There are a lot of reasons politicians go after big tech and social media companies today. Some criticize the companies’ records on privacy while others, including first lady Melania Trump, have spoken out against online harassment. And there is, of course, the problem of foreign propaganda campaigns that continue to occur, as President Trump’s own intelligence officials warned.
For some conservatives, though, the biggest threat Americans face from Big Tech is the alleged censorship of conservatives online.
Alleged censorship’s rise to become a top political issue on the right comes despite significant hurdles. Many of the major examples of censorship have been debunked or their scope disputed. And conservative media undoubtedly reaches a wide audience online, with a vibrant community of sites like the Federalist, Redstate.com, and the Daily Caller.
Allegations of censorship have also been associated with far-right figures and websites with records of promoting conspiracy theories. When Alex Jones and his website InfoWars were deplatformed earlier this month, for example, Jones characterized it as a liberal plot to silence him and not because he and his site violated terms of service agreements. The day after he was banned from Twitter, Jones published a video talking about a vast left-wing conspiracy while wearing a donkey mask.
Still, conservative suppression is now a regular presence during congressional hearings with tech leaders, and it’s one of the few tech issues President Donald Trump has shown support for.
Allegations of conservative censorship began in 2016 when Gizmodo published a story about how Facebook’s trending section was edited. Some curators for the section allegedly “suppressed” trending conservative stories, while others linked to articles from neutral outlets over partisan ones. Facebook said there was no intentional systemic effort to suppress conservative stories, but admitted contractors could have acted on their own biases.
The following year, Google engineer James Damore wrote a letter criticizing the company’s “politically correct monoculture” and argued gender gaps in the industry were a result of biological differences. CEO Sundar Pichai said Damore’s claims perpetuated “harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace,” and Damore was fired. Damore said Silicon Valley was unfriendly to conservative thought.
Today, the concept of alleged conservative censorship has raised the concern of Trump, who recently complained about his bad Google search results. Trump has falsely claimed that Google didn’t promote his State of the Union on their page like they did for Obama, and tweeted his support for Diamond and Silk, pro-Trump social media influencers whose claims of being suppressed on Facebook have been disproven by Facebook analytics. And Donald Trump Jr. has repeatedly made incorrect claims that Twitter blocked or censored tweets.
In reality, conservatives do well on the internet. An August report from Newswhip found Fox News, Daily Wire, Breitbart, and Western Journal are among the top 20 biggest Facebook publishers. And in the universe of conservative social media stars, allegations of suppression are mainly limited to a handful of far-right figures who violate terms of service, and Diamond and Silk. Don’t forget, one of the most widely available accounts on all of Twitter is a Republican; in addition to @realDonaldTrump’s 54.4 million followers, his tweets are embedded in news articles, shown on TV shows, and turned into memes on Instagram. There was literally a court decision that did the opposite of censor Trump, ruling that he had to unblock people on Twitter.
The new Hollywood
At the heart of the censorship narrative is a sense that conservatives have been locked out from one of the most powerful and influential industries in the country. It’s reminiscent of conservative attitudes toward Hollywood. Both tech and entertainment play a crucial role in shaping culture and both are based in liberal, coastal cities and employ a large number of liberals. The HBO show “Silicon Valley” recently poked fun at tech’s liberalism with an episode that replaced the experience of coming out as gay with coming out as Christian in the Bay Area. In the Trump era, Silicon Valley is being accused of not reflecting or being welcome to conservative values or thought, like Hollywood before it.
But many of these companies have made efforts both publicly and privately to reach out to conservatives. A week after the 2016 Gizmodo story was published, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg hosted a listening session with conservative media figures, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey sat first for an interview with Sean Hannity as InfoWars and Alex Jones were booted off sites and services across the internet. At a post-election all-hands meeting at Google that was leaked to Breitbart Wednesday, Google Vice President Eileen Naughton acknowledged Google employees’ liberal leanings and said, “diversity also means diversity of opinion and political persuasion” and “we need to do better” at making conservatives feel comfortable at the company. In the same meeting Pichai, the CEO, said the election provided “a good moment of reflection, introspection, and listening to others.”
Major tech companies could soon face government regulation. Members of Congress like Sen. Mark Warner have warned it’s coming (“The era of the wild west in social media is coming to an end,” he said at a hearing earlier this month), and Attorney General Jeff Sessions is reportedly considering an investigation. So the issues lawmakers believe are important could play a role in how any talk of regulation plays out.
Despite the lack of evidence of widespread censorship of conservatives online, the narrative has grown from a partisan opinion show talking point to an issue backed by institutional Republicans. When Trump tweeted his inaccurate claim about Google ignoring his State of the Union, it was retweeted by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Republican Party Chair Ronna McDaniel.
“These companies have a responsibility to the public to play it fair,” McDaniel tweeted. “They shouldn’t be picking sides. #StopTheBias.”