Mark Zuckerberg’s Dilemma With Conservatives

Facebook CEO's kowtowing to right-wing critics is another sign the media lack spine.

Mark Zuckerberg's Dilemma With Conservatives

Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg onstage at the 2015 Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit in San Francisco. (Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)

For one of the wealthiest people on the planet, Mark Zuckerberg sure is an easy mark.  I don’t mean financially. I’m sure the guy gets good advice on how and where to store his billions (and billions). I mean ideologically. A couple of anonymous accusations against Facebook about a feature hardly anyone reads and all of a sudden Zuckerberg can’t do enough to try and placate conservative critics. If “working the refs” were this easy on a basketball court, the NBA champs would be whichever team had the fans who whined the loudest.

How the founder of what’s arguably the world’s most successful media empire got so abjectly taken to the woodshed by right-wing pundits Glenn Beck, Jim DeMint, Tucker Carlson, Dana Perino and Brent Bozell, among others, is a story worth examining — if for no other reason because Facebook is threatening to become the media monopoly as desperate legacy news organizations willingly, albeit reluctantly, cede their ad revenues for a share of its eyeballs.

According to one of the former Facebook curators located by Gizmodo, the site that broke the story, the alleged political bias on the social network’s Trending Topics site amounted to a preference among the curators for outlets “like the New York Times, the BBC, and CNN” instead of those “like Breitbart, Washington Examiner, and Newsmax.” Given the respective reputations of those media outlets, in the real world, that would look like simple prudence. But, presumably because a story headlined “Anonymous Source Alleged Intelligent News Judgment in ‘Trending’ Choices” would not have resulted in a fraction of number of page views, Gizmodo bannered its “scoop.”

Conservatives saw an opportunity to do what they do best, which is complain that they are being unfairly treated.

We know how the Facebook chose its “trending” topics thanks to a document leaked to The Guardian shortly after the Gizmodo story appeared. The Guardian, apparently chasing after some of same viral action enjoyed by Gizmodo, played the story in the same breathless vein. “The guidelines are sure to bolster arguments that Facebook has made discriminatory editorial decisions against rightwing media,” it reported. “Conservatives would label the majority of Facebook’s primary sources as liberal.” One wishes to ask, however, since when do we defer to conservatives on whom and what to label “liberal?”

But conservatives saw an opportunity to do what they do best, which is complain that they are being unfairly treated on the basis of some unnamed conspiracy No doubt, it is part of the same one revealed by right-wingers whenever a news organization fails to point out that global warming is a hoax; evolution is a myth; Obama is a socialist/Muslim/Kenyan and that cutting taxes does for the rich not actually mean more money for the poor. Witness the Conservative Whining Network (CWN) in action:

  • “It’s no secret that traditional print and broadcast media have struggled with a reputation for bias …It is vital that new media avoid making old mistakes.” (Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute)
  • “As long as Facebook is hiring editors who lean left politically, those stories are going to get preferential treatment.” (Erick Erickson, former editor in chief of the conservative website RedState)
  • “NOT LEANING IN… LEANING LEFT!” (The Drudge Report)

No doubt the most important ref-worker was Sen. John Thune (R-SD), and more important, chair of Senate commerce committee, a panel whose regulatory power extends over a wide swath of important industries, including Facebook. According to figures compiled by the non-profit Center for Responsive Politics, the lion’s share of Facebook’s political contributions to Senate candidates in the 2014 cycle went to members of that committee. Thune wrote Zuckerberg and demanded to know whether there was “any level of subjectivity associated with” the Trending Topics section, adding “That’s just a matter of transparency and honesty, and there shouldn’t be any attempt to mislead the American public.” Truly the story had now reached a level of comical proportions, to say nothing of painful irony. Could a conservative Republican senator really be demanding to know if a private media organization was injecting “subjectivity” into its presentation of news? In what universe, much less under which part of small-government, conservative ideology, is that any of the government’s business? (And if it were, wouldn’t, say, Fox News be number one on the list of those forced to answer to Big Brother?)

On Facebook, self-ghettoization is the rule.

Sensible observers have noted that while conservatives chose to focus on Facebook’s Trending Topics, the genuine issue regarding the site’s power to define the global imagination is the news feed, which all users curate individually. For the site’s mind-boggling, estimated 1.6 billion users, that is where its true power lies. Here is also where the true partisanship lies. Conservatives want only conservative news — the kind that will predict the inevitable victory of Mitt Romney over Barack Obama based on “real” polls–while liberals and moderates want their versions of the truth as well (though the outlets that supposedly cater to liberals and moderates  are far more interested in hearing from “the other side” than, say, Fox News). On Facebook, self-ghettoization is the rule, rather than the exception.

A peer-reviewed study published last year, and cited by Vox’s Ezra Klein, described an analysis of Facebook’s data scientists of more than 10 million of its highly partisan users in the US during a six-month period. Lo and behold, the news these people received matched their own ideological predilections. We choose our social media news the same way we choose our toothpaste and our shampoo; that’s why to the degree that Facebook wishes to exercise any genuine social responsibility, it would not be a bad idea to have someone who sees the big picture remind people that there’s a whole rest of the world out there.

When it first introduced the “Trending” feature, however, Facebook tried to post strictly to what its computers recommended. Unfortunately, as The New York Times reported, “Left to their own devices, roughly 40 percent of what Facebook’s algorithms dug up would be junk.”

In typical Silicon Valley style, Facebook decided to solve the problem by relying in large measure on an outside contractor to provide a bunch of underpaid workers to oversee the process and “massage the algorithm,” according to one of the curators who later broke the non-disclosure agreement that was part of the condition of employment. All were warned against any attempt to inject personal and/or ideological preferences into the process. The job simply called for elementary news judgment.

Gizmodo’s story should have died with this simple explanation. And had Zuckerberg and his colleagues the self-confidence simply to level with their audience about it, it might have. (They also could have noted, as few people have, that the “Trending” section is pretty damn insignificant. It does not appear when you go to your home page and while, like millions of people, I use Facebook pretty much every day, I had never seen it.) Instead, Zuckerberg repeatedly changed his story about how the section worked and thereby give the story new life.

As Slate reported, at first the company simply announced that it considered bias to be a serious matter and would look into it. Then another statement explained that the curators “were there simply to prevent duplicates and misnomers among the trending topics.” After the Guardian’s report, they expanded that definition, but insisted that “checks and balances” prevented any bias from somehow guiding the list. The leaked documents show “Facebook relies heavily on just 10 news sources to determine whether a trending news story has editorial authority” and named BBC News, CNN, Fox News, The Guardian, NBC News, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Yahoo News or Yahoo.”

Zuckerberg long ago signaled that he could be rolled by conservatives.

Note that the only one of those sources which can sensibly be called liberal is The Guardian, yet that very paper played up the right-wing accusations to a point that stretched their significance. Fox and The Wall Street Journal, however, both are owned by Rupert Murdoch. Each, especially the former, has frequently been demonstrated to purposely mislead people for political purposes. Murdoch is on record saying that he expects his right-wing political views to permeate his news empire and it’s hardly a secret among those who work for him. Here again, Zuckerberg could have ended matters with, well, the truth.

Zuckerberg long ago signaled that he could be rolled by conservatives. In response to previous complaints about his politics, Zuckerberg hired former George W. Bush adviser Joel Kaplan as Facebook’s “vice president of global public policy.” Kaplan contacted a Trump adviser for suggestions on how Zuckerberg could assuage the conservative complaints. Thus emerged the idea of a “Come to Jesus” meeting between Zuckerberg and a Who’s Who of right-wing punditry.

Any one of these attendees could be used as a poster child for the intellectual decline of the American conservative movement.  A few examples will have to stand in for the whole group:

  • “I didn’t think I could hate victims faster than the 9/11 victims… And when I see a 9/11 victim family on television, or whatever, I’m just like, ‘Oh shut up!’ I’m so sick of them because they’re always complaining.” (Glenn Beck)
  • “If someone is openly homosexual, they shouldn’t be teaching in the classroom and he holds the same position on an unmarried woman who’s sleeping with her boyfriend—she shouldn’t be in the classroom.” (Jim DeMint)
  • President Obama “looked like a skinny, ghetto crackhead.” (Brent Bozell)

Believe me, I could go on.

Zuckerberg performed his act of contrition anyway. “I know many conservatives don’t trust that our platform surfaces content without a political bias,” he explained on a Facebook post. “I wanted to hear their concerns personally and have an open conversation about how we can build trust. I want to do everything I can to make sure our teams uphold the integrity of our products.” Tellingly, he noted that nothing in the entire world drives more interaction on its Facebook page than Fox. “It’s not even close,” he added. Probably also worth noting: Beck’s Facebook page has nearly 3.3 million “likes,” rivaling Zuckerberg’s own 3.4 million.

The genius of conservatism is its shameless audacity.

According to Facebook’s vice president for global operations and media partnerships, Justin Osofsky, the company had “identified ways in which we should have improved. Tucker Carlson, however, felt they had been taken advantage of. “Some of the conservatives asked tough questions,” he reported. Others sucked up….” (Carlson, it should be noted, drove Mickey Kaus to quit Carlson’s website, The Daily Caller, after telling the blogger he couldn’t attack Fox News, where Carlson is employed as a pundit. So much for conservatives’ commitment to free expression.) Following the meeting, Zuckerberg announced another set of largely cosmetic changes to the Trending section and promised Thune and his Senate commerce committee, according to Gizmodo, that it “will no longer rely on external news websites or RSS feeds to ‘identify, validate, or assess the importance of trending topics’ according to a statement from the company.”

The genius of American conservatism is its shameless audacity; its willingness to demand more, no matter how much is already conceded. The mainstream media in their coverage by and large embraced the contours of the conservative case. In The New York Times, which at last count so far has run roughly a dozen stories on the controversy (not including wire-service reports), notes in a straight-news story that “Mr. Zuckerberg himself has fostered the perception that Facebook leans liberal with his public comments about supporting citizenship for children of illegal immigrants and marriage equality rights.”

In fact, calling these positions “liberal” is not only a misnomer; it’s a conservative cliché. Corporate America, including for instance, the far-right Wall Street Journal editorial page, has long supported a generous immigration policy, as it allows them to get the workers companies want, especially in the tech industries, and is believed by many to drive down the cost of labor. Meanwhile, marriage equality is the law of the land, endorsed by the conservative US Supreme Court and a majority of Americans, most of whom do not answer to the “liberal” label. And if you try to find any stories where Zuckerberg calls on the wealthy to pay a fairer share of their taxes, or for the government to provide affordable housing or healthcare for the poor, my guess is you will come up empty. But in the eyes of many Times writers, like so many in the mainstream media, to call into question from a liberal point of view the assumptions of allegedly “objective” reporters is to demonstrate nothing but one’s own silly obsessions. In writing about the Facebook controversy on the paper’s front page, technology writer Farhad Manjoo slanders “blowhards” who “rant about the mainstream media,” as if the all criticism is ipso facto idiotic. (Perhaps Manjoo might like to review his newspaper’s coverage of the period leading up to the Iraq War before bitching about “blowhards.”)

The sad fact is that Zuckerberg’s willingness to bend over backwards, kowtowing to conservative criticism, no matter how outrageous or unsupported, is business as usual in the mainstream media. “I think it was a legitimate criticism of CNN that it was a little too liberal,” the network’s president, Jeff Zucker, recently told The Wall Street Journal. “We have added many more middle-of-the-road conservative voices to an already strong stable of liberal voices. And I think that we are a much more balanced network and, as a result, a much more inviting network to a segment of the audience that might not have otherwise been willing to come here.”

When I emailed Zucker’s spokesperson, Allison Gollust, to ask if the network could provide some support for the above, or even identify who Zucker thought was “too liberal” and who were the “more middle-of-the-road conservative voices,” neither she nor Zucker could be bothered to respond, (although she at least confirmed this when I cc’d the head of TimeWarner’s corporate communications on my third try). I wonder if the president of the “All Trump, All the Time,” network knows that when my friend Walter Isaacson took over the network fifteen years ago, he too, went courting conservatives who were threatening to boycott the network if it didn’t move rightward. It did, and it keeps doing so. (Why else would CNN have agreed to Republican demands that they include right-wing talk radio wingnut Hugh Hewitt for all of their debates?) No doubt someday Zucker’s successor will be trying to placate conservative complaints, too.

Earlier this month, New York Times pundit Nicholas Kristof authored a column complaining of alleged “liberal intolerance” on college campuses, which he claimed was responsible for the fact that conservatives are rarely hired at the best schools. No doubt some liberals are intolerant, anti-liberal as that sentiment might be. But if, to be a conservative these days, you have to ignore science, economics, equal rights for women and LGBT individuals — indeed, as Garry Wills has pointed out, the entire Enlightenment — then you are not likely to be qualified for a university post anywhere but schools and think-tanks funded by the likes of the Koch brothers.

Yet the conservative complaint factory continues to yield results because the businesses and journalists it attacks too often lack the self-confidence — one might say cojones — to tell them to take a walk. One might think that all those billions of dollars and a global network unequaled anywhere on earth allow Mark Zuckerbeg to defend himself against these baseless complaints instead of resorting to a stream of ever-changing excuses followed by an abject apology. Conservatives, however, know better.

Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman [email protected] CUNY Distinguished Professor of English and Journalism, Brooklyn College "Liberal Media" Columnist, The Nation, 305 W.98th Street, 2 C-S, New York, New York, 10025, @eric_alterman New book: Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie and Why Trump is Worse