Facebook backs away from heated political talk

Facebook has been pounded with criticism that it hasn't done enough to curb misinformation and vitriol on its network. PHOTO: REUTERS

SAN FRANCISCO (AFP) - Facebook is seeking to "turn down the temperature" on its sprawling platform by reducing the kind of divisive and inflammatory political talk it has long hosted.

Facebook has been pounded with criticism that it not only hasn't done enough to curb misinformation and vitriol on its network, but also that its algorithm actually tended to encourage such posts because of the attention they grab.

The social media giant will no longer recommend politics-themed groups to users, Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg said on Wednesday (Jan 27), making permanent a measure put in place during the combative United States election won by President Joe Biden.

The Silicon Valley-based Internet giant is also working on ways to reduce the amount of political content served up in users' news feeds by its automated systems.

"We're still going to enable people to engage in political groups and discussions if they want to," Mr Zuckerberg said.

But he added the decision to reduce political content in users' main news feeds is part of a push "to turn down the temperature and discourage divisive conversation".

The social media giant has long been a fertile ground for users to tangle over opposing views or surround themselves with those who agree emphatically.

"But one of the top pieces of feedback that we are hearing from our community right now is that people don't want politics and fighting to take over their experience on our services," Mr Zuckerberg said in an earnings call.

"We plan to keep civic and political groups out of recommendations for the long term and we plan to expand that policy globally," he added.

Trump ban to stand?

These moves come as Facebook wrangles with whether former president Donald Trump's suspension from the network for "fomenting insurrection" should stand.

Facebook and Instagram barred Mr Trump after his supporters stormed the US Capitol on Jan 6, an attack on the seat of US democracy that led to Mr Trump's unprecedented second impeachment.

The platform is referring the matter to its independent oversight board, which is tasked with making final decisions on appeals regarding what is removed or allowed to remain on the world's biggest social network.

"We believe our decision was necessary and right," Facebook vice-president of global affairs Nick Clegg said in a blog post at the time.

Members of the oversight board come from various countries and include jurists, human rights activists, journalists, a Nobel Peace laureate and a former Danish prime minister.

Reaction to the Trump ban has ranged from criticism that Facebook should have booted him long ago to outrage over his online voice being muted.

Facebook's stance was never meant to mean "that politicians can say whatever they like", Mr Clegg said.

Healthful v hurtful

Facebook updated its mission a few years ago, from connecting the world to "bringing the world closer together".

Letting people create groups devoted to topics, hobbies, ideas or interests was touted as enabling people to get to know one another in virtual clubhouses.

More than 600 million of Facebook's approximately 2.6 billion monthly users take part in groups, according to Mr Zuckerberg.

"Our product focus now is to develop this community infrastructure beyond feeds and message boards to help people build and run full self-sustaining community institutions," he said.

"As we continue to focus on this, we need to make sure that the communities people connect with are healthy and positive."

Part of that effort involves building tools such as messaging and video chat into groups, and creating ways for groups to raise money from donations, membership fees, or merchandise sales, according to the Facebook chief.

It also means taking down groups that break Facebook rules about promoting violence or hate, Mr Zuckerberg said, noting that the social network has removed more than a million groups for policy violations in the past year.

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