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Facebook earnings preview: 3 things to look out for

January 26, 2021, 9:42 PM UTC

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Facebook is expected to wrap up an already strong year by reporting another solid quarter of growth on Wednesday, despite a pandemic, a deluge of election misinformation, and the specter of increased regulation.

The company will report $26.4 billion in fourth-quarter revenue, up 25.3% year over year, according to analysts. The growth can partly be credited to the pandemic, which kept many people at home and more active on social media, and to Facebook’s addition of more e-commerce tools like online stores that businesses can set up on Facebook and Instagram.

“Facebook has rolled out new features and functionality at a time when e-commerce has shot up, so it should be a pretty good fourth quarter,” said Justin Post, analyst at Bank of America.

Many businesses shifted more of their marketing to digital ads during the pandemic, so analysts expect to see big gains in Facebook’s ad sales during the holiday season, the busiest shopping season of the year.

“The COVID closings actually helped Facebook—there was a lot more engagement on the platform,” said Hari Srinivasan, an analyst at investment management firm Neuberger Berman.

But beyond dollars and cents, Facebook continues to struggle with policing content on its service while facing a crackdown by regulators for alleged antitrust violations and for moderation policies that make both Republicans and Democrat legislators unhappy.

Here are three things to watch for in Facebook’s fourth-quarter earnings.

Apple ad acrimony

Facebook is bracing for changes by Apple that will make it harder for the social network to track users for ad-targeting purposes. The update will limit the amount of data that Facebook can provide its advertisers, which Facebook argues will reduce revenue for those advertisers, in addition to Facebook’s revenue. Facebook has criticized Apple’s decision to implement the changes, ostensibly done for increased user privacy, claiming it will adversely harm small businesses.

Amid the opposition, Apple delayed the ad-tracking change from fall to “early” 2021, to give developers more time to adjust.

Of all the possible risks to Facebook’s business, Srinivasan said that Apple’s software update could have the most immediate and negative impact. Facebook may lower its first-quarter revenue expectations, which could then cause investors to lose some confidence in the company’s stock, he said.

But Post said he believes the disruption ultimately won’t have a major impact on Facebook over the long term. Even with the change, Post believes Facebook’s ad machine will still be among the industry’s best, providing advertisers with high returns. “Over time [advertisers will] figure out a workaround and overall, this will only have modest impact,” he said.

Regulatory rumble

Facebook is under the regulatory microscope over its aggressive business tactics. But lawmakers are also increasingly calling for a review of Section 230, the federal law that protects Internet services from being held liable for what their users post.

The fight over Section 230 has gained more momentum following the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, which many critics say were fueled by former President Trump’s inflammatory comments on social media, and by Trump’s subsequent ban from Facebook and Twitter.

Working in Facebook’s favor, however, is that Section 230 is complicated and any changes to it would likely take a long time to implement, analysts agreed.

“An executive order would be immediate, but you could also immediately throw it out in court,” said Jason Helfstein, analyst at investment bank Oppenheimer. “So the only way you really do it is by passing a law, and Congress hasn’t been good at passing laws for awhile.” 

Regardless, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg could use the earnings call to briefly address the issue and call for laws that outline how services like Facebook should operate. Helfstein said Zuckerberg may suggest he wants more regulation, but says he doesn’t necessarily think that’s what the CEO really wants. “I just don’t see how you make sure that the rules that get made are ones you agree with.”

Conservative exodus

Before and after the recent election, Facebook added new rules for what could be posted on is service and increased its enforcement. As a result, many conservatives claimed the company was censoring their views and unfairly banning Trump and his supporters.

As a remedy, some users said they would leave Facebook for Trump-friendly rivals like Parler, MeWe, and Gab. In fact, the three services did experience a growth spurt. But did it come at Facebook’s expense?

Based on recent third-party data and what happened following previous user unrest on Facebook, analysts don’t expect much impact on Facebook’s user numbers. “There’s definitely some risk of pushback from users who see what social media companies are restricting,” Post said. “But we … have not seen a big falloff.”