Last week, several former “news curators” for Facebook revealed that the social media company was systematically blacklisting conservative outlets and conservative topics. Workers tasked with managing Facebook’s Trending Topics product made sure that topics harmful to progressives never found their way into the Trending Topics list.
After sending out a bunch of statements from various executives in a series of failed attempts to make the issue go away, Facebook was forced to send out Mark Zuckerberg himself to smooth the ruffled feathers of the conservative movement. Did Zuckerberg acknowledge that Facebook had repeatedly punished conservative outlets for being conservative? Of course not. He did, however, simultaneously claim that Facebook would conduct a thorough investigation of the allegations, and also that the allegations are totally false and without merit.
Zuckerberg then announced he would host a conversation with leading conservatives to discuss the issue. This is where the real con job begins. Facebook gave the game away with this post from Joel Kaplan, a former official in the George W. Bush White House who now heads up Facebook’s lobbying operation:
A lot of people at Facebook are working to figure out if there are parts of the Trending Topics process that are broken – and if so how they should be fixed. Though we’ve found no evidence the report is true, it is deeply troubling, and if there is a problem, we want to uncover it and correct it. We’ve written more on this topic here: http://newsroom.fb.com/…/05/information-about-trending-top…/
This matters to us because Facebook has always been a place where anyone can share their opinions and engage in discussion. And it especially matters to me. I’m Facebook’s VP of Global Public Policy, and I’m also a Republican and a conservative. We have a team that works to help ensure that everyone, including Republicans, can optimize their use of Facebook in communicating with constituents and fans. The leader of that team is Katie Harbath, a longtime Republican adviser and digital strategist.
I have heard the claims of bias from friends and colleagues. But that is not the truth of Facebook — and I want to share how we ensure we’re a home for all voices, including conservatives.
Look, I’m glad that Kaplan, whom I know and like and occasionally worked with on the Hill, was able to parlay a GOP White House gig into an extremely lucrative Facebook lobbying gig. But this just doesn’t pass the smell test. Kaplan runs the lobbying shop, not the news curation shop. Are we to believe that he has specific, personal knowledge that the confessions from Facebook’s own workers (as well as Facebook’s own documents that give step-by-step instructions on how to blacklist topics) were all just a pack of lies? Are we supposed to take his word over Facebook’s very own internal documents?
In the words of Jimmy Valmer: I mean, come on.
Facebook trotted out Kaplan not because he has any clue what’s actually going on in the bowels of the company’s news aggregation operation, but because he has a Republican pedigree.
The first three comments to his post give away the whole game:
Facebook CEO attaboy? Check.
Facebook COO attaboy? Check.
Facebook PR director attaboy? Check.
Facebook GOP soothsayer tweet? Check.
As every single statement from Facebook makes clear, the company refuses to admit it did anything wrong. So what is the point of this silly meeting in California? It can’t be to fix the problem of conservatives being blacklisted, because Facebook won’t even acknowledge that the problem even exists. No, the purpose of the meeting of leading conservatives whom Katie Harbath has heard of or is friends with is to scratch some egos in the hope that it’ll make the complaining itch go away (full disclosure: one of The Federalist‘s senior writers was invited to the Cali confab).
Here’s what Facebook likely wants the conservatives whom Katie Harbath saw on television to tell their audiences after they leave the Wednesday meeting:
Look, you guys. As you know, I’m a Very Important Conservative. And as a Very Important Conservative, I was super concerned about allegations that Facebook was routinely suppressing conservative outlets and conservative topics. But then Facebook invited me, as a Very Important Conservative, to convey my Very Important Conservative Thoughts to them. And you know what? They nodded their heads as they listened to my Very Important Conservative Opinions. And if they’re smart enough to understand that I’m a Very Important Conservative with Very Important Opinions, that means I can trust them. And if I can trust them, then you should trust them.
That’s the entire game. Facebook doesn’t care that a bunch of conservatives are pissed about their outlets being blacklisted. Facebook cares about making a PR headache go away. Facebook cares about GOP senators halting their investigation into the company. And since Facebook has repeatedly failed on its own to make the whole thing go away, it’s now going to enlist Republicans to make it go away for them.
This is, coincidentally, the exact same game that the Bush White House regularly played with conservatives on Capitol Hill when it desperately wanted them to keep quiet about some new big spending program favored by the White House. It’s a classic surrogate operation: when you know your primary messenger doesn’t have the credibility to make a message stick with a particular audience, you trot out your token member of that audience and tell them to preach to the choir.
As the senior budget staffer for one of the most budget-conscious senators in Washington during the Bush years, I watched this little charade play out week after week, month after month, year after year. Now I’m seeing the exact same play from the exact same playbook being run by the exact same playmakers. And you know what? I’m tired of it.
I’m tired of conservatives being cheap dates. I’m tired of conservatives allowing themselves to be played like fools by people who don’t give two craps about them or the conservative movement. So, to my conservative friends who’ve been invited to tomorrow’s little confab, I humbly offer this tiny plea: Don’t get played. You are smart and accomplished and impressive, but that’s not why you were invited. You were invited not because Mark Zuckerberg cares what you think (he doesn’t, at all), but because Facebook has a very specific role it wants you to play. But you don’t have to play it.
Facebook wants to make this go away. It wants the headlines to cease. It wants the investigative letters from Congress to disappear. And Facebook wants you to help them get away with it. Just remember: you don’t have to play along.