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Reid Hoffman's Alabama jam

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Good evening and happy New Year! To the hundreds of you who signed up of the break, thank you and wel
 
January 7 · Issue #268 · View online
The Interface
Good evening and happy New Year! To the hundreds of you who signed up of the break, thank you and welcome to The Interface. My goal is to offer you the best daily liveblog of a tumultuous era in technology and government, in convenient newsletter format. If the past few weeks were any indication, we’ll have plenty to talk about in 2019.
What did you miss over the break? Lots more scrutiny of Facebook, for starters. The New York Times published a fusillade of stories examining the company’s historically lax oversight of its data-sharing agreements with third parties; its problematic efforts to aid suicidal users; the political ramifications of its content-moderation regime; and the reluctance of the Federal Trade Commission to weigh in on any of it.
To some journalists and critics, this coverage offers a necessary corrective to years of blithe utopianism from the tech press. To others both inside and outside Facebook, but reportedly including Mark Zuckerberg — it feels like overkill. To me, the Times story that resonated the most over the break was the investigation into data-sharing practices — I did a bonus newsletter about it, which you can find here.
What else?
Facebook’s stock price declined so sharply over the past quarter that Zuckerberg stopped selling his shares. Sheryl Sandberg called Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and told him that if he only read some materials that her office would send him, he would change his mind about Facebook being bad for the world. Benioff claimed that the materials never arrived, which seems preposterous.
A report commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee found that Instagram played a much bigger role in Russia’s 2016 information operation than was previously known, and will likely play an even bigger one in 2020. BuzzFeed’s analysis of misinformation on Facebook in 2018 found that the top 50 fake posts got only a little less engagement than the top 50 did last year — and more than the top 50 got in 2016.
Predictions for social networks this year generally leaned negative. The Guardian asked a range of people about what Zuckerberg’s big project for the year should be, and their opinions ranged from “he should probably resign” to “he should definitely resign.” Behold the magnificent self-regard of Anti-Social Media author Siva Vaidhyanathan, who wrote:
Zuckerberg could take a two-year sabbatical from Facebook, enroll at the University of Virginia, and finish his bachelor’s degree under my direction. That would serve him — and his company and all its users — better than just about anything else he could do.
As a serious proposal I find Vaidhyanathan’s idea laughable — but I do think it has legs as a sitcom premise.
Instagram tested a horizontal feed, causing momentary panic. Amnesty International — or was it Supremely Obvious Magazine — announced that women face serious abuse on Twitter. On YouTube, stars promoted a dubious form of gambling, which was the worst thing they did until a few days later, when they put on blindfolds for the spectacularly ill-conceived Bird Box Challenge.
For more links that caught my eye over the break, keep reading. First, though, I want to talk about Reid Hoffman.

Project Birmingham
There are two basic ways of thinking about Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. One is that the misinformation campaign was a historical anomaly enabled by social networks’ naivete, which will be prevented from recurring through a combination of additional tech security personnel, artificial intelligence, and government intervention. The other is that the 2016 revealed vulnerabilities in social platforms so fundamental that they cannot effectively be contained — leaving an opening for any interested parties who wish to sway politics.
In Project Birmingham, we have compelling evidence for the latter view. A coalition of groups working to support Democrats and progressive causes has been caught employing Russian-style information operations on Facebook. Funded in part by LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman, the operations have now been found to have taken place in Alabama, Texas, and Tennessee. And while no one involved seems to think the operations proved decisive in the 2018 midterm elections, they contribute to a general diminishment of trust in social networks as a platform for honest political discussions.
Scott Shane and Alan Blinder described the first set of operations, which were discovered in Alabama, on December 19th:
The project’s operators created a Facebook page on which they posed as conservative Alabamians, using it to try to divide Republicans and even to endorse a write-in candidate to draw votes from Mr. Moore. It involved a scheme to link the Moore campaign to thousands of Russian accounts that suddenly began following the Republican candidate on Twitter, a development that drew national media attention.
“We orchestrated an elaborate ‘false flag’ operation that planted the idea that the Moore campaign was amplified on social media by a Russian botnet,” the report says.
Who’s behind all this? Everyone involved has attempted to distance themselves from the work. The Washington Post has done a heroic job attempting to sort through the various donors, nonprofits, researchers, and cybersecurity firms that are involved. Hoffman said he had no knowledge that the groups he funded were going to use Russian-style tactics, and apologized for his negligence. The firm that most people involved say was responsible for the campaign — the cybersecurity firm New Knowledge — swears it was not.
In any case, somebody’s lying. (Facebook has suspended five user accounts so far, including that of New Knowledge CEO Jonathon Morgan.)
But to underline just one of the points from that Times piece: one strategy here was to have thousands of apparent Russian bots follow Republican candidate Roy Moore, generating media coverage suggesting that Moore was the favored candidate of the Russians — and that Russia might be working to promote his candidacy.
It’s a head-spinning bit of information warfare — a legitimate false-flag operation. And it was only the start. Organizers also worked to promote a write-in candidacy for another Republican candidate in hopes it would siphon votes away from Moore.
And in a separate effort, they created a fake campaign for a “Dry Alabama” attempting to link Moore to the return of Prohibition. In a follow-up piece today, Shane and Blinder talked to one of the latter campaign’s organizers:
Matt Osborne, a veteran progressive activist who worked on the project, said he hoped that such deceptive tactics would someday be banned from American politics. But in the meantime, he said, he believes that Republicans are using such trickery and that Democrats cannot unilaterally give it up.
“If you don’t do it, you’re fighting with one hand tied behind your back,” said Mr. Osborne, a writer and consultant who lives outside Florence, Ala. “You have a moral imperative to do this — to do whatever it takes.”
Elsewhere, campaigns in Texas and Tennessee worked to undermine Republicans and promote Democrats using misleading pages that attempted to grow audiences around nonpartisan subjects and then flooded them with political content. Here’s Tony Romm, Elizabeth Dwoskin, and Craig Timberg:
Some of News for Democracy’s pages inserted Democratic messages into the feeds of right-leaning voters, according to a review of Facebook’s ad archive. News for Democracy ran ads touting Texas Democrat Beto O'Rourke on “The Holy Tribune,” a Facebook page targeted to evangelicals, the archive shows. Another page called “Sounds like Tennessee” focused on local sports and news, but also ran at least one ad attacking since-elected GOP Sen. Marsha Blackburn.
“People start to trust the content emanating from the page, because it appeals to their interests, and once there is a certain degree of trust, you can start to pivot by slowly adding in kernels of disinformation or overly-politicized information that lacks context,” said Benjamin T. Decker, research fellow at the Shorenstein Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, who called such tactics an “intentional act of deception,” that mimicked strategies of Russian operatives around the 2016 presidential election.
To the extent that any of these efforts had an impact on the 2018 elections, it appears to be small. But it’s clear that groups across the political spectrum now believe that these tactics are effective enough to warrant spending significant resources. The tactics are certain to evolve — and the cynicism embodied in Osborne’s ends-justify-the-means language suggests this battle will head to some dark new places in 2020.
Democracy
Facebook, Google to pay Washington $450,000 to settle lawsuits over political-ad transparency
Inside the Nasty Battle to Stop Amazon From Winning the Pentagon’s Cloud Contract
In Project Maven's Wake, the Pentagon Seeks AI Tech Talent
The Histories Of Today's Wars Are Being Written On Facebook And YouTube. But What Happens When They Get Taken Down?
India Wants Platforms Like Facebook, Google, WhatsApp, And Twitter To Take Down "Unlawful" Content And Break Encryption
Vietnam: How Facebook is being abused to silence critics in Germany
Twitter in China: Authorities crack down one user at a time
Censoring China’s Internet, for Stability and Profit - The New York Times
LinkedIn Censored A Pro-Democracy Activist’s Profile In China But Then Said It Was A Mistake
How Artificial Intelligence Will Reshape the Global Order
Elsewhere
Facebook’s Lonely Conservative Takes on a Power Position
What Facebook knows about you
Facebook and Consumer Privacy
Why People Go to Instagram for the Comments Section
Brands 'waste' millions as extent of Instagram influencer fraud revealed
Google picks up company behind Q&A app
Launches
Facebook Is Developing a Cryptocurrency for WhatsApp Transfers, Sources Say
TikTok’s quietly launched ‘Lite’ app has reached over 12 million downloads since August
Takes
A New Year’s resolution for reporters: Be less technodeterminist
Perspectives: The case for why Big Tech is violating antitrust laws
Washington must wake up to the abuse of software that kills
Stop scaremongering about kids spending time on their phones
Postscript
Perhaps the saddest story over the break was the sudden death of HQ Trivia co-founder and CEO Colin Kroll. Kroll played a vital part in the creation of two social platforms — first Vine, which was acquired by Twitter and is a cultural phenomenon to this day — and later the trivia app HQ, which is one of the only vaguely social apps to have any degree of success in the past few years. I’ll miss him.
And finally ...
Chicken nugget teen ousted as most retweeted after Japanese billionaire offers retweeters free money
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and disinformation about Alabama: casey@theverge.com.
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