AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Something we've heard from Republicans for quite some time now is they don't trust Facebook. Just today President Trump called for the repeal of legal protections for the tech industry. That was after Facebook removed one of the president's posts, which made a false claim about the coronavirus. And here's Republican Congressman Jim Jordan back in July.
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JIM JORDAN: I'll just cut to the chase. Big Tech's out to get conservatives. That's not a suspicion. That's not a hunch. That's a fact.
CHANG: Well, we wanted to follow the facts on this argument, so we turned to NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.
CHANG: All right. Just before we begin, we should note that Facebook is a financial supporter of NPR. Now, Bobby, what specifically are Republican lawmakers accusing Facebook of doing when it comes to conservative viewpoints?
ALLYN: Yeah. So when conservatives talk about Facebook not giving them a fair shake, you know, they're really talking about two separate things - first, that Facebook silences conservative voices by taking down right-wing views. And on that, there's just no evidence. And secondly, there's this idea that conservative news is suppressed on Facebook. And to evaluate that, we just need more data. Facebook keeps information like the top 10 most popular news items totally secret. And so that creates this big vacuum, and into that vacuum goes, you know, lots of speculation and conjecture. I talked to Kathy Qian. She's a data scientist with Code for Democracy.
KATHY QIAN: Facebook can't just release more data about what people see privately, right? So it's kind of like a purgatory of their own making.
ALLYN: Right - a purgatory of their own making because Facebook refuses to open its hood and show the public what people are seeing on the site. But we do have a little bit of data, Ailsa.
CHANG: OK, so what does that data tell us?
ALLYN: Yeah. There's this tool called CrowdTangle. It's owned by Facebook, and it measures engagement. So, you know, every time you like or give a sad face or leave a comment, it counts all that stuff up. And far and away the most engaged-with content comes from conservatives - so commentators like Ben Shapiro and right-wing outlets like Breitbart. So that tells us something - right? - that, you know, conservative stories are pulling people in unlike anything else. But just because posts have lots of likes doesn't mean it's the most popular thing on Facebook. Here's data scientist Qian again. She says, you know those emoji reactions you can do on Facebook? She said it's kind of hard to understand what they mean sometimes.
QIAN: The laughing face - like, what does that mean? It can mean, like, you know, I agree with this, or, like, this is so hilariously untrue. It's just really hard to tell what people actually mean by those reactions.
ALLYN: Yeah, I'm not so much of a hate-liker on Facebook, but I do know a few.
CHANG: So do I. All right, so we don't know exactly what's popular on Facebook, but we do know that conservative outlets do draw a lot of responses online. So how about Facebook pulling President Trump's post like it did today? Does that suggest Facebook is targeting the president?
ALLYN: Yeah. So whenever Facebook acts on Trump's posts, it's going to get a lot of attention, though that doesn't necessarily mean that Facebook is out to get the president. You know, Facebook very well may be pulling down more conservative posts than liberal posts. But, you know, I talked to a lot of former Facebook employees, and they told me that's just because there is more extreme right-wing content floating around on Facebook. The conservative media world is very well-developed and has such a passionate following, and some of this stuff, as we know, stretches the truth or just contains straight-up falsehoods. Brendan Nyhan is a political scientist at Dartmouth who studies Facebook. He thinks it's the opposite of a conservative bias. He says in order to appease conservatives, Facebook is, you know, bending over backwards sometimes.
BRENDAN NYHAN: They are incredibly concerned about being seen as on the side of liberals. That is against the profit motives of their business. So I don't see any reason to think they have a secret, hidden liberal agenda.
ALLYN: Right. So it all comes back to this Facebook black box. And until Facebook gives us more data, the debate is just going to be very frustrating.
CHANG: That is NPR's Bobby Allyn.
Thank you, Bobby.
ALLYN: Thanks, Ailsa.
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