May 8, 2021, 6:00 a.m.
May 5th has come and gone, and former US President Donald Trump is still banned from Facebook. The decision of the advisory board of the world's largest social media company has not satisfied anyone. The right wing is outraged that Trump's account has not been restored. The left wing is outraged that Facebook has not permanently banned him from the platform. Instead, the advisory board merely postponed a final decision and set a six-month schedule for Facebook management to come up with a more meaningful rationale for a ban.
Deciding on more serious questions that many in Silicon Valley cannot yet answer. Can social media companies like Facebook and Twitter reduce or reverse the socially destructive effects of their platforms – especially the tendency of their algorithms to stir up divisions and conflicts? More importantly, can these companies create business models that replace a destructive attention economy based on the pledging of detailed user data and so easily played and abused by bad actors?
The answer to that question could come from an unlikely source: Apple. The company has named itself the privacy gatekeeper for its legions of iPhone customers. Apple is now threatening to throttle the flow of data that feeds algorithms used by social media companies to target ads and content and enable abuse.
The main problem with social media is not that it provides a platform for white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, violent extremist groups or populist politicians who have spread lies and incited violence in the past. It is that such platforms are essentially designed to multiply the messages from these groups to users who may be most influenced by them.
The right engines on Facebook don't care if they get more clicks when they publish posts that deny the Holocaust. Facebook's algorithms are soulless and only care about clicks as they can be converted into money. The company's content moderation is a fig leaf and can easily be abused by groups of users reporting accounts they don't like. Social media's algorithmic echo chamber automatically and inexorably amplifies much of the most dangerous, violent, offensive, and generally destructive content. If Apple cuts off the data that controls algorithms, these machines will fidget and stutter.
Founded by Steve Jobs, the company has no skin in the social media game and puts the privacy of its users above the greed of application developers. Apple doesn't do this for good reason, of course. It makes money selling hardware, warranties, and subscription fees for iCloud and Apple Music. Foreclosing the monetization control platform has long been part of the business model.
It's not surprising that Apple's doing this at odds with Facebook. In late April, Apple passed a policy requiring all applications on its iPhone platform to ask for permission before they can collect user data. This will force social media companies to develop business models that are less reliant on targeting. Facebook will be particularly affected as it offers detailed targeting not only on its platform but across the advertising network as well.
The early results of the Apple update's release show that 88 percent of global users – and an impressive 96 percent of US users – have declined to allow apps to track them. It's doubtful that Facebook and other social media platforms can keep their current business models with such a large group of users blocking access to their data. Indeed, collecting user data that advertisers can use to target ads is the core business model of the social media giants. Facebook now relies on ads through its mobile applications for the majority of its revenue. The iPhone is an essential part of this source of income.
Because of this, Facebook vigorously protested the policy change, stating that Apple's move would harm small businesses that market on the platform. It remained unspoken who else could be harmed: Trump's campaign. Although both major parties went to great lengths to use Facebook for fundraising, Trump was a pioneer in building his campaign, which was largely based on an extremely sophisticated Facebook promotional effort to collect donations, email addresses, and cell phone numbers. In fact, Facebook employees were already involved in Trump's campaign in his 2016 presidential election and played a key role in providing technical and advisory support to Trump from Silicon Valley companies.
Hiding the data algorithms can go a long way in reducing the worst effects of social media. We don't know the long-term outcome, but Apple is running a fascinating social media experiment on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks that may lead to surprising results. Perhaps this experiment is forcing the networks to look for better ways to make money than sucking up user data and behavior to feed targeted ads and angry mobs.
There is already evidence to challenge the assumption that social media can only work with targeted ads. To protect itself from potential fines under the General Data Protection Regulation of the European Union, in 2019 the New York Times truncated all behavioral ads and replaced them with contextual ads (i.e. ads that relate to the content of the page rather than the user) and geographically relevant advertising. The newspaper's advertising revenue did not decline. On the contrary, digital ad revenue increased significantly after these steps. Most likely, the newspaper's readers appreciated not seeing any ads that apparently tracked their personal information.
Breaking down the worst elements of the attention economy will be challenging. Thousands of gamers are keen to keep this model alive, including influential politicians and their campaigns, giant advertising tech companies, and companies that believe the only way to reach users is through targeted ads. However, the attention economy is the only internet business model the world has ever really known. The die had been cast in the early days of online advertising, and no alternatives were seriously considered after the Google juggernaut launch. It might turn out that Apple's new focus on user privacy is the proverbial gift horse for Facebook. By forcing Apple to consider other business models, Apple can force it to consider how healthier forms of engagement can be pushed.
By withholding behavioral data from Facebook, Apple is stopping giant pattern matching algorithms and blunting both the impact and backlash against social media. However, none of this implies that Facebook can avoid having to make a decision to ban Trump. The use of social media platforms to incite violence like the January 6 riot still crosses a line. However, it is inconceivable to monitor the entire content of the platforms. And the very algorithms that are so proficient at comparing users who are prepared for anger with memes that make them even angrier still cannot judge the content and context of posts. The final decisions are made by human judgment.
Therefore, Trump is more of a symptom than a cause of the problem. And it is the deeper disease that needs treatment. Taking pain medication is an obvious response to a painful tooth, but removing the tooth or stopping the infection that caused the pain is the only way to make you feel better in the long run. There will always be numbers like Trump shaking up unsavory groups on social media. However, if you change the algorithms and create a different business model, a problem that is currently virulent and out of control will be reduced to a problem that is manageable.
In the end, Facebook can thank Apple for their accidental assistance. And we all may have social media platforms that are no longer personalized echo chambers designed to benefit from fueling humanity's worst impulses.