Facebook also deliberately suppressed the influence of its most active and engaged users, most likely because those users favored conservative news
The Wall Street Journal has published internal material from anonymous sources at Facebook revealing that the company introduced tools that suppressed the traffic of Breitbart News by 20 percent, and other conservative publishers by double-digit margins.
The company introduced two tools after the 2016 election that disproportionately harmed conservative publishers. The Journal highlights internal Facebook research showing that if both tools were removed, it would increase traffic to Breitbart News by 20 percent, the Washington Times by 18 percent, Western Journal by 16 percent, and the Epoch Times by 11 percent. Facebook eventually removed one of the tools while keeping the other — but it is unclear which of them had the most impact on traffic.
According to the Wall Street Journal, one of Facebook’s researchers feared, “We could face significant backlash for having ‘experimented’ with distribution at the expense of conservative publishers.”
The story also revealed that Breitbart News is relegated to a “second tier” of the platform’s News Tab, where it gets less exposure than its corporate establishment competitors. On top of this, Facebook is directly paying Breitbart News’s competitors, establishment media conglomerates including the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times — while offering no such compensation to Breitbart News.
Despite Facebook’s favoritism and financial support of its establishment competitors, Breitbart News continues to be wildly popular with Facebook’s users. In August, data from Facebook-owned social media analytics company Crowdtangle showed Breitbart News demolishes its competitors in generating engagement from Facebook’s users. The data showed Breitbart earned more Facebook engagement than The New York Times, the Washington Post, and HuffPo combined. Breitbart surpassed the Wall Street Journal and CNN by healthy margins as well.
Clearly, Breitbart News is popular with Facebook users. But the choices of Facebook users do not appear to matter that much to Facebook’s employees. The internal discussions leaked to the Journal reveal employees who skew even more left than the company’s liberal upper management. Despite Mark Zuckerberg’s arguably pivotal efforts to put Joe Biden in the White House, Facebook’s token tolerance of some conservative publishers is considered intolerable by some employees, no matter how popular those publishers are with users.
The concerns have little to do with the accuracy of Breitbart News stories and much to do with their political perspective. The first three Breitbart articles mentioned by the Wall Street Journal as concerning to Facebook employees were factually accurate headlines about violent protests in the summer: “Minneapolis Mayhem: Riots in Masks,” “Massive Looting, Buildings in Flames, Bonfires!” and “BLM Protesters Pummel Police Cars on 101.”
If accuracy in news reporting were the top issue for Facebook employees, the establishment media’s attempts to cover up and downplay the violence (like CNN’s infamous “mostly peaceful protests” chyron) should have caused greater controversy. Instead, the far-left employees targeted Breitbart News.
In a discussion thread called “Get Breitbart out of News Tab,” the company’s employees brainstormed new policies that would see Breitbart News ejected from the feature, which distributes news stories to users from a curated list of websites while maintaining the appearance of neutrality. One employee suggested removing websites that saw their internal “trust score” (as measured by Facebook) decline, but expressed concern that the policy might also affect CNN.
As the Wall Street Journal notes, Facebook already punishes Breitbart News in relation to its competitors by relegating it to a “second tier” of the News Tab, which only delivers news tailored to user’s interests. In other words, only users who are already interested in content similar to Breitbart’s will receive its stories, limiting Breitbart’s ability to reach new readers.
Relegating Breitbart News to the second tier is not the only way Facebook suppresses conservatives. It also deliberately suppressed the influence of its most active and engaged users, most likely because those users favored conservative news.