It seems like plenty of conservatives have a love-hate relationship with Facebook. They love to leverage its power and rack up big numbers when a post goes viral. But they hate it when Facebook yanks something they’ve put up.
Conservative radio talk show host Todd Starnes thought he had grounds for complaint. He had quipped on his Facebook page that the owner of cattle that were grazing on federal land without a permit should have claimed they were Mexican cows seeking a better life. Facebook removed the post. On Fox News’ Hannity, Starnes blamed liberals.
"Liberals just don't have a sense of humor," Starnes said. "Not the first time they have come after me for something I wrote on Facebook. And a lot of people think it's Facebook removing conservative posts, but they tell us that it’s an algorithm that the liberals have somehow figured out and coincidentally all the people getting banned from Facebook are somehow conservatives."
There are two elements here to check. Is there an algorithm that liberals, or anyone, could exploit to bring down messages they don’t agree with? And are all the people getting banned from Facebook conservatives?
We reached out to Starnes for supporting details and didn’t hear back.
According to the press office at Facebook, there is no algorithm. The mega-social media site has community standards (Facebook says it does not tolerate bullying, hate speech and pornography, for examples) and readers can report posts that they think violate the rules. But a statement on the site says reports alone won’t bring a post down.
"The number of times something is reported doesn't determine whether or not it's removed from Facebook," the statement says.
A person, not an algorithm, decides the fate of a post.
"When a person reports something to Facebook, we review whether it violates our Community Standards," Facebook spokesman Matt Steinfeld told PunditFact. "Abusive content directed at private individuals and attacks on people based on their race, ethnicity or national origin will be removed when reported to us."
It is the abusive content, not the politics or ideology behind it, that lead to a post coming down. We were assured that the number of reports have no effect on the likelihood that a post will be reviewed.
So then there’s the question of whether only conservatives suffer at the hands of this system.
Starnes isn’t the first person to make a claim like this. At least one conservative website, facebookcensorship.com, has been set up for people to report when they feel they’ve been unfairly treated.
A website affiliated with the conservative Weekly Standard, Examiner.com, reported that several conservative groups and bloggers found themselves temporarily banned by Facebook. The Examiner linked this to an anti-spam feature that spotted people who posted to different pages too quickly.
Accurate or not, the instances don’t prove that Facebook only targets conservatives. The issue is: Do liberals make the same complaints?
In 2011, a liberal blogger wrote "liberal page administrators and bloggers in my network started spreading the word that they had been blocked from posting ANY content on ANY other wall for 15 days. No prior warning was given."
In 2012, a group called "Being Liberal" complained about being kicked off Facebook. "I believe that there is right now an 'army' of paid trolls working for the conservative black PR macjine (sic) that is reporting our content," a poster wrote.
A blog out of the Harvard Law School warned that the Facebook reviews inevitably will be subjective because they are done by human beings. One reporter who spent time at Facebook found that reviewers aim to make a decision within half a second. That wouldn’t leave much time for a careful assessment. There have been cases where Facebook has admitted that it made a mistake.
Starnes said all the people getting banned from Facebook are conservatives and that liberals had figured out a way to game the system. We could find no tally of conservative versus liberal complaints about troubles with Facebook. Starnes said all the people getting banned were conservatives and that is not the case.
As for the algorithm, Facebook says there isn’t one. Users report violations and staff at Facebook review those reports.
We rate this claim False.
Update: We've updated this fact-check with an additional example of a liberal group complaining of being blocked on Facebook after a reader noted that one our previous examples likely came from a satirical conservative group.
Fox News, Hannity, April 17, 2014
Fox News, Facebook Removes Post About Rancher Bundy, April 17, 2014
Facebook, Community standards
Facebook, Abuse reports and review process
National Journal, No, There (Probably) Isn't a Facebook Conspiracy to Censor Conservatives, July 2, 2013
FreakoutNation.com, Facebook appears to be censoring liberal content and Conservatives are reporting posts in lockstep, Dec. 9, 2013
Daily Kos, Facebook deletes liberal pages; censorship process shrouded in secrecy, Sept. 10, 2012
Liberallogic101.com, Facebook Censorship raises its ugly head again…, September 2013
Herdict Blog, Social Media Censorship, March 7, 2013
Liberal Lamp Post, Hey, Facebook: Are You Really Censoring Political Free Speech in America?, aug. 15, 2011
Examiner.com, Is Facebook actively censoring conservative bloggers?, Jan. 3, 2013
The Atlantic, Facebook Workers Try to Spend Less Than 1 Second Determining Whether Content Is 'Appropriate', Feb. 27, 2013
Email interview, Matt Steinfeld, spokesman, Facebook
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