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Facebook is confronting criticism after the spread of ads on its platform that included the alleged name of the whistleblower at the center of the House impeachment inquiry.
The company took down ads by several conservative groups who responded to President Trump's calls to unmask the whistleblower by using Facebook's ad tools to boost posts with the official's alleged identity, according to The Post's Isaac Stanley-Becker and Craig Timberg. “Any mention of the potential whistleblower’s name violates our coordinating harm policy, which prohibits content ‘outing of witness, informant or activist,'" Facebook spokesman Andy Stone told my colleagues.
But the ads, which were based off posts in Facebook groups, had already been viewed several hundred thousand times — fueling concerns about the social giant's ability to enforce its own policies.
This is likely to amplify calls from Democrats and activists that the company isn't doing enough to police content in ads on its site ahead of the 2020 election. The whistleblower ads are just the latest flash point in this debate: Facebook is also currently under fire for adopting a policy that exempts politicians' ads from third-party fact-checking — and is still weathering backlash about its role in allowing misinformation to spread on its platforms in the last presidential election.
Facebook has a responsibility to ensure whistleblowers aren't targeted on the site, critics say. “If the ads are meant to intimidate and harass and threaten people, that would be wrong, and it might be illegal,” John N. Tye, a former State Department official who became a whistleblower in 2014, told my colleagues. “Certainly if it were being commercialized, getting paid to participate in that would be wrong,” Tye said.
An attorney for the whistleblower, whose complaint about Trump's July phone call with Ukraine's president sparked the impeachment inquiry, said that Facebook has a responsibility to protect “those who lawfully expose suspected government wrongdoing.”
“This is particularly significant in this case where I have made it clear time and time again that reporting any suspected name for the whistleblower will place that individual and their family at risk of serious harm,” the whistleblower's attorney, Andrew P. Bakaj, told Isaac and Craig. “To that end, I am deeply troubled with Facebook seeking to profit from advertising that would place someone in harm’s way. This, frankly, is at the pinnacle of irresponsibility and is intentionally reckless.”
Facebook and other social networks' challenges are likely to continue as an army of conservative commentators and Trump's social media allies seek to amplify the person's identity. While a supposed name has been circulating in conservative enclaves of the Internet for weeks, it went more mainstream this week as Donald Trump Jr. retweeted a Breitbart News article that named a specific individual. The CIA officer’s name was mentioned in more than 150,000 tweets during one 24-hour period last week, my colleagues report.
Most major news organizations — including The Washington Post — have held back the whistleblower's name. U.S. officials have also kept the name confidential under a federal law that is intended to prevent retaliation against whistleblowers.
The ad campaigns revealed by my colleagues were spread by a wide range of Trump's conservative online allies, including a North Carolina businessman who previously ran a failed congressional campaign, and groups such as Americans Are Pissed and Arab American Conservative.
Tim D’Annunzio, the businessman, garnered as many as 200,000 impressions on two ads that provided the supposed name of the whistleblower. D’Annunzio paid about $1,000 for the campaign, according to Facebook’s ad archive.
He boosted the posts using a personal page titled “Message,” targeting “people who are Christian-related, who have Christian interests,” he told my colleagues in an interview. D’Annunzio said he first read the name of the supposed whistleblower in a Gateway Pundit article. “And then it started to pop up in other places, where it’s obvious he’s the guy,” he said.
Americans Are Pissed ran a separate ad promising to unveil “who all the players are behind this coup!” The linked website hosts conspiratorial, right-wing content, and my colleagues did not receive a response for comment. Arab American Conservative's ad garnered as many as 6,000 views, in a handful of politically significant states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Florida.
A Texas attorney who also ran an ad calling the supposed whistleblower “an illegal spy” did not respond to requests for comment.
BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES
BITS: Google took action against seven ads that Trump's campaign purchased for violating its ad rules last month, my colleagues Tony Romm and Isaac Stanley-Becker report this morning. Google didn't share a copy of the offending ads and offered no details on what rules they violated, highlighting the company's struggles to shield users from problematic content ahead of the 2020 election.
While much of the attention has been on Facebook and Twitter's handling of political ads in recent weeks, critics say Google has its own blind spots around paid political speech. It has generated nearly $124 million for the tech titan since it began releasing such data in May 2018. Over that period, conservative advertisers have significantly outgunned their opponents, by a margin of 3 to 1 among the top 10 spenders. The Trump campaign and a linked fundraising committee have spent nearly $12 million.
Some experts say Google's handling of political ads highlights why there's a need for regulation of political ads on social media. Right now, Google isn't required by federal law to maintain public records of political ads on its service.
“Right now, we’re operating in a system where there is simply a hodgepodge of policies at each tech company,” Michael Beckel, a top researcher at Issue One, a nonprofit that studies money in politics, told Tony and Isaac. “And this voluntary approach, this voluntary patchwork approach, leaves Americans in the dark about vital information about who’s trying to influence them online.”
Google declined to discuss the ads, the reason they violated company rules or any of its policies around political ads. “We strongly support greater transparency in political advertising and have voluntarily invested significant resources to create a transparency report that enables researchers, reporters and users to study political ads that run on our platform,” spokeswoman Charlotte Smith told my colleagues in a statement. “We are constantly working to improve the report and appreciate feedback on how we can make it better.” The Trump campaign declined to comment.
NIBBLES: Gig economy drivers are speaking out against sinking pay as Postmates, Instacart and other platforms experiment with pay algorithms and provide workers with less transparency over rates, my colleague Abha Bhattarai reports. Those wages could continue to sink as DoorDash and Instacart try to go public, experts say.
“These companies got established, they got good workers, and now they’re following a classic business playbook: squeezing workers as a first-line approach to making profits,” Erin Hatton, an associate professor at the University at Buffalo who studies labor issues, told Abha.
Postmates workers report making 30 percent less since the company eliminated a $4-per-job guarantee in May and altered its algorithms. Some Instacart employees report making less than half of what they did just a year ago. Changes to the algorithms that dictate worker rates are often made with little transparency for workers, who are left to guess whether they'll make enough to pay their bills.
“Every time they make changes, it reduces what we make. Every single time,” said California Postmates driver Sharon Harris, 37, a single mother of teenage daughters. “It’s become like the Hunger Games.”
Employees continue to turn to public protest for change, having successfully pressured DoorDash into stopping its practice of using tips to subsidize employee wages. But they’re gearing up for a new fight as both DoorDash and Instacart support a California ballot initiative that would overturn a new law requiring companies to reclassify a number of gig workers as employees.
BYTES: Europe's top tech enforcer Margrethe Vestager praised Twitter for banning political advertising at a tech conference in Lisbon yesterday, Victoria Waldersee at Reuters reports. Vestager also slammed Facebook for the “de facto manipulation” made possible by its microtargeting of advertisements.
“If it’s only in your feed, between you and Facebook, and their microtargeting of who you are, that’s not democracy anymore,” she said.
Her comments come as the European Union weighs introducing regulations for political ads on Twitter and Facebook.
Vera Jourova, E.U. commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality, told CNBC that lawmakers in Brussels will introduce new rules “so people know who is behind the campaigning, who pays (for) it, what are the interests.”
But both Vestager and Jourova cautioned against censoring speech.
“I am personally very reluctant to come up with rules which will somehow define what is the truth, who will be the arbiter of truth, how should we sanction lying,” Jourova told CNBC. “I don’t want to create some kind of Orwell’s world.”
— News from the public sector:
-- Saudi Arabia's sovereign-wealth fund has invested $400 million into Uber founder Travis Kalanick's new food start-up, Rory Jones and Rolfe Winkler at the Wall Street Journal report. The investment marks the fund's first known deal in the United States since the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year, which cooled relationships between Silicon Valley and the nation.
CloudKitchens, Kalanick's first major venture since stepping down as CEO at Uber in 2017, aims to capitalize on the success of food delivery start-ups by launching a number of delivery-only “ghost” kitchens. The deal could value CloudKitchens at $5 billion, Rory and Rolfe report.
The Saudi deal will help Kalanick, who self-funded the company, expand to markets outside the United States. Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund also invested in Uber, and its governor remains on the company board alongside Kalanick.
— News from the private sector:
— Tech news generating buzz around the Web:
- The 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.
- The Brookings Institute will host an event on if algorithims and online biases on Tuesday at 2pm.
- The House Committee on Veterans Affairs will host a hearing on “Hijacking our Heroes: Exploiting Veterans through Disinformation on Social Media” on Wednesday at 2 p.m. EST.
- The House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee will host its fourth hearing on online platforms and market power, focusing on the perspectives of the anitrust agencies, on Wednesday at 2pm.