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New study: Social media’s alleged anti-conservative bias is ‘disinformation’

Republicans charge that social networks intentionally suppress their point of view. An NYU researcher says that the allegation doesn’t hold up.

New study: Social media’s alleged anti-conservative bias is ‘disinformation’
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Many Republicans routinely complain that the big social networks systematically suppress right-wing viewpoints, but they’ve produced little real evidence of it. A new study from New York University finds that there is no evidence of it, and in fact finds the opposite—that social media has spread right-wing viewpoints to wider audiences than ever before.

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“[T]he claim of anti-conservative animus is itself a form of disinformation: a falsehood with no reliable evidence to support it,” the report states. “No trustworthy large-scale studies have determined that conservative content is being removed for ideological reasons or that searches are being manipulated to favor liberal interests.”

And yet this little big lie has been alarmingly effective. A Pew Research Center poll from August 2020 found that 90% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believe it’s at least somewhat likely that social media companies intentionally censor political viewpoints they find objectionable.

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The NYU study, conducted by disinformation and content moderation researcher Paul Barrett, relies on tools such as CrowdTangle and NewsWhip to track the spread and reach of right-wing content. Barrett, who is deputy director of NYU’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, also assembled a chronology of all the claims and anecdotes posited by right-wingers such as Senators Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and Marsha Blackburn as proof that social media suppresses “conservative viewpoints.”

The social media companies have a mercenary outlook.”

Paul Barrett, NYU
“Those claims tend to crumble under scrutiny,” Barrett tells me. “That’s not to say that every single [content] takedown has been correct. The social networks have reversed their own decisions. But when you look at the whole picture all together it is difficult for a fair-minded person to say that they are going after conservatives.”

Quite the contrary, actually. Barrett found evidence that the content-serving algorithms used by the leading social media platforms have amplified right-wing voices to reach audiences of unprecedented size. That may be a nice way of saying that the social networks have taken advantage of fringy, factually questionable right-wing content to entice users to share more content and spend more time on their sites.

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“The social media companies have a mercenary outlook,” Barrett says. “They want to increase user engagement, and they’ll use whatever kind of content users are engaging with. If that’s with a sensitive piece of political content, or if it’s something cultural like kittens and puppies, it’s all good.”

If you’ve spent any time tracking the most viral news-link posts on Facebook, as New York Times columnist Kevin Roose has, you’ll see that it’s usually not kittens and puppies. It’s highly partisan political posts from Fox News, Breitbart, and Ben Shapiro’s The Daily Wire.

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Right-wing politicians routinely use their social media persecution tale to lead up to calls for the removal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides legal protections for the tech companies that operate social networks. Section 230 shields tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter from being sued either for harmful user content posted at their sites, or for decisions they’ve made to remove harmful content. Actually, even Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat, who cowrote Section 230 back in the 1990s, says that Facebook and others may have used the law’s legal shield as a substitute for rigorous content moderation. But a full repeal of Section 230 would likely be more punitive than corrective.

Instead, Barrett says Section 230 should be updated to condition the legal protections on the tech platforms’ adherence to tighter content moderation standards. He says that a new agency should be created to enforce such policies in digital spaces, or Congress should give expanded authority and resources to the Federal Trade Commission or Federal Communications Commission to oversee social media companies.

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Barrett’s report also suggests that the tech platforms provide more transparency on their content moderation decisions, allow users to select the degree of content moderation of their social feeds, and hire more human content moderators.

For social media regulation to succeed, it may be best that the prominent Republicans who have been lobbing accusations of bias get out of the way.

“What is needed is a robust reform agenda that addresses the very real problems of social media content regulation as it currently exists,” Barrett says. “Only by moving forward from these false claims can we begin to pursue that agenda in earnest.”

About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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