Conservatives dominate Twitter and Facebook. Then why are they complaining?
Whenever Canadian conservatives have waged cultural wars, they have complained that the media and information landscape in which they fight these battles is biased against them. This is mostly selfish fiction, as the editorial offices of our country’s newspapers consistently and often overwhelmingly support the conservative party of the moment.
But a few recent reports on the prejudices built into our social networks should keep the rest of us sit up and take notice.
Facebook’s inherent kindness to conservative concerns is no secret to anyone who paid close attention to the 2020 presidential campaign. As Politico reported last September, “the most engaging Facebook posts in the US most days in terms of likes, comments, shares and reactions are from conservative voices outside the mainstream media.
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An anonymous Facebook manager said this was because “right-wing populism is more and more committed”. But the truth is, as former employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen testified in a recent hearing before the US Congress, the company’s algorithm is aimed at content that fuels the flames of hatred and anger. “I am deeply concerned that they have developed a product that can take people away from their real communities and isolate them in those rabbit holes and those filter bubbles,” she said.
Twitter doesn’t seem much better in this regard. According to a recent internal study of which content performs best on the platform, conservatives enjoy a built-in advantage here too. “In six out of seven countries, tweets posted by right-wing officials are algorithmically amplified more than by the political left,” said Rumman Chowdhury of the BBC’s Twitter. “
Stir up complaints
It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with who is in power. “For example,” the study says, “the reinforcement in the UK favors the ruling Conservatives, while in Canada the opposition Conservative Party of Canada is reinforced.” And where is this reinforcement effect most evident? Right here, in Canada, where conservative voices are amplified almost four times as much (167 to 43 percent) as liberals.
The mainstream media has always favored the conservative right. Now Facebook and Twitter are continuing this tradition. #extremism #mediabias @maxfawcett writes for @natobserver
If you want to understand why this is important and what impact it can have on democracy, you have come to the right place in the recent Virginia gubernatorial election. In a state that was strong for Joe Biden in 2020, the Democratic nominee was just defeated by Republican Glenn Youngkin, who spent much of the campaign talking about something not even taught in state schools: Critical Race Theory (CRT). CRT is studying how racism is embedded in everything from the criminal justice system to the banking system to the labor and housing markets, but Republicans have successfully misrepresented it as an attack on white people – and used it to eradicate the glow of white resentment- Re-fueling politics helped in the election of Donald Trump.
Biden’s growing unpopularity, as well as the general ineptitude of the Democrats in Congress, clearly contributed to this. But also the constant diet of bullshit that Virginia voters were fed the wrong theory. Dan Pfeiffer, former Obama administration and co-founder of Crooked Media, wrote: “Nowhere in the world is there a single student taught CRT, let alone in Virginia. However, Youngkin was able to make a fake topic very real to the Virginia voters. ”
He was able to do this because of the combination of a right-wing media ecosystem that produces misinformation and two hugely influential social media platforms that continue to reinforce it. “The right wing is able to create an alternate reality and then offer solutions to false problems that people believe are the Democrats’ fault,” Pfieffer wrote. “CRT probably played less of a role than many experts suspect, but the fact that Youngkin could make it a problem should be a huge warning sign of what is to come in 2022.”
More conflicts are imminent
It should also be a red flag for progressives in Canada. While the Conservatives here have failed to restore the right-wing media ecosystem that has thrived in the United States, it is not because there has been a lack of attempt. Just because our country’s right-wing representatives are not as adept at creating an alternative media universe as their American counterparts does not mean they cannot get better at it – or that they cannot while we speak.
Here, too, the implications go far beyond the realm of party politics. Whether it’s our collective response to climate change or our attitudes towards vaccination and other public health measures, these conversations are happening more than ever on Twitter and Facebook. If we can’t trust them to put fact over fiction, there is a risk that the informational water we all drink will be poisoned by malicious actors. And if conservatives can wholly make up grievances, as they did at CRT, and use social media to arm them against their political enemies, then we are headed for a new dark age.
It doesn’t have to be that way, of course. Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook can adjust their algorithms to put good information over bad, truth over lies, and expertise over conspiracies. But so far the monetary incentives don’t seem to be leading them in that direction. If governments don’t step in and act soon, they may face much bigger problems in the future.