Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg said the social media giant is taking steps to reduce the amount of political content on its platforms and in its news feeds to channel users to more “healthy communities.”
“What we are hearing is that people don’t want politics and fighting to take over their experience on our service,” he said, clearly worn down by recent events. The commitment was vague. “We are still working through the best way to do this,” he acknowledged Wednesday on long a conference call to discuss quarterly earnings. “We will still let people engage in political groups and discussion if they want to,” he said.
The shift follows a tumultuous election process distorted by misinformation, defined by rising extremism and culminating in a deadly siege of the U.S. Capitol. Zuckerberg did not mention (nor, incredibly, did any analysts on the call ask) former President Donald Trump’s indefinite banishment from the site for inciting the violence and if or when he might be allowed back on. That appears to be the decision of an unusual oversight council of 40 individuals worldwide tasked with such decisions (and first reported on by the New York Times earlier this week.)
Zuckerberg insisted that only a small minority of content on the platform is political and the vast majority of users would like it to stay that way. “There has been this frenzy across society where a lot of things have become political and politics have been creeping into everything. And we have seen that people don’t want that. They come to connect with friends and family… We can potentially do a better job…”
The shift won’t impact Facebook’s bottom line, execs assured Wall Streeters, calling political advertising only a “low-single digit” revenue driver even in an active political season.
Facebook posted strong 2020 fourth-quarter number but noted headwinds this year which include an antitrust lawsuit by the FTC and most states and threats to repeal Section 230, that grants the Internet broad legal immunity and freedom to moderate content.
Zuckerberg declined to comment on the FTC but said, “On regulation overall, the point that I would to highlight is that it would be very helpful to us and the Internet sector for there to be clearer rules and expectations around some of these social issues, around how content should be handled, elections should be handled, what privacy norms the government wants to see in place. Because these questions all have tradeoffs.”
Free expression, safety privacy and social equity “are all very important and it is hard for a private company to balance those. It would be better to have clear guidance and clear rules for the Internet. So that is something that I am going to continue to advocate for.”
He reiterated he thinks Congress should in fact update Section 230, which is more than two decades old, “to make sure it’s working the way people intended.” The rule helped the nascent Internet grow and prosper, “so any changes should be thought through very carefully.”
The second theme of the call was bad Apple, which Zuckerberg slammed for new policies coming that will squeeze targeted advertising, which has helped boost revenue for Facebook and other companies. (Apple pumped out its quarterly results, which were stellar, after market close today as well.)
Zuckerberg accused the Tim Cook-led company of cloaking a highly competitive move as socially conscious. Separately, he noted a number of times how hard Apple makes it to compete in messaging since the iMessage app comes pre-installed on iPhones.
“I do think this is shaping up as…,” Zuckerberg started to sum up the Apple situation — before the conference call link dropped briefly and he lost the train.
Happier note, VR. Facebook, a leader in the field through Oculus, is building “one continuous ecosystem for spatial immersive computing,” he said, clearly enthralled with the technology. “Some of the things that we are going to be able to build with VR and AR are some of the kind of experiences I wanted to build since I was a kid.”