Are social media biased?

Liberals who wish to explain the complex nature of issues such as immigration, healthcare or North Korean negotiations, will find it almost impossible to do so in a 280-character tweet or a picture.

Social media apps Twitter and Facebook [Illustrative] (photo credit: REUTERS)
Social media apps Twitter and Facebook [Illustrative]
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Conservatives blame tech giants for being biased. Recent statements by Trump and his digital campaign director Brad Parscale – such as “Social Media is totally discriminating against Republican-conservative voices,” and “conservatives have been shut out of YouTube, videos are devalued within the algorithm based on some of the view within it,” or “Google is a threat to the republic” – demonstrate their frustration from losing a major weapon in their campaign arsenal.
Is there a reason for such an outcry? In the 2016 campaign, social media platforms and especially Facebook were used to micro-target political ads in sophisticated ways never seen before. Psycho-graphic profiling – the disputed method used by Cambridge Analytica – matched specified ads with personal identities and behavioral traits. Although it is very hard to make a direct link between a person who saw a certain ad and his or her vote, the 2016 Trump campaign demonstrated highly impressive data collection and segmented targeting capacities.
The two years that have since passed were not boring for social media giants. The once-immune super-companies had to stand against criticism and backlash from their users, advertisers and above of all, governments. The Cambridge Analytica case opened the door for inquiry into Russian interference in the elections, as well as for ongoing mishandling of “fake news” and hate speech on their platforms.
Executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google were summoned to testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Mark Zuckerberg himself earned the privilege of answering tough questions from 44 senators. Europe went one step further and introduced the General Data Protection Regulation in May, which stands as the most assertive regulatory move against big tech companies so far. Finally, the market has spoken. Facebook lost about $120 billion when its stock plunged 20% following its financial reports.
Then things started to change. Twitter announced that it had cleaned its platform from millions of fake accounts and bots, while Facebook announced that it caught an attempt to disrupt mid-term elections. The change of mindsets and perhaps of policies is vivid in Facebook’s legal adviser Colin Stretch’s recent memo: “We need to build a user experience that conveys honesty and respect... we need to intentionally not collect data where possible, and to keep it only as long as we are using it to serve people... we need to be willing to pick sides when there are clear moral or humanitarian issues.”
THE PRESSURE that governments applied to tech giants hit like a boomerang. The platforms learned about the limitations of power the hard way. As a first defensive measure, they became much more careful with political content. Publishing political ads on Facebook takes now a few days and not a few minutes as before. Bots and fake accounts have been removed, at least some of which were promoting conservative content. Such changes impact both liberals and conservatives, so why are the complaints coming only form conservatives? Why is social media so important for them?
The answer could be found in the almost perfect match between social media’s algorithmic design and the conservative digital campaign strategy. Content published on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube competes for user time online. Among endless pieces of information presented on our screens, a post or a video that will get more attention must be short, simple and emotional. In the political context that correlates exactly with the current conservative campaign strategy of presenting reality in one dimension. Messages of winner vs. loser, good vs. bad and us vs. them usually emphasize fear or hate of the other. Those posts and messages get more attention, more “likes” and comments and get pushed up in the feed by the algorithm.
The starting point for liberal agendas and campaigning is much more difficult. Liberals who wish to explain the complex nature of issues such as immigration, healthcare or North Korean negotiations, will find it almost impossible to do so in a 280-character tweet or a picture. Logic-based arguments for social-political issues will not be as powerful as a picture that invokes fear and hate because our brains are evolutionary programmed to be more attuned to threats than to opportunities. Consequently, the conservative social media campaign strategy is in perfect alignment with social media companies’ business model and the human brain.
No wonder then that Trump and Parscale are frustrated. Any changes to the algorithms might significantly harm their social media campaign strategy. Perhaps the CEOs of Twitter, Facebook and Google realized the danger their platforms serve for the democratic process and are now working to fix it. Tech giants took a bigger step inside the political game.
The writer is the founder of Conntix. He practices and teaches about the intersection of technology, politics and conflict resolution.