The president and his allies aren’t after transparency; they want to cloud the civic atmosphere with even more bad faith and paranoia.
On Tuesday, in the course of his morning rage-tweeting, Donald Trump denounced Google for having news results “RIGGED” against him, “so that almost all stories & news is BAD.” It was part of an escalating right-wing assault on various technology platforms, including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, which conservatives are accusing, in timeworn fashion, of liberal bias.
Trump appears to have gotten his information from Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs, who in turn was relying on a blog post from PJ Media titled, “96 Percent of Google Search Results for ‘Trump’ News Are From Liberal Media Outlets.” The rub, here, is how the post defines “liberal.” It includes a chart in which almost every mainstream, credible news organization is on the left — not just The New York Times and The Washington Post, but Bloomberg, USA Today and The Associated Press. The chart puts Infowars, Alex Jones’ conspiracy website, closer to the center than Time magazine.
Essentially, conservatives want to create a world where objective information and right-wing disinformation are treated equally. They’re running the same playbook on tech that they ran, for decades, on media, caterwauling about bias so that defensive editors would treat them with kid gloves. Only now, these howls about viewpoint discrimination have the force of the United States government behind them.
I’m not just talking about presidential tweets. Social media executives have had to testify before Congress and answer for spurious instances of anti-conservative censorship. In April, for example, members of Congress browbeat Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg for ostensibly silencing Diamond and Silk, sisters who produce pro-Trump videos. The women had received a notice from Facebook saying that content on their page was “unsafe to the community,” which the company said was sent in error. This morphed into claims that Facebook had deliberately engineered a decline in their traffic, even though it had not, in fact, declined.
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For a liberal, the right’s attacks on tech platforms create some of the same difficulties as its attacks on the FBI, Google, Facebook and other giant tech companies are powerful, opaque and sometimes sinister institutions that deserve criticism. Facebook has removed Syrian opposition pages, frozen access to accounts with Native American names, and helped spread genocidal propaganda in Myanmar. Twitter is a carnival of libel and rape threats. In a blog post, Tarleton Gillespie, author of the recent “Custodians of the internet: Platforms, Content Moderation and the Hidden Decisions That Shape Social Media,” described claims of bias against conservatives as “almost certainly wrong.” But he blamed tech companies’ secrecy about their internal workings for fostering a climate where such complaints easily gain purchase.
Trump and his allies, however, aren’t after transparency; they want to cloud the civic atmosphere with even more bad faith and paranoia. “There’s a lot more objectively false statements being made and replicated in right-wing media,” said Yochai Benkler, a Harvard professor and co-author of the forthcoming book, “Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics.” Any algorithm targeting fake news, he said, would thus “have a disparate impact on right-wing media.”
There’s a real danger that tech companies will give in to pressure to accept the right’s notion of fairness, and tweak their algorithms accordingly. Tech companies want to make money and avoid regulation; despite their libertarian bent, they’ve been perfectly willing to go along with the demands of authoritarian regimes in other countries. Right now, Google is considering offering censored internet searches in China in order to participate in that country’s lucrative market.
For decades, the right-wing media has fear-mongered about liberal plans to reinstate the fairness doctrine, a policy, scrapped during the Reagan administration, that required television and radio stations to present diverse viewpoints. Rush Limbaugh, one of the fairness doctrine’s more outspoken opponents, once called it “government-imposed censorship disguised as ‘fairness’ and ‘balance.’”
But on Tuesday, following Trump’s tweets, Limbaugh called for a new sort of fairness doctrine, suggesting tech platforms should be broken up if they don’t properly represent the right. “And if they’ve decided that they’re going to target every conservative out there, then there are recourses here,” he said. “It’s called antitrust.”
Sure enough, on Thursday, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, wrote a letter to the Federal Trade Commission, asking it to look into Google’s “anticompetitive conduct.” Among other complaints, he cited reports that Google has “decided to remove from its platform legal businesses that the company apparently does not agree with.” This is far from the only threat of government action against tech companies. This week, Facebook and Twitter executives are set to testify before Congress, and Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., tweeted that he was going to demand an explanation for why “supporters of @realDonaldTrump are consistently suppressed by Twitter.”
Scalise’s claim, which was born out of a glitch in Twitter’s drop-down search bar, is false. But the platforms are constantly tweaking their algorithms and content moderation policies, and even false claims can create an incentive to err on the side of promoting the right. “There’s absolutely a risk that the political pressure will be effective and that the media platforms will try to overcorrect,” Benkler said. Trump is likely counting on it.