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A conservative YouTube sting pays off

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My esteemed colleague Russell Brandom leads our policy team. He was struck by the disingenuous respon
 
June 26 · Issue #348 · View online
The Interface
My esteemed colleague Russell Brandom leads our policy team. He was struck by the disingenuous response from conservative lawmakers to the most recent video sting from Project Veritas, which presented YouTube employees in an unfair light. Russell asked if he could take over the column today, and I was happy to oblige. I’ll be back tomorrow with thoughts on Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance at the Aspen Ideas festival.
James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas has been on a tear against Google lately, with the most recent salvo coming this Monday. Like most of O’Keefe’s work, it’s deceptively edited and doesn’t add up to much, but he managed to catch one executive in a pretty poor choice of words. In a hidden camera conversation with Jen Gennai, Google’s Head of Responsible Innovation, the executive is caught saying the following:
Elizabeth Warren is saying we should break up Google. And like, I love her but she’s very misguided, like that will not make it better it will make it worse, because all these smaller companies who don’t have the same resources that we do will be charged with preventing the next Trump situation, it’s like a small company cannot do that.
If you substitute “Cambridge Analytica” for “Trump Situation,” it’s more or less the argument Facebook and Google have been using to fend off antitrust proposals all year. But if you’re inclined to think the whole media is biased against the president, it was exactly what you’d been waiting to hear. When the video was pulled off YouTube for “privacy violations” the next day, it only fueled the paranoia.
The whole situation would probably have stayed quiet if it weren’t for Ted Cruz, who called out the video in an uncomfortable moment at the Senate Commerce hearing the following day. Cruz was questioning Google UX Director Maggie Stanphill, who was nominally there to speak about dark patterns in interface design. Cruz took her to task for the quote in the video, and then again when he realized she hadn’t actually read the report.
“I would recommend people interested in political bias at Google watch the entire report and judge for yourself,” Cruz said. The clip was then circulated on the usual right wing outlets (Town Hall, Breitbart, PJ Media), and got a minor replay from the Homeland Security Committee the next day. After that last hearing, the scandal grew big enough that YouTube decided to issue an official denial, saying simply “we apply our policies fairly and without political bias.”
It’s embarrassing that Congress took this so seriously, and no one wants to give it any more attention than it deserves. But O’Keefe has played this trick over and over, so it’s worth breaking down exactly what’s happening here. 
To start with, there’s a fairly straightforward reason why the Veritas video was banned. YouTube’s privacy guidelines ban videos that identify people who don’t want to be identified. There are exceptions for newsworthiness and public figures, but the Veritas video is clearly on the wrong side of the rule. The offending footage is the hidden-camera video of Gennai, who is no one’s idea of a public figure, and obviously didn’t consent to be in the video.
Even if you see Veritas as making a newsworthy point about platform bias, it’s hard to argue that including Gennai’s name and face was necessary to make that point. (Hidden camera footage used on broadcast news typically blurs out faces for exactly this reason.) Given the general temperament of Veritas subscribers, one can only imagine the kind of abuse that’s been pointed at Gennai in the days since the video went live.
This sort of takedown happens often enough that we can assume most YouTubers are aware of them, to say nothing of reporters covering YouTube moderation issues. It’s hard to believe O’Keefe was walking into this blind — just like it’s hard to believe he wasn’t aware that YouTube was scheduled for a run of congressional hearings in the days after the video posted. He was daring YouTube to ban him, knowing that it would elevate a mediocre scoop into two days of congressional berating.
The point wasn’t to force YouTube into better policies or more consistent enforcement. It was simply brute force, letting executives know that every time someone in the conservative clique has trouble with YouTube, there will be a lawmaker ready to sweat them over it. Each time it happens, Google gets a little more gun-shy dealing with high-profile policy violations, whether it’s Alex Jones or Steven Crowder. And as long as the trick keeps working, O’Keefe and Cruz will keep doing it.

Pushback
Some readers thought my column about the development of a Chinese-style social credit system in the United States was a tad too alarmist. After all, there’s no evidence the government is collaborating with any of the companies I mentioned, or even a suggestion it wants to. My goal was to float the possibility to encourage discussion before such a thing comes to pass — but I apologize to anyone who found my subject line too sensational.
In the meantime, ProPublica published an article Tuesday about another technology that moves us in the direction of social credit inside schools. Jack Gillum and Jeff Kao report:
The students were helping ProPublica test an aggression detector that’s used in hundreds of schools, health care facilities, banks, stores and prisons worldwide, including more than 100 in the U.S. Sound Intelligence, the Dutch company that makes the software for the device, plans to open an office this year in Chicago, where its chief executive will be based.
California-based Louroe Electronics, which has loaded the software on its microphones since 2015, advertises the devices in school safety magazines and at law enforcement conventions, and it said it has between 100 and 1,000 customers for them. Louroe’s marketing materials say the detection software enables security officers to “engage antagonistic individuals immediately, resolving the conflict before it turns into physical violence.”
I suppose this is more of a surveillance system than a “social credit” system, per se. But the lines are blurry, the technology is rapidly developing, and it seems like a good time to keep connecting the dots.
Democracy
Trump signals U.S. government ‘should be suing Google and Facebook’
Reddit Quarantines Pro-Trump Subreddit r/The_Donald Over Anti-Police Threats
Trump is making sure more YouTubers see him than see the Democratic debate
Democrats have focused their Facebook ads on making it to the debate stage
Social media companies readying to combat disinformation in Democratic debates
How 24,000 Tweets Tell You What the Democratic Presidential Candidates Care About
LGBTQ Google employees ask SF Pride to remove the company from celebrations
Elsewhere
Regulators Have Doubts About Facebook Cryptocurrency. So Do Its Partners.
Facebook’s cryptocurrency Libra, explained
Consortium of Tech Firms Sets AI Benchmarks
Facebook will now allow (some) CBD ads
Something Awful’s founder thinks YouTube sucks at moderation
Chasing fame and fun 15 seconds at a time: Why TikTok has India hooked
Launches
YouTube introducing changes to give people more control over recommended videos
WhatsApp tests feature that shares your status to Facebook and other apps
Instagram will start putting ads within the Explore page
Takes
Instagram Verified Accounts: The System Is Broken
Where Is Larry Page? Alphabet Deserves Better
And finally ...
Led Zeppelin ‘Houses of the Holy’: Facebook Reverses Ban on Album Cover With Images of Naked Children
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