Editor's note: This column was authored by Alex Grass.
After Hillary Clinton’s surprising fall from grace, longtime Clinton loyalist David Brock staged a Democratic Party revival pitch-session in Florida over inauguration weekend. Within a week, the Washington Free Beacon published a copy of a “briefing book” from the Florida retreat, revealing Brock’s claim that his progressive non-profit outlet, Media Matters, was “engaging with Facebook leadership” to offer a solution to the purported fake news epidemic.
If Brock’s boast is true, then it presents a serious problem.
A man with a suspect ethical worldview, Brock has an undeniable knack for “saturating the airwaves” with spin and an equally undeniable handicap when it comes to being politically neutral. He is so virulently partisan that he quit the board of his own government watchdog, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, when Bush-administration ethics lawyer Richard Painter joined.
Simply put, if it’s true that Facebook went to Media Matters to find the antidote for fake news, then it shows that Mark Zuckerberg either doesn’t care that David Brock is an unabashedly biased Democratic operative, doesn’t care that he has admitted to disseminating misinformation, or both.
One can only imagine what advice Brock or Media Matters would offer Mark Zuckerberg concerning Facebook’s efforts to counter fake news, but what follows is a good hint.
In 2010, Brock wrote a memo on impeaching Justice Clarence Thomas, a document notable for two reasons. First, it raised questions about whether then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, who’d received the email, would act on Brock’s memo to attempt to shift the liberal-conservative divide on the Court. Second, Brock was already infamously associated with ad hominem attacks—he called Anita Hill “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty”—and admitted to lying to promote his narrative of the Thomas-Anita-Hill scandal. In one era, he was a right-winger practicing character assassination against Anita Hill, and in a later era he’s a left-winger practicing character assassination against Clarence Thomas.
Brock’s unscrupulous flip-flopping between fact and fiction, morphing from enemy to ally while still “ke[eping] his taste for dirty tricks when he switched sides,” is a red flag that his ability to remain objective is nil.
To be fair, it isn’t as if membership in the Democratic Party is a shield against Brock’s below-the-belt bromides. During the 2016 Democratic primary, he coordinated efforts at trolling Sanders supporters (and anyone else who wrote negatively about Hillary) on social media, just one of several slights Brock has since apologized to Sanders’ supporters for.
After the fake news controversy exploded, Adam Mosseri, Vice President of Facebook’s News Feed, announced a plan that included following Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Code of Principles. But seeing Brock and his subsidiaries violate these principles time and again makes it hard to believe that Facebook considers them to be of paramount importance.
The first Poynter Principle is “a commitment to nonpartisanship and fairness,” one that would surely have been violated if Media Matters acted on the plan they’d hatched five years ago to “hire private investigators to look into the personal lives of Fox News anchors, hosts, reporters, prominent contributors, senior network and corporate staff.” How can one be sure that penchant muckraking has disappeared in only a half-decade’s time?
Another Brock organization, American Bridge, has designated itself as the opposition engine to Donald Trump’s presidency, setting his impeachment as priority number one. Ed Whelan, a former Scalia clerk and legal expert at National Review, has laid out how American Bridge has made base-level errors in its reporting on Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Unless American Bridge comes out and corrects its errors on Judge Gorsuch (which include mistakes as careless as confusing him with another judge), then another Brock organization will have violated Poynter’s fifth Principle, “a commitment to open and honest corrections.”
At least Media Matters can honestly say they’ve followed Poynter’s third Principle, “a commitment to transparency of funding”— they publicly announced they’d received a $1 Million donation from George Soros.
In Mosseri’s plan to combat fake news, he explained that “[i]f [a] fact checking organizatio[n] identif[ies] a story as fake, it will get flagged as disputed and there will be a link to the corresponding article explaining why.” This third-party warning would serve as a powerful “behavioral prompt,” the sort that consultants and social scientists have recognized as having tremendous influence on a person’s choices. Why on earth would Facebook hand over that behavior-shaping power to Media Matters after they’d demonstrably violated Poynter’s Principles?
Because Facebook isn’t really after objectivity or eliminating “fake news.”
There are already a number of startling findings as far as how supposedly neutral fact-checking organizations—Politifact, for one—are prone to selection bias, focusing their energies almost exclusively on discrediting the GOP. Facebook’s own efforts at truth distillation follows what the WSJ has criticized as a trend “to define for everyone else what qualifies as a ‘fact,’ though in political debates the facts are often legitimately in dispute.” This “veneer of objectivity” is questionable at best.
If Mark Zuckerberg wants to prove that Facebook is serious about political neutrality, then he won’t invite David Brock to fiddle with the tech giant’s media control panel. Otherwise, we know where Zuckerberg really stands.
Alex Grass is a Young Voices Advocate and a student fellow at the Floersheimer Center for Constitutional Democracy. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife Gina, and his two children, Joseph and Lucia.