Evidence contradicts right-wing narrative of tech censorship and bias

Evidence contradicts right-wing narrative of tech censorship and bias
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Over the past year, the right-wing narrative of tech censorship and bias against right-wing content has become increasingly strident. Along the way, it’s been amplified by powerful right-wing influencers, far-right racists who want their hateful speech exempt of consequences, Republican politicians commanding legislative hearings, and President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump faces high stakes in meeting with Erdoğan amid impeachment drama Democrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Trump threatening to fire Mulvaney: report MORE himself. For media observers, this narrative has become a case study of the “illusory truth effect” — repeating a lie so often that people start believing it’s true — because hard evidence still doesn’t back it up.

In fact, the numbers prove just the opposite.

In his opening statement at the April 10 Senate hearing titled “Stifling Free Speech: Technological Censorship and the Public Discourse,” presiding chair Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump circuit court nominee in jeopardy amid GOP opposition Trump has officially appointed one in four circuit court judges On The Money: Retirement savings bill blocked in Senate after fight over amendments | Stopgap bill may set up December spending fight | Hardwood industry pleads for relief from Trump trade war MORE (R-Texas) claimed that Americans are “concerned about a consistent pattern of political bias and censorship on the part of big tech.” But Cruz also admitted that “much of the argument in this topic is anecdotal” (an acknowledgement that hasn’t stopped him from exploiting this narrative to raise money).

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As a blog post by the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute pointed out, the “anecdotal evidence” isn’t “super compelling.” It’s true because when analyzed, “many of the episodes used to push allegations of censorship or bias can actually be explained through technical arguments in which political motivations play no role.” For example, there was furor among conservatives when Twitter temporarily suspended the account of an anti-abortion movie resulting in the account also temporarily losing its followers. Yet the action on Twitter’s part was not based on the movie’s content, but on the account being “linked to another account that had violated Twitter’s rules,” which triggered Twitter’s ban evasion mechanisms leading to the suspension. (But the explanations didn’t stop some senators from making the same inaccurate allegations during the April 10 Senate hearing.) And while platforms are known to temporary limit account actions after they detect spam-like behavior to stave off inauthentic activity, prolific social media users Donald Trump Jr. and Dan Scavino, who is also White House social media director, have still used these limitations to claim censorship.

It is best to stick with available, quantitative data while analyzing such claims of censorship, especially because anecdotes tell a story which, at best, shows a distressing level of digital illiteracy among those pushing these allegations or, at worst, bad faith attempts to “work the refs” and get favorable treatment from tech platforms.

Available data consistently shows that right-wing content does as well as left-wing content on Facebook, that YouTube algorithms boost far-right content that radicalizes audiences, and that claims of anti-conservative bias are “nothing more than a mix of anecdotal evidence … and a failure to understand the companies’ algorithms and content moderation practices.”

When Media Matters recently took a sample of prominent Facebook pages posting regularly about American politics and looked at 37 weeks of their engagement numbers, we found roughly the same rates of engagement for right-leaning and left-leaning pages. We also found that politically aligned pages get more engagement than nonaligned pages. These results are consistent with a 2018 Media Matters analysis, which found that weekly interaction rates for right-leaning and left-leaning Facebook pages were virtually identical, and both types of pages outperformed pages that weren’t ideologically aligned. We also found that images shared by right-leaning Facebook pages got the most engagement and outperformed photos shared by left-leaning and nonaligned pages alike.

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According to Newswhip, a firm that tracks social media engagement, political content dominates engagements on Facebook, which right-leaning publications on Facebook seem to understand well. Available data shows them thriving, contradicting the anecdotal evidence of conservative censorship. Newswhip’s monthly data on Facebook publishers shows that since December 2018, Fox News has consistently dominated the list for “the most engaged publishers on Facebook,” a monthly top-10 list in which right-wing publications like Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire and United Kingdom’s Daily Mail also consistently appear, alongside mainstream, non-partisan publications like The New York Times and NBC News or left-leaning HuffPost.

But data and hard evidence might not be enough to stop the right-wing figures from spinning a narrative that seems to be working well for them.

Tech giant representatives have groveled in response to right-wing claims of bias, soliciting advice from far-right grifters and extremists and appeasing right-wing media’s accusations by appearing on pro-Trump propaganda shows. And it’s likely that they will continue to respond to censorship allegations this way. After all, fake censorship scandals offer a welcome distraction from more urgent issues, like increasing transparency and improving consistency in the enforcement of terms of service and community guidelines, protecting user privacy, or the racism that proliferates undeterred on their sites, making these platforms unsafe for members of vulnerable communities and providing inspiration for murderous extremists.

Cristina López G. is a Salvadoran immigrant with an undergraduate law degree from Escuela Superior de Economía y Negocios (ESEN), and a masters in public policy from Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy. She joined Media Matters in 2014 focusing on immigration coverage as a researcher of Hispanic and Spanish-language media, and now leads the organization’s research into the forces that feed bigotry and the platforms on which it proliferates as Deputy Director for Extremism. Follow her on Twitter @crislopezg