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Facebook takes temporary steps to scale down political content

By TAYLOR TELFORD | The Washington Post | Published: February 10, 2021

Facebook is exploring ways to play down political content on users' feeds as it reckons with the role its site played in boosting interest in the Jan. 6 rally that ended with a mob attack on the U.S. Capitol, the social media titan announced Wednesday.

Starting this week, Facebook temporarily will reduce political content in news feeds for a small slice of users in Brazil, Canada and Indonesia. It will do the same with a small percentage of American users in the coming weeks. The company also said it will stop recommending civil and political groups to users worldwide, as it did in the United States before the Nov. 3 election.

"It's important to note that we're not removing political content from Facebook altogether," Aastha Gupta, Facebook's product management director, said in a statement. "Our goal is to preserve the ability for people to find and interact with political content on Facebook, while respecting each person's appetite for it at the top of their News Feed."

Facebook has taken heat for the role its services have played in the organizing of far-right events since at least 2017, when it was used to promote a rally by white nationalists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville in which a woman was killed. Last month, Chief Operating Officer Cheryl Sandberg tried to deflect blame for the Capitol riot, noting the role of smaller, right-leaning services such as Parler and Gab.

"I think these events were largely organized on platforms that don't have our abilities to stop hate, don't have our standards and don't have our transparency," Sandberg said in a January interview that was live-streamed by Reuters.

But researchers found that supporters of then-President Donald Trump heavily promoted the Capitol rally on the platform and on Facebook-owned Instagram, and used the services to organize bus trips to Washington. In the days before the attack, more than 100,000 users posted hashtags affiliated with the movement prompted by Trump's baseless claims that voter fraud cost him the presidential race, including #StopTheSteal and #FightForTrump.

The Tech Transparency Project, a watchdog research initiative, found that "numerous" Facebook users openly billed the Jan. 6 rally as a chance to "#OccupyCongress." The group also found that the platform had been showing ads for weapons accessories and body armor alongside election misinformation in "patriot" and militia groups after the riot. (In response, Facebook paused the ads until after the presidential inauguration.)

According to Facebook's analysis, political content makes up 6% of what users see. In the company's last earnings call, Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said that one of the most common pieces of feedback Facebook gets is that users want politics to take up less space in their feeds. That's part of what sparked the tests to lessen political content.

"This is a continuation of work we've been doing for a while to turn down the temperature and discourage divisive conversations and communities," Zuckerberg said.

Lauren Svensson, a Facebook spokeswoman, said the countries included in the first wave of testing were among those with the most complaints about seeing too much political content.

"For the purposes of this initial set of tests in Canada, Brazil, Indonesia and the United States, we'll be reducing the distribution of political content in News Feed for a small percentage of users by using a machine learning model that is trained to look for signals of political content and predict whether a post is related to politics," Svensson said in an email to The Washington Post. "We'll be refining this model during the test period to better identify political content, and may or may not end up using this method longer-term."

She also said the company is still working through its standards to determine what constitutes political content.

Information about the coronavirus from major health organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and national and regional health agencies in affected countries will be exempt from the tests, Facebook said. Content from official government agencies also will be exempt.