Technology companies have become a favorite target of the political right thanks to a confluence of factors. One is that the companies are seen as hopelessly liberal, a perception aided by the politics of their executives, by their embracing issues that are anathema to the right and by bad-faith attacks from right-wing activists. Another is that the way in which they work is hazy enough to a sufficiently large group of Americans that their roles can be exaggerated or misrepresented in ways that give them credit for influence that is often undeserved. “Big Tech” has entered the pantheon of phrases loaded with partisan meaning that is often only tangentially related to their actual actions.
The main reason tech companies such as Facebook have been targeted by the right, though, is that the companies faced new pressure after the 2016 presidential election to crack down on hateful or dishonest posts. Prior to the election, there was a flood of online activism and an effort to capitalize on the intensity of the contest. That led to a hard-to-quantify increase in the visibility of extremism. It also led to international entrepreneurial efforts to generate ad revenue by using false or misleading claims to draw traffic and attention.
In response, Facebook, Twitter and other companies faced calls to uproot false information and stamp out abuse. They implemented changes. But those changes often meant booting users whose abusive or dishonest behavior was linked to their politics — allowing them to present their punishments as being about what they believed and not how they acted.
It was understood within the company that this process bore risks that overlapped with politics. In a meeting shortly after the election, one Facebook official — a veteran of the George W. Bush administration — worried that removing purveyors of false information would “disproportionately affect conservatives.” Facebook had already seen this effect at work when, before the election, it revamped its news feed to remove false information, and right-wing sources took a bigger hit.
We should be understandably wary of any assertions that right-wing voices on social media are necessarily more aggressive or negative than left-wing ones. But it is clearly the case that the political right in the United States has made the idea of aggravating its political opponents far more central to its activism. There are no “Cry more, con” T-shirts, and the Democratic president has not used his social media presence largely as a way to score points by goading his opponents.
Again, this is the central argument Trump and his allies use against Facebook and other companies at the moment. For example:
That weirdly phrased response from Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) actually stumbles close to an important bit of context for these attacks. Facebook doesn’t have a monopoly on conservative speech, but it is absolutely a central conduit for right-wing rhetoric and arguments.
The New York Times’s Kevin Roose made a Twitter tool that regularly shares the Facebook content that gets the most interactions. Since last July, the tool has captured the top 10 posts with the most engagement on 218 days. Of those 2,180 posts (10 from each of those days), more than half came from overtly right-wing sources such as commentators Ben Shapiro or Dan Bongino.
Before Joe Biden’s inauguration, 51 percent of the top-10 posts on any given day were from those sources. After his inauguration, that percentage crept up to 53 percent.
I picked out Shapiro and Bongino as examples because they alone make up a third of the 2,180 top-10 posts. Fox News adds another 12 percent to the total.
There is a difference between dominating popular posts and dominating the conversation on a site, of course. But Facebook keeps popping up as a central part of the right’s effort to build power.
A few months before the 2020 election, a Facebook executive named Andrew Bosworth gave his company credit for Trump’s 2016 victory in a private post that was eventually leaked.
“So was Facebook responsible for Donald Trump getting elected?” he wrote. “I think the answer is yes, but not for the reasons anyone thinks. … He got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period.”
I spoke with Bosworth in 2018 about how the Trump campaign effectively used Facebook advertising. Others with whom I spoke for that report raised the point I made earlier: Trump’s content was built to leverage how social media platforms reward outrage and energy in a way that the content of his then-opponent, Hillary Clinton, wasn’t. So it worked better. Trump’s 2016 digital director indirectly credited Facebook with his campaign’s success.
In an article for Vice, Brian Feldman pointed out that baseless conspiracy claims about prominent Democrats and skewed outrage at their actions predate social media companies. Facebook facilitated these patterns; it didn’t create them. It was just really, really good at facilitating them. A study from Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center produced in 2017 found that “disproportionate popularity on Facebook is a strong indicator of highly partisan and unreliable media.” In other words, if something was more popular on Facebook than elsewhere, that generally meant it was of dubious accuracy, more partisan or both.
This is what Facebook has been trying to clean up. But the company is limited by the fact that it’s hard to extricate toxic and nontoxic engagement and that highly engaging content is valuable to the site, diminishing any motivation to restrict it.
Part of the goal of the right-wing pressure on Facebook is to give the company more reasons to hesitate before cracking down. As it tried to revamp after the 2016 election, this led to a particularly uneven application of its rules, according to a Wall Street Journal report last year.
“In late 2017, when Facebook tweaked its newsfeed algorithm to minimize the presence of political news, policy executives were concerned about the outsize impact of the changes on the right, including the Daily Wire, people familiar with the matter said,” the Journal reported. “Engineers redesigned their intended changes so that left-leaning sites like Mother Jones were affected more than previously planned, the people said.”
The Daily Wire, a site run by Shapiro, was later found to have been violating Facebook’s rules on coordinated content-sharing.
All of this big-picture wrangling obscures the ways in which Facebook fulfills its microcosmic value proposition: bringing like-minded individuals together. That includes individuals who planned to attack the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, many of whom communicated in private Facebook groups before that day — a dangerous discussion that Facebook later determined it could have helped prevent.
In essence, the right has deployed its culture-war-fight tactics — cast opponents as liberals, depict themselves as under attack — against the very system that makes those tactics so potent. Thanks in part to Facebook’s skittishness, no part of that calculus is likely to change.
As I was writing this article, Roose’s daily update on the most effective Facebook posts was published. Seven of the 10 are from right-leaning pundits or politicians.
Half were from Bongino and Shapiro.
A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Brad Parscale as Trump's 2016 campaign manager. He was digital director. The article has been corrected.