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The Congressional Black Caucus blasted Silicon Valley companies after a pair of reports revealed Russian trolls targeted African American voters with disinformation on social media aimed at suppressing their political engagement during the 2016 election.

The members, led by Chairman Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Rep.  G.K. Butterfield (N.C.), said they would “like to hear directly from Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, and CEOs of other companies whose platforms were weaponized” about what they knew about the disinformation efforts targeting these voters and how they plan to address the issue in the future. 

“This campaign of disinformation is extremely disconcerting because black voter turnout declined in 2016 – for the first time in 20 years,” the caucus said in a Monday statement. “We cannot allow the deceit and misinformation that characterized the 2016 elections to be repeated in the future.”

Earlier on Monday, the caucus also warned the technology companies Congress may need to take action:

The CBC's statement adds to the growing chorus of criticism faced by Silicon Valley giants in the halls of Congress. The caucus is ramping up the pressure as Democrats promise to make election interference a key focus as they retake the House majority in January.

After reading wide-ranging reports on Kremlin tactics , Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) — the incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee — told my colleague Tony Romm that the findings affirmed that “all the platforms remain keenly vulnerable” to disinformation campaigns. Going forward, a top challenge is tech giants “sharing information among each other,” Schiff said, noting it might “need to be addressed legislatively.” 

The fierce criticism from the caucus could also intensify scrutiny of the largely white and male workforces at Silicon Valley companies. The CBC has long been critical of Silicon Valley companies for their lack of diversity, launching initiatives such as #CBCTech2020 to put more pressure on the tech industry to hire African Americans.

Since 2015, members of the caucus have made regular trips to California technology companies to press them on diversity issues and to add more black business leaders to their boards. Recently, the caucus has pressed Amazon on its facial recognition technology, due to worries it could reinforce racial profiling. Under public pressure, Facebook, Google and other tech giants have made big promises to improve the recruiting and retainment of minorities, and they’ve issued diversity reports to attempt to track their progress on the issue. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Other civil liberties groups joined the CBC in pointedly denouncing Facebook.

On Monday, The NAACP said it returned a donation it received from Facebook, and the organization is encouraging its supporters to join a week-long boycott of the social network and its subsidiary Instagram starting tomorrow.

Early Tuesday morning, a coalition of more than two dozen civil rights groups, including the Southern Poverty Law Center and Muslim Advocates, sent Facebook a letter, criticizing the company’s role in “generating bigotry and hatred towards vulnerable communities and civil rights organizations.” It slammed the company for failing to address efforts to abuse its platforms to sow racial resentment and bias.

The groups called for Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to step down as chairman of the board and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg to resign from her board seat. They also directed Facebook to hire at least three members to diversify the board, as well as to create an independent civil rights ombudsman to conduct “consistent and ongoing reviews of Facebook’s policies and practices.”

““It is mind-boggling and if anything has become clear from the last few months, it’s that Facebook’s board of directors is not properly constituted to be able to do its job of oversight of the company’s mission and operations,” Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates, said in a statement. “For the good of vulnerable communities worldwide, Facebook’s board must become more independent, more diverse, and more capable of understanding the real challenges it faces.”

Sandberg said in a Facebook post on Tuesday morning that the company began a civil rights audit earlier this year, and it is one of her top priorities in 2019. The audit, which began in May, contributed to Facebook's  decision to expand a policy prohibiting voter suppression, she said. The policy now explicitly bans  misrepresentations about how to vote, such as claims that you can vote online via an app. 

"We know that we need to do more: to listen, look deeper and take action to respect fundamental rights," she said. 

The fierce criticism from minority groups could also intensify scrutiny of the largely white and male workforces at Silicon Valley companies. The CBC has long been critical of Silicon Valley companies for their lack of diversity, launching initiatives such as #CBCTech2020 to put more pressure on the tech industry to hire African Americans.

Since 2015, members of the caucus have made regular trips to California technology companies to press them on diversity issues and to add more black business leaders to their boards. Recently, the caucus has pressed Amazon on its facial recognition technology, due to worries it could reinforce racial profiling. Under public pressure, Facebook, Google and other tech giants have made big promises to improve the recruiting and retainment of minorities, and they’ve issued diversity reports to attempt to track their progress on the issue. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)


BITS: Two new reports show that Russian trolls relied much more heavily on Instagram to spread disinformation than previously reported, after policymakers and experts have largely focused on Russia’s influence efforts on Facebook and Twitter.  “Over the years of the disinformation campaign, Instagram generated responses on a scale beyond any of the others — with 187 million comments, likes and other user reactions, more than Twitter and Facebook combined,” The Washington Post’s Craig Timberg, Tony Romm and Elizabeth Dwoskin reported. As my colleagues noted, a report anchored by the cybersecurity company New Knowledge found that Russian operatives posted 116,000 times on Instagram, which is almost twice as much as the number of times they posted on Facebook.

Russian trolls even used Instagram, as well as other social networks,  to disparage  special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and discredit allegations that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. For instance, Russian operatives claimed in an Instagram post that Mueller had worked with “radical Islamic groups” in the past. 

NIBBLES: President Trump lashed out at Facebook, Google and Twitter in a tweet early Tuesday morning, reigniting conservatives' claims that the technology platforms are biased against them.

Technology companies have repeatedly denied charges that their platforms are biased toward any political ideology, and there has been little evidence to back up these claims. Just a week before Trump's comments, House Republicans questioned Google chief executive Sundar Pichai about whether the search engine is biased against their party, and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) later said in an interview he was unsatisfied by the executive's responses.

This is not the first time Trump has leveled such an attack against technology companies, which have had a tense relationship with this administration. In August, my colleague Tony reported that Trump's top economic adviser was taking a look at whether Google search results should be regulated after the president tweeted the search giant's results were “rigged.”

BYTES: Google has “effectively ended” its secret project to set up a search engine for China that would abide by the country's online censorship rules, the Intercept's Ryan Gallagher reportedProgress on the project ground to a halt after Google engineers were directed to stop using a data analysis system that helped develop a prototype of the censored search engine, which is known as Dragonfly, according to the Intercept. “Significantly, several groups of engineers have now been moved off of Dragonfly completely, and told to shift their attention away from China to instead work on projects related to India, Indonesia, Russia, the Middle East and Brazil,” Gallagher wrote.

Google's Dragonfly project has faced mounting scrutiny from policymakers and advocates. Lawmakers from both parties last week grilled Pichai about the company's plans for China during a congressional hearing. Google's original goal was to launch a censored search engine for the Chinese market between January and April 2019, according to the Intercept. “However, leaks about the plan and the extraordinary backlash that ensued both internally and externally appear to have forced company executives to shelve it at least in the short term, two sources familiar with the project said,” Gallagher reported.


— Investors in Elon Musk's SpaceX questioned why some of the firm's resources were devoted to the Boring Company, another business controlled by Musk, according to the Wall Street Journal's Rob Copeland. Some of the investors who had questions about the ties between the two companies included Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, according to the Journal.

“The investors questioned SpaceX about why their investment dollars into a company ostensibly devoted to launching satellites and carrying humans to Mars were instead partly used to start a separate company that principally benefited Mr. Musk,” Copeland wrote. “When the Boring Co. was earlier this year spun into its own firm, more than 90% of the equity went to Mr. Musk and the rest to early employees, the company has said.” Copeland also reported that Founders Fund said in a statement that it received a briefing on the ties between both companies “and we have no concerns whatsoever.”

— Twitter said it solved an issue that could have exposed the country code on phone numbers associated with users' accounts, Reuters reported. Twitter said the issue, which stemmed for one of the company's support forms, didn't expose full phone numbers, according to Reuters. TechCrunch's Josh Constine noted that aside from the country code issue, the glitch could also have made it possible to check whether a Twitter account had been locked. “The concern here is that malicious actors could have used the security flaw to figure out which countries accounts were based in, which could have ramifications for whistleblowers or political dissidents,” according to Constine.

— More technology news from the private sector:

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— State and local officials are trying to keep up as Americans continue to ride electric scooters from companies such as Bird and Lime in cities across the nation. Douglas Shinkle, transportation program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures, told the Wall Street Journal's Scott Calvert that at least 15 state legislatures could examine bills about scooters in upcoming legislative sessions. Shinkle also said he expects lawmakers across to try to balance safety and business considerations. “A lot of lawmakers are probably going to be interested in setting the rules so it’s safe, but not squashing the industry,” Shinkle said. 

However, some cities and universities have decided to crack down on electric scooters, as the Journal noted. “The University of Georgia impounded 1,206 of Bird’s scooters after the company put them on its Athens campus in August without approval,” Calvert wrote. “The university says the company owes it $718,000 in fines and fees. Athens-Clarke County officials voted Dec. 4 to ban e-scooters for up to a year so regulations can be developed.”

— Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei overhauled its strategy to deal with U.S. authorities this spring: The company laid off four people working on government and public relations in the United States and hired two law firms, according to the Wall Street Journal's Stu Woo. “Earlier this year, Huawei leaders in China concluded that engaging with those federal agencies and Congress directly was useless, said a person familiar with the matter,” Woo wrote. Huawei, which hired  the law firms Jones Day and Morgan, Lewis and Bockius LLP, has continued to focus on potential legal challenges rather than public relations, the Journal reported.

— France intends to tax tech giants on its own after plans to do so across the European Union failed to materialize, according to the Guardian's Rob Davies. “The French finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, said he believed the tax, which will take effect from 1 January, would raise €500m (£450m) in its first year,” Davies reported. “France has been pushing for a EU GAFA tax — named after Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon — but faced opposition from countries including Ireland, which hosts the European headquarters of several technology companies, including Google and Apple.”

— More technology news from the public sector:

Nearly 60 percent of civilian tech specialists cited insufficient funding as a major barrier to IT modernization.

An Amnesty International study found that 7.1% of tweets sent to women journalists and politicians in the U.S. and U.K. were "abusive or problematic," after crowdsourcing the Tweets of 778 women. Women of color were 34 % more likely to be the targeted than white women, according to a report from Wired's Emily Dreyfuss. Black women were targeted most of all: one in every 10 tweets sent to them was abusive or problematic, whereas for white women it was one in 15.

Amnesty International has long pressed Twitter to do its own review, but took matters into its own hands after the company didn't act. "We have built the world’s largest crowdsourced dataset about online abuse against women,” Milena Marin, senior advisor for tactical research at Amnesty International, said in a statement announcing the study. “We have the data to back up what women have long been telling us—that Twitter is a place where racism, misogyny and homophobia are allowed to flourish basically unchecked.”

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— Andrew Kim, who was senior designer at Tesla, left the company and joined Apple, according to the Verge.

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