Why are social media platforms politically biased

United States

Erik Meyer

is a political scientist and works as a freelance journalist and lecturer on digitization in politics, pop and culture of remembrance. He is the author of "Between Participation and Platforming: Political Communication in the Digital Society" (2019)

A structural change in the public sphere can be observed in the USA. In addition to traditional mass media, social media are becoming more and more important as algorithmically personalized news channels. The regulation of political content and advertising poses challenges for the platforms.

Social media platforms have become an essential source of news for many citizens and thus also influence the formation of opinion on the US presidential election. (& copy picture-alliance, empics | Yui Mok)

For a long time, television in particular was seen as the decisive arena for US presidential election campaigns. There, the TV debates of candidates as staged media events already attract attention in the primary campaign before they lead to multiple duels between the presidential candidates and dominate political communication at the national level. At the same time, the small-scale structure of local and regional television stations and special-interest programs enables the differentiated display of political commercials. These are placed by the competing parties and people as well as by organizations that support them but are formally independent of their campaigns.

Politically, the fragmented media landscape in the United States, including the press, is also polarized along established lines of conflict: Many news channels and newspapers have an explicit agenda in the battle of opinion, which, in addition to commenting, shapes the respective reporting and mobilizes the audience politically.

Politicized and polarized media landscape

In this context, for example, the news channel "Fox News", with its affinity for right-wing conservative and populist positions and its boulevard-style presentation, advanced to a kind of "house channel" for President Donald Trump, who acted as a cue with his tweets. In the meantime, however, Trump identifies himself more strongly with the "One America News Network", which, for example, supports the president's pandemic policy, which is problematic from a virological perspective, with disinforming reporting. In contrast, the news channel MSNBC (Microsoft / National Broadcasting Company) positions itself with left-wing liberal opinion journalism. Some media actors are now more oriented towards an understanding of reality that is less defined by reference to verifiable facts.

Against this background, a finding becomes plausible that describes the situation on the part of the audience in mirror image. At the beginning of 2020, a study by the Pew Research Center A nation deeply divided in terms of trust in news sources: While supporters of the Democratic Party still trust 22 out of 30 media providers across the political spectrum, this only applies to two-thirds of adult US citizens who lean towards Republicans for seven of the 30 providers. It also appears dramatic that this gap increases over time.

Social media platforms as personalized news channels

This polarization of the US public and media landscape is structurally reinforced by the use of social media. For platforms like Facebook, the personalized delivery of content is part of the business model. Algorithms prioritize content on an individual basis News feed of users who match their profiles and (political) interests. In order to increase the length of stay on the respective platform, further content of a similar type is recommended or suitable ads are displayed (which in turn can be used to advertise target group-specific content). The user-side selection of content, which leads to the formation of ideologically compliant "echo chambers" (Cass Sunstein), is thus reinforced by the personalization of communication spaces created by the platforms, which are criticized as "filter bubbles" (Eli Pariser). From the point of view of communication science, such platforms and information offerings are therefore characterized as "algorithmically personalized news channels", which can potentially result in "threats to the political knowledge and opinion formation through personalized and one-sided opinion-consonant news contacts". [1]

The providers are faced with major challenges due to the increasing importance of social media platforms in political election campaigns. The logic of the platforms is characterized by their mediating function between users and content, which is why the term "information intermediaries" is also used: This is not about a specially created editorial offer, as is the case with traditional mass media, but rather the dissemination of user-generated content . Only after publication is it checked whether contributions conform to the rules of the platform and national laws and any violations are punished accordingly. One speaks of "content moderation".

These specifics also shape the role of the platforms in the US presidential election campaign. The starting point for the 2020 situation is the reaction to problems that became apparent during the 2016 election. At the time, the focus was on the one hand on a disinformation campaign, presumably of Russian origin, which was carried out in particular in social networks and which was reconstructed by the US Congress. Regardless, the immense spread of fake or Junk news problematized for election. Finally, the intensive use of the possibility of reaching the smallest target groups with tailor-made messages ("targeting") and political advertising was critically discussed. The Trump campaign in particular had perfected this.

Moderate moderation of political content

The platforms concerned (especially Facebook including Instagram and the short message service Twitter) have since responded to this with various measures and adjustments to their rules and procedures. This is an open-ended political process in which even minor changes to the platform design are introduced more experimentally. The aim is to make it difficult or even to prevent irregular, non-transparent and illegitimate influence on elections by manipulating the formation of opinions. Political advertising is an essential element of this self-regulation.

While Twitter and other platforms such as TikTok for mobile short videos meanwhile generally prohibit the advertising of political content, Facebook is trying to contain this profitable business area in part through restrictions and more transparency. The aim is to ensure that only authentic domestic actors can display political advertisements that are appropriately identified and then archived in an "advertising library" with information on costs, reach and targeting and that can be publicly researched. A more detailed examination of the content of such advertisements is only intended to a limited extent. The platform does not see itself as the publisher responsible for this and also argues in public with an intended, extensive preservation of freedom of expression. In this respect, factually incorrect information can also be disseminated there, even information that has already been identified by independent fact-checking initiatives. At the same time, there are also limits to this freedom of movement. Affected by this, for example, was the Trump campaign with an advertisement which, in the context of a criticism of "left-wing extremists", adopted the red triangle marking political prisoners under National Socialism. The ads with this were removed with reference to Facebook's crackdown on "organized hatred".

In the meantime, both Facebook and Twitter have explicitly forbidden the dissemination of misleading information about the election process on their platforms, also due to public pressure - with different consequences: At the end of May 2020, Twitter provided a tweet from the president with a warning because he untruthfully claimed that California was sending it Postal ballot papers to everyone in the state "regardless of who they are or how they got there". Additional information was linked, which contrasted Trump's claim with information from research and the press on postal voting.
Screenshot of Donald Trump's tweet about election fraud in California
Facebook, on the other hand, saw no reason for a similar intervention for the same post on its own platform. With regard to the handling of politicians' content, Twitter even took further measures a little later: A Trump tweet in connection with the demonstrations against the killing of the African-American George Floyd at a police checkpoint was "hidden" behind a warning, as he violated the ban of "glorification of violence" violate.
Screenshot of tweet from Donald Trump with warning notice

Normally, this finding would even lead to the deletion of the post, but for public figures both platforms use the news value of the communication as an occasion for exceptions. The fact that Facebook did not intervene in this case either led to vehement criticism inside and outside the company, including an advertising boycott by some international and US companies. Facebook has meanwhile announced that it will initially add a supplement to posts by politicians and finally all posts relating to the US election. This calls on users to visit the platform's "Voting Information Center". Official information from the US authorities about the election is stored there.

Partial Platforms - Partial News?

For Trump, the current approach of the social media platforms is evidence that conservative content is being censored by the supposedly liberal and democratic actors from Silicon Valley. He therefore issued a presidential decree at the end of May 2020 (Executive order) to "maintain freedom of expression", which threatens the platforms with extensive regulations with regard to legal responsibility for the content published there. Im Raum stands for users who see their freedom of expression restricted to migrate to providers who content moderation be programmatically less restrictive. The "Parler" platform is presented as a Twitter alternative that is growing rapidly in the course of the US election campaign and is particularly popular with the right-wing camp.

The initiative for its own reporting came from the environment of the Democratic Party in this election campaign cycle. For this purpose - from the perspective of the actors as a counterweight to far-reaching right-wing populist publications such as "Breitbart" - the "Courier Newsroom" was founded, which operates local, independent websites. Their content is in turn disseminated on Facebook as news content, supported by advertising in advertisements that are played out to specific target groups.

While this so-called boosted newsStrategy was openly communicated by those responsible for the Courier Newsroom, an even greater extent of this communication strategy on both sides of the political spectrum can be feared. The Tow Center for Digital Journalism In August 2020, identified a non-transparent network of 1,200 websites for the United States that publish local, partly automated messages with unclear intentions and distribute this content on Facebook. So that the identification used by the platform as a "news provider" for the classification of content by users is not impaired, Facebook now excludes actors with clear affiliation to political organizations and, like Twitter, explicitly identifies media that are close to the state and not editorially independent .

However, studies by the online magazine "BuzzFeed News" show that Facebook does not consistently apply its rules for news organizations that publish false information. Thus internally the revision of a warning was proposed, which concerned "PragerU (niversity)" - a right-wing provider of explanatory videos. Even if the problematic labeling of the content persisted, the resulting limitation of the range to "punish" the "good" advertisers was withdrawn.

Facebook's fact check by journalistic actors independent of the platform, which was established as a consequence of the US election in 2016, also appears politicized: For reasons of political balance, fact checks by an organization belonging to the right-wing publication "The Daily Caller" are also taken into account . This in turn is involved as a service provider in the election campaign of Republican candidates and the Trump campaign. Despite all the precautions and adjustments in the run-up to the 2020 US presidential election, the structural problems of many platforms in terms of political communication remain virulent. The current relevance of the platforms for the dissemination of conspiracy myths of the "QAnon" movement as well as the mobilization of its supporters, who believe, among other things, that members of a "secret state" intend to transform the USA into a dictatorship, is reminiscent of the similarly heated climate of opinion in the run-up to the 2016 US election.