Jan 28, 2021 - Technology

Big Tech bolts politics

Illustration of scales of justice holding apps with the deleted X
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Big Tech fed politics. Then it bled politics. Now it wants to be dead to politics. 

Why it matters: The social platforms that profited massively on politics and free speech suddenly want a way out — or at least a way to hide until the heat cools. 

Driving the news: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday said the company will stop providing recommendations for users to join civic and political groups on a long-term basis.

  • Facebook also plans to take steps to reduce the amount of political content in the News Feed, Zuckerberg said, although he didn't provide details about how it plans to do so.
  • "There has been a trend across society that a lot of things have become politicized and politics have had a way of creeping into everything. A lot of the feedback we see from our community is that people don't want that in their experience," he said.

Even the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, the philanthropy organization run by Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, appears to be shrinking back from politics.

  • It’s offloading most direct political advocacy work to outside groups, Recode reported Wednesday night, as part of an overhaul that will also see Zuckerberg and Chan spend $350 million to stand up a new group centered on criminal justice reform, a cause that has largely avoided being sucked into bitter partisan politics.

Be smart: In the long lead-up and then explosive aftermath of a volatile U.S. election, it has slowly dawned on platforms that political speech may be too tough for them to adequately police without themselves getting whacked politically.

  • Ads: Twitter, TikTok and others have all banned political ads from on the platform, while Facebook and Google have started to implement political ads limits around elections and sensitive events.
  • Speech: Most of the platforms have started taking much tougher stances on the type of speech they will tolerate from political leaders. Nearly every major Silicon Valley firm has either banned or restricted former President Donald Trump and some of his allies for hate speech or inciting violence.
  • Hyper-partisan news: Companies like Facebook and Google have tried to boost original reporting and quality news in an effort to steer eyeballs aways from hyper-partisan outlets during breaking news events.
  • PAC contributions: Following the Capitol siege earlier this month, most major tech firms said they would freeze political spending in an effort to avoid inadvertently funding members of Congress that voted not to certify the 2020 U.S. election results.

Between the lines: While many of these changes are meant to address regulatory pressure, they also address user demands to make their apps more friendly and less divisive.

  • A Pew Research Center survey in August found that 55% of U.S. social media users say they are ‘worn out’ by political posts and discussions.
  • A vast majority of users (70%) say it's “stressful and frustrating” to talk about politics on social media with people they disagree with, up from 59% in 2016.

Yes, but: Stepping away from politics is easier said than done.

The big picture: It will be nearly impossible for any of these platforms to completely ban political speech if they want to uphold the free-speech values that their entire business models are built on, and that they've spent years trumpeting.

Zuckerberg addressed that tension on Wednesday, saying:

  • "We have to balance this carefully because we do have deep commitment to free expression ... If people want to discuss [politics] or join those groups, they should be able to do that, but we are not serving community well to be recommending that content right now."

The bottom line: Politics won’t be gone for good on these platforms, but they won’t be as prominent as they were leading up to the 2020 election.

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