Having spent the last 12 months helping to fuel conspiracy theories, undermine public health, and weaken democracy, all while pocketing $86 billion in revenue, Facebook’s CEO said on Wednesday night that he now just wants his platform to be “fun.”
2020 certainly was a big year for Facebook. It helped promote QAnon from a fringe conspiracy movement to a mainstream extremist group; it helped anti-vaxxers spread misinformation about the coronavirus vaccine; it allowed pro-Trump groups to try to deter millions of Black Americans from voting; it gave Donald Trump a platform to spread election fraud disinformation; it helped the “Stop the Steal” movement recruit and organize online; and it helped incite the Capitol riot — despite Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s insistence otherwise.
Despite all that—or maybe because of it—Facebook also raked in a record $86 billion in revenue and $32 billion in profit, the company announced Wednesday evening.
But now that he’s created or exacerbated many of society’s problems, and gotten rich doing it, Mark Zuckerberg wants things to change and wants Facebook to be a place where people “just have fun.”
To do that, Zuckerberg says he’ll get rid of the thing that makes Facebook a not-fun place to be: politics.
“We’re going to focus even more on being a force for bringing people closer together,” Zuckerberg told investors on an earnings call Wednesday evening.
He continued: “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.”
For some reason, the Facebook CEO failed to mention that the company’s algorithm, and its entire business model, incentivizes the type of hyper-partisan political content that currently dominates the platform.
To transform Facebook from the toxic swamp it is today into a magical paradise of bliss, wonder, and photos of your second cousin’s third baby, Zuckerberg said Facebook’s algorithm would no longer suggest any groups that mention politics or other societal subjects.
“We plan to keep civic and political groups out of recommendations for the long term and expand this globally,” Zuckerberg told investors. “To be clear, this is a continuation of work we've been doing for a while to turn down the temperature and discourage divisive conversations and communities.”
But Zuckerberg has made promises like this before. In fact, in October, under oath in front of Congress, Zuckerberg said Facebook had already stopped recommending all “political content or social issue groups.”
That decision came after Facebook’s own internal research found that promoting these groups helps steer users toward divisive and extremist content.
But Zuckerberg and Facebook didn’t follow through: An investigation by the Markup published last week found Facebook continued to recommend political groups to its users throughout December.
The investigation “found 12 political groups among the top 100 groups recommended to the more than 1,900 Facebook users in our Citizen Browser project, which tracks links and group recommendations served to a nationwide panel of Facebook users.”
But Zuckerberg made an even more controversial promise during Wednesday’s investor call, indicating that hyper-partisan political sites could also be hit by Facebook’s move away from political speech.
“We're also currently considering steps we could take to reduce the amount of political content in News Feed as well,” Zuckerberg said. ”We're still working through exactly the best way to do this.”
Zuckerberg didn’t say how Facebook was going to do this, but it’s likely to have a major impact on right-wing commentators like Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino, who have built massive media empires almost entirely based on their Facebook pages.
In the final quarter of 2020, as Trump’s Facebook account posted rants about baseless QAnon-inspired election fraud conspiracies, and Facebook groups across the country planned “Stop the Steal” marches and then the Capitol riots, the company just continued to earn money in record amounts.
In the three months to the end of December, the company earned $10.14 for every one of its 2.8 billion monthly active users, a record-high total. Its profits for the quarter—over $11 billion—were 50% higher than the same period in 2019.
That’s because Facebook is extremely good at understanding exactly what excites its users, and even better at delivering more of that content to them so they stay on the platform longer.
And yet, Facebook’s CEO can’t seem to put his finger on just why the world seems to be so addicted to this type of content. On Wednesday evening, without a hint of irony, he told investors, “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.”