Before I begin this week’s newsletter I just want to thank you all for reading. I’ve heard from many of you over the last few weeks about how you are enjoying reading this and that means the world to me. Also helps to motivate me to keep doing it. So thank you!
On with the program…
Perhaps it’s just the circles I run in but, over the last few weeks, outside of the Supreme Court hearings a majority of what people seem to be writing and talking about is taking place overseas. This is not without cause given the war in Ukraine and major tech legislation dropping in the United Kingdom and the European Parliament. But that’s not what I’m going to talk about today. If you are interested in what’s happened this week I highly recommend you read Samuel Stolton in Politico, Casey Newton’s newsletter, or Alex Kantrowitz. Richard Allan’s podcast this week on Regulate.tech has all you need about the UK Online Safety bill. This is not to say these aren’t major stories - they are - I just don’t think I have much to add yet about them. (Plus, in all honesty, I’m still reading them).
What I do want to talk about today is the midterms. While our attention is focused elsewhere I’m worried that we are forgetting that we’ve already had one primary - Texas - and we have a slew of them coming our way here in May. And these primaries are already getting nasty - especially on the right.
FWIW Newsletter has a great piece out this week looking at some of those ads that we’re seeing in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. As they describe it, “Instead of reaching battleground state voters with messages about parents' rights, energy independence, or inflation, Republican Senate campaigns are currently defined by fistfights, finance bros, and domestic abuse allegations.”
Now, it makes sense that the candidates wouldn’t be focusing on general election messaging until after they get through their primaries, but what this story did remind me about is what challenges the tech companies might end up facing as soon as a month from now.
Not only do we have the issue of people potentially not realizing that redistricting happened and it’s legitimate that they are voting in a new Congressional district, but some of these candidates continue to push the belief that the 2020 election wasn’t legitimate. There’s going to be the potential of violence at the polls and maybe some of these candidates won't accept the results.
This is going to put the tech companies in a hard spot as people know all of the things that they did in the 2020 election such as putting labels under posts disputing the results and deplatforming President Trump after January 6. These things are much harder to do across thousands of races. Even quickly fact-checking any potential violence at the polls is difficult because there is always the chance that the story is true. When I was at Facebook we ran into that issue a few times overseas where we were concerned posts about violence could be voter suppression tactics and there wasn’t actually any violence or they could be true. This is where having close relationships with election officials on the ground is key.
We are just starting to see the companies announce their plans for the midterms. Google this week posted about many of the efforts they are undertaking. They’ve been at this for many election cycles and this is good work. However, it doesn’t really address some of these thorny questions that are coming their way. I know it can be really hard to address every hypothetical situation that might pop up, but I still think a little bit more transparency about how they are thinking about some of the things that might happen would go a long way in building trust for when they do have to make some of the difficult calls.
I haven’t seen any of the other companies make announcements yet (please shout if I missed something), but I do want to call out this post by Facebook this week about how they approach designing for safety and integrity. It’s very much worth a read because I think it’s far too easy for us to focus on the things that these companies aren’t doing and it’s much harder to see some of the things they are doing because we don’t encounter them in our day-to-day use of the product. In this post, they discuss some of the ways they add friction to the engagement process, more context, and encourage positive community norms. I’m so glad they are doing pieces like this to put all of this work in one spot.
Ok, I said I wanted to focus on the midterms but I can’t help myself to do a short blurb about what’s happening in Brazil. You’ll remember how in February I talked about how the Brazilian government couldn’t get a hold of Telegram and it was under threat of being shut down. Well, a Brazilian judge did just that and all of a sudden Telegram woke up. The CEO posted on his Telegram channel that they hadn't been checking the email account that the government had sent their inquiry to.
Now, I know this sounds like a lame excuse. But you know what, I believe it. I can’t tell you the number of times early on when I was at Facebook that we would hear on the news that someone had sent us a letter and we had no idea where it was. Sometimes they would send it via snail mail to headquarters. Sometimes it was to a generic contact email they found on the website. Sometimes we’d have to call the office up and politely ask them to send us a copy.
Regardless of if Telegram is lying or not about seeing the communication sooner, they jumped into action. Not only did they take down the accounts that the judge wanted them to but they promised to take measures to combat disinfo including:
Daily manual monitoring of the 100 most popular channels in Brazil.
Daily manual monitoring of all major Brazilian media.
Ability to mark specific posts in channels as inaccurate.
Public posting restrictions for users banned for spreading disinformation.
Terms of Service Update.
Legal and best practices analysis.
Promoting verified information.
All of this led to their ban being lifted. Can’t wait to see if they’ll do any of this in the United States or other places having elections. Especially given the network of far-right channels in the US.
Telegram wasn’t the only platform making news in Brazil, as YouTube also announced that it would be removing unproven voter fraud content ahead of the elections.
Finally, I want to take a moment to remember former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. Secretary Albright died this week at the age of 84. I was long an admirer of the Secretary and in 2018 I had the pleasure of meeting her during a few days in Berlin where a small group of us got together on the outskirts of the Atlantic Council’s 360/OS conference to talk about the future of technology and democracy. Maria Ressa, who was also a part of this group, wrote a beautiful piece about these days after hearing the news about Albright’s death. Like Maria remembers, I too was so impressed at how engaged the Secretary was in learning about these issues and even sitting down with some of the conference attendees to do a tabletop exercise. She blazed a path for so many people - men and women - about what being a global citizen should look like. She spoke up when it was warranted and she was there with words of encouragement when needed. I am so sad that I won’t get another opportunity to engage with her as we try to find this path forward to protect democracy around the world, but I am encouraged that so many of the people I work with were inspired by her too.
What I’m Reading
Jon Stewart: Where Does Mainstream Media Go Wrong
Stanford Cyber Policy Center: Automated Content Moderation: A Primer
Topics to keep an eye on that have a general timeframe of the first half of the year:
EU Passage of DSA and DMA
Facebook 2020 election research
Oversight Board opinion on cross-check
Senate & House hearings, markups, and potential votes
March 26 - Zimbabwe Elections
March 27 - Hong Kong & Lebanon Elections
April: The Gambia elections
April 3 - Hungary, Serbia, Belgrade City Assembly elections
April 10 and 24 - France elections
April 24 - 27 - Public Affairs Council’s Advocacy Conference in Austin, TX
May 3 - Ohio Primary (Open Senate race)
May 9 - Philippines elections
May 17 - North Carolina and Pennsylvania Primaries (Open Senate races)
May 21 (On or before) - Australia elections
May 23 (tentative): World Economic Forum, Davos
May 24 - Alabama and Georgia Primaries (AL open Senate race, GA Warnock defending seat)
May 29 - Colombia elections
June 6 (week of): Summit of the Americas, Los Angeles, CA
June 6-10: RightsCon, Online
June 6 - 7: Atlantic Council 360/Open Summit
June 9 - 10: Copenhagen Democracy Summit, Copenhagen, Denmark
June 25 - July 1: Aspen Ideas Festival, Aspen, Colorado
June 14 - Nevada Primary (Cortez Masto defending Senate seat)
August: Angola elections
August 2 - Arizona and Missouri Primaries (AZ Kelly defending Senate seat, MO open Senate race)
August 9 - Wisconsin Primary (Ron Johnson defending Senate seat)
August 9 - Kenya elections
September 11 - Sweden elections
September 13 - New Hampshire Primary (Hassan defending Senate seat)
October 2 and 30 - Brazil
November 8 - United States Midterms