Feb 28, 2019

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

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Any stories we should be chasing? Hit reply to this email or message me at steve@axios.com. Kaveh Waddell is at kaveh@axios.com and Erica Pandey at erica@axios.com.

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1 big thing: Battling the online mob

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Spooked by misinformation campaigns in the 2016 election, companies — concerned that coordinated attacks could drag their reputations through the mud — are hiring consultants to stave off politically motivated Twitter and Facebook mobs.

  • Kaveh writes: But their effort is rife with risks of its own, rooted in the hard-to-decipher difference between legitimate grassroots campaigns and online fraudsters who create the illusion of vast protest movements.

What's happening: Several young companies are pitching themselves to twitchy CEOs and nervous marketing departments, warning that their brands are vulnerable to coordinated social media blitzes that can ruin their standing and run down their stock value.

  • Austin-based New Knowledge has assembled big-name experts who they say can provide protection from such campaigns. It says it works with Fortune 100 companies, but won’t name them.
  • Morpheus Security, based in Israel, is gearing up to do the same.
  • Established companies like ZeroFOX, which monitors social media, are getting into the infant industry.

Who the enemy is: When a protest is legitimate, involving genuine concerns that have whipped up millions, that's a reputation problem requiring messaging. But these companies are also confronting what Robert Matney, communications director for New Knowledge, calls an asymmetry of passion: groups that deploy sneaky online tricks to appear fundamentally bigger and more important than they really are.

  • These campaigns "create a mirage of consensus which itself then becomes very persuasive to sincere, authentic citizens," Matney says. They do this by getting large groups of social media accounts — whether run by humans or bots — to amplify a message, creating the façade of a widespread movement.
  • It's as if you saw 100 demonstrations protesting the same thing in 100 cities — without realizing the protesters were the same at every event, says Morpheus co-founder Eran Reshef.
  • One answer then is to get them kicked off the platform where they are positioned.

But, but, but: There's no line to separate genuine collective action from the "influence campaigns" that these companies promise to protect against.

Take, for example, the apparent outpouring of social media outrage directed at Nike after its support of Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who, in 2016, knelt during the national anthem, which briefly affected the company's stock.

  • In a just-published report on the topic, Morpheus Security describes a network of politically motivated actors tweeting from a cue card provided by a shadowy group named “The New Movement.” Their actions, Morpheus suggests, moved the needle of public sentiment by mimicking a unified voice of dissent.
  • But when Kaveh called the number listed on the group’s site, he spoke with a man who identified himself as Tony Valenzuela from Tucson, Arizona, who said he and two other volunteers started The New Movement out of frustration with advertisers that were pulling their money from conservative media giants like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity.
  • He said he has legitimate followers, and that his goal is to hit back against left-leaning groups like Sleeping Giants, which encourages people to publicly shame advertisers into pulling their banners from Breitbart News.

It’s not clear who is right about the anti-Nike protest — whether it was a manipulative influence campaign or a grassroots marshaling of conservative grievances

So where is the line between authentic political organizing and illegitimate campaigns? Morpheus and New Knowledge say transparency is the essential differentiator.

  • “It’s something akin to the way that traditionally in the media we insist that advertising declare itself as advertising,” Matney says. “That’s not what’s happening here.”
2. Wake for the Atlantic alliance

FDR and Churchill, 1941. Photo: Print Collector/Getty

Again and again, President Trump has laid body punches into America's foremost allies, calling them deadbeats and threatening to withdraw from NATO, the military alliance that for 7 decades has helped prevent a new great power war.

  • But, while they will dispense with Trump's firebrand rhetoric and threats, a Democratic administration in 2020 — should Trump lose his re-election bid — would not bring the Atlantic alliance back to what it was.

"The Atlantic alliance as we know it is dead," write Philip Gordon and Jeremy Shapiro, both former officials in the Obama State Department, this week in Foreign Affairs.

  • In that framework, they look at how both a Trump or Democratic 2020 victory would play out, making their assessment from both sides of the Atlantic — Gordon as a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, and Shapiro as research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
  • If Trump wins, "the alliance could be reborn as a populist, nationalist, and racist partnership between the United States and governments in Hungary, Poland, Italy, or others."
  • Should a Democrat win, "we hope the new president will be more on the same page with Europe on climate change and Russia. But don't expect the nostalgic past in which Americans pay for Europe's defense and not expect Europe to pay its part," Gordon told Axios by phone today.

What would change under a Democratic administration, Gordon said: It would not question the legitimacy of the alliance. But Derek Chollet, executive vice president at the German Marshall Fund, said President Obama, too, drubbed European allies for a failure to meet the NATO spending floor of 2% of GDP on defense, and griped about "free riders" on the U.S. dime abroad.

  • One of Obama's signature foreign policy moves was a pivot to Asia, which upset Europeans. Chollet tells Axios that the Europeans saw their relations with the U.S. "in zero-sum terms."
  • Six straight U.S. defense secretaries have "banged the drum on spending more for defense," Chollet said.
3. Ford's China woes

Assembly line. Photo: Getty

Seven years ago, Ford made a $5 billion bet on the massive Chinese market. Today, amid an all-out trade war, that strategy is faltering.

Erica writes: The rise of ride-sharing apps as well as the popularity of China's homegrown automakers are strangling demand for American cars. The once-booming overseas factories of Ford and its peers have slowed down to a sluggish pace.

  • In Chongqing, Ford's 3 big plants that churn out Focus cars are all operating at 1/5 capacity, reports NYT.
  • This January, Ford sold 70% fewer cars in China as it did in the same month last year.
4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The race to become the all-in-one transport app (Kia Kokalitcheva — Axios)

The decline of Chinese consumption (Tom Hancock — FT)

New York's most punishing job interview (Lauren Weber — WSJ)

The recurring manufacturing slump (The Economist)

5. 1 fun thing: Presidential AI

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty

Someone made an AI company that lets you DeepFake your voice to sound like former President Obama — in real time.

Erica writes: Modulate.ai, a Massachusetts company, manipulates the properties of your voice as you speak, reports MIT Tech Review. The result? You can have a long phone conversation with your mom as Barack Obama.

Have a listen.

Bryan Walsh