On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee called representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google to answer questions about content moderation. The hearing marked day six of the current debate over Facebook and how it moderates content on its megaplatform — a debate kicked off during an on-the-record Q&A last week between members of the media and Facebook’s John Hegeman and Sara Su — and something like day 6,000 of the larger meta-debate on the same topic. This was Facebook’s opportunity to answer questions from representatives of the American people over how it polices its enormous and influential chunk of the internet, so naturally, it kicked off with Facebook’s Monika Bickert offering yet another apology to Diamond and Silk — the well-known conservative huckster duo who, having lost some relevance following the 2016 election, have reinserted themselves in the spotlight by positioning themselves as martyrs to Facebook’s censorship of conservatives, even as they continue to profit from the platform.
Diamond and Silk, who appear to have been, briefly, improperly categorized on the platform, might be owed a form-letter apology from Facebook. They’re not owed much more than that. But Facebook seems intent on bending over backward to loudly, conspicuously appease conservatives and conservative outlets. At a recent off-the-record meeting between Facebook and top editors, The Wall Street Journal reports, Facebook invited about a dozen publications — half of which were explicitly conservative outlets, including the Daily Caller, apparently to counterbalance the “liberal” publications like the New York Times:
At the off-the-record meeting between Facebook officials and publishing executives in New York on Thursday, BuzzFeed Editor in Chief Ben Smith said that, by his count, there were about six conservative-leaning publications among the dozen or so outlets represented at the gathering. He said the ratio implied a fundamental misconception among Facebook employees about the workings of the news industry, according to people familiar with his remarks.
Mr. Smith said that the number of conservative publications in attendance indicated that Facebook had bought into the idea, promoted primarily by conservatives, that mainstream outlets such as the New York Times are liberal and should be counterbalanced by right-leaning opinion outlets, said people familiar with his remarks.
If you look at the situation quantitatively, as a question of what outlets are being shared on Facebook, its decision to divide publishers into “liberal” and “conservative” is understandable. But qualitatively, as many studies have shown, those “liberal” outlets (which include everything from the New York Times to Mic) occupy a broad range of positions, while the “conservative” sites cluster on the far-right end of the spectrum. As long as Facebook’s understanding of the politics of journalism is this facile, it’s never going to fix its misinformation problem.
On the other hand, maybe it doesn’t care. Over the last week, Facebook has been doing a bit of damage control on Twitter. At last week’s briefing, Hegeman and Su hedged when CNN’s Oliver Darcy asked why the platform continues to allow Infowars, the conspiracy theorist site run by Alex Jones, to utilize their platform (in a short video before the Q&A, Facebook literally cited content posted by Infowars as an example of the types of content it’s trying to limit). Hegeman and Su, to their credit, seemed to have a clear understanding of the difficult position Facebook was in; Facebook’s official Twitter account, however, was a bit more blunt: “We see Pages on both the left and the right pumping out what they consider opinion or analysis — but others call fake news. We believe banning these Pages would be contrary to the basic principles of free speech.”
The questions raised by that tweet: What is this mythical left-leaning Infowars equivalent? Is the distribution of shitty posts really split 50-50 on the political spectrum? By most outside accounts, the answer is no. Similarly, Facebook seems unwilling to acknowledge any link between users susceptible to straight-up conspiracy theories and the barely legitimized news sources they also follow (anecdotally, a lot of #QAnon believers seem to love Breitbart and Gateway Pundit).
Its unwillingness to ban Infowars — an entirely justifiable move that wouldn’t nearly solve the whole issue, but would at least show a modicum of effort and determination — is a demonstration of how feeble and scared the company is of right-wing wrath. The only solutions it wants are to limit offending page reach in secret so that nobody can prove Facebook did it and nobody will yell at the company.
One problem is that Facebook doesn’t need to do anything because it faces no substantial competition in the social media sphere. It is a monopoly that controls a substantial portion of the internet — and, of course, in a vacuum, we wouldn’t want an absolute power like that to ban pages outright. But, of course, we are not in a vacuum. Facebook is, through its size, business incentives, structure, and inaction, enabling a vast conspiratorial far-right propaganda machine. If that was the natural outcome of “free speech,” as it’s been understood in this country for two hundred years, we’d have had a lot more Donald Trumps.
The endless back and forth on this issue — Facebook hemming and hawing as its efforts do little to stem the tide of crap on its platform — points to at least one larger issue, which is that News Feed is simply a bad product. Facebook would not have this issue to anywhere near the extent that it currently does if it did not have the algorithmically ranked News Feed. Its continued pushing of the Groups product is a way to get users to act as moderators, a tactic that keeps most online communities relatively small, sane, and detoxified. The News Feed, however, is moderated entirely through a black box of algorithmic designations and human-moderator judgments, the lack of transparency leading everyone to wonder if they are being punished or if their posts just suck (in Congress today, representative Steve King literally asked Facebook why Gateway Pundit was not receiving more traffic). The product is fatally flawed. So long as Facebook continues to play judge, jury, but not executioner in secret, it will continue to face criticism from all sides. Luckily, all the company needs to do is smile and nod.