with Aaron Schaffer

Sen. Mazie Hirono is calling out a Facebook executive for making a claim that “appears to be false” at a recent social media hearing.

Monica Bickert, Facebook's vice president for content and policy, told the Hawaii Democrat at an April hearing that the company does not allow the use of “some of the more sensitive targeting criteria” when placing ads for “certain types of advertisements, such as financial services advertisements or housing advertisements.” Facebook has in recent years overhauled its policies under legal pressure to withhold certain demographic details from advertisers when they're promoting housing, credit and job opportunities.

But now Hirono is demanding answers from Bickert in a new letter after the publication the Markup published a report that appears to contradict Bickert's testimony. The Markup reported in April it found 91 ads selling credit and home equity products to restricted age groups. The practice violates Facebook’s anti-discrimination policies and, in some instances, may violate federal or state civil rights laws. 

The senator wants to know how Facebook is ensuring it doesn't violate such laws, and she asked detailed questions about the criteria Facebook allows advertisers to use when targeting ads for housing, employment and financial services. 

Hirono's letter underscores how Democrats are zeroing in on the way social media's design can promote discrimination. 

For years, civil rights leaders have raised concerns about how social media algorithms and ad targeting tools can be abused in ways that harm people of color, or exclude women and certain age groups from financial or housing opportunities. There's a growing push among Democrats to pass legislation ensuring that algorithms and ad-targeting products aren't being abused to discriminate against certain protected classes. 

Hirono says the issue is bigger than just the Markup's findings. As part of a 2019 settlement, Facebook agreed to block advertisers from targeting housing, employment and credit ads based on age, gender and Zip code, which can be used as a proxy for race. But Hirono worries the company hasn't stopped a broader range of financial services product ads from being targeted based on these characteristics.

Facebook says it doesn't allow credit card advertisers to use restricted targeting options, but it didn't respond to the questions Hirono raised about financial services products broadly. 

“We've reviewed and removed ads from these businesses that ran in violation of this policy,” Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said in a statement. “Our enforcement is never perfect since machines and human reviewers make mistakes, but we're always working to improve.”

Recent lawsuits against Facebook claim the company allowed ads for insurance, bank accounts, debit cards, and investment opportunities to target ads in a way that they weren't shown to women and older people. Hirono says Facebook's responses to those lawsuits indicate it allows such a practice, as long as the ads aren't for credit. 

“Your testimony made no such distinction,” Hirono wrote in her letter to Bickert. 

Her letter also highlights Facebook's growing credibility problems in Washington. 

Facebook has a major trust problem in Washington, and statements such as this don't help. Bickert appeared in front of Congress with other tech executives, after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress several times in the past year amid concerns about disinformation and the company's power. 

Hirono suggested in her letter that this wasn't the first time that a Facebook executive had made false statements to Congress. She pointed to a CNN column from 2018, which raised questions about the accuracy of Zuckerberg's statements to Congress about the company's privacy practices in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. 

“Unfortunately, this is not the first time a Facebook witness appears to have been less than truthful to a congressional committee,” Hirono wrote in the letter. 

Our top tabs

Victims have sent more than $2 million in cryptocurrency to scammers posing as Elon Musk in the past six months.

The incidents are a part of an alarming growth in cryptocurrency scams, which resulted in losses of more than $80 million since October, the Federal Trade Commission reported. That's a nearly 1,000 percent increase in financial losses from the same time period last year and 12 times as many victims, my colleague Tonya Riley reports. 

In one popular form of the scam, cybercriminals hack verified social media accounts and then use them to pose as prominent celebrities like Musk. Such scams have been around for years, but social media platforms have struggled to crack down on them.

Spikes in the scams have coincided with an increase in interest from amateur investors in the incredibly volatile market. 

“These types of scams persist through bear markets, but thrive in bull markets because of first time investors hoping not to miss the opportunity to make significant profits,” Satnam Narang, a researcher at cybersecurity firm Tenable, said in an email. “Because cryptocurrency is not a traditional investment, the allure of giveaways, especially those with celebrity impersonations of figures like Elon Musk, are likely to be more successful.”

An online network connected to a Chinese businessman amplified disinformation, researchers found. 

The network amplified the views of Chinese businessman Guo Wengui, who had ties to former White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon, by attacking the safety of coronavirus vaccines and promoting false claims such as the idea the 2020 election was stolen, the research firm Graphika said in a new report. The researchers' findings underscore how wealthy and politically connected people can influence social media, Jeanne Whalen, Craig Timberg and Eva Dou report

The researchers uncovered thousands of accounts that “appear to be run by real people but solely amplify Guo-related content” across social networks. The network includes media websites such as GTV, for which Guo last year publicly said he was raising funds, and GNews, a media website Guo has publicly suggested he helped establish. 

Daniel Podhaskie, a Guo spokesman, told my colleagues he does not control the content on GTV or GNews. He compared GTV to social networks such as Facebook and said implying that Mr. Guo is responsible for everything that is posted on this platform is ludicrous.”

Apple made concessions to the Chinese government and proactively banned some apps in the country.

The company has stored Chinese user data on servers managed by Chinese state employees and has stored the keys for accessing data in those same facilities, the New York Times’s Jack Nicas, Raymond Zhong and Daisuke Wakabayashi report. The report injects fresh scrutiny into Apple’s practices in China, where it has rapidly expanded and Apple CEO Tim Cook has met with the country’s top leaders.

The company has also blacklisted apps with ties to the Dalai Lama and Guo. An Apple employee who was fired after allowing an app linked to Guo on the Chinese App Store filed a lawsuit against the company, claiming that he was ousted to appease China.

The company says it removed the app in China because it found that it was illegal there, and that it fired the Apple employee because of poor performance.

In a statement, Apple said it followed Chinese laws and has “never compromised the security of our users or their data in China or anywhere we operate.” A spokesman also said that the company controls the keys protecting Chinese user data.

Rant and rave

The Times story has already gotten attention on Capitol Hill. Rep. Ken Buck (Colo.), the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel:

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.): 

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  • Parler, the right-leaning social media network that relaunched on Apple’s App Store on Monday, has named U.K. conservative George Farmer as its CEO.
  • President Biden plans to nominate Matt Olsen, the chief trust and security officer at Uber, to lead the Justice Department’s National Security Division, the Wall Street Journal’s Dylan Tokar reports.
  • Hugo Barra, a Facebook executive who worked on augmented and virtual-reality technology, says he has left the company. He wrote that he plans to “explore the health-care technology space.”

Daybook

  • A Senate Commerce Committee panel holds a hearing on protecting children online today at 10 a.m.
  • Shirley Bloomfield, the CEO of NTCA The Rural Broadband Association, testifies before a Senate Finance Committee hearing on infrastructure funding today at 10 a.m.
  • Former Texas congressman Will Hurd discusses the national security threats posed by artificial intelligence at a Washington Post Live event today at 10 a.m.
  • A House Energy and Commerce Committee panel holds a hearing on vehicle technology today at 10:30 a.m.
  • Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) and former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick discuss how to protect Americans on online platforms at a Future of Tech Commission town hall today at noon.
  • The Senate Commerce Committee meets to consider Eric Lander, President Biden’s nominee to lead the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, on Thursday at 10 a.m.
  • Political theorist Langdon Winner discusses technology and democracy at an event hosted by the University of Washington’s Tech Policy Lab on Thursday 8:30 p.m.

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