Facebook documents show inner turmoil over approach to conservative content

Staff accused the site of making 'special exceptions' for some publishers.

REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

Facebook has long been accused of playing favorites on multiple sides of the political spectrum, and it's now clear just how much of that uproar extends to the company's ranks. A Wall Street Journal report based on internal Facebook documents shows the social network's leaders and staff have reportedly clashed numerous times over its approach to conservative content, particularly from outlets like Breitbart. Rank-and-file employees have accused Facebook of making "special exceptions" from policies for right-wing outlets, while senior-level staff warned of potential pitfalls.

Workers argued that Facebook kept Breitbart in a second tier of the News Tab, a section meant to focus on reliable news, despite very low trust and quality scores as well as misinformation violations. Facebook was not only making exceptions, one employee said, but "explicitly" endorsing outlets like this by including them as trusted partners. Staff claimed Facebook was "scared of political backlash" if it enforced policies equally, and believed the site let conservative influencers Diamond and Silk lobby fact checkers to avoid punishment for spreading misinformation.

Higher-ups countered with justifications for those decisions. They argued that booting a news outlet for trust scores would risk booting more mainstream outlets like CNN, for instance. When staff asked Facebook to intervene over Breitbart's alleged attempts to dodge sites' advertising blocks, a director said Facebook had to resist the urge and "rely on our principles and policies."

Facebook repeated its familiar stance in a response to The Journal, maintaining that limited access to low-quality material to "improve people's experiences," not due to political leanings. A spokesperson added that Facebook studied the effects of potential changes before implementing them, and that publishers like Breitbart still met requirements for honoring rules against misinformation and hate speech.

The revelations, which come following weeks of reporting from documents provided by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, likely won't satisfy people on either side of the American political spectrum. Liberals may be concerned Facebook is knowingly allowing the spread of heavily spun and outright false claims, while the right wing may see it as evidence of a claimed anti-conservative bias. The insights reveal a more conflicted approach to material, though. They also underscore the importance of tools meant to automatically limit the reach of misinformation — they could minimize internal debates by curbing fake news without requiring as much human input.

Update 10/25: This story was modified after publishing to give more background on the origin and nature of the internal Facebook documents.

This article contains affiliate links; if you click such a link and make a purchase, we may earn a commission.