Is Silicon Valley Silencing Conservatives on Social Media?

Illustration by Max-o-matic

Conservatives have long been certain that Silicon Valley despised them, that its cadres of Stanford-trained engineers regarded the right with derision and disgust. In the spring of 2016, they found something that seemed to be proof of that suspicion. Six months before the presidential election, technology news website Gizmodo published a scoop: News curators at Facebook, one former such curator alleged, suppressed stories from right-leaning outlets, in what amounted to a "chilling effect" on conservative media.

In response to the outcry, Facebook dumped its human editors, who had the power to either extend or curtail the reach of any news item. Within days, the network was overwhelmed by a surge of fake news, precisely the kind that human editors were supposed to filter out. An algorithm might have a difficult time figuring out whether Hillary Clinton had once worked to free Black Panthers charged with murder. But a human editor would have needed perhaps 30 seconds to confirm that she had not—and that allowing the story to trend would be a public disservice.

This was a critical change. Facebook is the world's most popular social media platform, one that serves as a news outlet for 45 percent of American adults, according to the Pew Research Center. Now, just 74 days before the presidential election, Facebook had radically reconfigured what its audience would read.

While the true impact of fake news on the election remains in dispute, millions of Americans undoubtedly saw fake news on Facebook, like the following viral article from a sham outlet calling itself Denver Guardian: "FBI AGENT SUSPECTED IN HILLARY EMAIL LEAKS FOUND DEAD IN APPARENT MURDER-SUICIDE."

More than a year later, the Facebook affair remains a key moment in the politicization of social media. To liberals, it signaled Silicon Valley's excessive deference, not only to conservatives but to extreme right-wing personalities and their views. By declaring themselves impartial platforms, many on the left say, social media companies have forsaken their responsibility to the public. "It's now clear that democracy suffers if our news environment incentivizes bullshit," a former Facebook employee wrote (on Facebook) on Election Day 2016.

Though conservatives seemingly won the Facebook battle—and Donald Trump's tweets now demand a journalistic beat of their own—the right remains convinced that the tech companies we now rely on for news are fundamentally hostile to its convictions. If Facebook was guilty of bias in 2016, the thinking goes, so are denizens of every significant tech campus in Sunnyvale and Cupertino.

The case against Silicon Valley has been building since the election. Alleged culprits include Twitter, which the anti-abortion group Live Action criticized last summer for blocking pro-life advertisements as "sensitive content" (Twitter denied targeting Live Action); Airbnb, which several weeks later canceled accounts associated with the "Unite the Right" white nationalist rally last August in Charlottesville, Virginia; and Google, which one study said "downranks" conservative websites, a practice Google vigorously denied.

Alex Jones, Texan Talk show host of Infowars James Cheadle/Alamy

The prevailing mood of victimhood has led some conservatives to conclude they need to create their own Silicon Valley, one where MAGA T-shirts won't elicit terrified mockery. "The world needs social media platforms that are genuinely free. Or even that tilt in a conservative, pro-Christian direction," urged conservative writer John Zmirak after Live Action went public with its complaints about Twitter. "Think of the difference that Fox News made to U.S. politics. We need something comparable as a social media platform, before we find ourselves muzzled outright."

Others on the right are increasingly acceding to that view. That much was clear at February's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Hours after the keynote address by Trump, a small but attentive audience gathered for a panel titled "Suppression of Conservative Views on Social Media: A First Amendment Issue." A young man passed out baseball hats adorned with the logo of Twitter, only the blue bird was upside down, an "x" where its eye should have been.

The audience was a mix of reporters from the mainstream media and fringe personalities who, through the use of social media, have become celebrities in a right-wing media ecosystem that prizes loyalty to Trump and the trolling of liberals as prime journalistic virtues. Their newfound fame has, in turn, allowed them to criticize the same platforms that made them famous...for bias. There was Jack Posobiec, a self-styled investigator who used Twitter and Periscope, the video-streaming service, to promulgate the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which accused the Clinton campaign of running a child sex-trafficking operation out of a Washington, D.C., restaurant. There was Lucian Wintrich, an improbable, dapper White House correspondent for conspiratorial pro-Trump outlet Gateway Pundit, recently criticized for inventing rumors about survivors of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting. And there was Cassandra Fairbanks, the heavily tattooed pro-Trump journalist formerly employed by Russian propaganda site Sputnik.

The talk that followed—some lamentation, some j'accuse, many grim warnings, not much humor—was a succession of testimonies against Silicon Valley, along with some acknowledgement that quitting its world-changing products is almost impossible. It seemed perfectly timed, coinciding with several new developments that made the topic angry and urgent, a scab demanding to be picked.

Just days before CPAC began, Twitter undertook what Gizmodo called "a mass purge of suspected Russian bot accounts." The move was taken to curb the proliferation of these accounts, which are believed to have influenced the 2016 presidential election by spreading misinformation. But the right, once rife with cold warriors, complained about the move (on Twitter), since the #TwitterLockout appeared to mostly affect the accounts of conservatives. Those who lost followers included white nationalist Richard Spencer and gun activist Dan Bongino.

Around the same time, YouTube, which is owned by Google, moved to shutter popular channels as part of its enforcement effort against fake news and "harmful or dangerous" content, including those affiliated with Infowars, the pro-Trump conspiracy site run by Alex Jones. YouTube has apologized for what it called "mistaken removals" and restored the channels. This passed for a tacit concession of the difficult position in which conservatives have put Big Tech by treating every attempt to monitor digital activity as an attempt to silence the right.

A profound sense of injury accordingly informed the CPAC panel, a feeling that Silicon Valley has become as hostile to conservatives as the studios of Hollywood and the newsrooms of Manhattan are. "They are targeting people for ideological reasons," said lead speaker James O'Keefe. He's made a career of this suspicion, which he has applied to any institution with even a whiff of liberalism about its halls.

Richard Salgado, director of law enforcement and information security with Google Inc., from right, Sean Edgett, acting general counsel with Twitter Inc., and Colin Stretch, general counsel with Facebook Inc., listen during a Senate Judiciary Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017 Congress is putting Facebook, Twitter and Google under a public microscope about Russia's use of their networks to meddle in the 2016 election, a day after Special Counsel Robert Mueller's criminal investigation disclosed its first indictments and guilty plea. Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty

During his talk, O'Keefe presented a covertly recorded video (his modus operandi) of a Twitter holiday party. There, his investigators found one woman who works on the "trust & safety" team. "We're trying not to get the shitty people to show up" on Twitter, she says, referencing pro-Trump journalist and conservative activist Mike Cernovich, who during the presidential election spread misinformation about Clinton's health. (Cernovich also dabbled in Pizzagate, though he has recently moved closer to the political and journalistic mainstream.) The quip about "shitty people" may have been jarring, but it could not have been especially surprising, since Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey often laments how toxic discourse on the platform has become.

David Carroll, a media analyst at the Parsons School of Design in New York City, says concerns about liberal bias in Silicon Valley are vastly exaggerated. "Tech platform algorithms seem designed for equal opportunity attention and engagement: If it plays it pays," he says. While advertisers may be concerned about the content of a particular political site out of "brand safety issues," he adds, this is only "the free market and freedom of speech at work."

Concrete evidence of bias may not exist, but that doesn't stop many on the right from imagining an Oberlin graduate lounging in a beanbag, gazing out over the hills of Palo Alto as she happily relegates Breitbart News articles to oblivion. "Conservatives worry that more human moderation will lead to censoring of content," says Joan Donovan, a media manipulation researcher at Data & Society, a digital culture think tank partly funded by Microsoft. "But right now, there is no evidence or auditing process to know who, what or how platform companies are moderating in relation to partisan content."

Skeptical conservatives point to the case of Google's James Damore as proof of an institutionalized intolerance of the right. Google, of course, is a corporation and does not need to answer to anyone but its shareholders. Executives there saw fit to dismiss Damore last summer for his infamous memo, which declared—among other widely disputed assertions—that women were psychologically ill-equipped for certain leadership positions. "To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK," wrote Google CEO Sundar Pichai at the time.

This reaction bothered Terry Schilling, head of the conservative American Principles Project and moderator of the CPAC social media panel. "The left is contradicting themselves," he said in a subsequent conversation. He brought up the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case, now before the Supreme Court, in which a gay Colorado couple sued a baker who claimed his Christian convictions prevented him from making them a custom wedding cake. Masterpiece is often cited by liberals as an example of religious intolerance; Schilling argues that Google and its peers show exactly the same intolerance toward conservatives like Damore.

Schilling also suggested the tech company had borrowed some social behaviors from college campuses, where safe spaces and trigger warnings abound, and where Trumpism is as welcome as a mandatory math course. Damore made that connection even more explicitly during his CPAC talk. "Most tech workers are young, straight out of college," he claimed. "They've lived in liberal bubbles their entire life." And, he maintained, "this bubble is reinforced when they just move to San Francisco." He said Google executives "cried onstage" after Trump's election.

Part of the problem is that nobody really knows how much to regulate tech, or who should do the regulating. Conservatives have traditionally espoused a laissez-faire approach to business, promising to cut taxes and regulations, and railing against what they call onerous workplace protections for protected groups like women and people of color. But in their approach to Silicon Valley, government was suddenly the solution, not the problem. After he was fired, Damore lodged a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, founded during the New Deal and frequently derided by the right as a group of activist bureaucrats. Despite being run by Trump appointees, the board upheld Google's decision to fire Damore.

Jack Posobiec Chris Buck/AUGUST

At the same time, Silicon Valley may be just as ideologically opposed to the right as those other bastions of coastal elitism, Manhattan and Hollywood. Harmeet Dhillon, a prominent Republican operative in San Francisco who is representing Damore, laid out the case. According to records she has obtained in the course of suing Google, there are 74,000 employees at Alphabet, the parent company of Google. Of these, 39 contributed to the Trump campaign. Google employees gave Hillary Clinton's campaign a total of $1,559,861 while lavishing $40,813 on fringe Green Party candidate Jill Stein. That's nearly double what they gave to the man who would eventually become president: $24,423. "You're more likely to die by being shot than to be a Google employee that's contributed to Republican Party candidates," Dhillon said. While the statistics aren't incontrovertible proof of anti-right bias (many Republicans didn't support Trump either), they certainly don't bolster the case that Silicon Valley is a nonpartisan technocracy.

Yet she could not definitively prove that a bias among tech employees has translated into a bias within Silicon Valley's offerings. While conservatives complain about censorship, they have generally failed to acknowledge that right-wing sites are far more likely to promulgate fake news than liberal ones, as the Oxford Internet Institute, part of the British university, has found. That's because, as the Parsons school's Carroll explains, aside from established outlets like The Wall Street Journal, National Review and Fox News, the right-wing media landscape is a chaotic jumble of YouTube channels, Twitter feeds, Reddit posts and blogs. While celebrating the supposed demise of what former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin used to call "the lamestream media," some on the right seem to have forgotten that journalistic standards and practices—original reporting, fact-checking, the firewall between news and opinion—were largely forged in traditional newsrooms.

Any supposed "censorship" could be little more than an acknowledgement that the digital landscape is not lawless and that standards apply to both individual users and media organizations. Carroll believes that enforcing a measure of decency does not amount to anything grander or darker. "People are getting booted from platforms, being ostracized into out-groups, because of their abhorrent conduct rather than any systemic anti-conservative bias," he argues. Trump adviser Roger Stone, for example, was not expelled from Twitter for his conservative views but, rather, for making threatening and insulting comments about CNN anchor Don Lemon.

Conservatives, however, still see an ideological war. As CPAC was coming to an end, Cernovich hosted a party in Washington. Apparently relishing the possibility of confrontation, leftist activists protested the event. Cernovich posted video of the protesters—who he says were affiliated with the loosely organized leftist brigades known collectively as antifa, for "anti-fascist"—but YouTube removed the post, citing community guidelines regarding "hate speech."

"YouTube is censoring honest, unedited reporting about ANTIFA's actions," he wrote on Twitter, where no apparent attempts were made to silence him. "This can mean only one thing—they endorse far-left-wing violence." YouTube apologized and restored the video of the protest. But by then it was too late. The video Cernovich made of himself reading the email from YouTube—which he, of course, posted on YouTube—has been viewed more than 100,000 times.