Facebook executives resisted removing the right-wing Breitbart News site from the social media platform’s “news” tab because of fears that doing so would incur the wrath of Republicans in Congress and Trump administration figures, documents show.
According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, Facebook employees pushed for the site once helmed by ex-Trump adviser Steve Bannon to be struck from the curated group of trusted news outlets during the summer of 2020, when racial justice protests broke out across the country after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis, Minnesota police officer.
Breitbart, which Mr Bannon once described as a “platform” for the explicitly racist “alt-right” GOP faction known for its’ rabid support of former president Donald Trump, has long had a reputation for racial insensitivity. For many years, the site had a category for so-called “black crime” stories, and its articles were frequently shared on the former president’s now-defunct Twitter account.
One Facebook employee reportedly posted “get Breitbart out of News Tab” on the company’s internal message, and noted some of the site’s then-current headlines: “Minneapolis Mayhem: Riots in Masks,” “Massive Looting, Buildings in Flames, Bonfires!” and “BLM Protesters Pummel Police Cars on 101.” The employee wrote that such stories were “emblematic of a concerted effort at Breitbart and similarly hyperpartisan sources (none of which belong in News Tab) to paint Black Americans and Black-led movements in a very negative way”.
The Journal reports that while many Facebook employees agreed with their colleague’s sentiment, another co-worker noted that it would be “a very difficult policy discussion” because of the then-president’s affinity for Breitbart.
Other documents reviewed by multiple news outlets suggest that Facebook executives have responded to frequent (and false) charges from Republican elected officials – who frequently claim without evidence that the company somehow discriminates against conservatives when enforcing terms of service against harassment and hate speech – by making political considerations a central factor in their decision making, with one employee taking to the company’s message board to write: “We’re scared of political backlash if we enforce our policies without exemptions.”
Another reportedly took aim at the site in a parting memo to colleagues late last year: “We make special exceptions to our written policies for them, and we even explicitly endorse them by including them as trusted partners in our core products.”
Facebook has long faced criticism for the company’s seeming indifference to hate speech and misinformation on its platform, with many observers pointing to the head of the company’s Washington DC office – former George W Bush administration official Joel Kaplan – as a constant thorn in the side of those within Facebook who’ve pushed to crack down on such incendiary content.
According to The Washington Post, a whistleblower recently informed the newspaper that Mr Kaplan defended exempting Breitbart from the company’s rules against spreading false information.
Mr Kaplan reportedly told an employee who questioned the policy: “Do you want to start a fight with Steve Bannon?”
In a statement to the Post, the Facebook executive said he has “consistently pushed for fair treatment of all publishers, irrespective of ideological viewpoint, and advised that analytical and methodological rigor is especially important when it comes to algorithmic changes.”