Facebook did not respond to an inquiry from Right Wing Watch asking the company whether new evidence showing that White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller directed Breitbart News coverage in 2015 and 2016 with the help of the site’s editors was congruent with the platform’s policies for which publishers it treats as credible news sources.
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch published a third piece on Tuesday examining approximately 900 emails that Miller sent to former Breitbart editor Katie McHugh in 2015 and 2016, when Miller worked for then-Sen. Jeff Sessions and as a staffer on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Prior reporting by the SPLC has highlighted instances when Miller successfully pushed white nationalist literature and talking points into Breitbart stories and focused on Miller’s connection to the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that portrays immigrants negatively in order to further harsher immigration restrictions.
In the emails Miller sent to McHugh, he can be plainly seen directing editorial decisions at Breitbart News while site staffers go along with his orders. In one email, Miller went so far as to suggest where a story should be placed on Breitbart’s homepage. In another, Miller provided Breitbart with a press release and Breitbart editors asked Miller whether they should publish a press release he gave them with a byline attributing Sessions or with a Breitbart staff byline, and Miller told editors to use a staff byline. Miller also suggested phrases that Breitbart staff should use to discuss immigration and frequently emailed the site asking for negative coverage of Sen. Marco Rubio.
“This is not remotely how a professional news organization functions,” Columbia Journalism Review editor-in-chief Kyle Pope told Hatewatch. “What is scary here is Trump, and his team, and also Trump supporters – hold up this kind of cheerleading news organization as an example of how journalism should be done, and it’s clearly not.”
Last month, Facebook premiered a dedicated news tab on its platform that contains human-curated stories from what it considers to be “trustworthy” news sources. In an Oct. 25 post on Facebook’s press blog, Facebook Vice President of Global News Partnerships Campbell Brown and Product Manager Mona Sarantakos wrote that the product was introduced with the hope that it would “make sure people are seeing sources that are valuable to them.” The duo added that they “hope this work aids in our effort to sustain great journalism and strengthen democracy.”
But Facebook was swiftly criticized for including Breitbart as a credible source in its dedicated news tab (although, unlike other publishers, the site will not be paid by Facebook). Critics questioned why Breitbart, a digital publisher with a history of producing inflammatory, racist, and intentionally dishonest content, would be presented alongside legitimate news companies such as USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. Breitbart has long been a prolific source of false and dishonest information, yet has ranked among the top 10 publishers on Facebook as recently as January of this year, according to NewsWhip.
Facebook has struggled to explain to critics why it considers Breitbart a legitimate news outlet, but the company’s top brass has continued to defend the decision. Gizmodo reported yesterday that Carolyn Everson, Facebook’s Vice President for Global Marketing Solutions, defended Breitbart’s inclusion in the company’s Facebook News product as a way to “balance the far left and the far right” news outlets presented. It is not apparent which news outlets included in Facebook News could be considered “far left.”
In a Facebook post, Brown addressed critics. “If a publisher violates our standards by posting misinformation or hate speech on our platform, they will be removed from Facebook News,” she wrote.
Facebook’s stated guidelines for news publishers require that sites “provide transparent information about reporters and editorial staff (eg: bylines with full names or a staff directory).” However, SPLC’s reporting revealed that Miller and Breitbart editors laundered a press release from then-Sen. Jeff Session’s office under a “Breitbart Staff” byline on the website. Additionally, Miller appeared to function as a de-facto editor of the site—framing stories and pitching articles—which would appear to have violated Facebook’s rules about transparent information about staffing.
Additionally, Breitbart appears to have violated Facebook’s rule about publishing misinformation. A post shared on Breitbart News’ official Facebook page today contains a link to a story about an impeachment hearing in the House of Representatives with National Security Council staffer Alexander Vindman. The story is titled “Vindman Confirms: Ukrainians Felt No ‘Pressure’ to Investigate” and was shared nearly 2,100 times at the time of publication. But as The Daily Beast’s Lachlan Markay pointed out, Vindman testified the literal opposite. The Washington Post reported that Vindman “said he believed [Ukranian President Volodymyr] Zelensky would have interpreted the request as ‘an order’ given the ‘power disparity between the two leaders.’”