Culture

If a Conservative Speaks—and Facebook Censors Him—Does He Make a Sound?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

Conservative lines of communication are in enemy hands. In a lengthy piece in February, I outlined how the systematic left-wing culture of Silicon Valley was manifesting itself in numerous acts of conscious or unconscious bias, with Google, Facebook, and Twitter privileging leftist views in various ways. Today, however, Gizmodo broke a story that demonstrates not just the scale of the challenge, but the fundamental difficulty — indeed, impossibility — of guaranteeing equal access for conservative views when private companies hold near-monopoly positions in the dissemination of information and opinion.

Gizmodo’s story begins:

Facebook workers routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers from the social network’s influential “trending” news section, according to a former journalist who worked on the project. This individual says that workers prevented stories about the right-wing CPAC gathering, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, and other conservative topics from appearing in the highly influential section, even though they were organically trending among the site’s users.

The story paints a picture of a “small group of young journalists, primarily educated at Ivy League or private East Coast universities” who work within a system that allows them to censor and shape the news. They can suppress (“blacklist”) a topic from Facebook’s powerful trending module, and they can also shape the coverage by drafting summaries of the news and choosing which stories deserve prominent links.

A former curator provided Gizmodo with a running log of Facebook’s censorship and distortion:

Among the deep-sixed or suppressed topics on the list: former IRS official Lois Lerner, who was accused by Republicans of inappropriately scrutinizing conservative groups; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; popular conservative news aggregator the Drudge Report; Chris Kyle, the former Navy SEAL who was murdered in 2013; and former Fox News contributor Steven Crowder. 

So far it appears that the curators were largely working on their own, and there is not yet any evidence that Facebook had imposed a corporate policy of censorship or blacklisting. But it’s bad enough that left-wing employees felt free to squelch conservative viewpoints.

Moreover, Facebook management is hardly immune to bias at the top. Mark Zuckerberg famously told German chancellor Angela Merkel that Facebook needed to “do some work” to combat alleged anti-Muslim “hate posts.” And in 2012, Facebook permitted the Obama campaign to use the site in a manner that “triggered the site’s internal safeguards” — so long as it stopped after the election.

It’s hard to overstate the conservative vulnerability. For the moment, no meaningful market-based correction is possible.

It’s hard to overstate the conservative vulnerability. For the moment, no meaningful market-based correction is possible. It’s difficult enough to deal with powerful corporate progressives even when information flows freely and market alternatives exist. Boycotting Target for its gender-neutral bathroom policy will have uncertain results in spite of the fact that its policy is widely known, and there are ample consumer alternatives. How far is any given Target from a competing Walmart?

Facebook, however, can suppress information about itself, and customers seeking a competing, equivalent product have nowhere else to go. In other words, consumers have no ability to address the problems they can’t even discover in the first place.

#share#Government-based cures would be worse than the disease. The First Amendment stands as a firewall between state power and free expression, and breaking down that firewall because we don’t like what Zuckerberg does with his own company would introduce the specter of a Clinton or Trump administration that “curated” the news. At least Silicon Valley hipsters are ultimately vulnerable to their own kind. The government endures for centuries.

For now, the conservative options are limited to protest and persuasion. There is a moral case to be made about the free flow of information, and conservatives should make that case. There are, no doubt, liberals in Facebook who are ashamed by this story, and there are many others who don’t know quite what to think. We should — politely but firmly — make the argument that Facebook should use its power to protect and advance a culture of free expression. And when persuasion fails, protest can and should follow.

RELATED: Want to Change Silicon Valley? Conservative Entrepreneurs Should Get to Work

But the long-term answer is perseverance. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it a million times more. The only real answer to the liberal “long march” through American culture is a conservative countermarch. Each year I speak to hundreds of conservative law students about their own careers and goals. Overwhelming numbers express a desire to become professional conservatives, to join the activist class. But we don’t need many more activists. We need more corporate lawyers and entrepreneurs. We need more filmmakers and actors. We need more programmers and designers.

Just as the solution to bad speech is better speech, the solution to bad companies is better companies. Somewhere out there lurks the person who is going to make the product that transforms Facebook into Myspace. The conservative movement would do well to turn its attention to cultivating the institutions and talent that increase the chances that he or she codes during the day and reads The Road to Serfdom at night. There is no reason why the next Mark Zuckerberg can’t vote for Ben Sasse.

 — David French is an attorney, and a staff writer at National Review

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