For as long as conservatives have waged culture wars in Canada they’ve complained the media and information landscape on which they fight those battles is biased against them. This is mostly self-serving fiction, given the editorial boards of our country’s newspapers consistently, and often overwhelmingly, endorse the conservative party of the moment.
But a pair of recent reports about the bias built into our social media networks should make the rest of us sit up and take notice.
Facebook’s inherent friendliness towards conservative causes is no secret to anyone who paid close attention to the 2020 presidential campaign. As Politico reported last September, “the Facebook posts with the most engagement in the United States most days — measured by likes, comments, shares and reactions — are from conservative voices outside the mainstream media.”
An anonymous Facebook executive suggested this was because “right-wing populism is always more engaging.” But the truth, as former employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen recently testified at a U.S. congressional hearing, is that the company’s algorithm is biased towards content that fans the flames of hatred and anger. “I am deeply concerned that they have made a product that can lead people away from their real communities and isolate them in these rabbit holes and these filter bubbles,” she said.
Twitter, it seems, isn’t much better on this front. According to a recent internal study of which content performs best on the platform, conservatives enjoy a built-in advantage here as well. "In six out of seven countries, tweets posted by political-right elected officials are algorithmically amplified more than the political left,” Twitter’s Rumman Chowdhury told the BBC. “ Right-leaning news outlets ... see greater amplification compared to left-leaning.”
That doesn’t appear to have anything to do with who’s in power at the time, either. “For example,” the study noted, “in the United Kingdom amplification favors the governing Conservatives, while in Canada the opposition Conservative Party of Canada is more highly amplified.” And where is this amplification effect most noticeable? Right here, in Canada, where Conservative voices are amplified nearly four times as much (167 per cent to 43 per cent) as Liberal ones.
Mainstream media has always favoured the conservative right. Now Facebook and Twitter are continuing that tradition. #extremism #mediabias @maxfawcett writes for @natobserver
If you want to understand why this matters and the impact it can have on democracy, look no further than the recent gubernatorial election in Virginia. In a state that went heavily for Joe Biden in 2020, the Democratic candidate was just defeated by Republican Glenn Youngkin, who spent much of the campaign talking about something that isn’t even taught in the state's schools: critical race theory (CRT). CRT examines how racism is embedded in everything from the criminal justice and banking systems to the labour and housing markets, but Republicans have successfully misrepresented it as an attack on white people — and used it to once again stoke the embers of the white grievance politics that helped elect Donald Trump.
Biden’s growing unpopularity, along with the general ineptitude of Democrats in Congress, were clearly contributing factors here. But so too was the steady diet of bullshit that Virginia voters were fed about the misrepresented theory. As former Obama administration staffer and Crooked Media show co-host Dan Pfeiffer wrote, “There is not a single student being taught CRT anywhere in the world, let alone Virginia. Yet, Youngkin was able to make a fake issue very real to Virginia voters.”
He was able to do that because of the combination of a right-wing media ecosystem that churns out misinformation and a pair of hugely influential social media platforms that continue to amplify it. “The right wing is able to create an alternative reality and then offer solutions to fake problems that people believe are Democrats’ fault,” Pfieffer wrote. “CRT probably played less of a role than a lot of pundits suggest, but the fact that Youngkin was able to make it an issue should be a giant warning sign about what is to come in 2022.”
More conflict ahead
It should be a warning sign to progressives in Canada as well. After all, while conservatives here have failed to recreate the kind of right-wing media ecosystem that thrives in the United States, it’s not for a lack of trying. Just because our country’s right-wing proxies aren’t as skilled at creating an alternate media universe as their American peers doesn’t mean they can’t get better at it — or that they’re not doing that as we speak.
The implications here also go well beyond the realm of partisan politics. Whether it’s our collective response to climate change or our attitudes towards vaccinations and other public health measures, these conversations are taking place more than ever on Twitter and Facebook. If we can’t trust them to elevate facts over fiction, we’re at risk of watching the informational water we all drink get poisoned by bad-faith actors. And if conservatives can invent grievances whole-cloth, as they have with CRT, and use social media to weaponize them against their political enemies, then we’re headed for a new dark age.
It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook can adjust their algorithms to elevate good information over bad, truth over lies, and expertise over conspiracies. But so far, the monetary incentives don’t seem to be leading them in that direction. If governments don’t step in and act soon, they may find themselves dealing with far bigger problems in the future.