What I really want to talk about today is Steven Levy’s massive Facebook: The Inside Story, which I finished reading over the weekend. But we’ll do that tomorrow, when the book comes out — and I’m excited to share that Steven has agreed to answer a few questions for us right here in this space.
“The Bloomberg campaign is destroying norms that we will never get back,” said Emerson Brooking, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which studies disinformation. The campaign, he said, has “revealed the vulnerabilities that still exist in our social media platforms even after major reforms.”
What are open questions? Let’s take a look at the past week of Bloomberg’s social media push.
First, what’s the difference between marketing and spam? Bloomberg is paying people $2,500 a month to post positive items about him on social networks. Facebook responded with a series of contortions
that allow the posts so long as they are labeled as ads, but won’t include them in the company’s public ad library. But on Friday, Twitter took a more skeptical view of the practice. Here are Suhauna Hussain and Jeff Bercovici in the Los Angeles Times
On Friday, Twitter began suspending 70 accounts posting pro-Bloomberg content in a pattern that violates company rules.
“We have taken enforcement action on a group of accounts for violating our rules against platform manipulation and spam,” a Twitter spokesman said. Some of the suspensions will be permanent, while in other cases account owners will have to verify they have control of their accounts.
The Bloomberg campaign said it was not trying to mislead anyone.
On Thursday, Bloomberg’s 2020 presidential campaign posted a video to Twitter that was edited to make it appear as though there was a long, embarrassing silence from Bloomberg’s Democratic opponents after he mentioned that he was the only candidate to have ever started a business during Wednesday night’s debate. Candidates like Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg are shown searching for the words to respond to Bloomberg’s challenge.
That edit included the insertion of the sound of crickets chirping, which typically would not be audible at such an event. It all seemed fake enough to me, but what would platforms do about it? In Facebook’s case: nothing. In Twitter’s: a statement that it would have labeled the video as having been manipulated, if only its new rules had been in effect. (That’s happening March 5th, for some reason.)
Just as the dust was settling from that one, Bloomberg’s campaign posted a bunch of “satirical” tweets
imagining what Sanders would say to various despots throughout history. One of those tweets prompted a bunch of people I follow to say it was homophobic — and, since it was the first I had seen the tweets, I thought it was real. In reality it was just a bad joke, and within a few moments the whole thread was getting ratioed to hell. While I understand why people are upset to see a campaign tweet untrue things, I also think that this is basically how democratic campaigns work — candidates say a lot of things, some of those things are crazy and dumb, and you take those things into consideration before you vote.
Of course, if Bloomberg’s antics earn him the nomination, there will be greater reason for concern. And it’s certainly possible we will see efforts like these again from another candidate — all the more reason for platform policy teams to get their plans in place now.
“Sam Donaldson just nailed it: Mike Bloomberg is the president we need to unite our country!” he texted one of his friends Monday through Outvote — the app organizers use to reach out to their personal networks. He drew on language provided to him by the campaign and logged the text as part of his Bloomberg organizer responsibilities.
But he quickly followed up with a personal addendum: “Please disregard, vote Bernie or Warren.”
When your own supporters don’t actually support you, it’s gonna be a long road to the White House.