Learning to distinguish evidence from nonsense is a core goal of both a liberal and a legal education in America. Ted Cruz, a Republican senator from Texas, has a bachelor of arts degree in public policy from Princeton University. He graduated from Harvard Law School. He has worked as a successful litigator. At some point along the way, Cruz learned how to decide which ideas are baseless.
Like many loud voices in his party, Cruz has suspended that habit of evidentiary discrimination in recent years. Earlier this month, he and a fellow Republican senator, Josh Hawley of Missouri, urged the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Twitter, Facebook, and Google for alleged anti-conservative bias in content-moderation practices and the ways algorithms prioritize some types of content over others.
At congressional hearing after congressional hearing, Donald Trump speech after Donald Trump interview, and Fox News talk show after Fox News talk show, we have heard a steady, coordinated chorus of complaints about conservative bias on these platforms. As serious policy makers wrestle with the complex challenges that Big Tech poses—in areas such as disinformation, Russian propaganda, antitrust, and privacy—Cruz, Hawley, and others on the right keep insinuating that platforms are somehow suppressing conservative views.
There is no evidence for these accusations. There are no legitimate studies supporting these contentions. There is no documentation of company officials ordering up anti-conservative bias or policies.
But to say there is no evidence for these accusations is too weak. These complaints are just false. Coming from smart people who know better—smart people like Cruz, the first U.S. presidential candidate to hire Cambridge Analytica and try to use its trove of personal Facebook data on millions of Americans—this looks like an intentionally duplicitous move.
Cruz knows that conservatives need Facebook and Google and that they benefit greatly from the algorithmic amplification that occurs in both systems. Trump’s 2020 campaign manager is Brad Parscale, who ran digital operations for the president’s successful 2016 campaign. Parscale declared that his mastery of Facebook for advertising, amplifying pro-Trump videos and memes, and fundraising won the 2016 election.
Scholarship supports this conclusion. As the sociologist Jen Schradie demonstrates in great detail in her new book, The Revolution That Wasn’t: How Digital Activism Favors Conservatives, Facebook and Google work better for top-down, well-funded, disciplined, directed movements. Those adjectives tend to describe conservative groups more than liberal or leftist groups in the United States. In our current media ecosystem, right-wing sources of news and propaganda spread much further and faster than liberal or neutral sources do, according to a rigorous quantitative study of communication-network patterns by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. Internet platforms are demonstrably not silencing conservative ideas. If anything, the opposite is true.
No algorithm is neutral. Facebook and Google are biased, but in a way that has nothing to do with American political ideologies or parties. Instead, both of these global systems favor content that generates strong emotional reactions from users—clicks, shares, likes, and comments. There is a clear commercial reason for this design choice. It keeps users hooked, ready to click on more advertisements and thus generate more revenue for the platform.
The media scholar Zeynep Tufekci has explained how YouTube’s recommendation engine sends viewers down rabbit holes of extremism because passive people like to be prodded to feel something, whether that’s anger, humor, joy, fear, or hatred. And I have described all the ways Google and Facebook move users (and users move Google and Facebook) to anger us, divide us, distract us, and undermine our ability to function as citizens of a democratic republic.
In short, Facebook is a remarkable tool for motivation. It’s a terrible platform for deliberation. Democratic citizenship demands both motivation of the like-minded and deliberation among those with different ideas and agendas. And Google is a terrible tool for discerning truth from falsity. Google is worse at discerning relevant information from trivia. It’s not a good source to achieve depth of understanding about a diverse and changing world.
We have trained the algorithms to feed us more extreme content every time. The algorithms are designed to work that way. We change YouTube and Facebook, so YouTube and Facebook change us—and not for the better.
Many conservatives are hip to these criticisms. “Big tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter exercise enormous influence on speech,” Hawley and Cruz wrote in a letter to the FTC. “The vast majority of internet traffic flows through just a handful of these companies. They control the ads we see, the news we read, and the information we digest. And they actively censor some content and amplify other content based on algorithms and intentional decisions that are completely nontransparent.” I could not have described the situation more clearly.
Yet rather than helping to forge a careful policy response, these two senators—and others on the right—leap from a description of a real set of problems to a mythical one. How and why do they mask the clear conclusions that Google and Facebook have helped mold the environment that gave us Donald Trump? The campaign to label these platforms “anti-conservative” does two main things.
First, conservatives are working the refs. If conservatives put media executives on their heels, constantly defending themselves or excusing themselves or apologizing for misunderstandings, then these companies are likely to bend toward conservatives out of fear or just exhaustion. This strategy has succeeded before. The liberal-media critic Eric Alterman has argued that such campaigns in the 1990s and early 2000s resulted in mainstream outlets such as The New York Times pushing unjustified right-wing causes like the Whitewater investigation and the invasion of Iraq.
Working the refs is still effective. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jack Dorsey of Twitter are not wise enough to understand what’s happening. So both Facebook and Twitter have allowed themselves to be worked. Platforms do make some intentional decisions to moderate the content that appears on their websites. But Facebook, Twitter, and Google staff try to do so based on principles and standards that they agonize over. Calls to violence or gender-based harassment should not be considered expressions of political ideology. More often than not, these companies under-filter hate speech because they have such strong concern for free speech. Far from rushing to suspend even conspiracy slingers and hate-mongers such as Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos, executives at Facebook and Twitter hemmed and hawed for years about whether to enforce their own terms of service.
Surely Cruz and Hawley don’t mean to make Alex Jones’s cause their cause, right? If they did, they’d be equating American conservatism with ethno-nationalist trolling and loony fantasies such as Pizzagate.
The campaign to convince people that the problem with Facebook and Google is that they lean left has a second, more dangerous effect. Fundamentally, it undermines seriousness—that is, it makes any productive discussion impossible.
Deep, measured, scholarly critiques of the most powerful elements of our information ecosystem get drowned out when Cruz, Hawley, or Trump crows about bias. That’s an easy talking point for politicians to push, an easy story for distractible news organizations to report, and an easy idea for a gullible public to digest. The concept that billions of aggregated human decisions mold the actions of complex machine-learning systems—which in turn guide human behavior, ultimately rendering us shallow, exhausted, angered, and willing to believe just about anything—is not such a pithy story.
Cruz and Hawley have to know perfectly well they can’t legislate or regulate the editorial choices that private companies make in America. And they are not making serious proposals, nor introducing any evidence for their complaints.
That is the real story of Facebook and Google and their effects on our collective minds. We have been rendered unable to take serious things seriously. One reason we can’t face that horrible conclusion is that—well, we can’t take serious things seriously. Cruz, Hawley, and Trump benefit greatly from that vicious circle in the short term, but democracy and the pursuit of a decent society suffer greatly over time.