Okay, Let’s Talk About Social Media And Allegations Of Anti-Conservative Bias
Is social media censoring conservatives? The charge factors in the antitrust debate, so some context would be nice.
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Okay, Let’s Talk About Social Media And Allegations Of Anti-Conservative Bias
I’m going to try to write about conservative allegations of social media bias with a bit of context today. Admittedly, this is probably a fool’s errand since the question seems settled in almost everyone’s minds. But since the charge is animating Republican lawmakers’ response to the Big Tech antitrust movement in Congress, it’s worth attempting to address it.
Both sides of the political spectrum seem to have locked in views here. To liberals, “Big Tech censors conservatives” is a dishonest Republican talking point meant to pressure Facebook, Google, and Twitter into leaving up rule-breaking content. To conservatives, the anecdotes tell the full story — the platforms banned Trump, along with many of his supporters, and even took down some conservative apps — so there’s little question in the matter, really. But the situation, to me, is a bit more complex.
The following isn’t meant to settle the argument (and I’m not even sure that’s possible). But I hope that it adds some perspective to a conversation that’s often conducted in absolutist terms.
How we got here
One way to view social media is as an alternative media. The’s a certain set of topics the institutional media will address, and social media — by nature of its scale — will fill in the gaps. Institutional media, for example, doesn’t spend a lot of time covering gaming. But there are many passionate gaming fans, so gaming content is big on social media.
Similar dynamics, albeit to a lesser extent, apply to conservative content on social media. There are a few big, right-leaning news organizations (See: Fox News), but much of the institutional media tends to sympathize with the left. When you combine that with a sustained campaign by Republican leaders to discredit institutional media overall, you get a base that gravitates to social media to fill in the gaps.
That’s why the @FacebooksTop10 Twitter account is something of a Rorschach test for liberals and conservatives. Run by The New York Times’ Kevin Roose, the account posts the ten best-performing link posts on Facebook daily. Almost every day, most of those links are from conservatives.
When liberals see the account’s tweets, they see clear evidence that Facebook isn’t biased against conservatives (look at how well they’re doing!). When conservatives see the tweets, they see social media filling in the gaps and delivering natural reach. @FacebooksTop10, to conservatives, distracts from content moderation, which they see as the real issue. Conservative posts performing well does not mean social media companies aren’t aggressively moderating conservative content, they say.
There’s a fallacy that social media platforms are open, or the “modern town squares,” as they tend to put it. Everyone moderates. Social media platforms included. And the difference is where they draw the line.
Institutional media moderates vigorously, through editors, and is selective about which voices it grants space on its platforms. Mainstream social media is much more permissive. It’s open to everyone, and will mostly let you say whatever you want, until you hit its looser — but still present — boundaries. Message boards like 4chan and 8chan take it one step further, allowing users to push beyond the boundaries of civility. But even they moderate. 8kun (formerly 8chan) emerged, in part, because its founder Fredrick Brennan believed 4chan’s moderation was too onerous. But even 8kun removes some content.
To reiterate, no matter which platform you use, you run the risk of getting moderated. And on mainstream social media, the incentives encourage you to find the boundaries. For political movements, this makes these platforms extremely turbulent places to operate.
Social media, after all, is a game upon which people compete for status. You obtain that status via shares and retweets, which grant you reach and followers. The best way to earn retweets and shares is to play to tribes, confirm their biases, and, more often than not, spark outrage. So, the most extreme voices tend to rise to the top.
As social media has flourished as an alternative media for conservatives, the allure of reach and status enticed many within the movement to push the boundaries. The platforms pushed, and then they pulled: They pushed out conservative content, and then they pulled back when people followed the incentives to their natural conclusion.
I suspect this feeling of uneasiness — one where platforms as massive as Facebook, Apple, or Amazon can remove your party’s leader or its new favorite app — is behind several Republican representatives throwing their support behind the antitrust bills in Congress today. If successful, the bills wouldn’t address the content moderation issue. But they would address the platforms’ size and power, something brands and publishers have experienced for years, and political parties are only recently starting to feel.
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Amazon is asking the FTC to recuse its new chair, Lina Khan, from all Amazon-related activity. It’s a bold move, but one with little chance of working. Khan, the most powerful person at the FTC, isn’t getting out of the way on this one, especially since it’s her work on Amazon that broadened the antitrust conversation in the U.S. The sense here is that Amazon trying to undermine Khan’s standing early, anticipating she’ll come down hard on them sometime soon. It may well backfire.
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