Most people who have a problem with Facebook—even prominent ones—do not get to meet with Mark Zuckerberg. But a handful of well-known figures on the right have had the chance recently. On Monday, Politico reported that the Facebook CEO has been hosting a series of dinners with conservative journalists, right-wing celebrities, and at least one Republican lawmaker, Sen. Lindsey Graham, who grilled Zuckerberg about Facebook’s market dominance when he testified in a Senate hearing last year. The dinners, according to Politico, were held at one of Zuckerberg’s homes in California.
The conservatives in question ranged from odious to innocuous. Attendees included Tucker Carlson, the Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro, radio host Hugh Hewitt, Guy Benson of Townhall, Byron York of the Washington Examiner, and others. In a statement to Politico, Facebook said, “For years, Mark Zuckerberg has met with elected officials and thought leaders all across the political spectrum.” But so far it doesn’t appear that Zuckerberg has held any similar dinners with “thought leaders” on the left.
It should probably register as shocking that Zuckerberg met with Carlson, a Fox News host who in his current incarnation has called white supremacy a “hoax” and espoused nativist ideas to an audience of millions. But it isn’t at all surprising. We know that Zuckerberg likely leans left on most issues—it was only two weeks ago that he said that no one, even himself, deserves to be a billionaire. But Facebook is a major U.S. company facing heavy governmental scrutiny, and there are at least five decent theories that explain Facebook’s actions.
1. Running Facebook is kind of like running a country. More than 2.7 billion people use Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, or some combination of the three. Zuckerberg isn’t funding schools or leading a military, but his social network helps spread the information that people see before an election, is used by millions of small businesses and nonprofits, and is one of the biggest advertising platforms on the planet. So it makes sense he’d grant an audience to an influential group that has an issue with how he’s doing his job—even though not every group is getting such a privilege.
2. Conservatives’ imaginary case against Facebook might be less scary than liberals’ real one. Politico reported that many of the topics discussed at the dinners centered around concerns of free speech on Facebook, unfair treatment of conservatives, and how the company plans to address these complaints. But there hasn’t been any proof that Facebook disfavors conservative content in its news feed or on its other platforms—and a recent audit by former Sen. Jon Kyl looking into this issue was only able to surface more anecdotal grievances. It just might be easier to allay complaints with no evidence than, say, any number of concerns supported by a tremendous amount of evidence, like disinformation or foreign operatives meddling in U.S. elections or Facebook’s immense market power. It’s certainly easier than doing what Sen. Elizabeth Warren wants, which is to unwind Facebook’s mergers with Instagram and WhatsApp.
3. Conservatives are very good at complaining about social media—and can whip up a political backlash. President Donald Trump has groused about bias on Facebook for nearly two years now, which has helped inspire multiple congressional hearings on the topic, including one in April 2018 featuring pro-Trump Facebook personalities Diamond and Silk. Trump also hosted a summit in the White House earlier this year in which he invited a cadre of right-wing figures, including conspiracy theory boosters and Infowars regulars, to hash out the issue of conservative bias on social media. Facebook even tweaked its advertising policies earlier this year in response to complaints, which allowed for more sensational content around anti-abortion ads in particular. Meanwhile, racial justice activists have been complaining for far longer and with heaps of evidence about how they’ve been censored and kicked off Facebook in the course of their work, which Facebook only addressed with an audit after conservatives got one following their baseless claims of bias. (This, despite the fact that Facebook was previously found to actually have a policy that would require moderators to remove hate speech if it was against white men but not black children.)
4. What conservatives might really want is for Facebook not to moderate content—not a bad outcome for Facebook. If Trump and many fringe-right critics got their way, Facebook wouldn’t do the kind of moderation needed to ensure that the 2020 election isn’t as plagued by misinformation and inauthentic accounts as 2016 and 2018 were. The solution to ending any perceived bias is to let anything go. While Facebook has increased its content moderation since 2016 to address hateful and misleading content, it’s also created exceptions where it gives a wider berth to political content, like the new rule that doesn’t apply fact-checking to statements from politicians. Moderation is really, really tough at scale—not to mention harmful for the people who are left to ferret out the abusive content. The people Zuckerberg dined with would likely like the company to do a lot less of it.
5. Conservatives are big users of Facebook—and huge spenders. Facebook’s business benefits greatly from the right—including the far right. The user numbers are huge. Fox News currently has 32 million followers on Facebook, dwarfing CNN, which currently only has 17.2 million, according to data from CrowdTangle. Over the past 12 months, Fox News has raked in 323.94 million interactions—reactions, comments, and shares—compared with CNN’s 182.46 million. Meanwhile, Trump’s reelection campaign is far outspending other candidates on Facebook ads and boosted posts—to the tune of more than $20.7 million between May 2018 and October 2019, more than all the Democratic presidential candidates combined. And conservative pages on Facebook perform phenomenally especially compared with their liberal counterparts. Shapiro, one of the most popular podcasters on the right, has more than 5.5 million followers on Facebook, while Pod Save America, the popular left-wing podcast, has just over 100,000. All of this brings lots of eyeballs and dollars to Facebook—and Zuckerberg is just a CEO entertaining some of his biggest clients. Some of those clients may say abhorrent things, but right now, they’re also well within the Republican mainstream.