Politics & Policy

Viewpoint Discrimination with Algorithms

(Dado Ruvic/Reuters)
Media companies’ ‘impartial’ algorithms disproportionately impact conservative material.

The biggest names in social media are cracking down on news. In particular, they’re cracking down disproportionately on conservative news. That’s not necessarily out of malice; it’s probably due to the fact that our major social-media sites are staffed thoroughly with non-conservatives who have no objective frame of reference when it comes to the news business.

Thus, Google biases its algorithm to prevent people from searching for guns online in shopping; temporarily attached fact-checks from leftist sites like Snopes and PolitiFact to conservative websites but not leftist ones; showed more pro-Clinton results than pro-Trump results in news searches; and, of course, fired tech James Damore for the sin of examining social science in the debate over the wage gap. Google’s bias is as obvious as the “doodles” it chooses for its logos, which routinely feature left-wing icons and issues.

YouTube has demonetized videos from conservatives while leaving similar videos up for members of the Left. Prager University has watched innocuous videos titled “Why America Must Lead,” “The Ten Commandments: Do Not Murder,” and “Why Did America Fight the Korean War” demonetized (i.e. barred from accepting advertisements) at YouTube’s hands. Prager’s lawyer explains, “Google and YouTube use restricted mode filtering not to protect younger or sensitive viewers from ‘inappropriate’ video content, but as a political gag mechanism to silence PragerU.”

Facebook was slammed two years ago for ignoring conservative stories and outlets in its trending news; now Facebook has shifted its algorithm to downgrade supposedly “partisan” news, which has the effect of undercutting newer sites that are perceived as more partisan, while leaving brand names with greater public knowledge relatively unscathed. Facebook’s tactics haven’t just hit conservative Web brands — they’ve destroyed the profit margins for smaller start-ups like LittleThings, a four-year-old site that fired 100 employees this week after the algorithm shift reportedly destroyed 75 percent of the site’s organic reach (the number of people who see a site’s content without paid distribution).

And Twitter has banned nasty accounts perceived as right-wing while ignoring similar activity from the left. James O’Keefe recently exposed the practice of “shadowbanning,” in which Twitter hides particular content or mutes particular hashtags for political purposes. That’s no coincidence: Twitter head Jack Dorsey is an ardent leftist who has campaigned with radicals like DeRay Mckesson, and whose company relies on the input of an Orwellian Trust and Safety Council staffed thoroughly with left-wing interest groups.

Twitter head Jack Dorsey is an ardent leftist who has campaigned with radicals like DeRay Mckesson, and whose company relies on the input of an Orwellian Trust and Safety Council staffed thoroughly with left-wing interest groups.

This bias in social media has profound impact on news consumption. For users, exposure to news stories isn’t based on market forces — it’s not that these companies provide results precisely tailored to user desires. Information is disseminated to users based on a combination of their history and the whims of the companies at issue. So, for example, Facebook’s new news algorithm is explicitly designed to minimize “passively reading articles or watching videos,” and instead to maximize “people’s well-being,” and to encourage “meaningful interactions between people.” Mark Zuckerberg wrote, in rather frightening fashion, “There’s too much sensationalism, misinformation and polarization in the world today.” Thus, he concluded, Facebook should favor content that is “broadly trusted.”

How does Facebook determine whether a source is “broadly trusted”? They ask users if they are familiar with a news source and then whether they trust that news source. Presumably, Left-wingers won’t trust National Review, and right-wingers won’t trust the Huffington Post — but activists on the left are more common on Facebook than activists on the right, so the Right will be more easily damaged.

Facebook’s new algorithmic change also means that stories that generate controversy are disfavored, while those that encourage positive interaction are favored. News with partisan implications is likely to suffer the most — and that’s the news people are most interested in. In fighting against the brawl that is daily politics, Facebook is defanging the new media altogether, and handing power back to institutional sources with brand value.

America has become more polarized in many ways. But the rise of the new media is a necessary corrective to the dominance of a thoroughly left-wing “objective” media. That model was supported, in large measure, by the freedom of social media — and by the freedom of the ad-based model that turned traffic into cash flow. Now that social media are reestablishing themselves as the gatekeepers, they’re actually exacerbating the news bubble by preventing Democrats from seeing conservative content, and even preventing conservatives from seeing conservative content so long as it’s been downvoted by Democrats. All of which means that the ad-based model has started to shrivel for news outlets, encouraging them to turn toward a subscription-based model — where, not surprisingly, legacy media have the upper hand.

The great irony here, of course, is that conservatives aren’t the ones threatening to regulate social media — that’s the Democrats. Conservatives may be the targets, but they’re not the threat. Nevertheless, the market of ideas will not be quashed so easily. Already, competitors are eyeing the crackdown by social-media companies and sensing an opening. The default Democrats at social-media giants may attempt to choke off the traffic and income valve for those with whom they disagree, but so long as the Internet remains a free market, they’re unlikely to succeed in the long term. They’re only likely to earn the scorn and ire of a huge percentage of Americans who feel that they’re being censored.

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