On Wednesday, Sen. Ted Cruz presided over the latest in a litany of congressional hearings on social media companies’ supposed censorship of conservatives. But rather than being silenced, the right is dominating the largest online platforms, years of data reveal.
Cruz convened the hearing to investigate a temporary Twitter suspension for the conservative movie Unplanned. Shortly into the hearing, Twitter testified that the brief suspension was because the account’s previous owner had been permanently banned for breaking Twitter rules, triggering a ban-evasion filter on the account. The suspension, which was quickly overturned, had nothing to do with politics. It’s been scant, anecdotal evidence like this that conservatives have used to cry censorship. In fact, conservative content is huge performer on Facebook and YouTube, two of the largest social media platforms.
“I tell you, I have many, many millions of followers on Twitter and it’s different than it used to be,” Trump said. “Things are happening, names are taken off, people aren’t getting through. You’ve heard the same complaints. And it seems to be, if they’re conservative, if they’re Republicans, if they’re in a certain group, there’s discrimination and big discrimination. I see it absolutely on Twitter and Facebook, which I have also, and others I see.”
And Facebook is a red state.
The social media giant is a major news source for Americans, with 43 percent of adults saying they used it to find news, according to a 2018 Pew Research survey. The site’s best-performing pages skew conservative, data from social media monitor Newswhip shows. In February, Fox News received significantly more interactions than any other publisher on Facebook, with more than 45 million engagements. The U.K.’s conservative-leaning Daily Mail came second, with nearly 38 million engagements, followed by CNN (32 million engagements) and right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro’s website the Daily Wire (30 million engagements).
The same four sites led January’s charts, with CNN slightly edging out the Daily Mail. The trend is more than a two-month blip. A year earlier, in January 2018, Fox News was still the clear leader, followed by NBC, The New York Times, the fringe-right site Western Journal, then the Daily Mail and Daily Wire.
The trend held true for smaller political pages, too. Media Matters, a left-leaning organization, tracked 463 Facebook pages that actively posted about politics to an audience of 500,000 or more followers. Over course of the six-month study, released this week, right-leaning pages had 51 percent more interactions than left-leaning pages.
Still, the censorship myth persists, driven by prominent conservatives like Diamond and Silk, a pair of pro-Trump YouTubers. Both women appeared at an April 2018 congressional hearing on Facebook, where they claimed the website had censored them without contacting them. (Emails from Facebook later proved them wrong.)
YouTube is its own battleground for conservative content. The YouTube channel Prager University is one of the right’s biggest culture war hawks, producing videos aimed at young people.
Prager University seized the censorship debate after some of its videos were removed. Although a researcher at the think tank Data & Society found algorithmic reasons those videos might have been flagged (one video began with the word “rape,” which could have been automatically detected), Prager University accused YouTube of “deliberate censorship of conservative ideas.” (Part of the trouble, the Data & Society researcher noted, is YouTube’s lack of transparency, which makes it difficult to identify the algorithms and processes behind deletions.)
Prager University has since sued YouTube twice for alleged censorship. The first of those lawsuits was tossed by a judge who said Prager University failed to demonstrate a violation of its free speech rights.
While it waits on the second suit, Prager University is actually outpacing left-leaning channels in searches for certain terms associated with the left. As of Tuesday, the channel was in the top three YouTube results for searches on “social justice,” “socialism,” “leftism,” and “leftist.” The resulting videos (“What is Social Justice?” “Capitalism vs. Socialism,” “The Left Ruins Everything,” and “Why You Can’t Argue with a Leftist”) each have millions of views.
The channel’s placement near the top of YouTube results for left-leaning terms is more than an argument against Prager University’s alleged censorship. It’s also a clarion call to young people hoping to learn about terms like social justice or socialism. Young people, Prager University’s target demographic, use YouTube more than any other platform, according to a recent Pew Research survey.
Some of the right’s censorship claims stem from the same non-ideological struggles nearly every social media user faces. The platforms are under-regulated, groaning under the weight of glitches, and inevitably home to people we don’t like. A Twitter account for a conservative movie was briefly suspended this month after it accidentally tripped one of the site’s ban-evasion filters, NBC News’ Ben Collins reported. Although the account was quickly restored, conservatives cried censorship.
Meanwhile Media Matters, the left-leaning organization that conducted the study on Facebook traffic, recently had a YouTube video removed “for violating YouTube’s policy on harassment and bullying,” a YouTube notice reads.
The video had been a compilation documenting conservative conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’s attacks on parents whose children were murdered in the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting.