Sometimes there are so many collisions between the big tech platforms and our democracy in a week that I barely know where to begin. Other times, one platform so thoroughly dominates the discussion that there’s hardly anything else to talk about.
The past couple weeks have been the latter kind. And the company sucking up all the oxygen, of course, is Facebook.
From the leaked all-hands audio promising to “go to the mat” in a fight against a breakup of the company, to the controversy over the company’s decision not to fact-check paid political advertising, to Mark Zuckerberg’s big speech about speech, Facebook has sat at the center of the conversation about tech and politics.
Anyway, if you’re growing a bit tired of that conversation, I regret to say that today doesn’t look to be any different.
Facebook came out of the gate this week with a suite of updates designed to bolster the company’s defenses against election interference. The updates include new products, such as Facebook Protect, a set of enhanced security measures for the accounts of candidates and their campaign workers. It includes new labels for false content and for publishers whose governments have editorial control over them, such as Russia Today. And it includes new tools for understanding candidate ad spending, including a dedicated tracker for US presidential candidates and some new APIs for researchers.
Separately, the company announced that it has disrupted four new networks of shady accounts originating in Iran and Russia, bringing the total of deceptive networks it has eliminated to more than 50.
These are all good things, and Facebook sought to cast them on Monday as moves that only a company of its vast size and wealth could accomplish. From Mike Isaac’s write-up of today’s news (and accompanying press call) in the New York Times:
In his conference call on Monday, Mr. Zuckerberg said that Facebook had become better able to seek out and remove foreign influence networks, relying on a team of former intelligence officials, digital forensics experts and investigative journalists. Facebook has more than 35,000 people working on its security initiatives, with an annual budget well into the billions of dollars.
“Three years ago, big tech companies like Facebook were essentially in denial about all of this,” said Ben Nimmo, head of investigations at Graphika, a social media analytics agency. “Now, they’re actively hunting.”
I hope the company is successful in this hunt, and I’m also unsettled that so much seems to rest on whether it is.
Elsewhere, Zuckerberg himself continues to absorb criticism from many corners. Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter Bernice didn’t like his speech, or the mention of her father. Neither did the president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Jillian C. York, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s director for international freedom of expression, said that talk of free speech amounted to “empty words” — and that exempting political ads from fact-checking had effectively created “a separate and higher tier for those whose words have more power to harm than those of ordinary citizens.”
One group that does seem to have been mollified by last week’s speech? Conservatives, reports Will Oremus:
The conservative pundit Ben Shapiro called the Facebook chief’s address “quite good” and his interpretation of free speech “actually correct.” The conspiracy-peddling men’s rights activist and alt-right blogger Mike Cernovich praised it as “a direct rejection of the media’s demand for control over the minds of billions.” House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, one of the right’s most outspoken Facebook critics, found the speech “a heartwarming reminder that free expression is the best business model in the world.”
It has certainly been a good business model for Facebook.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
Trending up: Facebook introduced a bunch of tools to protect against election interference and broke up four networks of deceptive pages. All in all, a good Monday.
Trending sideways: Zuckerberg recommended several hires to Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign. Two of them are now on staff. The move has raised questions about whether Zuckerberg has tacitly endorsed Buttigieg. (Zuck says no.)
⭐ A G7 report warned that cryptocurrencies like Libra raise antitrust concerns and shouldn’t be permitted until regulatory risks are addressed. These comments, from a group of major Western economies, mark yet another blow to Facebook’s plans to launch its own global currency, according to Hannah Murphy at The Financial Times:
The creation of a global stablecoin could “lead to significant market concentration” due to “the strong network effects that initially spurred their adoption, the large fixed costs needed to establish operations at scale and the exponential benefits of access to data”, the report explained.
This would be the case particularly if the currency was “based on a proprietary system, as this could be used to prohibit entry or increase barriers to entry to such system”, it said.
In an attempt to quell some of these concerns, Facebook said it would consider releasing a family of stablecoins backed by various national currencies, rather than a synthetic stablecoin backed by a basket of currencies. David Marcus’ concession here strikes me as the most serious sign yet that Libra is in trouble. (Andrea Shalal / Reuters)
Still: central bankers are coming around to the idea of digital cash, thanks to Facebook’s Libra. The cryptocurrency is seen as more viable than Bitcoin, since it is backed by real financial assets and has a built-in user base. (Alastair Marsh / Bloomberg)
China’s planned cryptocurrency could have a serious advantage over Facebook’s Libra: its ability to track and surveil users. Chinese consumers already pay for everything using their phones. Now, the government could have direct access to their financial information (Raymond Zhong / The New York Times)
Facebook is working on an initiative to prevent minors from being groomed and exploited on its platforms after it introduces end-to-end encryption. The move comes one month after attorney general William Barr asked the company to halt its encryption efforts, citing security risks. (Madhumita Murgia / The Financial Times)
Joe Biden’s presidential campaign sent Facebook a letter demanding it take down a now-infamous video containing false statements about his family and Ukraine. The video was promoted by a super PAC rather than a candidate. Facebook says the ad is acceptable according to its guidelines. (Cecilia Kang and Mike Isaac / The New York Times)
Trump’s reelection campaign is pouring resources into its digital operation, while Democrats lag behind. The dynamic has allowed the president to use even negative news stories — such as the ongoing impeachment inquiry — to his advantage, by flooding the internet with ads that rile up his base. (Matthew Rosenberg and Kevin Roose / The New York Times)
Elizabeth Warren, who has called for breaking up Facebook, Amazon and Google, raised $173,000 from tech industry employees this quarter — the most of any Democratic presidential candidate. (Eric Newcomer and Bill Allison / Bloomberg)
The House Judiciary Committee discussed privacy and data security at a hearing related to alleged anticompetitive practices on the part of Facebook and Amazon. It’s unlikely the committee will be able to pass antitrust legislation before the end of the year. (Ashley Gold / The Information)
In two letters, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), criticized Apple and Blizzard for bowing to China’s censorship demands. The letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook expressed “strong concern” over the company’s decision to remove an app used by Hong Kong protesters from its App Store. (Colin Lecher / The Verge)
Apple CEO Tim Cook has been appointed chairman of a Chinese business school — a three-year appointment. We’ll see how many humanitarian awards he comes up for over that stretch — and how often his board seat comes up when that happens. (Colin Lecher / The Verge)
Blizzard is automatically banning people for making pro-Hong Kong statements in its Hearthstone Twitch chat. Most have been banned for 24 hours, although the rule has been applied inconsistently, with some messages continuing to stay up. (Bijan Stephen / The Verge)
Comparing China’s efforts to shut down political protests in Hong Kong with India’s attempts to quell unrest in Kashmir shows that flooding social channels with propaganda is likely more effective than shutting down the internet. (Bhaskar Chakravorti / Bloomberg)
China banned controversial YouTube star PewDiePie for making supportive comments about the Hong Kong protests. Among other things, he joked about protesters wearing masks that liken President Xi to Winnie the Pooh — a forbidden comparison in China. (Billie Thomson / The Daily Mail)
Right-wing media outlets are gaming Google search results by creating tons of content related to popular search terms like “crisis actor” and “collusion hoax.” These terms then end up in conservative talking points and speeches, leading to an even more polarized internet. (Francesca Tripodi / Wired)
A pro-independence group in Catalonia is leveraging Twitter and Telegram to organize massive protests and spread the word out about a new app they’ve developed, exclusively for members and supports. Catalonia is a semi-autonomous region in Spain that’s fighting for independence. (Laurie Clarke / Wired)
⭐ A series of deaths at Amazon warehouses have sparked outrage from workers and their families. In September, a 48-year-old Amazon warehouse worker died from a heart attack at work. The company is now considered one of the most dangerous employers in the United States, according to Michael Sainato at The Guardian.
The incident is among the latest in a series of accidents and fatalities that have led to Amazon’s inclusion on the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health’s 2019 Dirty Dozen list of the most dangerous employers in the United States. The report cited six Amazon worker deaths between November 2018 and April 2019, and several news reports over the past few years that have detailed dangerous working conditions.
Twitch is testing out a “watch party” feature, which lets streamers screen Amazon Prime movies and shows that their followers can watch along with them (assuming they also have a subscription). The Amazon-owned company started sending out invitations to select streamers to test it out. (Owen S. Good / Polygon)
Facebook beta-tested an app-uninstall tracker to see which apps you download and then delete. The tracker looked at people who didn’t even have Facebook accounts. and might have violated App Store policies. (Shoshana Wodinsky / AdWeek)
Facebook’s Portal sales are low, according to supply-chain sources and store sales reps. The video-chat device has been hampered by privacy concerns. (Mark Sullivan / Fast Company)
Facebook started to roll out a new web interface that comes with an optional dark mode. The company promised to redesign its mobile apps and website at F8 2019, but it’s only just now getting to the website. (Rita El Khoury / Android Police)
Facebook reached a deal with News Corp. to use feature headlines from The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post in its forthcoming news tab. The company will pay News Corp a licensing fee for its content. Zuckerberg will appear in New York to discuss the new tab on Friday. (Lukas I. Alpert / The Wall Street Journal)
Porn stars are mad that Instagram keeps taking down their accounts, even after actors’ union representatives met with platform officials to try and figure out their differences this summer. Instagram admitted to incorrectly removing accounts under its sexual solicitation policy. (Otillia Steadman / BuzzFeed)
High schoolers are starting TikTok clubs to perform challenges and skits, and help each other go viral. According to Taylor Lorenz, they’re “drama clubs for the digital age.” (Taylor Lorenz / The New York Times)
Kik Messenger isn’t shutting down after all. The app was purchased by MediaLab, a holding company. Last month, Kik announced it was scrapping the messaging app to focus on its Kin cryptocurrency, which is currently embroiled in a legal battle with the SEC. (Jay Peters / The Verge)
Mobile VR headsets are officially a thing of the past. Google just announced its discontinuing the Daydream View mobile headset. Last month, Oculus CTO John Carmack offered a “eulogy” for the technology, saying its days were numbered. (Adi Robertson / The Verge)
Lots of people have secret Twitter accounts. But if you want to keep it secret, you should never offer this much detail about it to someone profiling you in a magazine … especially not if Ashley Feinberg is within earshot.
Not all of his five sons have public Twitter accounts, and some of them, like the dreaded Tagg, have too many followers to possibly dig through. Romney’s oldest grandchild, Allie Romney Critchlow, however, has just 481 followers, making digging through them an annoying-but-not-impossible feat. As I scrolled, while focusing on the ones that appeared to make an effort to conceal their real identities, one in particular caught my eye.
Reader, meet Twitter user @qaws9876, otherwise known as Pierre Delecto.
Asked about Feinberg’s findings, Romney said only: “C’est moi.”
Which is such a Pierre Delecto thing to say.