The Wall Street Journal is among the many news outlets revealing what is being called "The Facebook Papers," exposing some of the controversies that have contributed to the criticism against the company.
It was the summer of 2020 and America was aghast after watching George Floyd being murdered by a police officer as others begged him to let the man breathe. Inside of a Facebook employee chat someone proclaimed, "Get Breitbart out of News Tab."
The News tab is the list of news outlets that Facebook deems legitimate enough to promote. The move came after a slew of fake news websites were able to create conspiracy theories that spread across the platform in the 2016 election and that have spread COVID-19 misinformation in the years since. Breitbart is one of the many far-right websites that exist, pushing conservative talking points.
At the time, the site was publishing stories like "Minneapolis Mayhem: Riots in Masks," "Massive Looting, Buildings in Flames, Bonfires!" and "BLM Protesters Pummel Police Cars on 101." A report revealed that more than 93 percent of protests in the Summer of 2020 were peaceful, the far-right was promoting the message that all of them were violent and implying that no community was safe.
According to the Journal, the Facebook staffer claimed the stories were "emblematic of a concerted effort at Breitbart and similarly hyperpartisan sources (none of which belong in News Tab) to paint Black Americans and Black-led movements in a very negative way." The documents show that many other Facebook employees agreed.
Meanwhile, a researcher for Facebook said that removing Breitbart may be a problem because it was one of President Donald Trump's favorite sites.
"At best, it would be a very difficult policy discussion," the researcher replied.
Breitbart stayed, as have other far-right sites and "news" personalities who regularly promote false information but are still allowed to flourish on the News Tab.
"Many Republicans, from Mr. Trump down, say Facebook discriminates against conservatives," said the Journal. "The documents reviewed by the Journal didn't render a verdict on whether bias influences its decisions overall. They do show that employees and their bosses have hotly debated whether and how to restrain right-wing publishers, with more-senior employees often providing a check on agitation from the rank and file. The documents viewed by the Journal, which don't capture all of the employee messaging, didn't mention equivalent debates over left-wing publications."
There were other documents that showed the management team were trying to avoid being called biased. The result is that they ultimately ended up becoming more biased by prioritizing conservative content because of the complaints by Trump and conservatives, a 2020 Politico report said at the time.
"Facebook employees, as seen in a large quantity of internal message-board conversations, have agitated consistently for the company to act against far-right sites," said the report. "In many cases, they have framed their arguments around Facebook's enforcement of its own rules, alleging that Facebook is giving the right-wing publishers a pass to avoid PR blowback. As one employee put it in an internal communication: 'We're scared of political backlash if we enforce our policies without exemptions.'"
The documents show that the employees specifically focused on Breitbart, not because it is so far-right but because it's known for false information. After the 2016 election, Breitbart editor Alex Marlow, editor of Breitbart, admitted that the website intentionally skewed content to attack Judge Roy Moore's teen accusers in an effort to protect Donald Trump.
"Marlow said he had no regrets about Breitbart's coverage of the race and stressed that the nationalist, populist website will not be changing course as a result of it," CNN reported in Dec. 2017. "Until Election Day, Breitbart seemingly did everything in its power to try to discredit Moore's accusers. Marlow said one of the factors in Breitbart's coverage of the allegations against Moore is that, he believes, the news media was trying to use them to set a bar on sexual misconduct that President Trump cannot match."
"I think they want to create a standard where President Trump... will not be able to match whatever standard is now in place for who can be a senator," he said. "Based off not any sort of conviction or any sort of admission of guilt, but based off of purely allegations. I think that's the playbook here. And I think it's part of the reason why it was so important for Breitbart to continue our coverage of the way we covered it ... and for Steve in particular to hold the line -- it's not just about Judge Moore, it is not even just about establishment, anti-establishment. It's about what's coming next for President Trump."
The Journal cited the data firm NewsWhip, which revealed that right-wing sites are almost always the top-performing publishers on the platform. It's one of the many reasons people on the left believe that Facebook's algorithm prioritizes far-right content because the majority of the United States leans left of center, characterized The Atlantic in 2016. Facebook claims they enforce their rules equally, but that isn't the allegation. The rules may be enforced equally, but the algorithm is what is prioritizing conservative content.
The Wall Street Journal has a full cache of files it intends to reveal over the coming weeks from "The Facebook Papers." The site called it an "unprecedented look at Facebook's struggles to manage the products."