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Facebook political ad tools are ripe for trolling

A little form field is giving Facebook a lot of trouble.

We’ve talked in recent weeks about the new “dark money” on Facebook. Earlier this year, the company began to require advertisers to verify their identities, a task they accomplish by typing in a code that they receive via a mailed postcard.

The trouble is that when advertisers post their ads, Facebook does not require them to post their verified identity. Instead, they can type whatever they want into a free-form field. And when people can lie on Facebook, they do.

Journalists have unearthed several instances of misrepresentation to date. There was the liberal group sneakily targeting conservatives with messages about universal health care. There was the anonymous person smearing a Democratic Congressional candidate in Virginia.

This week, journalists realized that they could use this hack to perform attention-getting stunts, and the unlikely genre of fake political ad Facebook trolling was born.

On Tuesday, Vice’s William Turton wrote that he posed as 100 senators in the “paid for” field, and had his ads approved anyway. That inspired Business Insider’s Shona Ghosh to buy political ads “paid for” by Facebook’s mortal enemy, the banned research company Cambridge Analytica. Stay tuned for tomorrow, when I predict that Refinery29 will seek approval for an ad paid for by The Guys Responsible for The 50 Million-User Data Breach.

Facebook’s stance on this issue is that regulating political advertising is the job of the government, not the tech platform. I’m sympathetic to this view — I’d rather have one standard that applied to all advertisers, rather than a patchwork of inconsistent rules across platforms.

In The Verge, Makena Kelly looks at the sorry state of Congressional efforts to create such a regulation.

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO), a sponsor on the House version of the same bill voiced similar sentiments. “Paid political advertising should be subject to the same disclosure requirements regardless of what form it takes—the Honest Ads Act I introduced would assure such,” Coffman said to The Verge. “The American people deserve to know who’s paying for the ads they see on the Internet just as much as they do the ads they see on TV or hear on the radio.”

In the meantime, lying about who you are in Facebook’s “paid for” field, no matter how hilarious, is against the company’s rules and will get your ads banned. That said, it’s another case where Facebook has opted for maximum expression up front, with after-the-fact enforcement. And when the dust clears after next week’s midterm elections, the company may want to reconsider that decision.

Democracy

How Congress could rein in Google and Facebook

Makena Kelly looks at Congress’ plans for a new national data privacy law, which could borrow elements of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation:

Industry leaders and consumer advocates are already locking horns over the provisions of the bill, like whether it will prohibit states from enacting their own tougher privacy rules or exactly how it will define personal information. This fight will determine how the US government will be able to restrain predatory privacy practices for the foreseeable future.

“These developments have all combined to put the issue of consumer data privacy squarely on Congress’ doorstep,” Thune said ahead of a commerce hearing last month. “The question is no longer whether we need a federal law to protect consumers’ privacy. The question is what shape that law should take.”

UK and Canada join forces to summon Mark Zuckerberg for questioning

Politicians from the UK and Canada have requested the honor of Mark Zuckerberg’s presence at a November 27th committee hearing on online misinformation. If Zuckerberg is unavailable, I have memorized all Facebook talking points about misinformation and am willing to testify if necessary.

In a letter to the Facebook chief signed by UK MP Damian Collins and Canadian MP Bob Zimmer, Zuckerberg has been asked to face questions from an “international grand committee on disinformation and fake news” at an event in London on November 27th.

“We understand that it is not possible to make yourself available to all parliaments,” write Collins and Zimmer. “However, we believe that your users in other countries need a line of accountability to your organization — directly, via yourself. We would have thought that this responsibility is something that you would want to take up.”

Inside the Trump administration’s rudderless fight to counter election propaganda

Eric Geller has your periodic reminder that the Trump Administration has no plan to counter Russian interference in our elections:

A month after the Sept. 21 meeting, the Trump administration still has no strategy for fighting disinformation campaigns aimed at swaying U.S. elections, three people knowledgeable about the matter told POLITICO — less than a week before voters nationwide return to the polls.

In the absence of high-level White House coordination, the administration is letting individual agencies such as the FBI, the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security make decisions about how to respond to foreign governments’ attempts to use social media and other propaganda to undermine U.S. elections, according to people who have been briefed on or participated in the administration’s discussions of the issue. That means broader strategic questions remain unresolved because of White House turf wars, agencies’ competing priorities, political sensitivities and a lack of experience with a relatively new threat, the people say.

Elsewhere

The Business of Internet Outrage

Kevin Roose guests hosts The Daily today and delivers a must-listen story about a factory worker who quit his job to write hyper-partisan articles for Facebook, until he and his wife were making $120,000 a month. What comes across is the utter cynicism involved of the people who are helping to polarize the country. And the story’s kicker is absolutely chilling.

Facebook bans Proud Boys accounts, groups after New York assault

On Tuesday, I wrote about how Instagram would have to ask itself why it permitted figures like Gavin McInnes, leader of the Proud Boys, to have a home on the platform. A few minutes later, Rob Price broke the news that Facebook was getting rid of the Proud Boys across Facebook and Instagram.

How Facebook Failed To Build A Better Alexa (Or Siri)

Parmy Olson has a juicy story about how Facebook acquired multiple speech-recognition companies in hopes of developing a voice assistant, but stalled as corporate infighting led to stagnation. It gets at something I hear from ex-Facebook folks a lot: that quarterly review cycles mean that people tend to take on projects that can be completed within three months to impress their managers, at the expense of longer-term thinking.

Many product managers who worked on Facebook’s voice ambitions didn’t have a clear understanding of the technology involved, the source added. The managers also tended to change every three to six months, just as core researchers were gravitating to the prestigious FAIR and AML divisions. The effect was like constantly repotting a tree and not giving it a chance to take root and grow. Facebook ultimately lacked “a cohesive team that stays with a problem.”

Facebook introduces Workplace domain to calm enterprise security fears

Sal Rodriguez has a nice scoop about Workplace, the product that dares to ask whether your company wouldn’t be better off if it ran on Facebook. The company is shifting to another domain, Workplace.com, in hopes that people will stop associating so closely with the company that has lately become known for its data privacy issues. (Cocktail party conversation: which product had worse timing, Workplace or Portal?)

Teens use group Messenger chats very differently than adults

This week on Why’d You Push That Button, Ashley Carman and Kaitlyn Tiffany talk with Facebook Messenger’s Asha Sharma about why people leave group chats.

From Silicon Valley elite to social media hate: The radicalization that led to Gab

Craig Timberg, Drew Harwell, Elizabeth Dwoskin, and Emma Brown profile Gab founder Andrew Torba in the wake of one of its users allegedly murdering 11 people at a synagogue:

But the bans and crackdowns haven’t curbed Gab’s growth. There are now about 800,000 users, said Sanduja, compared with 10,000 two years ago. The company’s few employees are all under 30 and number fewer than half a dozen, including Torba and his wife, Sanduja said.

But there are signs that the company’s fractious public image has taken a toll on its leadership. Ekrem Buyukkaya, a Turkey-based developer who co-founded Gab with Torba, said on Sunday that he would step down as the company’s chief technology officer because of “attacks from the American press.” The company had previously said in an SEC filing that Buyukkaya’s work was crucial to its “future success.” Buyukkaya did not respond to requests for comment.

Gab’s CEO Says Pittsburgh Suspect Doesn’t Represent The Site. But He Spent Years Recruiting Racists Like Him

Jessica Schulberg argues that Torba’s own social-media posts help explain why white nationalists have flocked to Gab:

As Gab grew, Torba promoted a Canadian supporter of eugenics, a British conspiracy theorist who posts incoherent videos about George Soros and ISIS helping Africans pretending to be refugees get into Europe, and a far-right troll who was eventually banned from Lyft and Uber for complaining about “Islamic immigrant” drivers.

Last December, when Nehlen told a dual Israeli-American citizen who called for gun reform that she should leave the U.S. because she was only loyal to Israel — a common anti-Semitic trope — Torba reposted Nehlen’s tweet on Facebook, and wrote “B A S E D,” a term racists often use to approvingly describe other racists.

Where Trolls Reigned Free: A New History of Reddit

David Streitfeld reviews We Are the Nerds, Christine Lagorio-Chafkin’s new history of Reddig:

Christine Lagorio-Chafkin, a writer for Inc. magazine, tells the Reddit story in “We Are the Nerds.” The two co-founders, Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian, cooperated extensively. I admire them for doing so because despite Lagorio-Chafkin’s best efforts — Ohanian is called “charismatic” or celebrated for his “charisma” on Pages 47, 158, 214, 223 and 330 — they come off as whiny and callow schemers, and not the sharpest of sticks. On the very first page, the two University of Virginia seniors cannot figure out what a “kiosk” is.

The title “We Are the Nerds” doesn’t really fit the tale. “We Are the Trolls” would have made much more sense. “I was always kind of an [expletive],” Huffman explains early on. Lagorio-Chafkin bluntly calls him “a total troll.” He was also a genius programmer. The great achievement of the social internet was to unleash jerkdom for many while monetizing it for a few.

Launches

Twitter tests homescreen button to easily switch to reverse chronological

Twitter is testing a new button that lets you switch back and forth from a ranked feed to a purely chronological feed. I personally would find this useful — I continue to use Tweetbot for some things in large part because of its chronological feed.

After canceling ‘Rift 2’ overhaul, Oculus plans a modest update to flagship VR headset

Lucas Matney furthers his reporting on a change that contributed to Oculus cofounder Brendan Iribe leaving the company last week, saying that Facebook’s next flagship VR headset will get only moderate improvements:

In the wake of the overhaul’s cancellation, the company will be pursuing a more modest product update — possibly called the “Rift S” — to be released as early as next year, which makes minor upgrades to the device’s display resolution while more notably getting rid of the external sensor-tracking system, sources tell us. Instead, the headset will utilize the integrated “inside-out” Insight tracking system, which is core to Facebook’s recently announced Oculus Quest standalone headset.

Seven scary stories to tell by the light of your screen

Our deputy editor asked us all to tell a spooky (fictional) story for Halloween. I turned in one about deepfakes:

Dana’s heart dropped. She searched for news of the bombing across social media using the hashtag that everyone seemed to be using. What she saw was unrecognizable.

Every video she saw showed a different person carrying a bomb into the rally. Some showed the candidate herself carrying it in, in terrifying detail. Others showed long-dead historical figures and pop stars sneaking into the facility, their arms laden with explosives. One showed a beautifully animated Mickey Mouse as the culprit.

Takes

Facebook’s Stories Story ($)

Ben Thompson does a masterful job sorting fact from spin on the Facebook earnings call. He makes a case that News Feed has become a legacy product faster than anyone was expecting, at the same time that the company has struggled to monetize stories:

In short, I do think the overall story about the shift to Stories is true; what I am questioning is the degree to which Facebook is following the market versus attempting to counteract an unexpected decline in traditional Facebook usage. The latter more closely fits Occam’s Razor.

Thank you

To the individual who, responding to a request for Halloween costume photos, yesterday, sent me a picture of her son dressed as a hacked SuperMicro chip from the controversial Bloomberg story. Today’s newsletter is dedicated to your family.

And finally …

I’m Obsessed With These Ugly Mansions On Zillow

Katie Notopolous can’t stop looking at hideous $10 mansion on Zillow:

Laughing at someone who has terrible taste, even if they happen to have vast buying power, is a kind of class catharsis. Yes, these people are very rich and I am not, but look at the dumb things these rubes spent their millions on. Ha! It feels good to laugh at rich people, doesn’t it? Isn’t that what the joy of the New York Times Real Estate section is? Sure, maybe it’s snobby. I’m not saying I have amazing taste in home decor; I don’t. But I also don’t have $12 million and a swimming pool with a lazy river, a replica Statue of Liberty, or oddly phallic swirling marble columns in every room.

I hope to have all these things, someday. But for that I’ll need more people to subscribe to the newsletter. Forward it to a friend who needs it!

Talk to me

Send me tips, comments, questions, and more Halloween costume photos, if you have any: casey@theverge.com.


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