The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Technology 202: Republican Facebook ads targeting Georgia runoff contain disinformation, researchers find

Placeholder while article actions load

The Technology 202 is back after a holiday hiatus. We hope you had a safe and restful holiday and wish you a Happy New Year! As always, please share tips and thoughts with me here and sign up if you don't already subscribe to this newsletter. 

Republican politicians and super PACs have been spreading disinformation in Facebook ads targeting Georgia voters in the critical final days of the Senate runoff campaign. 

An ad from the Republican Party in late December falsely suggested that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is plotting to help Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris remove President-elect Joe Biden from office, twisting her remarks on another topic entirely

Another ad from last month sponsored by the Senate Leadership Fund claims Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff is “threatening to defund the police,” even though Ossoff has repeatedly said he does not support such actions. 

These are just a handful of examples of the nearly 100 Facebook ads related to the Georgia election that contain claims that have been debunked or labeled as distortions by major news organizations — including by some of Facebook’s fact-checking partners – that were flagged in preliminary research by left-leaning global human rights group Avaaz and shared with the Washington Post. 

Facebook has removed some of the ads from super PACs identified in the Avaaz research for violating its policies, but many others were left untouched.

But the research also exposes the limits of the social network's policies on political misinformation: Nearly half of the ads Avaaz flagged were shared by candidates in the race, and therefore not subjected to fact-checking because of the broad exemptions that Facebook has created for politicians on its platform. 

New year, same political ad controversies on Facebook. 

Many of the same disinformation issues that vexed the Biden campaign during the presidential race are playing out down ballot in the intense runoff that could determine control of the Senate. 

And without major changes to how Facebook handles misinformation in political ads, researchers warn these problems are likely to persist in future elections.“They're failing to protect voters from disinformation," said Nathan Miller, campaign director at Avaaz. "They failed to in the general election, and they're failing to now in the Georgia runoffs.” 

Miller said Avaaz is particularly concerned to see disinformation in political ads from super PACs the Georgia runoffs because it is currently the only state where political ads are allowed at all on the social network. Facebook is still banning political ads generally in the United States as part of broader efforts to limit misinformation related to the 2020 election. But in mid-December, it developed a special niche for political ads related to the Senate race after strategists from both parties warned that a total blackout could limit voter turnout in Georgia. 

“It's a very, very small universe for Facebook,” Miller said. “It's a little disturbing that they're still not managing to have a full hold on it.”  

Facebook said in a statement that its efforts to expand political transparency on its platform since Russian interference in the 2016 election have led to greater scrutiny of ads on the platform.

“In Georgia, we’re connecting people to reliable information about the election and deploying the teams and technology we used in the general election to fight voter suppression," Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said. "The campaign claims highlighted in the Avaaz report are also appearing on TV, radio, and in direct mail; the difference is Facebook’s ad library is transparent, making the claims more readily available for scrutiny.”

The preliminary findings come as partisan attacks are intensifying to drive voter turnout in the election. 

Politicians, political parties and super PACs on both sides of the aisle have been pouring dollars into the races. My colleague Amber Phillips last year detailed how both political parties' attack ads have been playing out in the race. 

The Avaaz analysis was limited to Facebook and it did not explore misinformation in other digital ads, including from Google or other platforms such as Hulu that have been popular advertising channels during the campaign. 

Facebook could face greater pressure to overhaul its ad policies under the incoming Biden administration

The Avaaz researchers analyzed ads from both liberal and conservative advertisers, but only found disinformation in the ad copy from conservative advertisers. Their review included ads from both political parties, candidates from both parties as well as top outside spenders in the race. 

The continued scrutiny of disinformation on Facebook could further Democrats' push to reform political ads on the platform. The Biden campaign was very critical of Facebook's allowance of false claims in Trump ads during the general election. 

Miller says he remains “hopeful” changes to Facebook ads will come in 2021. Avaaz is proposing some fixes for what he calls a “broken” political advertising system: It wants Facebook to submit all political ads – even from candidates – for fact-checking before they're able to run on the service. Avaaz also wants Facebook to be more aggressive in restricting privileges of advertisers that repeatedly share false and misleading content, and to notify users if they've been exposed to ads that are debunked. 

“The incoming Congress and incoming administration are aware of the problem,” he said. “What we're going to see is pressure from Congress and the administration helping to move things along.” 

For more on the Georgia runoffs, check out a special edition of the Post Reports podcast:

Georgia on our minds (The Washington Post)

Our top tabs

More than 225 Google engineers and other workers formed a union. 

The union's formation is extremely rare in Silicon Valley, where companies are strongly opposed to organized labor, Kate Conger reports for the New York Times. It's the culmination of years of increased employee activism at the search giant, and it could further inflame tensions between workers and company executives. 

The Alphabet Workers Union – named after Google's parent company – was organized in secret for almost a year. It's connected to the Communications Workers of America, which represents workers in telecommunications and media in the United States and Canada. 

Workers organizing the union say it will give structure to the ongoing employee activism at the company, rather than to negotiate a contract like a traditional union. Chew Shaw, the vice chair of the union's leadership council and a Google engineer, told the Times that the union would keep pressure on management to address employee concerns about workplace issues. 

“Our goals go beyond the workplace questions of, ‘Are people getting paid enough?’ Our issues are going much broader,” he told the Times. “It is a time where a union is an answer to these problems.”

Kara Silverstein, Google's director of people operations, said the company would continue engaging directly with employees. ““We’ve always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace for our work force,” she said. “Of course, our employees have protected labor rights that we support.”

A British judge rejected the United States's request to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States.

The judge sided with Assange's lawyers that the extradition would be “oppressive” and that Assange was likely to commit suicide if sent to the U.S., William Booth and Rachel Weiner report. But she rejected the lawyers' claims that Assange was protected by U.S. free speech guarantees, a win for U.S. prosecutors who are now looking to appeal. 

Assange faces violations of the Espionage Act. The charges of 18 federal crimes against him include conspiring to obtain and disclose hundreds of thousands of classified and sensitive government documents. 

U.S. prosecutors say that because Assange is not a U.S. citizen, he isn’t protected by U.S. free-speech protections, and that his conduct violated journalism norms. District Judge Vanessa Baraitser agreed, saying his “conduct, if proved, would therefore amount to offenses in this jurisdiction that would not be protected by his right to freedom of speech.”"

Tesla delivered a record 499,550 vehicles globally last year. 

That’s up from about 367,500 the previous year and beats analyst estimates that it would deliver 493,000 cars in 2020, Rebecca Elliott of the Wall Street Journal reports. The figures highlight the company’s resilience during the coronavirus pandemic, even as its lone U.S. car plant was temporarily shuttered and the pandemic has limited auto sales globally. 

Tesla stock rose more than 700 percent last year, the Journal reports. But in 2021, it will face new challenges as it opens factories in Germany and Texas, and introduces new models of its vehicles. 

The company hasn’t yet released a target for 2021 vehicle deliveries, but Tesla chief executive Elon Musk said during the company’s third-quarter earnings call that it would probably be in the range of 840,000 to 1 million cars.

Privacy monitor

Russian hackers were able to gain access to Microsoft’s source code.

The tech giant’s revelations signal that the hackers gained more access than was initially known, my colleague Ellen Nakashima reports. The intruder compromised an employee account through which it viewed the code — which is a critical component of potentially valuable, proprietary software. 

“We detected unusual activity with a small number of internal accounts and upon review, we discovered one account had been used to view source code in a number of source code repositories,” Microsoft said in a blog post.

The company did not specify what type of source code was accessed. But the details place Microsoft among a lengthy list of companies and government agencies that were victims of one of the most high-profile cyberespionage campaigns. The company previously disclosed weeks ago that it had detected malicious software in its system, which Ellen reports was a reference to a software patch from the firm SolarWinds that the Russians manipulated to potentially gain access to victims.


Just how bad was this year? These professors found answers on Twitter. (Travis M. Andrews)

Confessions of a Virtual Reality Gym Rat (New York Times)


– The Washington Post’s David Ignatius will interview Palantir chief executive Alex Karp to discuss how the company is helping foreign governments manage their coronavirus responses on Jan. 7 at 10 a.m. EST. 

– CES will take place virtually from Jan. 11-14.

Before you log off

We still cant go to Broadway, but at least theres TikTok. My colleague Peter Marks reviewed “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical” over the weekend. 

Check out how the show, based on the Disney movie, came together: