Welcome to Secret Identity, our regular column on identity and its role in politics and policy.
Prominent conservatives, including activists, members of Congress and President Trump himself, are increasingly arguing that companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter are discriminating against people with right-leaning political views. The Department of Justice is hinting that it will formally investigate the issue. Among the accusations are that social media companies suspend the accounts of people on the right more often than left-leaning accounts, and that the companies prevent content created by conservatives from being widely seen, while featuring liberal-leaning content more prominently.
Tech companies aggressively deny that they have a systemic bias against conservatives. (And I think the facts are with them — as I will explain later.) But this bias charge seems unlikely to go away. Most of all: I suspect this is really an argument about political identity, not the details of algorithms or how stories are promoted. Conservatives are implying that Big Tech (think Apple, Facebook, Google, Netflix and Twitter) is inherently anti-conservative because the tech industry is dominated by liberals. It’s the same concern conservatives have about colleges and universities, the entertainment industry and the news media. As this argument goes, an industry dominated by liberals is likely to make decisions that favor liberals.
Let’s look at both of these arguments: Is Big Tech stacked with liberals and, if it is, how might that affect its decisions?
We don’t have a comprehensive survey of the political leanings of employees at major tech companies. But we have a lot of evidence that conservatives do have a point about the politics of the people who make up the tech industry’s leadership and staff:
- Donations from employees at major tech companies overwhelmingly went to Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016.1
- According to the Center for Responsive Politics, among people who gave more than $200 in 2016, the vast majority of donations from employees whose industry was categorized as “internet” went to Clinton.
- A survey of 600 technology company leaders and founders conducted last year found that 75 percent of the group backed Clinton in 2016, compared to 9 percent who supported Trump. Of this group, 61 percent identified themselves as Democrats; 14 percent identify as Republicans. They favored increased immigration to the U.S. and supported giving Americans universal health care even if it meant raising taxes — two views generally opposed by the Republican Party. (On the other hand, these tech executives were leery of new regulations on businesses, which Democrats broadly support.)
- Apple chief executive Tim Cook hosted a fundraising event for Clinton in 2016; Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg worked in President Bill Clinton’s administration as a top aide to then-Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and was a strong backer of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign; Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s first big foray into national politics was pushing for legislation that would have provided a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants (that was a bipartisan idea at the time, but the opposition to it came largely from the right).
- Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey has suggested publicly that many of his employees lean left politically.
So let’s accept that these companies are largely staffed by liberals.2 The big question then is: What are the implications of that liberalism? Claims that Twitter is making it hard for people to see their posts have been debunked. There is little evidence that the social media companies intentionally downplay content by right-leaning outlets that follow general news norms, such as The Weekly Standard, or conservative figures like Trump. Some of the prominent people who have been banned from some major tech platforms, such as Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos, are right-leaning. But tech companies have cited those two in particular for producing content that promotes hate against particular groups.
In fact, some scholars say tech companies go out of their way not to offend conservatives, even though recent research shows that false stories that were produced and widely shared during the 2016 election on Facebook were much more likely to favor Trump than Clinton. “The platforms have a strong economic incentive to avoid alienating partisans on either side,” said Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at University of Michigan’s school of public policy who specializes in researching how misconceptions about politics and policy gain traction and acceptance. “As a result, they frequently bend over backward to avoid perceptions of unfairness.”
Kathleen Searles, a political scientist at Louisiana State University who specializes in political communication, argued that, “For the most part, allegations of political bias are overblown. People have been seeing the world through their own partisan lens forever, and people have also effectively carried out all sorts of duties that require them to privilege neutrality or objectivity for eons, and that has not changed.”
But that doesn’t mean conservatives don’t have a case. When I asked Neil Malhotra, a professor at the Stanford Business School who was one of the authors of the study of the politics of tech executives, if it was possible for institutions dominated by liberals to be fair to conservatives, he was skeptical.
“Based on everything we know about unconscious bias, probably not,” he said. “Suppose we rephrase your question: ‘Can an institution dominated by whites treat racial minorities fairly?’ In principle, yes, but empirically often not. That is why putting institutional safeguards within organizations is important, and why diversity is important for organizations.”
The core question here is whether people can put aside their personal political or ideological views in professional settings and act impartially — and specifically, can that happen at a workplace where one perspective is dominant. There is a lot of research into bias, but there are no conclusive answers about the extent to which people can set their biases aside. Academics generally have not reached a consensus on whether there is a systemic liberal bias in political coverage. At the same time, experts say one of the strongest biases is not political belief but confirmation bias, meaning people tend to look for evidence supporting what they already believe. So you could imagine that people who, say, view Trump negatively (like many tech employees) might not change their minds about him too quickly, even if he takes steps that should change their views.
This question about whether and how tech companies should determine what constitutes unacceptable behavior or speech mirrors these debates in other sectors. Does Trump get more negative coverage in the news media than previous presidents because the press is liberal or because he lies often and has more internal drama in his administration than previous presidents? Was it unfair to conservatives that Roseanne Barr was fired from her television job for a racist tweet about Barack Obama’s adviser and friend Valerie Jarrett, but comedian Samantha Bee was not dismissed after referring to Ivanka Trump as a “cunt?” Liberals accurately noted that Barr, unlike Bee, had a long record of incidenciary remarks, while conservatives say that the disparate treatment is explained by the fact that the entertainment industry favors Obama over Trump.
As I said earlier, look for this debate to continue. If the long history of conservative complaints about the news media, entertainment industry and academia are any guide, conservatives will continue to cast the tech industry as essentially always biased against conservatives because of the liberal leanings of its employees. Liberals will argue that the attacks on these institutions are basically a bad-faith effort by conservatives whose real mission is to disempower the media, tech and any other influential part of society that does not lean to the right. And the tech companies will vacillate between acknowledging their liberalism and trying to adjust for it (by hiring and doing outreach to conservatives) and arguing that they have institutional norms that prevent bias.
Or maybe big tech, which has showed innovative thinking on a number of issues, can break through on this one too. But I doubt it. I’ve been in the news media for 20 years — and we haven’t gotten anywhere close to resolving this tension.
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