Feb 12, 2021 - Technology

Facebook tries to end its love-hate affair with politics

Illustration of a damaged political lawn sign with the facebook logo

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Facebook's new moves to dial back the volume of political content in users' news feeds represent the latest lurch in the social network's erratic handling of its role as the world's digital public square.

Driving the news: Facebook, having captured a vast chunk of the digital ad business and trained users to view its stream of posts as a one-stop shop for all their informational needs, now says it plans to limit its distribution of posts about politics and broaden its situational bans on political ads.

"One of the top pieces of feedback we're hearing from our community right now is that people don't want politics and fighting to take over their experience on our services," CEO Mark Zuckerberg said on an earnings call last week.

  • On Wednesday, the company said it would "temporarily reduce the distribution of political content in News Feed for a small percentage of people in Canada, Brazil and Indonesia this week, and the U.S. in the coming weeks" while it experiments with more long-term strategies for deemphasizing political posts.

By the numbers: Facebook says political content amounts to only 6% of the posts its 2.8 billion users encounter.

  • Yes, but: Facebook won't say how it defines political content, and that's still an enormous volume of posts. For many users who treat Facebook as their sole window onto the internet, it's likely to be a primary source of political information.

The big picture: Facebook has shown its eagerness to get out of the business of making political choices in a range of recent moves, as Axios' Sara Fischer points out.

  • It has doubled down in the past year on removing itself from the business of fact checking political ads.
  • It has also punted its most consequential political speech decision, the ban of former President Donald Trump, to an independent oversight board, effectively washing its hands of responsibility.
  • "Many argue private companies like Facebook shouldn’t be making these big decisions on their own. We agree," wrote global affairs VP Nick Clegg.

Between the lines: Facebook has long promoted its role as a forum for political causes and proudly touted the part it has played in enabling popular democratic movements to organize.

  • At a speech at Georgetown University in October 2019, Zuckerberg said: "People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world — a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society. People no longer have to rely on traditional gatekeepers in politics or media to make their voices heard."

On the other side, however, the company has periodically reset user expectations by emphasizing the primacy of personal messaging and family-and-friends updates on its platform over content that relates to the public sphere.

  • When it tacks in this direction, as it's currently doing, Facebook is acting itself as the kind of "gatekeeper" Zuckerberg argued it had rendered obsolete — using a heavy hand to change a global preferences setting.

Our thought bubble: When Zuckerberg says people in the Facebook community "don't want politics," he is ascribing a single will to half the world's population.

  • Ironically, Facebook's strength has always been understanding its users' wishes and preferences individually.
  • The company's ability to track each user's profile ought to make it a model example of an informational free market, where trends and popularity bubble up from the crowd.
  • But throughout its history, the social network has instead resorted to top-down, command-economy style interventions, nudging the dials on its news feed algorithm in pursuit of changing goals, as it is doing once more.

What to watch: At Georgetown, Zuckerberg said, "In everything we do, we need to make sure we’re empowering people, not simply reinforcing existing institutions and power structures."

  • That principle would point Facebook's management of political content in a very different direction.
  • Right now, the only direct lever Facebook gives users to shape their news feed is to choose who they see first.
  • Instead of dialing down everyone's "political content," the company could let each of us set that dial ourselves — "empowering" users by handing them the controls.

The bottom line: Facebook may be dialing back political content because that's what users want, as the company has said. Or maybe the company thinks this is how it can avoid future conflicts and evade harsh regulation. Either way, rooting politics out of the news feed is itself a political move.

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