Independent Facebook 'Bias' Audit Concludes There's Still Work to be Done

Former Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl has issued his initial audit of concerns about possible and potential anti-conservative bias at Facebook, concluding that "Facebook’s policies and their application have the potential to restrict free expression," and, "[g]iven the platform’s popularity and ubiquity, this is a danger that must be taken very seriously."

Facebook employed Kyl for the audit following an April 2018 Hill appearance by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who said he understood why there was concern about a liberal bias in Silicon Valley.

Kyl's initial audit concludes that while "Facebook has recognized the importance of our assessment and has taken some steps to address the concerns we uncovered," "there is still significant work to be done to satisfy the concerns we heard from conservatives."

Among those concerned are the President, who held a White House event for conservative bloggers last month at which he said edge providers are censoring them and something must be done about it.

Related: Sens. Hawley, Cruz, Seek FTC Investigation into Conservative Bias

The Kyl audit was essentially a review of the concerns of conservatives--Kyl and his team at the law firm of Covington & Burling, interviewed 133 of them--rather than an investigation into whether there was systematic bias at Facebook, which Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said there is not.

So, the findings were essentially a summary of the concerns expressed by those conservatives, as well as of steps Facebook has already taken to adjust their site and ad policies in the face of accusations of bias.

Related: Senate to Look at Alleged Tech Speech Bias

Those steps include a "why am I seeing this post?" feature to help them better control what they were seeing and transparency about news feed rankings--Facebook has said that remains a work in progress with more work to be done, creating a an oversight board for content decisions and an appeals process for those decisions, and changing its "sensational" ad policies so they do not reject pro-life ads for previously prohibited images, and adjusting labeling of political and issue ads.

"But even if we could craft [content policies] in a way that pleased all sides, when dealing with such nuanced issues, involving policies that apply to billions of posts, we will inevitably make some bad calls, some of which may appear to strike harder at conservatives," blogged Nick Clegg, VP of global affairs and communications, for Facebook, about the report. "That’s why it is so important that we work to make sure this process is free of bias, intended or not."

Kyl signaled that work would continue.

"As we move forward, we will continue to analyze the issues that conservatives are most concerned about," he said. "Throughout this process, we will be working with [Clegg], along with a team of leaders he is assembling from across the company to aid in this process and ensure the work continues."

Progressive group Media Matters for America, says there is no evidence Facebook is censoring conservatives and calls the review a desperate attempt to appease the right-wing, saying the review was based on "Republican-selected interviews with 133 right-wing Facebook users."

Related: Trump Is Top Political Advertiser on Facebook

Kyl said they used a broad definition of "conservative" that included "political conservatives, people of orthodox religious views, libertarians, pro-lifers, traditionalists, Republicans, and free speech advocates." From that pool he said they identified "key conservative organizations, individuals, and lawmakers who either use, study, or have the potential to regulate Facebook" and interview 133 of them.

However the subjects were defined, Media Matters did not like the exercise. “Facebook’s impulse to appease right-wing cries of bias, despite all evidence to the contrary, is yet again putting Facebook in a position where it'll be amplifying lies and enabling extremists, white supremacists, and Proud Boys at the expense of American democracy and with great risk to our safety," said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America.

"Facebook made a grave mistake in allowing external political actors to direct an assessment of company policy and practices," said Henry Fernandez, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a member of anti-online hate speech groupd Change the Terms. "It is no surprise they elevated narrow political interests over the safety of all users."

“As a result," he said, "this appears to be nothing more than political propaganda disseminated by a conservative leader, based on interviews with other conservative leaders and groups. The report attempts to erode the limited safeguards against hateful activity put in place by Facebook — with many interviewees reportedly denying even the need for a policy against hate."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.