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Presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg's unconventional social media strategy is testing large technology companies.
Twitter's decision to suspend 70 pro-Bloomberg accounts for violating its rules on platform manipulation and spam highlights the pitfalls of the former New York mayor's decision to pay hundreds of “field organizers” to share identical, pre-approved 2020 campaign messages through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
While the strategy is clearly intended to cultivate the appearance of an enthusiastic online following, Twitter's policies say users may not “artificially amplify or disrupt conversations through the use of multiple accounts” or pay “others to engage in artificial engagement or amplification, even if the people involved use only one account," per my colleague Meryl Kornfield.
Yet the response has been inconsistent from Silicon Valley. Facebook has not announced any similar suspensions, raising questions about whether the policies it adopted since 2016 to thwart unauthentic activity on its platforms are enough.
Facebook has made big promises to ensure that it's more transparent about how its platform is being used for politics, but a network of coordinated posts might be confusing to users who don't know they're being paid by the Bloomberg campaign.
That could get messy in an era where Facebook is under intense pressure to ensure that its platform isn't manipulated again in 2020, as it was by Russia during the last presidential elections.
Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook's head of cybersecurity policy, argued that the Bloomberg campaign strategy didn't appear to qualify as “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” which would violate its policies.
Coordinated inauthentic behavior (CIB) is a specific term that we define in our community standards, and which requires central reliance on a network of fake accounts — based on the descriptions, that doesn’t sound like what’s happening here.— Nathaniel Gleicher (@ngleicher) February 20, 2020
Instead, Facebook says it will cap identical, repetitive activity coming from a single account in a short period of time. And Gleicher did note that it's important for people using real accounts to be transparent about who is behind them.
The company released a blog post on this last week: “Separate from branded content, we also think people on Facebook and Instagram benefit from understanding if they’re seeing content from campaign employees. This is why we strongly recommend campaign employees make their paid affiliation clear on their individual Facebook and Instagram accounts.”
The Bloomberg campaign says that it does take steps to ensure that its workers are not being deceitful online. “We ask that all of our deputy field organizers identify themselves as working on behalf of the Mike Bloomberg 2020 campaign on their social media accounts,” campaign spokeswoman Sabrina Singh told Meryl. Through an app called Outvote, "content is shared by staffers and volunteers to their network of friends and family, and was not intended to mislead anyone.”
But some critics don't think Facebook's efforts go far enough. Zephyr Teachout, a professor at Fordham Law School, criticized Facebook for not announcing suspensions like Twitter, especially as the former New York mayor spends heavily on Facebook ads:
The most important part of this story may be that Facebook is not doing what Twitter is because it is making so much off Bloomberg's campaign.— Zephyr Teachout (@ZephyrTeachout) February 22, 2020
This is the communications infrastructure for our democracy. Facebook is a democratic mess. https://t.co/9RCTimSy9D
This is hardly the first time the tech companies have diverged on how to best handle political content on their services. Twitter banned political advertising last year — putting greater pressure on Facebook as the company faced broad backlash for not fact-checking politicians' ads.
The Bloomberg campaign workers' posts are part of a broader social media blitz launched on behalf of the New York billionaire. This effort came to light as election integrity experts were scrutinizing the campaign's decision to pay social media influencers to post memes on its behalf.
Google and Facebook have served up two billion Bloomberg ads this year alone, my colleagues Kevin Schaul, Kevin Uhrmacher and Anu Narayanswamy reported last week. Since joining the race in November, he has outspent all other candidates combined on Google by more than $10 million. Bloomberg has spent more than $52 million on Facebook ads since May 2018, according to Facebook's Ad Library, which tracks candidates' spending on the social network.
My colleagues created the following graphic to put those figures in perspective:
BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES
President Trump spoke to reporters before departing the White House on Feb. 23, saying he had not been briefed on reports alleging that Russia wants Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to win the Democratic presidential primary.
BITS: President Trump took a jab at Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) over the weekend following a Washington Post report that U.S. officials told the senator that Russia is interfering to help his campaign.
Trump mockingly called on Democrats yesterday to investigate whether Russia interfered to help Sanders win the Nevada caucuses.
Are any Democrat operatives, the DNC, or Crooked Hillary Clinton, blaming Russia, Russia, Russia for the Bernie Sanders win in Nevada. If so I suggest calling Bob Mueller & the 13 Angry Democrats to do a new Mueller Report, Democrat Edition. Bob will get to the bottom of it!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 23, 2020
The news also invited swipes from the Democratic presidential contenders who have been trailing Sanders in early-state primaries.
“The Russians don't want me to be the nominee,” said former vice president Joe Biden, who is second in Nevada, on CBS News yesterday. “They like Bernie,” he added, referring to the report.
It's not clear what form the Russian assistance has taken, and President Trump and U.S. lawmakers have also been informed about the Russian assistance, my colleagues Shane Harris, Ellen Nakashima, Michael Scherer and Sean Sullivan reported Friday.
“I don’t care, frankly, who [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wants to be president,” Sanders said in a statement to my colleagues. “My message to Putin is clear: Stay out of American elections, and as president I will make sure that you do.”
Intelligence officials told members of Congress in a briefing earlier this month that Russians were also interfering to help President Trump win, Ellen, Shane, Josh Dawsey and Anne Gearan reported.
NIBBLES: French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told reporters at the Group of 20 meeting Sunday that the United States’s failure to compromise on an international digital tax agreement could set negotiations back indefinitely and reignite tensions between the two nations, Jan Strupczewski at Reuters reports. U.S. tech giants including Facebook, Google and Apple have billions of dollars riding on the outcome of the deal.
“For the first time there is wide consensus among the G20 members on the necessity of having a new international taxation system,” Le Maire said. “Let's be clear — either we have at the end of 2020 an international solution... clearly in the interest of all countries and digital companies, or there is no solution.”
The United States threatened retaliatory taxes against France for passing what it called a discriminatory digital tax last year, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin says it would do so again if a deal is not reached.
The majority of countries at the Group of 20 meeting this weekend pushed for a stricter measure that would require digital companies to pay taxes where they do business, not just where they register subsidies. A last-minute request by the United States to significantly alter that proposal has sparked rare confrontation with Japanese allies, Leika Kihara at Reuters reports.
The U.S. now wants a more lax “safe harbor” deal that would allow multinational companies to choose whether they want to comply with the regulations.
Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso told reporters that the “safe harbor” deal would “extremely diminish the regulatory effect of what we’re trying to do.”
BYTES: The Transportation Security Administration will no longer use the video app TikTok for outreach following a letter from Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) raising concerns about the security of the social media app, which is owned by a Chinese company, Michael Balsamo at the Associated Press reports.
A “small number of TSA employees have previously used TikTok on their personal devices to create videos for use in TSA’s social media outreach, but that practice has since been discontinued,” the agency told Michael in a statement yesterday. The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the TSA, previously banned use of the app on agency devices.
Schumer is one of several U.S. lawmakers who have raised concerns that TikTok's Chinese ownership poses risks to the privacy of U.S. users — especially sensitive government employees. Several branches of the U.S. military have also banned use of the app by employees. TikTok denies allegations that it gives the Chinese government or any other foreign nation access to U.S. user data.
“Given the widely reported threats, the already-in-place agency bans, and the existing concerns posed by TikTok, the feds cannot continue to allow the TSA’s use of the platform to fly,” Schumer said in a statement to Michael.
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— Coming up:
- Nava Public Benefit Corporation will host a conversation moderated by the Technology 202's Cat Zakrzewsk on "Impact at Scale: From Big Tech to Civic Tech" at 6pm on March 10.
- SXSW will take place in Austin March 13-22.
- The Game Developers Conference will take place in San Francisco March 16-20.