Jul 13, 2020

Axios Login

It's a new week and we have some fresh Axios events to help you get smarter faster, as we say. Join Axios co-founder Mike Allen and health care reporter Caitlin Owens tomorrow at 12:30pm ET for a conversation on the future of telemedicine with Oscar Health CEO Mario Schlosser and FCC chair Ajit Pai.

Situational awareness: Massachusetts' Analog Devices is buying fellow chipmaker Maxim Integrated Products in a $21 billion all-stock deal, the companies announced Monday morning, a move that comes amid efforts to reinforce the U.S. semiconductor industry against a nascent competitive threat from China.

Today's Login is 1,386 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: Facebook's plan — make nice, but don't give in

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Facebook last week took steadily intensifying heat from fleeing advertisers and boycott leaders and received a big thumbs-down from its own civil-rights auditors. Its response essentially boils down to, "We hear you, but we'll carry on," Axios' Scott Rosenberg and Kyle Daly report.

The big picture: Early on in Facebook's rise, CEO Mark Zuckerberg learned to handle external challenges by offering limited concessions and soothing words, then charging forward without making fundamental changes.

Driving the news: On Friday, Bloomberg reported Facebook was weighing a temporary blackout on political ads right before the November election. That could give the social network a jump on reining in misinformation — but would hardly satisfy critics who have focused on Facebook's failure to curb hate speech or to moderate President Trump's violence-threatening tweets.

  • Facebook doesn't fact-check political ads and it lets political advertisers narrowly target people based on their location, interests and demographics. 
  • Last year, Google placed limits on such microtargeting, while Twitter got out of the political advertising game altogether.
  • Advocacy groups argue Facebook's permissive political ad policy encourages campaigns to spread misinformation and use advertising to suppress voting.

Yes, but: A pre-election political ad blackout wouldn't address the misinformation that floods social media through non-paid posts.

  • "Blacking out political ads is a solution in search of a problem. Political ads are now the *most monitored* content on Facebook, and are of little concern compared to the massive volume of organic electoral misinfo from groups & pages," tweeted former Facebook product manager James Barnes.
  • Political ads aren't even mentioned in the ad boycott organizers' list of 10 demands.

For the record: In a speech at Georgetown last fall, Zuckerberg said Facebook intended to place as much emphasis on freedom of speech as on protecting its users.

  • He described the company's two responsibilities: "to remove content when it could cause real danger as effectively as we can, and to fight to uphold as wide a definition of freedom of expression as possible."

What's next: Despite the ad boycott and strong criticism from independent auditors that the company had hired, there's no sign yet that Facebook intends to introduce the kinds of hate-speech limits critics are proposing.

  • Nor is there any sign Facebook will take action against President Trump, who is currently protected by the platform's pledge not to interfere with politicians' speech, even when it's arguably inciting violence. (It's possible Trump will see some posts flagged under Facebook's new policy to label posts that break its rules but are deemed newsworthy.)
  • Much at issue: A Trump tweet criticizing racial justice protesters in the wake of George Floyd's killing promised that "when the looting starts, the shooting starts." He borrowed the phrase from a 1960s Miami police chief's threat against civil rights protesters.

Flashback: When Facebook introduced its now-ubiquitous news feed in 2006, many users hated it and flooded the company with complaints. Zuckerberg made some changes but mostly dug in his heels. The outrage dissipated, and users ended up turning the news feed into the center of their digital lives.

  • Zuckerberg has drawn on this experience in every crisis since, from Cambridge Analytica and election-interference scandals to charges of monopolistic behavior.

Where it stands: As the holder of a majority of the company's voting shares, Zuckerberg is Facebook's absolute monarch. A wide enough and long enough boycott would surely trouble him, but Facebook's base of ad clients is much broader than that of, say, a TV network.

  • Millions of small businesses and individual advertisers would have to join the campaign on top of the big names already participating before Facebook's bottom line would start to seriously suffer.
  • In the meantime, expect Facebook to make small compromises and wait for the world's attention to move on.
2. Online conspiracy links child trafficking, furniture

Platforms including Reddit, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have been playing host to a conspiracy theory that picked up steam over the weekend claiming that furniture e-tailer Wayfair is a front for human trafficking. The charge is baseless, Axios' Kyle Daly reports.

Why it matters: The claims caught fire among QAnon, the online group that believes President Trump is fighting a secret war against deep-state pedophiles. Since beginning in 2017, QAnon has moved slowly toward mainstream notice, and a number of supporters of the fringe belief system are now running for Congress.

What's happening: Internet users are claiming that Wayfair listings for pricey cabinets and other furniture are in fact a way for predators to order children sent to their door.

  • Conspiracy theorists have seized on coincidental overlaps of product names with the names of children reported missing around the country.
  • The claims have spread widely online after appearing on the r/conspiracy subreddit late last week.
  • Twitter hasn't taken down many of the tweets spreading the claims because they don't appear likely to cause real-world harm, a spokesperson said. Facebook has added fact-checking labels to posts involving the conspiracy theory and is downranking them so they appear less prominently and frequently in people's feeds, according to spokesperson Liz Bourgeois.

Reality check: There's no question that the internet has been exploited by human traffickers, but there's no evidence that an e-commerce platform on the open web is actually being used to buy and sell children.

  • Hundreds of thousands of children are reported missing in the U.S. each year, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
  • It's no surprise that some of those children would share names with items of furniture named after people.
  • Several of the children that conspiracy theorists identified as having names matching Wayfair listings are in fact no longer missing.

What they're saying: 

"There is, of course, no truth to these claims. The products in question are industrial grade cabinets that are accurately priced. Recognizing that the photos and descriptions provided by the supplier did not adequately explain the high price point, we have temporarily removed the products from the site to rename them and to provide a more in-depth description and photos that accurately depict the product to clarify the price point."
— Wayfair spokesperson, to Newsweek

Our thought bubble: Conspiracy theories are fringe until they're not. Remember: President Trump entered politics by promoting a conspiracy theory that his predecessor wasn't born in this country.

3. Researchers develop an AI program with manners

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A team of scientists has developed a technique that automatically makes written sentences more polite, as Axios Future's Bryan Walsh reports.

Why it matters: As the authors themselves note in the paper, it is "imperative to use the appropriate level of politeness for smooth communication in conversations." And what better to determine the appropriate level of politeness than an unfeeling machine-learning algorithm?

What's new: In a paper presented this week at the annual meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University analyzed a dataset of 1.39 million sentences, each of which was labeled with a politeness score.

  • Using what is called a "tag and generate" approach, those sentences labeled as impolite were tagged, and then new text was generated to make the phrase nicer.
  • So a phrase like "send me the data" would be automatically restructured to read "could you please send me the data?"
  • Sometimes the system veered into outright editorializing, changing a sentence like "their chips are OK" to "their chips are great," which may be more polite but could inadvertently end up sending someone to a mediocre Mexican restaurant.

The bottom line: This paper is really, really fascinating, and I am absolutely not just being polite.

Go deeper: Rooting out AI bias

4. Qualcomm buys $97M stake in India's Reliance Jio

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Reliance Jio continues to rack up investment from a who's who of U.S. tech giants, with Qualcomm Ventures becoming the latest to take a stake in the Indian telecom firm. Qualcomm is investing around $97 million for a 0.15% stake in Jio Platforms, according to a press release.

Why it matters: Qualcomm's venture unit joins Facebook and Intel Capital in having invested in recent weeks, along with Silver Lake, Vista Equity Partners and General Atlantic.

Go deeper: Meet Jio, everyone's favorite Indian tech investment

5. Take Note

On Tap

Trading Places


  • Amazon sent a note to employees Friday telling them they needed to ditch TikTok if they wanted to access work email on their mobile devices. Then, later in the day, it said that message was in error, but declined to explain the shift. (Axios)
  • Customs and Border Protection has acknowledged that there is no real way for most Americans to avoid its license plate surveillance program, saying the only way to opt out is to avoid areas where operations take place, something it says is "generally unrealistic." (TechCrunch)
  • President Trump authorized a cyberattack on Russian trolls to disrupt possible efforts to meddle in the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. (Washington Post)
  • Google will invest up to $10 billion in India over the next five to seven years, focused on digitizing local businesses and using AI for "social good," among other priorities. (Google)
6. After you Login

I think I have just what you need to start the week: The musical "Hamilton" a la the Muppets. It may not be official, but it's officially fun if you are a fan of both musicals and Muppets.