Facebook woos US conservatives with cordial campus tour
Meeting between Mark Zuckerberg and Republicans aimed at defusing row over liberal bias
Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook’s success depended on ’everyone feeling comfortable sharing anything they want.’ Photograph: AFP
Cordiality reigned and pleasantries were exchanged. There was talk of virtual reality, a tour of Frank Gehry-designed buildings — and only a hint of disagreement.
After more than a week of controversy over allegations that Facebook displays a liberal media bias, a group of 16 Republican pundits and politicians met the social network’s chief, Mark Zuckerberg, its chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, and other top executives on Wednesday.
The tête-à-tête at Facebook’s headquarters was an attempt by the company to mend fences with conservatives — and, by most accounts, it was a step in the right direction.
The 90-minute meeting was described as mostly collegial, sympathetic and inquisitive by those in attendance. Some of the time was spent airing concerns and grievances — quite politely — with the group saying they felt conservatives did not have a true voice in the generally liberal area of Silicon Valley.
To reassure attendees that Facebook is open to all perspectives, the company walked them through a technical presentation on how it surfaces the most popular news stories on the site.
When the group raised the issue of ideological diversity — or a lack thereof — among employees at Facebook, who mostly lean left, there was a pause. Attendees struggled to come to an agreement over how to solve the issue.
Some suggested adding more training and in-depth job interviews, but were rebuffed by those who saw that as not being in line with conservative principles.
That was all left behind later, when the Republican group — including Dana Perino of Fox News and Barry Bennett, a campaign coordinator for Donald Trump — were taken on a tour of Facebook’s campus, with its Frank Gehry-designed structures. The attendees were also given a demonstration of Facebook’s Oculus virtual reality technology.
“I would actually commend Facebook for being the only one of the major tech groups in Silicon Valley that’s willing to have conversations like this,” Zac Moffatt, a co-founder of the political consultancy group Targeted Victory and a Republican digital strategist, said in an interview after the meeting.
“It came about in a challenging way, but I actually think that Silicon Valley over all, it behooves them to all prepare for this and get ahead and have this type of engagement.”
Mr Zuckerberg was similarly effusive when the meeting concluded.
“We’ve built Facebook to be a platform for all ideas,” he said in a post to his personal Facebook page. “Our community’s success depends on everyone feeling comfortable sharing anything they want.”
For Facebook, the meeting was a crucial attempt to repair its relationship with the right after a story published last week by the news site Gizmodo, which claimed that some Facebook staff members regularly suppressed conservative news stories on a section of the social networking site known as Trending.
Facebook disputed the allegations and later published its internal editorial guidelines to show how it surfaces popular stories, but that did little to quell a backlash from conservatives against the company. Mr Zuckerberg himself has fostered the perception that Facebook leans liberal with his public comments about supporting citizenship for children of illegal immigrants and marriage equality rights.
The social network can ill afford to look like it only supports one side, however. In the last year it has stepped up its efforts to be a major force for Democrats and Republicans in this year’s presidential election. The company has long planned to sponsor both this summer’s Republican and Democratic National Conventions, and has worked with outlets such as Fox News on the Republican debates.
Alienating a particular political party — or its constituents — could potentially hurt Facebook’s popularity over time with users and, perhaps more importantly, with advertisers and potential partners.
“It doesn’t make sense for our mission or our business to suppress political content or prevent anyone from seeing what matters most to them,” Mr Zuckerberg said in his Facebook post on Wednesday.
At the meeting, which was organised by Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president for global public policy and the company’s highest-ranking Republican, most of the conversation focused on opening and continuing a dialogue between Facebook and conservatives. Fruit, cheese, water and coffee were served. Peter Thiel, a Facebook board member who is also a delegate for Mr Trump, was also in attendance.
During the discussion, the group agreed that there should be no government regulation in the process. Facebook executives used the point to bring up an inquiry sent to them last week by Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota. Mr Thune has asked the company to explain its filtering practices and whether its news curators manipulated the content.
Facebook officials said they were looking forward to answering his questions in writing and would be responding.
Wait and see
Many conservatives left the meeting encouraged, but also with a wait-and-see approach.
“We’ll see if the dialogue continues and if they work to really make improvements and to see how they can prevent these things from happening in the future,” said Jenny Beth Martin, the co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots.
“They sincerely seem to acknowledge that they have areas that they have to improve and they want to learn from those mistakes and be better in the future.”
Arthur C Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, said he told Facebook “they need to think about more diversity of ideas, of religious groups and not be a monoculture and they understood this and were very sympathetic to this.”
At least one Republican who attended will not be leaving Facebook: Rob Bluey, editor in chief of The Daily Signal, said in an interview with Fox News that he would not be changing how his website, which is part of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative organisation, uses Facebook as a platform.
“As it stands, Facebook reaches over a billion people,” Mr Bluey said.
“There’s a lot of conservatives who use it.”