Leaked internal messages from a Facebook staff chat board reportedly show that some workers at the social media giant had wanted to suppress “very negative” coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement by conservative news outlets.
In a message titled “Get Breitbart out of News Tab” and posted on the company’s racial-justice chat board last year, an unidentified employee shared screenshots of BLM-related headlines from the news outlet that, they said, were “emblematic of a concerted effort at Breitbart and similarly hyperpartisan sources” to “paint Black Americans and Black-led movements in a very negative way.”
Launched in 2019, News Tab is a Facebook product that curates and promotes articles from various publishers selected by the platform. The feature contains a main tier, with news from mainstream media outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post, which are paid for their content. Breitbart is part of a secondary, non-paid tier of tailored news delivered to cater to a user’s interests.
The Wall Street Journal, which reviewed the chat messages, reported that the texts had been posted in June 2020 – at the height of the BLM protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Breitbart, a conservative website popular with supporters of former President Donald Trump, had reported widely on the property damage caused by BLM rioters – with screenshots of the highlighted headlines apparently referring to “mayhem,” “massive looting” and “bonfires” at the protests.
Other Facebook employees reportedly chimed in to agree, with one unnamed company researcher apparently noting that steps to remove Breitbart necessitated a “very difficult policy discussion,” due to the potential for “political backlash.” Facebook ultimately chose not to remove Breitbart on News Tab.
A Facebook spokeswoman told WSJ that the tech giant only judges specific content shared on the platform and not the Breitbart website as a whole. She added that Facebook had decided that Breitbart material met its content-moderation requirements, including abiding by rules against misinformation and hate speech.
“It is not news to us that Facebook has effectively suppressed our content,” a Breitbart spokeswoman told the WSJ, adding that the company’s content had been, in its view, far more accurate and popular with Facebook’s users than the paid content from mainstream news media outlets.
Still, we’ve been crushing our establishment news competitors in engagement for years, so imagine what would happen if Facebook treated Breitbart equally with other top news publishers.
Another conservative outlet that came in for criticism was Fox News, with internal documents from 2018 showing employees criticizing an engineer who’d left Facebook after alleging that the company was intolerant of right-wing voices. According to the WSJ, staff blasted the employee after he aired his views on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show.
Some Facebook employees noted on the message boards that Fox was “so infamous and biased” that it “can’t even call itself a news channel.” Several employees branded Carlson as a “white nationalist” and “partisan hack” who “looks as though he’s a Golden Retriever who has been consistently cheated out of a cache of treats.”
Conservative groups have long accused Facebook and its algorithms of being biased against right-wing viewpoints – with its decision earlier this year to ban Trump from the platform after he was judged to have violated the company’s rule against inciting violence, in relation to the January 6 Capitol Hill riot. Nearly a thousand Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol to protest Joe Biden’s presidential election win – alleging that the election had been rigged against Trump.
According to the WSJ, the documents it reviewed did not explicitly reveal whether bias influences Facebook’s decisions on the whole. However, the paper noted that they show sometimes vigorous efforts from employees to suppress right-wing content. It also mentioned that no similar debates over left-wing publications were seen from the documents reviewed.
But Facebook told the newspaper that politics do not play a part in its decision making. Spokesman Andy Stone said the company makes “changes to reduce problematic or low-quality content” and to “improve people’s experiences on the platform,” not because of a page’s political viewpoint.