It is considered a historical certainty on the right that during President Obama’s first term, the IRS pursued a political vendetta against conservative advocacy groups seeking non-profit status. It is even common to hear Republicans imply that politically motivated targeting of Tea Party groups may have cost Mitt Romney the 2012 presidential election.
In reality, the IRS “scandal” was the unhappy byproduct of an agency being tasked with determining the validity of claims to non-profit status, but lacking the proper resources to do it or clear guidance on how. The fact that new Tea Party groups, many with dubious claim to non-profit status, had flooded the IRS with applications compounded the difficulty. The agency thus used watchwords like “tea party” and “progressive” to, in its words, triage the workload.
For the purposes of ginning up voters, that story is much less useful than one in which a liberal agency leader masterminded a sabotage campaign against patriotic conservatives trying to rescue the country from Obama. And so the IRS scandal was born.
Flash forward to this week, when John Thune, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, launched an inquiry into Facebook’s “trending topics” after an anonymous, conservative former Facebook worker told Gawker Media that the social media giant empowered reviewers to suppress conservative news and blacklist conservative news sources on the basis of naked political bias. The GOP’s intense interest in imposing content neutrality on a private company has inspired comparisons to the defunct “fairness doctrine” that used to regulate public-affairs content on U.S. airwaves. Republican beneficiaries of conservative talk radio turned the fairness doctrine into a free-speech bogeyman, but they take a much kinder view of the concept if it can be used to reduce alleged liberal bias online.
At a glance, the IRS and Facebook “scandals” bear little resemblance to one another—but the imperative both organizations face to sort truth from fiction creates a key similarity. Facebook has denied the core allegation fairly strongly. But it is easy to imagine how a conservative Facebooker might see his coworkers manipulating Facebook trending topics, and walk away convinced of a conspiracy exactly like the one the right imagines unfolded at the IRS.
Much like the IRS, inundated with non-profit status applications from groups that by all appearances were created for electioneering purposes, Facebook is a vast dumping ground for viral political content, much of which is garbage, some of which is bigoted, and some of which carries information that is outright false. It would be irresponsible of Facebook to facilitate the spread of birther nonsense or September 11 conspiracy theories by letting an algorithm pull such stories into trending topics without override power.
Thus, like the IRS, Facebook needs to triage. And here the differences between mainstream and liberal political content on the one hand, and conservative content on the other, become critical. Facebook reviewers tasked with “disregard[ing] junk … hoaxes or subjects with insufficient sources” are going to ensnare more climate-change denialism, more birther stories, more racist Breitbart agitprop than anything comparably dubious that comes out of the liberal internet. And those dubious stories will come not just from fringe sites or content farms, but from prestige outlets of the online right. Presumably liberal hoaxes and inaccurate liberal news are also bumped from trending topics (would Facebook let a celebrity’s anti-vaccine story linger there for long?)—yet among the presumably liberal ranks of Facebook workers, this is probably seen not as suppression, but as obligatory empiricism and social responsibility.
Much of this is admittedly conjecture. But acknowledging the reality of what Facebook grapples with doesn’t serve Republicans’ political interests. If they really wanted to get to the bottom of the Facebook controversy, they would have to implicitly acknowledge that climate-change denial is crankery and Glenn Beck is a charlatan, and sacrifice the political upside: incensing conservatives by alleging a scandal. Mythmaking around both the IRS and Facebook flaps summons more outrage, sharpens a sense of victimization, and thus creates a larger appetite for right-wing electioneering groups and conspiracy theories. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle of bullshit.
The differences between the IRS and Facebook are numerous, of course. The IRS is obligated to use a neutral basis for sniffing out tax cheats, while Facebook is a lightly regulated Internet company that has the right to be a Democratic Party propaganda machine if it wants to. As a matter of principle, Facebook shouldn’t claim any of its features are fully automated, free from human meddling, if that simply isn’t true. But the fact that Facebook may have shaded the truth about trending topics doesn’t obligate anyone to give conspiracy-mongers with a rooting interest in stirring up right-wing anger the benefit of the doubt.
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