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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.

Go deeper

Jan 29, 2021 - Technology

Facebook developing a tool to help advertisers avoid bad news

Photo Illustration: Avishek Das/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Facebook on Friday said it's testing new advertiser "topic exclusion controls" to help address concerns marketers may have that their ads are appearing next to topics in Facebook's News Feed that they consider bad for their brand.  

Why it matters: As Axios has previously noted, the chaotic nature of the modern news cycle and digital advertising landscape has made it nearly impossible for brands to run ads against quality content in an automated fashion without encountering bad content.

Jan 29, 2021 - Technology

Big Tech is outsourcing its hardest content moderation decisions

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Faced with the increasingly daunting task of consistent content moderation at scale, Big Tech companies are tossing their hardest decisions to outsiders, hoping to deflect some of the pressure they face for how they govern their platforms.

Why it matters: Every policy change, enforcement action or lack thereof prompts accusations that platforms like Facebook and Twitter are making politically motivated decisions to either be too lax or too harsh. Ceding responsibility to others outside the company may be the future of content moderation if it works.

Conservatives warn culture, political wars will worsen

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The verdict is clear: The vast majority of Republicans will stand firm with former President Trump. The next phase is clear, too: Republicans are rallying around a common grievance that big government, big media and big business are trying to shut them up, shut them out and shut them down. 

Why it matters: The post-Trump GOP, especially its most powerful media platforms, paint the new reality as an existential threat. This means political attacks are seen — or characterized — as assaults on their very being. 

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