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Twitter's decision to stop accepting political ads has sent ripples throughout the tech industry. But researchers who have studied Twitter's handling of such ads in recent years are warning the company may struggle to enforce its new ban.
Researchers caution that Twitter's spotty track record with a database meant to centralize political ads could be an omen for how the social network approaches prohibiting political ads. Like other tech giants, Twitter rolled out a political ad library to help track all the political ads on its platform following concerns about foreign interference on social media during the 2016 election. But researchers say the library didn't contain key ads that should have been included.
Laura Edelson, a PhD candidate at New York University studying political ads on social media, tells me she found instances in the 2018 election where ads from multiple sitting senators were not marked as political ads by Twitter. Edelson said Twitter performed more poorly in enforcing its disclosure policy than Google in the last elections.
“The technical problem of enforcing this ban is the same one as enforcing their disclosure requirements, and if they make less information transparent, it will be harder for third parties like us to monitor if they are actually enforcing this policy,” she added.
Shannon McGregor, an assistant professor at The University of Utah, said she and other researchers detected instances where foreign governments were running ads on Twitter subject to the Foreign Agents Registration Act — yet those ads were not identified in Twitter’s ad database. She said if Twitter was unable to identify and include ads from a foreign government in its library, it raises questions about the site's ability to ensure that no political ads about domestic issues are run on its platform.
“They’ve proven they’re not going to be great at enforcing it,” McGregor said.
Twitter may have side-stepped the specific controversy over policing politicians ads currently plaguing Facebook, which has placed no such limits on political ads as founder Mark Zuckerberg champions free speech. Facebook instead has said it won't fact check individual politicans' ads but will do so with political ads by third parties.
Instead, Twitter will likely be judged on whether it can accurately identify the ads it says will be prohibited. Major questions also remain about how Twitter plans to define third-party "issue ads."
The company says it intends to also prohibit such ads advocating for hot-button political issues such as immigration or climate change. But many journalists and technologists have noted there aren't clear lines when it comes to determining what an issue ad is.
My colleague Philip Bump outlined how difficult it could be to set such limits in a recent column:
“An ad from House candidate Joe Smith would be banned,” he wrote. “An ad from Citizens for Green Space that touts Smith’s record on creating Municipal Park is a bit murkier but still pretty clear. But what about an ad from the Westside Neighborhood Association inviting people to come out to an event at beautiful Municipal Park, which is a central part of Smith’s campaign pitch? The line gets quite blurry, quite fast.”
The ambiguous nature of issue ads isone of the key reasons that Zuckerberg says Facebook has not adopted a policy prohibiting political ads.
“And it's hard to define where to draw the line,” Zuckerberg said on a recent earnings call. “Would we really block ads for important political issues like climate change or women's empowerment?”
Twitter's size comes with pros and cons as it tries to address political disinformation. On one hand, it has hosted far fewer way ads than some of its larger rivals. Twitter estimated that political ads made up less than $3 million of its revenue during the 2018 election, only a fraction of the company's overall sales. But the site also has a smaller budget to build systems and hire people to enforce its new policy.
Larger technology companies have struggled to enforce bans on political ads. The Verge's Makena Kelly wrote that both Google and Facebook decided to ban political ads in the state of Washington because of the complicated campaign finance laws in place there. But those bans haven't stopped local politicians from trying to disseminate ads on their platforms. In Seattle’s city council elections, high-profile ads covered by the media were often removed. But many smaller ads managed to pass through, Kelly writes.
“Instead, it’s resulted in a tangle of uneven enforcement and confusing rules, making it a cautionary tale for what a poorly implemented ad ban might mean for the 2020 campaigns," she wrote.
Twitter did not comment for this article, but the company already has strict policies in place for advertisers, and political content advertisers are required to go through a certification process. If the company becomes aware of advertisers not complying, it currently pause advertising until they do.
Other experts say that while Twitter should be commended for at least trying to address political disinformation on social media while Facebook is taking a more hands-off approach.
“We don’t say that other businesses shouldn’t take reasonable safeguards just because they’re not going to be 100% effective,” said Fernando Laguarda, a professor at the American University Washington College of Law.
“They should invest in people, invest in technology and be prepared to make mistakes and correct them,” he added.
BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES
BITS: The American Civil Liberties Union yesterday sued the Justice Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI for details on their use of facial-recognition software in federal court, my colleague Drew Harwell reports. The lawsuit marks the latest chapter in a growing backlash over government use of the unregulated and inconsistent technology that privacy advocates fear could lead to false arrests.
“These technologies have the potential to enable undetectable, persistent, and suspicionless surveillance on an unprecedented scale,” the attorneys wrote in the lawsuit. “Such surveillance would permit the government to pervasively track people’s movements and associations in ways that threaten core constitutional values.”
The accuracy of such systems depends heavily on factors such as database size and image quality, and several popular systems have been found to be less accurate in analyzing facial images of people with darker skin tones, Drew reports. Privacy critics worry the inaccuracies and police misuse could lead to false arrests.
Still, federal and local law enforcement have adopted the technologies en masse, with little legislative oversight or public debate. Lawmakers from both parties have also expressed concern over unregulated use by federal agencies, hosting multiple congressional hearings pressing federal officials for answers, but have yet to introduce strong federal regulations.
NIBBLES: The non-consensual publication of sexually explicit photos of Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.), who resigned Sunday, has highlighted a generational divide in Congress over “revenge porn,” an increasingly common trend used against women in the digital age, Heather Caygle and Sarah Ferris at Politico report. Younger Democrats are worried that the threat of revenge porn could have a chilling effect on women running for office, they report.
“This doesn't happen to male members in the same way — revenge porn in this respect. It’s horrific,” said freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). “I don't think we’re really talking about how targeted and serious this is. We're talking about a major crime.”
Meanwhile, older Democrats have been reluctant to support Hill, who resigned after also admitting to an improper relationship with a campaign staffer. Rep. Cheri Bustos, chair of House Democrats' campaign arm, told Politico she was not concerned that Hill's resignation would have a chilling effect on young women running for Congress.
“Frankly, I think it’s a generational issue,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who has expressed support for Hill, told Politico. “A lot of these baby boomers I serve with don’t understand that millennials, by virtue of having smartphones, have shared stupid moments and regrettable moments for a substantial portion of their lives.”
While all but four states have laws against revenge porn, Congress has struggled over whether to address the crime with federal legislation.
“The forces of revenge by a bitter jealous man, cyber exploitation and sexual shaming that target our gender, and a large segment of society that fears and hates powerful women have combined to push a young woman out of power and say that she doesn’t belong here,” Hill said in her final floor remarks yesterday. She also has hired well-known sexual privacy lawyer Carrie Goldberg to sue the parties involved in the leak, Goldberg announced yesterday.
BYTES: Today marks the first anniversary of the Google walkout, when thousands of Google employees from around the globe walked off the job to protest the company's handling of sexual harassment claims. A year later, some Googlers are continuing their activism to pressure Congress to pass legislation to ensure all U.S. employees and contractors can bring sexual harassment or discrimination claims in front of a judge and jury, ending a practice known as forced arbitration.
Googlers for Ending Forced Arbitration said in a press release that "the walkout was just the pistol that fired at the beginning of a marathon. The walkout was a moment; the activism that ensued is the movement." Today the group rolled out a new podcast talking with trial lawyers to tell the stories of the trial lawyers on the front lines of the battle over forced arbitration.
As I previously covered in The Technology 202, the Google activists scored a major victory when Google changed its controversial yet common practice of forcing employees to settle disputes with the company out of court. But Google does not not force third-party contracting companies that provide many workers to Google to follow the policy, and it does not apply at other companies within Google's parent organization, Alphabet. Googlers for Ending Forced Arbitration says that needs to change.
"Over the past year, we’ve continued to advocate for TVCs and colleagues at other companies within Alphabet by respectfully appealing to VPs and Directors for help," they wrote. "But the buck, we’ve found, stops nowhere."
The group says it's now throwing 100 percent of its advocacy efforts behind passing the FAIR Act, legislation Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) re-introduced earlier this year to end forced arbitration. The bill may be a long shot in a GOP-controlled Senate and White House.
RANT AND RAVE
Yesterday Mark Zuckerberg found himself in the middle of another heated Internet feud — this time with his biopic writer Aaron Sorkin, my colleague Marie C. Baca reports.
“The Social Network” scribe Aaron Sorkin inserted himself into the movie's real-life sequel, taking to the New York Times to pen a screed accusing the CEO of “assaulting truth.”
“Right now, on your website, is an ad claiming that Joe Biden gave the Ukrainian attorney general a billion dollars not to investigate his son,” wrote Sorkin. “Every square inch of that is a lie and it’s under your logo. That’s not defending free speech, Mark, that’s assaulting truth.”
But journalists covering Facebook were quick to point out that some of Sorkin's own words were far from the truth. The Verge's Casey Newton:
Aaron Sorkin’s op-ed about Facebook spreading misinformation is one of the most hilarious acts of projection I have ever seen in print. “The Social Network” is about 80 percent false, and “Steve Jobs” is about 90— Casey Newton (@CaseyNewton) October 31, 2019
Sorkin got numerous facts wrong, including the release date of his own movie. OneZero's Will Oremus:
In today's @nytimes, Aaron Sorkin blasts Mark Zuckerberg for not fact-checking political ads.— Will Oremus (@WillOremus) October 31, 2019
Ironically, it seems no one fact-checked Sorkin's own column, which falsely claims that half of Americans say Facebook is their main source of news. https://t.co/m5wzMN2djZ pic.twitter.com/cKoVbMGRVO
The debacle was fitting of … well, a Sorkin film. NPR's Linda Holmes:
Sorkin thinking he can fix this by giving Zuckerberg a man-to-man talk about their shared history is the most Sorkin thing that has ever happened. https://t.co/4l8BjwNoWc— Linda Holmes (@lindaholmes) October 31, 2019
Ultimately, Zuckerberg may have gotten the last word by trolling Sorkin with his own dialogue. “America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, 'cause it’s gonna put up a fight,” Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post, quoting the 1995 Sorkin film.
— News from the public sector:
— News from the private sector:
— News about tech workforce and culture:
— Tech news generating buzz around the Web:
- Uber will announce its earnings on Monday.
- The Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on crime and terrorism will host a hearing entitled “How Corporations and Big Tech Leave Our Data Exposed to Criminals, China, and Other Bad Actors on Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. Eastern time
- Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law will host its annual Color of Surveillance conference on November 7 from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., with a focus on the monitoring of poor and working people. You can register here.
The latest privacy experiment by our columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler tested sites for an invisible form of online tracking that you can’t easily avoid.