President-elect Joe Biden says 'it's an embarrassment' that President Donald Trump is still refusing to concede the presidential race. USA TODAY
A former Democrat-turned-Trump supporter from Knightstown, Indiana, Gayla Baer-Taylor's blood pressure rose every time Facebook and Twitter fact-checked and restricted claims by President Donald Trump and other Republicans that the November election was rigged.
A couple weeks ago, Facebook put a notice referring users to official election results on one of her posts:"I'm going to need a MUCH bigger swear jar before President Trump completes his second term."
When did we get so stupid that we need social media to tell us what to think? she told USA TODAY.
A recent poll shows that majorities in both parties think political censorship is likely occurring on social media, but that belief is most prevalent on the political right. And,with the country in the throes of an unparalleled attempt by a sitting president to overturn the election and hold onto the White House, its growing.
Researchers say theyve found no evidence to support GOP grievances thatthe nations leading social media companies squelchconservative voices.
I know of no academic research that concludes there is a systemic bias liberal or conservative in either the content moderation policies or in the prioritization of content by algorithms by major social media platforms," said Steven Johnson, an information technology professor at the University of Virginia McIntire School of Commerce.
"If anything, Johnson said, there is evidence that content from highly conservative news sites is favored by Facebook algorithms.
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An analysis of millions of social media posts by Politico and the nonpartisan think tank Institute for Strategic Dialogue found that right-wing social media influencers, media outlets and other GOP supporters drove the online conversation about the Black Lives Matter movement and voter fraud, two of the most heated election issues.
According to research Johnson conducted with his University of Virginia colleagues Brent Kitchens and Peter Gray, typical conservative users, in months when they visited Facebook more than usual, read news that was about 30% more conservative than the online news they would typically read.Moreover, we found that Facebook usage is five times more polarizing for conservatives than for liberals, he said.
Facebook, Johnsonsaid, prioritizes content that is more engaging which is often more partisan content.
Facebook told Politico in September that right-wing personalities have a distinct advantage on the platform, not because thealgorithms favor conservatives, but because they connect with people on a visceral level.
Right-wing populism is always more engaging," a Facebook executive told Politico, when asked why Dan Bongino and Ben Shapiro drive such high engagement. The executive said the content speaks to "an incredibly strong, primitive emotion" by touching on such topics as "nation, protection, the other, anger, fear."
A supporter of President Trump yells at counterprotesters across the street during a rally to protest the election results outside the Georgia State Capitol on Nov. 14. President-elect Joe Biden has been declared the winner in Georgia, becoming the first Democratic nominee to win the state since 1992.(Photo: Elijah Nouvelage, Getty Images)
Researchers agree that algorithms dont have a political affiliation or party. Instead, algorithmsfavor content that elicits strong reactions from users, keeping them hooked so Facebook and Twitter can sell more advertising revenue.
A former Facebook employee, Adam Conner, now vice president of tech policy at the liberal Center for American Progress Action, told Politico that its absurd for Facebook to say this is just something thats playing out in a neutral way.
Facebook is not a mirror, he said. The news-feed algorithm is an accelerant.
The perception that social media is biasedhas been around for a long time but intensified in recent years asthe president made social media abuses a major plank of his administration and reelection campaign.
Nine in 10 Republicans and independents who lean toward the Republican Party say its at least somewhat likely that social media platforms censor political viewpoints they find objectionable, up slightly from 85% in 2018, according to an August report from the Pew Research Center.
With 89 million followers on Twitter and nearly 35 million on Facebook, Trump wields one of social medias largest megaphoneswhich will help him shape the national conversation long after he leaves office.
Every year, countless Americans are banned, blacklisted, and silenced through arbitrary or malicious enforcement of ever-shifting rules, Trump said during a September appearance with Attorney General William Barr.
Francesca Tripodi, an assistant professor in the University of North Carolinas School of Information and Library Science, says the bias accusations grew out of similar allegations against the mainstream media.
Part of it definitely stems from a larger distrust in institutions and access to information, said Tripodi, a senior faculty researcher with UNCs Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life. Part of it is linked to the overall opaqueness of the platforms.
Underlying it all is growing discomfort with a small cabal of megacompanies controlling the nations online conversation.
Some right-wing personalities including radio host Mark Levin and Fox News host Sean Hannity have joinedsocial media alternatives like Parler where pro-Trump conspiracy theories and unfounded allegations of voter fraud trend unfettered.
I think there is definitely merit behind this question: Do we really want such a small number of corporations controlling such a wide swath of how we access information? Tripodisaid.
Fueling the current outrage are high-profile cases of platforms flagging content or banning accounts, Johnson said.
Trump has consistently pushed the boundaries of what is allowed by these platforms things that would cause other accounts to be banned have been allowed due to a different policy for national leaders, Johnsonsaid. Once the social media platforms started adding labels on misleading and false content from high-profile users like Trump, the complaints of bias have grown even louder.
Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, confronted Twitter's Jack Dorsey in a recent Senate hearing over Facebook and Twitter throttlingthe spread of a New York Post article which made uncorroborated claims about Hunter Bidens business dealings.
Who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear? Cruzsaid.
Researchers say many groups across the political spectrum feel their opinions and perspectives are under siege fromsocial media, but its difficult to make the casethat the platforms are biased against any group since they disclose so little about how they decide what content is allowed and what is not.
Dorsey and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg say their platforms strike a balance between promoting free expression and removing hate, abuse and misinformation fromtheir platforms. Theyacknowledge making some enforcement errors but say their policies are applied fairly to everyone.
Baer-Taylor, whose Twitter bio jokes she'sPresident Elect Gayla, doesn't buy it.In her MAGA-infusedworld, social media has always been unfair to conservatives. I see it and experience it a lot, she said.
According to Baer-Taylor, increased censorship of right-wing voices during the COVID-19 pandemic and the presidential election helped hijack the vote to tip the election to Joe Biden.
Also frustrated is Krishnan Seshasayee, 47, an IT architect and Trump supporter from Illinois who leans Republican but worked on Obamas campaign in 2008 and donated to Tulsi Gabbard's campaign this election cycle.
Seshasayee believes social media should be treated as a tool that gives people a voice, like a mic or a pen.
Would a megaphone suppress the speech of the speaker? Would a pen suppress the thought flow of a writer? he said. It will best serve the people and themselves when they just remain as a platform to express opinions without judging the content of posts.
Facebook and Twitter have held meetings with high-profile conservatives to fend off persistent accusations of liberal bias, fueling speculationthat Dorsey and Zuckerberg were trying to appease Trump and keep out of his crosshairs.
Twitters Dorsey told lawmakers in Novemberthat the platforms should be more open with users about how content moderation decisions are made and should offer a straightforward way to appeal moderation decisions. Hed also like to see users be able to opt out of algorithms that determine what content they see on the platform.
But conservative author Denise McAllister says greater transparency wont help.
The platforms are not capable of consistently or fairly moderating content, so the only way to restore public trust is to get out of the content moderation business except in the case of violent threats or other illegal activities, even during election cycles when partisan propaganda and misinformation spreads wildly, she argues.
This is a platform, right? You don't need to act like mama Twitter or mama Facebook. Just let people say what they are going to say, whether its true, false, whatever. You have to just trust the people as individuals and not to try to impose power because you are going to do it inconsistently, said McAllister, author of What Men Want to Say to Women (But Cant) and "Spygate: The Attempted Sabotage of Donald J. Trump.
Knock off your good intentions and stop trying to do something you are not going to be able to accomplish and just deal with the fact that liberty is messy, free speech is going to offend everybody," she said. "One way or another, everyone needs to put their big girl panties on and their big boy panties on and just deal with it and stop trying to protect everyones feelings.
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