It's been four years since the real backlash to Facebook began. For years, the social network had enjoyed a relatively unobstructed rise from dorm-room project to global juggernaut, viewed largely as a tool that connected people from all walks of life and democratized speech, all for the low price of nothing. Sure, plenty of vocal privacy advocates and media watchdogs had decried the company's invasive tracking procedures, and, along with Google, its complete domination of the online advertising market. But to the general public, Facebook was an innocuous tool for staying in touch with friends.

But on the night of November 8, 2016, as the networks began calling more states for Donald Trump, millions of Americans began looking for something to blame. Was it economic anxiety that handed Trump the presidency? Was it racists, citing the nebulous excuse of "economic anxiety?? Was it the inherently unbalanced electoral college system, which makes certain votes count more than others? Was it Hillary Clinton's substantial unpopularity? Was it her emails? Was it FBI Director James Comey? Was it Wikileaks? Guccifer 2.0? Russia? Maybe it was the fault of Jill Stein, or the Bernie Bros.

Or was it Facebook?

In 2016, Donald Trump's campaign bought a shitload of Facebook ads, which his operation has repeated in 2020. As Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth later put it, Donald Trump "ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period." Outside of the official Trump campaign, other forces were leveraging the enormous power of Facebook to disseminate news articles, regardless of whether or not the events described had actually happened. In one infamous example, Facebook let millions of users know that Pope Francis had endorsed Trump (he had not). The large ecosystem of fake news, hoaxes, hyperbole, conspiracy theorizing, and reckless speculation on Facebook had created the perfect conditions in which a media-savvy, factually challenged personality like Trump could thrive. He was, after all, no stranger to the "just asking questions" mode of laundering conspiracies—he'd spent years pushing unfounded birther claims about Barack Obama.

By the morning of November 9, the day after the election, when Trump's victory was clear and incontestable, the blame was already being thrown around. In a viral piece for New York magazine (where, full disclosure, I worked at the time), Max Read stated plainly that, "Donald Trump Won Because of Facebook."

He wrote:

“At the heart of the problem, anyway, is not the motivations of the hoaxers but the structure of social media itself. Tens of millions of people, invigorated by insurgent outsider candidates and anger at perceived political enemies, were served up or shared emotionally charged news stories about the candidates, because Facebook’s sorting algorithm understood from experience that they were seeking such stories. Many of those stories were lies, or “parodies,” but their appearance and placement in a news feed were no different from those of any publisher with a commitment to, you know, not lying.”

A few days after the election—in remarks that he now certainly regrets because they get cited all the time to illustrate his naivete—Mark Zuckerberg characterized the idea that Facebook was responsible for Trump’s election as “pretty crazy.” It was not that crazy. In short order, it became clear that Facebook had an incalculably large mess on its hands. Facebook’s multifaceted automated systems of sorting, parsing, and recommending content to each individual user had been abused to flood the system with unreliable information and distorted, emotionally slanted news content. Content farms, like ones run by teenagers in Macedonia, expertly worked over Facebook’s algorithmic preferences to build up large, loyal audiences who consumed articles on events that had not happened, or happened exactly as they described. Crucially, there was, and is, a far larger audience for these stories on the right side of the political spectrum than on the left.

It’s easy, and accurate, to lay much of the blame squarely on Facebook. It’s no secret that for years, and arguably still, Facebook’s automated News Feed favored content that garnered high engagement. The emphasis on engagement (i.e., what keeps the user on Facebook, and keeps them looking at ads) was the priority, rather than accuracy or substance, and it had created a toxic content ecosystem, one that we would later find out had been infiltrated by state-sponsored operations in Russia. Facebook has, in subsequent years, made a big show of stamping out “coordinated inauthentic behavior” from countries like Russia and Iran, and removing an infinitesimal fraction of its two billion-plus accounts.

Years before Facebook’s creation, conservative media outlets and pundits laid the groundwork and created the framework that makes Facebook so effective.

Elsewhere, in terms of meaningful platform changes, Facebook has dragged its heels in many respects, stalled by a persistent fear of conservative backlash. The Washington Post reported earlier this year that in the weeks following the election, Facebook launched an effort to root out propaganda on its platform. The effort hit a snag after Facebook’s head honcho in Washington, Joel Kaplan, opposed the effort because it would “disproportionately affect conservatives.” Kaplan, who served as counsel for the second Bush administration, runs Facebook’s Washington D.C. office. This theme comes up a lot in recent reporting on Facebook policy decisions. In May, the Wall Street Journal conveyed that a 2018 internal report found that the platform exacerbated polarization, but efforts to mitigate it had been shelved over concerns, expressed by Kaplan and others, that the efforts would be seen as biased against conservatives.

The fear of a conservative backlash stems from a disastrous 2016 Gizmodo article, whose headline claimed that Facebook—specifically the human editors who curated its now-defunct Trending Topics module—“suppressed” conservative news and hid it from users. The piece described a process that, in pretty much any other context, would be seen as editors exercising editorial judgement: “This story is useful to readers, this one is not.” But framed with a grabby headline stoking a partisan divide (as former Gizmodo Media Group editorial director John Cook later wrote), the story set off an immediate firestorm. Zuckerberg invited prominent conservatives over for dinner to try and mollify them. The specter of regulation and unsubstantiated claims of “anti-conservative bias” have loomed over the company ever since, paralyzing its policy and moderation teams. Zuckerberg has been called to testify in front of Congress about Facebook’s supposed anti-conservative bias numerous times since; this came up, most recently, during Tuesday’s hearings in front of the Senate Commerce Committee.

The fact of the matter is that, even today, despite claims to the contrary, hardcore right-wing content does extremely well on Facebook. Conservative pages regularly compose most of if not all of the list of top performing posts each day (that performance is calculated by CrowdTangle, a social media analytics service that Facebook acquired in 2016). Right-wing pages that have clearly violated Facebook’s policies get special treatment and regularly avoid punishment.

Facebook has no explicit policies, internally or externally, prohibiting right-wing ideas and opinions on its platform and Zuckerberg’s personal politics are somewhat opaque. If Facebook did have a political agenda, the public would surely know about it by now. What the company does have, however, are various policies that prohibit things like dehumanizing speech, news media created with intent to deceive, and certain conspiracy theories such as QAnon. What does it say about Facebook that common-sense policies—intended to ensure the safety and dignity of all of the site’s users—would, according to its own stress tests, disproportionately impact conservative publishers? If politically-neutral measures intended to reduce harm on Facebook impact right-wing publishers and users more than left-wing ones, is that Facebook’s fault? Or does it point to an overarching alignment between Facebook’s incentives and the style and structure of right-wing media?

It is easy and tempting to look at Facebook’s problems in a bubble—a new media platform, with new formats and distribution channels, creating new, thorny problems society has never encountered before. It is easy to blame recommendation algorithms, and artificial intelligence, and dastardly foreign powers, and demand technological solutions. There are obvious changes that Facebook could implement (for years, it dragged its feet on rules banning Holocaust denial) but the handwringing over Facebook, in the media and more broadly, feels largely displaced—one focused on cold, unfeeling technology rather than traditions and rhetoric that stretch back decades. Facebook’s relationship to conservatism does not begin with Mark Zuckerberg creating a ‘Hot Or Not’ clone in 2004. Years before its creation, conservative media outlets and pundits laid the groundwork and created the framework that makes Facebook so effective.

It is tempting to see the conservative dominance of Facebook as savvy operators adapting to new conditions—behavior created by technological conditions. But what if it’s the other way around? What if the same principles that make conservative media what it is are also what make Facebook such a powerful distribution channel? For Facebook to truly reckon with and achieve its stated goal to become a universal tool for the public good, it first needs to acknowledge that the supposedly party-neutral problems of disinformation, conspiracy, and toxicity are actually a partisan issue.

For decades, the right has been creating a media ecosystem that emphasizes distrust in institutions, rewards conspiracy theories, and places an emphasis on authenticity and emotional expression. It is difficult, personally speaking, to be particularly worried about QAnon when I also lived through birtherism a decade ago. Conspiracy theories about the Clinton family have persisted for my entire life. Every decade has its own delusions—the ‘60s had A Texan Looks At Lyndon, a popular, self-published book full of “rumormongering and mad-dog ruminations,” as Texas Monthly put it, including the claim that Johnson was closely involved in the Kennedy assassination. By the time of the ‘64 Democratic National Convention, “at almost 7.5 million copies, A Texan Looks at Lyndon had become the best-selling book of any kind in the country and the most successful political book of all time,” thanks in part to right-wing groups like the John Birch Society.