Facebook will halt algorithm-driven recommendations of political Facebook groups around the world and is looking into reducing political content in its News Feed, according to chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg.
“People don’t want politics and fighting to take over their experience on the platform,” Zuckerberg told investors. “We’re going to focus even more on being a force for bringing people closer together,” he added.
Zuckerberg’s remarks came on the quarterly earnings call for the platform. Facebook on Wednesday beat analyst predictions in the October-December quarter, with a revenue of $28bn, or $3.88 a share
The earnings announced Wednesday cover only the end of 2020 and thus do not reflect the market’s reaction to revelations about the role of social media in the 6 January insurrection and Facebook’s decision to ban Donald Trump in the subsequent days.
Facebook had announced ahead of the 2020 elections it would stop recommendations of partisan groups to users in the US, but a report from the Markup showed users were still regularly funneled into political groups through the platform’s algorithms as recently as early January.
Following the report, Democratic senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts sent a letter to Facebook demanding answers as to why it did not fulfill its promises. “Facebook’s system of recommending political groups poses grave threats to American democracy and public safety,” Markey said.
The 33% year-over-year growth announced on Facebook’s earnings report came despite a difficult year marked by an advertiser boycott, rumblings of antitrust actions, and content moderation concerns surrounding the 2020 presidential election.
“For now, Facebook seems untouchable,” said Tamara Littleton, analyst and chief executive officer at social media agency The Social Element. “But the fact remains: Facebook has damaged its reputation through consistently putting profit before anything else.”
In a statement accompanying the report, Facebook’s chief financial officer said the company benefited from the ongoing shift amid the pandemic to online commerce, as well as the shift in consumer demand “towards products and away from services”.
He also stated Facebook continues to face difficulties, including the ongoing economic impact of the pandemic as well as “the evolving regulatory landscape”.
Facebook and other tech giants have been subject to antitrust probes and other regulation in 2020, a trend that is expected continue or accelerate in 2021. “We continue to face significant uncertainty as we manage through a number of cross currents in 2021,” the statement said.
Authorities filed a flurry of lawsuits against big tech firms in 2020, including long-anticipated suits filed against Facebook by the Federal Trade Commission and 48 states accusing the social media giant of abusing its power in social networking to squash smaller competitors, and sought remedies that could include a forced spinoff of Instagram and WhatsApp.
This, and actions against Google, have been declared the biggest antitrust action since the 1970s. Enforcement from the Biden administration is likely to differ from the government’s approach under Trump, who appeared to have a personal vendetta against the platforms over perceived censorship. Still, Biden has promised to take action to restrain big tech.
In the call with investors on Wednesday, Zuckerberg also took shots at competitor Apple, arguing Facebook subsidiary WhatsApp is “superior” to Apple’s iMessage in terms of privacy.
Zuckerberg also criticized iOS14, a new Apple system update that will require apps to get permission to track user behavior, saying it will impact Facebook’s advertising business – by far the bulk of its revenue – as users will be able to opt out of data collection.
“Apple has every incentive to use their dominant platform position to interfere with how our apps and other apps work, which they regularly do to preference their own impact,” Zuckerberg said.
Facebook’s stocks fell as much as 6% in after-hours trading as the market on the whole experienced its worst day since October 2020.