Conservatives unfriend Facebook
Silicon Valley’s actions against the right create a “techlash”
On May 5, the Heritage Foundation announced it would no longer accept funds from big technology companies due to what it called an anti-conservative bias on platforms like Facebook and Google. Last year, the think tank rejected six-figure contributions from both companies. “We cannot in good conscience take money from a company that repeatedly, and blatantly, suppresses conservative speech on your platforms,” wrote Kay Coles James, president of Heritage, to Google CEO Sundar Pichai.
The vow spurred the Media Research Center to create a pledge from other conservative leaders to reject donations from tech giants. More than 40 conservative leaders, including those from The Family Research Council, Liberty Counsel, and the American Principles Project, signed it.
These moves are the latest signs of a swelling “techlash” on the right, fueled by concerns that Silicon Valley tech giants disproportionately demote and remove conservative posts and pages. Some conservatives now argue the companies should no longer be able to hide behind the curtain of their algorithms to excuse such incidents. Tech executives, who have long found allies on the right due to their success in the American marketplace, now face a hostile new political reality.
“For the longest time, Republican talking points about Big Tech were very positive,” said Jon Schweppe, director of policy at the American Principles Project, a pro-family think tank.
He said the tide began to shift around 2018, when Americans began to say social media companies preferred liberal viewpoints. And incidents seeming to confirm those views mounted: Twitter fact-checked former President Donald Trump’s tweets; reports leaked that Google employees discussed combatting Trump’s policies; Amazon prevented some conservative organizations from receiving donations; and Facebook and Twitter narrowed the reach of some conservative political voices. Social media companies have also come under fire from the right for giving Trump the boot in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
Facebook has also pulled political ads from the American Principles Project. Schweppe argues this gives Democrats an unfair advantage in elections: “When in a partisan way [social media companies] are censoring ads from the right and not the left—they’re having a huge impact on what voters see.”
Schweppe also points to the November 2018 election of Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., as a catalyst for changing attitudes on the right. Soon after his arrival, Hawley introduced a bill targeting tech companies’ liability protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). The CDA shields social media companies from facing liability for content users post, a protection other media do not have. Hawley’s bill would have required companies to prove they do not moderate content in politically biased ways in order to maintain those protections.
“When you look at it, the errors en masse are on one side and that is the conservative side. There are exceptions to that but it is overwhelming,” Kara Frederick, a research fellow on technology for the Heritage Foundation, said. “When you have the companies’ standards inconsistently applied and enforced, that’s a crisis of their own making.”
Some on the right still argue that social media platforms, as private companies, should be free from government interference and regulations, and that they can censor without violating the First Amendment. Americans for Prosperity, a libertarian-leaning group, has argued attempts to regulate social media companies, particularly by breaking them up, could backfire and hurt competition and innovation in the marketplace.
It’s unclear whether such voices will manage to stem the tide of the techlash or if the disenchantment will grow. Republicans, who have recently lost control of the White House and are in the minority in Congress, are also unable to implement their party’s policy agenda, even should they come to find intraparty common ground.
Schweppe says he hopes the GOP will take this time to iron out and rally around policies and solutions. Meanwhile, he says, the pressure is increasing: “Companies are having to take reform efforts on the right more seriously.”
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