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So, read any good Medium posts lately?
Every office in Silicon Valley came to a screeching halt around 3PM PT on Thursday, when Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos published a blog post that we will be talking about for years to come. I realize this is not exactly a social networks-and-democracy story: but it is a story about platforms and democracy: how one of the world’s richest men, who owns both one of its most consequential companies and influential newspapers, found himself a target of a close associate of the president of the United States.
It is also a story about how he used two other platforms — Medium and Twitter — to get out ahead of an extortion attempt.
Assuming Bezos wrote this post himself — and it’s extremely hard to imagine him outsourcing the first draft — the first thing to say is that he is a very good writer. (All those years of writing six-page papers before every meeting paid off!)
In a moment that must be extremely stressful, he manages to project an air of calm amusement — and not a small amount of self-satisfaction, that he has got his enemies to put all their oafish demands into writing, where they can be shared with all of us. Bezos also lets slip that he has hired the best person in the world to investigate his enemies, and given that person an unlimited budget with which to pursue his vengeance:
To lead my investigation, I retained Gavin de Becker. I’ve known Mr. de Becker for twenty years, his expertise in this arena is excellent, and he’s one of the smartest and most capable leaders I know. I asked him to prioritize protecting my time since I have other things I prefer to work on and to proceed with whatever budget he needed to pursue the facts in this matter.
The facts leading up to the post’s publication are as complicated as you might guess. Bezos is going through a divorce, and recently the National Enquirer published some intimate texts that he sent to his new girlfriend, Lauren Sanchez. Bezos had his investigators look into how the Enquirer got a hold of these texts, and the team began pursuing a theory that the publication of the texts was politically motivated.
Bezos, after all, owns the Washington Post, and is regularly subject to the Twitter ire of President Donald Trump. The paper has published courageous, path-breaking journalism in the wake of the murder of its columnist, the Saudi Arabian dissident Jamal Khashoggi.
David Pecker, the Trump ally who runs the company behind the Enquirer, reportedly had business interests in Saudi Arabia. And the company, AMI, has been on thin ice legally since entering into an immunity agreement with the federal government last year over payments the president made to silence two women who reported having affairs with Trump. AMI, it seems, was extremely worried about the information that Bezos’s team was digging up, and it was desperate to silence him.
When matters get this complicated, one really has little choice but to write a Medium post about them.
Some immediate takeaways:
- At a time when Bezos is under fire for lots of good reasons — the Los Angeles Times reported just today that Amazon is likely stealing tips from its delivery workers — the publication of this blog post generated a ferocious amount of goodwill. Almost everyone has nudes, and if you’ve ever worried that someone would leak them you are almost certainly on Bezos’s side here. Revenge porn is wrong, and anyone who blackmails you over your nudes is a goat.
- The sex columnist Dan Savage has prophesied a day when so many people have had their nudes leak that the threat of them leaking will diminish, and people will no longer have to fear losing their jobs over them. Bezos’s post feels like an important move in that regard — even if the nudes do eventually leak, his move helped to normalize the act of taking them and sharing them. Five years ago, if your nudes got leaked, the blame was generally on you; going forward, the blame is going to be on the jerks that stole them.
- That said, the goodwill earned by championing the rights of revenge porn victims would not seem to translate naturally into, say, shoring up support among New York lawmakers for your plan to accept many billions of dollars in tax incentives for building a regional office there.
- This move seems likely to ratchet up tensions between Bezos and Trump, and therefore also between Amazon and the US government, in ways I won’t even try to predict.
- This was the first good day on Twitter since the 2018 Women’s March. (I told some jokes.)
- This was the best day on Medium of all time.
A Guide to The Interface
In 2017 the academic and press critic Jay Rosen wrote a blog post entitled “Show your work: the new terms for trust in journalism,” In it, he lays out a vision for a future of journalism in which, among other things, reporters tell you where they’re coming from. How do they see the world? What assumptions do they bring into their reporting?
Since then, I’ve hoped to write such a disclosure myself. Today, I published it: a guide to The Interface. In it, new and potential readers can view what subjects I cover, where I get my information, and how best to get in touch with me. I also lay out some of my beliefs about social networks and democracy, and commit to updating them quarterly — a kind of journalistic changelog. Rosen said he liked it, which was enough for me. But I hope you’ll read it, too, and let me know what you think.
In what looks like a significant development, Germany’s Bundeskartellamt (pronounced “Bundeskartellamt”) is telling Facebook to stop taking the data it gathers from people as they browse the web — or just WhatsApp and Instagram and link it to their Facebook accounts. This is the heart of Facebook’s business model — it is, as Ben Thompson calls it, a data factory — and so Facebook is protesting the move. Here’s James Vincent:
Regulators within Europe have already expressed concern about this combinatorial approach to user tracking. In 2017, the EU fined Facebook $122 million for submitting “misleading information” about plans for its WhatsApp acquisition. At the time of the acquisition in 2014, the company told regulators it would be unable to link the profiles of WhatsApp and Facebook users. Then, in 2016, it did exactly that.
Despite such regulatory action, Facebook is ramping up efforts to tie users from its different platforms closer together. Last month, it said was planning to rebuild the infrastructure of Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp so that all three services run on a single unified platform.
Meanwhile, some American lawmakers are asking questions about the market research programs used by Facebook and Google, which TechCrunch exposed last week. (Lawmakers asking questions is the first step in a process that concludes a few months later with deputy tech executives sidestepping those questions at a hearing, and no legislative action ever being taken.)
Despite being banned in China, Facebook earned $5 billion in sales from Chinese advertisers last year, Paul Mozur and Lin Qiqing report. The secret: a local partner that educates locals about Facebook and helps them buy ads:
The desire by Chinese companies and other entities to get in front of people internationally has unexpectedly turned China into one of Facebook’s largest sources of advertising revenue, even though the social network itself is not available in the country. Charles Shen, chief executive of Meet Social, said his company anticipated doing $1 billion to $2 billion in ad sales on Facebook and Instagram this year. Each day, he added, Meet Social’s software puts up about 20,000 Chinese ads on Facebook.
Google is reluctantly complying with an order from Russian authorities to purge search results that the Kremlin finds inappropriate, Hayes Brown reports:
Roskomnadzor, the Russian government’s communications agency, maintains a list of sites that are banned inside the country, ostensibly focusing on those that promote child porn, drug use, and suicide. The agency ordered in 2017 that all search engines operating in the country delete sites that it blacklists from results, as part of a new regulation banning the use of VPN’s to browse the internet anonymously.
Last year, Google was hit with a relatively small fine — about $7500 — for failing to act on Roskomnadzor’s orders.
Jessica Cobian explores how misinformation spread on social networks led to violent confrontations in Mexico during the recent drama over the immigrant caravan:
By the time the caravan reached Tijuana, the misleading images and fraudulent posts had gone viral on social media. Even as some civic groups welcomed the caravan with open arms, social media helped amplify the voices of people expressing hostility toward the migrant caravan. Groups on Facebook such as “Tijuana against the migrant caravan” called on members to rise up in opposition.
Days after the caravan’s arrival in Tijuana, groups, including some associated with the Facebook group, organized anti-immigrant rallies—a stark contrast to the reception of the caravan in southern Mexico or even Mexico City. On November 14, a violent confrontation erupted in Playas de Tijuana, during which people in the crowd were heard calling the caravan members “invaders.”
Neighbors is a social network that comprises owners of devices made by Ring, a smart home company Amazon acquired for $1 billion last year. As you might expect, posts on the network appear to heavily favor white people complaining that there are suspicious-looking non-white people in their neighborhoods. Caroline Haskins reports:
In Amazon’s version of a “new neighborhood watch,” petty crimes are policed heavily, and racism is common. Video posts on Neighbors disproportionately depict people of color, and descriptions often use racist language or make racist assumptions about the people shown. In many ways, the Neighbors/Ring ecosystem is like a virtual gated community: people can opt themselves in by downloading the Neighbors app, and with a Ring camera, users can frame neighbors as a threat.
Motherboard individually reviewed more than 100 user-submitted posts in the Neighbors app between December 6 and February 5, and the majority of people reported as “suspicious” were people of color.
As you know, at Apple, privacy is a human right. And so good on Zack Whittaker for revealing that an analytics company called Glassbox was recording each session a customer spent inside various apps and reporting it back to the developer. Customers, of course, were never informed. By the end of the day, Apple told developers to disclose this practice to customers or remove it from their app. Just a nice case here of journalism doing what it’s supposed to.
Twitter today announced daily active users for the first time: it has 126 million daily users, compared to Snap’s 186 million, as Kurt Wagner reports here. Twitter attempted to spin this as a positive thing, because that number is growing. At the same time, its number of monthly users is shrinking, and the company plans to stop reporting it.
Kurt Wagner reports that Facebook is devoting more resources to Messenger Kids, its app for building a pipeline of users as young as 6.
Rebecca Greenfield finds that Facebook’s COO still has a strong base of support. (Which I don’t think anyone ever really doubted.)
There are signs that Sandberg’s reputation is on the mend. It helps that Facebook doesn’t seem to be suffering any: fourth-quarter results were better than expected and the stock is up. Both the company and Lean In say they’re committed to Sandberg’s leadership, and from Switzerland to San Francisco, women, particularly those working in technology, are coming out in support of the embattled COO.
“I still look up to her,” said Annie Hsieh, an engineering manager at Square Root, an Austin-based tech company. Like more than a dozen women interviewed by Bloomberg, Hsieh said she doesn’t think Sandberg acted to the highest moral and ethical standards, but she also knows how hard it is to make it to the top in the tech world. “She’s just another human and she’s not a superhero. I think some of the criticism is valid and a lot of it is unfair.”
Kashmir Hill wraps up her excellent series on attempting to live life without the big five tech giants with a terrifying stunt: attempting to live without all five at the same time:
Critics of the big tech companies are often told, “If you don’t like the company, don’t use its products.” I did this experiment to find out if that is possible, and I found out that it’s not—with the exception of Apple.
These companies are unavoidable because they control internet infrastructure, online commerce, and information flows. Many of them specialize in tracking you around the web, whether you use their products or not. These companies started out selling books, offering search results, or showcasing college hotties, but they have expanded enormously and now touch almost every online interaction. These companies look a lot like modern monopolies.
Sheera Frenkel and Cecelia Kang, whose outstanding work I often feature here, landed a big book deal to chronicle Facebook in the runup to, and messy aftermath of, the 2016 US presidential election. Looking forward to reading this one.
Alex Heath reports that Snap laid off five people and instituted a performance improvement plan, which could push more people out of Snap. More than usual, I mean!
TikTok has hired Vanessa Pappas, who led early efforts at YouTube to help creators grow their audiences, Alex Heath reports.
I love this: Facebook will now show you why you’re seeing certain ads, Josh Constine reports. Explaining the contents of people’s feeds is one of the best tools platforms have for rebuilding trust:
Starting February 28th, Facebook’s “Why am I seeing this?” button in the drop-down menu of feed posts will reveal more than the brand that paid for the ad, some biographical details they targeted and if they’d uploaded your contact info. Facebook will start to show when your contact info was uploaded, if it was by the brand or one of their agency/developer partners and when access was shared between partners.
Facebook held its summit for group administrators today, and introduced new management features, Jake Kastrenakes reports:
Group administrators will now be able to format their posts with larger text, block quotes, and bulleted lists. All groups will also now be able to use Facebook’s mentorship feature, which allows administrators to pair people up to work together on skill development or other support programs.
More groups are gaining the ability to offer subscriptions, too, letting them create separate content and conversations for dedicated members. That feature was introduced last June, but it’s still limited to groups that Facebook chooses to partner with.
Paging Facebook board member Peter Thiel! The company has a tool to let people sign up to give blood in in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Brazil, Erin Brodwin reports.
Dami Lee reports on the latest effort to breathe life into IGTV:
Instagram today announced that IGTV previews will begin showing up in users’ main feeds starting today. Ideally, you would tap the one-minute previews to go watch the full video in IGTV, something I can’t imagine anyone would want to do voluntarily.
Instagram is just another name for Facebook now, and so businesses can now respond to their Instagram messages on Facebook. (I’d actually be into a consumer version of this, as Instagram has no web interface for DMs.)
Alex Webb says Germany’s move to block Facebook from integrating the data it collects from various places poses a real problem to the social network:
Right now, any website hosting a Facebook “like” button or a link to “Share on Facebook” sends a cookie to the Menlo Park, California-based firm whenever a browser visits that site. Because engagement on its core platform is softening, those cookies can help the social media company build more complete user profiles. That in turn improves ad targeting.
The German measures will likely prohibit the sharing of those cookies, BamS reported. Significantly, if the case made by the regulator is compelling, a wider investigation by the European Union could follow. Germany is very much the leader on the continent for countries deciding how to approach regulation, and any big change it makes could be the thin end of the wedge.
Kent Walker, who leads policy at Google, wants to “fix” (kill) the European Union’s dreaded Article 13, which would require it to filter any video uploads for copyright violations before making them viewable on YouTube. But Walker also draws attention to Article 11, which would prevent Google from showing snippets of articles, including their full headlines — and likely harm publishers as a result, he says. (Can someone explain to mewhy the EU wants to ban Google from showing full headlines?)
Every year, we run thousands of experiments in Search. We recently ran one in the EU to understand the impact of the proposed Article 11 if we could show only URLs, very short fragments of headlines, and no preview images. All versions of the experiment resulted in substantial traffic loss to news publishers.
Even a moderate version of the experiment (where we showed the publication title, URL, and video thumbnails) led to a 45 percent reduction in traffic to news publishers. Our experiment demonstrated that many users turned instead to non-news sites, social media platforms, and online video sites—another unintended consequence of legislation that aims to support high-quality journalism. Searches on Google even increased as users sought alternate ways to find information.
And finally ...
The Onion has the day’s most relatable content, which happens to consist entirely of this headline and the accompanying photo.
I’m having margaritas myself tonight, incidentally. Consider having one yourself!
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and your favorite Bezos-related tweets: firstname.lastname@example.org.