The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Technology 202: Policymakers are embracing Instagram Stories. Transparency advocates are worried.

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with Bastien Inzaurralde

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Look no farther than the Instagram video that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posted of herself dancing down a Capitol Hill hallway: A new generation of younger, tech savvy lawmakers is bringing a different social media playbook to Washington. 

But open government advocates are raising new concerns about how policymakers are using some of the more ephemeral features of social media — including “Stories” that expire after 24 hours on Instagram, Snap and even Facebook. Unlike traditional posts, these missives delete by default, which could leave no trace of political messages or policy stances.

“There is public interest value in the preservation of those stories,” said Alex Howard, a government transparency advocate who previously served as deputy director of the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation. 

Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, has been one of the most prominent users of Instagram Stories. She's offered voters everything from videos of herself preparing Instant Pot macaroni and cheese to a behind-the-scenes look at her time on the Hill. Just yesterday she used it to respond to a CBS News "60 Minutes” piece about her.  

And ephemeral messaging is only becoming more prevalent in the run-up to the 2020 campaign: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, for instance, cracked open a beer in her Instagram Story last week after announcing her presidential bid. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who's weighing a 2020 run, was a frequent Instagram Stories user during his 2018 campaign for senator, showing personal moments even after he lost of himself eating guacamole while driving.

But these Stories no longer exist on their Instagram accounts — and Howard says the public shouldn't have to simply rely on journalists or other observers to screenshot them for posterity. Ocasio-Cortez's office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on her use of social media or whether they were archiving the ephemeral stories in any way. 

In a stark contrast from federal agencies and the White House, which must comply with strict record-keeping rules, members of Congress have broad discretion over what they archive. 

Howard thinks it's time for new record-keeping rules, including ones account for social media and disappearing posts. Though much of the data created by congressional committees and administrative officers is considered official records and archived, individual members can decide what to do with papers and content created by their own offices. It’s considered their personal property, and they can determine what they want to preserve. “There’s lots of reasons that politicians choose not to have things be archived,” Howard says. 

Compare that to how the executive branch has handled social media. The Presidential Records Act, which went into effect in 1978, mandated that all official presidential records belong to the public. Presidents have kept this law in mind even when using new technologies. For instance, when the White House joined Snapchat in 2016, a senior Obama White House official told BuzzFeed that it would fully comply with those requirements, saving and preserving Snaps for archives. 

In the short-term, Howard would like to see technology companies step up and create archives of photos and videos that verified politicians post to their accounts. He wants journalists and researchers to be able to access these posts, even if the politicians themselves are not preserving them. He said the archives could be similar to those that some technology companies have set up under intense political pressure to allow third parties to review political ads purchased on their platforms. 

“That would be the patch,” Howard said. “[The companies] created a bug in our democratic system of accountability.”

Right now politicians largely use this new form of social media to highlight light moments and seem more down-to-earth to voters, but some are worried about the impact this technology could have when it is used for more important policy announcements. 

An Xiao Mina, the author of the upcoming book “Memes to Movements,” said in a tweet that the posts might seem innocuous because they are “interesting selfie videos of cooking meals and attending orientation.” But she warned disappearing posts could present problems as people try to document and understand the rise of political leaders:

Howard said on Sunday that Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro’s use of Instagram Stories put a fine point on the fact that the trend has extended beyond U.S. politicians:

The controversy over Instagram Stories highlights the challenge for technology companies as the tools they created to connect friends are increasingly being used for political messaging — perhaps with consequences they never intended. 

“It is one of the idiosyncrasies of this moment that we are in where private companies are hosting public squares,” Howard said.


BITS: The big Apple news at this year's CES technology show will be the company's woes in China — a stark departure from the role the company's gadgets typically play in driving news at the annual Las Vegas trade show, Bloomberg News's Selina Wang and Mark Gurman report.  “It’s going to be the elephant in the room at CES,” Daniel Ives, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, told Bloomberg News. “This has been dark days for Apple and for the tech industry. I think there’s a lot of questions in regards to the smartphone industry going forward, especially with what Apple said about with demand in China.”

Apple's warning that its sales would fall short last week has contributed to fears about an economic slowdown and the overall stability of the technology sector. Apple is set to encounter multiple hurdles in China this year amid the trade dispute between Washington and Beijing as well as increasing competition from local rivals, Reuters's Josh Horwitz and Stephen Nellis reported. Apple also faces a preliminary injunction by a Chinese court banning sales of several iPhone models, but the ban has not been enforced yet. Apple is not expected to roll out a 5G phone in China before next year, which would place it behind competitors including Huawei, Xiaomi and Samsung, Reuters also reported. 

The iPhone XR in particular struggles to convince Chinese consumers, as the Wall Street Journal's Yoko Kubota noted. “The XR hasn’t sold as expected in China because it is being passed over by both price-conscious buyers and status seekers, analysts say,” Kubota wrote. “Some Chinese consumers have perceived the sticker price of 6,499 yuan, or about $945, to be too expensive even though it is at least 25% cheaper than the higher-end iPhone XS and XS Max models.”

NIBBLES: Democratic operatives and a research firm who played a role in an online effort to influence a 2017 U.S. Senate race in Alabama to help elect Democrat Doug Jones are distancing themselves from the initiative’s most controversial tactics that were inspired by Russian disinformation, according to The Washington Post’s Craig Timberg, Tony Romm, Aaron C. Davis and Elizabeth Dwoskin.

The operation, called Project Birmingham, used tactics such as a “false flag” effort to create bogus evidence that Russian bots supported Jones’s Republican opponent Roy Moore on Twitter, according to a 12-page document obtained by The Post. Another component of Project Birmingham was the creation of a deceitful Facebook page targeting conservative voters in Alabama and aiming to hamper Moore’s campaign.

In a second online effort against Moore, progressive Democratic operatives posed as conservatives on Facebook and Twitter and claimed to be part of a “Dry Alabama” movement that supported the Republican candidate, according to the New York Times’s Scott Shane and Alan Blinder. The Times reported that the Democratic operatives “thought associating Mr. Moore with calls for a statewide alcohol ban would hurt him with moderate, business-oriented Republicans” and help Jones.

BYTES: Ford is set to start testing self-driving vehicles in the nation's capital early this year, and officials in Washington and other cities are working to anticipate how technological changes in transportation will affect their communities, according to The Post's Michael Laris. D.C. and other cities partnered with the Aspen Institute and Bloomberg Philanthropies to set common goals for developers of driverless cars. “High on the list of priorities is cutting greenhouse gases and other pollution, eliminating congestion and ensuring that officials have the opportunity to adapt as changes barrel ahead,” Michael wrote. The initiative also includes Los Angeles, Austin, London, Sao Paulo, Brazil, and other cities.

“When we think about the future of our city, we see less single-occupancy vehicle trips, more vehicle electrification and an emphasis on building the infrastructure and policy framework to support those goals,” Jeff Marootian, director of the District Department of Transportation, told my colleague. For instance, the city added electric buses to its Circulator fleet and has started a push to convert more than 75,000 streetlights into LEDs that save energy, according to Marootian.


-- The Internet and Television Association (known as NCTA), Cable Labs and Cable Europe talked exclusively with me about their plans for 10G broadband networks, an initiative they plan to unveil at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week.

Such a network would be about ten times as fast as the current speeds available to most consumers today, NCTA President Michael Powell tells me. Lab trials of the technology are already underway, and they expect field trials to begin in 2020. He says broadband at these speeds could enable a host of new technologies, by enabling better video streaming or making it easier to use connected home devices. Both trends are expected to be in the spotlight this week at the annual trade show. 

"It’s more than just watching 'House of Cards,'" Powell said. He's hoping faster broadband speeds will enable innovations in fields like healthcare, where the technology could enable new ways to process medical images and videos. Powell's comments come as 5G , the fifth generation of cell networks technology, is setting the agenda at CES. Powell tells me every evolution in the mobile networks needs to be met with new technology in broadband networks. "The country critically needs both," Powell said. 

— In a report exploring JPMorgan Chase's relationship with Amazon, the Wall Street Journal's Emily Glazer, Laura Stevens and AnnaMaria Andriotis described how the bank imitates some of the management practices that Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos established at the online retail giant. “Mr. Bezos notoriously banned slide presentations to keep Amazon in startup mode as it grew, instead asking employees to craft six-page documents complete with a press release and FAQs,” according to the Journal. “Over roughly the past 18 months, JPMorgan has started a similar practice in its consumer businesses under Gordon Smith, the bank’s co-president and co-chief operating officer, [JPMorgan] employees said.” JPMorgan has also embraced Bezos's “Customer Obsession,” an approach requiring employees to start developing products with consumers in mind and then work backward, per the Journal. (Bezos owns The Post.)

— Netflix is the latest example of software companies that seek to sell their services directly to consumers and circumvent Apple or Google, my colleague Brian Fung reported. Netflix “confirmed that new customers will no longer be able to pay their monthly subscription fees through iTunes. Instead, subscribers are being redirected to make payments on Netflix’s own website,” my colleague reported.

— More technology news from the private sector:

Chinese tech investors flee Silicon Valley as Trump tightens scrutiny (Reuters)

Exclusive: Amazon says 100 million Alexa devices have been sold (The Verge)

Tesla to start delivering Model 3 to China buyers in March (Reuters)

Google Drive Has A Loophole That Allows Harassment (BuzzFeed News)


— Tesla wants the Trump administration to spare the Model 3's Chinese-made computer “brain” from tariffs, according to Reuters's David Shepardson. The 25 percent tariffs enacted in August are hurting the company's profitability, according to Tesla. “Increased tariffs on this particular part cause economic harm to Tesla, through the increase of costs and impact to profitability,” Tesla said in a request to the government for tariff exemption, as Shepardson reported. The company also said in the request that it has not been able to find another supplier “with the required specifications, at the volume requested and under the timelines necessary for Tesla’s continued growth.”

— More technology news from the public sector:

Chinese censors go old school to clamp down on Twitter: A knock on the door (Gerry Shih)

Pentagon Seeks a List of Ethical Principles for Using AI in War (Defense One)

Bipartisan bill unveiled in Senate to stop China tech threats (Reuters)

Lawmakers make second bipartisan push to elevate federal IT official (The Hill)

The U.S.’s Star Witness in the Qualcomm Antitrust Suit: China's Huawei (Bloomberg News)


— Four of the nine scheduled keynote speakers at CES this year are women, a sign that the event's organizers are starting to promote gender equity at the technology show, the Associated Press's Barbara Ortutay reported. The activist group GenderAvenger recently gave CES a “Gold Stamp of Approval”  for the show's lineup. The group said the keynote and “featured” speakers include 45 percent of women, 60 percent of whom are women of color.

“But really leveling the playing field often means more than inviting female CEOs to speak,” Ortutay wrote. “For starters, women and people of color are underrepresented in the tech industry, especially in leadership and technical roles. So, conference organizers might need to look harder, or be more flexible in who they invite to speak.”


Detecting depression: Phone apps could monitor teen angst (Associated Press)

Switch Your Devices to Dark Mode to Give Your Eyes a Break (Wired)


— Huawei punished two employees for wishing people a happy new year via the company's Twitter account with an iPhone, according to Reuters's Sijia Jiang.  The tweet was marked: “via Twitter for iPhone.”


— More news about technology blunders:

Los Angeles Accuses Weather Channel App of Covertly Mining User Data (The New York Times)


Coming soon

  • The CES technology show starts in Las Vegas tomorrow.
  • Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao delivers a speech at CES in Las Vegas on Wednesday.
  • The Brookings Institution hosts a discussion titled “How China and the U.S. are advancing artificial intelligence” on Jan. 14.

Trump directs his Cabinet to “find money” for the wall:

Lawmakers from both parties discussed on Jan. 6 how a deal could be reached to end the government shutdown. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

In rural Iowa town, Warren finds immigration key topic:

Sen. Elizabeth Warren campaigned in northwest Iowa as part of her inaugural appearances in the first presidential caucus state. (Video: Alice Li/The Washington Post)

French scientists stands-by world's oldest person Jeanne Calment:

French woman Jeanne Calment, the oldest person ever to have lived who died at the age of 122, has been defended by French scientists after being accused of being a fraud. (Video: Reuters)