Apple CEO says ‘recent events’ show ‘risk’ of social media algorithms pushing disinformation

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Apple CEO Tim Cook on Thursday knocked social media giants over business models that have used algorithms that he says allowed disinformation narratives and conspiracy theories to flourish online. 

Cook’s comments at the Computers, Privacy and Data Protection conference did not specifically identify individual social media companies, but multiple platforms have widely faced mounting scrutiny over their handling of content moderation after the violent insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6. 

“At a moment of rampant disinformation and conspiracy theories juiced by algorithms, we can no longer turn a blind eye to a theory of technology that says all engagement is good engagement — the longer the better — and all with the goal of collecting as much data as possible,” Cook said. 

“Too many are still asking the question, ‘How much can we get away with?’ when they need to be asking, ‘What are the consequences?’ ” he added. 

Cook said companies need to evaluate the “consequences [of] prioritizing conspiracy theories and violent incitement [and] rewarding content that undermines public trust in life-saving vaccinations.”

In what appeared to be more of a direct dig at Facebook in particular, Cook asked, “What are the consequences of seeing thousands of users join extremist groups, and then perpetuating an algorithm that recommends even more?”

“I think the past year, and certainly recent events, have brought home the risk of this for all of us — as a society, and as individuals as much as anything else,” Cook said.

Facebook has faced criticism over the growth of groups on its platform that amplified the false message that there was voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election. The claim that the election was “stolen” was the basis for the riot earlier this month. 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reiterated on a call with investors Wednesday night that the platform will stop recommending political groups to users. 

The CEO had previously pledged to do so leading up to the election during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in October, but a report released by The Markup last week found the company failed to follow through on the commitment. 

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) pushed Facebook on the commitment in a letter sent to Zuckerberg on Tuesday. Following Zuckerberg’s additional commitment, Markey said in a statement he is “pleased to see that Facebook is heeding my calls,” but he remains wary of the promise. 

“Frankly, though, Facebook has a record of broken promises, and I’ll be watching closely to see whether it keeps this commitment,” the senator said. 

After the riot at the Capitol, tech platforms took additional measures to crack down on misinformation and conspiracy theories. 

Facebook, in addition to restating it would stop recommending political groups, said in the days after the riot that it would take down content that contains the phrase “Stop the Steal.” 

Twitter, which also faced criticism after posts on the platform were identified as musing about the riot, said days after the attack that it banned more than 70,000 accounts that shared content surrounding the QAnon conspiracy theory.

Apple for its part removed the Parler app from its app store, as did Google. The limited content moderation platform was rife with posts calling for violence surrounding the riot. Amazon later removed the platform from its web hosting services, as well.

Tags Amazon Apple Capitol riot Ed Markey Facebook Facebook Google Mark Zuckerberg misinformation QAnon Social media Tim Cook Twitter

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