Apple CEO Condemns Social Media Over Disinformation 'Juiced by Algorithms'

‘Technology does not need vast troves of personal data, stitched together across dozens of websites and apps, in order to succeed,’ Tim Cook says at a digital privacy conference.

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January 29, 2021 3 min read

This story originally appeared on PCMag

Apple CEO Tim Cook is bashing Facebook’s and YouTube’s business models as a threat to society. He didn’t name the companies by name, but in a speech on Thursday he condemned social media services for serving up fake news and fringe ideas to keep users hooked. 

“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,” Cook said during a virtual appearance at the Computers, Privacy and Data Protection conference in Brussels. 

Related: 20 Defining Moments in the Life of Apple’s Steve Jobs

Apple’s CEO made a similar speech in 2018, when he blasted the recommendation algorithms of the top internet platforms. According to him, the same algorithms can radicalize users with misinformation and extreme ideologies. On Thursday, Cook went further to connect social media services to fueling real-world violence, an apparent reference to pro-Trump supporters storming the US Capitol on Jan. 6. 

“It is long past time to stop pretending that this approach doesn’t come with a cost—of polarization, of lost trust and, yes, of violence,” he said. “A social dilemma cannot be allowed to become a social catastrophe.”

Cook made the speech as his company is facing a dispute with Facebook over digital privacy. An update to Apple’s iOS 14 is requiring app developers to overhaul how they collect users’ personal data. Soon, they’ll have to first ask users permission to do so in order to serve up targeted ads. 

Facebook is no fan of the change; it’s been protesting the iOS 14 requirement, arguing it’ll cripple the company’s ability to serve relevant ads from businesses on iPhones. Facebook is so upset, it may fight back with an antitrust lawsuit, according to The Information. 

“I do want to highlight that we increasingly see Apple as one of our biggest competitors,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a Wednesday earnings call, where he named Apple’s iMessage as a major rival to WhatsApp. 

At the same time, much of the tension between the two companies boils down to how they make money. Although Facebook mines your internet activities for insights, the social network is free. Apple, on the other hand, has built a business empire on selling (expensive) hardware to consumers, negating the need to harvest people’s data like internet companies tend to do. 

However, Cook said a key problem facing social media platforms is a blatant disregard for the consequences their recommendation algorithms can cause. “Technology does not need vast troves of personal data, stitched together across dozens of websites and apps, in order to succeed,” he added. “Advertising existed and thrived for decades without it.”

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