Anti-Conservative Social Media Biases Are a Myth, Researchers Find
In a new study that poses an existential crisis to conservative pundits, newly Twitter-less ex-President Donald Trump, and middle-aged women named Karen who spend a little too much time on Facebook, it seems the long-touted notion of social platform's anti-conservative bias has been factually -- and logically -- disproven. This month, NYU's Stern Center for Business and Human Rights published a new report entitled "False Accusation: The Unfounded Claim that Social Media Companies Censor Conservatives," dispelling the idea that sites like Facebook and Twitter censor, or, well, "muzzle" as some right-wingers like to call it, conservatives who use their platforms. After examining data from several analytics sites used by social media professionals along with dissecting other studies on the topic, including one from Politico that highlighted that conservative accounts' digital popularity, authors Paul M. Barrett and J. Grant Sims were able to put the long-running myth to rest.
"The claim of anti-conservative animus is itself a form of disinformation: a falsehood with no reliable evidence to support it. No trustworthy largescale studies have determined that conservative content is being removed for ideological reasons or that searches are being manipulated to favor liberal interests," reads the report's executive summary.
Although widespread studies have not shown proof of this phenomenon, anecdotal evidence, which seems abundant in conservative circles even "tends to crumble under close examination," the report continued. Case and point? 45's recent Twitter boot. "Take Trump's exclusion from Twitter and Facebook. These actions, while unprecedented, were reasonable responses to Trump's repeated violation of platform rules Executive Summary Conservatives commonly accuse the major social media companies of censoring the political right," Barrett and Sims wrote. "In response to Twitter's decision on January 8, 2021, to exclude him from the platform, then-President Donald Trump accused the company of 'banning free speech' in coordination with 'the Democrats and Radical Left' against undermining election results and inciting violence. If anything, the platforms previously had given Trump a notably wide berth because of his position, seeking to appease him, despite his demagogic and routinely false claims."
However, this phenomenon isn't exclusive to Trump. A recent poll from the Pew Research Center found that "90% of Republicans say that social media sites intentionally censor political viewpoints that they find objectionable," as compared to 40% of Democrats who allege it is "somewhat" likely and the 19% who maintain its "very" likely that their side of the aisle is censored online. Although in fairness, several social platforms have made mistakes when moderating content, the sites generally tend to learn from their errors. "They tend to react to crises and adjust their policies in the breach, and that's led to a herky-jerky cadence of how they apply their policies," Barrett told The Verge. Yet it seems sometimes these drastic responses can serve as overcorrections. To maintain the image of balance amid these allegations, Facebook and Twitter "actually bend over backward to try to appease conservative critics" the tech publication's Weekend Editor, Kim Lyons noted of the research.
This notion manifests clearly when looking at Facebook data from between January 2020 and November 2020 -- the months leading up to the U.S. Presidential election. Although only three of the top 10 media outlets on the platform leaned to the right, Fox News and Breitbart nabbed the top two spots by a landslide, drastically outperforming several mainstream news sources, respectively garnering 448 million and 295 million Facebook interactions. By comparison, the third runner up, CNN only received 191 million, according to the report.
So with faulty anecdotes and digital data rendering their arguments moot, why, exactly, do some conservative figures lean heavily into these false ideas? According to Barrett, the answer is simple -- it's an effective political device. "It's a tool used by everyone from Trump to Jim Jordan to Sean Hannity, but there is no evidence to back it up," the author told the outlet.
Even with these challenges, the authors offered several pieces of advice for these platforms moving forward to help dispel these prevalent myths. Strengthening transparency with the public about choices pertaining to content moderation. Bringing more humans on board to actually moderate posts -- those robots just don't hit the same. Fostering a positive relationship with the government to help create sound regulation. "No one expects them to show every last line of code, but people should be able to understand what goes into the decisions being made about what they're seeing," Barrett explained of his prescription.
So folks, remember -- transparency is key. Oh, and dispelling false notions doesn't hurt either, no matter what Karen tweets about her alleged digital muzzle.