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Democratic presidential candidates agree: Big Tech is too powerful

Democratic presidential candidates agree: Big Tech is too powerful


Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg are the latest to call for action against companies like Facebook

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

On Monday I noted here a growing consensus among Democratic presidential candidates that Big Tech in general, and Facebook specifically, should perhaps be broken up. Sen. Kamala Harris said “we have to seriously take a look” at breaking up Facebook. Joe Biden said a breakup of Big Tech is “something we should take a really hard look at.” And you’re likely familiar with the plan of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who led the pack in this regard.

Today, three more developments on that front.

One, Sen. Bernie Sanders has now signed on to Warren’s plan. Makena Kelly reports in The Verge:

On Capitol Hill yesterday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a Democratic frontrunner, told Politico that he supports his colleague and presidential competitor Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) calls to break up Facebook. When asked about her proposal for antitrust action against the social media company, Sanders said, “The answer is yes of course.”

“We have a monopolistic — an increasingly monopolistic society where you have a handful of very large corporations having much too much power over consumers,” Sanders continued.

The story notes that Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), who has also declared her candidacy, has endorsed Warren as well.

Two, Pete Buttigieg — Facebook’s 287th user, no big deal — agrees that the company has too much power. He spoke positively about the op-ed published last week by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes arguing for a breakup, Casey Tolan reports in the San Jose Mercury News:

Buttigieg said Hughes, his former Harvard classmate, “made a very convincing case” that no company “should have the type of power that… these tech companies have.”

But unlike Sen. Elizabeth Warren, he hasn’t endorsed breaking up the tech giants, instead suggesting “a spectrum” of regulation that could include fines, blocking new mergers or splitting up companies. That’s attracted criticism from some on the left who want the candidates to take a strong stance on issues of corporate power.

It’s notable how early in the Democratic primary we are getting a referendum over Big Tech. Candidates’ answers so far have found along a spectrum. On one side you have Warren, Sanders, and Gabbard, who want to see a wholesale breakup of Facebook. In the middle you have Biden, Harris, Buttigieg, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who have expressed some support for a breakup but stopped short of endorsing a breakup. And over by his lonesome you have Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who told ABC News: “I don’t think that a president should be running around, pointing at companies and saying breaking them up without any kind of process here.”

Still, in the same interview, Booker spoke of the ills of “corporate consolidation,” and pledged to investigate. What no Democratic candidate has said, at least that I’m aware of, is that tech companies have an appropriate level of power, are adequately regulated, and remain at their current size. The consensus has formed early in the primary, and it is firmly against tech monopolies — Facebook in particular.

So who is making the case for Facebook? That person is our third item of the day: Nicola Mendelsohn, who is Facebook’s vice president for the EMEA region. She made her case in a Bloomberg Television interview Thursday:

”I don’t know why a company should be broken up because it’s popular,” Nicola Mendelsohn, vice president for the EMEA region, said in a Bloomberg Television interview Thursday. “If you look we’ve made huge investments in the area of safety, in the area of privacy and election interference.”

This was from a relatively short interview, and Mendelsohn got only a couple of questions about regulation. She went on to say that some of regulators’ concerns appeared to be more about the nature of the internet generally than Facebook specifically.

Still, I’m not sure this will be a winning argument for Facebook in the long run. At least in America, politicians aren’t talking about breaking up Facebook because it’s “popular.” Rather, they’re talking about a breakup because for the past several years, the platform has seemed to generate new society-level problems faster than it can clean them up.

In such a world, it’s not enough to say that the company is “making progress,” as it so often does. Facebook has to make an affirmative case that it’s good for the world — that we benefit more from Facebook’s existence than Facebook does. Otherwise, by the time the Democratic presidential debates roll around, I expect we’ll see fewer candidates expressing Booker’s view, and more who are echoing Warren.


Facebook shuts down an Israeli firm’s effort to influence politics in West Africa

Facebook found an Israeli company that was apparently being paid to influence elections in West Africa:

This is the first time Facebook says it’s detected such activity from the country, and Facebook even names an Israeli commercial entity, Archimedes Group, that it says was behind the behavior. The goal ostensibly was to have some type of effect on local elections and the political atmosphere, although Facebook says it can’t divine the exact intentions of the group and there is no indication that it was in any way linked to the Israeli government. Although it was centered on West African countries like Nigeria, Senegal, Togo, and Niger, Facebook also detected activity aimed at users in Angola, Tunisia, and parts of Southeast Asia and South America.

Border Livestreamers Feud Over Prime Spots to Catch Migrant Crossings

Here’s a depressing example of platform incentives leading to bad behavior, from Will Sommer:

With donations and social media clout at stake over who can capture the most dramatic encounters with immigrants, turf wars have broken out between some self-styled citizen-journalist groups over what qualifies as their livestreaming “territory.”

After all, finding the best place to livestream immigrant crossings on Facebook is the key to internet stardom.

“It’s all about who can be more popular on social media,” Rebecca Ferland, the founder of AZ Desert Guardians, said.

Thousands of Facebook Groups Go Secret in Fear of the Great ‘Zuccing’

Facebook groups are under siege by something called the Indonesian Reporting Commission, forcing them to close themselves to new membership. Late in the day, Facebook said it was working to restore groups that had been deleted as a result of the campaign. Jason Koebler and Caroline Haskins report:

Administrators of several large Facebook meme groups told Motherboard that a group called “Indonesian Reporting Commission” had been mass-joining and reporting posts in the group Crossovers Nobody Asked For, prompting the group to get suspended for a few hours. The admins said that they took their groups “secret” out of an abundance of caution.

Motherboard was able to confirm that Crossovers Nobody Asked For was temporarily suspended, but could not determine the specifics of why. A revived version of the group is now filled with memes that target Indonesian people and memes about Mark Zuckerberg. […]

The White House is painting an ugly picture of tech bias against conservatives

Makena Kelly ponders what the president will do with his Typeform of social media “bias” stories:

In the next congressional hearing, Republicans could point to White House data indicating that the vast majority of moderation incidents target conservatives, all based on the White House form. With no hard data to say otherwise, it could turn into a powerful talking point.

Of course, platforms do have the data — they’re just not sharing it. At that same hearing, Twitter’s director of public policy and philanthropy Carlos Monje Jr. said the company had conducted its own political bias study that suggested there was no political bias on the platform. “Our quality filtering and ranking algorithms do not result in Tweets by Democrats or Tweets by Republicans being viewed any differently,” Monje said in his opening remarks. “Their performance is the same because the Twitter platform itself does not take sides.”

In India election, a $14 software tool helps overcome WhatsApp controls

Munsif Vengattil, Aditya Kalra, and Sankalp Phartiyal explore how Indian political parties are exploiting WhatsApp despite its elimination of certain viral forwarding features:

Rohitash Repswal, who owns a digital marketing business in a cramped, residential neighbourhood of New Delhi, said he ran a 1,000 rupee ($14) piece of software round-the-clock in recent months to send up to 100,000 WhatsApp messages a day for two BJP members.

“Whatever WhatsApp does, there’s a workaround,” Repswal said during an interview at his small, two-bedroom house..

‘Get Scavino in here’: Trump’s Twitter guru is the ultimate insider

Andrew Restuccia, Daniel Lippman and Eliana Johnson profile the man who tweets for Trump when Trump isn’t tweeting himself:

With few allies left in the West Wing, Trump frequently leans on his unassuming social media guru for affirmation and advice about how his most sensitive policies will be received, according to interviews with more than two dozen current and former White House officials, and others close to the president.

Scavino met Trump as a 16-year-old golf caddie and has spent much of his adult life by his side. Today, he sits just feet from the Oval Office and is present at most meetings, tapping away on his laptop in the background. He has joined Trump on trips to Saudi Arabia, Argentina and other far-flung destinations.

Twitter has finally gone after anti-vaccine misinformation. But the results are inconsistent.

Twitter? Inconsistent? Daniel Funke reports:

In Indonesia, the message only appeared on the Twitter app — not the browser version of the website. In Canada, users saw a pinned tweet from a credible institution at the top of their feeds instead of a custom message.

In Mexico, an advisory didn’t appear on the desktop or mobile versions of Twitter for some phrases but did for others. In Argentina and Japan, a message didn’t appear at all.

The next Maria Butina? 2020 campaigns to be briefed on counterintelligence threat

Here’s a spot of modestly good news: the FBI is offering “defensive briefings” to 2020 presidential campaigns, report Donie O’Sullivan, Evan Perez and Kevin Collier:

Additionally, the Democratic National Committee has also scheduled a separate briefing, developed with the help of a former intelligence officer, for this week with Democratic presidential campaigns to provide basic counterintelligence training, a DNC spokesperson tells CNN.


Facebook has struggled to hire talent since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, according to recruiters who worked there

During Cambridge Analytica, I wrote in this space that the real risk to Facebook wasn’t that billions of people would delete Facebook, but that hiring and retention would get harder. And it has — fairly dramatically, Sal Rodriguez reports:

Among top schools, such as Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and Ivy League universities, Facebook’s acceptance rate for full-time positions offered to new graduates has fallen from an average of 85% for the 2017-2018 school year to between 35% and 55% as of December, according to former Facebook recruiters. The biggest decline came from Carnegie Mellon University, where the acceptance rate for new recruits dropped to 35%. […]

The company has seen a decline in acceptance rates among software engineer candidates for its product teams. Those teams have seen their acceptance rates fell from nearly 90% in late 2016 to almost 50% in early 2019, according to one recruiter who left recently.

Facebook is overrun with fake accounts impersonating tech execs like Tim Cook, Elon Musk, and Sundar Pichai

Facebook catches millions of fake accounts every quarter now, but some obvious fakes are still alive and well, Rob Price reports:

There are dozens of personal profiles on the platform purporting to be tech luminaries ranging from YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki to Evan Spiegel, head of Snapchat’s parent company Snap — often misleading ordinary, actual Facebook users who have crowded onto their profiles to ask questions, complain, and otherwise try to interact with them.

Instagram is killing Direct, its standalone Snapchat clone app, in the next several weeks

I covered Direct when Instagram began testing it, and was surprised it never made into global release. The reason for its death is disappointingly straightforward: people didn’t like having to do their messaging in a separate app.

Facebook Is Producing A New Generation Of Alumni Investors. This Time, Women Are In Charge

Alex Konrad profiles a new venture capital firm run by former Facebook executives:

Rosenthal was impressed by work groups like All Raise were doing to promote more female tech entrepreneurs and investors. But she felt that “nonobvious” founders were still left out. “A lot of traditional firms have made some incremental changes, which I applaud,” she says. “I wanted to do something differently and more forcefully.”

The result is Leadout Capital, a new $27 million fund that focuses on investing in pre-seed and seed-stage startups whose founders come from, or cater to, underserved communities. With Rosenthal, age 42, as managing partner, and a group of early ex-Facebook employees as investors, Leadout Capital has already made five investments and counts Melinda Gates and TPG Capital co-CEO Jon Winkelried as investors. Megan Smith, a former Google executive and chief technology officer of the United States, is a key advisor.

Pinterest shares plunge 15% after reporting larger than expected loss

Pinterest’s first earnings report didn’t go great, Lauren Feiner reports:

Pinterest plunged as much as 19% after releasing its first quarterly earnings report as a public company after markets close on Thursday. Shares rebounded slightly, settling to a drop of about 15% after hours, which is set to shave about $2.5 billion from Pinterest’s market cap, bringing it around $14 billion.

How Tea Channels Incentivize YouTube Feuds

I must confess that yesterday I went down a James Charles/Tati Westbrook rabbit hole for multiple hours — so rich was the drama, which originated over a gummy vitamin sponsorship, that I simply could not pull myself away. Now Taylor Lorenz reports on how the influencer friendship breakup has drawn attention to the YouTube “tea channels” which cover this and other dramas in obsessive detail:

Tea accounts, so called because the word tea is slang for juicy information, are like online gossip magazines on steroids. They are networks of Instagram pages, YouTube channels, Twitter handles, and Facebook groups, many of them run by young fans and observers, though some tea-account admins are in their 30s or even 40s. They have names such as ShookSpillWhat’s the Tea?, and Tea by Ali and serve as real-time news sources for millions. “My channel is Investigations all through the week. Some more serious, some more fun,” the bio of one tea account reads. Many tea accounts are monetized, and Social Blade, a social-analytics platform, estimates that Tea Spill alone is earning up to $65,000 a month. Running a successful channel is also a fast track to clout in the influencer world. Successful tea channels can amass tens of thousands of followers overnight.

Young people are desperate for news about influencers, a category of people the mainstream press often ignores or patronizes. They also want that news delivered 24/7 through social-media channels. Several years ago, accounts such as the Shade Room (an Instagram-based celebrity-gossip destination) and DramaAlert (known unofficially as “the TMZ of YouTube”), and YouTube commentators such as Shane Dawson and Philip DeFranco stepped in to meet the demand. Their meteoric growth, coupled with the rise of stan accounts(social-media pages, mostly run by teenagers, that tirelessly document every minuscule update on an influencer or celebrity), gave birth to the current tea-industrial complex.

Apple, Google scrap for scarce AI expertise with more than 50 acquisitions since 2010

Artificial intelligence is more than just a two-word phrase that platform executives repeat ad nauseum in every social setting, on stage appearance, and Congressional hearing. It’s also their main M&A activity these days, reports Kaveh Waddell:

Big Tech has snapped up more than 50 AI companies since 2010, carving out another front in the nonstop war among the giants for AI talent, data and ideas.

The big picture: The clamor reflects a scarcity of AI expertise, as we’ve reported in the past. But it also allows Big Tech companies to reinforce their advantage over the upstarts, each time making it harder for a new entrant to strike gold.

Vita Coco threatened to send a coconut water hater a bottle of pee. Why?

I’m sorry, what? Go off, Rebecca Jennings:

Some on Twitter surmised that it absolutely could not be pee. For one, the color was off. Maybe it was actually Vita Coco’s pineapple coconut water? Or perhaps lemonade? Also, there was simply too much of it to really be pee. “No way that much pee is from one piss,” determined BuzzFeed’s Katie Notopoulos.

To find out, I messaged Vita Coco, whose brand director Allison Finazzo responded. We spoke on the phone, and she told me that yes, it is pee, but also, it is a marketing stunt.


Using Surveys to Make News Feed More Personal

Facebook tweaked the News Feed algorithm to promote stuff you’re more likely to want to see:

We’ve historically predicted who people might want to hear from based on signals like how often they interact with a given friend, how many mutual friends they have and whether they mark someone as a close friend.

Now, in addition to understanding these signals, we’ve begun surveying people on Facebook to ask them to list the friends they are closest to. We look at the patterns that emerge from the results, some of which include being tagged in the same photos, continuously reacting and commenting on the same posts and checking-in at the same places — and then use these patterns to inform our algorithm. This direct feedback helps us better predict which friends people may want to hear from most.

Instagram adds Stories to Explore tab. Here’s how to get on it

Has any widely used product ever been redesigned more than Instagram stories? Josh Constine reports on the latest changes:

Instagram’s  pivot to Stories continues with an overhaul of Explore designed to let users dig deeper into their niche interests. Stories are now eligible to show up in the Explore tab for the first time, giving creators a way to get discovered through their intimate, silly, behind-the-scenes content instead of just their manicured feed posts. Since Stories themselves don’t get Likes, Instagram will personalize which Stories you see on Explore by showing accounts similar to ones you do Like and Follow. […]

Additionally, Instagram Explore is getting a redesigned navigation bar up to with shortcuts to Shopping and IGTV first, followed by channels for topics like Travel, Food, and Design. In a nod to how central Instagram sees Shopping and IGTV to its future, those categories will also get big square portals inset within the Explore grid. 

Google is launching YouTube on the Oculus Quest

Adi Robertson:

Google will bring YouTube to Facebook’s Oculus Quest virtual reality headset when it ships on May 21st. Like existing versions on the Oculus Go, Samsung Gear VR, and other headsets, YouTube VR will offer access to both 360-degree and traditional 2D videos. Google has generally rolled out YouTube VR a few months (or years) after a given headset launches, with the exception of Google’s own Daydream devices. But this time, YouTube is part of the Quest’s starting lineup. It’s joining two other apps: the painting tool Tilt Brush and the game Job Simulator.


San Francisco Is Right: Facial Recognition Must Be Put On Hold

Farhad Manjoo is relieved that San Francisco has banned the use of facial recognition technology by police.

Advances in computer vision are giving machines the ability to distinguish and track faces, to make guesses about people’s behaviors and intentions, and to comprehend and navigate threats in the physical environment. In China, smart cameras sit at the foundation of an all-encompassing surveillance totalitarianism unprecedented in human history. In the West, intelligent cameras are now being sold as cheap solutions to nearly every private and public woe, from catching cheating spouses and package thieves to preventing school shootings and immigration violations. I suspect these and more uses will take off, because in my years of covering tech, I’ve gleaned one ironclad axiom about society: If you put a camera in it, it will sell.

That’s why I worry that we’re stumbling dumbly into a surveillance state. And it’s why I think the only reasonable thing to do about smart cameras now is to put a stop to them.

And finally ...

Obituaries for the Recently Canceled

As someone who lives on a perpetual knife’s edge of social-media cancellation, I howled with delight at Sarah Lazarus’ parody obituaries:

Following a long battle in defense of a controversial Facebook post, Meredith Van Dorn, 20, finally succumbed to cancellation at her home on Thursday night. Ms. Van Dorn was surrounded by friends and loved ones who, upon her cancellation, insisted they always had kind of a weird feeling about her, actually. Ms. Van Dorn’s parents, Peter and Linda, would like their daughter to be remembered for her sweet smile and love of dancing, rather than her provocative feelings about Japanese toilets.

May her memory be a blessing.

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