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Keep scrolling for the latest on Google’s Pentagon pursuit and on the Pegasus Project. But first:

COP26 summit puts spotlight on climate misinformation online

The United Nations COP26 summit is bringing fresh scrutiny to the spread of misleading climate information online, with critics of social media giants like Facebook unleashing a wave of studies they say show companies are amplifying and profiting off climate change denial.

On Tuesday, the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) released a report that found a small group of publishers plays an oversized role in pushing content on Facebook that undermines climate science, including the far-right website Breitbart, as Cat Zakrzewski reported

And on Thursday, the “Stop Funding Heat” campaign is unveiling a new study they claim “shows Facebook’s climate misinformation problem is not only bigger than the company suggests, but that it stands to get even worse.” 

The group said it found at least 113 ads on Facebook between January and mid-October that misrepresented or undermined climate science, and estimated based on how frequently users interacted with the messages that they had been seen millions of times. And they found that a sample of 41 pages and groups that they identified as frequent posters of climate misinformation saw user engagements rise substantially from earlier this year.  

The actions arrive as global leaders including President Biden gather in Glasgow, Scotland, to hash out their plans to slow climate change, and as lawmakers on Capitol Hill consider climate provisions in their reconciliation talks.

Advocacy groups including SumOfUs and the unofficial “Real Facebook Oversight Board,” made up of critics of the tech giant, are rallying around the studies in an effort to put climate misinformation on the radars of policymakers worldwide, but particularly in Washington.

Facebook spokesman Kevin McAlister said the new report relied on “flawed methodology to suggest content on Facebook is misinformation when it’s really just posts these groups disagree with politically.” He said the company is “focused on reducing actual climate misinformation,” including by rejecting ads that have been debunked.

The findings are already catching the eye of some Democratic lawmakers, who for years have accused Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other digital platforms of not cracking down forcefully enough against misinformation, hate speech and other harmful content.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who has criticized tech companies when they have funded groups that challenge climate change, highlighted the CCDH report on Tuesday.

Facebook spokesman Andy Stone called the methodology of the CCDH report “flawed,” arguing that the study represents just 0.3 percent of the “over 200 million interactions on English public climate change content from pages and public groups over the same time period.”

Republicans have lashed out at liberal lawmakers in the past for pressuring tech companies to take a harder stance against climate misinformation, casting it as an affront on free speech and an attempt to “censor” conservative viewpoints on climate.

Climate misinformation was also a focus during a high-profile hearing with CEOs from top fossil fuel companies last week, where Democratic lawmakers grilled the executives about their messaging on social media platforms.

During one exchange, Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) questioned ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods about a reported uptick in their spending on Facebook ads since June, while lawmakers on Capitol Hill have considered major funding boosts for climate initiatives. 

Casten asked why the company would suddenly spend more on “a platform that’s designed to amplify disinformation.” Woods said at the time that he did not have the spending data available. 

In anticipation of the COP26 summit, which began Sunday and runs through Nov. 12, social media companies, including Facebook and Twitter, announced new initiatives aimed at curbing misinformation and surfacing authoritative news about climate change. 

Facebook global affairs chief Nick Clegg said the company planned to expand its hub for “factual resources” on climate change to more than 100 countries and increase the number of countries in which they apply informational labels to posts on climate, doubling them from eight to 16.

Twitter, meanwhile, unveiled a plan to “pre-bunk” climate misinformation by directing users to online hubs containing “credible, authoritative information” on the topic that will appear across several of the platform’s features, as Aaron Gregg reported

But recent disclosures by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen have called into question how effective these efforts are likely to be. According to Protocol, internal documents showed that earlier this year “users surveyed by the company still largely didn't know” Facebook’s hub for reliable climate information existed.

And critics of the company signaled this week that they view those actions as inadequate. “Facebook is late yet again, and its inaction continues to fuel the climate crisis,” wrote the “Stop Funding Heat” campaign.

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Google wants a major U.S. military contract years after its employees protested its relationship with the Pentagon

The company wants to work on a new Pentagon contract that replaced a $10 billion cloud-computing contract the military scrapped this year, the New York Times’s Daisuke Wakabayashi and Kate Conger report. Google’s cloud division is taking the contract seriously, declaring a “Code Yellow” situation internally. That allows it to redesignate engineers within the company to work on the military initiative.

The project could face opposition from Google employees. In 2018, the company decided not to renew a Pentagon artificial intelligence contract after thousands of employees signed a letter protesting the work.

“The outcry led Google to create guidelines for the ethical use of artificial intelligence, which prohibit the use of its technology for weapons or surveillance, and hastened a shake-up of its cloud computing business,” Wakabayashi and Konger write. “Now, as Google positions cloud computing as a key part of its future, the bid for the new Pentagon contract could test the boundaries of those A.I. principles, which have set it apart from other tech giants that routinely seek military and intelligence work.”

The Biden administration’s blacklisting of NSO Group could affect its ability to use technology made by U.S. tech giants

The federal government’s addition of Israeli spyware company NSO Group to its “entity list” means the company won’t be able to freely receive American technologies, Drew Harwell, Ellen Nakashima and Craig Timberg report.

“It’s unclear how much U.S.-originating technology NSO Group uses in its company tools,” they write. “But the listing could restrict NSO’s ability to use top-of-the-line cloud-computing services made by tech giants such as Amazon and Microsoft, or hinder its trade with American researchers who study the kinds of software exploits and vulnerabilities that NSO depends on for infecting phones.”

The blacklisting is a significant move by the U.S. government to rein in NSO Group. The company was the subject of an investigation this year by The Washington Post and 16 news organizations. The investigation found that NSO’s Pegasus spyware targeted human rights advocates, journalists and others worldwide.

NSO is “dismayed” by the blacklisting and will try to have it reversed, spokesperson Oded Hershkovitz said. NSO said its “rigorous” human rights policies “are based on the American values we deeply share, which already resulted in multiple terminations of contracts with government agencies that misused our products.”

A top Apple executive blasted Europe’s proposal to allow customers to install apps from outside its App Store

Giving users the ability to download apps from outside the App Store would be a “cybercriminal's best friend,” Apple software chief Craig Federighi said at a conference. The rules still need to be approved by E.U. lawmakers and countries, Reuters’ Supantha Mukherjee and Clara-Laeila Laudette report.

Apple critics have blasted the argument, saying that it deflects from criticisms about Apple’s power over app developers. It’s a “sideshow … designed to deflect the conversation away from the things that Apple is doing that are clearly anticompetitive,” Spotify Chief Legal Officer Horacio Gutierrez told Reuters. “No one is arguing that Apple should lower their standards for privacy and security … it's perfectly logical that Apple would set and enforce certain standards with respect to privacy.”

Rant and rave

After a nine-year wait, Twitter users will finally be able to see previews of Instagram posts. Journalist Casey Newton:

Protocol's Owen Thomas:

It also brought out (inevitable) jokes. Blogger and researcher Jane Manchun Wong:

Inside the industry

Mentions

  • President Biden has tapped former Microsoft executive Kurt DelBene to be the Department of Veterans Affairs’s assistant secretary for IT and chief information officer. DelBene is married to Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.).
  • Meredith Whittaker is officially joining the Federal Trade Commission as a senior adviser on artificial intelligence. Whittaker, a co-founder of the AI Now Institute, left Google in 2019 after leading internal protests at the company.

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Daybook

  • Tim Wu, a special assistant to President Biden for technology and competition policy, speaks at the American Bar Association Antitrust Law Section’s Fall Forum on Nov. 9. Acting assistant attorney general for antitrust Richard Powers; Washington, D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and three FTC commissioners also plan to speak.
  • Former undersecretary of defense Michele Flournoy and Shield AI co-founder Brandon Tseng discuss the U.S. military's digital transformation at a Washington Post Live event on Nov. 11 at noon.

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