Facebook and the art of angering both sides

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg got a private admonishment from President Barack Obama shortly after Donald Trump’s presidential election victory, The Washington Post reported Sunday. In a conversation on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit in Peru, Obama questioned whether Facebook’s content filter was too porous, enabling false information to spread and bolster Trump’s candidacy.

Zuckerberg must have felt a bit of whiplash. Only six months earlier, he had met with a group of prominent conservatives who contended that Facebook’s filter was too restrictive, suppressing the kind of right-leaning news that could help GOP candidates, such as Trump.

Such is the lot of a major news company — and Facebook surely is one, whether it embraces the label or not. It is possible, perhaps inevitable, to simultaneously be accused of displaying a liberal bias and doing too little to keep the far right in check.

Just look at the 2016 presidential candidates’ conflicting appraisals of the media’s performance during the race.

Trump describes the media as an “opposition party” that tried its hardest to prevent his election and now attempts to undermine him at every turn.

Hillary Clinton told Vox this month that the media failed to scrutinize Trump enough. “I don’t think the press did their job in this election, with very few exceptions,” she said.

Now Facebook, too, has mastered the art of angering both sides.

A major source of frustration among Democrats has been the technology giant’s reluctance to reveal everything it knows about Russian efforts to use Facebook as a platform for campaign-season propaganda. After initially resisting, Zuckerberg announced Thursday that Facebook would turn over to congressional investigators copies of more than 3,000 online political advertisements bought through Russian accounts during the campaign.

Facebook announced on Sept. 21 that it would turn over copies of 3,000 political ads brought by Russian accounts during the 2016 election, after previously showing some to congressional investigators. (The Washington Post)

Meanwhile, Facebook remains a villain in the eyes of some conservatives who contend that the social network’s ban on hate speech is really an affront to free speech.

After Facebook announced a plan to hire 3,000 additional content monitors, Daily Caller Deputy Editor Scott Greer wrote in July that “while Facebook claims they aren’t trying to censor political views in this endeavor, they are clearly going to censor political views, judging by their definition.”

Conservative distrust of Facebook escalated last year when Gizmodo reported that some Facebook workers who curated the network’s trending news section allowed their own, mostly liberal political views to influence which stories qualify for promotion in a special box on users’ homepages. It was this report that prompted Zuckerberg’s meeting with big-name conservatives, such as Glenn Beck and Tucker Carlson in May.

Facebook responded by changing the way it identifies trending topics; most notably, it ditched human editors.

That didn’t entirely fix the problem, however. The Washington Post’s Intersect blog reported last fall that in the absence of human editors, Facebook had repeatedly trended fake news.

This is Facebook’s recurring dilemma: Every step it takes to appease one political constituency irritates another.