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The real bias on social networks isn’t against conservatives

It’s toward polarization

Senate Judiciary Committee Questions Twitter And Facebook On Technological Censorship
Sen.Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday in Washington, DC.
Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images

Today Senate Republicans held a hearing titled “Stifling Free Speech: Technological Censorship and the Public Discourse.” It was the second such hearing to be held in Congress in the past six months — in September, House Republicans put on a similar show, lambasting Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.

Makena Kelly took one for the team and watched it:

Representatives from Facebook and Twitter sparred with Republican lawmakers for hours at the Senate hearing where Cruz, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s panel on the Constitution, pressured industry representatives over deep concerns he and his colleagues have that social media platforms actively censor conservative political speech. But all of the evidence Republicans provided were anecdotal stories that representatives from the companies were able to clearly explain away by citing their respective content policies or investigations into specific takedowns. [...]

The entire premise of the hearing, conservative bias, was rebuked by the subcommittee’s ranking member Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), who was one of only two Democrats who took their seat at the dais throughout the hearing. “We cannot simply allow the Republican Party to harass tech companies into weakening content moderation policies that already fail to remove hateful, dangerous, and misleading content,” Hirono said. “If conservatives have had their content removed, maybe they should look at the content they’re posting.”

”Maybe look at the content you’re posting” is a good burn indeed from the senator. It underscores the most galling thing about these hearings, which is the way they take as a given the conspiracy theory that platforms are attempting to undermine them without.

To the extent that these hearings have any basis in actual events, as Hirono notes, they tend to involve isolated cases in which some conservative-leaning person or organization is temporarily suspended from a service, or does not appear in search results, or is not being promoted sufficiently by a site’s recommendation features. And while unintentional bias often is baked into algorithms, as this recent study of Facebook’s ad products suggests, no research has ever suggested that Republicans have been disadvantaged on social media platforms.

In fact, as I often like to point out, Fox News typically gets more engagement on Facebook than any other publisher. Still, that’s just one data point. How do partisan pages fare across the social network?

A study today published by Media Matters for America attempts to answer that question. Over 37 weeks, the authors measured engagement — likes, comments, and shares — across left- and right-leaning pages. What did they find?

Right-leaning pages earned on average about 372,000 weekly interactions and left-leaning pages earned on average about 369,000 weekly interactions.

Partisan pages also outperformed pages that are not politically aligned, earning a piddling 283,000 weekly interactions. (The study isn’t about how hard it is to reach an audience on Facebook these days, though it certainly makes the case: a post from a partisan page reached just 0.17 percent of its followers, and a post from a non-partisan page reached 0.07 percent. Thank you, Facebook Journalism Project!)

The results of the study are consistent with the results of a similar exercise undertaken by Media Matters last year. That study, which measured engagement on the same set of pages over the previous six months, found that right-leaning pages had a nearly identical average rate of interactions with left-leaning pages. It also found that the right-leaning pages it studied earned 51 percent more total interactions than left-leaning pages.

The truth is that social networks have been a boon to partisans of every stripe — conservatives especially. A conservative social media star became the president of the United States — and a liberal social media star seems well on her way to higher office, despite being in her first term in Congress. The real bias of social networks, as Mark Zuckerberg has acknowledged, is toward the extremes. And any moves Facebook has taken so far to reduce that polarization seem to have had little effect.

There are many legitimate questions about the effects of big social networks on our democracy. Whether they have been engineered to silence conservative voices is simply not one of them.

Democracy

Facebook and the 2020 Election: The Tech Giant Backs Away From Democratic Debates

Four years ago, Facebook co-sponsored the Republican debates and partnered with CNN on an election road show that ended at a Democratic candidate debate. Not this time, Maxwell Tani reports:

According to several people involved with the planning debates for the Democratic primary, Facebook will not be a major participant in the first several events. Neither CNN or MSNBC are currently working with the company for the first debates, and sources at both networks said there are no current plans for a significant role for the platform either.

Twitter removes Trump’s video featuring music from The Dark Knight for copyright infringement

Well this is a lot:

Twitter late Tuesday evening removed a video tweeted out by President Donald Trump’s official account because it contained music from Warner Bros. Pictures’ The Dark Knight Rises, the final film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. According to both The HillBuzzFeed News, the producers of the short clip did not acquire the license to use the song, resulting in Warner Bros. filing a copyright claim. Twitter then removed the video hours later for violating its policies around copyrighted material.

Apple Music in China removes Jacky Cheung song with reference to Tiananmen massacre

Holmes Chan reports on the latest incidence of Apple censoring its music library to remain on good terms with the Chinese government:

Apple Music has removed a song by Hong Kong singer Jacky Cheung from its Chinese streaming service, with some questioning if the move was related to politically sensitive lyrics.

The song, the title of which translates to “The Path of Man,” was the theme music of the 1990 film A Chinese Ghost Story II. According to the late James Wong, who penned the lyrics, parts of the song were directly referring to the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Elsewhere

Facebook Showed Me My Data Is Everywhere And I Have Absolutely No Control Over It

Katie Notopoulos says “a transparency tool on Facebook inadvertently provides a window into the confusing maze of companies you’ve never heard of who appear to have your data.”

Facebook removing third-party data was a pro-privacy move, and showing this page of advertisers is a great transparency measure. But this list of advertisers that use a contact list is a nightmare for any normal person to look at. It’s confusing (who?!), aggravating (how did they get my email or phone number?!), and disheartening (privacy is dead, everyone has my data, it’s a lost cause). It sheds some light on the dark and infinite universe of spam we exist in.

eMarketer Slashes Snapchat Growth Forecast for 2019

Marketers might be excited about the Snapchat Audience Network, but eMarketer is sounding an alarm about Snap’s growth potential. (Snap disputes the methodology.)

In 2019, Snapchat will have 77.5 million monthly US users, down 2.8% from last year. This represents a significantly lower projection than eMarketer expected in its Q3 2018 forecast, which anticipated 6.6% growth to 90.4 million monthly US users this year.

Google Founders Have Skipped All Of The Company’s 2019 Town Hall Meetings

As dissent inside Google has grown, Larry Page and Sergey Brin are nowhere to be found, Alex Kantrowitz and Caroline O’Donovan report:

Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have yet to make an appearance at any of the company’s weekly “TGIF” town halls in 2019, BuzzFeed News has learned. Their absence from these meetings, the longest attendance lapse in company history, comes at a time when Google is wrestling with tough questions from its employees on a variety of issues, ranging from harassment to censorship.

The anti-Facebook: Inside Pinterest’s slow and quiet rise

Fun detail in Seth Fiegerman’s profile of Pinterest ahead of its initial public offering:

By 2013, the stampede of new users started to slow noticeably. Pinterest set up war rooms where employees spent hours poring over data to understand the cause of the slowdown and what they could do to address it. Even today, people who worked at Pinterest during that period seem to have a different answer for why growth began to lag: the rise of Instagram, the struggle to attract men, or maybe just the limits of the word-of-mouth marketing that had worked in its first years.

Mark Zuckerberg had a different opinion. In Pinterest’s early days, when the service was still growing at a fast clip, the Facebook CEO told one of his employees that he thought Pinterest was interesting, but “niche,” according to a source with knowledge of the conversation. To Zuckerberg, niche meant it would end up with 200 million to 300 million users.

Hate Your Internet Provider? Look to Space

Tech giants have big plans to deliver internet service via satellite, Christopher Mims reports:

These companies play their cards close, but SpaceX, Amazon and Facebook have all seen detailed plans for their potential satellite networks leak through filings with the Federal Communications Commission and International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency that manages global wireless spectrum. While Google no longer appears to be building its own satellites, it has agreed to license technology to Canadian satellite operator Telesat for its own network of satellites. Virgin Orbit, meanwhile, hopes to be an affordable launch platform for the kind of small satellites that will comprise these networks.

Social media usage in U.S. remains unchanged despite a year of turmoil

New Pew research has good news for Facebook:

A 2018 Center survey found that some Facebook users had recently taken steps to moderate their use of the site – such as deleting the Facebook app from their phone or taking a break from the platform for some time. But despite these findings and amid some high profile controversies, Facebook users as a whole are just as active on the site today as they were a year ago. Roughly three-quarters of Facebook users (74%) visit the site daily, including about half who do so several times a day. These shares are identical to those reported by Facebook users in the Center’s 2018 social media use survey.

Launches

Facebook will punish groups for repeatedly spreading fake news

Facebook announced changes today to groups, the News Feed algorithm, and safety features on Messenger. I’ll have my own thoughts tomorrow, but you can get started by reading Jake Kastrenakes’ take.

Facebook Is Changing News Feed (Again) to Stop Fake News

Emily Dreyfuss and Issie Lapowsky look at one of the other changes Facebook announced today: a new metric called “click gap” that seeks to penalize sites that perform well on Facebook and nowhere else. (It’s a sign that they’re gaming the system.)

The AP isn’t abandoning its fact-checking partnership with Facebook. It’s expanding it.

The Associated Press is bringing its fact-checking services to Spanish-language posts, Daniel Funke reports:

In a press release sent to Poynter on Tuesday, the wire service announced that it will start debunking false content in Spanish for its American audience. The outlet will also publish corresponding fact checks in Spanish, making it the first of Facebook’s American partners to do so, according to the release.

Takes

Listen up bitches, it’s time to learn incorrect things about someone you’ve never heard of

Rosa Lyster has an extremely funny piece about what she calls Buckle Up Twitter — the phenomenon where people just start screaming historical information of varying degrees of accuracy into the void in hopes of going viral. To get there, of course, they affect total outrage:

Buckle Up Twitter threads tend to proceed from two assumptions. The first is that no one but the author of the thread has ever read a book, and the second is that no one actually ever needs to read a book in order to understand anything, because what do you need a motherfucking BOOK for when you have ALL THE INFORMATION YOU COULD POSSIBLY NEED RIGHT HERE IN THIS GODDAMN BITCH OF A THREAD. There’s not a whole lot of daylight between that and the insistence that, I don’t know, no one in the history of the world has ever had any reason or desire to read Ulysses.

I wanted to help Google make AI more responsible. Instead I was treated with hostility.

Kay James Coles, the president of the Heritage Foundation whose appointment to a Google ethics panel related to artificial intelligence drew outrage inside the company, sounds off about the experience. (Google ultimately disbanded the council, though it has another internal one.)

In 1961, at age 12, I was one of two-dozen black children who integrated an all-white junior high school in Richmond. White parents jeered me outside the school, and inside, their kids stuck me with pins, shoved me in the halls and pushed me down the stairs. So when the group of Google employees resorted to calling names and making false accusations because they didn’t want a conservative voice advising the company, the hostility was reminiscent of what I felt back then — that same intolerance for someone who was different from them.

Uncivil discourse is an illness in America. We can do better — we must strive to show the world what a pluralistic society should be, a place where people of different faiths and viewpoints are willing to engage and willing to listen to others, especially when they bring different ideas to the table.

And finally ...

Black hole gets welcomed to the Earth with memes

If you think a supermassive void that destroys all information that passes its event horizon is a good metaphor for our life in 2019, does Mashable have some memes for you.

Talk to me

Send me tips, comments, questions, and [censored]. casey@theverge.com.