The Interface will be off next week as Zoe and I wrap up a couple big reports we’ve been working on for a while now. I’ll be interviewing Tristan Harris on stage Monday at the Techonomy conference in Half Moon Bay — if you’re in attendance, say hi! Later in the week, I’ll be speaking at Tufts University’s inaugural conference on New Media and Democracy. See you on the 25th.
Impeachment hearings got underway in the House of Representatives this week, as you likely noticed from the wall-to-wall coverage. The process involves the sort of high-stakes, highly partisan events that naturally dominate social feeds. What television was to impeachment in the 1970s and 1990s, Facebook and Twitter — and YouTube and maybe TikTok — will be to impeachment in 2019.
The hearings on President Donald Trump’s apparent attempted bribery of Ukraine won’t be the first time a president has had to contend with, or benefit from, a hyper-partisan media. Conservative talk radio and Fox News were in full swing when Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998, even if their rhetoric looks quaint by today’s standard. But the World Wide Web was in its infancy, and the world was then still innocent of algorithmically sorted news feeds, partisan bot armies, and state-sponsored meme warfare.
Not anymore. If the first day of hearings is any indication, social networks promise to play a powerful role in shaping the way that impeachment hearings are understood by Americans. They are also playing a powerful role in shaping the hearings themselves.
As Ryan Broderick documented at BuzzFeed, Republican lawmakers used their time during Wednesday’s hearing to promote discredited conspiracy theories that are popular on right-wing message boards:
There is one America that believes what was in former FBI director Robert Mueller’s report, that there was coordinated Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, which helped the Trump campaign. But there is a second America that believes that in the summer of 2016, the Democratic National Committee colluded with Ukrainian nationals to frame the Trump campaign for collusion with Russia, implicating a Ukrainian American DNC contractor, Alexandra Chalupa, in the collusion and the California-based cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike in the subsequent cover-up.
This unfounded theory has been propped up by a 2017 Politico story; reporting from right-wing political commentator John Solomon published earlier this year in the Hill; Attorney General Bill Barr’s summer travels; the yearlong personal investigation into Ukraine conducted by Rudy Giuliani, a lawyer working for Trump; and coverage from Fox News and conservative news sites. All of that came into play during Wednesday’s hearing, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly.
After Republican members of Congress promoted these various smokescreens, right-wing media universally dismissed the hearing — either as an absurd exercise led by clowns, or as an outrageous abuse of power. Brian Stelter described the atmosphere on cable news:
Here’s what else I heard: Wednesday’s hearing was a bust. It was all just hearsay. It was a “disaster” for the Democrats and a “great day” for the Republicans. Impeachment is “stupid.” Impeachment is “fake.” There’s nothing impeachable here. There’s no reason to hold hearings. This inquiry needs to stop right now.
The message was one-sided and overwhelming. Every host and practically every guest said the Republican tribe is winning and the Democrat tribe is losing. I’m sure the president loved watching every minute of it. That’s one of the reasons why this right-wing rhetoric matters so much -- because it is reassuring and emboldening Trump.
Meanwhile, if you’re reading the New York Times or watching CNN, you’re getting the sense that the case against Trump is a slam dunk, with multiple people having heard the president directly pressure his ambassador to the European Union to pursue a bribery plot. As Ezra Klein wrote recently, this impeachment is “the easiest possible test case for can our system hold a president accountable.” And yet with something like 40 percent of the country living in an alternate media universe, the basic, actual facts of the case may never penetrate into their reality.
Of course, that fear was one of the best reasons for Democrats to initiate impeachment proceedings in the first place: Show people real witnesses answering important questions over a long enough period of time — train everyone’s eyes on the same set of facts — and maybe a greater consensus will emerge.
Time will tell if they succeed. In the meantime, impeachment has proven to be big business on Facebook — where politicians are taking out highly partisan ads consistent with their respective worldviews. Emily Stewart and Rani Molla have a thorough walkthrough of how impeachment is playing out on Facebook, with Trump and Sen. Elizabeth Warren using ads to fire up their base and build their donor rolls; Tom Steyer using impeachment as a signature issue to promote his presidential candidacy; and a spice company buying tens of thousands of dollars worth of pro-impeachment advertising because they spread farther on Facebook than non-impeachment ads, resulting in a better return on investment.
Much of the debate about whether Facebook should allow political advertising noted that it represents a small fraction of the company’s business. But as the Vox writers note, that doesn’t mean it’s an insignificant business:
Facebook itself has grown into a formidable political platform in recent years, with campaigns and outside groups spending $284 million on the platform during the midterm elections, according to a report by Tech for Campaigns, a nonprofit that helps political campaigns with digital tools. While that’s just a small share of Facebook’s overall ad revenue, it’s a growing chunk of what campaigns are spending to reach constituents.
As impeachment hearings intensify, it seems likely politicians’ spending on Facebook ads will increase. And a good number of those ads, like so much about impeachment in 2019, will seem to have been created in a parallel world. In many ways, they were.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
Trending down: Facebook is sponsoring an event at the Federalist Society where Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh is speaking. A new ad campaign targeting Facebook employees is urging them to fight back. (In the meantime, this was a truly great idea for a protest.)
Trending down: Anti-vaxx content is still thriving on Facebook. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) sent Mark Zuckerberg a letter denouncing the company’s “failure to stem the tide of dangerous myths about vaccinations.”
⭐US intelligence agencies confirmed they’ve stopped collecting location data from people’s phones without a warrant — at least for those inside the United States. But they stopped short of saying they will be legally barred from collecting this information when a provision of the Patriot Act expires next month (unless Congress renews it). Spencer Ackerman at The Daily Beast explains:
It’s the latest maneuver in a perennial clash between the intelligence agencies and their overseers over how tightly privacy laws constrain non-criminal surveillance, particularly as the ubiquity of surveillance-relevant technology advances.
Cell-phone location data effectively provides a map of a person’s whereabouts as their phone connects to nearby cellular towers. A landmark Supreme Court ruling last year, known as Carpenter v. U.S., held that cell-site location information, known as CSLI data, impacts privacy to the point where the government must obtain a warrant based on probable cause of wrongdoing to collect it.
Federal Trade Commission Chairman Joseph Simons called on Congress to pass new privacy legislation. The request came when Simons testified in a hearing on Capital Hill as part of the antitrust probe into Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google. (Kate Cox / Ars Technica)
Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang put out a sweeping new tech policy proposal with a number of controversial ideas, including taxing digital ads and launching a new department to regulate algorithms on social networks. (Makena Kelly / The Verge)
Independent “researchers” are sharing earthquake conspiracies on social media. They’ve fooled government agencies and have even made their way onto local news, spreading panic and confusion in the midst of national disasters. (Anna Merlan / Vice)
A private Facebook group is stoking anti-Muslim violence in Maine. The group is primarily made up of residents of a small city called Lewiston, which is home to about 6,000 former refugees. (Nathan Bernard and Andy O’Brien / Mainer)
Facebook should let juries review political ads on the platform, a Harvard law professor argues. A random group of people wouldn’t necessarily be better at fact-finding than, say, a third-party fact-checker, but it could lend legitimacy and credibility to the process. (Jonathan Zittrain / The Atlantic)
Starting in February, Google will no longer share information to participants in its ad auction about the type of content on a website or page where an ad could appear. The change comes as Google faces growing scrutiny from European Union watchdogs over privacy, among other issues. (Natalia Drozdiak and Stephanie Bodoni / Bloomberg)
Australia is among the countries that saw declining internet freedom last year, according to a report from the independent watchdog group Freedom House. The country adopted new restrictions on what online content people can access, as well as new laws around online expression. (Hannah Ryan and Cameron Wilson / BuzzFeed)
⭐ We’re in a period of deep distrust of Silicon Valley. People are more cynical about social media, privacy is a looming concern, and tech workers are suspicious about their own companies. This essay by Bill Wasik introduces a package in The New York Times Magazine that looks back at how we got here:
Perhaps the most profound force at work upon the internet right now is the simple passage of time. Everyone raised in a pre-internet era continues to age and disappear, while new generations grow up not merely as “digital natives” but as lifelong witnesses to the internet’s best and worst effects. In the naïve dreams of earlier days, many people joined Zuckerberg in imagining that connecting the world could bring about new social virtues at no social cost. But it’s now clear that interconnection by its very nature also brings about confounding new social situations, whether it’s the problem of disinformation seeded and spread by organized propagandists or the mind-bendingly obsessive culture of online fandom. For teenagers today, the internet is both a stage onto which to step boldly and a minefield through which to step gingerly — a double bind that has given rise to whole new habits of living online, in which self-expression and self-protection are inextricably linked.
Paying for internet services and subscriptions has gone from being a sign that you lack the technical skills to find a good workaround to being a status symbol. Personally, I’m still waiting for Superhuman to take me off its waiting list. (Kevin Roose / The New York Times)
China’s internet is thriving by integrating many different services on a single platform. It’s amazing what having the backing of an authoritarian government can do for an app like WeChat. (Yiren Lu / The New York Times)
Social media has allowed kids to have multiple, fluid identities, rather than having a fixed idea of who they are and how they have to act. That’s probably a good thing, as this fun profile of a popular YouTuber demonstrates. (Elizabeth Weil / The New York Times)
Scientists are taking to YouTube to debunk dangerous life-hack videos that go viral on the platform, sometimes with deadly results. Videos that promote fake hacks — whether in baking or beauty — don’t necessarily violate YouTube’s policies. (Emma Grey Ellis / Wired)
Teens are calling themselves “ugly” on TikTok. It’s a relatable skit that shows the deep contrast between the video sharing app and Instagram, which operates more like a beauty pageant. (Rebecca Jennings / Vox)
TikTok is thriving in India, even as it comes under scrutiny in the US. The viral video sharing app has four times as many downloads in India than in the US, with users often filming in public. (Eric Bellman / The Wall Street Journal)
Mark Zuckerberg created a TikTok account, where his follows include Ariana Grande, Loren Gray, and Jason Derulo. The CEO is keeping a close eye on the popular video sharing app, but we knew that already. (Isobel Asher Hamilton / Business Insider)
Influencers say they’re not stressed about Instagram testing hiding likes in the US, despite what some headlines would have you believe. Caroline Calloway, Elsie Larson and Emily Schuman weighed in. (Tanya Chen and Stephanie McNeal / BuzzFeed)
Some influencers said Instagram’s decision to hide like counts has made them more chill about posting photos. This seems to be a big part of the logic driving the move. (Cameron Wilson / BuzzFeed)
Also: Instagram is expanding its test to hide like counts globally. (Josh Constine / TechCrunch)
Facebook is considering leasing a much larger space at Manhattan’s Hudson Yards, giving the social media company offices across three buildings at the $25 billion mega-project. Google and Amazon are also looking to expand in New York. (Noah Buhayar and Natalie Wong / Bloomberg)
John Carmack, the chief technology officer of Facebook’s VR subsidiary Oculus, is stepping down to focus on artificial intelligence. Carmack, a legend from his id Software days, helped put Oculus on the map. (Jay Peters / The Verge)
Amazon needs prep centers to take products from third-party vendors and package them according to the company’s standards. That’s how a tiny town in Montana became a hub in Amazon’s supply chain. (Josh Dzieza / The Verge)
Here’s a fun look at how one popular TikTok — involving a college junior, a dog, a bathroom, and some music from the horror film Hereditary — came together in a memorably strange way.
If you want to go viral on TikTok, I suggest following these steps exactly.