Facebook reaches out to the right, sponsoring CPAC

The annual Conservative Political Action Convention (CPAC) is underway this week at the National Harbor in Maryland, sponsored by many of the typical right-leaning organizations, from the Koch Institute and the National Rifle Association, to the Heritage Foundation and Freedom Works. Also sponsoring the event this year: Facebook.

It's not the first year Facebook has supported CPAC, or the first time it has supported conservative events, which may come as a surprise to those who view the social media giant and other Silicon Valley companies as a liberal bulwark.

For the 2017 conference, Facebook reportedly contributed $62,000 in cash to the event plus in-kind contributions, which included setting up and staffing a Facebook Live studio. In total, one news outlet estimated the total contribution amounts to about $120,000.

In front of the Facebook Live studio, a line of conservative media from traditional digital and broadcast outlets to new media trailblazers was growing, each one waiting to broadcast to their followers. It was a quick set up with the lights and camera (a smart phone) all set up and ready for interviews with political pundits, politicians, and colorful conference attendees.

"We're making history, really," said a producer with the Independent Journal Review wearing a referee's shirt. He was about to go live to IJR's nearly half a million Facebook followers. The event: trying to break Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's personal high-five record. About 100 people were already lined up and waiting to slap hands with the governor.

Like others media on site at the convention, the IJR team was happy with the setup. "It's just a convenient way to do it, having a booth where everything is preset and pre-lit, makes it very accessible."

For conservative users of the social media platform at CPAC, it's not about the political affiliation of Facebook's c-suite, or complaints that Facebook's news feed is dominated by left-leaning headlines.

"If you want to talk abut their news feed, it's a whole other argument. But if you're talking about them trying to be fair, this is part of it," IJR said of the CPAC sponsorship.

Facebook spokesman Andy Stone explained the company's decision to support the event this year with both cash and in-kind contributions to the American Conservative Union, the parent company of CPAC.

"There is a huge conversation from a diversity of voices on the right, and part of what Facebook wants to do is help the people here in this country and around the world follow what is going on and sort of experience it," Stone said. "That's a big part of the reason we have this Facebook Live studio here, so people can go live and explain what's happening [and] also describe their experiences and talk about why they're here."

For the company and its nearly 2 billion users, political affiliations should not get in the way of connecting people to the content they care about. "Facebook is a platform for all voices, and all voices are welcome," Stone insisted.

At the Facebook booth, a Tea Party conservative and veteran CPAC attendee walked up to the staff to ask why the social media company was only featuring left-leaning stories in its trending news feed. It's a common complaint among the crowd at the convention.

Last year, Facebook was accused by conservatives, including the Republican National Committee, of using the platform to "silence viewpoints and stories" from the right. Facebook responded to the complaint quickly and replaced its human news feed editors with an algorithm in an attempt to remove possible bias.

"I have maybe 5,000 followers and friends on Facebook and what I find is that if you look at the trending topics, the publishers and the writers themselves have an inherent bias," said Lisa Miller, founder of the WDC (Washington, D.C.) Tea Party. "Pretty much all of the articles that they're pushing on the Facebook population is big government, left politics."

Miller said the bias was directly connected to beneficial treatment that Facebook and other tech companies like Microsoft and Alphabet Inc. (Google) have received under rules made during the Obama administration. The Silicon Valley companies recently took advantage of an accounting change that will afford them nearly $1 billion in tax breaks over their next year of earnings.

Stone is used to the criticism, both from the left and the right. The social media company took heat this week from liberals for sponsoring CPAC. The attacks came after Facebook's name appeared on the same guest list as the alt-right firebrand, Milo Yiannopoulos, the former Breitbart star who had his invitation revoked at the last minute when a video emerged portraying him sympathetic to pedophilia.

Facebook has supported major conventions on the left and the right, Stone noted, including the progressive Netroots Nation and Personal Democracy Forum. "To address the criticism, Facebook's presence here is not an endorsement of everything that is going on here," he stated.

On Thursday, Facebook gave the Daily Caller a full hour to broadcast out of the Facebook Live studio. Daily Caller was founded in 2010 by veteran Fox News Tucker Carlson and is a popular site for conservative news. The two have partnered up before, editor in chief, Christopher Bedford explained, because Facebook recognized DC's successful use of the Facebook Live platform. had and was driving directly to Facebook Live.

"Even though I think a lot of their executives do lean liberal, they've tried hard, putting a great effort to reach out to people on the right and say, 'Hey, we're a platform for you too. You've got a voice with us too," Bedford said.

Following the media reports that Facebook was censoring conservative news on its trending news feed, Tucker Carlson had a face-to-face meeting with Mark Zuckerberg to get a conversation going. It was a difficult position for Facebook at the time, as it was being portrayed as a space for only liberal voices and views.

"It's an incredible amount of power," Bedford said of Facebook's presence. "I think they also realized that if they want to make an enemy of the right by excluding them or being seen as liberal, it's going to be really bad for business."

Since that time, the two companies have teamed up for major political events, including a Facebook Live-sponsored inauguration party, which brought in more than 2.5 million views, beating out some cable news channels.

Those political events and their CPAC presence "shows that they're totally committed and they're great," Bedford said.

One of Trump's earliest meetings after winning the election was a tech summit at Trump Tower with Silicon Valley leaders, including Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and the CEOs of Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Trump promised that his administration would "be here for you" and work to push American innovation. The meeting was positive, according to those attendees who spoke with the media afterwards, and Trump proposed quarterly meetings with the group.

Only a few weeks into Trump's presidency, the same executives led the charge against his immigration ban, joining a legal brief opposing President Donald Trump's temporary travel ban, arguing that it would give companies strong incentives to move jobs outside the United States.

Though the relationship between conservatives and the tech world has been rocky, it is clear from Facebook's presence at CPAC and the Trump administration's engagement with Silicon Valley that the two must be able to work together, especially over the next four years. In addition to Facebook, a representative from Microsoft also attended CPAC this year participating in a panel focused on job recruitment. Microsoft was unable to comment on the recruiter's presence at the panel organized by the Leadership Institute.

So while the conservative right and Facebook might not always Like one another, and sometimes they might make each other Angry, neither has an incentive to Unfriend the other any time soon.

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