Aug 20, 2019 - Technology

Exclusive: The results from Facebook's conservative bias audit

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Facebook will release the findings of a roughly year-long conservative bias audit Tuesday, along with changes to its advertising policies as a result, executives tell Axios.

What's new: The only new policy that's being announced alongside the audit results will be a small adjustment made to Facebook's "sensational" advertising policy, which will now allow the display of medical tubes connected to the human body.

  • The medical tube policy makes it easier for pro-life ads focused on survival stories of infants born before full-term to be accepted by Facebook's ad policy. Facebook notes that the policy could also benefit other groups who wish to display medical tubes in ads for cancer research, humanitarian relief and elderly care.
  • Facebook will still prohibit these types of ads if the ad shows someone in visible pain or distress or where blood and bruising is visible.

Why it matters: While there has been little evidence that Facebook is knowingly biased against conservatives, the release of the audit, and further continuation of it, shows that company takes the allegations seriously.

"[E]ven if we could craft them (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. That's why it is so important that we work to make sure this process is free of bias, intended or not."
— Facebook VP of Global Affairs and Communications Nick Clegg in a memo

Details: The audit was conducted by former Sen. Jon Kyl and his team at the law firm Covington and Burling. It included interviews with approximately 133 conservative lawmakers and groups. Kyl and his team presented initial findings to Facebook last August and began conducting follow-up interviews in May 2019.

  • Kyl says Facebook gave Kyl's team of lawyers "total independence" to conduct the audit and that his team cast a wide net when conducting interviews, talking to a range of conservative lawmakers and groups.
  • Initial findings informed some of the changes Facebook has made to its policies over the past year, including the creation of a content "oversight board" and a content removal "appeals process."
  • Kyl left the audit briefly to step in for Sen. John McCain's vacant Senate seat in 2018. Facebook tells Axios that the audit was continued by his team in his roughly four month-absence.

The findings: According to the audit, concerns expressed by conservative interviewees generally fell into 6 categories:

  1. Content Distribution and Algorithms: Interviewees generally worried that Facebook's algorithms began to de-prioritize conservative viewpoints after the January 2018 News Feed Algorithm shift and after policy updates to reduce clickbait and spam. Kyl notes that despite conservative concerns with the Facebook Fact-checking process, Facebook accepted fact-checkers affiliated with conservative publishers.
  2. Content Policies: Conservative interviewees identified concerns in community standards around what was considered hate speech and hate organizations. They thought other content policies disproportionally impacted pro-life and religious groups. Kyl notes Facebook has since made updates to its content policies more clear by providing insight into its content policy process and adding additional explanations of News Feed rankings.
  3. Content Enforcement: Interviewees were concerned that the guidelines and the employees enforcing them were biased against conservatives. In response, Kyl notes that Facebook has launched a content appeals process for people to challenge content rulings.
  4. Ad Policies: Many nonprofit groups were worried about the impact on their IRS tax exempt status of having Facebook label their educational or advocacy ads in its archive as "political." In response, Facebook changed the ad archive name to make it clear not all archived ads are political in nature. Kyl also notes the Facebook medical tubes ad policy update as a change that seeks to address these groups' concerns.
  5. Ad Enforcement: Interviewees were concerned about how long it took Facebook to approve ad buys, which is problematic for time-sensitive ad buys like those in political campaigns. They also worried that conservative ad content is disproportionately removed or rejected as compared to liberal content. Kyl cites that appeals process as a solution.
  6. Workforce Viewpoint Diversity: Kyl says interviewees' concerns about Facebook's content policies stemmed from their belief that the employees writing and enforcing Facebook's policies are biased against conservative viewpoints. Kyle says Facebook will ensure that its new content "oversight board" will include people with diverse viewpoints and that Facebook has added dedicated staffers in the past six months to work with right-of-center organizations and leaders.

What's next: Clegg says that this is "the first stage of an on-going process" and that "Senator Kyl and his team will report again in a few months' time."

The bottom line: Accusations of political bias against Facebook and Big Tech have become a political weapon wielded by conservatives. It's doubtful an audit will stop that effort.

Go deeper: The full interim report.

Go deeper