Last month, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) held a hearing to discuss what he perceived as a conservative bias on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. A representative of each of these companies sat before him and a panel composed predominantly of other Republicans. (The majority of the Democratic members decided to omit the hearing of "partiality" completely).
"Big Tech not only has the power to silence the voices with which they disagree, but Big Tech also has the power to collect a person's information so that they can only receive the news that matches their own political agenda, "Cruz said at the hearing.
Cruz acknowledged that most of his party's complaints stemmed solely from personal stories. "Much of the argument on this subject is anecdotal. It's based on one example or another, "Cruz said last month." There's a reason for that: because we do not have data. There is no transparency. No one knows how many speakers Facebook is blocking, how many speakers Twitter is blocking. Nobody knows what the raw data is in terms of bias. "
The lack of data has been a crucial force behind the Republicans' accusations that social networks are prejudiced against conservatives, taking advantage of the growing concerns of the Left over the privacy of the data and the marketplace Power Over and over again, conservatives such as Cruz and Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) have used personal stories and anecdotes to stoke resentment against the platforms and their moderators. And without larger data to refute them, the anecdotes are difficult to discuss.
On Wednesday, the White House took those theories a step further with a new tool for people who feel they have been censored by social networks. Companies like Facebook and Twitter is a disconcerting tool, which works equally well as a threat to social networking companies and a tool for creating of lists for the Trump campaign. But the true point of the form could be to fill the data gap pointed out by Cruz and further reinforce the feeling of Trump supporters that they are being victimized by moderators.
It would be difficult for the White House to take direct action In response to the reports submitted to the form. There is simply no real power of the White House over moderation decisions made by a third party, and both the First Amendment and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act could be a problem if the White House tries to intervene. There is also a strong call to anyone who subscribes to subscribe to an associated newsletter, expressing concern that the entire project is designed to build the fundraising lists for the campaign.
But in light of Cruz's concerns last month, the project could also have a more alarming purpose. Promoted strongly by the accounts of the White House and President Trump, it is very likely that the form gets the presentations from users who already agree that the bias against conservatives is a problem, which skews the results. At the next congressional hearing, Republicans could point to White House data indicating that the vast majority of incidents of moderation are aimed at conservatives, all based on the White House form. Without concrete data to say otherwise, it could become a powerful talking point.
Of course, the platforms have the data, they just do not share it. At that same hearing, Twitter's director of public policy and philanthropy, Carlos Monje Jr., said the company had conducted its own political bias study that suggested there was no political bias on the platform. "Our filtering and quality rating algorithms do not make Democrats' Tweets or Republican Tweets look different," Monje said in his opening comments. "Its performance is the same because the Twitter platform itself does not take sides."
But when asked to publish the study, Twitter refused, targeting lawmakers towards transparency reports that are published twice a year that do not include a breakdown of posts removed from people of different political affiliations. Platforms have said that they do not label publications based on political parties, but without independently derived data sets, it is impossible to refute these claims by conservatives.
Facebook's work with Social Science One could be a powerful example here. The company has millions of dollars for researchers and universities to study the impact of fake news on its platform, and the results will be made public once the work is completed. A similar effort aimed at this supposed political bias could help to guide the conversation of moderation to a more solid ground from the point of view of the facts.
There are obvious reasons why this has not happened. A publication of these data could be embarrassing for these companies, depending on what the researchers find. Even if the data shows the best practices of moderation, a full release could be unpredictable, taking the conversation to uncomfortable places. But because the Trump administration is likely to be preparing to turn the conservative bias into social networks into a major policy issue by 2020, the platforms simply can not allow the White House to set the terms of the debate. No matter how bad they are, the data on the platform would look better than what this form produces.