On Sunday, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel sent employees an unusually personal note reflecting on the events of the past several weeks. Many brands took the occasion of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police, and the global protests that have followed, to signal their solidarity with the black community and their allies. But few CEOs took the step, as Spiegel did, of reflecting on his own privilege — and then calling for reparations for black folks. (He threw in a cogent analysis of the federal budget, too.)
Spiegel’s memo, which Snap later made public, also came as the big social companies were reckoning over what to do about President Donald Trump’s increasingly bellicose posts about voting by mail and peaceful protesters. Twitter moved to add labels to one set of tweets and hid others behind a warning for “glorifying violence”; Facebook agonized but ultimately decided to take no action, triggering a virtual walkout of hundreds of employees earlier this week.
On Wednesday, Snap entered that fray, announcing that it would stop promoting Trump’s account in its Discover section. I wrote about it at The Verge:
President Trump’s verified Snapchat account will no longer be promoted within the app after executives concluded that his tweets over the weekend promoted violence, the company said today. His account, RealDonaldTrump, will remain on the platform and continue to appear on search results. But he will no longer appear in the app’s Discover tab, which promotes news publishers, elected officials, celebrities, and influencers.
“We are not currently promoting the president’s content on Snapchat’s Discover platform,” the company said in a statement. “We will not amplify voices who incite racial violence and injustice by giving them free promotion on Discover. Racial violence and injustice have no place in our society and we stand together with all who seek peace, love, equality, and justice in America.”
The company told me it made the decision over the weekend after being taken aback by several of Trump tweets, notably one promising that protesters would be “greeted with the most vicious dogs and ominous weapons, I have ever seen.”
Spiegel didn’t comment on the decision, but his PR team pointed to this passage from his Sunday memo:
“As for Snapchat, we simply cannot promote accounts in America that are linked to people who incite racial violence, whether they do so on or off our platform. Our Discover content platform is a curated platform, where we decide what we promote. We have spoken time and again about working hard to make a positive impact, and we will walk the talk with the content we promote on Snapchat.”
One of the core issues this newsletter has explored over the past couple years is the difference between, in the technologist Aza Raskin’s memorable phrase, freedom of speech and freedom of reach. Questions about controversial posts often come down to a binary decision: take it down, or leave it up? In that system, everything really is a question of free speech. You either have access to the platform or you don’t.
Freedom of reach poses a different set of questions for platform policy teams and executives to think through. It asks in what ways a product can be exploited, wittingly or unwittingly, to recruit new followers for a person or an ideology — and whether the company feels comfortable with granting an account those privileges.
What Facebook group you’re encouraged to join is a freedom-of-reach question. Which YouTube video gets recommended is a freedom-of-reach question. Which Twitter account you’re told to follow is a freedom-of-reach question. And who shows up in Snapchat Discover as a suggested follow is most definitely a freedom-of-reach question.
To be clear, Trump has long benefited from the fact that platforms have generally decided freedom-of-reach questions in his favor. Sometimes this has been a manual decision, as when Twitter kept Trump on its suggested user list despite his promotion of the racist Obama birther conspiracy theory. And sometimes it’s algorithmic, as when Facebook sorts a Trump post about vicious dogs into your feed because it predicts that you are likely to engage with it.
Snap’s decision to remove Trump from promotion comes just as the account was beginning to blow up. Bloomberg reported last month that Trump’s Snapchat following had tripled in eight months, to more than 1.5 million. That’s not much compared to Trump’s 81 million Twitter followers, or his 29 million Facebook followers. But the Trump campaign loves the platform for the way it lets them reach Generation Z. Here’s Sarah Frier in Bloomberg:
Snapchat befuddles older generations, so it’s not as effective for amassing political donations. The biggest benefit, according to the Trump campaign, is the chance to reach the app’s general audience. On Twitter and Facebook, the campaign depends on users sharing political messages to reach more people. On Snapchat, if they post popular content frequently enough, it will appear on the Discover page where many of the app’s 229 million daily users go to watch videos and other content.
Snap isn’t deleting Trump’s account, and he is free to keep posting to existing followers. But to the extent that his Snapchat account grows in the future, it will be without Snap’s help. In Raskin’s terms, the company has preserved Trump’s speech while making him responsible for finding his own reach.
Freedom of reach is arguably the question this year for platforms reckoning with their potential culpability in the erosion of democratic norms and the promotion of state violence. It’s what separates them from normal publishers, to which they are constantly comparing themselves. In the aftermath of the Trump-Twitter story last week, I heard from a lot of tech workers asking why, if the president’s tweets were so bad, newspapers and cable news outlets were still hosting and discussing them.
Certainly there are good questions about what the news media chooses to amplify. What the president does will almost always be news, even when it’s ugly, and Trump has exploited that fact to great advantage. At the same time, good publishers surround the president’s words with additional context, history, and rebuttals. Social platforms, for better and for worse, offer only the president’s words. Whether a user sees any of the relevant context or fact-checking is too often a matter of algorithmic chance.
I can’t see a good reason, in most cases, for a big social network to deny the president his right to speak. (Given the likelihood of him simply going to post elsewhere, and bots immediately re-posting his thoughts to the networks where he has been banned under different account names, I doubt you even could.) But I can see a reason for product teams to decline to help him build his megaphone. The Trump administration has argued in court that doctors should be able to deny patients life-saving medical care if it violates their conscience. If Trump’s tweets shock the conscience of a tech employee, why shouldn’t they be able to refuse to help him get more followers?
The president’s answer to that question is that to deny him a promote spot in Snapchat Discover is, um, illegal election tampering (?). Here’s campaign manager Brad Parscale:
Snapchat is trying to rig the 2020 election, illegally using their corporate funding to promote Joe Biden and suppress President Trump. Radical Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel would rather promote extreme left riot videos and encourage their users to destroy America than share the positive words of unity, justice, and law and order from our President.
I don’t know when Republicans decided that using corporate funding to intervene in politics was illegal; we’ll see if that makes it into their 2020 platform. In the meantime, Snap has neatly sidestepped questions of censorship by not censoring the president at all. Instead the company has said that if you want to see the president’s snaps, you’ll have to go look for them on your own time.
On Snapchat, as everywhere else, Trump still has the right to speak. Today we were reminded that Evan Spiegel does, too.
We accidentally switched the cases for California with the number of tests the state has done in the Virus Tracker section yesterday. This led some of you to believe there were upwards of 2 million COVID cases in the state. In reality, there are a mere 116,394. Sorry for the mistake!
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
⬆️Trending up: Instacart will expand its COVID-19 sick pay to include more gig workers. The move comes as part of an agreement with the attorney general for Washington, DC. (Russell Brandom / The Verge)
🔃 Trending sideways: Tech companies like Amazon and Google have been voicing support for the George Floyd protests online. The publicly posted sentiments have drawn renewed scrutiny to the companies’ close ties to law enforcement. (Sidney Fussell / Wired)
⬇️Trending down: Amazon warehouse workers are suing the company for allegedly putting them at risk of contracting COVID-19. They say working conditions in the warehouses put them and their families in danger. (Josh Eidelson and Spencer Soper / Bloomberg)
Total cases in the US: More than 1,857,600
Total deaths in the US: At least 107,000
Reported cases in California: 118,905
Total test results (positive and negative) in California: 2,131,294
Reported cases in New York: 378,924
Total test results (positive and negative) in New York: 2,229,473
Reported cases in New Jersey: 162,068
Total test results (positive and negative) in New Jersey: 837,420
Reported cases in Illinois: 124,060
Total test results (positive and negative) in Illinois: 959,175
⭐ The Drug Enforcement Administration has been granted extraordinary new power to “conduct covert surveillance” and collect intelligence on people participating in protests over the police killing of George Floyd. Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier at BuzzFeed have the story:
The DEA is limited by statute to enforcing drug-related federal crimes. But on Sunday, Timothy Shea, a former US attorney and close confidant of Barr’s who was named acting administrator of the DEA last month, received approval from Associate Deputy Attorney General Bradley Weinsheimer to go beyond the agency’s mandate “to perform other law enforcement duties” that Barr may “deem appropriate.”
Citing the protests, Shea laid out an argument for why the agency should be granted extraordinary latitude.
“In order for DEA to assist to the maximum extent possible in the federal law enforcement response to protests which devolve into violations of federal law, DEA requests that it be designated to enforce any federal crime committed as a result of protests over the death of George Floyd,” Shea wrote in the memo. “DEA requests this authority on a nationwide basis for a period of fourteen days.”
Former Facebook employees published an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, calling his decision to leave President Trump’s aggressive posts on the site unaltered a “betrayal” of company ideals. The letter builds on a wave of employee activism at the tech giant, where employees have staged virtual walkouts and even resigned in protest of the decision. I say this a lot but worth repeating: no company in the history of the American tech industry has ever had more former employees speak out against it after leaving. (Mike Isaac / The New York Times)
Here’s the entire transcript of Mark Zuckerberg’s meeting with Facebook employees where he addressed the decision. The whole thing is fascinating to read. (Shirin Ghaffary / Recode)
A new ad campaign from the nonprofit Accountable Tech is using Mark Zuckerberg’s own words to encourage Facebook employees to push their company to do a better job of keeping harmful content off its platforms. (Ina Fried / Axios)
Google CEO Sundar Pichai encouraged employees to take a moment of silence on Wednesday to honor George Floyd. “I realize that nothing about this week feels like business as usual — and it shouldn’t,” he said. (Jennifer Elias / CNBC)
Zoom CEO Eric Yuan said he won’t give free users access to the new end-to-end encryption feature because he wants the company to comply with law enforcement. “...We also want to work it together with FBI and local law enforcement, in case some people use Zoom for bad purposes,” he said. Read Alex Stamos’ thread about the trade-offs involved here, which may not be obvious to you. (Ivan Mehta / The Next Web)
Fake rumors that Antifa is organizing bus rides to take protesters into white neighborhoods and loot homes have gone viral on Facebook and Nextdoor. Donald Trump Jr. helped promote the misinformation by posting about it on Instagram. (Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins / NBC)
The White House spread an unproven conspiracy theory on social media blaming Antifa for placing pallets of bricks at protests to incite violence. There’s no evidence for this theory. (Rob Price and Sonam Sheth / Business Insider)
Facebook took down white nationalist accounts falsely claiming allegiance to Antifa in order to discredit the anti-fascist movement. The company also suspended accounts associated with white nationalist groups after some advocated bringing weapons to the current wave of anti-racist protests. (Joseph Menn / Reuters)
Some of the protest footage shared on Facebook Live was actually repurposed imagery from years before. A Facebook page operated out of Pakistan shared one of the more popular videos, which got 1.6 million views. (Jeff Horwitz / The Wall Street Journal)
Conspiracy theorists are attacking telecom engineers in the UK over baseless fears that 5G causes the novel coronavirus. Since March 30th, there have been more than 200 incidents of abuse against telecoms engineers and more than 90 arson attacks against mobile infrastructure. (James Vincent / The Verge)
In Brazil, those who criticize the president are often met with a tsunami of digital smears. Now investigators are charging that much of the disinformation might come from those closest to the president — even his own children. (Terrence McCoy / The Washington Post)
A potential class-action lawsuit claims Google violated federal wiretap laws by collecting information about users browsing in private mode. Google has faced other lawsuits over its data collection, but this one tries to use the Federal Wiretap Act. (Daisuke Wakabayashi / The New York Times)
⭐Facebook and PayPal invested in Gojek, a Southeast Asian ride-hailing startup that also offers food delivery and mobile payments. Google and Tencent are among the startup’s other investors. Here’s Manish Singh at TechCrunch:
For Facebook, which in April invested in India’s top telecom operator Reliance Jio Platforms, backing Gojek unlocks a similar opportunity: helping millions of small businesses — while finding a business model for WhatsApp, an advertisement-free instant messaging service it owns that is used by more than 2 billion users.
Matt Idema, chief operating officer at WhatsApp, said the company will work with “indispensable” Gojek to “bring millions of small businesses and the customers they serve into the largest digital economy in Southeast Asia.”
Facebook is launching a new feature to let users delete old posts in bulk. The company says it will offer filtering options to help find posts with specific people in them or in a certain time range. I want Twitter to clone this immediately! (Jon Porter / The Verge)
Twitter appointed former Google chief financial officer Patrick Pichette as the company’s new chairman of the board. Pichette takes over the role after joining Twitter’s board of directors in 2017. (Salvador Rodriguez / CNBC)
People have flocked in record numbers to police scanner apps, in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. They’ve also rushed to download Signal, a secure messaging app, and Citizen, a community safety app that sends out alerts about police activity. (Rani Molla / Recode)
There’s been a well of cancellation attempts on social media during quarantine. Most use the #isoverparty hashtag. Here’s how that happened (Palmer Haasch / Insider)
An investor group that got US approval to buy Grindr has financial and personal links to the dating app’s current owner, Kunlun. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States ordered Kunlun to divest Grindr in May 2019. This one just keeps getting weirder; Reuters’ reporting on the case has been fantastic. (Echo Wang, Alexandra Alper and Chibuike Oguh / Reuters)
Things to do
Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.
Visit #8CantWait. It lists eight commonsense strategies for decreasing police violence, and lets you check to see how many have been implemented in your city — and then share that information directly to Instagram. (In San Francisco we’ve adopted all eight, incidentally. Nice to see.)