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Did you notice a change in your social media feeds starting in late January? If so, you are not alone. Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that there has once again been a tweak in the algorithms used by top social media companies like Facebook and Twitter. Gone is some of the nasty, divisive political content that blanketed many social media platforms in 2020. Instead, we could be seeing a change to what can only be called a kinder, gentler social media.
Facebook admits that it is now muffling political content
Perhaps the easiest place to see this shift in social media content occurring is on Facebook, still the most popular social media platform in the world. In a recent earnings call with Wall Street analysts, CEO Mark Zuckerberg alluded to the fact that political content on the platform has gotten out of the control and that the company is look for ways to “mute” or “muffle” the amount of political content that users see on a daily basis.
Then, in mid-February, an official Facebook blog post noted that the company would “de-prioritize” political content in three test markets – Brazil, Canada and Indonesia – before rolling out the new algorithm changes to the U.S. market. According to Facebook, political content is now just 6 percent of all content found in social feeds, but that percentage might be cut in half (or even more), depending on what the new test finds.
Twitter and Facebook still in the crosshairs of legislators
And, don’t forget, big Silicon Valley companies are still in the crosshairs of political legislators in Washington, D.C. and are most likely taking a very cautious approach now that the election is over and their guy (Joseph Biden) won. It’s OK to tone down all the political content, and to stop all the endless political controversies and debates on social media because, well, it’s 2021 and Trump if out of the White House. Add in the fact that the big social media platforms presumably bear some responsibility for what happened in the nation’s capital on January 6, and you can see why the big social media platforms are probably looking to mute or muffle as many divisive voices as possible.
The nightmare scenario, at least from the perspective of Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg, is that Washington legislators might decide to turn their attention to Silicon Valley and address topics like monopoly influence or censorship. That, in turn, could lead to a whole host of cascading negative developments, like the forced break-up of Facebook or the loss of Section 230 protections for Twitter. So you can see why the big social media companies might be keeping a low profile early in the year.
The endless search for more engagement
But how long can this new kinder, gentler approach to social media really last? After all, the big social media companies have created ad-based business models that can only work if there is a lot of engagement across their platforms. And the way to get all that engagement is via controversy, debate and lots of hot-button issues. If you suddenly de-prioritize political content and instead run with lots of harmless content (think cute kittens and sunrises), will that generate enough engagement to keep advertisers happy?
If you think about the new rivals to Facebook and Twitter in the social media space – companies like Parler, Telegram and Gab – it’s clear that they are not running away from political speech, debate and lots of controversy. Ultimately, it might come down to how Facebook defines “political content.” Any posts about “storming the capitol” might count as political speech, of course, but what about disgruntled moms and dads posting about how their schools are still not open? Or what about angry business owners complaining about draconian lockdown measures? One thing is certain – you’ll probably be hearing a lot about social media algorithms over the next few months, as the big social platforms try to find the right mix of content to appease both users and advertisers.