ALLUM BOKHARI The Wall Street Journal has published internal material from anonymous sources at Facebook revealing that the company introduced tools that suppressed the traffic of Breitbart News by 20 percent, and other conservative publishers by double-digit margins.
The company introduced two tools after the 2016 election that disproportionately harmed conservative publishers. The Journal highlights internal Facebook research showing that if both tools were removed, it would increase traffic to Breitbart News by 20 percent, the Washington Times by 18 percent, Western Journal by 16 percent, and the Epoch Times by 11 percent. Facebook eventually removed one of the tools while keeping the other — but it is unclear which of them had the most impact on traffic.
According to the Wall Street Journal, one of Facebook’s researchers feared, “We could face significant backlash for having ‘experimented’ with distribution at the expense of conservative publishers.”
The story also revealed that Breitbart News is relegated to a “second tier” of the platform’s News Tab, where it gets less exposure than its corporate establishment competitors. On top of this, Facebook is directly paying Breitbart News’s competitors, establishment media conglomerates including the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times — while offering no such compensation to Breitbart News.
Despite Facebook’s favoritism and financial support of its establishment competitors, Breitbart News continues to be wildly popular with Facebook’s users. In August, data from Facebook-owned social media analytics company Crowdtangle showed Breitbart News demolishes its competitors in generating engagement from Facebook’s users. The data showed Breitbart earned more Facebook engagement than The New York Times, the Washington Post, and HuffPo combined. Breitbart surpassed the Wall Street Journal and CNN by healthy margins as well.
Clearly, Breitbart News is popular with Facebook users. But the choices of Facebook users do not appear to matter that much to Facebook’s employees. The internal discussions leaked to the Journal reveal employees who skew even more left than the company’s liberal upper management. Despite Mark Zuckerberg’s arguably pivotal efforts to put Joe Biden in the White House, Facebook’s token tolerance of some conservative publishers is considered intolerable by some employees, no matter how popular those publishers are with users.
The concerns have little to do with the accuracy of Breitbart News stories and much to do with their political perspective. The first three Breitbart articles mentioned by the Wall Street Journal as concerning to Facebook employees were factually accurate headlines about violent protests in the summer: “Minneapolis Mayhem: Riots in Masks,” “Massive Looting, Buildings in Flames, Bonfires!” and “BLM Protesters Pummel Police Cars on 101.”
If accuracy in news reporting were the top issue for Facebook employees, the establishment media’s attempts to cover up and downplay the violence (like CNN’s infamous “mostly peaceful protests” chyron) should have caused greater controversy. Instead, the far-left employees targeted Breitbart News.
In a discussion thread called “Get Breitbart out of News Tab,” the company’s employees brainstormed new policies that would see Breitbart News ejected from the feature, which distributes news stories to users from a curated list of websites while maintaining the appearance of neutrality. One employee suggested removing websites that saw their internal “trust score” (as measured by Facebook) decline, but expressed concern that the policy might also affect CNN.
As the Wall Street Journal notes, Facebook already punishes Breitbart News in relation to its competitors by relegating it to a “second tier” of the News Tab, which only delivers news tailored to user’s interests. In other words, only users who are already interested in content similar to Breitbart’s will receive its stories, limiting Breitbart’s ability to reach new readers.
Relegating Breitbart News to the second tier is not the only way Facebook suppresses conservatives. It also deliberately suppressed the influence of its most active and engaged users, most likely because those users favored conservative news.
“Sparing Sharing” and “Informed Engagement” were both introduced by Facebook after the 2016 election as part of an effort to curb so-called misinformation. The first tool reduced the spread of posts shared by Facebook’s most engaged users, aka “hyperposters,” a group Breitbart News is popular with. The second reduced the spread of content shared without reading it.
These are the two tools that, according to Facebook’s own research, suppressed traffic to Breitbart News by 20 percent.
Facebook eventually scrapped the second tool, “Informed Engagement,” but kept Sparing Sharing, which continued to punish the site’s most engaged users.
While the anonymous Facebook employees quoted in the Journal insist that the company should further suppress Breitbart News or eject it from the News Tab (where it is already relegated to the “second tier”), they provide little evidence of inaccuracy in Breitbart’s reporting.
The only recent example cited by the Journal is of Facebook punishing Breitbart News for livestreaming a news conference of doctors convening in Washington, DC, to discuss their thoughts on at-the-time unproven off-label drug use options for COVID treatment. Like any live event, this one, which included prominent doctors and a member of Congress, was impossible to edit or “fact check” in real time while it was happening.
The Wall Street Journal also highlights a mysterious “Facebook internal trust rating,” prepared by Facebook researchers. The Journal claims it shows Breitbart to be the least trusted news source in the U.S. and U.K., although it actually shows Breitbart News to be level with various establishment media publications in normalized average surveyed trust.
The Wall Street Journal provides just one slide from the internal study and no details about its methodology, who was surveyed, how their opinions were weighted, or who led the survey. In other words, the Wall Street Journal failed to verify the soundness of the methodology before publishing, or, if it did, chose to conceal it from readers. If the methodology is sound, why withhold it?
The slide also puts far-left outlets like Rolling Stone in the “trusted” quadrant, despite the magazine’s long history of publishing hoaxes, including a recent fake story about ivermectin overdose cases flooding Oklahoma hospitals, and the infamous 2014 UVA rape hoax.
Multiple outlets in the top quadrant, including CNN, NBC, The Atlantic, and the New York Times pushed the discredited Russiagate and Ukrainegate hoaxes throughout the Trump years. In 2020, The Atlantic, now owned by left-wing billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Steve Jobs, also published a bogus, still-unsubstantiated story based on anonymous sources claiming President Donald Trump called fallen soldiers “losers.” The Atlantic is set to lose $10 million this year after a $20 million loss last year.
What is clear from the Facebook survey is that people who trust The Atlantic and CNN do not trust Breitbart. This is not shocking news.
The Wall Street Journal’s story shows that opposition to Breitbart News within Facebook is not driven by concerns about it being unpopular or distrusted by users, or its stories being more inaccurate than establishment publishers.
No, the main concern of Facebook employees is that Breitbart News stories make their favorite political causes look bad.
In a “racial justice” chat board in the wake of the George Floyd riots last summer, pro-censorship Facebook employees complained that Breitbart News painted Black Lives Matter “in a very negative light,” but did not show any evidence that Breitbart News’s reporting was false or inaccurate.
To the contrary, the Facebook employee showed a series of screenshots of Breitbart News stories that were entirely accurate: “Minneapolis Mayhem: Riots in Masks,” “Massive Looting, Buildings in Flames, Bonfires!” and “BLM Protestors Pummel Police Cars on 101.”
It was not the quality or accuracy of these stories that concerned the Facebook employee. On the contrary, the Facebook employee was upset that the information was accurate, and that Breitbart News dared bring it to public attention. Despite being true, and, indeed, because they were true, the stories painted BLM in a “very negative light.”
The unspoken assumption behind the Facebook employee’s argument is that news organizations that do not deliberately downplay or ignore stories that make Black Lives Matter look bad should not be allowed on the News Tab.
Although Mark Zuckerberg has told congress that broad changes to Facebook’s policies and technology are not designed to censor conservatives, that appears to be precisely the motivation behind changes suggested by Facebook employees in the “racial justice” group, including a suggestion to remove sources from the News Tab if their “trust” score begins to decline.
The Facebook employee who raised the idea suggested such a policy could remove Breitbart News from the News Tab, but worried that it might also result in CNN being removed. In other words, the Facebook employee sought a policy that mostly harmed Breitbart, and not other news organizations, while appearing to apply to all — a policy just like “Sparing Sharing.”
In testimony before Congress in 2018, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted that Silicon Valley, where his company is based, is an “extremely left leaning place.” The San Francisco bay area regularly tops lists of the most liberal cities in America, and over 75 percent of donations from Facebook employees went to Democrats in the last cycle.
The most leftist employees at Facebook, therefore, are the extreme minority of an already-extreme minority.
These are people who hold views far to the left of average Americans. They are offended by the very suggestion that the mass terror that was perpetrated on American cities last summer in the name of “racial justice” might have been “negative.” They think mainstream political viewpoints, shared by large numbers of people on their platform, are “hateful” and “far right.” And yet this tiny, extreme, ideological bubble gets to control a platform that 36 percent of Americans rely on for news.
With Democrats in charge of the House, Senate, and White House, it appears that disgruntled leftists at Facebook believe the moment has come to start leaking.
That much was made clear by the Frances Haugen debacle, a Facebook “whistleblower,” backed by leftist billionaire Pierre Omidyar, who did little but demand government censorship of the platform, with her in charge of it.
Having done all they can to push for censorship internally at Facebook, the company’s most leftist employees now want to generate external pressure as well, including the threat of new legislation and regulatory action. The ultimate goal, as it has ever been, is more censorship of conservatives.
Allum Bokhari is the senior technology correspondent at Breitbart News. He is the author of #DELETED: Big Tech’s Battle to Erase the Trump Movement and Steal The Election.