By Adam Gabbatt
When Donald Trump’s ban from Facebook was upheld this week, the howls of bias could be heard from Republicans far and wide. Those shrieks, ironically, came mostly on social media.
Republicans have spent recent years criticizing Facebook and Twitter, demonizing them as biased against the right. But they, not Democrats, have been the most enthusiastic embracers of social media, and the most successful in harnessing its potential.
Between 1 January and 15 December last year, right-leaning Facebook pages accounted for 45% of all interactions on Facebook, according to a study by Media Matters for America, a progressive non-profit which monitors US media.
Rightwing pages earned nearly 9bn likes or comments, MMFA found, compared to 5bn interactions on left-leaning pages. Conservative pages account for six of the top 10 Facebook pages that post about US political news.
The years-long dominance on Facebook has translated to notable successes – most memorably in 2016, when Donald Trump’s win was propelled by his social media reach. “Facebook and Twitter were the reason we won this thing,” Brad Parscale, the digital director of the 2016 Trump campaign, said in the aftermath of the election.
“Twitter for Mr Trump. And Facebook for fundraising.”
Those successes appeared to have been forgotten in the last week, when prominent Republicans, including Texas senator Ted Cruz and House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, condemned Facebook in particular. The platform angered the right with its decision to uphold Trump’s post-insurrection suspension, even though a long-term decision has been punted down the road.
“If the big tech oligarchs can muzzle the former president, what’s to stop them from silencing you?” Cruz said.
“If they can ban President Trump, all conservative voices could be next. A House Republican majority will rein in big tech power over our speech,” was McCarthy’s take.
Cruz and other Republicans have been accusing Facebook of bias for years – even as the platform was propelling Trump to victory, while being criticized on the left for being slow to remove rightwing lies or conspiracy theories.
“Because Republicans have such a disproportionate amount of influence on these platforms and engagement, the real effect is that by constantly crying bias, it works the refs in such that they don’t enforce the rules against them in a consistent way,” Angelo Carusone, the president of MMFA, said.
“Or they’re less likely to take action against cheaters and bad actors, because they don’t want to deal with the blowback of what happens when I take off one of these accounts.”
Carusone pointed to how Facebook dealt with groups promoting QAnon, a conspiracy movement that alleges a group of global elites are involved in paedophilia, human trafficking and the harvesting of a supposedly life-extending chemical from the blood of abused children. It took until October last year for the network to finally ban groups, pages or Instagram pages which “represent” QAnon, despite the theory having been promulgated for years.
Joe Romm, author of How To Go Viral and Reach Millions and editor-in-chief of Front Page Live, a news site “dedicated to elevating fact-based stories” said that for Republicans, claiming that they are oppressed by media is a consistent narrative.
“It’s part of the overall strategy of playing the victim,” Romm said. “Donald Trump showed that it’s part of the overall strategy of: accuse your opponents of doing what you’re doing before they can accuse you.
“And so it just makes it so much harder, because if you accuse them first, then when progressives then accurately say: ‘Oh, we’re being disadvantaged on social media,’ no one is going to believe it, because they bought into this big lie that the conservatives are being punished on social media.”
As Republicans have cried foul, several rightwing politicians have even written books about such perceived bias – the most recent by Missouri senator Josh Hawley, a millionaire Yale law school graduate turned earthy, blue collar, man of the people.
Hawley wrote The Tyranny of Big Tech after claiming he had been censored and canceled by social media. The hypocrisy of the book’s claim that big tech is suppressing conservative thought was exposed by Hawley himself this week, however, when he used Twitter, one of the companies he rails against, to giddily proclaim that his book had been “a bestseller all week” on Amazon – another company he opposes.
The claims of conservative bias are only like to continue as the 2022 midterms approach, but experts sayany bias is actually against the other side.
“I would say that, in fact, big tech right now is biased against liberals – the thumb is on the scale for those who put out the rightwing lies,” Romm said.
“The thing that the social media apps want to do is keep you on their site. That’s what they care about. They don’t care about the truth, they care about keeping you on their site.
“So the way things are set up, if you can stir up anger, and get people to comment, and engage and send out shares and say: ‘This is outrageous’, then you’ve got a big advantage in the algorithm. So what the social media sites have done is create a system that favors the most outrageous statements.”
Ironically, some of those most outrageous statements are set to come against the leaders of the Republican party railing against the social media giants.
“I think the right will leverage this moment to make big tech the new Hillary,” Carusone said. “And that’s going to be a galvanizing force for them leading into 2022 and then again in 2024.”