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The conservative audit of bias on Facebook is long on feelings and short on facts

Photo by Amelia Holowaty KralesThere are many criticisms of Facebook’s size, power, and business model, but two stand out for the intensity with which they are usually discussed. One is that Facebook is a dystopian panopticon that monitors our every move and uses that information to predict and manipulate our behavior. The other is that Facebook has come such a pillar of modern life that every product decision it makes could reshape the body politic forever.Today, in an impressive flurry of news-making, Facebook took steps to address both concerns.First, the company said it was finally releasing its long-delayed “Clear History” tool in three countries. (The United States is not one of them.) I wrote about it at The Verge :> It was nearly a year and a half ago that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, standing onstage at the company’s annual developer conference, announced that the company would begin letting users sever the connection between their web browsing history and their Facebook accounts . After months of delays, Facebook’s Clear History is now rolling out in Ireland, South Korea, and Spain, with other countries to follow “in coming months,” the company said. The new tool, which Facebook conceived in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, is designed to give users more control over their data privacy at the expense of advertisers’ targeting capabilities. > > When it arrives in your country, the Clear History tool will be part of a new section of the service called “Off-Facebook activity.” When you open it, you’ll see the apps and websites that are tracking your activity and sending reports back to Facebook for ad targeting purposes. Tapping the “Clear History” button will dissociate that information from your Facebook account. > > You can also choose to block companies from reporting their tracking data about you back to Facebook in the future. You’ll have the choice of disconnecting all off-Facebook browsing data, or data for specific apps and websites. Facebook says the product is rolling out slowly “to help ensure it’s working reliably for everyone.” Some writers, such as Tony Romm here, pointed out that Facebook is not actually deleting your data — which would seem to blunt the impact of a button called “Clear History.” In fact, given that the data link you’re shutting off is primarily relevant to ads you might see later , it feels more like a “Muddle Future” button. Facebook, for its part, has cloaked the entire enterprise into a section of the app opaquely titled “Off-Facebook Activity,” which could more or less mean anything.I find it hard to get too worked up about any of this, because regardless of whether Facebook is able to take into account your web browsing habits, it it’s still going to be sending you plenty of highly targeted ads based on your age, gender, and all the other demographic data that you forked over when you made your profile. Or you could simply turn off ad targeting on Facebook altogether, which is more powerful in this regard than any Clear History tool was ever going to be. (Here’s an account from a person who did this.)Second, Facebook released the results of its anti-conservative bias audit, in which the company asked former Sen. Jon Kyl and the law firm Covington & Burling to ask 133 conservative lawmakers and interest groups to tell it whether they think Facebook is biased against conservatives.This project has fascinated me since it was announced, since Facebook had clearly volunteered to play a game it could only lose. As I’ve written here before, the definition of “bias” has expanded to include any time someone has a bad experience online.On one hand, there’s no evidence of systematic bias against conservatives or any other mainstream political group on Facebook or other platforms. On the other hand, there are endless anecdotes about the lawmaker whose ad purchase was not approved, or who did not appear in search results, or whatever. Stack enough anecdotes on top of one another and you’ve got something that looks a lot like data — certainly enough to convene a bad-faith Congressional hearing about platform bias, which Republicans have done repeatedly now.So here comes Kyl’s “audit,” which appears to have taken roughly the same shape as President Trump’s call for stories of Americans who feel that they have been cens ...Read more

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