The most surreal aspect of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony during two congressional hearings this was easily a Wednesday episode featuring Rep. Larry Bucshon, R-Ind., who made detailed inquiries about whether the internet giant was secretly recording his private conversations in order to serve him advertising.
This article was originally published at Salon
While Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., was the only other lawmaker to promote that particular conspiracy theory, a number of Republicans repeatedly questioned Zuckerberg about another false claim: that Facebook is deliberately suppressing conservative opinions through recent changes to its News Feed feature.
“After this new algorithm was implemented, there was a tremendous bias against conservative news and content and a favorable bias towards liberal content,” asserted Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the House majority whip. “Was there a directive to put a bias in?”
Several other Republicans, such as Rep. Billy Long of Missouri, invoked two women named Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, better known by their internet monikers, Diamond and Silk. The sisters have acquired a large following as black supporters of President Donald Trump but allegedly were judged “unsafe to the community” by some Facebook staffers recently. That diagnosis is clearly off but it is worth pointing out that as Zuckerberg was being asked about the duo, they were appearing on a video broadcast of the conspiracy website Infowars.
Anything is possible in a world where Trump is president of the United States. But as things stand, Facebook’s right-wing critics have utterly failed to make a convincing case that the social media colossus is deliberately censoring conservative points of view while claiming to be cracking down on fake news. None of Zuckerberg’s congressional inquisitors seemed willing to consider a simpler explanation — that the right-leaning internet is dominated by low-quality publications and that publishers of all ideological stripes have been harmed by Facebook’s News Feed changes, particularly those who do little original reporting. (Some, such as the British LGBT publisher PinkNews, have changed their business model to focus on more substantive content. Others, such as the fluff site Little Things, have decided to call it quits.)
The academic research is overwhelmingly clear that fake news is much more common on the American right than the left. In 2016, UCLA researchers found that conservative people were more likely to believe false information that emphasized health threats. Last year, Yale scholars found that Trump supporters were more likely to believe a story if it had been flagged by others as “fake.” Harvard University reported that websites that regularly featured false stories were more popular than Fox News among conservatives on Facebook during the 2016 election.
Even fake news publishers themselves, willing to make up anything if it gets clicks, have acknowledged that conservatives are more susceptible to fabricated news stories.
“I think Trump is in the White House because of me,” Paul Horner, one of the industry’s inventors, told the Washington Post in 2016. “His followers don’t fact-check anything — they’ll post everything, believe anything.”
Seven congressional Republicans challenged Zuckerberg on the topic but the only ones who tried to rely on more than just anecdotes were Scalise and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Neither made a convincing case. The centerpiece of Scalise’s questioning was incomplete research from a website called Western Journal, a publication with a long record of fear-mongering about Muslims and spreading lies about former president Barack Obama. It is not exactly a surprise that the Louisiana Republican did not mention the provenance of the chart he burnished as he questioned Zuckerberg.
Cruz relied on two other approaches, both of them faulty. He began his inquiry to Zuckerberg by asking if the CEO considered Facebook to be a “neutral public forum,” apparently based on the notion that the 1996 Communications Decency Act forces website operators to refrain from moderating user-generated content to avoid legal liability for it. This is completely false. Neither the law itself nor any court opinion about it has ever utilized the phrase. In fact, if you search Google for the phrase “neutral public forum” and ignore all pages with Cruz and Zuckerberg’s names on them, you get zero results.
Rather than point out how ill-informed his congressional critics were, however, Zuckerberg sat patiently in his witness chair, repeatedly saying that he did not want Facebook to engage in political bias and that he continually strove to avoid it.