WASHINGTON, December 11, 2018 — Republicans and conservative activists used Tuesday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing with Google CEO Sundar Pichai to revive claims that large technology companies are biased against them. But these same activists appear unwilling to accept any result that doesn’t validate their claim.
One prominent Republican who has raised claims of censorship by large technology companies is President Donald Trump, who in August took to Twitter to accuse Google of deliberately manipulating search results to highlight negative stories about him,
“Google search results for “Trump News” shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake New Media. In other words, they have it RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD. Fake CNN is prominent. Republican/Conservative & Fair Media is shut out. Illegal?” Trump wrote, suggesting without evidence that 96 percent of search results for “Trump News” came from what he called “National Left-Wing Media.”
“Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good. They are controlling what we can & cannot see. This is a very serious situation will be addressed!” he added.
At the Tuesday hearing, Pichai rebutted all charges that political bias was present in Google search results. “Our products are build without any bias,” he told legislators - repeatedly.
Facebook is another target of the conservatives’ ire
But at the Google hearing, the critics kept coming. Another frequent target of conservatives’ censorship accusations is Facebook, which has been struggling to harden its platform against foreign disinformation in the two years since Russia’s Internet Research Agency used it to reach millions of Americans with pro-Trump, anti-Clinton messaging.
Some changes Facebook has implemented in the aftermath of 2016 have focused on the algorithm it uses to choose what content users see on the site, others have focused on combatting disinformation and hoax websites masquerading as news organizations.
While Facebook says those changes were made in order to favor original content posted by users’ friends and family, and to elevate local news and fact-checked, trusted news outlets, conservative bloggers say they’ve been targeted for censorship as part of a coordinated campaign by Democrats and their allies.
A ‘conspiracy theorist’ states his case
Jim Hoft, who runs the popular pro-Trump blog the Gateway Pundit, said that the evidence of Facebook’s censorship can be found in his and other conservative news sites’ traffic numbers.
“The top conservative sites on the right noticed this last year, but this year, my traffic has gone from thirty-three percent…to about three percent today. Our little blog had a huge influence on the election, and since that time our advertisers have been targeted, we’ve had two junk lawsuits against us, and our Facebook traffic has been shut down,” Hoft said in an interview.
Hoft was referencing defamation lawsuits against him by a student his site misidentified as a mass shooter, and a State Department employee whom Hoft suggested was a “deep state shill” after he allowed news organizations to use his video of white nationalist James Alex Fields, Jr. using his car to murder anti-racist counter protester Heather Heyer at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Fields was sentenced to life in prison on Tuesday.
“I would argue that this is a coordinated attack on conservative sites,’ Hoft said.
When asked who he thought was “coordinating” the “attack,” Hoft replied: “Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I wish I knew.”
Facebook also denies political bias in the administration of its platform
As with Google, Facebook executives have repeatedly denied any bias in how the company runs its platform or enforces its terms of service. Still, but they have attempted to acknowledge conservatives’ concerns by commissioning an external audit of the entire company to determine whether there is any inadvertent political bias in its operations.
The company retained the services of Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., then in retirement from politics and a partner at the law firm of Covington and Burling, to conduct the audit.
Kyl returned to the Senate in September after Arizona Governor Doug Ducey tapped him to fill the seat left by death of his onetime colleague, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
A Facebook spokesperson told BroadbandBreakfast that the audit is ongoing under the direction of other Covington and Burling attorneys, and that the company looks forward to sharing the results.
But to Hoft, the results may not matter if they don’t confirm his suspicions.
“If the senator finds there is no bias by Facebook, then no, I won’t accept the results,” he said.
Diamond and Silk aren’t waiting for the results of any social media audit
Two other prominent pro-Trump activists who said they wouldn’t accept any result that doesn’t show pervasive bias against conservatives are Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, the pro-Trump YouTube personalities who go by the name Diamond and Silk online.
Hardaway and Richardson found themselves in the spotlight in April 2018 when they told the House Judiciary Committee that Facebook had allegedly suspended them for being “unsafe to the community.”
During their congressional testimony, Hardaway and Richardson pointed to exchanges with Facebook staff explaining other disciplinary actions the company took against them as evidence of bias, and also cited low viewership numbers for their videos as further evidence of censorship.
In a phone interview with BroadbandBreakfast, the pair continued to cite low viewership numbers as proof of a censorship conspiracy.
“Why is it that somebody with 500,000 followers was able to garner 5,000,000 views, and we have 1,200,000 and we were only able to garner 13,000 on our video?” Hardaway asked during an interview with BroadbandBreakfast.
“There’s something not right with this algorithm system, this algorithm system is discriminating against conservative voices, and they’re censoring and stifling conservative voices,” she added.
Richardson, her “Silk” counterpart, suggested that it was only conservatives who’ve been affected by Facebook’s changes.
“I do not see liberals complaining about any kind of censorship,” she said.
A new ‘Fairness Doctrine’ for the internet?
Despite the myriad conservative activists and politicians claiming systematic bias and calling for regulation, experts haven’t found anything of the sort, and most remain skeptical of the need for what would amount to a renewed “fairness doctrine” — the former Federal Communications Commission regulation that required television and radio stations to give equal time to both sides when discussing controversial issues — for the internet.
One expert who testified in April alongside Hardaway and Richardson, TechFreedom President Berin Szoka, said the idea espoused by some conservatives that government should step in to regulate social media companies is “insane.”
“I don’t think they have any clue what that would mean,” he said, comparing it to the Fairness Doctrine, which was scrapped during the Reagan administration.
That policy, which Szoka called “hugely problematic and impractical,” was long reviled by conservatives and has been defunct since the Reagan administration.
What some conservatives want for social media “goes way, way beyond” what was required by the Fairness Doctrine, Szoka said, because it would treat companies like Facebook as government actors, meaning they could not restrict speech in any way.
Szoka added that conservatives are wary of Facebook’s attempts to crack down on fake accounts, hoaxes, fabricated news and disinformation because they often benefit from such tactics.
“This is entirely about narrow political interests and short term political interests,” he said.
“Right now the fake news industry is ginning up the American id for the Republican Party. It is not surprising, therefore, that Republicans have suddenly done a complete 180 degree turn on everything they used to say about the Fairness Doctrine, and how the First Amendment doesn’t apply to private actors, just doesn’t apply to the Internet. Instead, they now want a Fairness Doctrine for the internet on steroids,” he said.
‘Popehat’ blog author weighs into the controversy, against social media terms of service
Some conservatives cite the First Amendment when suggesting that technology and social media companies shouldn’t be able to enforce terms of service against political speech. But those who accuse Facebook and others of censorship “pretend that companies like Facebook don’t have free speech rights, and they do,” said Ken White, a former federal prosecutor and free speech advocate who frequently writes about First Amendment issues on the “Popehat” blog.
“Facebook and Twitter and all these other platforms have a right of free expression and free association, and part of that is them creating the type of platform they want to offer to their customers, which may not include me, but that’s their right,” he said.
White said that while some Republicans are using congressional hearings to push the idea that conservatives are being censored, from all the evidence he’s seen, there is no censorship taking place.
(Photo of Google CEO Sundar Pichai being sworn in for his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on December 11, 2018, taken by Drew Clark.)