Democrats are tired of Facebook playing footsie with the right, and they’re increasingly willing to say it out loud.
Republicans have spent years complaining about what they perceive to be anti-conservative bias in social media and insisting that internet giants and their algorithms are stacked against them. But lately, Democrats have started to point out that, if anything, it seems as though Facebook in particular is bending over backward to keep the GOP happy — and harming progressives in the process. Prominent Democratic politicians, including Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren, have made a habit of scolding Facebook and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. As a recent Wall Street Journal report put it, “The relationship between the company and the political left is at an all-time low.”
Facebook is no stranger to political controversy, despite its leadership’s efforts to cast the company as a global platform dedicated to free speech and debate. The Facebook policy that allows candidates to lie in political ads has faced scrutiny this election cycle, especially after it became clear President Donald Trump’s campaign would have few reservations about running misleading ads. Facebook also raised eyebrows when it refused to take down a doctored video of Pelosi, the speaker of the House. Zuckerberg’s meetings with Trump in the White House have also led to some questions from the left about the executive’s coziness with the president. And, of course, there are still plenty of questions about Facebook’s role in helping Russians spread disinformation in the 2016 presidential campaign.
For a long time, it was Republicans who most publicly criticized Facebook, especially after a 2016 Gizmodo report found that the company was suppressing conservative news on the platform. Since then, Facebook has made multiple overtures to the right to prove they’re unbiased. The question many Democrats are asking now is whether Facebook is kowtowing to Republicans too much.
Democrats’ relationship with Facebook soured quickly
Just four years ago, Facebook was pretty close to Democrats. The Clinton campaign was the largest recipient of donations from Facebook employees. Meanwhile, COO Sheryl Sandberg endorsed Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid, and Sandberg was reportedly on Clinton’s shortlist to become treasury secretary.
Cut to today, and there’s no love lost between Clinton and, at the very last, Sandberg’s boss. In a recent interview with the Atlantic, the former Democratic presidential candidate said that Zuckerberg’s attitude toward misinformation is “Trumpian” and “authoritarian.” She specifically cited Facebook’s refusal to remove the video of Pelosi last year, which was doctored to make her appear as though she were slurring her words. Clinton said she called Facebook and asked them why they were keeping the video up. “I feel like you’re negotiating with a foreign power sometimes,” she said, referring to her conversations with Facebook.
Clinton is hardly the only Democrat sounding the alarms
Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has been a fierce critic of Facebook on the 2020 campaign trail. She has put out a plan to break up Facebook and other tech giants and has repeatedly criticized Zuckerberg specifically. In an effort to highlight its controversial political ads policy, the Warren campaign also ran a series of false ads on Facebook, claiming Zuckerberg had endorsed Trump’s reelection bid. Warren herself suggested that Facebook had changed its rules around political ads after one of Zuckerberg’s meetings with the president. (Zuckerberg has taken note and in an internal meeting reported by The Verge said there would likely be a “major lawsuit” in the event Warren were to be elected and try to break his company up.)
Biden, one of the 2020 presidential frontrunners, took a swipe at Facebook in a recent interview and said he believes Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law that protects internet companies from being held liable for the content posted by their users, should be revoked. “The idea that it’s a tech company is that Section 230 should be revoked, immediately should be revoked, number one,” Biden said. “For Zuckerberg and other platforms, it should be revoked because it is not merely an internet company — it is propagating falsehoods they know to be false.”
And Pelosi in a recent press briefing said that Facebook’s behavior has been “very irresponsible” and “shameful” and suggested it’s “schmoozing” with the Trump administration to avoid regulation. “Facebook’s business model is strictly to make money,” Pelosi said. “They don’t care about the impact on children. They don’t care about the impact on truth. They don’t care about where this is all coming from, and they have said that even if they know it is not true, they will print it.”
Facebook’s Democratic critics have also noted that it has some Republican operatives and journalists in its ranks. The company just hired Fox News producer Jennifer Williams to work on its editorial video strategy. Katie Harbath, Facebook’s public policy director for global elections, used to work for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Rudy Giuliani.
Is Facebook helping Republicans? It’s unclear.
It’s hardly simple to decipher which political party Facebook’s policies help or hurt, although there’s little doubt that the company’s decision-making is, at the very least, questionable.
Even after years of criticism over Facebook’s moderation practices, misinformation (political and otherwise) still spreads rampantly on the platform. Conservative news outlets have also gotten very good at gaming Facebook’s algorithm. The social network says it has improved the systems that allowed Russia to engage in its disinformation campaign against Clinton in 2016, but we probably won’t know how well these protections hold up this time around until it’s too late.
Other areas are more complicated. Case in point: Facebook’s policy on political ads. These policies — specifically, Facebook allowing false political ads — have come under scrutiny this election cycle, especially after Google announced that it would limit microtargeting political ads and Twitter said it would ban political ads altogether. People on all sides have called for Facebook to take some sort of action, whether that means fact-checking ads, following Twitter or Google’s leads, or taking some other action. But opinions haven’t always fallen along party lines.
In a statement to Recode, progressive strategy group Acronym also criticized Google’s new political ad policy, saying it would “hinder campaigns and others who are already working against the tide of bad actors to reach voters with facts.” The Democratic National Committee criticized Google’s move as well. And Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale slammed Google’s limits on microtargeting ads, and the Trump camp warned Facebook not to follow suit.
Regardless of its controversial policies, Facebook inevitably plays an important role in political campaigns. Democrats and Republicans alike are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on Facebook advertising this election cycle. While some Democrats may not like what’s going on, there’s also an understanding that they need to be on the same playing field as their opponents, even if that means giving money to a company they think is doing a lot of things that are bad.
“People on both sides of the aisle disagree with some of the positions we’ve taken, but we remain committed to seeking outside perspectives and communicating clearly about why we make the decisions we do,” a Facebook spokesman said in an email to Recode.
Facebook’s overtures to Republicans won’t stop the GOP from complaining
Since the 2016 Gizmodo story, there’s no doubt that Facebook has tried to combat criticism that it’s out to get the right. Zuckerberg has met with conservative leaders, dined with Trump, and worked to ease concerns that the company is fair to both sides. The thing is, no matter what Facebook does, Republicans are probably going to keep crying wolf.
Last year, the White House hosted a supposed social media summit and failed to include big social media companies. The whole event basically became a way for Trump and his Republican allies to bolster the narrative that big tech and social media are engaged in some coordinated conspiracy against the right. Also last year, the White House rolled out a tool for voters to report alleged social media bias. That was just an indirect way of gathering emails.
And it’s not just Trump. Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri has staked out a place as a tech critic on the right, referring to social media as a “parasite” and introducing multiple pieces of legislation aimed at reining in Big Tech. Many Republican lawmakers have used hearings with Facebook executives on Capitol Hill to air grievances and to spread conspiracy theories about alleged bias. At one point, GOP House members brought Trump-supporting sisters Diamond and Silk to Washington to testify about social media filtering.
Republicans have realized that Facebook is a good boogeyman for them and a way to rile up the base, whatever the company does. And yet Facebook seems determined to keep trying to win them over — and making enemies out of Democrats in the process.