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March 4, 2021
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Does Facebook censor conservatives? What a report (and a comedian) have to say

Conservative pundit Steven Crowder punched deep into the debate over social media and censorship this week with the announcement that he is suing Facebook for what he believes are unfair and secretive policies.

But the move comes as a new report was published saying that claims of social media bias against conservatives is disinformation, “a falsehood with no reliable evidence to support it.”

The report, issued by New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, dismisses accusations by former President Donald Trump and Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, among others, that social media giants deliberately suppress conservative voices. But it acknowledges that “millions of everyday people sincerely believe it.”

The authors make four recommendations for social media companies and three for the administration of President Joe Biden, suggesting that more disclosure about how content decisions are made would help to calm the raging debate.

“The failure to figure out a way to be more transparent on the companies’ part is a big part of the reason why it has left the door open to arguments about censorship of conservatives,” said Paul M. Barrett, deputy director of the Stern Center and co-author of the report.

That part of the report is a point of agreement between Stern and his co-author, J. Grant Sims, and conservatives who will object to its title: “False Accusation: The Unfounded Claim That Social Media Companies Censor Conservatives.”

Other recommendations — including the establishment of a new regulatory agency and “more vigorous” moderation of influential accounts — will also likely not be embraced by conservatives.

“This was written by someone who in another life worked for Pravda,” said Dan Gainor, vice president at the conservative Media Research Center, which runs the website CensorTrack.

The Stern Center report and Crowder’s lawsuit come on the heels of a decision by Facebook’s new Oversight Board to overturn four of the first five cases on which it was asked to rule. The company established the board to serve as an independent court for challenges to its content moderation decisions, with Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg saying, “Facebook should not make so many important decisions about free expression and safety on our own.”

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, speaks at the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, speaks at the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Zuckerberg also recently said Facebook would no longer recommend political groups to its users, describing the move as “a continuation of work we’ve been doing for a while to turn down the temperature and discourage divisive conversations.”

Will Crowder’s lawsuit and the new report help in that effort or make things worse?

Dangerous strategy?

Crowder, a comedian who has has more than 5 million subscribers to his YouTube channel, has a history of edgy content, and for a year, he was “demonetized” by YouTube after he was accused of homophobic language. Crowder wasn’t banned from the video-sharing platform, but wasn’t able to run ads on YouTube, which is owned by Google, until the suspension was lifted in August 2020.

He is among conservative pundits who believe that Facebook and Twitter proved bias against conservative voices when they restricted distribution of a New York Post article on Hunter Biden, the president’s son, in the weeks leading up to the 2020 presidential election. “Big Tech is trying to steal an election,” Crowder tweeted in October.

In announcing the lawsuit on his website this week, Crowder, who is also a personality on Glenn Beck’s BlazeTV, said, “We need Facebook to stop throttling pages and content and to stop favoring certain outlets over others. In a word, stop acting like a publisher or just admit that they are one.” He said he is seeking injunctive relief and monetary damages in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, charging unfair competition and false advertising by the company.

“Facebook lured consumers and creators to spend money and provide data and views under the promise of not engaging in political, racial or religious bias in enforcing their policies, but they have done so both expressly and secretively, and hence, the suit,” Crowder said on his website Monday.

Barrett, co-author of the Stern Center report, said that he hasn’t seen the lawsuit, but he expects it’s a “political gesture.” In fact, he believes that much of the debate over censorship is political posturing, which has led to widespread belief among ordinary Americans that social media censorship is rampant, although the NYU report says there is no evidence for that argument.

And Barrett is concerned that the conversation over social media censorship has wider implications.

“The argument that the social media companies systematically censor conservatives is part of a broader campaign taking shape right now on Fox News and talk radio and online to try to convince people who are loyal to former President Donald Trump that they’re being silenced and excluded from American life across the board, not just in social media,” Barrett said.

“I think this is a very dangerous and unfortunate strategy that is going to sharply exacerbate the polarization that already characterizes our society.”

But Gainor, of the Media Research Center, a hard-right advocacy group founded by Brent Bozell, notes that the Stern Center is run by a former Obama administration official, Michael Posner, and says that report is another defense of social media by people with a liberal agenda.

“The foundation of everything in this report is a liberal outlook of the world. They think conservative outlets are wrong, and so there’s no bias if you censor them, if you restrict them,” Gainor said.

That said, there are parts of the report with which these sharply divided sides can agree, Gainor said, specifically the call for more transparency.

Sharing the secrets

The NYU report says that social media platforms should give an “easily understood explanation” when they restrict a post or sanction an account, and offer a means of appeal.

“Greater transparency — such as that which Twitter and Facebook offered when they took action against former President Trump in January — would help to defuse claims of political bias, while clarifying the boundaries of acceptable user conduct,” the report said.

Its other recommendations for social media companies are to offer users a choice of content moderation algorithms, release more data for researchers, and more controversially, undertake “more vigorous, targeted human moderation of influential accounts.”

It offers three recommendations for the Biden administration, suggesting that it “pursue a constructive agenda” for social media companies, create a digital regulatory agency and work with Congress to update Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the regulation that gives social-media companies immunity from being sued over what is published on their platforms.

In the report, the authors acknowledge, “There are no empirical studies that definitively assess the claim of anti-conservative bias.” Most arguments made against bias are based on observations that conservative voices routinely dominate rankings of post engagement on Facebook and Twitter.

Since it’s difficult to prove absence of bias, that’s another reason the authors call for greater transparency from Facebook and other social media companies, Barrett said. “Recommendations would help provide more data not only for the public in general, but also academic researchers,” he said.

“A lot of what the platforms do remains secret. We actually don’t know in the vast majority of cases why they’ve taken material down.”

Steven Crowder speaks during his protest against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at the Michigan state Capitol in Lansing, Mich., on Friday, Oct. 2, 2020. Crowder focused on Whitmer’s decisions regarding seniors with COVID-19. Nicole Hester, Ann Arbor News via Associated Press

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