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What I really want to talk about today is Steven Levy’s massive Facebook: The Inside Story, which I finished reading over the weekend. But we’ll do that tomorrow, when the book comes out — and I’m excited to share that Steven has agreed to answer a few questions for us right here in this space.
On Friday, I wrote here that Michael Bloomberg’s lackluster debut in the Democratic primary debates showed that a record-breaking investment in Facebook ads could only get you so far. And indeed, all that social media spending couldn’t save Bloomberg from the drubbing he got afterward from critics. The candidate’s net favorability rating fell 20 percentage points, as Bernie Sanders went on to win the (refreshingly uneventful) Nevada caucus. (Bloomberg was not on the ballot; he’ll make his first appearance during next week’s Super Tuesday primaries.)
Still, even as he founders in the polls, Bloomberg continues to flummox the tech platforms. His campaign keeps doing things that very few saw coming. Here are Sheera Frenkel and Davey Alba in the New York Times:
“The Bloomberg campaign is destroying norms that we will never get back,” said Emerson Brooking, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which studies disinformation. The campaign, he said, has “revealed the vulnerabilities that still exist in our social media platforms even after major reforms.”
What are open questions? Let’s take a look at the past week of Bloomberg’s social media push.
First, what’s the difference between marketing and spam? Bloomberg is paying people $2,500 a month to post positive items about him on social networks. Facebook responded with a series of contortions that allow the posts so long as they are labeled as ads, but won’t include them in the company’s public ad library. But on Friday, Twitter took a more skeptical view of the practice. Here are Suhauna Hussain and Jeff Bercovici in the Los Angeles Times:
On Friday, Twitter began suspending 70 accounts posting pro-Bloomberg content in a pattern that violates company rules.
“We have taken enforcement action on a group of accounts for violating our rules against platform manipulation and spam,” a Twitter spokesman said. Some of the suspensions will be permanent, while in other cases account owners will have to verify they have control of their accounts.
The Bloomberg campaign said it was not trying to mislead anyone.
Second, how much do you have to edit a video until it becomes a deepfake? Here’s a … thing the Bloomberg did, from Makena Kelly in The Verge:
On Thursday, Bloomberg’s 2020 presidential campaign posted a video to Twitter that was edited to make it appear as though there was a long, embarrassing silence from Bloomberg’s Democratic opponents after he mentioned that he was the only candidate to have ever started a business during Wednesday night’s debate. Candidates like Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg are shown searching for the words to respond to Bloomberg’s challenge.
That edit included the insertion of the sound of crickets chirping, which typically would not be audible at such an event. It all seemed fake enough to me, but what would platforms do about it? In Facebook’s case: nothing. In Twitter’s: a statement that it would have labeled the video as having been manipulated, if only its new rules had been in effect. (That’s happening March 5th, for some reason.)
Just as the dust was settling from that one, Bloomberg’s campaign posted a bunch of “satirical” tweets imagining what Sanders would say to various despots throughout history. One of those tweets prompted a bunch of people I follow to say it was homophobic — and, since it was the first I had seen the tweets, I thought it was real. In reality it was just a bad joke, and within a few moments the whole thread was getting ratioed to hell. While I understand why people are upset to see a campaign tweet untrue things, I also think that this is basically how democratic campaigns work — candidates say a lot of things, some of those things are crazy and dumb, and you take those things into consideration before you vote.
Of course, if Bloomberg’s antics earn him the nomination, there will be greater reason for concern. And it’s certainly possible we will see efforts like these again from another candidate — all the more reason for platform policy teams to get their plans in place now.
In the meantime, the Bloomberg social media campaign is mostly just … funny? Here’s another Suhauna Hussain story about Bloomberg’s paid army of posters. She interviews one man who couldn’t help but negate his own paid support of Bloomberg in real time:
“Sam Donaldson just nailed it: Mike Bloomberg is the president we need to unite our country!” he texted one of his friends Monday through Outvote — the app organizers use to reach out to their personal networks. He drew on language provided to him by the campaign and logged the text as part of his Bloomberg organizer responsibilities.
But he quickly followed up with a personal addendum: “Please disregard, vote Bernie or Warren.”
When your own supporters don’t actually support you, it’s gonna be a long road to the White House.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
Trending up: Google is cracking down on Android apps that track users’ locations in the background. Starting on August 3rd, all new Google Play apps will need to pass review to determine whether they definitely needs access to background location data.
Trending down: New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas is suing Google for allegedly violating student privacy. The lawsuit claims the company uses its free Chromebook program to illegally gather data on students.
Trending down: Google is indexing invite links to WhatsApp group chats that group administrators may want kept private. With a simple search, random people can discover and join a wide range of WhatsApp chats.
⭐ US officials told Bernie Sanders that Russia is attempting to help his presidential campaign as part of an effort to interfere with the Democratic contest. Sanders did not appreciate Russia’s support, saying in a statement: “My message to Putin is clear: Stay out of American elections, and as president I will make sure that you do.” Shane Harris, Ellen Nakashima, Michael Scherer and Sean Sullivan from The Washington Post report:
The disclosure of Russian assistance to Sanders follows a briefing to lawmakers last week in which a senior intelligence official said that Russia wants to see Trump reelected, viewing his administration as more favorable to the Kremlin’s interests, according to people who were briefed on the comments.
In that closed hearing for the House Intelligence Committee, lawmakers were also told that Sanders had been informed about Russia’s interference. The prospect of two rival campaigns both receiving help from Moscow appears to reflect what intelligence officials have previously described as Russia’s broader interest in sowing division in the United States and uncertainty about the validity of American elections.
President Trump’s re-election campaign purchased coveted advertising space on YouTube’s homepage for early November. The deal ensures Trump will be featured prominently in the key days before voters across the country head to the polls. (Mark Bergen and Joshua Brustein / Bloomberg)
Google reached a settlement with state attorneys general over outside consultants hired to work on the states’ antitrust investigation. In October, Google filed a motion asking Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton not to share confidential business information with outside consultants, citing concerns that two people hired to help with the probe had worked for competitors in the past. (Ylan Mui and Lauren Feiner / CNBC)
Also: Google is resisting efforts to surrender emails, text messages and other documents sought by state investigators probing possible anticompetitive practices. Ken Paxton said the company’s actions suggest it is withholding information that could be damaging. (John D. McKinnon / The Wall Street Journal)
Apple and TikTok declined to testify at a March congressional hearing that would have probed their relationships with China. The move could ratchet up tensions with federal lawmakers who see Beijing as a privacy threat. (Tony Romm / The Washington Post)
Twitter’s messy verification process is making some lesser known candidates wait. The company has been slow to verify new candidates — the program is officially paused — and it may be hurting new entrants to politics by making it harder for them to legitimize their campaigns and fight disinformation. (Kim Lyons / The Verge)
TikTok is hiring a federal lobbyist in Washington DC. Let us know if you get the job!
In a recent survey, 49 percent of tech experts said technology will mostly weaken core aspects of democracy in the next decade. One respondent said he’s primarily concerned with the coordinated spread of disinformation across social media. (Janna Anderson and Lee Rainie / Pew Research Center)
The European Commission has told its staff to start using Signal, an end-to-end-encrypted messaging app, in a push to increase the security of its communications. The instruction appeared on internal messaging boards in early February. (Laurens Cerulus / Politico)
A Swiss court ruled that Facebook likes and shares can be considered illegal defamation. Now, people may be punished for sharing or liking posts on social media, even if they did not create the content themselves. (The Local)
The lead European Union privacy regulator put out its annual report showing a major bump in complaints filed under GDPR. The report doesn’t show any strong enforcement of EU data protection rules against big tech, however. (Natasha Lomas / TechCrunch)
China’s use of surveillance and censorship makes it harder for President Xi Jinping to know what’s going on in his own country. When people can’t speak freely on the internet, it’s difficult for the government to detect an oncoming crisis and move to stop it, as in the case of the coronavirus. (Zeynep Tufekci / The Atlantic)
⭐ Inside the seething boardroom drama that killed HQ Trivia. This story describes a degree of personal animosity between staff and management that’s rare even by tech startup standards. Here’s Bloomberg’s Kurt Wagner:
The key problem was that HQ wasn’t innovating, according to conversations with former employees. As people got bored with the main game, the company had little else to offer them. The stagnation wasn’t necessarily for a lack of ideas. Starting in 2018, the company discussed lots of additional shows including a “Judge Judy”-like program, and one based on “Family Feud,” people familiar with the company said. A dating show idea got far enough along that the company even made a pilot, they said, but it never launched.
Yusupov was more interested in building out HQ’s flagship product than launching new ones, former employees said. Several people also said that Yusupov, a talented designer and creative thinker, could be erratic—alternating between bursts of frenetic activity and long periods of inaction. One employee recalled how once, hours before a game was supposed to drop, Yusupov asked to cut the number of winners from 5,000 to 500. Another former staffer remembered Yusupov personally overseeing the details for a game, even as larger issues like cash burn loomed at the company.
Facebook’s former sustainability chief has launched an organization called ClimateVoice to help employees at big companies press their bosses for more aggressive policies to fight climate change. (Dan Levine / Reuters)
Facebook will pay some users for voice recordings to help the company improve its speech recognition technology. The move comes after Facebook — as well as Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft — was caught listening to and transcribing voice recordings without informing customers it was doing so. (Jay Peters / The Verge)
A powerful antibiotic that kills some of the most dangerous drug-resistant bacteria in the world has been discovered using artificial intelligence. It’s the first drug of its kind to be found by setting AI loose on vast digital libraries of pharmaceutical compounds. (Ian Sample / The Guardian)
Shopify, an e-commerce platform, joined Facebook’s Libra Association. It’s the first good news for Libra since eBay, Visa, and Stripe all left the cryptocurrency collective last year. (Josh Constine / TechCrunch)
Sketchy companies are stealing images of social media influencers to promote products. Oftentimes, the influencer has no involvement with the company and very little recourse to stop them from using their images. (Emma Grey Ellis / Wired)
Instagram curators are making a name for themselves by creating taste-making feeds that don’t have to sell products in order to gain recognition or stay relevant. “Curating images on the ‘gram is a new way for young creatives to discover their own style,” said the owner of one popular account. (Avidan Grossman / GQ)
Cameo, an app that allows people to pay celebrities to record short personal videos, has major security flaws that expose user data. The exposed data includes email addresses, hashed and salted passwords and phone numbers, and messages. (Joseph Cox / Vice)
YouTube briefly terminated a popular live stream channel, ChilledCow, creating one of the longest videos of all time. The video is more than 13,000 hours and has 218 million views. The channel is now back in business. (Julia Alexander / The Verge)
‘Mad’ Mike Hughes, who wanted to prove the flat-Earth theory, died in homemade-rocket disaster over the weekend. Hughes was perhaps the most visible advocate of the theory that Earth isn’t a sapphire-and-emerald globe revolving around a massive star. (Alex Horton / The Washington Post)
New York City bodegas are going viral on TikTok. The videos highlight the stores’ unique culture. (Aaron Randle / The New York Times)
Couldn’t let the day pass without sharing this profile of one more member of Bloomberg’s team. Take it away, Katie Notopoulos:
In 2012, the biggest story to come out of South by Southwest Innovation, the tech conference held in Austin, was “Homeless Hotspots.” It was a project by an ad agency that gave 4G hotspots to 13 men without housing in the city to offer Wi-Fi to festivalgoers. The project was immediately slammed by press and attendees as dystopian and a “blunt display of unselfconscious gall.” Now, the man who came up with it is working for the presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg, the former NYC mayor who has his own controversial record on homelessness.
Tim Nolan is currently a “creative lead” overseeing digital advertising for the well-funded machine of Bloomberg 2020, but in 2012 he worked at the ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, where he came up with the idea and organized the execution of the maligned SXSW project, which was not sponsored by a brand. On Nolan’s website, he boasts about the publicity the project received for the agency.
And how he can boast of a little more.