Retired Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl was regularly ranked among the country’s most conservative senators when he served from 1995 to 2013. He's rubbed shoulders with some of the most prominent anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists out there, including Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders and writer David Horowitz. He once famously said on the Senate floor that Planned Parenthood spends 90 percent of its funds on abortions (the real figure is 3 percent). He even has an author page on Breitbart, for a piece he wrote about Iran.
And now Kyl will help decide whether Facebook is too liberal.
Earlier this week, Facebook bowed to pressure from conservative groups and lawmakers and agreed to undergo two separate audits, one to vet its processes for protecting civil rights and the other to assess whether its policies and algorithms entrench liberal bias at the expense of conservative voices. Facebook tapped Kyl to lead its outside audit on political bias with the backing of the well-known D.C. law firm Covington & Burling.
In 2011, after Kyl made his false claim about Planned Parenthood, his office backtracked by saying his assertion was “not intended to be a factual statement.” That briefly made him a punchline on late-night TV. But it’s not Kyl’s Planned Parenthood blunder that concerns civil rights groups; it’s his relationship to the anti-Muslim movement.
In fact, Kyl is associated with the very same anti-Muslim groups the civil rights advocates have flagged (unsuccessfully) for Facebook to remove.
“He’s got really good name recognition among very conservative people, and that’s one of the demographics that has a significant amount of distrust or concern with regards to Facebook,” said criminologist and attorney Brian Levin, director of the nonpartisan Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “But yes, those connections are disturbing.”
Kyl declined to comment directly to VICE News on his plans to audit Facebook for liberal bias, but through a spokesman he said, “We look forward to working with Facebook on this important project. We will have more to share over time.”
Kyl has long maintained a relationship with groups like the Center for Security Policy, an organization labeled a hate group by Southern Poverty Law Center. These days, its primary concerns hinge on the conspiracy theory that the Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational Sunni group, has infiltrated all levels of U.S. government and that American democracy is threatened by “creeping Shariah” law. (Kyl’s relationship with the group began before it latched onto anti-Muslim conspiracy theories.
In 2012, the Center for Security Policy and the David Horowitz Freedom Center (also designated a hate group by the SPLC) announced a twice-annual lecture series named for Kyl. The senator delivered one of the inaugural lectures, titled “The U.S., Israel, and the Arab Revolution.”
“We may be deemed hard-headed, but we are also very soft-hearted when it comes to expanding the cause of freedom around the world,” Kyl said to the room.
Back in 2009, Kyl invited Wilders, a Dutch parliamentarian accused of Islamophobia, to screen a documentary on Capitol Hill. The purpose of the 17-minute film, titled "Fitna," was to demonstrate that Islam is an inherently violent religion. It likens the Qur’an to Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” and intersperses verses from the text with scenes from the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
Earlier that year, Wilders was denied entry to the U.K. because the Home Office concluded that his opinions “threaten community harmony and therefore public safety.” (Wilders' documentary screened at the House of Lords regardless, and his entry ban was overturned months later.)
In 2010, Kyl put out a video praising Horowitz for receiving a lifetime achievement award from the conservative Young America’s Foundation.
Civil rights groups dislike Horowitz because of his anti-Muslim views. “The difference between Islamic fanatics, or Jew haters, and Hitler is that Hitler hid the Final Solution,” Horowitz said during a 2016 speech at the University of South California. “And the Iranians and Hezbollah shout it from the rooftops.”
More recently, Horowitz called the media coverage of last August’s violent events in Charlottesville “the biggest fake news story of the summer."
For right-wing media watchdogs, Facebook’s decision to put Kyl in charge of the audit is a welcome development. “It’s a smart move by Facebook,” said L. Brent Bozell III, a conservative commentator and founder of the Media Research Center. “Jon Kyl is someone that conservatives respect.”
Bozell bristled at the notion that anti-Muslim groups like Center for Security Policy were hate groups. “The moment you start saying that, and describing conservative groups as hate groups, we could say that the Southern Poverty Law Center is a hate group that hates Christians.”
Years after Kyl left the Senate, he finds himself more in the center of mainstream Republican thought. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, during his confirmation hearing in January 2017, was grilled over his own associations with Horowitz, and the fact he once received an award from him. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s ties to the Center for Security Policy go deeper than Kyl’s, as do National Security Advisor John Bolton’s.
At the end of the day, Levin said, if Facebook is trying to win trust back from conservatives, it’s a smart move to put someone like Kyl at the helm.
“Ten years ago it would have made him an unacceptable choice,” said Levin. “But look where we are now: This is something we’re seeing internationally, this revving up of anti-Islamic sentiment. This is what happens when this gets mainstreamed.”
Cover image: Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc., speaks during the F8 Developers Conference in San Jose, California, on May 1, 2018. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)