Anti-conservative bias claims don’t hold up, new research says

Conservative users often generate more engagement than posts by liberal or nonpartisan users, report states

Conservatives have leaned heavily on the assertion of bias since former President Donald Trump was booted from Twitter and other social media. (Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images file photo)
Conservatives have leaned heavily on the assertion of bias since former President Donald Trump was booted from Twitter and other social media. (Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images file photo)
Posted February 2, 2021 at 12:42am

The decision by Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites to ban former President Donald Trump in the wake of last month’s riot at the Capitol by a mob of his supporters has renewed claims that the country’s largest technology firms are biased against conservatives.

But a report published Monday refutes those claims with evidence showing that conservative users often generate more engagement than posts by liberal or nonpartisan users.

In fact, claims of anti-conservative bias are themselves a form of online disinformation that Republicans have sought to wield to turn their supporters against Big Tech, according to researchers at the Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

“The deception whips up part of the conservative base, much of which already bitterly distrusts the mainstream media,” wrote the report’s author, Paul M. Barrett. “To call the bias claim disinformation does not, of course, rule out that millions of everyday people sincerely believe it.”

Conservatives have leaned heavily on the assertion of bias since Trump was booted from mainstream social media for violating policies against the incitement of violence. After Twitter blocked his personal account, Trump used the official @POTUS handle to accuse the company of coordinating with “Democrats and Radical Left to silence me— and YOU.”

But Trump’s expulsion “should not be misconstrued as confirmation of the claim he and others on the right have long made about platform bias,” Barrett wrote in his report.

“The Trump bans, while unprecedented, were based on reasonable determinations that he violated platform rules against sabotaging election results and inciting violence,” the report said.

Claims of anti-conservative bias erupted after the bans were announced, but right-wing commentators such as Tucker Carlson and Ben Shapiro and lawmakers including Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, had already fanned the flames.

“What we are watching—the militarization of social media on behalf of Democrats, and the overt suppression of material damaging to Democrats to the cheers of the press—is one of the single most dangerous political moments I have ever seen,” Shapiro tweeted in October.

Statistics say Republican voters have bought the argument. A recent HuffPost/YouGov poll found that 72 percent of Republicans think social media platforms are biased in favor of liberals. And last summer, the Pew Research Center said 90 percent of Republicans and right-leaning independents believe platforms intentionally censor political views they don’t like.

And while Republicans rely on largely anecdotal research to back their claims, there is no quantitative evidence suggesting they’re accurate. Conversely, the NYU report’s analysis of data provided by Facebook’s CrowdTangle analytics tool shows right-wing media outlets far outreaching nonpartisan or left-leaning outlets.

Of the 10 media outlets that performed best on Facebook from Jan. 1 of last year through Election Day, only three — Fox News, the Daily Caller and Breitbart — were right-leaning. But they outperformed the other seven outlets on the list, including CNN and The New York Times, by nearly 20 million interactions, the report found.

The NYU report also compared Facebook likes, shares and comments on Donald Trump’s and Joe Biden’s pages from Sept. 3, 2020, to Election Day, the most intense part of the campaign, and found Trump dominant. The total number of likes, comments and shares for both presidential candidates was 307 million. Trump elicited 87 percent of the engagement, Biden 13 percent.

“Republicans continue to push this false narrative that [the technology industry] is anti-conservative,” Hany Farid, a computer science professor at the University of California at Berkeley, told the Houston Chronicle in November. “There is no data to support this. The data that is there is in the other direction and says conservatives dominate social media.”

Barrett, author of the NYU report, favors a two-pronged approach to countering disinformation related to assertions of anti-conservative bias. First, social media companies should be more forthcoming about their content moderation policies and make certain data public for researchers. They should also give users choices between different algorithmic feeds.

Second, Barrett said, the Biden administration should work with Congress to amend Section 230, a 1996 law that protects social media companies from lawsuits related to third-party content on their sites. Section 230 liability protections should be afforded only to platforms that decline to “favor sensationalistic or unreliable material in pursuit of user engagement.”

Biden should then create a Digital Regulatory Agency that would be tasked with enforcing the revised Section 230, Barrett said. To avoid concerns about possible government censorship, the agency would not intervene in specific content moderation decisions.

“What is needed is a robust reform agenda that addresses the very real problems of social media content regulation as it currently exists,” Barrett said. “Only by moving forward from these false claims can we begin to pursue that agenda in earnest.”

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