The Democrats have retaken the House of Representatives. If you’re a social media company concerned both about your public image and the threat of regulation, is this a good thing or a bad thing?
On the good side, the regulatory environment looks … favorable? A divided Congress means that few major bills are likely to make it to the president’s desk, leaving the status quo more or less as is. Better still, we will likely be spared any more Congressional hearings on the case of Diamond and Silk, or on any other voices claiming to have been “censored” because their organic reach is slipping.
That said, a national data privacy law — one that would almost be certainly weaker than California’s, which it would supercede — seems at least theoretically possible. Tech companies want it very much, and so does California Democrat Ro Khanna, who won re-election last night. He may find an ally of sorts in the Republican-controlled Senate, Makena Kelly writes at The Verge, even if she’s likely to water the bill down significantly:
But something like Khanna’s bill would need to move through the Senate before landing on the president’s desk. Republicans still have the majority in that chamber, so any tough Democratic privacy bills from the House will be met with the GOP’s general skepticism regarding regulation. Leadership elections will also shake up the members on important commerce committees. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) won her bid for the Senate last night, and after chairing the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on tech this past term, her new energy will likely be brought to the corresponding body in the Senate. Last year, Blackburn put forth her own light-touch privacy legislation, and any bill that passes through the House will likely be brought in front of her before it passes the Senate.
Also on the positive side, if you’re a social media company: I expect we’ll see gradually less attention paid to misinformation, at least before the presidential campaign ramps up next year. Democrats’ victory cuts against the notion that hyper-partisan posts on social sites swayed the election, no matter how numerous they continued to be. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube aren’t close to solving this problem, but for now they can say that their efforts to date are working — buying them some time, and some cover, to do more.
What should social media platforms watch out for? Well, there’s the increasing polarization of the country, to which they may be contributing, and which could ultimately lead more people to abandon their apps. (Already I feel like I meet someone every day who tells me they recently deleted the Facebook app, or Instagram, or Twitter.) That would have happened no matter who won, but with Democrats investigating the Trump administration across many dimensions, I expect the coming partisan battles to be especially pitched.
A bigger concern may be complacency. The Democrats’ victory brings a vital check on the power of the ruling party’s more authoritarian impulses, and everyone has earned a much-needed sigh of relief. But bad actors will continue to find new ways to exploit the platforms, and so the platforms will have to remain vigilant about the ways their work is being misused.
On the whole, though, I’d say the tech platforms had a very good night.
Mark Zuckerberg won’t appear before an international parliamentary committee to answer questions around fake news:
The rebuff came after Damian Collins, the head of the U.K. parliament’s media committee, joined forces with his Canadian counterpart in hopes of pressuring Zuckerberg to testify, as he did before the U.S Congress. Facebook rejected the invitation to appear before the so-called “international grand committee” session Nov. 27, arguing it wasn’t possible for Zuckerberg to appear before all parliaments. Collins says pressure is building, with counterparts in Australia, Argentina and Ireland having joined the grand committee in the time since Zuckerberg was invited.
In response to widespread reporting on Facebook’s dark money problem, the company is delaying the rollout of a similarly easy to abuse form field in the United Kingdom, report Alex Hern and Jim Waterston:
“We have learnt that some people may try to game the disclaimer system by entering inaccurate details and have been working to improve our review process to detect and prevent this kind of abuse,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement.
“Once we have strengthened our process for ensuring the accuracy of disclaimers, we will be introducing enforcement systems to identify political advertisers and require them to go through the authorisation process.”
The 30 Facebook accounts and 85 Instagram accounts that the company blocked Tuesday for “inauthentic behavior” appear to originate from Russia:
A site that claims to be associated with the Russia-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) later posted a list of fake Instagram accounts it made before the US midterm elections, which included many that were removed by Facebook yesterday and others that the company has now blocked.
“The Department of Homeland Security said that it hadn’t seen security breaches affecting votes around the country as midterm contests came to a close,” write David McCabe and Shannon Vavra write. Note that this applies to election infrastructure such as voting machines and not, say, social media.
When it comes to social media, Russian agents have some new tricks as they try to sow discord, Reuters reports. Notably, one expert says fake news is getting harder to push:
“We’ve done a lot research on fake news and people are getting better at figuring out what it is, so it’s become less effective as a tactic,” said Priscilla Moriuchi, a former National Security Agency official who is now a threat analyst at the cybersecurity firm Recorded Future threat manager.
Instead, Russian accounts have been amplifying stories and internet “memes” that initially came from the U.S. far left or far right. Such postings seem more authentic, are harder to identify as foreign, and are easier to produce than made-up stories.
Craig Timberg and Tony Romm report that domestic hyper-partisan actors adopted Russia’s playbook for the midterms, and found them largely effective:
“Everyone’s witnessed the playbook playing out,” explained Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “Now they don’t need Russia so much. They’ve learned that the tactic is devastatingly effective.”
He and other experts point to a rampant online spread of misleading reports and images about the migrant caravan in Mexico, for example — and especially the demonstrably false allegations that billionaire George Soros is funding a violent “invasion” of the United States.
Paresh Dave uses the new platform ad archives to assess how many ads were taken down for running afoul of the rules during the 2018 campaign:
Reuters found that Facebook and Google took down 436 ads from May through October related to 34 U.S. House of Representatives contests declared competitive last month by RealClearPolitics, which tracks political opinion polls.
Of the 258 removed ads with start and end dates, ads remained on Google an average of eight days and Facebook 15 days, according to data Reuters collected from the databases.
They’ve had to spend untold millions shoring up their platforms in the wake of the 2016 elections, but Google and Facebook have reaped a windfall in political ad dollars, report Todd Shields, Gerry Smith, and Sarah Frier:
Digital ad spending rose more than 25-fold from the last non-presidential national elections in 2014, reaching 20 percent of expected political spending this year at almost $1.8 billion, according to estimates compiled by Borrell. Kantar Media/CMAG, which omits some online activity, estimated 2018 online spending at $900 million, up from $250 million four years ago.
The figures show how digital sites, with their ability to target thin slices of the electorate, have assumed a prime place alongside traditional media such as broadcast TV, which is still prized for reaching large numbers of older voters likely to go the polls and accounts for the largest amount of political ad spending.
Here’s one that fits into the category of “headlines so good you almost don’t want to read the story.” But, because I care about you, I did read the story:
And a few months ago, Full Frontal host Samantha Bee released an app called This Is Not A Game: The Game, which married HQ Trivia-esque gameplay with political knowledge, for jackpots ranging from $1,000 to $5,000. In the lead-up to this year’s climactic midterms, however, Bee and the show have partnered with The Democracy Labs — a project founded by Silicon Valley technologist Deepak Puri — to turn the app into something more: a portal for Americans to report voter suppression. Today, Bee and the show announced that players on the app have now reported more than 800 total instances of voter suppression nationwide.
Taylor Lorenz started a huge controversy when she wrote about the practice of mentioning your significant other in your Twitter bio. I side with those who say the practice is generally nauseating, but others disagree:
“I added my husband’s handle to my bio right around the time we got engaged three years ago. It kind of came along with that haze of OMG I’m engaged and so in love and everyone needs to know it! feeling,” said Natalie O’Grady of Portland, Oregon. “Now I feel like spouse is definitely part of my personal identity. I’m a lucky lady and while wife isn’t my entire world, I think I ended up with a pretty awesome partner, and I’m proud to be his partner, too.”
Mathew Ingram reports that by the time Facebook removed a racist ad promoted by the president, as many as 5 million people had already seen it.
In April it was revealed that Mark Zuckerberg secretly deleted all his Facebook messages without ever telling the people he had chatted with. Facebook promised to roll out the feature for everyone, but the one that’s shipping only works for 10 minutes. What are the odds Zuckerberg will have the same limitation on his own account?
GraphQL, a language for querying databases created by Facebook in 2012, is being spun out into an open-source foundation,.
Microsoft has a WhatsApp clone named Kaizala and no one told me and now it’s free to Office 365 commercial customers. Let’s hope the office workers don’t use it to whip up any hate-fueled mobs!
Farhad Manjoo, like me, thinks the Google walkout was a big deal:
In just a week, the organizers used Google’s own collaborative tools, and leveraged its open company culture, to create a wide-ranging movement. Their demands reflect the comments and suggestions of more than 1,000 people who participated in internal conversations about the walkout. They include points of view of that have long been marginalized in tech — of minority workers, for instance, and of contractors, the industry’s second-class citizens.
The walkout’s organizers told me that they were aiming to keep that movement alive — to ask the most important questions about how their company operates in the world, and to inspire those in other parts of the tech industry to take up similar arms.
And finally …
Taylor Lorenz reports that all the hot people on Instagram are taking off their clothes so as to better highlight their “I voted stickers” and it is a masterpiece:
When Juan Del Toro, a Ph.D. student in New York, got home from the polls this morning, he took his shirt off, set the camera to selfie mode, posted an i votedsticker to his shirtless chest, and shared the photo to Instagram. “Don’t forget to exercise … your right to vote,” he wrote, followed by a winky-face emoji. Del Toro said it was easy, and peeling the sticker off his hairy chest didn’t even hurt.
“I thought it was effective because sex sells. Non-shirtless pics get less likes (40-60) whereas shirtless pics get a ton (200+). So I thought why not,” he wrote via an Instagram direct message, adding that he wanted to “inspire people to do their civic duty and make it seem like voting is a sexy and provocative thing to do. As it should be!
I’ll allow it, Del Toro.
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