Aug 20, 2020 - Technology

Facebook can't appease either political party ahead of the election

Illustration of a donkey and elephant walking away from one another and breaking the tethered line

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Efforts by Facebook to appear politically neutral are growing complicated as critics on the left allege the company is over-pandering to conservatives and critics on the right allege the tech giant is biased against them.

Why it matters: Because of the enormous role Facebook plays in political campaigns, it risks being blamed for the outcome of the presidential election — regardless of who wins.

Driving the news: Facebook on Wednesday said it had taken action on thousands of QAnon accounts, posts, groups and ads on Facebook and Instagram as a part of updating policies around dangerous individuals and organizations.

  • Facebook said it will restrict the spread of QAnon content, but it will still let people post in support of the movement if they're not violating Facebook's other polices.
  • The policy is aimed at curbing organizations and movements "that have demonstrated significant risks to public safety" but do not meet the criteria to be banned from Facebook altogether.
  • The QAnon conspiracy has shifted from a fringe conspiracy theory into a sprawling network of falsehoods tacitly and sometimes explicitly endorsed by high-level officials.
  • President Trump said during a Wednesday press briefing that QAnon supporters "like me very much" and "love America."

Between the lines: The move comes amid a growing body of stories and research suggesting the tech giant gives conservative groups a wide berth to skirt its rules in an attempt to defuse unproven claims from right-wing politicians and media figures that it's biased against them.

  • Facebook scaled back its voter registration kickoff following complaints from the Trump campaign, the Tech Transparency Project said Wednesday, citing company emails to state officials obtained by the group. CEO Mark Zuckerberg in June said Facebook wanted to help 4 million people register to vote.
  • Facebook fired an employee who had collected evidence of right-wing pages getting preferential treatment, BuzzFeed News reported earlier this month.
  • NBC News separately reported, citing anonymous Facebook employees, that Facebook let conservative outlets and personalities spread false information without penalty.

Yes, but: Conservatives don't feel pandered to. Republicans used their time during the blockbuster hearing with Big Tech CEOs last month to accuse their companies of political bias against conservatives.

What they're saying: "While many Republicans think we should do one thing, many Democrats think we should do the exact opposite," a Facebook spokesperson said. "Our job is to create one consistent set of rules that applies equally to everyone."

  • "You can never win," a longtime tech industry Republican told Axios. "Oftentimes, if people are mad on both sides of the aisle, it means you're doing something right."

The other side: "I think Facebook peddles this narrative in which the fact that ‘both sides’ are always yelling at them proves they’re appropriately neutral," Jesse Lehrich, a Democratic strategist and co-founder of Accountable Tech, told Axios. "But the two sides are often asymmetrical. And when it comes to truth, or hate, or democracy, being neutral is nothing to be proud of."

The big picture: Most Americans say it's at least somewhat likely that social media platforms intentionally censor political viewpoints that they find objectionable, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

  • The survey indicates that the right has succeeded in turning its censorship claims into a mainstream belief.

Go deeper: Most Americans think social media platforms censor political viewpoints

Go deeper