Conservatives have said Facebook operates with a deep anti-conservative bias and Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill did not waste the opportunity this week to grill CEO Mark Zuckerberg on the subject during congressional hearings intended to focus on the company’s sharing of user data.
One accusation of conservative censorship, in particular, came up repeatedly during the hearings.
Last week, Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richard, two African-American sisters who have gained 1.4 million followers for their outspoken support for President Trump as the social media personalities “Diamond and Silk,” accused Facebook (in a Facebook post) of “bias, censorship and discrimination.”
Hardaway (Diamond) and Rochelle Richardson (Silk) said they reached out to Facebook in September about a decline in the size of the audience reached with their posts. After months of demanding an answer, they said they were informed by Facebook Thursday that, “The Policy Team came to the conclusion that your content and your brand has been determined unsafe to the community.”
When Zuckerberg appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Wednesday in his second day of congressional hearings, several lawmakers asked him about Diamond and Silk and the perception that Facebook works to silence right-wing voices.
Diamond and Silk are comedians-stop censoring them!
— Roseanne Barr (@therealroseanne) April 11, 2018
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, read a question from a constituent about Facebook deeming Diamond and Silk “unsafe.” Zuckerberg said that in this case the team “made an enforcement error” and that the company had reached out to the women to fix the problem.
Diamond and Silk said on Twitter that no one from Facebook had contacted them.
Just so you know; We have not communicated nor have we talk to Mark Zuckerberg or any @facebook Representative. Our last communication with FB was on Thursday, April 5, 2018, at 3:40pm when they emailed us and said:
"We Were Unsafe to the Community" pic.twitter.com/hA2GRtqHAS
— Diamond and Silk® (@DiamondandSilk) April 12, 2018
Later in the hearing, Rep. Billy Long, R-Mo., presented a poster-sized photo of Diamond and Silk and asked Zuckerberg if he recognized the women.“I do,” he said. “Is that Diamond and Silk?”
Long then asked a question the sisters said they wanted to ask the Facebook CEO: “What is unsafe about two black women supporting Donald J. Trump?”
“Nothing is unsafe about that,” Zuckerberg replied.
“Let me tell you something, Diamond and Silk is not terrorism,” Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., told Zuckerberg after he said there were types of content “like terrorism” that Facebook doesn’t want on its platform.
— Marsha Blackburn (@MarshaBlackburn) April 11, 2018
Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., who said he represents Diamond and Silk’s district, asked Zuckerberg what standard the company uses to decide between hate speech and speech it might disagree with.
Zuckerberg confessed that the company constantly struggles to determine when someone crosses the line and he said Facebook gets criticism from both conservatives and liberals for its decisions on the subject.
Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., asked Zuckerberg about a report that found that a new algorithm Facebook uses to determine what appears in users’ newsfeeds had a “tremendous bias against conservative news and content, and a favorable bias toward liberal content.”
“There is absolutely no directive in any of the changes that we make to have a bias in anything that we do,” Zuckerberg responded. “To the contrary, our goal is to be a platform for all ideas.”
I had some important questions for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg today. They need to ensure their platform does not discriminate against conservative views. pic.twitter.com/SyYu0ejhUQ
— Rep. Steve Scalise (@SteveScalise) April 11, 2018
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, led the charge in accusing Facebook of political bias on Tuesday, during Zuckerberg first day of congressional testimony. Cruz said there are a “great many Americans who I think are deeply concerned that Facebook and other tech companies are engaged in a pervasive pattern of bias and political censorship.”
Cruz inaccurately accused Facebook of “blocking” Diamond and Silk’s page and alleged other incidents in which he said the company blocked conservative pages. He also cited a 2016 Gizmodo report about a former Facebook worker who said the company prevented conservative topics from appearing in the list of trending news topics (a Facebook executive said the company “found no evidence that the anonymous allegations” were true).
The Texas conservative also alleged Facebook had not acted to censor liberal groups the way it had conservative ones.
Zuckerberg said he understood the concern about bias because the tech industry’s home in California’s Silicon Valley, “which is an extremely left-leaning place.” The Facebook CEO said he has worked hard to root out any such bias in the platform.
Zuckerberg’s insistence that Facebook strives for political neutrality is not any more likely to convince conservatives that the company is not suppressing their speech than the denial of the 2016 Gizmodo report. The idea has taken root on right-wing websites like Breitbart and seems to be gaining steam.
The line between what is offensive and unpopular is highly subjective and in an America as divided as this, people will inevitably disagree over Facebook’s decisions on when to block accounts.
The difficulty in separating political speech from hate speech is highlighted by a Fox News Tech post under the headline “10 times Facebook censored conservatives” that was published in the wake of the Gizmodo article. Among the incidents listed, Fox included the company’s decision to block Christopher Cantwell for 30 days for expressing his opinion about the attacks in Cologne, Germany, and the right to bear arms.
Although the Fox article identified Cantwell as just another conservative, he is a white supremacist who would later be at the center of a Vice News report on the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. Cantwell said the killing of a counterprotester was justified because they were a “bunch of stupid animals” who failed to get out of the way of the car that plowed into the crowd.