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The Technology 202: Meme-makers are newest frontier in Facebook's political content debate

with Tonya Riley

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Meme-makers and Instagram influencers are at the center of the latest controversy over how Facebook should police political content on its platform. 

Facebook told reporters last week that it would allow political campaigns and candidates to pay social media influencers to create sponsored content the most high-profile example is the recent flood of Instagram memes purchased by presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg. But critics are concerned the social networking giant is not subjecting the paid posts to the same standards as traditional ads. 

For instance, Facebook says the sponsored memes won’t be included in the company’s Ad Library – a database of political and other issue ads running on Facebook and its sister service Instagram –  that has become a key way for journalists and researchers to track such content since the fallout from the 2016 election. Facebook will require influencers to disclose which content is being paid for by politicians using its branded content tool, but some experts are skeptical the company will be able to enforce such a requirement across the platform. 

The company’s new policy is splitting Democrats leading the polls in the presidential election. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said on Twitter that Facebook’s new policy represented a “workaround” and that the company’s refusal to catalogue the sponsored posts would result in less transparency. 

But Bloomberg’s campaign has defended his use of sponsored content, commonly called “sponcon.”

“The campaign was explicitly clear that these posts were ads and sponsored content,” said Bloomberg spokeswoman Sabrina Singh. “We went above and beyond to follow Instagram’s rules, and the text of the post clearly shows these are the campaign’s paid ads.”

Influencer marketing could become a powerful tool for those candidates trying to lure a younger, social-media savvy audience and create viral buzz around their campaigns. But sponsored content has long been controversial because it can be difficult to differentiate from a regular post in the Instagram ether and experts warn it could get even messier as politicians enter the game.

Shannon McGregor, an assistant professor at University of Utah who has advocated for changes to Facebook's political ads policy, tells me the company's sponsored political content policy is bad for transparency. She argued it's perhaps more important for sponsored influencer posts to be included in the Ad Library because of “an added layer of fuzziness” they contain from being shared by social media celebrities and not the candidates themselves. 

Now we see a way paid posts from politicians are not going to be transparent to the public, to journalists, to researchers due to this loophole,” she said. 

Brendan Fischer, the director of federal reform at the Campaign Legal Center, told me it's good policy for the public to have access to paid political communications in one place. 

“Having paid communications archived in one place would help the public understand the messages that political actors are disseminating to different audiences, and to hold them accountable for those messages,” he said. “It can also help watchdog groups and law enforcement monitor compliance with campaign finance law’s reporting and disclaimer requirements.”

Some experts are skeptical of Facebook's ability to enforce its requirement for influencers to disclose when they're getting paid for posts by politicians. In the past, controversies have surfaced over sponcon that's not accurately branded. In 2017 for instance, the Federal Trade Commission sent letters to more than 90 Instagram personalities, including celebrities and athletes, warning them to disclose when they're promoting products on their social media accounts. 

Facebook's policy comes as political ads on social media largely remains a Wild West from a federal regulatory perspective. But some regulators have signaled they're watching. Ellen L. Weintraub, a Democratic commissioner on the Federal Election Commission, called on Twitter for platforms to include such posts in their political ad libraries. 

“You listening Facebook?” she wrote. 

But Facebook is arguing branded content differs from advertising. The company doesn't directly receive any money for sponsored posts as political campaigns are paying the social media stars. And there are no ways for campaigns to narrowly target ads to specific demographics, making the sponcon campaigns more visible. Facebook is only permitting U.S.-based politicians to work with creators for this type of content as it evolves its approach. 

Fischer acknowledged that unlike targeted ads, sponsored posts aren't vulnerable to the “dark post” phenomenon, where only a slice of users to whom the ads are targeted can view them. 

“Unlike targeted digital ads, widely-disseminated paid messages by influencers are generally available to the public, even if they aren’t included in the archive,” he said. 

Facebook's sponcon policy comes as the rules around paid political content are becoming increasingly complicated. The company did note that sponsored posts would be included in the Ad Library if politicians pay to boost them using the company's traditional ad tools. 

There are also concerns about the timing of the new policy. Experts say Facebook should have seen this issue coming, especially since there have been reports for months of campaigns planning to partner with social media influencers. 

“We’re in the middle of election season, at the height of primary, and the rules at a major social company suddenly change in favor of the person with [the] most money to take out some ads,” McGregor said. 

Facebook said it adopted the rules after weighing input from multiple candidates.  

“After hearing from multiple campaigns, we agree there's a place for branded content in political discussion on our platforms,” Facebook company spokeswoman Stephanie Chan said in a statement. 

BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES

BITS: Kickstarter employees voted to unionize yesterday, becoming the first such organization of workers at a prominent tech company. The vote could signal organized labor is playing a more active role in the industry as activism surges among technology company employees over ethical issues and workplace concerns. 

The National Labor Relations Board formalized the vote, which employees approved by a 46-to-37 vote. Kickstarter said in a statement it will support the decision. 

“Utilizing our collective power to improve our workplace and our professional lives will increase Kickstarter’s ability to have a radical, positive impact on society by allowing us all to advocate for workers’ rights, which is a core pillar of the fight against inequality,” Oriana Leckert, a spokeswoman for Kickstarter United, the company’s union, said in a statement. 

Kickstarter United formed in March 2019 and partnered with Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 153, a New York chapter of the national union that represents more than 100,000 workers. Kickstarter management declined to voluntarily recognize the union in May, kicking off a months-long struggle that forced organizers to gather enough support for the National Labor Relations Board to certify the union.

But the vote is just a start: Employees will now bargain with management for their first union contract.

“We are looking forward to a productive bargaining session,” Grace Reckers, union organizer at OPEIU Local 153, told our researcher Tonya Riley. A successful bargaining process could usher in partnerships with additional tech workers, some of whom have already reached out to the union.

“The tech sector represents a new frontier for union organizing,” Richard Lanigan, OPEIU president, said in a statement.

NIBBLES: Oracle employees launched a petition against a fundraiser for President Trump's reelection campaign that company chairman and founder Larry Ellison is scheduled to host today, Jordan Novet at CNBC reports

The employees are pushing Ellison to cancel the event, which they allege conflicts with the company's values. 

“Ellison’s financial support of Donald Trump endangers the well-being of women, immigrants, communities of color, the environment, LGBTQ and trans communities, disabled people, and workers everywhere,” the petition, published by “Oracle Employees for Ethics,” states.

The petition has collected more than 2,400 signatures, though it's unclear how many of the signatures belong to employees. Oracle declined to comment to CNBC.

Ellison's fundraiser is a rare show of public support for the president from a Silicon Valley titan.

BYTES: Artificial intelligence allowed a Delhi politician to go viral in different languages earlier this month. But unlike the manipulated videos stoking political concerns in the United States, these videos were commissioned by the candidate’s party, Nilesh Christopher at Vice reports.

“Deepfake technology has helped us scale campaign efforts like never before,” Neelkant Bakshi, co-incharge of social media for Delhi’s Bharatiya Janata Party told VICE about the video.

The incident raises concerns about how candidates might mobilize new technologies at the expense of voters' trust. The videos reached millions of voters on WhatsApp, but there were no disclosures they were manipulated. The videos even had some professionals stumped. One Indian fact-checking website told Vice it was unable to detect the videos were fake. (The media firm behind the videos confirmed it used a lip-syncing algorithm to dub the videos).

“Deepfakes are going to be a supercharger on the kind of misinformation we have,” Pratik Sinha, the founder of AltNews, an Indian fact-checking website, told Vice.

The consequences could reach well beyond one election “In a country like India where digital literacy is nascent, even low-tech versions of video manipulation have led to violence,” Nilesh writes. “In 2018, more than 30 deaths were linked to rumours circulated on WhatsApp in India." 

PUBLIC CLOUD

— News from the public sector:

EU to unveil plans to boost European firms, rein in U.S. tech giants (Reuters)

Judge Dismisses Huawei Suit Challenging Federal Ban (The Wall Street Journal)

Microsoft's voting software is getting its first test in a small Wisconsin town (CNBC)

PRIVATE CLOUD

— News from the private sector:

The Great Google Revolt (The New York Times)

Ring enables mandatory two-factor authentication and new privacy controls in response to scandals (The Verge)

#TRENDING

—  Tech news generating buzz around the Web:

Behind that teenage TikTok star, there's probably a very confused parent (CNN)

The iPhone at the Deathbed (The New York Times)

Teens Are Deleting Instagrams Almost as Fast as They Post Them (The Wall Street Journal)

Bill Gates bought a Porsche, to Elon Musk’s apparent irritation (The Verge)

@MENTIONS

  • Ann O’Brien, most recently the assistant chief of the competition policy & advocacy section of the Department of Justice's Antitrust Division, has joined BakerHostetler as a partner in the firm’s Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia offices.

CHECK-INS

— Today:

  • The Department of Justice will hold a public workshop in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday titled “Section 230 – Nurturing Innovation or Fostering Unaccountability"

— Coming up:

  • The House Communications and Technology Subcommittee will hold a field hearing on Thursday at 2 pm at the Prince George County Central Wellness Center on the importance of rural broadband access.
  • Nava Public Benefit Corporation will host a conversation moderated by the Technology 202's Cat Zakrewski on "Impact at Scale: From Big Tech to Civic Tech" at 6pm on March 10.
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