov’t was still trying to put on its shoes with a feckless antitrust action and so will Facebook’s.

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