Commentary Magazine

Silicon Valley Is Right to Worry About Its Liberal Bias

AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, FILE

In his now infamous internal memo, the software engineer James Damore wrote about “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.” The document alleged that the number of women in the tech sector was disproportionate to the number of men because of individual life choices and not, as was the consensus opinion, pervasive misogyny. The memo was deemed an “anti-diversity” rant by Fortune, Vox.com, CNN, Business Insider, CNBC, and NBC News, among others, and resulted in Damore’s termination. The memo’s central claim, however, that “the overwhelming majority of the social sciences, media, and Google lean left” ignited no controversy.

In the intervening months, some of social media’s most prominent personalities confirmed Damore’s observation about the prevailing political culture in the tech sector. “Facebook and the tech industry are located in Silicon Valley, which is an extremely left-leaning place,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg confessed before members of Congress. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey agreed. “We need to constantly show that we are not adding our own bias, which I fully admit is more left-leaning,” he told CNN’s Brian Stelter. Though both social-media magnates insisted that their firms did not regulate content based on ideological considerations, the record suggests otherwise.

This week, a post on Facebook’s internal message board caught fire. “We Have a Problem with Political Diversity” blared a headline echoing the sentiments expressed by James Damore. “We are a political monoculture that’s intolerant of different views,” the item flatly declared. “We claim to welcome all perspectives but are quick to attack—often in mobs—anyone who presents a view that appears to be in opposition to left-leaning ideology.” This call to action resulted in the formation of a group of more than 100 Facebook employees dedicated to challenging what they see as their employer’s ideological homogeneity and political intolerance.

None of this is happening in a vacuum. It’s a response to the perceptible tension between these emerging media giants and the public. As information technology providers become more integrated into American’s lives, and social media demonstrates a disproportionate capacity to influence the national political dialogue, familiar patterns are emerging. Just as conservatives saw the political biases dominant in Hollywood’s social culture reflected in the film and television products they produced, politically active Republicans are beginning to gain a sense of their political isolation from the digital world. This is not a fringe phenomenon either.

A July Pew Research Center survey found that 72 percent of all Americans believe it is either “somewhat” or “very likely” that social-media companies “censor political viewpoints they find objectionable,” including 85 percent of Republican or Republican-leaning respondents. Forty-three percent of people Pew polled think major tech firms support the views of liberals over those of conservatives—a view shared by a surprising 28 percent of self-described Democratic respondents.

Those who believe that liberal political bias is pervasive in the tech industry are not without evidence to support their claim. In late July, VICE News reported that Twitter’s drop-down search function excluded the profiles of prominent Republicans, including Representatives Jim Jordan, Mark Meadows, and Matt Gaetz, as well as RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel. Activists alleged that the invisibility of these accounts amounted to a “shadow ban,” a practice in which Twitter insisted they did not engage. The social-media company did, however, admit that their efforts to “address bad-faith actors who intend to manipulate or distract from healthy conversation” may have been overbroad, and they had resolved the “shadow-ban” issue with some minor tweaks to the algorithm that filters users who engage in “troll-like behaviors.”

This past May, several former “news curators” who worked in Facebook’s news division confessed to Gizmodo that they were instructed to “inject” stories into the website’s trending news section even if these stories were not popular enough to merit the attention. “Stories covered by conservative outlets (like Breitbart, Washington Examiner, and Newsmax) that were trending enough to be picked up by Facebook’s algorithm were excluded unless mainstream sites like the New York Times, the BBC, and CNN covered the same stories,” the report read. “It was absolutely bias,” one former curator acknowledged. “We were doing it subjectively.”

As is his habit, President Donald Trump recently issued the worst possible restatement of the right’s grievance against the arbiters of news value in Silicon Valley. Somehow, the president became convinced on Tuesday that Google was actively censoring results for “Trump News” so that the search’s returns would reflect poorly on him and his administration. This wild assertion from the president of the United States, the most written-about person on the planet, compelled members of his administration to imply that they were seriously investigating potential remedies to address the alleged bias.

At best, this is kooky nonsense, which is cold comfort considering its author commands America’s nuclear arsenal. At worst, it is an effort by the executive branch to threaten a private media entity with consequences if it does not actively promote favorable coverage of the federal government. That’s un-American, and it’s not harmless. Google’s willingness to accommodate China’s censorious demands shows how morally malleable the company can be when confronted by the powerful.

It is, however, true that fringe “news” sites on the right and the left are not treated equally by Google’s automated search functions. The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson postulates that right-leaning news sites caught up in quality filters only have themselves to blame. “The reality is that progressives and left-leaning news outfits tend to build better sites,” he wrote. “They do more customization and put more thought and energy into unique sites. They use less tracking and scripts. So progressive sites play better in Google.” Further, there are compelling arguments for taking down irresponsible content from Google-owned platforms such as YouTube. Given the defamation cases proceeding against these incendiary voices, hosting this content amounts to a terms-of-service violation and may even invite legal exposure.

Conservatives with an interest in maintaining their credibility would do well to internalize these criticisms. In a marketplace that rewards attention in whatever form it takes, being notorious is good for the bottom line. And yet, the tech industry’s public-relations crisis is neither a figment of conservative imaginations nor due comeuppance. What’s more, a broad perception of industry-wide anti-conservative prejudice could generate a significant backlash.

Marveling over the internal dissent against Facebook’s political culture, Georgetown University Law Professor Randy Barnett observed that the mounting opposition “sounds like how the Federalist Society got started in law schools.” That once humble organization is currently shifting the nation’s judiciary toward the right and will leave a mark that persists for a generation or more. Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg are right to be worried.

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