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Analysis: After building a radicalization engine, Mark Zuckerberg aims to 'turn down the temperature'

Posted January 28, 2021 12:32 a.m. EST

— A version of this article first appeared in the "Reliable Sources" newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

Mark Zuckerberg built one of the world's most powerful — if not the most powerful — radicalization engines in history. For years and years, his platform has algorithmically pushed people into ideological political bubbles and reinforced their existing worldviews. It has enabled and rewarded media organizations profiting off of hyper-partisan trash and outright disinformation. And it has looked the other way as conspiracy theories, such as QAnon, flourished on the site.

All the while, Zuckerberg was aware. But he defended his platform's practices, while making a fortune, repeatedly hiding behind a commitment to free expression as reason to allow for poison to be injected into the American political conversation. But on Wednesday, Zuckerberg announced what can only be viewed as an about-face.

The Facebook chief observed on a call with investors — in which the company posted an $11.2 billion profit in Q4, an increase of more than 50% from the year prior — that "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." (Hmm, I wonder what might have contributed to this!) "One of the top pieces of feedback that 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," Zuckerberg added.

As a result, Zuckerberg said Facebook is now considering steps it can take to reduce the volume of political content shown to users in News Feed. Additionally, Facebook will continue a practice of not recommending civic and political groups to users, a move that had been implemented ahead of the 2020 presidential election...

Zuckerberg framed it as part of an effort to "turn down the temperature and discourage divisive conversations." Which is a great goal. But it's interesting that Facebook is taking these steps now, at this particular moment in time, with Trump removed from the White House and as it faces heavy scrutiny from Democratic lawmakers. And it's worth asking: Why didn't Zuckerberg "turn down the temperature" long ago?

How will this effect hyper-partisan publishers?

Zuckerberg didn't elaborate on how Facebook might reduce political content shown to users in News Feed. But, if the company is serious at doing so, it's hard to imagine that the forthcoming moves won't have a significant impact on the hyper-partisan news publishing industry. Right-wing pundits such as Dan Bongino and Ben Shapiro have built digital empires, largely driven by their Facebook pages. Will Zuckerberg's move put a dent in their business?

Prepare for claims of censorship

If Facebook does limit the spread of hyper-partisan news on its platform, be prepared to see a whole lot more Fox News segments about social media "censorship." Bad faith actors will almost certainly cite decreased engagement as proof Facebook is targeting them for their ideologies. And meanwhile, as Sara Fisher points out, "Liberals will likely say they're being punished for misdeeds from the far right..."

Too little too late?

Donie O'Sullivan emails: "I was at the insurrection and I didn't feel surprised it happened. Yes, it was surreal and tragic. But Facebook allowed QAnon and other radical political content to run wild on its platform for a long time. 'Stop The Steal' quite literally grew into a movement thanks, in part, to Facebook. So while it's interesting that now Facebook is taking steps to reduce political content from its powerful News Feed, it does feel like it's too little, too late."

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