Future Tense

What Glenn Beck Gets Right About Facebook and Bias

Glenn Beck likes what he sees in Silicon Valley.

Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images

Glenn Beck, of all people, may have just helped to defuse a controversy over allegations of liberal bias at Facebook.

After sitting down with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and a host of prominent conservatives this week, the pundit wrote a blog post provocatively titled “What disturbed me about the Facebook meeting.” It’s a clever headline because it sets you up to expect a diatribe against the social network. Instead, Beck points the finger at his fellow conservatives for overreacting to one ex-Facebook contractor’s anonymous allegations. Those allegations, published by the tech blog Gizmodo last week, incited a media frenzy and unleashed a wave of conservative outrage in which Facebook became the latest emblem of the vast liberal media conspiracy. (Here’s a primer on the whole convoluted controversy.)

Beck came away from the meeting impressed by Zuckerberg—but by his fellow conservatives, not so much. “I looked around the room, I heard the complaints, I listened to the perspectives, and not a single person in the room shared evidence of any wrongdoing,” he writes. Instead, he goes on:

I sat there looking around and heard things like:

1) Facebook has a very liberal workforce. Has Facebook considered diversity in their hiring practice? The country is 2% Mormon. Maybe Facebook’s company should better reflect that reality.

2) Maybe Facebook should consider a six-month training program to help their biased and liberal workforce understand and respect conservative opinions and values.

3) We need to see strong and specific steps to right this wrong.

It was like affirmative action for conservatives. When did conservatives start demanding quotas AND diversity training AND less people from Ivy League Colleges.

I sat there, looking around the room at ‘our side’ wondering, ‘Who are we?’ …

What happened to us? When did we become them?

He adds:

The overall tenor, to me, felt like the Salem Witch Trial: ‘Facebook, you must admit that you are screwing us, because if not, it proves you are screwing us.’

Beck gets some important things right here. For the conservative politicians and talking heads who fanned this firestorm, it was never about “evidence.” (It rarely is.) It was about seizing an opportunity to stoke resentment and mistrust of the media. That resentment and mistrust is crucial to causes like convincing people that climate change is a hoax or that Donald Trump is qualified for the presidency.

That the controversy is largely the product of cynical conservative grandstanding is not Beck’s only insight. He also recognizes that it is very much in Facebook’s own business interests to appeal to conservatives every bit as much as liberals, and he sees that Facebook is smart enough to recognize that, too. He writes that Facebook has in fact been as much a boon for conservative media as it has for liberal outlets. (If there’s anyone suffering from Facebook’s reign over the media, it’s probably centrists and nonpartisan organizations, whose messages tend to be less conducive to reflexive likes and clicks.) He recognizes that Facebook’s “trending” news feature, which lies at the center of the controversy, is peripheral to what the platform is really about.

Beck is also right that big Silicon Valley tech companies and their leaders share some values in common with him:

These are people who want to innovate and disrupt, they want the government to stop regulating their businesses, they want small business to succeed, they value personal responsibility, etc. Why they are liberal? I don’t know, but in general, they’re not Progressives, at least not the folks I met with today (though I’m sure there were a few).

No, Mark Zuckerberg is not a progressive. That said, it’s no mystery why he and other Silicon Valley CEOs consider themselves liberal. They’re liberal mainly on social issues because social conservatism is rooted in fear and resistance to change, whereas Silicon Valley’s ethos is one of boldness and embrace of change. Still, Beck is not wrong to find some common ground.

But the biggest thing Beck gets right, at least partly, is that bias is human and natural, and that the key is not to deny one’s biases but to acknowledge them. Early in his post, Beck writes:

Before I dig in, since I’ll be talking about bias, let me share a bit about mine. I have been an avid Facebook user for about 8 years. I have 3.2 million followers. I consistently see high engagement on my Facebook page. We have begun using Facebook’s live video streaming platform and are encouraged by the results and plan on utilizing it more. The Facebook staff has always treated me and my staff kindly. They have been responsive, helpful, and available. I came into the meeting today wanting to believe that Facebook was a good, if not perfect, actor.

By acknowledging those biases, Beck allows us to better evaluate his arguments and understand how he arrived at his conclusions. In the same spirit, I should say here in case it wasn’t blindingly obvious that I am not a political conservative; that I’m generally not inclined to view Beck favorably; and that as a writer for an online opinion magazine I tend to view bias as something to be acknowledged and disclosed and confronted rather than denied. As for my views on Facebook, they’re mixed but based on my years of experience covering the company I regard it as generally well-intentioned but also, like most for-profit multinational corporations, deeply self-interested. That probably helps to explain why I’m so certain that as a matter of policy, Facebook would not intentionally suppress news of interest to conservatives, whose ad dollars are worth just as much as liberals’.

But to get back to Beck’s biases: It’s not hard to see, given his stated desire to think well of Facebook, how he came out of Wednesday’s meeting with Zuckerberg thinking just that. The fact that he saw “no evidence” of deeper problems at Facebook is also not surprising given that he was there for at most a few hours, in a carefully staged setting, no doubt surrounded by a phalanx of PR handlers.

And for all the things Beck got right, I think he also got a few wrong. Facebook is not as committed to “openness” as he seems to believe, and while Zuckerberg may be “earnest” in some ways he is certainly not guileless. Most significantly, Beck misses what I believe is Facebook’s own crucial role in creating the conditions for this controversy. Specifically, I’ve argued that it’s the opaqueness of Facebook’s product and its own refusal to admit the possibility of human bias that set it up for its public drubbing, silly though it may have been.

Several days into the story, after it had spiraled out of the company’s control, Facebook published the guidelines its curators rely on to decide which stories belong in the trending news section, and which sources to link to. (It did this only after the Guardian had published a leaked version of them.) That act of transparency, belated and grudging though it may have been, was exactly what the company needed to demystify its decision-making process. If only Facebook had been more open about this from the start, it might never have had to meet with Beck or his cohorts. Beck himself seems to get that. Why doesn’t Zuckerberg?