The conservative media flap that explains Facebook’s funding of CPAC

Josh Stell and Edie Walker took a selfie with a Donald Trump cutout during the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference (Photo by Amanda Voisard/For The Washington Post)

A Daily Beast headline on Tuesday night asked: “Why is Facebook helping fund CPAC?” Perhaps Facebook was thinking the same thing on the day after the Conservative Political Action Conference uninvited the polarizing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos, in response to resurfaced interviews in which Yiannopoulos said — among other things — that “pedophilia is not a sexual attraction to somebody 13 years old, who is sexually mature.”

After that, any PR-conscious corporation might reasonably wonder whether associating itself with CPAC was worth the trouble.

But the answer to the Daily Beast’s question is probably a simple one: The $120,000 in cash and in-kind donations Facebook reportedly contributed to this year’s event is relatively small, compared to the price it paid for not aiding CPAC in 2016.

Flash back to last May, when Gizmodo reported that some Facebook workers who curated the social network’s trending news section allowed their own (mostly liberal) political views to influence which stories qualify for promotion in a special box on users’ homepages. The report instantly made conservative media outlets suspicious that Facebook was deliberately suppressing right-leaning news.

To counter charges of bias, Facebook invited a group of about 20 conservatives, many from the media, to meet with founder Mark Zuckerberg and his team. The technology giant clearly hoped attendees would leave the session and publicly vouch for Facebook’s commitment to fairness.

Indeed, some did. Commentator S.E. Cupp, for example, told me she was “really pleased” by the session. “I felt like this was not just a photo op,” she said. “This was a group of people who are genuinely concerned.”

But Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which organizes CPAC, did the exact opposite. He turned down an invitation to the meeting and told journalists, including me, that he thought the gathering was just a publicity stunt. When I asked why he was so skeptical of Facebook’s motive, he specifically mentioned the company’s unwillingness to help with CPAC.

“We had been reaching out to Facebook before our big conference this year,” Schlapp told me last May. “We were really encouraging them to play a meaningful role, and it was clear to us that they were just completely uninterested. … Why would I turn around after getting that answer and then give them the cover of me showing up as the chair of CPAC, as if everything is okay?”

The ill will Facebook engendered by sitting out CPAC last year cost the company Schlapp’s support and confidence — which it certainly could have used when it needed to reassure conservative users. This year, Facebook is pitching in, and if Schlapp backs the social network the next time its credibility comes under attack from the right, the money probably will have been well spent.

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