Why did Facebook cave? They find no evidence of bias, but give in to conservatives' demands anyway

There's no validity to conservative accusations of Facebook's bias, but the company's trying to placate them anyway

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published May 24, 2016 7:20PM (EDT)

mark_zuckerberg (Reuters/Stephen Lam)
mark_zuckerberg (Reuters/Stephen Lam)

Earlier this month, Gizmodo committed an act of journalistic malfeasance by running with an anonymously sourced story making accusations that Facebook "routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers from the social network’s influential 'trending' news section". Journalists are supposed to be careful and skeptical, and running an anonymously sourced story that had such strong appeal to the paranoid right should have raised a million red flags.

History has long shown that a right wing "expose" will almost invariably, upon further review, turn out to be a hoax perpetuated by conservative activists. No, ACORN was not helping pimps run illegal prostitution rings. Sorry, Planned Parenthood doesn't have a black market in fetal tissue. Oops, Hillary Clinton didn't do whatever supposedly terrible if opaque thing that conservatives believe she did with Benghazi. Or in Whitewater or Vince Foster's house or to Kathleen Willey's cat. No, Shirley Sherrod did not discriminate against white farmers while working for the Department of Agriculture.

And so on and so forth. The lesson for journalists here is clear: If a "scandal" so clearly pushes right wing buttons, it's critical to slow down, double check your sources, get corroborating evidence, and just generally be very skeptical and super careful before running with it. The odds are high, historically speaking, that you are being hoaxed. Or, at best, subject to a bunch of stupid rumors that have right wingers up in arms but have no real world evidence to back them up.

It's no surprise, then, that after the supposed Facebook scandal blew up in conservative media, led on by the irresponsible Gizmodo piece, more careful analysis showed that this whole thing is a non-story. A New York Times investigation turned up one fired employee who made insinuations but had to admit that there was no intentional bias, and a bunch of evidence that Facebook has a team of people who strive to make sure the Trending Topics column on their website isn't completely dominated by people chattering about Kim Kardashian's ass.

Now Facebook has conducted an internal investigation and found — hope you're sitting down to handle the shock — that this latest "scandal" burning up the conservative blogs has no real merit. You know, like the roughly 8 billion scandals that Drudge and Breitbart breathlessly promoted before it.

"Our investigation has revealed no evidence of systematic political bias in the selection or prominence of stories included in the Trending Topics feature," Colin Stretch, the lawyer for Facebook wrote in a public statement about the investigation. "Our data analysis indicated that conservative and liberal topics are approved as trending topics at virtually identical rates."

Well, at least it turned out to be true that Bill Clinton got a blow job two decades ago. The right will always have that.

We'll probably never know who exactly lured Gizmodo into running with a story that smells an awful lot like yet another right wing non-scandal (or worse, a hoax), since the sources are anonymous, but because they gave this whole nothingburger of a story the imprint of mainstream respectability, Facebook finds itself scrambling anyway.

Facebook's public statement on this is framed as a letter to Sen. John Thune, who has been doing a lot of public posturing about his "concern" about Facebook's Trending Topics column. The company also took meetings with conservative leaders, who enjoyed posturing about their supposed "concern" about a private company daring to use a little human judgment to keep their front page from turning into a cesspool.

Now that the investigation is over, Facebook is still bending over backwards to appease the bad faith "concerns" of conservatives. The biggest concession is that Facebook will no longer be using "lists of external websites and news outlets to identify, validate or assess the importance of particular topics".

This is a terrible decision on Facebook's part. The list in question, composed of mainstream publications run by professional journalists, functioned as a necessary level of quality control over what  got into Trending Topics. Without that level of quality control, there's good reason to be concerned that it will be easier for right wing hoaxes and conspiracy theories to crack into Trending Topics. After all, these stories often create a lot of chatter on social media, even if they have no merit whatsoever to them. With fewer checks from professional journalists to determine if a story has any validity as a news story, there's a real danger that outright lies and nonsense will start trending just because Matt Drudge is making a big deal out of it.

Which was probably the point, for conservatives, of generating this non-scandal in the first place: To pressure Facebook to remove safeguards, so that conservative lies and conspiracy theories can spread widely and quickly before real journalists have a chance to debunk them.

Conservatives have been playing this game for a long time. They accuse mainstream media sources of having "liberal bias". Those media sources, eager to seem objective, end up bending over backwards to placate conservatives. Ironically, this ends up injecting conservative bias into the process as journalists, afraid of seeming too "liberal", hold conservative accusations and claims to a lower standard of scrutiny than liberal accusations and claims. Next thing you know, you're reading stories in mainstream papers where conservative lies are presented right alongside actual facts, with the writer deathly afraid to give truth more weight than lies, for fear of being called "biased".

Now it appears the right is running the same scam on news aggregators, starting with Facebook's Trending Topics. The game here is to shame aggregators out of employing common sense and professional judgment to determine the difference between facts and bullshit.

To make this all that much worse, giving into the unreasonable demands from the right won't even calm conservatives down. The notion that Facebook "discriminates" against conservatives is far too juicy an idea for right wingers not to believe, and they aren't going to give it up just because Facebook goes out of their way to erase even the possibility that any such discrimination is going on.

Look what happened with Planned Parenthood. After months of false allegations that they were "selling baby parts", the organization stopped taking reimbursements for their costs in storing and transporting  donated tissue. (The reimbursements were just for costs, and Planned Parenthood didn't profit off any of it.) But even though they are now running their tissue donation program at a loss, that didn't slow down the false accusations one tiny bit.

That's because conservatives never really cared about the truth of the accusations in the first place. Trying to placate sleazy liars in hopes they will stop lying about you is a really bad idea. If anything, offering concessions in the face of right wing misinformation campaigns has the opposite effect. It teaches the right that if they lie about people, they get their way. Which just encourages them to do it more.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Facebook Bias Facebook Conservatives Facebook News Facebook Trending Topic John Thune Mark Zuckerberg