To: Interested Parties
From: NARAL Pro-Choice America Research
Date: October 23, 2020
Decoding the Radical Right: How Republicans’ Phony Cries of “Censorship” Made Tech Complicit in the Right’s Anti-Democratic Attacks
AT A GLANCE: As Republicans resort to disinformation and propaganda in their efforts to undermine democracy and prop up Trump’s failing campaign, they’ve used baseless accusations of anti-conservative bias to pressure tech giants like Twitter and Facebook into looking the other way. In reality, Republicans’ phony cries of “censorship” have succeeded in bullying tech platforms into setting up a double standard that allows conservative disinformation to run virtually unchecked. These companies’ recent moves to change course on this are too little too late.
Until progressives can be equally bold in demanding stronger protections against online disinformation, tech companies will continue to be cowed by Republican demands and complicit in the right’s attacks on democracy.
From refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power to openly engaging in voter suppression and intimidation, Donald Trump and the Republican Party aren’t even trying to hide their blatant attacks on our democracy. With early indicators pointing towards major Democratic victories in 2020, Republicans have weaponized disinformation in a desperate attempt to prevent a blue wave.
With just days left until Election Day, prominent Republicans are fighting any efforts to limit the flow of disinformation by pushing bogus claims that top tech companies are engaging in anti-conservative “censorship.” Instead of championing policies and practices that would mitigate the threat of online disinformation to public health and our democracy, Republicans are using their “censorship” narrative to bully tech into allowing them to evade the rules that everyone else plays by. They have been spreading lies that support their political goals and using manipulative online tactics like “troll farms,” which pay people to spread lies online. Republicans are demanding tech platforms set up a double-standard in enforcing any rules or guidelines to ensure that prominent conservatives get preferential treatment online.
Republican politicians are pursuing this strategy instead of discussing the serious issues affecting everyday Americans. This reveals just how scared they are as we approach Election Day.
REPUBLICANS ARE DEMANDING PREFERENTIAL TREATMENT WHILE LINING UP BIG TECH AS AN ELECTION SCAPEGOAT
Taking a page from Russia’s successful disinformation campaign in 2016, Republicans have continuously shared false, misleading, and discredited information about everything from mail-in voting to Hunter Biden in the run-up to the election. Their relentless disinformation campaign relies on whipping up right-wing hysteria about non-existent “censorship” of conservatives to manipulate tech companies into giving them preferential treatment. And it’s working:
- Donald Trump attacked “Big Tech and Lamestream Media” after Vice President Joe Biden’s recent town hall, baselessly accusing them of working to hide Biden’s “corruption.” Trump has also repeatedly attacked social media companies for fact-checking him.
- The Trump administration pressured Republicans to increase scrutiny of tech companies’ content moderation practices and supposed anti-conservative bias weeks before the election.
- White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said the Trump administration was considering bringing more lawsuits against tech companies for anti-conservative bias and “censorship.”
- In the midst of widespread voter suppression and election interference campaigns, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) erroneously claimed that anti-conservative “censorship” by tech companies was the “single biggest threat” to democracy.
- Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) claimed tech companies were working to “rig” the election in favor of Democrats, while also accusing Facebook and Twitter of anti-conservative “censorship.”
- Eighteen House Republicans recently signed onto a letter calling for the Oversight Committee to hold a hearing on “Big Tech’s silencing of conservative viewpoints and censorship of news.”
Such disingenuous accusations of supposed anti-conservative bias have so far been successful at giving Republicans’ an undue advantage online, while also serving to rile up the Republican base and stoke the so-called culture war. They also provide a convenient distraction from Republicans’ glaring failures in leadership, while lining up tech as a scapegoat in the case that Democrats win by a landslide.
TECH COMPANIES ARE BIASED—IN FAVOR OF CONSERVATIVES
The tactic of claiming anti-conservative “censorship” by social media companies is far from new—the anti-choice movement has been relying on it for years to bully tech companies into allowing their lies to continue spreading unchecked.
And unfortunately, it’s worked. Instead of standing up for truth and democracy, the major tech companies have overwhelmingly bowed to their pressure campaigns. In one of the most jarring examples, Facebook censored its own fact-checkers after they correctly labeled anti-choice extremist Lila Rose’s egregious claim that “abortion is never medically necessary” as false. That’s because Rose and her Republican allies in the Senate stoked right-wing outrage over the decision, leading Facebook to cave under pressure and remove the fact check, empowering Rose and the anti-choice movement at large to continue spreading dangerous health disinformation about abortion.
The strategy of crying “censorship” has worked all too well for conservatives to ensure they get preferential treatment by tech companies. Their false claims that tech companies like Facebook favors liberals and Democrats disguise the plethora of evidence proving the direct opposite, including:
- Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s elevation of conservative Joel Kaplan, who has intervened in fact checks involving right wing pages and pundits like Charlie Kirk and Breitbart.
- Zuckerberg’s approval of changes to Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm designed to reduce the visibility of left-leaning news sites like Mother Jones to placate concerns from conservatives.
- Facebook’s egregious decision to include Breitbart as a “trusted” source for Facebook News, despite its well-recognized record of inaccurate reporting.
- Facebook’s decision to fire an employee who gathered evidence of the company’s preferential treatment of right-wing pages.
- Facebook’s decision to censor a non-partisan network of scientists who fact-checked climate change disinformation spread by PragerU.
- Facebook’s hesitation to remove blatant COVID-19 misinformation spread by Trump, including its decision to leave up a video where he suggested ingesting bleach as a treatment.
- Facebook’s refusal to remove a Trump post encouraging violence against “looters” that its own employees said violated the platform’s policy against inciting violence.
As the threat of disinformation and its potential impact on democracy has become more obvious to the public, social media companies have enacted modest (yet insufficient) changes to their policies ahead of the election. Of course, Republicans have opposed those slight changes.
Alarmingly, conservatives’ baseless “censorship” narrative distracts from urgent concerns from public health and human rights experts. Tech companies are harming their users by failing to stop the spread of misinformation, including dangerous health disinformation with real-world impacts; lagging on removing groups and pages that incite violence; and implementing harmful algorithms that increase polarization and even radicalize users.
IN REALITY, TECH’S CAPITULATION MEANS PREFERENTIAL TREATMENT FOR THE RIGHT, AND SUPPRESSION OF OTHER VOICES
By folding to Republican politicians and Radical Right activists and failing to check the flood of disinformation, hateful rhetoric, and outright lies, social media companies have been complicit in the Right’s efforts to undermine democracy and hurt public health.
We can’t let Republican’s bogus cries of “censorship” continue to go unchallenged—in reality, what they’re demanding is preferential treatment.
Free speech protections don’t require tech platforms to amplify harmful narratives, especially not when those harmful narratives are designed to drown out the truth and undermine others’ ability to be heard. The reality is that social media platforms provide bad actors with a digital megaphone and a favorable algorithm, even after they violate platform policies. By continuing to allow right-wing disinformers to lie to their massive audiences without repercussions, tech companies created a situation where fake news drowns out the truth and actors who abide by the rules have less reach online.
Actor and advocate Sacha Baron Cohen summed up the issue last year in an address to the Anti-Defamation League: “This is not about limiting anyone’s free speech. This is about giving people, including some of the most reprehensible people on earth, the biggest platform in history to reach a third of the planet. Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach.”