Zuckerberg’s pledge to depoliticize Facebook hits grassroots movements

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Facebook’s decision to permanently stop recommending political groups to its users is a major hit for movements that have grown to rely on social media to draw in first-time activists.

But progressive grassroots organizers and digital campaign strategists saw something else in the tech giant’s announcement: a cop-out.

Advocacy group leaders — who have long called on Facebook and other tech giants to clamp down on incendiary posts and hate speech, arguing that it led to radicalization on social platforms and contributed to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol — say the company’s latest policy shift won’t fix its problems with politics. And they fear it will disadvantage organizers who help to usher new people into new movements, like the Trump-era women’s marches or Black Lives Matter protests.

“Facebook being unwilling to actually police violent white nationalists means that they create these blanket policies so they don’t actually have to deal with the real problem,” said Rashad Robinson, an outspoken Facebook critic and president of racial justice group Color of Change. “It becomes a ‘both sides’ issue. We are not the other side of violent, white nationalists.”

The new policy dings Facebook groups — often used by organizers and state-specific chapters — not Facebook pages, which are more frequently used by candidates and campaigns. But Caitlin Mitchell, a senior adviser to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, said that eliminating recommendations for users to join political or civic groups “could’ve had a potentially very large impact” on Biden’s campaign in 2020, had the policy been in place then.

The Biden campaign tapped into informal, state-specific networks aligned with Democrats to find volunteers and other supporters during the coronavirus pandemic, when they were minimizing in-person gatherings. Under Facebook’s current policy, “it would’ve been a lot tougher for these groups to gain traction and bring in people for the first time,” Mitchell said, by making local organizing groups harder for new political participants to find.

Samantha Steelman, who helped lead national organizing on Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign, said that state-specific pro-Buttigieg groups popped up all over Facebook as Buttigieg gained traction in the 2020 Democratic primary. “They were able to grow because they were recommended to like-minded individuals in their area,” Steelman said. “We’ll see the ripple effect of that no longer happening.”

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s latest shift also left digital strategists and candidates — who have come to depend more and more on Facebook as a critical pipeline to voters and donors — confronting existential questions about the broader future of politics on its platform, citing the CEO’s note that the company would consider taking new steps to limit political content in its news feed.

Some strategists took it as further evidence that Facebook’s political ad ban — a self-imposed prohibition on election and issue-advocacy ads dating back to Election Day 2020 — isn’t going away soon.

“We’re not hearing, ‘soon, soon, soon,’ anymore, and it’s more indefinite now,” said Julia Rosen, a Democratic digital strategist. “All of this seems to be a pretty clear signal that they want to move away from politics on the platform.”

Several consultants from both parties said they have sought clarity from Facebook about what deemphasizing politics on the news feed might mean. They have not received any further guidance from the company.

A spokesperson for Facebook said in a statement that the company’s research showed “some people feel that there’s too much political content in their news feeds.”

“This is a problem we’re still figuring out how to best understand and solve,” the company’s statement continued. “Our goal is to come up with a way to address this feedback that involves giving people a clear understanding of how we treat political content in News Feed, respects their tolerances for political content, and preserves their ability to interact with this kind content across Facebook to the extent they want to.”

For now, Facebook’s more narrow elimination of recommendations for political groups is already reverberating through the online organizing community.

The 2017 women’s marches prompted the growth of major online communities like Indivisible and Pantsuit Nation, while Black Lives Matters protests were also amplified on social media platforms. Groups like Sunrise Movement, an environment-focused progressive group, and Americans for Prosperity, a conservative activist organization, also use Facebook groups to organize supporters through local chapters.

“Would the Blue Wave Resistance have formed in 2017? Yes, but just not as much. Would the surge of activism around George Floyd have happened? Yes, but just not as much,” said a senior Democratic digital strategist, granted anonymity to discuss the issue candidly. “It would’ve taken us out by maybe 20 percent — so, limits us by 20 percent, but limits QAnon by 80 percent. Would I take the trade? Yes.”

Facebook’s new stance will also pose a major test of how the platform defines what is a “political” group, said Evan Greer, a director for the digital rights group Fight for the Future, which organizes digitally including via Facebook groups.

“The decision about what is or isn’t political is a very political decision in and of itself,” she said. “Will they consider a local veterans group to be political? If so, will they not consider a local anti-war group to be political? Would they consider an LGBTQ support group to be political? … Frankly, all of those things are political.”

Facebook’s decision comes at a particularly perilous moment for the company, as social media giants clash with politicians in both parties. After the violent siege on the U.S. Capitol, Facebook has come under immense pressure from Democratic leaders in Washington to crack down on political misinformation and violent content online. Meanwhile, Republicans are railing against Facebook, Twitter and other tech companies for booting former President Donald Trump from their products, accusing them of stifling free speech.

Brent Bozell, president of conservative media and tech watchdog group the Media Research Center, said Facebook’s new policy could lead to more of what he calls anti-GOP censorship.

“This is the nightmare many conservatives have warned about and have been outright dismissed by the media as alarmists and conspiracy theorists,” he said in a statement. “First it was President Trump, now it is the entire conservative movement.”

Eric Wilson, a Republican consultant who led Marco Rubio’s digital efforts in the 2016 presidential primary, warned that “the policy will hurt every group’s recommendations, QAnon or reputable,” adding “that’ll make some groups reach fewer people, and that is a challenge, but it’s not shutting off any functionality.”

“It’s a narrow change made as a PR stunt, and what we actually need is Facebook political ads turned back on,” Wilson said.

Dozens of House Democrats asked Facebook last week to make permanent its policy of not recommending political groups. Still, even after that pledge, Democratic leaders are pushing for broader commitments.

“To bring about meaningful improvements in our information ecosystem, much larger reforms are needed to the company’s core product of amplifying polarizing and extreme content,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), who co-led the recent letter.

Tim Karr, senior director of strategy and communications at the advocacy group Free Press, said the company should be able to address those concerns about amplification without hurting grassroots and civic-minded groups.

“Facebook has the ability to fix its recommendation algorithm to exclude white supremacist, militia and conspiracy groups still in its midst, and to do it without harming well-intentioned organizations that are using its platform to organize,” Karr said. “This isn’t rocket science.”

Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), who led the letter with Eshoo, said he’s not worried about the new policy hurting political organizing “as long as these new rules apply to everybody equally.”

“Access to Facebook for campaigns is a nice thing to have, but it’s not necessary for democracy to function,” he said. “There are a lot of ways to reach voters.”

Zuckerberg in his remarks Wednesday acknowledged that political groups can help “organize grassroots movements, speak out against injustice, or learn from people with different perspectives.”

He added, “So we want these discussions to be able to keep happening. But 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.”

But Malinowski and others say they aren’t buying Facebook’s rationale.

“Those remarks did not communicate to me that he really understands the problem or that he’s willing to acknowledge the problem,” Malinowski said. “The problem is not that people are sick of politics. The problem is not that there are pre-existing divisions in society which Facebook is now called upon to heal. Facebook helped to create those divisions.”

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