Internet users in the European Union are now tuning in to a quiet revolution on mainstream social media: the ability to say “no thanks” when attention is hijacked by AI.
Thanks to the bloc’s Digital Services Act (DSA), users of Meta’s Facebook and Instagram, ByteDance’s TikTok, and Snap’s Snapchat can easily opt out of “personalized” content feeds based on “relevance” ( i.e. follow-up) – and move on to a more modest kind of news. feed filled with posts from your friends displayed in chronological order. And that’s just the tip of the regulatory iceberg. The changes apply to major EU platforms, but some are rolling out globally as the tech giants choose to streamline certain elements of their compliance.
Facebook actually beat today’s DSA compliance deadline by launching a new timeline timeline tab last month – which appears to be the case globally, not just in the EU. But it’s a safe bet that Meta wouldn’t have taken this step without the bloc passing a law requiring consumer platforms to give users the choice to view non-personalized content.
Notably, Facebook’s new chronological News Feed doesn’t display any “Suggested for you” posts. And this total separation between tracking-based content recommendations and non-personalized content selections is entirely up to the DSA. If Meta could inject some AI-powered attention hacking into the modest timeline newsfeed, it surely would. But the law of the block does not require any crossing of these waterways. Respecting user agency requires a space free from AI surveillance.
We also recently saw YouTube announcing that users logged in with the “watch history” feature turned off won’t be bothered by upcoming video recommendations based on profiling what they’ve watched before. It also appears to be a change that has been decided to apply everywhere, not just in the EU, but again, a development clearly driven by the DSA.
You might be wondering why the ability to opt out of profiling-based content recommendations is important? Isn’t that a relatively minor detail in the grand scheme of platforming power? Well yes and no. The power of platforms to keep users engaged inside their walled gardens stems from a number of factors, one of which is the massive information asymmetry they can exert against our eyes by depending on what we click on, what we interact with, what we dwell on, what we search for, etc. on.
Content choices based on this tracking don’t even have to be very sophisticated — and, indeed, the programming can seem awfully rudimentary. For example, over the past few months, after watching a cat video on Instagram, my home feed has been peppered with the inevitable fur injections. And these cat video suggestions never seem to end. It really is the longest line…
The way it usually played out was that after scrolling through the (smaller) stack of Instagram posts from people I actually follow (always peppered with suggested cat videos), the AI would take over – filling out the rest of the feed (seemingly bottomless) with what seemed like an endless selection of cat videos. Cute cats, acrobatic cats, funny cats, memorized cats, cats rescued from dire conditions… I’ve gotten to the point where I’m afraid to log onto Instagram because of what I’ll be forced to watch .
Don’t get me wrong, I love cats. So, naturally, I’m a fan of cute cat videos. But I certainly don’t like having a furry fire hose forced into my eyeballs just so Mark Zuckerberg can keep me on his platform a little longer and keep getting richer than Croesus. It’s pure manipulation and it really hurts. So I’ve actually been counting down the days until DSA compliance kicks in – and marks the beginning of the legal end to this inevitable algorithmic parade of cats.
Today, on Instagram, I can announce that I have finally found peace without fur!
Of course, the AI-selected cat videos didn’t go very far. The home page now offers two choices: “Next” and “For you”, the second remaining populated by many furry felines. But at least I can now choose to only see posts from accounts I follow and actively avoid items that have been selected in an attempt to distract me.
Instagram’s ‘Explore’ tab appears to show algorithmic content selections ‘For you’ by default, but click the down arrow next to the label and you’ll also now see a new option: ‘No personalized”. Click on it and the feed of content calculated by Meta’s AI to best catch the user’s eyes (in my case it’s cats and climbing videos) is replaced by a grid of images which seem to be taken from a selection of photos inspired by National Geographic. Frankly, it looks a bit boring but I’ve never looked at the Explore tab anyway. And boring is peaceful.
On Facebook, turn on the new chronological (albeit actually retro) News Feed and the platform – momentarily – feels like an entirely different product than friends whose posts would typically be buried by the algorithm like being too daily (i.e. not engaging enough). suddenly get their 15 minutes of fame and appear right there, in your eyes.
Facebook’s home page still defaults to an AI-sorted view, including personalized recommendations for Reels and Stories. But IIf you switch to chronological News Feed, it’s a throwback to Facebook around 2008, before the platform switched from ranking posts in reverse chronological order to applying a popularity filter (based on ‘commitment). And we all know what happened to the tone of social media discourse after adtech giants’ algorithms started picking out outrage… So don’t underestimate the power of a humble newsfeed made up of the unsorted thoughts of friends in the shower. This may be exactly the kind of content revolution our hyperpolarized societies need.
An “AI off” switch could cause even more of a stir on TikTok – where the rigidity of its content-selection algorithm has been credited with driving major viral trends and fueling the platform’s overall popularity. But moving away from AI will always require users to exercise their agency – since regulation only requires platforms to offer choice that is not based on profiling. So it remains to be seen whether the TikTok community will interact with the new non-personalized streams.
They might just be horrified at how mundane many things posted on the platform can be once they step out of the AI-filtered attention bubble. While a generation of digital social media native influencers will surely run away screaming at the prospect of reduced engagement. But other users who are tired of influencer babble polluting their feeds might just cry in relief at the prospect of an easy toggle to remove distracting noise.
The impact of increased user empowerment on mainstream platforms may not lead to dramatic change immediately. But we should celebrate our new ability to quit their algorithms. It should have been done a long time ago.
Think of it as the start of unbundling the power of platforms. The DSA, along with its sister regulation, the Digital Markets Act – an ex ante competition reform that targets the most powerful intermediary digital platforms – is an important piece of regulation that places far more demands on platforms than give users the free choice to opt out of personalization. . Including requiring them to identify and mitigate systemic risks arising from their use of AI; and open their data to external researchers so that independent scholars can thoroughly study techno-social impacts, to name just two.
This kind of public interest visibility at the top of the tech giants is also long overdue. And the asymmetry of information that ad-tech giants, in particular, have exploited to boost their bottom line at the expense of our eyes has always been radically unfair.
It’s high time they gave back. And it’s high time we had simple options to stop their content targeting systems from stealing our free time.
The silent abandonment of the algorithm could be the next big trend. Don’t expect this one to go viral.