On September 27th, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh appeared before Congress to answer allegations that he had committed sexual assault. There to support him was one of his best friends, Joel Kaplan, who also happens to be Facebook’s global head of policy.
I made passing note of Kaplan’s attendance here when it happened, and asked readers — particularly those in Facebook’s orbit — what they made of it. Well, now we know. Here’s Mike Isaac in the New York Times:
Mr. Kaplan’s surprise appearance prompted anger and shock among many Facebook employees, some of whom said they took his action as a tacit show of support for Judge Kavanaugh — as if it were an endorsement from Facebook itself.
The unrest quickly spilled over onto Facebook’s internal message boards, where hundreds of workers have since posted about their concerns, according to current and former employees. To quell the hubbub, Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, last Friday explained in a widely attended staff meeting that Mr. Kaplan was a close friend of Judge Kavanaugh’s and had broken no company rules, these people said.
A similar set of documents appears to have been leaked to the Wall Street Journal’s Deepa Seetharaman, who reaches similar conclusions in her own story.
For Facebook, the controversy over Kaplan represents a new point of division at a company that is still grappling with the Instagram founders’ unexpected departure and the largest data breach in its history. Only when it comes to the Kaplan controversy, it’s not clear to me what the company’s next move should be.
The C suite seems to have been annoyed by Kaplan’s attendance, but was initially dismissive of employees’ concerns. (How concerned are employees? My favorite detail in Isaac’s story is that they went into Kaplan’s calendar and learned that he had not in fact taken the 27th as a personal day, as Kaplan initially stated. The calendar was later updated to reflect that it was, indeed, a personal day.)
In ordinary times, it would not even seem worthy of commentary that a Facebook employee would take time off to go support a good friend’s nomination for a government role. But these are no ordinary times, and this was no ordinary hearing. And among some Facebook employees, who have rallied around Kavanaugh’s proliferating number of accusers, Kaplan’s endorsement of his friend became a workplace issue.
As Isaac notes, Kaplan was hired precisely because of his deep ties to the conservative world. Facebook faces a variety of federal investigations and regulatory threats, and it needs allies in both parties to navigate those waters — particularly these days. Until now, Kaplan’s conservatism has been seen an asset to the company.
It still is — somewhere on Facebook’s communications team right now, I imagine there’s some mild excitement about a news cycle centered on its executives standing up to their more liberal employees in the defense of a conservative colleague. But it can be a liability, too, particularly if a lot of those employees take this opportunity to leave the company to work at an organization that doesn’t have a strategic imperative to make nice with the Trump Administration.
Andrew Bosworth, a 13-year Facebook veteran and Zuckerberg confidante, initially appeared to encourage employees to follow their principles out the door. Here’s Isaac again:
“If you need to change teams, companies or careers to make sure your day-to-day life matches your passions, we will be sad to see you go, but we will understand,” Mr. Bosworth wrote. “We will support you with any path you choose. But it is your responsibility to choose a path, not that of the company you work for.”
But after an employee backlash, Boz walked back his remarks. “I spoke at a time when I should be listening and that was a big mistake,“ he reportedly wrote in an internal post. Another meeting is scheduled for Friday for top executives to listen to employees’ concerns. The trouble for Facebook is that it’s not clear, beyond listening, what Facebook can really do.
Everyone is talking about this story from Jordan Robertson and Michael Riley, which alleges that Chinese spies compromised America’s technology supply chain by inserting tiny chips in servers that reached almost 30 US companies, including Apple and Amazon. Both Apple and Amazon denied this story in the strongest possible terms, going into depth about how why they believe the Bloomberg story to be false. It’s an extraordinary set of events — I hope we learn more. (Facebook appears to have been affected by the hack in a minor way.)
The vice president has called on Google to abandon its China ambitions — a significant escalation of the US government’s pressure on Alphabet, Michael C. Bender and Dustin Volz report:
In a speech that outlined the White House’s long list of frustrations and grievances with Beijing, Vice President Mike Pence called on companies to reconsider business practices in the world’s second-largest economy that involve turning over intellectual property or “abetting Beijing’s oppression.”
“For example, Google should immediately end development of the Dragonfly app that will strengthen Communist Party censorship and compromise the privacy of Chinese customers,” Mr. Pence said in his speech at the Hudson Institute, a conservative, Washington-based think tank focused on security and economic issues.
Nearly 90 percent of accounts that spread disinformation during the presidential election continue to operate and spread or amplify false stories, according to a new study from the Knight Foundation:
Knight Foundation researchers examined millions of tweets and concluded that more than 80 percent of the accounts associated with the 2016 disinformation campaign are still posting — even after Twitter announced back in July that it had instituted a purge of fake accounts.
“The persistence of so many easily identified abusive accounts is difficult to square with any effective crackdown,” write authors Matthew Hindman of George Washington University and Vlad Barash of the social media analysis company Graphika.
I asked Twitter to respond and this is what I got:
“Firstly, this study was built using our public API and therefore does not take into account any of the actions we take to remove automated or spammy content and accounts from being viewed by people on Twitter. We do this proactively and at scale, every single day. Secondly, as a uniquely open service, Twitter is a vital source of real-time antidote to day-to-day falsehoods. We are proud of this use case and work diligently to ensure we are showing people context and a diverse range of perspectives as they engage in civic debate and conversations on our service.”
Two Democrats have asked the Federal Trade Commission to examine whether thousands of apps are violating a children’s online privacy law. Jennifer Valentino-DeVries and Natasha Singer report:
Senators Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission on Wednesday saying they were concerned that thousands of apps may “improperly track children and collect their personal information.”
The senators asked the agency to examine whether the apps, and the advertising companies they work with, were violating a federal law to protect children’s privacy online. The law requires sites and apps aimed at children under 13 to obtain verifiable permission from a parent before collecting personal details from a child like an email address, a precise location, a phone number or persistent digital ID codes that are used for behavioral advertising.
WeChat posts the top rumors every month… so it can debunk them. This would be a more heartening development if WeChat were not also a surveillance and propaganda tool of the Chinese government!
The European Union’s data protection supervisor, Giovanni Buttarelli, tells TechCrunch that tech giants are flouting new privacy regulations and he’s not going to take it anymore:
He also professes himself “not surprised” about Facebook’s latest security debacle — describing the massive new data breach the company revealed on Friday as “business as usual” for the tech giant. And indeed for “all the tech giants” — none of whom he believes are making adequate investments in security.
Evan Spiegel wants Snap to turn a profit in 2019, according to a 6,500-word memo that Alex Heath got his hands on. (Big day for my rivals getting their hands on documents to make me jealous! I have a Signal too, folks!) I’m going to chew on this one overnight, but for now here’s a fun, Snap-flattering detail from Spiegel:
Researchers at the University of Michigan found that Snapchat was second only to face-to-face communication when it comes to generating positive feelings:
Snapchat interactions are associated with more positive emotions that Facebook and other social technologies, the researchers say.
Hootsuite, which makes a widely used platform for managing social media, is exploring a sale that could value it at more than $750 million, Liana B. Baker and Carl O’Donnell report.
One of the biggest publishers of viral content on Facebook is apparently close to being bankrupt:
Its understanding of the sort of video content Facebook audiences want to watch enabled it to become the fourth-biggest publisher on the social network in August, according to data from the analytics company NewsWhip. Facebook recently said it would prioritise higher-quality news in users’ feeds.
Many viral publishers have struggled to translate their enormous reach into a profitable business model, owing to the high cost of making bespoke native ads. Sources in the advertising industry suggested many agencies had cut back their dealings with Unilad before Thursday.
Former Instagram COO and new Facebook head of Global Partnerships and Business Development Marne Levine spoke briefly about her old bosses’ exit from the company last week during a conference this week. She acknowledged that it was “unexpected”:
She added that, while the moment was unexpected, it was “only natural” that the founders, “whose vision… had fundamentally changed the way we connect and share,” would be thinking about what’s next after spending six years steering Instagram at Facebook. She pointed out that when the social media giant acquired Instagram, the photo-sharing platform had just 13 employees and “no business.” Today, it has more than a billion users and “a thriving and growing business” with more than two million active advertisers and more than 1,000 employees worldwide. “It’s is in a very different place,” she said.
Historian Yuval Noah Harari and Time Well Spent cofounder Tristan Harris discussed the future of artificial intelligence with Wired’s editor in chief, Nicholas Thompson. There’s surely lots to chew on here, but this is just an incredible story about how thought leaders are meeting these days:
YNH: Funnily enough, on an expedition to Antarctica, we were invited by the Chilean government to the Congress of the Future to talk about the future of humankind and one part of the Congress was an expedition to the Chilean base in Antarctica to see global warming with our own eyes. It was still very cold and there were so many interesting people on this expedition
TH: A lot of philosophers and Nobel laureates. And I think we particularly connected with Michael Sandel, who is a really amazing philosopher of moral philosophy.
Earlier this week Alyssa Bereznak tweeted a comical set of Instagram accounts that post the same picture every day. It turns out Taylor Lorenz was already at work on a version of this story, which she published today. It’s delightful:
And while these accounts post the same photo every day, their captions and Stories change. Some teenagers who run single-pic accounts use their page as a sort of diary or anonymous blog, posting about what’s happening in life and at school, or how they’re feeling. “I had to pack the whole day and today I was on an airplane for like 8 hours,” the owner of an account that posts the same photo of a watermelon every day wrote. “Ya girl graduated grade 8,” the owner of @same_picture_of_kun said. “Catch me being late to my first day of summer school,” they added on another pic.
Miranda, a 14-year-old who runs @same.picture.of.kumquat with two friends from her high school, said they started the account as a de-stressor and outlet. “It’s personal-life captions for not such a personal picture,” she said. “It takes the pressure off of having to post a pic of your face or something. We don’t have to edit any pics; the followers know what they’re getting. We can just post a quirky caption about our life at the moment and they relate.”
Instagram is introducing a version of Snapcodes, letting you follow people by taking a picture of their unique “nametag.” More interesting to me is the test described here in which college students will be invited to fill out a more complete Instagram profile, including their school, which will then be added to a directory that anyone else in that school can browse. Facebook is Benjamin Buttoning itself all the way back to the beginning.
Instagram is also adding location history, in what seems part of an eventual effort to build a Snap Map-style feature into Instagram. (Josh Constine speculates that it’s’ about serving local ads.)
Also Yahoo made a new messaging app for some reason? I got nothing.
John Authers has a long, reflective post about how social media contributed to an erosion of trust in journalism, and how dangerous that will prove to be during the next financial crisis. Sad and sobering:
All the most obvious policy responses come with dangers. Regulating social media from its current sick and ugly state would have advantages but would also be the thin end of a very long wedge. Greater transparency and political oversight for central banks might rebuild confidence but at the risk of politicising institutions we desperately need to maintain independence from politicians. And an overhaul of the prosecutorial system for white-collar crime, to avert the scandalous way so many miscreants escaped a reckoning a decade ago, might work wonders for bolstering public trust — but not if it led to scapegoating or show trials.
On one thing, I remain gloomily clear. Without trust in financial institutions themselves, or those who work in them, or the media who cover them, the next crisis could be far more deadly than the last. Just ask JP Morgan.
And finally ...
Last June I wrote a long feature about how the popularity of Instagram was transforming bars and restaurants into more colorful, kitschy, gimmicky versions of themselves. Today that trend has now reached its logical conclusion, with a New York City pasta restaurant naming itself Pastagram and making its entire value proposition that you can take photographs of its food:
But food isn’t entirely the point here. The Pastagram is really playing up the social media angle, promising “photogenic” details in all of its dishes as well as bright, teal decor in the space. “Every single detail is thought of as to be the most photogenic as possible, catering to a customer base that— today more than ever — seems to give aesthetics as much importance as food quality,” its press release declares
I don’t know; there’s something about valuing the ‘gram above all at a restaurant that feels a bit … tasteless.
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