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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.

Subscribe to Axios AM/PM for a daily rundown of what's new and why it matters, directly from Mike Allen.
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Go deeper

Harry and Meghan accuse British royal family of racism

Photo: Joe Pugliese/Harpo Productions via Reuters

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle delivered a devastating indictment of the U.K. royal family in their conservation with Oprah Winfrey: Both said unnamed relatives had expressed concern about what the skin tone of their baby would be. And they accused "the firm" of character assassination and "perpetuating falsehoods."

Why it matters: An institution that thrives on myth now faces harsh reality. The explosive two-hour interview gave an unprecedented, unsparing window into the monarchy: Harry said his father and brother "are trapped," and Markle revealed that the the misery of being a working royal drove her to thoughts of suicide.

Updated 3 hours ago - Axios Twin Cities

In photos: Thousands rally for George Floyd ahead of Derek Chauvin's trial

Demonstrators on March 7 outside the Hennepin County Government Center, where the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, charged with murdering George Floyd, will begin in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo: Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

Thousands of protesters marched through Minneapolis' streets Sunday, urging justice for George Floyd on the eve of the start of former police officer Derek Chauvin's trial over the 46-year-old's death, per AFP.

The big picture: Chauvin faces charges for second-degree murder and manslaughter over Floyd's death last May, which ignited massive nationwide and global protests against racism and for police reform. His trial is due to start Monday, with jury selection procedures.

Caitlin Owens, author of Vitals
7 hours ago - Health

Pfizer CEO feels "liberated" after taking COVID vaccine

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla. Photo: "Axios on HBO"

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla tells "Axios on HBO" that he recently received his first of two doses of the company's coronavirus vaccine.

Why it matters: Bourla told CNBC in December that company polling found that one of the most effective ways to increase confidence in the vaccine was to have the CEO take it.