Vincent Harris Quoted on Inside Facebook’s GOP charm offensive

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After accusations of anti-conservative bias began to burn Facebook last week, the social media giant quietly reached out to Republican Party leaders to douse the brush fire.
It contacted the Republican National Committee, whose chairman, Reince Priebus, had publicly demanded that Facebook “answer for conservative censorship” — and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which had blasted out a fundraising email lumping the ostensibly neutral tech company in with the “liberal media,” according to a GOP source. The National Republican Congressional Committee, the GOP’s main House campaign arm, also heard from Facebook, the source added.
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In public posts and private meetings, Facebook has worked feverishly to contain the fallout from reports, first aired by the tech website Gizmodo, that its employees had overlooked conservative media in choosing news stories to run in its “Trending Topics” feature. The effort culminates Wednesday with a high-profile meeting at Facebook’s Silicon Valley headquarters, where CEO Mark Zuckerberg will try to convince a throng of conservative leaders that they can trust it as an unbiased news platform.
The company’s global public policy director, former George W. Bush aide Joel Kaplan, sought again this week to reject the bias accusations, using a post on his own Facebook page to highlight his experience as “a Republican and a conservative.” He noted the major role Facebook has played in the campaigns of GOP presidential hopefuls Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz.

So far, Facebook may have kept the controversy from spiraling out of control — Trump, notably, has yet to weigh in publicly. But not all conservatives may be easy to sway, especially amid frustration with Silicon Valley’s largely liberal political temperament. And that poses risks to a company that, while aspiring to become an even larger hub for news and advertising, cannot afford to risk alienating Republicans who are crucial to its own political agenda in D.C.

“I think people saw Facebook as a nonbiased, very fair algorithmic platform that wasn’t playing politics, and if they start to get labeled as a biased platform, that’s absolutely going to impact how I think conservatives spend money, how they think about the platform, and their trust in [what they’re] reading,” said Vincent Harris, a top GOP strategist.

Jonathan Garthwaite, the general manager for conservative sites RedState, Twitchy, Townhall and HotAir, told POLITICO he thought Zuckerberg’s company responded appropriately after the Gizmodo report surfaced May 9. But, Garthwaite added: “It was just a response. The proof will be what they do in the ensuing months.”

Garthwaite plans to attend Wednesday’s session, which will also include leaders like Barry Bennett, a top Trump aide; Zac Moffatt, a former digital adviser for Mitt Romney during his 2012 run for the White House; conservative commentator Glenn Beck; and S.E. Cupp, a political commentator on CNN. Late Monday, former Sen. Jim DeMint, the president of the Heritage Foundation, announced on Facebook he too would join Zuckerberg’s huddle. “Even before these recent allegations surfaced for years there were questions of whether conservative stories and authors were suppressed in the Facebook newsfeed,” he wrote.

Facebook confirmed some of the roster on Monday, though the company has declined to comment further on its strategy.

Some conservatives are skipping the meeting, however. The conservative news site Breitbart refused to accept the invitation, slamming Facebook for holding a “photo op.” Erick Erickson, a conservative commentator who previously ran RedState, said he too had been invited but could not attend, though he described it initially as “a positive sign.”

“Facebook is a private company and can do whatever it wants, but I do hope the company takes care to not just cater to one political view and does not censor stories because those stories conflict with the world view of the news editors or management,” Erickson wrote early Monday. He added: “Frankly, I think Facebook has been far more open and fair to conservatives than Twitter, which seems increasingly hostile toward conservatives.”

The initial GOP reaction was swift and hostile after Gizmodo, citing an anonymous source, said employees who vetted news for Facebook’s “Trending Topics” feature had routinely rejected stories from conservative news outlets while amplifying others. “Trending Topics,” which appears on the upper right-hand corner of Facebook’s website, is separate from the site’s main news feed but is still regarded as a driver of traffic.

But the Gizmodo report shed light on the degree to which human intervention, as opposed to neutral-seeming algorithms, shapes the content of the site’s news items. Within hours of the news breaking, Priebus tweeted that “Facebook must answer for conservative censorship,” while the NRSC blasted out a fundraising email asking supporters “to hold Facebook and the liberal media accountable.”

Facebook repeatedly has stressed that its internal guidelines prohibit employees from excluding political viewpoints — but even the appearance of bias has threatened its position as a neutral platform for news, political and otherwise. Like most tech giants, the company has labored to avoid the appearance it’s close to either party, and it’s sought to donate equally to Democrats and Republicans, despite the liberal leanings of its engineers in the Democrat-heavy Bay Area.

“Silicon Valley and conservatives have a lot of issues in common — we share similar approaches to privacy and security concerns, government regulations and free markets,” Cupp said, adding that she welcomes the opportunity to join the meeting with Zuckerberg and leading conservatives. “We should be working together in more concerted ways, and obviously this development was a setback.”

Garrett Johnson, who leads a Bay Area conservative tech organization called the Lincoln Initiative, said Silicon Valley’s broader political leanings have already created an inhospitable atmosphere for people on the right. “There is open hostility to people who consider themselves to be conservative … and openly make it known [at] Facebook and other companies,” he said.

For its part, Facebook has worked swiftly to combat the charges. In a post on his own Facebook page Saturday, Kaplan stressed that the company “has always been a place where anyone can share their opinions and engage in discussion.”

Facebook also responded to the furor by publishing for the first time its internal rules for reviewing “Trending Topics” stories, emphasizing that it demands objectivity of the employees. Days later, it promised to brief lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, according to an aide, though such a session hasn’t yet happened.

The company is also working on answering written questions from Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.), who said last week that his panel is exploring Facebook’s conduct on “consumer protection” grounds.

Even before Gizmodo’s story, however, Facebook’s relationship with the Republican Party seemed strained, especially after Zuckerberg found himself in open war with Trump over immigration.
Zuckerberg didn’t mention Trump by name when he sounded off last month against ”fearful voices calling for building walls” — but it was clear he had been referring to Republican candidate’s plan to fortify the U.S. border with Mexico. Trump’s campaign soon fired back at Zuckerberg in more explicit terms, urging him to “focus on innovation and jobs and their businesses and let the politicians make their policies.”

The spat largely has subsided — and Facebook is still planning to support the 2016 Republican convention, despite protests from liberal groups and civil rights activists, who have pressed the entire tech industry to withdraw from the event given Trump’s controversial statements about women and minorities.

Just as important, Facebook has become a crucial, unavoidable hub for political advertising. Attracted by large audiences and empowered with the company’s ability to target individual voters, Democrats and Republicans alike are expected to spend more than $1 billion trying to sway voters through digital ads during the 2016 presidential election cycle, according to some estimates, a large portion of which will run on Facebook. It will sell those very services at the GOP and Democratic conventions in 2016, much as it did for both parties in 2012.

Even the mere appearance of bias, however, casts fresh doubt on Facebook as an equitable platform for conservatives to promote political views. Facebook’s size and reach make it impossible to boycott — worldwide, it has more than 1.5 billion users — but the recent controversy might deter digital-wary Republicans from getting “more of the ad budget directed to digital,” said Elizabeth Wilner, senior vice president following political media at Kantar Media Intelligence. “This is a PR problem,” she said, “they need to put to bed quickly.”

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