Exclusive: Jon Kyl Spoke to 133 Conservatives About Facebook Bias. He Reveals the Findings and Rebuts His Critics.
Last year, Facebook hired former Sen. Jon Kyl, senior counsel at the firm Covington & Burling, to investigate allegations of anti-conservative bias at the social media company. In his first interview since its release, Kyl tells The Daily Signal what he discovered and how Facebook should move forward. He also responds to criticism of the report. A lightly edited transcript is below along with the full audio on today’s podcast.
Rob Bluey: Sen. Kyl, thanks for joining us.
Jon Kyl: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.
Bluey: This week, you released the results of a survey commissioned by Facebook. Your firm was asked to look into complaints from conservatives about Facebook. Let’s begin with that. What exactly did you set out to do with this survey?
Kyl: Sure. First, a bit of background. They had already engaged a person to survey some liberal opinions, they called it a civil rights audit, and that work was underway. They knew that there was a lot of criticism coming from the conservative side, and knowing that I had a good rapport with conservatives, having been one my whole career in the Senate, they thought perhaps I could get a good candid and pretty complete assessment of conservative thought, which would then better enable them to make decisions about what, if anything, they wanted to do about that.
They were very well aware that a lot of conservatives believed that they were biased against conservatives and that their policies and procedures at Facebook reflected that biased.
They asked me to put together a team at Covington, first of all, set up a form of a questionnaire so that the information that we received was usable by by them, it was consistent.
We did that and then we identified 133, actually more than that, but we ended up interviewing 133 individuals from the conservative community, not just in Washington, D.C., but other places as well, who we either knew had expressed criticisms of Facebook or we figured they probably would if we asked. For a period of over three months we conducted those interviews.
Then in early August of 2018, we presented our findings to Facebook, and they were denominated preliminary findings, but based upon the huge number of people that we talked to, we were pretty sure that we got a very good cross section of views, and that what we heard was pretty representative of the conservative community in general.
We presented our findings to Facebook and then I could discuss what happened thereafter, if you’re interested.
Bluey: I do. I want to get into what those findings are. I do have a couple of other questions on the process that you took, because I feel that there’s maybe some confusion out there.
I saw it firsthand because, in the interest of full disclosure, we hosted you for a listening session at The Heritage Foundation in June of 2018 with representatives from several conservative organizations.
I know that, as you stated in your Wall Street Journal op-ed, you’re not naming those 133 organizations or individuals that you spoke to, but it is a sizable number of people that you did receive feedback from.
I’d like to hear more about how you selected them, what you did in terms of collecting that information and packaging it in your initial report to Facebook back in August of 2018.
Kyl: First of all, you know Bill Wichterman and Gabe Neville are part of my team at Covington, and they are very well connected to the conservative community in Washington. We sat down and over a period of several days just a thought of all of the conservatives who would probably have an opinion on this that we could think of, as well as conservative organizations. We also identified some members of Congress. Then we began our interviewing process, and, of course, that led us to some other individuals, as well.
But at the end of the day, we did talk to 133 individuals, some representing themselves personally, others representing organizations, and we had several meetings such as the one that you hosted with a larger group of people all gathered together at the same time. We tried to ask the same questions of everyone so that the results that we got would be usable by Facebook.
When we finished that first traunch of interviews, we gathered our team together and basically asked the question, “All right, what does this tell us?” Because we had categorized everything very, very carefully, we were able to divide the comments that we received into six separate categories of concerns.
I think that was useful because the way we presented it to Facebook then, it wasn’t just war stories from conservatives that were mad at Facebook, it was, “Here are six specific areas that the criticisms seem to all fall into.” And we had subsets to it, as well, and documented it so that when Facebook got our preliminary findings, they had a very good sense of what the most important conservatives in the country felt about Facebook and, in particular, what kind of biases they thought Facebook had.
That’s what they wanted, a very candid assessment of conservative attitudes so that they could then decide what, if anything, they wanted to do with that.
I’ll also point out that we told everybody that we interviewed that first of all, we weren’t lobbying for Facebook. We were there to gather information, not to make a case on behalf of Facebook. And secondly, we told them that we would not disclose their names, that they would remain anonymous, so that we hoped in that way to get the most candid assessments possible. I think that did help.
There are some who don’t mind letting the public know that they were interviewed, but others, I think, were very candid with us because they knew that we would keep their identities private.
One of the criticisms I note from some people that responded to my op-ed was, “Well, you didn’t name the names.” Well, there’s a good reason for that. In this, in the spirit of trying to get the most candid information, we told folks that we wouldn’t mention their name.
I wanted you to go through those six categories, if you wouldn’t mind. I think on a very broad level, high level, it would be important to hear about why and how you decided to settle on those.
Kyl: The reason was because when we looked at all of the data we had received, it was pretty clear what the nature of the concerns were and they fell into these categories. We thought that the best way to be useful for Facebook was to be able to relay it to their policies or procedures so that they would know where to look internally if they wanted to respond to these concerns.
For example, on ad policies, we broke it down into the ad policies and the way the ad policies were enforced. Those were two of the categories. They were able to go right to their policies and basically connect up the complaints that we received with the policies. And of course, they had to undergo some assessment of how valid the information was.
As a firm, we weren’t asked to determine the validity of all of the complaints. We would’ve had to go into Facebook and look through all of their algorithms and decisions that they made and so on, and connect it up with the individual complaints. That obviously was beyond the scope of what we were asked to do.
But Facebook had an opportunity to do that at least at a high level, and so they could determine that in these six specific areas where they heard complaints, they could match that up with their policies and their procedures and get some kind of an idea of whether they thought it worth responding to and whether they thought the complaints probably had some merit.
By the way, they made the point to us that even though they might disagree that some of these complaints had merit, that they didn’t really reflect bias, they understood that perceptions are part of the problem. And even if not every single complaint could be authenticated, the fact that people thought this about Facebook was enough for Facebook to take a good hard look at their policies to see what, if anything, they wanted to change.
Bluey: The title of your Wall Street Journal piece is “Why Conservatives Don’t Trust Facebook: My independent team of investigators looked into the complaints and the company has taken action.” Facebook did come out with its own blog post at the same time as your op-ed and they talked about some of the changes they’ve made.
Do you want to share what you were able to do in terms of bringing forward some of the concerns and how they have taken action?
Kyl: When we presented our our findings, this was to a group of Facebook people with whom we had been working from the very beginning. And by the way, several of these people were well-known in the conservative community themselves, so we were not working with a bunch of California liberals. I’ll just be real crass about putting it that way, because that’s kind of the way a lot of the conservatives view Facebook. We were also dealing with the folks within the company who really wanted to get to the bottom of this.
So, we had ongoing conversations. As we began to get these results, we told the folks at Facebook what we were beginning to find. We talked to them about what categorizations would be the most useful to them. That process continued long after we actually submitted the first traunch of findings to them.
Then we did follow-up interviews and we discussed with them ideas that we had developed internally that they might want to consider to respond to some of these concerns. It was an iterative process.
It wasn’t like we made a series of formal recommendations, but rather, when we got some of these complaints, we sat down with them and said, “Well, what do you think? Is this something you might want to look into? And here’s some ideas about maybe responding to these concerns.”
And they took that back to their headquarters and would come back and say, “Yeah, our folks really do want us to look into this,” or “No, they don’t think that’ll work.” But in any event, it was an iterative process that went on really for a year.
During that period of time, as I say, we did follow-up interviews and shared those results with them, as well, and we did discuss several of the ideas that they had.
For example, one of the things that we reported on and they announced early on was the creation of a special board. In fact, it would be international. It would have both the people from the United States as well as other places where Facebook is, and this board would be very diverse and would hopefully be able to act as a final arbiter on some of the complaints or appeals that come to Facebook as a result of decisions that it’s made.
We give them recommendations for people who the conservative community would find trustworthy as members of that board.
As I say, it was an iterative process as we went along. We’re trying to be as helpful as we can to not only report what we hear from conservatives, but to give them some ideas about what we think might work to ameliorate the concerns.
We hope to be able to continue that process moving forward as Facebook dives into additional changes that they think they may want to make.
Bluey: Looking at that oversight board that you mentioned, of course, Facebook is headquartered in one of the most liberal areas of the country. This is a complaint conservatives often raise about the leadership of the company. Looking at the ideological diversity that they have promised for this board, do you feel that there’s a commitment on their part to achieving that right balance and fairness?
Kyl: Obviously, the proof will be in the pudding, and no one will be totally satisfied, I’m sure. But what I can say is that I’ve talked to people at the highest levels of the company, and they have the very best of intentions. If they can make this work so that they can mostly satisfy most of the people all around the world, that’ll be quite an achievement, but I know that’s their goal.
Bluey: Senator, of course, in the middle of this process, you filled the seat of the late John McCain in September of 2018 shortly after you delivered your preliminary results to Facebook. This is obviously a massive undertaking in terms of the number of interviews and the complexity of the issues. I imagine it’s also something you probably didn’t need to take on, but personally, why did you decide that it was important for you to be involved in surfacing some of these concerns that conservatives have?
Kyl: First of all, Facebook is a client of Covington & Burling and a very trusted group of folks work together from our firm and at Facebook, and we wanted to try to be able to support our client.
But secondly, when Bill Wichterman and I had talked about this, we saw an opportunity to try to do some good here. We were already aware that there was a great deal of skepticism, if not cynicism, on the right about Facebook policies.
We felt that if we could listen to those and present them to Facebook so that Facebook would know that this isn’t just something that occasionally somebody says on TV or writes, but it is a very real phenomenon, given the fact that we knew Facebook wants to be trusted by its users, and conservatives are major users of Facebook, that they would probably want to do something about the findings that we got from our interviews.
We decided it would be a real good opportunity, not just for Facebook, but also to potentially respond to these conservative criticisms so that Facebook could continue to be a trusted platform by conservatives.
A lot of conservatives are of the view you can’t trust the mainstream media very much, and Facebook offered a place where you could express yourself very candidly and very thoroughly and to an audience and get your message out that way.
Facebook has been used by conservatives for that purpose, and Bill and I thought, “Well, this is a chance to both help Facebook restore some of that trust, but also provide a voice for conservatives that they had lacked before then, but that we could amplify to Facebook so that they knew full well what the conservative complaints really were.”
Bluey: On that note, you write in the report, “Facebook has recognized the importance of our assessment and has taken some steps to address the concerns we uncovered, but there is still significant work to be done to satisfy the concerns we heard from conservatives.”
What would you say some of the work that they need to do going forward to appease some of the conservatives might be?
Kyl: It all boils down to one word, “trust,” and they know this. Now, whether they can do enough to regain that trust among all conservatives, that’d be a pretty tall order, but they know they need to try. Their initial reaction and changes that they’ve announced are certainly steps in that direction.
Now, I would not argue that those are major significant actions on the part of Facebook, but more their effort to try to quickly respond to, I don’t want to use the word “low-hanging fruit,” but things that they could address that they understood that conservatives were concerned about, and they could fairly quickly address those things and they wanted to show that good faith.
But they understand that there’s a lot more that they’re going to have to do to restore the trust if conservatives will continue to be major users of their facilities.
I don’t want to suggest that the information we’ve given them has been fully taken on board in the sense that Facebook agrees with it all. They have, in some instances, said, “Well, it’s easy to complain, but you have to understand the tough job we have of monitoring literally millions of sites all around the world every day, and we do make mistakes.”
Nick Clegg, who’s been brought on board by Facebook to really head up this project, had a blog post a couple of days ago, in which he said, “You have to understand, we make mistakes, so we acknowledge that. We’re going to do our best to try to avoid that, but with all of the posts that are made every day and some of the very difficult, very fine decisions that have to be made, it’s not easy to please everyone.”
I accept that, so they’re not going to just say, “Well, whatever the conservatives complaints are, we’ll try to respond to them,” because they have a much larger audience than that. But I do know that they understand they need to try to restore that trust with as many conservatives as possible, because they are very large users and they want a good reputation as an entity that’s fair.
Bluey: Speaking of that trust and the issues involved there, The Daily Signal, I can speak from experience, has itself seen its content pulled down at times from Facebook. I can think of a specific video of a pediatrician, a doctor who warned about the dangers of giving puberty blockers to young children.
That video went viral, has over 74 million views. For a period of time, it disappeared from Facebook. We contacted Facebook, and it took a couple of weeks, but they did restore that video.
I think that’s an issue that other conservatives had faced and why I think it’s so important for them to at least have people who are in touch and in communication with conservatives, as they might encounter some of these challenges.
Kyl: Let me just make a point on that. One of the criticisms we heard from some of the medium-size and smaller Facebook users was, well, if you’re a big outfit like Heritage, for example, you can go right to people that you know in Facebook and plead your case, and they might well restore in this case the item that had been pulled down. But for the smaller groups and the mid-sized groups, it’s not as easy to get your appeal heard.
We thought that sounded plausible, presented it to Facebook, and they said, “You know, you’re right. It’s just a question of manpower, but we’ll hire some more people and we will devote these folks specifically to the smaller and mid-size folks that have complaints so it’s not just the big national organizations like Heritage that can have a voice, but also we’ll try to help the smaller ones as well.”
Now, whether that’s enough, whether it will really work, I don’t know, but at least it shows that they tried to respond to a criticism that we thought was fair.
Bluey: In your report, you also mentioned the concerns that conservatives raised over the issue of hate speech and the hate speech policy.
Facebook and other tech companies have relied on organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, which deems a lot of what I would consider mainstream conservative groups as hate groups. Facebook, of course, is no different than some of these other companies, in that it also has a hate speech policy.
What were you hearing from conservatives that you talk to about their concerns specifically regarding this issue?
Kyl: I can just summarize it into two categories: one, groups that felt that they were discriminated against because of these kinds of characterizations, and secondly, at a broader level, the view expressed by a lot of conservatives was of hate speech to begin with is fraught with potential dangers, and if you’re an entity like Facebook, you’re going to be having to make decisions that may actually get into people’s motivations.
That’s a very tricky business to do. And therefore, the basic idea from a lot of the conservatives was try to stay away from these categorizations of hate because you don’t know whether somebody has hate in their heart or not.
Now, whether Facebook can deal with that in a way that’s satisfactory to the whole political spectrum, I don’t know. But at least I know they got an earful from the conservatives on that point.
Bluey: Now, of course, senator, this is a country that is deeply divided, after all, so we heard both criticism from conservatives and liberals in the wake of your report.
Some conservatives, Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center, for instance, said that it “fails to admit fault or wrongdoing.” Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri said, “Merely asking somebody to listen to conservatives’ concerns isn’t an audit. It’s a smokescreen disguised as a solution.”
What message would you like to leave with those concerns?
Kyl: I would tell Sen. Hawley this: Remember what we were asked to do. Conservatives didn’t think that their voice was being heard. Facebook knew that there was a lot of concern and unrest out there in the conservative community, but they didn’t really know how serious it was and what the conservatives were really saying. So they hired somebody that was a conservative who could talk to these folks and receive candidly the responses back because Facebook wanted an unvarnished, truthful response.
What exactly are conservatives saying? What do we need to know here? That’s what they hired us to do.
They didn’t hire us to fix the problem, as we couldn’t do that. And I’ve been a little disappointed by folks who don’t appreciate the value of simply getting the conservative complaints heard. It’s not easy with a great big company like Facebook with all the other stuff that they’re doing, but they at least recognize the fact that they were missing information that they needed, and they hired us to get that information.
So I would say to Sen. Hawley: Appreciate what we did. That doesn’t mean that all the problems are solved, but it certainly wasn’t intended to be a smokescreen. If Facebook isn’t able to assuage a lot of these concerns and to deal with fair complaints by conservatives, then you can make your complaint. But until then, at least give them a chance to respond and recognize their good faith and wanting to at least hear what conservatives had to say.
I’ll say, for example, I don’t think that Sen. [Ted] Cruz would mind if I acknowledge the fact that he’s one of the people we talked to because he had been an outspoken critic of all of these platforms.
We asked him all the questions. “What do you think?” And he was very good, very candid, and had very specific information for us that I was pleased to pass on that really showed an important person who was very disappointed in a platform that he originally had thought could be a real good outlet.
He responded by at least expressing some appreciation for the fact that his views … got through to the people in Facebook. And that’s what we were trying to achieve. And I know we did achieve that much.
Now, as to what all happens with it, as I say, that will remain to be seen, but at least give them a chance, I guess, would be my message.
Bluey: Of course. I don’t want people to think that conservatives were the only ones to criticize. There were conservatives who were complimentary of the work that you did and the fact that you were surfacing these issues, but some on the left said that Facebook was giving legitimacy to the complaints from conservatives simply by asking you to investigate them.
So, there was sharp criticism form some on the left, who would rather have these issues probably brushed aside and not addressed at all.
Kyl: Right, exactly. And that’s to be expected. I knew that the left would say, “Well, don’t listen to those conservatives. They don’t have anything useful to say.” I figured we’d get it from there.
I was a little disappointed that some of the conservatives didn’t at least acknowledge that it was a good thing for the conservative community at large to have a voice and to have that expressed in a very candid and thorough way to the leadership of Facebook. But people have their own agendas, and that’s fine.
All I know is that we were able to get some good information to Facebook, and we’re very hopeful. We know they understand the need for that information because they asked us to get it and we’re very hopeful that they will make good use of it.
Bluey: Senator, I have a final question for you, looking ahead to something that Facebook is planning to roll out later this year. In your op-ed, you note that in 2016 Facebook employees were accused of suppressing conservative articles from the news feed and its discontinued trending section.
I joined our former Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint for a meeting with Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook’s headquarters in 2016 to talk about that issue.
In recent days, Facebook has announced that it is planning to roll out a new news section on the platform. I guess a small team of journalists that Facebook will hire are going to pick the top stories for that section.
You’ve heard in recent days some conservatives express concern, including the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., who said, “Because what everyone really needs is Facebook giving even more power and control to establishment corporate media hacks.”
So what advice, as Facebook prepares to do this, would you have for them to make sure that they are treating conservatives fairly going forward?
Kyl: I think just pretty much the same thing that we’ve told them in the past. You have before you a very thorough compilation of conservative concerns. You appreciate the fact that they are very skeptical and, in some regards, even cynical. You have to restore the trust. They know that. So, throughout this process, I think they will be mindful of the fact that the kind of people they selected to do this will have to be trusted.
And again, the proof will be in the pudding. If when they come out with their product, conservatives view it and say, “Wait a minute, this is no better than what existed before,” well, then they will not have succeeded, at least with the conservative community.
So, I would ask conservatives based upon the past, be skeptical but hold your cynicism. They’re trying. And if you don’t think they match up to what you want them to do, then continue to criticize.
That’s what I said in the op-ed. They fully expect to continue to get feedback, and a lot of it will be negative and we think that’s a good thing. And we would encourage conservatives to continue that.
So, they expect it and we encourage it. But we hope that it will be constructive criticism based upon skepticism and real things …
Bluey: Senator, we appreciate you spending the time with The Daily Signal to go over the report, the process that you used to collect the information, and some of the hopes that you have for Facebook and its future relationship with its conservative users.
Kyl: It’s been a real pleasure for us to be able to reconnect with a lot of our conservative friends and to get their ideas, and we encourage them to continue to express those directly to Facebook or to us. We’ll certainly pass them on. I can guarantee you that.