How Facebook, Twitter silence conservative voices online
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The recent news that Facebook staffers had sought to delete Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTillerson: Russia already looking to interfere in 2018 midterms Dems pick up deep-red legislative seat in Missouri Speier on Trump's desire for military parade: 'We have a Napoleon in the making' MORE’s posts calling for restrictions on Muslim immigration as violating the company’s hate speech policies has revived the ongoing controversy about ideological neutrality in the social networks.

This time at least, the Facebook employees were overruled by CEO Mark Zuckerberg on the grounds that this would amount to political censorship, but the issue raises the question: Is there a problem of anti-conservative bias in the social media? And if so, what’s the answer?

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It should be noted that Trump is not a standard conservative — indeed, many conservatives say he’s not a conservative at all — and plenty of people on the right have denounced his proposed Muslim ban. But this is far from the only instance in which major social media platforms have been accused of political censorship toward right-leaning content.

Last May, allegations were made that Facebook had suppressed conservative views from its “trending topics;” while Facebook claimed that its internal investigation found no evidence of systematic suppression, the company also announced that it would modify the process of trending topic selection to minimize the potential for abuse.

During the same month, Canadian conservative activist Lauren Southern was slapped with a 30-day Facebook suspension over — ironically enough — a post complaining about Facebook censorship of conservatives. (The ban was later reversed and blamed on an error.)

William Hicks, a writer for Heat Street, has collected other incidents of what appears to be such censorship. In one instance, a post saying that Trump is “not anti Muslim (but) anti ISIS” and that “we are too busy being politically correct” to assess the potential danger posed by radicals among harmless refugees was removed and its author was banned from Facebook.

 

 

 

Claims of anti-conservative bias also plague Twitter.

Earlier this year, controversial Breitbart News columnist Milo Yiannopoulos reported claims that the company’s management was subtly censoring “populist conservative … cultural libertarians, and other anti-PC dissidents” by subjecting them to “shadowbanning” so that most of their tweets did not show up in their followers’ Twitter feeds.

In July, Yiannopoulos himself was permanently banned from Twitter, after several suspensions, for allegedly inciting racist harassment against African-American comedienne and Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones.

Many commentators, both conservative and liberal, saw this as a disturbing move to stifle unpopular speech, particularly since no specific instances of instigation were cited. However, Yiannopoulos may have crossed the line when, in the middle of troll attacks on Jones, he tweeted fake screenshots of two supposed racist tweets by her.

While Yiannopoulos is a notorious provocateur with a trollish history, Twitter’s hammer has been brought down on other notable right-of-center users.  

Last month, Glenn Reynolds, the University of Tennessee law professor and Instapundit blogger, was suspended for tweeting a news story about anti-police brutality protesters stopping traffic on a bridge and surrounding vehicles with the comment, “Run them down.”

Reynolds, who argued that he was simply urging people to drive on for “self-preservation” in a potentially dangerous situation, was reinstated after deleting the offending tweet; several days later, he announced his decision to stop posting on Twitter, partly because of a “political double standard” in enforcement of rules.

And in February, far-right blogger Robert Stacy McCain was banned for unspecified “targeted abuse” of which no one produced any evidence.

Meanwhile, whatever one thinks of Breitbart News, its writers have made a pretty strong case that Twitter management tends to ignore serious harassment by left-wing posters toward conservatives — including a black Breitbart reporter being repeatedly attacked as a “coon” by rapper Talib Kweli and his followers.

Last month, after Palmer Luckey, the multimillionaire co-founder of the Oculus Rift virtual reality company, was outed as the backer of a pro-Trump political organization, his girlfriend Nicole Edelmann (formerly Nikki Moxxi on Twitter) was also “exposed”  as a Trump supporter and soon deleted her Twitter account due to harassment. No one intervened, and the abuse directed at her was shrugged off by some progressive Twitter users.

Left-wing provocateurs on Twitter certainly seem to fare better than their right-wing counterparts.

Take Australian feminist Clementine Ford, known both for general male-bashing comments and for vicious attacks on individual men as well as women whose views she dislikes. Ford has not been censured for mocking Iranian-born conservative-leaning columnist Rita Panahi in overtly racial terms, or for sexualized insults toward her male critics.

 

Overall patterns of bias are difficult to gauge. But attorney and blogger Marc Randazza has written that he has noticed a clear trend while tracking a number of Twitter accounts and using some “decoy” handles: feminist or “social justice” accounts often get away with abuse “up to and including death threats,” while “even slightly offensive messages coming from conservative voices wind up being disciplined.”

Some of this bias may stem simply from individual, sometimes unconscious biases by left-leaning staffers. But the overwhelmingly left-of-center activists who advise Internet companies on curbing online abuse may contribute to the problem, since they often explicitly advocate double standards favoring “marginalized” groups over the “privileged” and broadly defined “safety” over freedom of expression.

Twitter and Facebook are privately run companies, and as such they have no legal obligation to comply with the First Amendment or embrace political neutrality.

Randazza’s co-blogger, attorney Ken White, has warned against treating such platforms as public forums just because they feel like one. Yet the social media giants have repeatedly professed their commitment to the free exchange of ideas.

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If established social networks are increasingly perceived as inhospitable to conservatives or libertarians, there will inevitably be stepped-up initiatives to create alternative platforms—which would have no shortage of potential Silicon Valley backers such as Luckey or fellow pro-Trump tycoon Peter Thiel.

One such platform already in existence is Gab, which promises virtually untrammeled expression combined with tools to filter out unwelcome speech. So far, it seems to be drawing mostly right-wing users.

The problem with such alternatives is that they will inevitably further fracture our political landscape, reinforcing the pernicious tendency for people to marinate in echo chambers. Twitter, and to a lesser extent Facebook, are among the few major spaces where people of different opinions frequently interact — sometimes for worse, sometimes for better.

To stop the fragmentation, these companies’ leadership should make a good-faith effort to live up to their promise of political inclusiveness and free debate. The conversation on curbing harassment while protecting speech is important; but it must include a truly diverse base of advocates.

Young is a contributing editor for Reason magazine and a columnist for Newsday. Follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63.


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