Mr. Zuckerberg’s preposterous defense of Facebook’s failure in the 2016 presidential campaign is a reminder of a structural asymmetry in American politics. It’s true that mainstream news outlets employ many liberals, and that this creates some systemic distortions in coverage (effects of trade policies on lower-income workers and the plight of rural America tend to be underreported, for example). But bias in the digital sphere is structurally different from that in mass media, and a lot more complicated than what programmers believe.
In a largely automated platform like Facebook, what matters most is not the political beliefs of the employees but the structures, algorithms and incentives they set up, as well as what oversight, if any, they employ to guard against deception, misinformation and illegitimate meddling. And the unfortunate truth is that by design, business model and algorithm, Facebook has made it easy for it to be weaponized to spread misinformation and fraudulent content. Sadly, this business model is also lucrative, especially during elections. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, called the 2016 election “a big deal in terms of ad spend” for the company, and it was. No wonder there has been increasing scrutiny of the platform.
However, at the slightest sign that Facebook might be pressured to institute at least some sensible oversight (as has happened recently in the German and French elections, when the platform mass-deleted fake accounts), right-wing groups and politicians can swiftly bring Facebook to its heels with charges of bias, because Facebook responds to such pressure as much of the traditional media do: by caving and hiding behind flimsy “there are two sides to everything” arguments.
This right-wing strategy has been used to pressure Facebook since before the presidential election. It was revealed in April 2016, for example, that Facebook was employing a small team of contractors to vet its “trending topics,” providing quality control such as weeding out blatant fake news. A single source from that team claimed it had censored right-wing content, and a conservative uproar ensued, led by organizations like Breitbart. Mr. Zuckerberg promptly convened an apologetic meeting with right-wing media personalities and other prominent conservatives to assure them the site was not biased against them.
Facebook got rid of those contractors, who were already too few for meaningful quality control. So what did it do to stem the obvious rise in the scale and scope of misinformation, fake news and even foreign state meddling on the site in the months leading up to the election? Clearly not enough — for fear, no doubt, that it would again be accused of bias.
Make no mistake: The flood of misinformation and fake news that went viral on the site was visible even to casual observers. A good chunk of such content featured outrageous claims about Hillary Clinton — that she had murdered F.B.I. agents, for example — as well as unfounded assertions that millions of undocumented immigrants were illegally voting.
Even the conservative pundit and wild-eyed conspiracy theorist Glenn Beck, of all people, has expressed befuddlement at the charge that Facebook censored conservative content. He has correctly pointed out that Facebook had been a boon for right-wing groups, especially of the alt-right and Breitbart variety. There has been no change in this state of affairs since the election. Last week, the best-performing post on Facebook was a Breitbart article that called African-American athletes protesting police misconduct “millionaire ingrates.”
While there are plenty of left-wing conspiracy theories, outright fake news and fraudulent sites are more prevalent on the right, especially the far right. Opportunist fake news producers who were creating such content purely to make money typically gave up trying to monetize left-leaning fake news because it didn’t go viral as easily on Facebook.
After the election, Mr. Zuckerberg characterized the suggestion that such misinformation campaigns played an important role in the election to be a “crazy idea.” This week, Mr. Zuckerberg reconsidered that comment, saying it was too dismissive. But his latest comments are still too dismissive, portraying those of us who are worried about misinformation campaigns and deception online as intolerant censors bothered by “ideas and content.”
A more astute observer of American politics than Mr. Zuckerberg might consider that Mr. Trump’s comments are part of an effort to depict Facebook as anti-conservative, lest outrage about the company’s role in the 2016 election prompt the site to adopt policies that would make a repeat of 2016 more difficult.
For those of us who are tolerant of a wide range of ideas and arguments, but would still like deception and misinformation to not have such an easy foothold in society, Mr. Zuckerberg’s comments do not inspire hope. Indeed, people across the political spectrum should be able to agree that not making it so easy, and so lucrative, for fake news to spread widely is better for all of us, since fake news isn’t necessarily a right-wing phenomenon. But since Facebook has no effective competition, we can look forward only to being lectured on being more tolerant of “ideas” we don’t like, and to smug talk of the false equivalency of “both sides.”