An independent investigator has issued a preliminary report on its work determining the existence and/or extent of bias against conservatives on Facebook. It’s refreshingly light reading — the complaints are less “Facebook is a den of liberals” and more “we need more transparency on ad policies.”
The report was undertaken in May of last year, when Facebook retained Covington & Burling, led by former Republican Senator Jon Kyl, to look into the allegations loudly being made at the time that there was some kind of anti-conservative bias on the social network.
“We know we need to take these concerns seriously,” wrote VP of global affairs and communications Nick Clegg. Of course, Facebook says it takes everything seriously, so it’s hard to be sure sometimes.
Covington & Burling’s approach was to interview more than a hundred individuals and organizations that fall under the broad umbrella of “conservative” about their concerns. These would be sorted, summarized and presented to Facebook leadership.
By far the biggest concern wasn’t anything like “they’re censoring us” or “they’re pushing an agenda.” These views, which are often over-amplified, don’t seem to reflect what everyday folks and businesses are having trouble with on the platform.
Instead, the largest concern is transparency. The people interviewed were mainly concerned that the policies behind content moderation, ad approval, fact-checking and so on were inadequately explained. In the absence of good explanations, these people understandably supplied their own, usually along the lines that they were being targeted inordinately in comparison with those left of them politically.
It’s worth noting here that no evidence that this was or wasn’t the case was sought or presented. The surveys were about concerns people had, and did not extend to anything like “provide the logs where you can see this happened,” or anything like that. What was gathered was strictly anecdotal.
In a way this feels irresponsible, in that anyone could voice their concern about a problem that may very well not exist, or that may not be universally agreed is a problem. For instance, some groups complained that their anti-abortion ads featuring premature babies were being removed. Maybe Facebook feels that images of bloody, screaming children will not increase time on site.
But at the same time, the intent was not to quantify and solve bias, necessarily, but to understand how people perceived bias in day-to-day use of the site in the first place.
As you may have perceived, the concerns of conservatives in fact mirror the concerns of liberals: that Facebook is applying unknown and unknowable processes to the selection and display of content on the platform, and that our ability to question or challenge these processes is limited. These are nonpartisan issues.
Facebook’s response since the report was commissioned (in other words, over the last year and a half) has been to generally provide more information whenever it has stepped in to touch a post, ad or other user data. It now tells people why certain posts are being shown, it has better documented news feed ranking (though not too well, lest someone take advantage) and it has created a better system for making content-removal decisions, as well as a better appeal process.
So it says, anyway, but we can hardly take the company at its word that it has increased diversity, improved tools and so forth. The investigation by Covington & Burling continues and these are but the preliminary results. Clegg writes that “This is the first stage of an ongoing process and Senator Kyl and his team will report again in a few months’ time.”
You can read the full interim report below: