Meta can't filter politics no matter how hard it tries

Meta can't filter politics no matter how hard it tries

A blue verification badge and the logos of Facebook and Instagram appear in this picture illustration taken on Jan 19, 2023. REUTERS
A blue verification badge and the logos of Facebook and Instagram appear in this picture illustration taken on Jan 19, 2023. REUTERS

Meta Platforms Inc has decided that, in a year in which at least 60 nations go to the polls, "political" content should be set to one side on its network of 4 billion people. It is, the company is making clear, no longer worth the hassle.

How else to read its announcement that it would not "proactively amplify political content" from accounts people don't follow into its feeds? By default, executive Adam Mosseri explained, users will be shielded from such content unless they flick a switch in the settings. What he didn't make clear was what exactly could be considered political content. Presumably because this is impossible. (The issue is separate from filtering out blatant misinformation, which is another debate entirely.)

Not for the first time, Meta is demonstrating that it seeks to create a social network without the hassles of society. It wants the growth that comes with replacing the platform formerly known as Twitter, and an eventually a lucrative new advertising vector, but with a drastically reduced workforce and a lower tolerance for controversy. It wants facile users who talk about Elmo and Oreos instead of committed ones challenging racism or advocating for reproductive rights. Sorry, Meta -- it doesn't work that way. Either you want the world or you don't.

The saga -- and it will be a saga -- immediately brought to my mind a fantastic advertising campaign that ran in the UK ahead of 2005's general election, a message that has stuck with me and I think is highly relevant here. Turnout in the previous one had been down 11.9%. Concerned about apathy, a recently established government commission for overseeing elections funded a TV spot called "I Don't Do Politics".

In it, a man, voiced by beloved actor Jim Broadbent, starts talking about the European Union with his friend who immediately shuts down the conversation: He doesn't talk politics, you see. Cut to the next scene, and the friend complains about traffic, only to be cut off by Broadbent as, of course, transportation is politics. Next, the friend complains about national sporting underachievement -- another policy debate. Then he complains about litter. You get the drift.

Maybe the ad resonated because the election was the first one in which I was old enough to vote. At the Sixth Form school I attended -- in the UK system, it's the last step before college -- the four local candidates came by to coax out whatever youth vote they could. They all spoke mostly about student loans, with the exception of the UKIP candidate who decided, when faced with a room of 17- and 18-year-olds in a landlocked county in the east of England, to talk about the EU's fishing policies in the North Sea. I loved it. My little article about the debate earned me both my first byline and my first complaint -- the UKIP candidate would later write to me, upset I'd called him "out of touch". Absolutely exhilarating.

But a lot of people don't see it that way, of course, as is their right. "Politics" is a bewildering, exhausting business, one that never ends. (No wonder that when I watched the UK election ad on YouTube, the algorithm then suggested a now-iconic clip of a woman on the street in 2017 telling a British news reporter how fed up of elections she was. "Not another one?" she said. "Honestly, I can't stand this. There's too much politics going on at the moment.")

People are sick of horse race coverage -- the polls, the debates, the talking heads. They've grown numb to both the hate-mongering posts from the right and the fear-mongering posts from the left. A switch that turns all of that off feels more than welcome. I can understand why Meta wants to create one. Sadly, its filter is unworkable. Its existence at all is another symptom of what I call Engineer Brain that still guides decision-making at Meta, where apparently every moderation question can be placed into a rigid flow chart ending with a definitive yes or no, a binary 1 or 0.

Where the company has grown in the past few years, thanks to incessant bad press and multiple haranguings in Congress, is that it's doing much of its thinking in public. Its new policy came not from a leak or some academic research but because the company announced it. That should be commended. Do you know TikTok's policy on promoting or demoting political content? I certainly don't.

But Meta should be wise enough know that separating political from nonpolitical content is neither realistic nor fair. As Jim Broadbent would remind you with a wagging finger, just about every issue in our lives stems from a political choice, either our own or those made for us. The cars we drive, the people we marry (and divorce), the babies we have (or don't), the face computers we can afford (or can't). Is gay pride political? Undoubtedly yes -- and LGBTQ rights advocates are right to take that argument even further, as they have been, and stressing that there are people who feel their very existence is an outspoken act of politics.

Meta's PR team has made some effort to clarify. Things may be classed as political, the company said, if they are "posts about laws, elections or social topics". Social topics! Is there a single "social topic" in American discourse, from drinking Bud Light to enjoying Taylor Swift, that hasn't been rendered a political issue? Social networks can't say they "don't do politics" any more than people can. ©2024 Bloomberg LP

Dave Lee is Bloomberg Opinion's US technology columnist. He was previously a correspondent for the Financial Times and BBC News.

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