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Photo: Jeff Chiu / AP

Mark Zuckerberg started 2017 scoffing at the idea of Russia election manipulation on Facebook, and looked like he was contemplating his own possible run for the presidency.

Facebook's CEO ends 2017 a very changed man: scrambling to curtail (some of) the manipulation he now acknowledges exists, and to save the most powerful platform in human history.

  • A Facebook exec tells us: "This is the year people will see we get that there's real work to do. We have to change."
  • Fake news and Russia get the attention, but Facebook say it plans "real product fixes" in other areas, including demonstrating how seriously the company takes data privacy. Facebook leaders say they're not waiting for legislation: If they fix the substance, the reputation will follow.

In Silicon Valley, you hear frequent comparisons between the tech giants and the old utilities: The companies are quickly becoming the infrastructure across which all information moves. Going forward, they will be scrutinized that way.

Facebook, Google and Twitter are no longer seen as harmless toys and tools. In fact, the political and public swing against these darlings of Silicon Valley is one of the most important non-Trump trends of the year — and one likely to echo for many years to come:

  • Sean Parker and other early Facebook execs went public with concerns about how the company manipulates data and our minds.
  • Democrats have held private briefings on whether Facebook and other companies knowingly and purposely create dangerous addictions to their products.
  • Senate Intelligence Vice Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) and other lawmakers are pushing for tighter regulation, starting with political advertising. Warner also wants Facebook to open data to outside experts so they can see if the full scope of Russian manipulation has been disclosed.
  • Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, alone among top tech execs, confronted the controversy head-on, in a half-hour-plus interview with Axios. Facebook should be applauded for doing what few companies do in crisis: responding to the critiques in real-time.
  • How many companies admit their product can be unhealthy if used the way lots of people use them?
  • Facebook says it knows that addicting people to their detriment doesn't work in the long run.
  • Execs tell us that their mission for 2018 is: Make sure the platform is responsible so people can use it for their "well-being," the platform's new buzzword.

Be smart: Turns out that Zuckerberg, with his high-profile travel through Trump country, was gearing up for a political campaign — just not the one you thought. He knows the worldwide fight for Facebook's reputation will last a lifetime, and will influence how far and fast regulators go.

Be watchful: Facebook is not fighting fake news — it's fighting spam and clickbait. This is a significant and highly substantive differentiation.

  • The bottom line: Facebook wants to use as little editorial judgment as possible in weeding out crap on its platform, to avoid becoming a media company — a business with much smaller margins and greater legal liability.
  • Unless tech companies are regulated to be held accountable for content that crosses their platforms, Facebook will not fundamentally change — something Sheryl Sandberg made clear in her October conversation with Axios.

Between now and New Year's Day, Axios CEO Jim VandeHei and executive editor Mike Allen will bring Axios AM readers our year-end thoughts on the topics that matter most. Sign up here.

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Go deeper

Updated 2 hours ago - World

U.S. airstrike kills senior al-Qaeda leader in Syria, DOD says

A displacement camp near the village of Qah in Syria's northwestern Idlib province. Photo: Ahmad Al-Atrash/AFP via Getty Images

A U.S. airstrike in northwest Syria on Friday killed senior al-Qaeda leader Abdul Hamid al-Matar, U.S. Central Command said in a statement.

Why it matters: Syria serves as a "safe haven" for the extremist group to plan external operations, according to U.S. Army Maj. John Rigsbee.

Updated 8 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Giuliani associate Lev Parnas convicted of campaign finance crimes

Lev Parnas, a former associate of then-President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Florida businessman Lev Parnas was convicted Friday on charges of conspiracy to make foreign contributions to political campaigns, according to multiple outlets.

Why it matters: Prosecutors said Parnas, then an associate of former President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, funneled over $150,000 from a Russian businessman into U.S. campaigns as part of an effort to land licenses in the U.S.'s legal cannabis industry.

Supreme Court agrees to hear challenges to Texas abortion law

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear two cases challenging Texas' abortion law, which bans the procedure as soon as six weeks into pregnancy, but left the law in place in the meantime.

Why it matters: The court is moving extraordinarily fast on the Texas cases, compressing into just a few days a process that normally takes months. And that schedule means the court will take up Texas' ban a month before it hears another major abortion case — a challenge to Mississippi's own 2018 ban on abortions after 15 weeks.