Thanks to a whistleblower who has shared tens of thousands of embarrassing internal documents with the press and government, Facebook has spent the last few weeks squirming. But one of the company’s loudest groups of detractors—right-wingers who criticize Big Tech as being censorious toward conservatives—doesn’t seem especially pleased.
According to politicians on Capitol Hill, including those on the right, former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen is a brave crusader exposing the harms and excesses of the world’s most powerful social network. But venture outside the hearing room and pundits in right-wing media are on a very different page, one where Haugen is a corrupt leftist whom Democrats and the mainstream press are cynically propping up to control social media for their own purposes. After Haugen appeared before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection to much bipartisan praise, conservative outlets began disparaging her personally and framing the affair as a made-up scandal. The reasons why these personalities have split with politicians on the issue are numerous, and they contain one interesting wrinkle: They illustrate just how reliant the right has been on Facebook’s dominance this whole time.
The background: Last month, the Wall Street Journal published a shocking series of articles based on documents that Haugen gathered in her last month at Facebook. The revelation that’s gotten the most publicity is that Facebook conducted internal research showing that its Instagram subsidiary exacerbates mental-health and body-image problems in young users, especially teenage girls. The documents also show that Facebook has repeatedly declined to change the algorithms that it knows are promoting divisive content (and in one instance when it did, that content thrived all the more dramatically). Content that elicits extreme reactions tends to receive more user engagement, which Facebook relies on to sell ads. Haugen’s central thesis is that Facebook consistently puts profits before the wellbeing of its users.
Enter the pro-Trump chattering class: Dan Bongino, on his Fox Nation show, claimed that Haugen is part of “a left-wing op—clearly, the evidence is everywhere—to get conservatives booted off Facebook.” He went on to implore conservatives not to work with her. Steven Crowder, of the YouTube show Louder With Crowder, and his co-hosts in a recent episode made a series of sexual and derogatory jokes about Haugen’s appearance before going on to connect her to Facebook’s moderation of the Hunter Biden laptop affair. (Social media companies depressed that story’s spread, citing policies about the dissemination of hacked materials.) Crowder also accused Haugen of trying to “pull on your heartstrings” by bringing up research about how some teen girls say Instagram makes their thoughts of suicide worse, and labeled her as part of the “predator feminist agenda.” Jesse Watters, on the Fox News show The Five, said it was ludicrous to blame Facebook for conflict and polarization in a monologue that was so resolute that his co-host Greg Gutfeld called it “a pretty impressive defense of Facebook” and joked that Watters was on the company’s board. (The other co-hosts were, admittedly, a bit more skeptical of Facebook.)
“Let’s just be clear about this: The new Democrat-media complex attack on Facebook is completely manufactured,” the Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro said on his show Wednesday, going on to accuse Democrats of orchestrating a power grab to control social media. He suggested that government regulation of news-feed algorithms would essentially amount to Democrats nudging people toward their own narratives. “She literally is revealing no new information that people did not know,” Shapiro said later of the internal Facebook research Haugen leaked on Instagram’s harmful effects on teens. “Anytime teenage girls are comparing themselves to some sort of ideal, this is not good for mental health.” (In fact, the revelation was not that Instagram is harmful to many teen girls, but that Facebook knew the extent of the problem through its own research and wasn’t forthcoming when Congress previously asked about it.) The Daily Wire has also run articles branding Haugen as a “leftist activist.”
While many Republicans in Congress have in the past echoed pundits’ complaints about social-media’s purported anti-conservative bias, during this episode they’ve split. During Tuesday’s hearing, there were no accusations that she was a puppet of the left. Indeed, even partisans didn’t seem to think this was a partisan issue. Instead, Republicans were vociferously appreciative of Haugen for coming forward. Their questioning evinced a real concern about the mental health impacts of Instagram on young users, and an interest in examining Facebook’s algorithms to address the harms they might be causing. The ranking member of the subcommittee, Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, thanked Haugen for sharing her message with the American people. Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, ranking member of the Commerce Committee at large, stressed that there was a lot of bipartisan concern. While conservative media have warned that regulating a private company like Facebook would amount to government overreach, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota suggested that Congress should intervene to address engagement-based algorithms that promote divisive content. He also promoted legislation that would update Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which he’s co-sponsoring with Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii.
Even Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Utah Sen. Mike Lee—not exactly moderate Republicans—showed support for Haugen. Cruz, who usually hijacks tech hearings to complain about anti-conservative bias, indicated that what Haugen had uncovered was “horrifying and deeply disturbing,” and spent most of his time trying to get a better understanding of the documents she’d leaked. Lee cited research from watchdog groups that supplemented Haugen’s claims. “Facebook isn’t being truthful, and also Facebook isn’t being adequately vigilant about protecting children from patently harmful content,” he said in a later interview on Fox News about the hearing. “I think there are a number of fixes we ought to adopt that would be helpful here.” If the Democrats and the media are conspiring to control Facebook, Republican lawmakers would seem to be accomplices.
Why the difference? Once explanation might be that right-wing media dominates on Facebook and arguably has the most to lose from, say, a government-forced algorithm change, particularly one that de-emphasizes content that elicits extreme emotions. Content from Shapiro, Bongino, and their ilk consistently appears in rankings for the best performing posts on any given day. Indeed, while Facebook is one of their favorite punching bags in their protests about political bias, it’s also a huge driver of traffic for them. A Facebook executive told Politico in 2020 that conservatives do so well on the platform because their content speaks to “an incredibly strong, primitive emotion,” which is exactly the sort of thing the news-feed algorithm rewards. No wonder these personalities have finally come out swinging for Facebook. The cliché about politics and strange bedfellows is there for a reason.