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Post-election hearing

Did Facebook and Twitter’s election defenses work? Tuesday’s hearing could hold the answers.

If lawmakers actually do their job this time, they could get crucial answers about how tech platforms fought election misinformation.

Did Facebook and Twitter’s election defenses work? Tuesday’s hearing could hold the answers.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently appeared at another Senate hearing on Section 230.

Photo: C-SPAN

When they testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey will undoubtedly try to convince lawmakers that their companies took unprecedented actions this year to protect the 2020 election.

If lawmakers actually do their job this time, they could get answers about whether any of those actions worked.

Yes, the last Senate hearing featuring Zuckerberg, Dorsey and Sundar Pichai (who will not attend Tuesday's hearing) was an unmitigated partisan disaster, and there's no guarantee this one will be any different. But with the election behind us and attempts to undermine it still very much ongoing, members of the committee have a chance to redeem themselves by getting to the bottom of important questions about how these platforms have dealt with those attempts from President Trump on down.

The hearing was initially scheduled after Facebook and Twitter limited the spread of a viral New York Post story about president-elect Biden's son Hunter in October. Now, Republicans seem even more primed to cry censorship than when the hearing was first announced, given the huge volume of warning labels the two companies have since slapped on President Trump's own posts. That means if anyone is going to get to the bottom of whether the platforms' strategies were effective, it will likely be the Democrats.

Perhaps the most important question Zuckerberg and Dorsey could answer is whether warning labels actually stopped or slowed the spread of misinformation. That's nearly impossible for researchers outside of the companies to figure out. "As external researchers to those platforms, it's difficult to measure the effects of their interventions because we don't know what those interventions are or when they happen, or what combination of interventions are happening," Kate Starbird, an associate professor at the University of Washington, said on a recent call with the disinformation research group the Election Integrity Partnership.

Twitter hinted at some of these answers in a blog post last week, in which executives said tweets that included warning labels saw a 29% decrease in quote retweets. But that figure didn't distinguish between the subtle labels that appeared below some tweets and the more forceful ones that required users to click through an interstitial before they could view the tweet at all.

Twitter also touted its "pre-bunk" notifications, which informed users that voting by mail was safe and that the election results might be delayed at the top of their feeds. Those prompts were viewed by 389 million people, according to Twitter, but that number says very little about the impact those prompts had on those people.

So far, Facebook hasn't shared any such numbers illustrating its labels' effectiveness. "We saw the same posts on Twitter and Facebook receive pretty different treatments," said Jessica González, co-CEO of the advocacy group Free Press. "Facebook had a more general message, which was almost the same as the message they put on any post people posted that had anything to do with the election. I'm worried about the milquetoast nature."

González said lawmakers should use this opportunity to press both companies on whether and how they're studying those qualitative questions about their warning labels and what results, if any, they've found so far.

Erin Shields, national field organizer at MediaJustice, which is part of a group called the Disinfo Defense League, said Zuckerberg and Dorsey need to answer questions about their treatment of repeat offenders. This is a concern other disinformation researchers at the Election Integrity Partnership have recently raised as well, regarding a slew of far-right personalities who have repeatedly spread voting misinformation. Twitter recently permanently suspended an account belonging to Steve Bannon over a video in which he argued Dr. Anthony Fauci and FBI director Christopher Wray should be beheaded. Facebook took down the video, but left Bannon's account untouched.

"At what point do those rule violators get suspended?" Shields said. "Regular, everyday people get booted off the platform and get their accounts suspended for much less. It's interesting to see how much grace these platforms are giving political actors who are consistently violating their policies."

One related question from Shields: How much of the violative content consisted of live videos, like Bannon's, or memes? And how much longer did it take to take action on those posts, as opposed to posts containing text? The answer to that question, Shields argues, could say a lot about how porous these platforms' defenses are when it comes to video and imagery.

"We know they have some ability to check words, but what are they doing about memes and graphics and, in particular, live video where disinformation and misinformation is being shared with no pushback from the platforms?" Shields said.

This question is what makes YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki's absence from the hearing so conspicuous. YouTube took by far the most hands-off approach to election misinformation, allowing videos falsely declaring President Trump's victory to remain on the platform and rack up views. YouTube added subtle warning labels to some videos and removed their ability to run ads, but was far less proactive than either Facebook or Twitter in directly contradicting misinformation within warning labels.

YouTube has pushed back on some of the criticism it's faced, stating that 88% of the top 10 results in the U.S. for election-related searches come from authoritative sources. But that stat elides the fact that people often encounter YouTube videos on other websites or social media platforms, without ever touching YouTube search. Given how much coordination there was between tech platforms and federal agencies leading up to Election Day, it's unclear why YouTube took such a markedly different approach. "YouTube has been let off the hook here," Shields said. Without Wojcicki there, the Senate will have to save those questions for another day.

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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