Pattern Matching

In Defense of Politics on Facebook

Social networks would love to show users less political content. Here’s why that’s a problem.

Will Oremus
OneZero
Published in
8 min readFeb 13, 2021

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Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Political posts on Facebook and other social networks are often divisive, misleading, or just plain false. Social platforms including Facebook and YouTube have played a role in radicalizing people and facilitated the organization of radical groups, including hate groups, some of which have committed real-world violence.

There is reason to believe that social networks have not merely played passive host to these developments, which have been implicated in the decline of democratic institutions in the U.S. and abroad, but have actively fueled them with feed-ranking and recommendation algorithms that systemically amplify sensational claims and outrage-bait over nuance and balanced reporting.

So if Facebook and other social networks could find a way to show people less political content, that would be a good thing, right?

Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple.

The Pattern

Why social networks can’t put the politics genie back in the bottle.

Facebook announced this week that it will begin running tests in which it reduces the amount of political content in some users’ feeds. The tests will affect a small percentage of users in Brazil, Canada, Indonesia, and the United States. But don’t be surprised if they presage broader changes. Facebook recently tested removing politically themed Groups from its recommendations, and it must have been satisfied with the results because it went on to make that filter permanent last month. Mark Zuckerberg also told investors on a January 27 earnings call that “one of the top pieces of feedback 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.” Facebook has previously said that only 6% of what people see in their feeds is political, but apparently, the company is confident it can whittle that down.

That raises the question: What is political content, exactly? How does Facebook define “political?” A group called “Biden for President” pretty clearly qualifies. But…

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