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Politics

A conservative PAC is spreading anti-trans misinfo about Biden in Facebook ads and texts

The campaign underscores how little transparency is required in political texts, billions of which are being sent to Americans every month.

Joe Biden on a cell phone

The text uses part of a Biden town hall appearance to misleadingly claim he supports "sex changes for second-graders."

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In a new text message and Facebook ad campaign, the conservative PAC American Principles Project is falsely claiming that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden supports "sex change operations for children as young as 8."

"That's way too extreme and frankly, it's really weird," read one text message received by Protocol over the weekend from someone who claimed to be "a Democratic volunteer." The text message was accompanied by a video, which the group is also running as an ad on Facebook. The ad uses a clip from a recent Biden town hall, in which Biden condemned discrimination of transgender kids. "The idea that an 8-year-old child or a 10-year-old child decides, 'You know I decided I want to be transgender. That's what I think I'd like to be. It would make my life a lot easier.' There should be zero discrimination," Biden said.

But the ad uses only the first part of the clip to misleadingly state that Biden has "endorse[d] sex changes for second-graders," a claim that has been repeatedly debunked by fact-checkers. As of Monday, the Facebook ads had received as many as 70,000 impressions, predominantly in Michigan and Wisconsin. The American Principles Project, which tweeted out the ad last week, didn't respond to Protocol's request for comment.

Digital platforms are putting up guardrails to stop the spread of misinformation, but there are no such precautions when it comes to political text messages. Screenshot: Protocol

The text message underscores what a Wild West political texts have become. As campaigns and political groups have been forced to transition to digital methods due to COVID-19, they've embraced a patchwork of digital texting tools. And yet, even as digital platforms like Facebook have attempted to put up guardrails, however flimsy, to stop the spread of misinformation in political ads, no such precautions exist when it comes to political texts.

During the 2016 election, social media platforms faced unrelenting criticism about so-called "dark ads" on their platforms: microtargeted ads that were shown to a small subset of the electorate but which the broader public never got to see. Under pressure, Facebook created a library of all of the political ads that have run on the platform, along with details about who the ads reached and how much money was spent. Facebook also offers users the option to report ads for being misleading or false news. Twitter, meanwhile, went so far as to prohibit all political ads during the 2020 election.

Those defenses are far from perfect (as evidenced by the fact that the Biden ad is still running on Facebook), but compared to what exists in the political text messaging space, they're robust. The Federal Communications Commission has rules around robotexting, which pertain to texts sent using autodialers. But startups have found ways around those rules in recent years with peer-to-peer texting. Those tools often preload messages that campaigns want to send and phone numbers they'd like to reach, but an actual human being is the one pressing send. Still, those tools enable campaigns and political groups to flood Americans with billions of political texts every month, creating the ability for misinformation to spread at scale, without any transparency into the messages being sent.

It's unclear what tool American Principles Project was using, whether this was a preloaded campaign message or whether the person who texted Protocol was really a Democratic volunteer, as they claimed. The phone number did not respond to subsequent questions from Protocol.

The organization, which is run by former Illinois Rep. Bobby Schilling's son, Terry Schilling, has made no secret of its campaign to use anti-trans policy as a wedge issue this election. In September, the group touted a $4 million "ad blitz" in swing states related to what it called Biden's "transgender radicalism." But those ads were less explicit in their accusations against Biden, pointing to his support of the Equality Act.

Biden has released a set of policies related to stopping discrimination against transgender youth in school, but that plan includes no mention of medical procedures for children.

App store laws, Microsoft AR and Square buys Tidal

Welcome to this weekend's Source Code podcast.

Cole Burston/Bloomberg

This week on the Source Code podcast: First, an update on Google's user-tracking change. Then, Ben Pimentel joins the show to discuss Square buying Tidal, and what it means for the fintech and music worlds. Later, Emily Birnbaum explains the bill moving through the Arizona legislature that has Google and Apple worried about the future of app stores. And finally, Janko Roettgers discusses Microsoft Mesh, the state of AR and VR headsets, and when we're all going to be doing meetings as holograms.

For more on the topics in this episode:

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David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Sponsored Content

The future of computing at the edge: an interview with Intel’s Tom Lantzsch

An interview with Tom Lantzsch, SVP and GM, Internet of Things Group at Intel

An interview with Tom Lantzsch

Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corporation

Edge computing had been on the rise in the last 18 months – and accelerated amid the need for new applications to solve challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tom Lantzsch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corp., thinks there are more innovations to come – and wants technology leaders to think equally about data and the algorithms as critical differentiators.

In his role at Intel, Lantzsch leads the worldwide group of solutions architects across IoT market segments, including retail, banking, hospitality, education, industrial, transportation, smart cities and healthcare. And he's seen first-hand how artificial intelligence run at the edge can have a big impact on customers' success.

Protocol sat down with Lantzsch to talk about the challenges faced by companies seeking to move from the cloud to the edge; some of the surprising ways that Intel has found to help customers and the next big breakthrough in this space.

What are the biggest trends you are seeing with edge computing and IoT?

A few years ago, there was a notion that the edge was going to be a simplistic model, where we were going to have everything connected up into the cloud and all the compute was going to happen in the cloud. At Intel, we had a bit of a contrarian view. We thought much of the interesting compute was going to happen closer to where data was created. And we believed, at that time, that camera technology was going to be the driving force – that just the sheer amount of content that was created would be overwhelming to ship to the cloud – so we'd have to do compute at the edge. A few years later – that hypothesis is in action and we're seeing edge compute happen in a big way.

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Saul Hudson
Saul Hudson has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, especially in understanding and targeting messages in cutting-edge technologies. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, in helping companies to build passionate audiences and accelerate their growth. Hudson has reported from more than 30 countries, from war zones to boardrooms to presidential palaces. He has led multinational, multi-lingual teams and managed operations for hundreds of journalists. Hudson is a Managing Partner at Angle42, a strategic communications consultancy.
Protocol | Policy

Far-right misinformation: Facebook's most engaging news

A new study shows that before and after the election, far-right misinformation pages drew more engagement than all other partisan news.

A new study finds that far right misinformation pulls in more engagement on Facebook than other types of partisan news.

Photo: Brett Jordan/Unsplash

In the months before and after the 2020 election, far-right pages that are known to spread misinformation consistently garnered more engagement on Facebook than any other partisan news, according to a New York University study published Wednesday.

The study looked at Facebook engagement for news sources across the political spectrum between Aug. 10, 2020 and Jan. 11, 2021, and found that on average, far-right pages that regularly trade in misinformation raked in 65% more engagement per follower than other far-right pages that aren't known for spreading misinformation.

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Issie Lapowsky
Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing. Email Issie.
Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

People

WhatsApp thinks business chat is the future — but it won't be easy

From privacy policy screw-ups to UI questions, can WhatsApp crack the super-app riddle?

WhatsApp Business is trying to wrap shopping around messaging. It's not always easy.

Image: WhatsApp

At some point, WhatsApp was always going to have to make some money. Facebook paid $21.8 billion for the company in 2014, and since then, WhatsApp has grown to more than 2 billion users in more than 180 countries. And while, yes, Facebook's acquisition was in part simply a way to neutralize a competitor, it also knows how to monetize an audience.

The trick, though, would be figuring out how to do that without putting ads into the app. Nobody at WhatsApp ever wanted to do that, including co-founders Jan Koum and Brian Acton, who reportedly left Facebook after disagreements over ads. More recently, even Mark Zuckerberg has slowed the WhatsApp ad train, with The Information reporting that ads in WhatsApp likely won't come while the company's under so much regulatory scrutiny. So: $21.8 billion, no ads. What to do?

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David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

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