Unbreak The Internet: Working the refs — and winning

Conservatives are taking on the tech world over perceived bias. It's working.

Hello and welcome to Unbreak the Internet, a weekly newsletter about internet culture, technology, politics, and media — written by me, Parker Molloy. Please send your questions, concerns, tips, and other feedback to info@unbreaktheinternet.com.

Let’s take a trip back to May 2016…

On May 3rd, Gizmodo published an article by writer Michael Nunez about Facebook’s foray into the world of journalism — sort of. At the time, one of Facebook’s most notable features when it came to information distribution was the “trending news” feed. As with all things related to the social media giant, the process behind it was rather opaque. In his article, “Want to Know What Facebook Really Thinks of Journalists? Here's What Happened When It Hired Some,” Nunez was able to snag an interview with five of the people — internally described as “news curators” — to better understand the process.

Their job was essentially to write neutral headlines plus a three-sentence description of whichever topics were dominating discussion on the platform. They’d select the “most substantive post” to get the coveted top spot when someone would click on the topic. The company provided them with a list of mainstream news outlets to use whenever possible (for example, the Associated Press, Reuters, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, Variety, NPR, and more), and would avoid using outlets with a history of conspiracy theories, incendiary language, and inaccurate reporting.

“News curators also have the power to “deactivate” (or blacklist) a trending topic—a power that those we spoke to exercised on a daily basis. A topic was often blacklisted if it didn’t have at least three traditional news sources covering it, but otherwise the protocol was murky—meaning a curator could ostensibly blacklist a topic without a particularly good reason for doing so. (Those we interviewed said they didn’t see any signs that blacklisting was being abused or used inappropriately.)”

Six days later, Nunez posted a follow up article, titled, “Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News.” This… is where the problem begins.

“‘Depending on who was on shift, things would be blacklisted or trending,’ said the former curator. This individual asked to remain anonymous, citing fear of retribution from the company. The former curator is politically conservative, one of a very small handful of curators with such views on the trending team. ‘I’d come on shift and I’d discover that CPAC or Mitt Romney or Glenn Beck or popular conservative topics wouldn’t be trending because either the curator didn’t recognize the news topic or it was like they had a bias against Ted Cruz.

The former curator was so troubled by the omissions that they kept a running log of them at the time; this individual provided the notes to Gizmodo. Among the deep-sixed or suppressed topics on the list: former IRS official Lois Lerner, who was accused by Republicans of inappropriately scrutinizing conservative groups; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; popular conservative news aggregator the Drudge Report; Chris Kyle, the former Navy SEAL who was murdered in 2013; and former Fox News contributor Steven Crowder. ‘I believe it had a chilling effect on conservative news,’ the former curator said.”

It’s hard to say exactly what’s true and what’s not in that statement. Nunez does acknowledge that the curator is conservative, and while one other suggested the job was subjective (of course it was), no one else confirmed that they were going out of their way to quash right-wing views. As for the examples listed, it’s worth remembering that the IRS story was hyped up to be something it wasn’t (the IRS targeted groups on the conservative AND liberal sides it suspected of abusing non-profit status) with a lot of misinformation and conspiracy theories being posted around that time (which makes sense not to include in the trending column). The Drudge Report is an aggregator, so it’d make sense to link to the original source instead. Crowder, for his part, is a commentator with a record of spreading fake or exaggerated stories like “Germany Takes Measures To Curb Islamic Rape… With Leaflets?” (No, they didn’t) and selling t-shirts that say “Socialism is for F*gs.” It’s… pretty clear why that might not be the type of outlet you want leading the trending list for straightforward news.

Then came the backlash. Then came the capitulation. Then came the election.

That day, the Republican National Committee published a blog post titled, “#MakeThisTrend: Facebook Must Answer for Conservative Censorship.

According to one employee, who kept a log of items that were curiously omitted, Facebook curators kept topics like the IRS scandal suppressed. They would also omit coverage from conservative news outlets in favor of MSM sources like the New York Times and the BBC,” read the blog.

“With 167 million US Facebook users reading stories highlighted in the trending section, Facebook has the power to greatly influence the presidential election. It is beyond disturbing to learn that this power is being used to silence view points and stories that don't fit someone else's agenda. Censorship in any form should give Americans who value their fundamental freedoms great pause.”

Conservatives raged over the report (which, again, was just a single person’s claim; not corroborated by others), and within a week, lined up an audience with Mark Zuckerberg. Among attendees: Glenn Beck, Jim DeMint, SE Cupp, Dana Perino, Tucker Carlson, Kristen Soltis Anderson, Trump campaign adviser Barry Bennett, Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots, The Federalist’s Mary Katherine Ham, and Media Research Center president Brent Bozell.

In August, conservatives got what they wanted: Facebook fired its trending team entirely, leaving decisions completely up to the algorithm.

Facebook fires trending team, and algorithm without humans goes crazy,” read a headline from The Guardian. “Facebook fires human editors, algorithm immediately posts fake news,” said another over at Ars Technica.

Gone was quality control. In came fringe and often fake sites like Ending The Fed, Zero Hedge, etc. started popping up in the trending section with fabricated stories like “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President,” and “BREAKING: Fox News Exposes Traitor Megyn Kelly, Kicks Her Out for Backing Hillary.”

From that point forward… fake (and, to be clear, the term “fake news” is being used here to describe sites that fabricated stories to mislead the public, not the way Trump currently uses it — to mean anything he doesn’t like) stories dominated the platform. People were getting massive amounts of information that was plainly false.

You might be asking whether that actually matters, and the answer is simple: yes. 14% of adults say they’ve changed their mind on a political issue based on something they saw on social media. It’s an extremely influential platform that can do everything from energize supporters of one candidate to helping someone on the fence decide who to vote for to convincing others to just stay home.

This graphic (and its accompanying story), from BuzzFeed, is startling:

The election came down to 79,316 votes in 3 states (Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania). It was very, very close. I’m not saying this cost Clinton the election (no single thing did). What I’m saying is that when things are this close, every tiny advantage counts. All that needed to happen was to flip 0.057% of all votes cast (or convince people who sat out to vote) and the country would be a very different place today. This advantage, which the Republicans gained by claiming there was a bias against them — no doubt.

With the 2018 elections coming up, the GOP is again working the refs of the technology world.

Turn on any NFL game some Sunday afternoon and you’ll no doubt see coaches running up and down the sidelines screaming their heads off at the refs over some supposedly blown call. Maybe they didn’t throw a flag on that play that might have been pass interference a couple downs back. Maybe they didn’t see the guy on the opposing team jump off-sides. Or maybe there weren’t any fouls at all. But still, they yell. Why? Because when they do it, they tend to get more calls in their favor. Seriously.

Last year, FiveThirtyEight broke down the data and concluded that “sideline bias,” which is to say that calls along a team’s sideline tend to go for that team compared to calls on the opposite sideline, is very real. Whether they’re aware of it or not, refs tend to shy away from calling penalties against teams when they know they’re going to get yelled at. The same basic principle applies in politics, and Republicans are really, really good at it.

“Constant accusations of liberal media bias have been a staple of Republican rhetoric for decades. And why not? The pressure has been effective,” wrote Paul Krugman. He’s right.

Days before the 2016 election, Krugman wrote a New York Times editorial about the GOP’s efforts to “work the refs” on the letter put out by James Comey about reopening the Clinton investigation (funnily enough, we’d find out months later that one of the reasons Comey did reopen the case was for fear of being accused of bias by Conservative media outlets — this, all as he managed to not say a word about the Trump campaign being investigated at that same time).

“Part of this effectiveness comes through false equivalence: news organizations, afraid of being attacked for bias, give evenhanded treatment to lies and truth. Way back in 2000 I suggested that if a Republican candidate said that the earth was flat, headlines would read, “Views differ on shape of planet.” That still happens.

The desire to get right-wing critics off one’s back may also explain why the news media keep falling for fake scandals. There’s a straight line from the Whitewater investigation — which ran for seven years, was endlessly hyped in the press, but never found any wrongdoing on the part of the Clintons — to the catastrophically bad coverage of the Clinton Foundation a couple of months ago. Remember when The Associated Press suggested scandalous undue influence based on a meeting between Hillary Clinton and a donor who just happened to be both a Nobel Prize winner and an old personal friend?

Sure enough, much of the initial coverage of the Comey letter was based not on what the letter said, which was very little, but on a false, malicious characterization of the letter by Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. You might think reporters would have learned by now not to take what people like Mr. Chaffetz say at face value. Apparently not.”

It’s this same strategy — accusing people and organizations of having a “liberal” bias — that Republicans are currently trying to use against tech companies. Actual evidence of such bias has been virtually non-existent. People of all political persuasions have a tendency to get (sometimes accidentally) suspended from social media, but what makes the GOP approach to this so genius is that they make every instance of this into a news story.

When Trump tweeted out a video claiming to demonstrate bias in how Google covered his State of the Union address, the tech giant flatly denied this. In fact, even r/The_Donald, the pro-Trump reddit forum, posted something on the night of Trump’s SOTU that disproves his outlandish claim.

Here’s what Google said:

“On January 30 2018, we highlighted the livestream of President Trump’s State of the Union on the google.com homepage. We have historically not promoted the first address to Congress by a new President, which is technically not a State of the Union address. As a result, we didn’t include a promotion on google.com for this address in either 2009 or 2017.”

Still, it’s up there, and it’s promoting the idea that there’s anti-conservative bias. The people pushing this narrative don’t actually want fairness. What they want is to create a bias in their favor. We saw it happen in 2016 with Facebook and its trending feed. We may soon see it happen again on Google, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook (the fact that there’s still an effort to smear Facebook as anti-conservative even after providing Republicans a massive boost in 2016 demonstrates that this campaign is being conducted under bad faith).

Washington Post@washingtonpost

Inside Facebook and Twitter’s secret meetings with Trump aides and conservative leaders who say tech is biased https://t.co/sEP5SKmwyh

June 27, 2018

That does it for this week’s newsletter. Remember, you can follow me on Twitter at @ParkerMolloy, and be sure to check out my Patreon for more content. Thanks!