Facebook's Impact on our Elections

Show Notes


Peter and Eric talk about social media today, but with a DrillDown twist. Last week, Mark Zuckerberg told podcaster Joe Rogan that Facebook throttled the Hunter Biden laptop story on its platform on the say-so of the FBI.

That’s a mouthful, so let’s explain.

Back in October 2020, a month before the presidential election, the New York Post obtained the contents of a laptop computer that supposedly belonged to Hunter Biden. The Post published a bombshell story headlined “Smoking-gun email reveals how Hunter Biden introduced Ukrainian businessman to VP dad.”

The story was controversial from the start, with many large news organizations questioning the authenticity of the computer as well as the timing of its revelation right before a closely contested election. The New York Post said it had confirmed the authenticity of the computer’s contents through corroboration of events described and other means.

The story went viral on social media, but the two most influential platforms quickly took steps to censor it or to limit its reach. Twitter, under then-CEO Jack Dorsey, went so far as to ban sharing any link to the Post article on its platform. Facebook, as Zuckerberg described to Rogan, reduced its reach in its algorithm, which had the effect of preventing the story from being featured in users’ newsfeeds without actually banning the link from being posted to the site by its users.

Zuckerberg’s admission to Rogan was not even the first time he had acknowledged this action by Facebook. During a Senate hearing, conducted in late 2020 over online conferencing, he and Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin had a testy exchange in which Zuckerberg said Facebook received a warning from the FBI to be alert for attempts by Russia to inject disinformation into American social media.

As Peter says, there is a larger issue at stake the monetary value of the censorship employed by these companies.

“Money matters in politics,” Peter says. “But the dynamic today is that the lifeblood of campaigning is the ability of candidates to have social media influence or manipulate what people can see. Why? Because a company decision to censor a news story on its platform is not disclosed in the way monetary contributions are.”

“Most people get their information from social media, but the value to the Biden campaign of what Facebook and Twitter did can be worth hundreds of millions of dollars in terms of its effect.”

Officially, the FBI said something different about what it told Facebook back in 2020. The FBI said it issued general warnings about looking out for attempts by Russia and other nation-states to introduce disinformation into the election debate, but added they “cannot ask or compel companies to take action on their warning.” In other words, the FBI says Facebook and Twitter were on their own as far as deciding what to do about potentially fake news.

The problem is that in 2016 there was a lot of disinformation spread through social media channels, but it was about Donald Trump and his supposed ties to the Kremlin, all based on the now-discredited “Steele Dossier.” None of the social media platforms made any attempt to censor these false allegations. As Peter points out, that contrary example raises the question of whether the social media companies are functioning as “neutral platforms,” or as publishers.

The distinction is critical because Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act gives online platforms protection from being held legally liable for what users publish on their platforms, provided they are not moderating or removing content for reasons other than obscenity and other reasons that are not related to the content’s viewpoint. If they banned the Hunter Biden story because they didn’t like it, that makes them a publisher, not a neutral platform and, like any other publisher, they can be sued.

Now in 2022, even if they were acting in a partisan manner designed to help the presidential campaign of Joe Biden, it’s too late. Peter says recent polling since the laptop story was acknowledged as factually correct shows that the killing of the story had a “material effect” on the campaign. According to one poll about the story, Americans agreed that “truthful coverage would have changed the election outcome.”

Peter says, “Facebook basically said to Americans, ‘You’re our customers and we love you, but you’re too stupid to decide if this story is accurate or not, so we’re just going to not let you see it.’”

The Government Accountability Institute, of which Peter is President and Eric is Vice President, provided research for the 2018 documentary film, “The Creepy Line.” Featuring tech pioneer Jaron Lanier, psychologist Jordan Peterson, and Dr. Robert Epstein, the film explored the massive influence that Big Tech platforms like Facebook and Google have over the information Americans see and believe. Peter mentions Dr. Epstein’s work on search engine manipulation effect, which showed how powerful search engine rankings of articles can be. The film, still available to watch on Amazon, is a powerful indictment of how the major technology platforms have amassed enormous amounts of personal information on people, and on how powerful they have become in influencing people through subtle manipulation of the content they show people.

Dr. Epstein offered his own academic research on the power of search engine placement. Only one percent of people searching on Google will go to the second page of results. If Google is manipulating those results, and Epstein shows examples where they were doing so, they can manipulate the information people can get.

As Eric says, “Facebook and Twitter made intentional decisions about what content appears on their site.”

So, looking ahead, Eric asks “What are the odds they act neutral in the 2024 election?”

Peter says, “The bottom line is, if you look at Facebook’s history of censoring content, it always skews in one direction. They never censored any of the 2016 Russia hoax stuff…For any objective observer, they always seem to favor one side of the debate, and that is the Left.”

HBO host Bill Maher discussed all this on his show, “Both Sides,” recently. Maher noted there has been a huge shift in this story that show the press and the social media platforms improperly but deliberately buried it. “Was it appropriate for the press to bury the Hunter Biden story?” he asked his guest, filmmaker Rob Reiner. Reiner had no answer. Neither does Facebook.