Last week Donald Trump issued a presidential tweet accusing Google and other tech companies of burying positive Trump and conservative news stories and promising his justice department would ‘look into it.’ This spawned a whole “new” discussion about a conservative bias in social media and has prompted a justice department inquiry. Discussion has generally followed the ‘WITCH HUNT NO COLLUSION LIBERAL BIAS’ pattern of conservative outrage that has poisoned national discourse for decades. These arguments about a conservative bias follow a familiar pattern of complaint, generally grounded in some type of First Amendment gripe followed by evidenceless accusations of bias by the Mainstream Media and the liberals supposedly controlling it. How this perceived ‘censorship’ of conservative content is likened to the suppression of protected free speech. I believe that these gripes stem from two sources; a misunderstanding of how social media works and the reality that social media reflects facts about the US populace that are not politically palatable to conservatives.
Mostly these gripes about bias, from technophobic septuagenarian officials to alt-right internet trolls, stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of how these social media companies and their platforms operate. In simple terms good, engaging content is elevated and less-engaging content is ignored. Algorithms that can parse out this engagement, via likes and clicks and shares, are what determines what gets elevated and what is ignored. It goes even further to the individual basis with content being curated, by algorithms, based upon prior engagement and other demographic factors. Even though these algorithms are written by people like engineers and software developers, they are merely guidelines of programmatic behavior that is based on certain inputs. It would be immediately evident if a company so nakedly manipulated algorithms. These luddites believe that there is some sinister (liberal) hand controlling what particular users might see or not see. They believe that, with the wave of a wand, Jack Dorsey of Twitter or Sundar Pichai of Google can magically boost some content and squash other. This is a gross misconception of what exactly governs what appears on social media. Social media is not curated or editorialized the way traditional media like newspapers and magazines are. No editorial committees or New York board rooms are determining what stories to run, which is how they tend to think of media in the traditional sense. Which is why it’s foolish to level these charges of bias at the CEOs, who are basically uninvolved in the construction of those algorithms and their subsequent inputs of engagement. If anyone is to blame its themselves, the kind of news they are generating, and how people are responding to them.
However it’s much easier to just blame big shady tech companies like Google or Facebook and opaque, esoteric algorithms for content getting buried rather than examining your own views critically and trying to understand why people don’t like it. These companies surely aren’t blameless in this situation we are all in, however they are more of a symptom than a cause.They weren’t the ones exposing campaign finance violation and reporting on sexual assault allegations and yanking immigrant children from their mothers. They merely supply the platforms by which this information is disseminated. It’s easier to scream Fake News and Witch Hunt than to have to come to grips with the idea that you or your views or actions that appeared in the news might be wrong or unpopular. Traditional media is a fundamentally top-down approach to content where social media is a bottom-up democratic approach to content. The First Amendment is responsible for protecting free speech, but it’s not responsible for forcing people to engage a certain way with speech they might not like or agree with.
The misunderstanding of the technical side of social media goes hand in hand with the shifting demographics of our nation and how conservatives perceive this bias. Evidence suggests that the majority of people in the United States in 2018, independent of party affiliation, would fall politically more left. Recent polling has Democrats winning on the generic ballot 58/42. Hillary Clinton had 3 million more votes than Trump. Trump and the GOP are historically unpopular and have effectively alienated everyone who is not a ultra-rich white man or poor white bigot. Populations are moving towards more cosmopolitan urban centers which are historically bastions of left-leaning politics. It’s not crazy to think social media and The Media as a whole would reflect this demographic reality. If Democrats are winning the generic ballot 60/40 among the electorate, basic statistics would suggest a similar sample of social media users would skew in the same way, and it’s expected that content would ultimately reflect that.
Conservatives have been complaining about the ‘lib mainstream media’ for years. It’s been a foundational plank of their platform for decades and is a main pillar of the GOP political machine. It’s certainly true that conservative ideals are ‘under attack’ in the sense that more people are waking up to the fact their policies are self-serving and damaging to the nation and it’s institutions. But this criticism is coming from a place of good faith, pragmatic policy analysis and a reflection of the shift in our demographics as a nation, not a partisan obfuscation or distortion of fact. The complaints of fake news and liberal bias fail to consider the possibility that maybe their policies simply aren’t that popular and engagement on social media is a manifestation of this. That people aren’t as stupid or misinformed as the GOP thinks they are, and they are starting to see past the shroud of tribalism and nationalism and partisanship the GOP tends to cloak their self-serving politics in. That their presidential victory in 2016 was less a political mandate from the people and more of an electoral aberration. Of course, this would require a certain level of critical thinking and honest self-awareness that the modern conservative movement is simply incapable of exercising at the moment. Instead they will continue to loot this country wholesale under the guise of demagoguery and polarization as the Trump presidency circles the drain.