For four decades now, American conservatives have deployed a discomfitingly successful meta-media strategy: work the refs. Complain endlessly of left-wing bias in the mainstream media, and you can deflect its criticism. Insist that your issues are being under-covered by liberal outlets, and you can push them self-consciously to the right. It is, at this point, a familiar strategy, but it’s somehow never lost its potency, as anyone who lived through the most recent presidential election — in which a minor scandal relentlessly promoted by right-wing actors received more coverage than any other issue — can attest. The refs are, apparently, endlessly workable.
But the refs are changing. The “mainstream media,” understood as the country’s major print publications and television-news outlets, are no longer the most important sources of information. The rise of the internet, and the software companies that dominate it, has installed a new group of media-elite gatekeepers: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and their peers, whose control of billion-user platforms (hundred-million, in the case of Twitter) places them at the apex of a new informational ecosystem. Faced with these titans of technology, American conservatives will surely have to change their strategy. These are intelligent and thoughtful men who’ve no doubt learned from the multi-decade capitulation of legacy media to the disingenuous complaints of right-wing operatives.
On the other hand … why mess with success? The Washington Post’s Tony Romm reports that “Twitter and Facebook are scrambling to assuage conservative leaders who have sounded alarms — and sought to rile voters — with accusations that the country’s tech giants are censoring right-leaning posts, tweets, and news.” Both Dorsey and Zuckerberg have conspicuously — in what one imagines is a pointless gesture of reasonableness and self-criticism — spoken about the purportedly liberal politics of Silicon Valley, which Zuckerberg described in a congressional hearing as an “extremely left-leaning place.”
Dorsey went so far as to host “a rare private dinner with Republican leaders and conservative commentators … as a way to build ‘trust’ among conservatives who have long chastised the company.” Fox News commentator Guy Benson was among the conservatives in attendance; afterward, he tweeted, “Thank you, @jack, for meeting with a group of conservatives in DC tonight. Much work must be done to build and rebuild trust — as we discussed at length — but step one is actually talking. Appreciate it, sir.”
The question raised by Benson’s tweet is, of course: What has caused conservatives to lose trust in Twitter? Sifting through the Post article, you can identify only three specific complaints: one, that Dorsey “runs a platform that’s supposed to be neutral even though he’s tweeted about issues like immigration, gay rights and national politics”; two, that Twitter and other social networks “secretly limit the reach of their content”; and three, that Twitter Moments — Twitter’s editorial section, which collects tweets around specific news stories or trending topics — “often paints right-leaning people and issues in a negative light, or excludes them entirely.”
That either Dorsey or Zuckerberg might be taking these complaints seriously is troubling. What’s galling is not the staleness of the charges — reporters are too liberal to neutrally cover politics! Editors suppress conservative stories! Newspaper coverage is biased against conservatives! — but the context in which they arrive. The conservative movement has found itself with complete control of the federal government and in power in a majority of states across the country — and it’s taken that power thanks in a large part to social media like Twitter and Facebook.
It’s nonsensical to argue that Twitter suppresses conservative “content” when it is, for all intents and purposes, a propaganda machine for the president, one that doesn’t just allow him to spread lies unimpeded but seems to incentivize their dissemination. It’s outrageous to hear Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale in one breath accuse Facebook of “censoring” conservative news stories and in another describe it as “the method” by which Donald Trump won the election. What bias can possibly be claimed when social media enables a right-wing “attention backbone” with no equivalent on the left? Dorsey and Zuckerberg, in their Quixotic quest to address the disingenuous complaints of people like Parscale and Benson, talk a lot about the purportedly liberal beliefs of Silicon Valley. They would do better to talk about its manifestly conservative outcomes.