Conservatives have long contended that social media giants like Facebook harbor an anti-right-wing bias. And even though there’s basically zero evidence to support that, that hasn’t stopped the social platforms from taking these concerns seriously — often, to the detriment of acting on its other stated goals, such as curbing inaccurate or outright dangerous information. That appears to have been what happened in the battle over a video posted by Live Action, an anti-abortion organization founded by activist Lila Rose.
In August, Rose posted a video titled “Abortion is NEVER medically necessary,” a recording of a speech she gave at a Young America’s Foundation event. According to Health Feedback, an independent fact-checking website, the video was shared about 6,000 times before its claims were vetted by a team of three doctors employed by the website. The doctors found that the information contained in the speech, including very title of the video, was false, as there are many conditions, including pre-eclampsia and placenta previa, in which ending a pregnancy via abortion is necessary to save the mother’s life. The physicians also pointed out that Rose’s video failed to mention that in cases where a mother goes into early labor, doctors will perform an abortion if the fetus has not developed sufficiently to be able to live outside the womb. The doctors concluded the Lila Rose video constituted “false news.”
On August 30th, as part of a wider effort to combat misinformation and propaganda on the platform, Facebook sent followers of the Live Action and Lila Rose pages a notification saying the video had been determined to contain “false” news. The notification also said that if the page continued to post information that was deemed false, it would see “limited distribution” and its ability to monetize would be “removed.” This sent conservatives into a tailspin, with Lila Rose launching a petition to get Facebook to “end the suppression of pro-life truth” and Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, among others, sending an angry letter to Facebook accusing it of exercising left-wing bias to stifle freedom of expression.
In the letter addressed to Mark Zuckerberg, the senators referred to the idea that abortion is never medically necessary as a “widely held view” and argued that the independent fact-checkers it used to assess the video were inherently biased, as they had previously been involved in “abortion-rights organizations” like NARAL and had performed the procedure. “The only thing more astonishing than your claim nonpartisanship is your complete failure to back the claim with proof,” the letter said.
Apparently cowed by the letter, Facebook removed the fact-checking notifications from the Lila Rose video. It also told BuzzFeed News that it had contacted the Independent Fact Checkers’ Network (IFCN), which accredited Health Feedback as an unbiased third-party fact-checking resource. IFCN has “opened an investigation to determine whether the fact checkers who rated this content did so by following procedures designed to ensure impartiality. While the IFCN investigates, we are removing the relevant fact checks and have communicated this to the members of the U.S. Senate who brought this specific concern to our attention.” (Facebook did not immediately respond to Rolling Stone‘s request for comment.)
For many who track the social media platforms, the battle over the Lila Rose video highlighted the platform’s struggle to placate two distinct groups, whose goals are sometimes inherently at odds: those who accuse it of political bias, and those who accuse it of failing to prevent the spread of inaccurate information. In a tweet, Natalie Martinez, an extremism and social media researcher at Media Matters for America, accused Facebook of throwing its fact-checkers “under the bus” as a way to prioritize “right-wing interests over preventing the spread of health misinformation,” pointing to Facebook tweaking its advertising policy last month to allow images depicting “medical tubes connected to the human body” (which are often used in anti-abortion propaganda) as an example. At the time, many speculated the policy change was in response to an audit of the platform led by Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, which concluded that Facebook’s “policies and their application have the potential to restrict free expression,” though the audit was highly criticized by both liberals and conservatives for its weak methodology.
The removal of the fact-checks was a huge coup for Live Action and Lila Rose, as well as right-wing politicians, who have been levying allegations of left-wing bias against Big Tech for years. The banning of far-right figures like former white nationalist GOP candidate Paul Nehlen, former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopolous, and far-right conspiracy theorist Laura Loomer prompted many on the right to cry censorship, with Donald Trump, Jr. referring to the ban as a “purposeful & calculated silencing of conservatives.” In April, Cruz spoke at a U.S. Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing accusing Facebook, Google, and Twitter of anti-conservative bias, saying, “If we have tech companies using the powers of monopoly to censor political speech, I think that raises real antitrust issues.” Hawley also appeared at the hearing, saying the lack of transparency regarding social platforms’ decision-making processes was “a huge, huge problem.”
In response, Facebook has consistently denied harboring any political bias whatsoever, with head of global policy management Monicka Bickert telling Yahoo Finance earlier this week that its content moderation guidelines are public and are applied to users on all sides of the political spectrum. “We want people to understand that they’re not applying their own subjective beliefs about what they think should be on the site,” Bickert said. “They have very granular rules that they have to apply. And those rules are now public for people to see.”