There was always something distasteful about Amazon’s quest to find a home for its HQ2. Even when it seemed like it might be a fair fight, it was depressing to watch so many cities and towns prostrating themselves before a tech giant in hopes they would score a windfall of jobs and infrastructure investments. Today, after a nationwide search, the entire stunt was revealed to be a kind of ruse — Amazon’s singular HQ2 turned out to be a pair of regional offices, and they would be located in two thriving metropolitan areas with strategic significance to Amazon and no dearth of high-paying jobs to start with.
I rarely write about Amazon here, but I’m making an exception today, if only because its big office move represents such a high-profile collision of big tech and our democracy. It also triggered a significant backlash that ricocheted around social media and has gotten the attention of elected officials — and I wonder if Amazon, as the least socially savvy of the big tech companies, is prepared for what’s next.
My colleague Colin Lecher has the details of the deal in The Verge:
Amazon has just announced the sites for its HQ2. Soon, the company will be expanding into Long Island City, Queens, and Arlington, Virginia. The expansion, the retail giant says, will bring 25,000 employees to each of the areas, and the company said it would invest $5 billion in the offices. Already, the announcement is raising questions about what the deal will mean for the cities, the scope of the agreement, and how Amazon conducted the search in the first place. With more than $2 billion in potential subsidies available across the three sites, the secretive and dramatic search seems to have paid off.
The incentives the company will receive as part of the deals are already eye-popping: Amazon announced that, in New York, it will receive up to $1.2 billion in a refundable tax credit, tied to the creation of jobs, and a $325 million cash development grant. The company will also earn up to $573 million in cash grants for the Arlington investment if it creates the promised jobs. Amazon said it will also build an operations hub in Nashville, and it plans to bring 5,000 corporate jobs to the city.
Those subsidies are kicking up a furor. Here’s Taylor Telford in the Washington Post:
Politicians voiced concerns that the influx of tech workers would fuel inequality and hurt lower-income populations. Others slammed the company for settling on obvious cities after a lengthy search that drew 238 bids, including many from smaller cities in need of the “transformation” Amazon promised.
While New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo implored Amazon to come to New York City, reportedly saying he’d “change his name to Amazon Cuomo if that’s what it takes”, local politicians were wary about the deal. Prior to the announcement, New York City council member Jimmy Van Bramer and state senator Michael Gianaris published a joint statement in the Yonkers Tribune criticizing the use of “scarce public resources” as “massive corporate welfare. Now, Van Bramer and Gianaris are teaming up with local activist groups to protest Amazon’s plans on Wednesday.
An ad for their protest reads in part: “Say no to the richest company in the world robbing over $1 billion from state funding for our schools, transit and housing.”
Meanwhile, Democrats in New York’s State Assembly are planning a rather delicious stunt of their own. Here’s David Sirota in Capital & Main:
Democratic Assemblyman Ron Kim announced that he will introduce legislation to slash New York’s economic development subsidies and use the money to buy up and cancel student debt — a move he said would provide a bigger boost to the state’s economy. The legislation, says Kim, would halt any Cuomo administration offer of taxpayer money to Amazon, which could reap up to $1 billion in tax incentives if it moves to Long Island City.
Which move do you think will play out better on social media — giving Amazon $1 billion in incentives, or offering New York college students $1 billion in debt relief? (Davey Alba collects many more outraged tweets from politicians and others here in BuzzFeed.)
Of course, Amazon might object that it was simply following a well established corporate playbook. Derek Thompson laid out just how common in a startling piece in The Atlantic:
Every year, American cities and states spend up to $90 billion in tax breaks and cash grants to urge companies to move among states. That’s more than the federal government spends on housing, education, or infrastructure. And since cities and states can’t print money or run steep deficits, these deals take scarce resources from everything local governments would otherwise pay for, such as schools, roads, police, and prisons.
In the past 10 years, Boeing, Nike, Intel, Royal Dutch Shell, Tesla, Nissan, Ford, and General Motors have each received subsidy packages worth more than $1 billion to either move their corporate headquarters within the U.S. or, quite often, to keep their headquarters right where they are. New Jersey and Maryland reportedly offered $7 billion for HQ2, which would be the biggest corporate giveaway in American history.
There’s plenty in here to be upset about. But I’ll highlight just one thing that I think most people can agree on: the way these companies demand such strict secrecy from the public that is handing them the welfare checks. Virginia, for example, has agreed to provide Amazon with written notice of any public-record requests under the Freedom of Information Act “to allow the Company to seek a protective order or other appropriate remedy.”
This, too, is depressingly common. San Jose’s mayor and 17 other elected officials signed strict nondisclosure agreements with Google as part of an effort to bring the city a $67 million land deal. In Bloomberg today, Josh Eidelson reports that activists are now suing to make terms of the deal public:
City officials signed agreements “designed to transform public records, on such crucial issues as transit and environmental compliance, into private ones that the public does not see,” according to the filing. The “city and Google went to extraordinary lengths to keep the public in the dark.”
The agreements are invalid under San Jose’s municipal code, which restricts officials from entering into contracts without council approval, and violate state law barring agencies from letting outside parties control disclosures to the public, the plaintiffs said.
Perhaps the furor over Amazon’s regional offices will blow over. But it’s hard not to feel today as if the company misread the room — overestimating the public’s appetite for a billion-dollar giveaway to one of the world’s biggest companies, and underestimating the public’s ability to raise hell on- and offline. Amazon may yet feel that pain, in the long run. And in the short run, as Shira Ovide notes, it’s the dealmaking politicians who should worry:
Amazon doesn’t have to look far to find a worst-case scenario for backlash to a publicly funded corporate expansion. In Wisconsin, opponents of Governor Scott Walker made an issue of billions of dollars in tax breaks and other incentives for a factory built by Foxconn, the Taiwanese electronics manufacturer. Foxconn has changed the project, which may require far fewer workers than initially envisioned. Citizens upset about Foxconn mostly blamed their elected officials rather than a company far away. (Walker lost his re-election bid.) If perception sours on Amazon in Washington and New York, however, there will be enough blame for local officials and Amazon.
More on that study
Yesterday I wrote about a new study from the University of Pennsylvania, which found that reducing social media usage led to lower levels of depression and loneliness. I got some good feedback from people who work at the companies involved, and wanted to share here.
I wrote to the study’s lead author, Melissa G. Hunt, and asked her whether in her work she had attempted to discover an optimal amount of social media usage. Here’s what she told me: “We cannot determine the ‘optimal’ time from our data. However, we can say that on average users who decreased their use from about an hour to about 25 minutes had improved outcomes. Some people in our study were using up to 2.5 hours per day. That’s clearly too much.”
I also spoke with some people who work (or used to work) at the companies in question, and they expressed frustration with studies that lump all social media usage together. Sending messages over Snapchat is not the same as thumbing through Instagram for two hours, they argue. The next generation of studies should draw finer distinctions around what kinds of social networking affect people negatively.
The caveat, though, is that most researchers don’t have access to that kind of fine-grained data — only Facebook does. So one thing the company could do is consider ways of making that data available, even if only in anonymized fashion, to researchers in closely monitored environments.
Finally, I also got an official comment from Facebook on Tuesday afternoon. Here it is:
Facebook did not participate in this study, but our teams are working to better understand the research about technology and well-being. We want people’s time on Facebook to be meaningful and positive and are building tools with people’s well-being in mind so they can better manage their experience. We are committed to continuing this work to foster safe and supportive communities for everyone.
Facebook released more details about the Russian influence campaign it disclosed just before the midterm election. Here’s Sal Rodriguez. (And here’s a deeper dive from the Digital Forensic Research Lab.)
Among the Facebook and Instagram accounts that were linked to Russian trolls ahead of the U.S. midterm elections this month, one on Instagram had more than 600,000 U.S. followers, Facebook said in a blog post on Tuesday.
A Russian troll farm was tied to more than 100 Facebook and Instagram accounts before they were blocked on the eve of the elections, Facebook said.
Nicholas Confessore, Michael LaForgia and Gabriel J.X. Dance report that Facebook did not closely monitor agreements it set up with device makers for whom it had made custom versions of the Facebook app. Activists say the company violated its consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission:
“What is clear is that the F.T.C. has failed to enforce the consent order,” said Marc Rotenberg, the president of the privacy rights group. “And this has come at enormous cost to American consumers.”
WhatsApp is funding 20 research projects at $50,000 apiece to research the role that the app plays in spreading misinformation. Daniel Funke reports:
The research projects were selected from more than 600 proposals and will investigate misinformation in four key areas, including digital literacy and election misinformation. Winning paper titles span from “Is correction fluid? How to make fact-checks on WhatsApp more effective” to “The use and abuse of WhatsApp in an African election: Nigeria 2019.” (See below for the full list.)
According to the press release, WhatsApp will not provide any user data to researchers, who are meeting at the company’s Menlo Park, California, headquarters this week for a workshop on how the platform works internally. The company will also not be involved in any of the study designs. Instead, the winning studies will rely on qualitative and quantitative surveys with the goal of publishing in peer-reviewed journals, WhatsApp told Poynter.
This summer, MSNBC host Joy Reid retweeted an activist whose post alleged that a woman was berating a 14-year-old Latino boy in a racist way. As it turns out, they were actually having a civil discussion. But Reid’s followers had already pounced on the woman in the photo, in some cases threatening her life. Now the woman is suing Reid for defamation, in a case that has significant implications for Twitter, Jeff John Roberts reports:
As it stands, the Reid case is troubling because either outcome will produce an unsatisfactory result. If La Liberte wins, millions of people will face legal jeopardy for the commonplace act of sharing what they see on social media—a situation that would chill free speech. But if Reid wins, there is little to dissuade people from contributing to online mob behavior of the sort that dragged La Liberte through the mud.
This raises the question of whether Twitter and other online platforms should do more to stop false and defamatory information from going viral in the first place. One idea for addressing the problem—incidentally, suggested by a former Fortune editor—is a warning system would let those in Reid’s situation respond more promptly by broadcasting a correction (as Reid did but only five days later), and by removing the original retweet or shared post from their social media feeds.
Adam B. Ellick and Adam Westbrook have a three-part video series on the history of Russian propaganda from its creation to the present. Looking forward to digging into this one tonight.
Here’s another positive development coming out of the Google walkout, which already looks like one of the most productive worker actions the history has ever seen.
This seemed scary until it turned out to be a mistake made by a Nigerian company during a server upgrade.
Well this is a terrible use of Facebook:
A picture of the 17-year-old, who is from South Sudan’s Eastern Lakes state, was posted on Facebook on Oct. 25. The post said five men were participating in the auction for her dowry.
The highest bidder, a wealthy businessman, reportedly gave the girl’s father over 500 cows, three luxury cars and $10,000 as dowry — and the teenager’s marriage took place on Nov. 3, according to major girls’ rights charity Plan International.
Security company Imperva found a Facebook vulnerability that seems at least somewhat similar to the one that enabled its recent breach. Dani Deahl writes it up:
The security company Imperva has released new details on a Facebook vulnerability that could have exposed user data. The bug allowed websites to obtain private information about Facebook users and their friends through unauthorized access to a company API, playing off a specific behavior in the Chrome browser. The bug was disclosed to Facebook and resolved in May.
In technical terms, the attack is a cross-site request forgery, using a legitimate Facebook login in unauthorized ways. For the attack to work, a Facebook user must visit a malicious website with Chrome, and then click anywhere on the site while logged into Facebook. From there, attackers could open a new pop-up or tab to the Facebook search page and run any number of queries to extract personal information.
Twitter has an embarrassing problem where people take over verified accounts and then use them to run Bitcoin scams. Shortly after this story went up, a similar attacker managed to take over the Google Suite account and do it again.
In a first for him, the actor did something good on Twitter:
Known on the platform for his deeply combative political screeds, Woods has turned his Twitter feed into a signal-boosting “bulletin board” for victims, their families, and facilities and organizations offering help, tweeting virtually nonstop since November 8th using hashtags #CampFireJamesWoods or #SoCalFiresJamesWoods (including his own name, evidently, to differentiate tweets that specifically needed amplification). Whether or not it’s been directly because of his efforts, several of those he’s retweeted have successfully located their evacuee relatives, found shelter for evacuated livestock, and reunited lost pets with their owners.
Andrea Valdez looks for an equivalent to Black Twitter for her own culture and finds it elusive:
“I think part of the problem is that we are so complex and not monolithic,” says Julio Ricardo Varela, founder of Latino Rebels and digital media director for Futuro Media. “There are these little mini subsets, like immigrants rights groups or Central American Twitter. But [subgroups] also sometimes form at the expense of other groups,” he says, noting the differences of opinions between subgroups. A great of example of this is the debate over the word Latinx itself, a gender-inclusive term that started among the LGBTQ community and has slowly been adopted into the mainstream vernacular—to the chagrin of some who don’t agree with breaking Spanish’s gendered grammar rules.
Embedded in this story about getting average social media citizens to post ads is a hilarious story about Snap trying to get a male model to promote Spectacles. From Sapna Maheshwari:
The influencer economy is opaque — and rife with questionable tactics — but there’s no doubt it attracts big money. A reminder of that came recently when a public relations firm sued Mr. Sabbat, saying he failed to fulfill the terms of an agreement with Snap Spectacles. According to the suit, Mr. Sabbat was offered $60,000 for providing one Instagram post and three Instagram Stories and for being photographed during fashion weeks while wearing the spectacles.
I wrote about Snapchat’s new friendship profiles, Bitmoji Merch, and Bitmoji Stories:
Snap has long resisted traditional social network profiles, arguing that a network of close friends didn’t need them. (You already know what your friends look like and where they go to school, the company said.) But today, it’s changing course — at least a little bit. Snapchat is rolling out what it calls “friendship profiles” to capture all the shared media you’ve exchanged with friends and groups in a single place. But in keeping with the company’s ethos around privacy, the profiles are visible only to you and your friend.
Yesterday, on the occasion of LinkedIn testing an events feature, I described it as “Facebook in slow motion.” Well, here’s Facebook being LinkedIn in slow motion.
This isn’t a launch per se, but Madison Malone Kirchner has a useful roundup of the apps people are using to make their Instagram stories pop: Unfold, Canva, Storyluxe, and Pic Collage. I’m a fan of Unfold myself; haven’t yet tried the others.
Renee DiResta charts the evolution of propaganda on social media and warns of a dark future:
These technologies will continue to evolve: disinformation campaign content will soon include manufactured video and audio. We can see it coming but are not equipped to prevent it. What will happen when video makes us distrust what we see with our own eyes? If democracy is predicated on an informed citizenry, then the increasing pervasiveness of computational propaganda is a fundamental problem. Through a series of unintended consequences, algorithms have inadvertently become the invisible rulers that control the destinies of millions. Now we have to decide what we are going to do about that.
And finally ...
Are Democrats simply better at short-form public broadcast videos? Nicole Gallucci checks in with O’Rourke and Ocasio-Cortez:
Since O’Rourke conceded the midterm election to Ted Cruz, his primary social media outlet has been Instagram. Since his midterm loss, O’Rourke has eaten chips and guac in the car while driving, made homemade slime with his daughter, gone on a hike with his family, and even cooked a flank steak marinated in soy, lime, ginger, and freaking garlic. […]
In the days since midterms, [Ocasio-Cortez has] used the social media platform to chat politics with her 507,000 followers while cooking up Instant Pot mac and cheese on a Friday night, publicly listen to Janelle Monáe, and give the world a glimpse of what it’s like to do all that post-campaign laundry that builds up.
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An evening newsletter about Facebook, social networks, and democracy.