- Facebook has transformed from a social network into the most controversial platform in contemporary American politics.
- Business Insider reviewed how the social network has slowly morphed into a right-wing powerhouse.
- Apolitical product changes over the past decade turbo-charged the spread of inflammatory content, and Facebook has made changes to accommodate conservatives.
- Facebook has spent the last four years trying to navigate a maze of scandals and political headaches.
- Do you work at Facebook? Contact this reporter at +1 650-636-6268 or email at email@example.com. Anonymity offered.
Near the end of last year, one of Facebook’s longest-serving executives delivered a striking message to his fellow employees: Their company was the reason Donald Trump was in the White House.
In a memo written by Facebook VP Andrew Bosworth and shared with colleagues on the company’s internal network, the longtime confidant of CEO Mark Zuckerberg hailed Facebook as key to Trump’s success in 2016.
“He got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period.”
The comments were a startling reminder of the power Facebook has attained over political discourse in the US — and the pressures it faces as the hotly contested presidential election in November 2020 enters its final weeks.
In recent months, posts and pages with misinformation about voting by mail and inflammatory allegations about politicians, as well as posts promoting armed right-wing militias and nazi symbolism, have spread across the social network, sometimes racking up millions of views.
To anyone who visited the site in its earlier years, more innocent years, the new tone of Facebook might come as a shock.
For most of its 16-year existence the company has been better known for its ability to dredge up ex-school friends and its catalogue of embarrassing old photos than for any monumental political influence and societal controversy.
So how did Facebook become an integral part of the modern American right-wing machine?
It happened gradually over a period of several years, enabled by a competitive urge to own the conversations that fuel social media, a pattern of tuning out warning signs and a need to stay in the good graces of politicians and government regulators.
And of course, it involves an $80 billion advertising business that grows larger the more that users of the social network stay active and engaged — regardless of what drives the engagement.
For Zuckerberg, whose gift for building web products used by billions once seemed certain to be his legacy, Facebook’s transformation into an echo chamber for incendiary right-wing propaganda now points to a “devastating” leadership blind spot that could overshadow all other achievements.
This account, based on reporting by Business Insider as well as Politico, The Wall Street Journal, BuzzFeed, The Washington Post, and other publications, reveals how Facebook’s vaunted social network won the internet’s lucrative war for attention but lost control of the programming it pioneered, ceding vital territory on the site to an increasingly divisive brand of political content.
In a statement to Business Insider, a Facebook spokesperson said: “While many Republicans think we should do one thing, many Democrats think we should do the exact opposite. We’ve faced criticism from Republicans for being biased against conservatives and Democrats for not taking more steps to restrict the exact same content. Our job is to create one consistent set of rules that applies equally to everyone.”
But a close look at the product decisions and policy exceptions made by Zuckerberg and his team show how Facebook’s rightward shift was completely avoidable and the result of actions taken at several pivotal moments.
“If you are a right-wing loner in a small village you can connect with other right-wing loners in other villages,” says one former Facebook employee. “Any negative energy is usually amplified, and hate spreads more than love … if people are surrounded by negative influence it’s more sticky than someone who is kind.”
Twitter envy and a thirst for news
Historically, Zuckerberg has been seen as relatively disinterested in “policy,” focused myopically on building the core social-media platform while COO Sheryl Sandberg took care of glad-handing politicians, managing content policy, revenues, and other non-engineering issues.
In the runup to the 2012 US election, Facebook was more concerned with getting politicians to create public Facebook pages on Facebook — and with the possibility that the FCC might ban political advertising on Facebook — than it was in policing the veracity of politicians’ ads on the platform, a former Facebook policy team employee recalls.
But Zuckerberg is notoriously competitive. In 2013, rival Twitter was still growing fast and dominating the real-time news conversation, and Facebook wanted a piece of the action. The company announced what was then the most significant overhaul of the News Feed since its introduction — turning it into a “personalized newspaper” that gave increased prominence to publishers and public figures, in addition to the traditional friends-and-babies posts.
Similarly, its “Share” button, which came to mobile in 2012, was widely received as an attempt to compete with Twitter’s iconic “retweet” feature — and opened the door to the spread of news, memes, and, ultimately misinformation.
In 2013, a Pew study found that only 47% of Facebook’s roughly 1.1 billion users used it to read news. A follow-up survey in 2019 found that 73% of Facebook’s users — by then numbering almost 2.5 billion — were using it for news, and at an even greater proportion than Twitter (71%).
By that metric, the pivot to news articles and public figures was a clear success, making Facebook the undisputed epicenter of online political discourse. But it also opened a Pandora’s box, introducing it to bedeviling new concerns and engulfing Zuckerberg in a years-long political firestorm he had long avoided.
One of the first big tests occured in December 2015, when then-candidate Donald Trump posted on Facebook his intention to ban all Muslims from entering the US. The comments caused an uproar inside the company. Zuckerberg, who counted immigration reform among his pet causes, was “personally disgusted by it and wanted it removed,” The Washington Post reported.
But Zuckerberg, who controls the majority of Facebook’s voting power through a special multi-class share structure, avoided the temptation to act impulsively and sought counsel from his advisors. Among them was Joel Kaplan, a former energy lobbyist and veteran of the Bush White House, who had joined Facebook in 2011.
Zuckerberg publicly posted a message that month in support of “Muslims in our community” and decrying the “hate this week,” but he didn’t mention Trump by name. The WSJ reported that at an internal Facebook “town hall” meeting in January 2016, Zuckerberg said that Trump’s comments were indeed hate speech — “but said the implications of removing them were too drastic.”
Allegations of “liberal bias” put Facebook on the defensive
As the 2016 election season ramped up, Facebook was eager to help both political parties leverage the social network’s reach and to present itself as the digital world’s central — and neutral — public square for the political conversation.
But on May 9, 2016, everything changed.
That’s the day that Gizmodo published a blockbuster story alleging that that workers on Facebook’s “Trending” news had “suppressed” articles on conservative topics. The claims — promptly denied by Facebook — stoked right-wing suspicions of the liberal tech industry’s burgeoning power over online communication, providing an easy and enduring bogeyman that Facebook has never shaken off since.
Inside and outside Facebook’s Menlo Park campus, the fallout was instantaneous.
In a letter to a US senator later that month, Facebook said an internal probe found no evidence of bias, and that the most popular topics on “Trending” were in fact “Donald Trump” and “#GOPDebate.”
Still, Zuckerberg said he understood the claims of liberal bias and pledged to personally converse with conservative critics about their concerns and “to talk about how we can make sure Facebook continues to be a platform for all ideas across the political spectrum.”
A delegation of prominent conservative commentators — including Glenn Beck and Heritage Foundation head Jim DeMint — were invited to Facebook’s headquarters for a 90-minute closed door chat with Zuckerberg, Sandberg and Facebook board member Peter Thiel. After the talk, Facebook gave the visitors a “deep dive” into its news operations and a tour of the campus, according to Politico.
One of the conservative visitors described the summit to Politico as “very friendly, very personable.”
A few months after the meeting, Facebook fired most of Trending’s human curators, replacing them with automated algorithms — the result was a flood of fake news, much of it promoting right-wing narratives, as The Guardian reported at the time.
A former Facebook employee says that the decision to automate the news curation wasn’t so much about conservatives versus liberals as it was about the benefits of “humans versus algorithms.”
Facebook wanted to be trusted by everybody, the person recalls. But, they say, “there was very little introspection about the biases the algorithms can participate in.”
Around the same time, Facebook offered the Trump and Clinton campaigns the use of “embeds” — Facebook staffers that would work closely with campaign workers to help them use the social network effectively. Clinton’s camp declined, according to Politico, while Trump’s team eagerly took up the offer.
Facebook went on to play a crucial role in Trump’s victory, with his digital guru Brad Parscale hailed as “the man behind Trump’s Facebook juggernaut.”
The full activities of Cambridge Analytica, a Trump-aligned political firm that misappropriated tens of millions of Facebook users’ data, would not come to light for nearly another two years. But in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s surprise victory, some critics pointed to the proliferation of fake news and misinformation on Facebook as a contributing factor in Trump’s surprising win. A BuzzFeed report detailed how fake news regularly outperformed legitimate news on the social network in the closing months of the election.
Zuckerberg was publicly dismissive of the idea that content on his site — especially “fake news” — influenced the election, famously calling it “a pretty crazy idea.”
Behind the scenes, though, Facebook began “Project P,” an investigation into the spread of misinformation amid the election. The security engineers who led the investigation presented a report to senior management that showed how dozens of pages had spread viral fake news during the election, according to The Washington Post.
Once again however, Zuckerberg deferred to Kaplan and other Facebook policy leaders. Kaplan pushed back against shutting down many of the fake news pages, arguing that doing so would “disproportionately impact conservatives,” the Post reported.
A Facebook spokesperson disputed this, saying that Kaplan was instead pushing for the company to have a clear policy basis for removals.
The conspiracy floodgates open
If Zuckerberg imagined his sit-down with conservatives, or that a new Republican occupant of the White House, would satisfy right-wing allegations of bias and unfair treatment however, it didn’t last long.
A flood of problematic content – from Russian trolls to medical misinformation to climate change denial posts – were now wrapped in a political tripwire that Facebook needed to carefully factor in to its decisions. Every ruling Facebook made about allowing or removing posts was now under the public microscope.
Even product changes were assessed by Facebook managers through the lens of whether they might agitate the right.
Silicon Valley is “an extremely left-leaning place,” Zuckerberg told Senator Ted Cruz in a hearing before Congress in 2018.
“This is actually a concern that I have and that I try to root out in the company, is making sure that we do not have any bias in the work that we do, and I think it is a fair concern that people would at least wonder about.”
To some Facebook insiders though, Zuckerberg’s promises of even-handedness felt like a false-equivalency that left the social network kowtowing to the right.
A project called “Common Ground,” designed to foster civil conversation, was aborted in 2018 due to concerns that “the efforts to mitigate polarization could disproportionately hurt conservative voices, triggering claims of bias and exposing Facebook to allegations of social-engineering,” The Wall Street Journal reported.
And research into novel ways to crack down on clickbait were deemed a “tough sell to Mr. Kaplan,” another article in the Journal reported. (A Facebook spokesperson said that Kaplan was again advocating for Facebook to have a clear policy basis for its decisions.)
In October 2019, the newly-launched “News Tab” featured links to articles from traditional mainstream publications like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, as well as far-right news outlet Breitbart, whose former chairman Steve Bannon once described it as “the platform for the alt-right.”
Throughout 2018 and 2019, Facebook did take some action against extreme far-right content — banning violent right-wing group Proud Boys, as well as conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and other far-right figures including Laura Loomer, Joseph Watson, and white supremacist Paul Nehlen.
And it made a couple big changes that significantly affected what users see on the platform: a pivot in 2018 to prioritize content from friends over publishers, and a year later, an increased emphasis on groups that users choose to join to post and share content. As a result, user engagement rose as people spent more time on the platform — and ultimately more time getting advertising delivered to them.
The goal, Zuckerberg said, was to ensure that using Facebook was “time well spent.” As with the shift from human curators to algorithms in Trending a couple years earlier however, the emphasis on Groups led to greater saturation of the platform with misinformation, not less of it.
The number of users in “meaningful” groups spiked from 100 million in 2017 to 400 million in 2019, radically altering how a huge amount of people consumed media. And it gave a leg up to right-wing conspiracy theories like QAnon, which proliferated peer-to-peer via groups on the social network and elsewhere.
Two years later, Facebook would belatedly crack down on QAnon. By that point, though, it had millions of followers on Facebook in America and across the globe, a sign of how the social network’s algorithms have continued to reward inflammatory and fact-free content if users find it engaging.
Groups fundamentally offer ever-closer ways for like-minded individuals to connect, a former employee said. “If you are a gay person who comes from a tiny village, want to connect with someone else who is gay,” for example, Groups can be invaluable in building connections. “But it works in the other direction as well,” the person said, allowing individuals with racist and other extreme views to find kindred souls — no matter how far away — who reinforce and amplify their views.
Secret dinners and a “devastating” internal investigation
Throughout the summer of 2019, Zuckerberg ramped up his personal outreach to right wing of the American political aisle, sitting down for dinners with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-Fla.), right-wing media figure Ben Shapiro, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, and others.
“Meeting new people and hearing from a wide range of viewpoints is part of learning. If you haven’t tried it, I suggest you do!” Zuckerberg lashed at critics when the secret dinners were revealed by Politico.
But the two most important meetings Zuckerberg took were with the POTUS himself, when Zuckerberg met Donald Trump for the first time that fall at the White House, and in an undisclosed dinner with Trump and conservative Facebook member Peter Thiel in October that was reported by NBC News.
It’s not clear what the men discussed in those meetings, but it’s no secret that Trump’s provocative social media posts represent a thorny content moderation challenge for companies like Facebook and Twitter.
A month after Zuckerberg and Trump’s first meeting, the Trump campaign created an ad that made false claims about Joe Biden and corruption. CNN and other media outlets refused to run it, but Facebook allowed it to disseminate on its network.
The episode illustrated what critics view as a core problem with Facebook’s policy: The Trump campaign’s overt and unparalleled willingness to lie in ads means a refusal to fact-check posts by politicians disproportionately benefits him.
In May 2020, Trump falsely claimed on Facebook and Twitter that mail-in ballots were guaranteed to be “substantially fraudulent” in the 2020 election. Twitter took the unprecedented step of adding a link to his post so readers could “get the facts about mail-in ballots,” writing that “these claims are unsubstantiated.”
Facebook, meanwhile, did nothing. The company has prohibited content that it argues constitutes “voter suppression,” and Biden’s campaign suggested in a letter that Trump’s posts, by lying about the electoral process, are exactly this. But Facebook disagreed.
In June, the president’s campaign ran an ad that contained Nazi iconography — a red triangle used by the fascist German regime to decry political dissidents alongside a warning about “antifa.” This time, Facebook decided Trump’s campaign crossed a line, and it took the ad down.
Zuckerberg told employees that “this decision was not a particularly close call from my perspective,” according to BuzzFeed news. But internal documents reviewed by the news outlet showed that numerous employees had initially reported the ad “but were told it did not violate company policy,” before it was finally taken down after The Washington Post reached out to Facebook for comment about the ad.
The notion that anyone, be it a politician or a commentator, receives special treatment on Facebook is a controversial issue even within the company.
In 2018, the company asked former Republican Sen. Jon Kyl to investigate allegations of anti-conservative bias at the company. The Verge’s Casey Newton characterised the results, published a year later, as “long on feelings and short on facts,” including a number of anecdotes but no hard evidence of deliberate or systematic bias.
On the other hand, recent investigations by BuzzFeed News and NBC News found that the company gave special treatment to right-wing pages, including Charlie Kirk, Diamond and Silk, and Breitbart, removing “strikes” they had against them for misinformation. Some Facebook employees see it as part of a “pattern,” BuzzFeed reported.
Facebook’s efforts to stay in the good graces of the resurgent American right, and its attempts to remain politically neutral, has now opened it up to similar charges from the left to those raised by the right.
“Facebook tends to politicize issues or mark issues as left issues, even when they’re moral issues,” said Arisha Hatch, the chief of campaigns at Color of Change, a civil rights organisation that has helped organise an advertiser boycott of Facebook over its approach to hate speech.
“There shouldn’t be a left or right frame for racism or hate speech,” he says.
In July 2020, the long-awaited results of a civil rights audit into Facebook were published.
It was harshly critical of the company’s most senior leadership, and said the company was failing to enforce its own rules. Trump’s posts, it said, spread hate speech and “facilitated voter suppression.”
They “clearly violated Facebook’s policies,” the report said. “While these decisions were made ultimately at the highest level, we believe civil rights expertise was not sought and applied to the degree it should have been and the resulting decisions were devastating.”
Facebook’s new normal: Thriving right-wing content and implacable conservative critics
In the years since Facebook first doubled down on news and politics, right-wing content has flourished.
A study by liberal research and advocacy group Media Matters in July analysed a week’s worth of postings from more than 1,200 Facebook pages across the political spectrum, encompassing 167,000 posts that collectively garnered hundreds of millions of interactions by Facebook users.
Their findings: Right-leaning pages consistently over-indexed on engagement compared to left-leaning ones, and that “of the 10 posts with the most engagements, seven were from right-leaning pages and four of these seven were from President Donald Trump’s Facebook account.”
Facebook has argued that such rankings are not necessarily reflective of what most people see on Facebook — reflecting with the content that’s most-engaged-with rather than what appears most frequently in users’ news feeds. (“Pages in these lists see high engagement because followers, or those interacting w/ the posts, are passionate. But it shouldn’t be confused with what’s most popular,” executive John Hegeman said on Twitter.)
But it demonstrates how over the past decade, Facebook has fostered an ecosystem in which some of the most reliably engaging and conversation-generating pages are those on the right — with potentially consequential implications for the 2020 election.
Since leaning into news, Facebook’s demographics have also come to favor its outsized influence over the political area. Facebook usage among older generations – which tend to skew more conservative — is growing rapidly. And while Twitter remains a hotbed of heated political discussion and trolls, its reach of 36 million monthly US users is eclipsed by Facebook’s 256 million US users.
In July, Zuckerberg found himself in front of Congress once again, and was instantly hit with accusations of anti-conservative bias.
“I’ll just cut to the chase,” Republican Rep. Jim Jordan said. “Big Tech is out to get conservatives. That’s not a suspicion, that’s not a hunch — that’s a fact.”
The response from one of Jordan’s colleagues on the Democrat side of the aisle, who cited data on top-performing Facebook posts from Fox News, captured the irony of Facebook’s predicament:
“If Facebook is out there trying to repress conservative speech, they’re doing a terrible job at it.”
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