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Extending the Trump Ban Won’t Heal Facebook’s Deeper Sickness

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By Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program and a columnist at Foreign Policy, and Alex Salkever, a technology writer and futurist.

May 5 has come and gone, and former U.S. President Donald Trump is still locked out of Facebook. The decision by the world’s largest social media company’s advisory board has left no one satisfied. The right wing is outraged that Trump’s account was not reinstated; the left wing is outraged that Facebook didn’t ban him permanently from the platform. Instead, the advisory board merely postponed a final decision, setting a six-month timetable for Facebook management to come up with a more robust rationale for any ban.

The decision papered over more serious questions than many in Silicon Valley can yet answer. Namely, can social media companies like Facebook and Twitter reduce or reverse the socially destructive impact of their platforms—specifically, the tendency of their algorithms to stoke divisions and conflicts? More importantly, can these companies create business models that replace a destructive attention economy that relies on pawning detailed user data and is so easily gamed and abused by bad actors?

The answer to this question may come from an unlikely source: Apple. The company has anointed itself the privacy gatekeeper for its legions of iPhone customers. Apple is now threatening to choke off the flow of data that feeds algorithms used by social media companies to target ads and content and enable the abuses.

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The primary problem with social media isn’t that it has provided a platform for white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, violent extremist groups, or populist politicians with a history of spreading lies and inciting violence. It is that such platforms are designed, at their very heart, to multiply the messages of these groups to users who might be most swayed by them.

The matching engines at Facebook don’t care if they get more clicks by pushing posts denying the Holocaust; Facebook’s algorithms are soulless and care only about clicks as they translate into money. The company’s content moderation is a fig leaf and easily 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, salacious, offensive, and generally destructive content. If Apple cuts off the data that drive algorithms, these machines will flounder and sputter.

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The company, built by Steve Jobs, has no skin in the social media game and is putting its users’ privacy before the greed of application developers. Apple isn’t doing this out of the goodness of its heart, of course. It makes money by selling hardware, warranties, and subscription fees associated with iCloud and Apple Music; indeed, walling off its platform to control monetization has long been part of its business model.

It’s not surprising this puts Apple at odds with Facebook. In late April, Apple enacted a policy that all applications on its iPhone platform must ask 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 especially affected because of the granular targeting it offers, not only on its platform but also throughout its advertising network.

The early returns from the release of Apple’s update show that 88 percent of worldwide users—and a stunning 96 percent of U.S. users—refused to allow apps to track them. It is doubtful whether Facebook and other social media platforms can sustain their current business models when such a large group of users are blocking access to their data. Indeed, collecting user data advertisers can use to finely target ads is the core business model of the social media giants. Facebook now relies on ads via its mobile applications for the majority of its revenue. The iPhone is a crucial part of that revenue stream.

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This is why Facebook has strenuously objected to the policy change, saying Apple’s move would harm small businesses that market on the platform. Left unsaid was who else might be harmed: Trump’s campaign. Though both major parties have mounted vigorous efforts to use Facebook for fundraising, Trump has been a pioneer in building his campaign largely on an extremely sophisticated Facebook advertising effort to collect donations, email addresses, and mobile numbers. In fact, Facebook employees were ensconced in Trump’s campaign as early as his 2016 presidential run, playing a key role in Silicon Valley companies’ technical and advisory support for Trump.

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Depriving the algorithms of data may go a long way toward reducing the worst impacts of social media. We don’t know the long-term outcome, but Apple is imposing a fascinating social media experiment on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks that may yield some surprising results. Perhaps this experiment will force the networks to search for better ways to make money than by vacuuming up user data and behavior to feed targeted ads and angry mobs.

Evidence already exists to challenge the assumption that social media can work only with targeted ads. In 2019, to protect itself from potential fines under the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, the New York Times cut off all behaviorally targeted advertising and replaced it with contextual ads (that is, ads relating to the content of the page rather than the user) and geographically relevant advertising. The paper’s ad revenues did not plummet. On the contrary, digital ad revenues increased significantly after these steps were taken. In all likelihood, the newspaper’s readers appreciated not seeing ads that were obviously tracking their personal data.

Dismantling the worst elements of the attention economy will be a challenge. Thousands of players are vested in perpetuating this model, including influential politicians and their campaigns, giant advertising technology companies, and businesses that believe they can reach users only through targeted ads. But the attention economy is the only internet business model the world has ever really known. The die was cast in the early days of online advertising, and no alternatives were ever seriously considered once the Google juggernaut got underway. It may turn out that for Facebook, Apple’s new emphasis on user privacy is the proverbial gift horse. By forcing Facebook to consider other business models, Apple may force it to consider how to drive healthier forms of engagement.

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In depriving Facebook of behavioral data, Apple will stop giant pattern-matching algorithms and blunt both the impact of and backlash against social media. None of this, however, implies Facebook can avoid having to make a decision on banning Trump. Using social media platforms to incite violence, such as the Jan. 6 insurrection, still crosses a line. That said, there is no conceivable way to police all the content flowing through the platforms. And the very algorithms so expert at matching users primed for anger with memes that make them angrier still are helpless in judging the content and context of posts. The final decisions take human judgement.

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That’s why Trump is a symptom rather than a source of the problem. And it’s the deeper illness that must be treated. Taking painkillers 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 feel better in the long run. There will always be figures like Trump riling up unsavory groups on social media. But defanging the algorithms and creating a different business model will reduce a problem that’s presently virulent and out of control to one that’s manageable.

In the end, Facebook may thank Apple for its inadvertent assistance. And all of us may end up with social media platforms that are no longer personalized echo chambers designed to profit by stoking humanity’s very worst impulses.

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Facebook-Meta Earns the ‘Worst Company of 2021’ Title in This Survey

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Facebook has had its share of controversies this year. The company was under more scrutiny after whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked a series of internal documents.

Facebook parent Meta has been named the Worst Company of the Year (2021) by Yahoo Finance respondents. According to the publication, an “open-ended” survey was published on Yahoo Finance on December 4 and 5, where 1,541 respondents participated. Facebook received 8 percent of the write-in vote, but respondents were seemingly mad about the Robinhood trading app as well. Electric truck startup Nikola, which was named last year’s worst company by the same publication also faced respondents ire.

Yahoo Finance notes, “Facebook has had its share of controversies this year.” Starting in January, Meta-owned WhatsApp got caught up in a huge controversy after the messaging app announced a new privacy policy (Terms of Service). WhatsApp said it would collect user information and share it with third-party apps for a better user experience. However, the app gave users no choice but later made modifications to the policy under pressure. Similarly, the company was under more scrutiny after whistleblower and former Facebook employee Frances Haugen leaked a series of internal documents showing the company’s problematic practices. It was revealed that Meta-owned Instagram had a negative impact on teenage girls, but the company did almost nothing to rectify the problem.

Yahoo Finance even highlights, “At the same time, some critics, including conservatives, say Facebook over-policed the platform’s speech and stifled their voices.” Critics also blame Facebook and other social media platforms for not curbing hate speech that led to Capitol Building riots.

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However, around 30 percent of Yahoo Finance readers said that Facebook or Meta could redeem itself. One respondent suggested that the company could issue a formal apology for negligence and donate a sizable amount of its profits to a foundation to help reverse its harm.

On the other hand, respondents chose Microsoft as the Company of the Year (2021). The Satya Nadella-led company touched the trillion-mark this year and introduced notable upgrades. The most notable is the Windows 11 OS update that succeeds Windows 10.

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Facebook pays 1.7 Cr fine to Russia after failing to delete content Moscow deems illegal

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In the latest legal tussle with Russia over controversial social media regulation laws, Facebook paid 17 million roubles (Rs 1.7 Crore) for failing to remove content deemed illegal by Moscow. With a threat of potential larger fines looming, Facebook parent company Meta, owned by Mark Zuckerberg, is scheduled to face court next week over repeated violations of Russian legislation on content, Interfax News Agency reported. As per the latest updates, the social media giant could be fined a percentage of its annual revenue.

In October, Moscow sent state bailiffs to enforce the collection of 17 million roubles. Meanwhile, as per Interfax report citing a federal bailiffs’ database, on Sunday, there were more enforcement proceedings against the company. Apart from the popular social media app, Telegram has also paid 15 million roubles in fines for failing to comply with the Russian social media legislations that came into force in 2016.

Facebook pays $53k to Russia for refusing controversial social media laws

It is pertinent to mention that Facebook has locked horns with Moscow earlier in November, resulting in it paying 4 million roubles ($53,000) over its refusal to adhere to Russian data localisation laws, the Moscow Times reported. The Moscow court on November 25 had said that Facebook paid the fine levied in February, following which all proceedings against the US-based social media giant. The payment comes against the litigation filed against the company in 2018, alongside Twitter. The tech companies were also forced to pay an additional 3000 rubles ($40) for failing to comply with user data sharing rules as per the law. The Russian authorities have also previously blocked LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft, for failing to abide by the laws.

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Russian social media laws

As per Moscow Times, under the Russian social media regulation laws, all foreign technology companies are required to store data related to Russian customers and users on servers located in Russia. Additionally, the Russian tech companies will also have to share encryption data with the federal authorities as well as record user calls, messages and civil society group conversation records. The apparatus is said to be a severe breach of privacy rights and unfettered back-door access to personal data that could be used to harass Kremlin critics.

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Facebook Messenger Is Launching a Split Payments Feature for Users to Quickly Share Expenses

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Facebook Messenger Is Launching a Split Payments Feature for Users to Quickly Share Expenses

Meta has announced the arrival of a new Split Payments feature in Facebook Messenger. This feature, as the name suggests, will let you calculate and split expenses with others right from Facebook Messenger. This feature essentially looks to bring an easier method to share the cost of bills and expenses — for example, splitting a dinner bill with friends. Using this new Split Payment feature, Facebook Messenger users will be able to split bills evenly or modify the contribution for each individual, including their own.

The company took to its blog post to announce the new Split Payment feature in Facebook Messenger. 9to5Mac reports that this new bill splitting feature is still in beta and will be exclusive to US users at first. The rollout will begin early next week. As mentioned, it will help users share the cost of bills, expenses, and payments. This feature is especially useful for those who share an apartment and need to split the monthly rent and other expenses with their mates. It could also come handy at a group dinner with many people.

With Split Payments, users can add the number of people the expense needs to be divided with and, by default, the amount entered will be divided in equal parts. A user can also modify each person’s contribution including their own. To use Split Payments, click the Get Started button in a group chat or the Payments Hub in Messenger. Users can modify the contribution in the Split Payments option and send a notification to all the users who need to make payments. After entering a personalised message and confirming your Facebook Pay details, the request will be sent and viewable in the group chat thread.

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Once someone has made the payment, you can mark their transaction as ‘completed’. The Split Payment feature will automatically take into account your share as well and calculate the amount owed accordingly.


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Tasneem Akolawala is a Senior Reporter for Gadgets 360. Her reporting expertise encompasses smartphones, wearables, apps, social media, and the overall tech industry. She reports out of Mumbai, and also writes about the ups and downs in the Indian telecom sector. Tasneem can be reached on Twitter at @MuteRiot, and leads, tips, and releases can be sent to tasneema@ndtv.com.

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