President Trump wants to create a panel that would look into complaints of bias against conservatives on social media and other online platforms, The Wall Street Journal reported.
What authority the panel would have, and under what department it would be based were not clear. But the Journal’s sources said the plans may include establishing a “White House-created commission” that would work in conjunction with agencies like the Federal Elections Commission and Federal Communications Commission to examine bias and censorship online. A White House official told the WSJ that “left wing bias in the tech world is a concern that definitely needs to be addressed.”
The president tweeted a similar opinion last week, that “The Radical Left is in total command & control of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Google.” The administration is “working to remedy this illegal situation,” he added, but did not provide specifics.
Trump and other Republicans have repeatedly alleged anti-conservative bias on social media platforms, with some Congressional committees holding hearings last year to question officials from tech firms. The president has accused Twitter of playing “political games,” and Trump complained to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in a White House meeting last April that he was losing followers on his most-used social platform.
Last May, the White House launched a tool for Americans to “share their stories of suspected political bias” with the president (as of this writing, the tool was no longer accepting new entries). That was followed in July by a social media summit with several conservative figures who complained that they were being censored online and subjected to “shadow-banning.”
A Twitter spokesperson said in an email to The Verge on Saturday that the company enforces “the Twitter Rules impartially for all users, regardless of their background or political affiliation,” adding that it is in regular communication with elected officials in efforts to improve the platform.
Requests for comment to the White House, Facebook, and Google were not immediately returned Saturday morning.
Google is reopening offices in July on a limited basis
Google will begin reopening offices starting on July 6th for a limited number of employees. In a blog post published on Tuesday, CEO Sundar Pichai said that, while returning to work will be optional for the rest of the year, those who need to come in will be able to on a rotating basis — one day every couple weeks. The company is also giving workers a $1,000 stipend for home office equipment to make remote work easier.
In September, Google plans to let more people back into the office, until buildings reach about 30 percent capacity. Those who need to come in to do their jobs will be notified by June 10th.
Pichai also said the company will be more flexible with remote working options after the pandemic lifts. “Moving ahead, we are looking to develop more overall flexibility in how we work,” he wrote. “Our campuses are designed to enable collaboration and community…at the same time, we are very familiar with distributed work as we have many offices around the world and open-minded about the lessons we’ll learn through this period.”
The news comes a week after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the company will allow employees to work remotely beyond the pandemic, saying it would be “the most forward-leaning company on remote work at our scale.”
Twitter and Square already announced similar policies, extending remote working options for most employees indefinitely.
Democrats want to restrict political ad targeting ahead of the 2020 election
On Tuesday, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) introduced a bill that would upend political advertising on platforms like Facebook and Google.
The Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act would bar platforms like Google and Facebook from allowing advertisers to target messages based on the demographic or behavioral data of their users. The Federal Elections Commission would act as the primary enforcer of these proposed rules, but the bill leaves room for individuals to bring civil action on companies accused of violating it. A court could award anywhere from $100 to $1,000 in relief for negligent violations and $500 to $5,000 for reckless ones.
“Microtargeting political ads fractures our open democratic debate into millions of private, unchecked silos, allowing for the spread of false promises, polarizing lies, disinformation, fake news, and voter suppression,” Eshoo said.
Since the 2016 election, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have introduced proposals aimed at regulating political ads online. In 2017, Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Mark Warner (D-VA), and John McCain (R-AZ) introduced the Honest Ads Act, which would require heightened targeting and spending transparency.
Congress has yet to vote on these measures, but that hasn’t stymied further attempts at regulating the space. Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) announced last week his plan to introduce a bill that would only allow advertisers and platforms to target ads using age, gender, and location data. His proposal is less stringent than Eshoo’s, which only allows for targeting based on home addresses. The measure was introduced on Tuesday, according to Politico.
“Microtargeting is a threat to our democracy. Campaigns and foreign actors can use this technology to manipulate voters with high volumes of misleading information that is virtually impossible to keep track of,” Cicilline said last week.
According to Ad Age, 2020 US presidential campaigns have already spent more than $1.3 billion in advertising across TV, radio, and digital platforms. Some platforms like Facebook and Google created their own political ads databases as calls for regulation began to grow. Twitter dropped all political advertising last November.
Following Twitter’s decision to ban political ads last year, FEC Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post that platforms should “sell political ads, but stop the practice of microtargeting those ads.” In a statement Tuesday, Weintraub praised Eshoo’s bill.
“The microtargeting of online political ads threatens the united character of our United States,” Weintraub said. “Microtargeted ads are more likely to fuel divisiveness than those that face scrutiny – and counterargument – from a broader public.”
Facebook reportedly ignored its own research showing algorithms divided users
An internal Facebook report presented to executives in 2018 found that the company was well aware that its product, specifically its recommendation engine, stoked divisiveness and polarization, according to a new report from The Wall Street Journal.
Yet, despite warnings about the effect this could have on society, Facebook leadership ignored the findings and has largely tried to absolve itself of responsibility with regard to partisan divides and other forms of polarization it directly contributed to, the report states. The reason? Changes might disproportionately affect conservatives and might hurt engagement, the report says.
“Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness,” one slide from the presentation read. The group found that if this core element of its recommendation engine were left unchecked, it would continue to serve Facebook users “more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention & increase time on the platform.” A separate internal report, crafted in 2016, said 64 percent of people who joined an extremist group on Facebook only did so because the company’s algorithm recommended it to them, the WSJ reports.
Leading the effort to downplay these concerns and shift Facebook’s focus away from polarization has been Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of global public policy and former chief of staff under President George W. Bush. Kaplan is a controversial figure in part due to his staunch right-wing politics — he supported Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh throughout his nomination — and his apparent ability to sway CEO Mark Zuckerberg on important policy matters. Kaplan has taken on a larger role within Facebook since the 2016 election, and critics say his approach to policy and moderation is designed to appease conservatives and stave off accusations of bias.
Kaplan, for instance, is believed to be partly responsible for Facebook’s controversial political ad policy, in which the company said it would not regulate misinformation put forth in campaign ads by fact-checking them. He’s also influenced Facebook’s more hands-off approach to speech and moderation over the last few years by arguing the company doesn’t want to seem biased against conservatives.
The Wall Street Journal says Kaplan was instrumental in weakening or entirely killing proposals to change the platform to promote social good and reduce the influence of so-called “super-sharers,” who tended to be aggressively partisan and, in some cases, so hyper-engaged that they might be paid to use Facebook or might be a bot. Yet, Kaplan pushed back against some of the proposed changes — many of which were crafted by News Feed integrity lead Carlos Gomez Uribe — for fear they would disproportionately affect right-wing pages, politicians, and other parts of the user base that drove up engagement.
One notable project Kaplan undermined was called Common Ground, which sought to promote politically neutral content on the platform that might bring people together around shared interests like hobbies. But the team building it said it might require Facebook take a “moral stance” in some cases by choosing not to promote certain types of polarizing content and that the effort could harm overall engagement over time, the WSJ reports. The team has since been disbanded.
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