Facebook’s special investigator tasked with reviewing conservative bias said Tuesday that the social media giant may never be able to do enough to assuage those on the right who feel the platform is stacked against them.
Former Sen. Jon Kyl, the veteran Republican lawmaker whom Facebook asked to look at its operations, released an interim report saying the company has taken some steps, including revealing more about why it shows users the content it does.
Mr. Kyl also announced that Facebook has changed its ad policy in a way that could let pro-life advocates run some previously banned messages on the site, which averages about 1.6 billion daily users worldwide.
Those moves fell far short of what conservatives had hoped for and didn’t address the fundamental claims of Facebook political bias.
“Facebook and Senator Kyl have sent a message to the entire conservative movement that they do not take our concerns seriously and have zero intention to change,” wrote Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center, which catalogs liberal bias.
Mr. Kyl, perhaps anticipating his report would land with a thud, wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal defending his work but saying Facebook, with its “admittedly liberal culture,” may never be able to shield itself entirely from bias accusations.
“For that reason, restoring trust fully may remain an elusive goal,” he wrote. “Conservatives no doubt will, and should, continue to press Facebook to address the concerns that arose in our survey.”
The report was released as President Trump and conservatives were ramping up pressure on social media to play a more even-handed role in the 2020 election season.
Mr. Trump hosted a summit with conservatives last month to talk about challenges they face in the online world, and news outlets reported this month that the White House is pondering an executive order that would put the Federal Communications Commission in charge of policing what the administration calls “censorship” on Twitter and Facebook.
Mr. Kyl, for his report, talked with more than 130 people to get their thoughts on the nature and extent of bias at Facebook.
A top complaint was Facebook’s 2018 change to the algorithm that controls which news stories show up in a user’s feed. Another frequent complaint was that Facebook’s efforts to combat “false news” and “hate speech” created an opening to arbitrarily stifle or minimize conservative viewpoints.
Mr. Kyl said he presented an initial set of findings to Facebook last year and Tuesday’s report was a follow-up to see how the company has performed.
The former senator from Arizona said Facebook is now more open with the public about why certain content pops up for a user and has created an oversight board and an appeals process for content providers who think they are being mistreated.
The most concrete step was an adjustment to Facebook’s policy on “sensational” ads, which banned images of medical tubes connected to human bodies. That ruled out some pro-life messages showing images of babies born prematurely.
Mr. Kyl said Facebook has changed its policy to allow the ads to run as long as they don’t show blood, bruising or visible pain.
Conservative media critics panned the changes as weak and unresponsive.
“While this audit may list some of the issues we’ve raised, it stunningly fails to admit fault or wrongdoing,” Mr. Bozell said.
He warned that conservatives could try to pursue antitrust actions against the company.
The Justice Department announced last month that it was initiating a broader antitrust investigation into whether the nation’s biggest online firms were trying to restrict competition and act as monopolists.
Mr. Kyl said he had complete independence in writing his report.
In response, Facebook Vice President Nick Clegg acknowledged the company had applied some of its policies “unevenly in the past” but said it was trying to balance free speech with demands to clamp down on hoaxes and “clickbait” items.
“We know we need to listen more as we work to strike the right balance with these policies,” he wrote. “But even if we could craft them in a way that pleased all sides, when dealing with such nuanced issues, involving policies that apply to billions of posts, we will inevitably make some bad calls, some of which may appear to strike harder at conservatives.”
Liberal activists said the report was a straw man and questioned conservatives’ claims that Facebook is biased.
Muslim Advocates, a liberal-leaning group, said the claims were unsubstantiated and grew out of Mr. Trump’s attempts to “bully the company into giving dangerous hate speech a pass.”
The group said Facebook’s bigger problem is that it doesn’t do enough to police offensive speech.
“Facebook’s anti-conservative bias report is a smokescreen masking the reality that the company continues to allow violent, white nationalist content to thrive on its platforms,” said Madihha Ahussain, special counsel at Muslim Advocates.