Oct 21, 2019

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

This week should be nice and quiet.

Not really, but wasn't that a great thought to hold for a second? Anyway, on with the week!

Today's Login is 1,323 words (a 5-minute read).

1 big thing: Trump still has a digital lead

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

As the 2020 election inches closer, Republicans continue to enjoy the digital edge they seized in 2016, Axios' Sara Fischer and I report.

Why it matters: Online ad spending offers President Trump an efficient way to target sympathetic voters with fundraising pitches and barrage them with inflammatory messages on issues ranging from immigration to impeachment.

  • It's especially cost-effective on Facebook, because there, the more an ad proves "engaging" — i.e., hot, attention-grabbing, clicky — the cheaper it is.
  • It's a system made for Trump's style.

The big picture: This conflict, as we've been reporting, is unfolding on platforms that have given politicians a nearly unlimited free pass to tell lies.

Driving the news:

By the numbers: Trump's campaign was massively outspending Democrats online earlier this year, as Sara reported in March. But many Democrats have recently opened the floodgates, too.

  • In the last 90 days, Facebook reports say, Trump's campaign has spent approximately $5.3 million on Facebook ads. That's less than the $5.7 million spent by one Democratic candidate, Tom Steyer.
  • Biden may have retreated from the digital field, at least for now, but his rivals have not.

Between the lines: What differentiates the parties is less dollar totals than tactics.

  1. Trump's messages are effective at grabbing attention, and his team — led by a campaign manager, Brad Parscale, who was the Trump digital lead in 2016 — relentlessly experiments and tests messages.
  2. As is the norm with incumbents, Trump can focus his message on Democratic rivals (and fighting impeachment) while his challengers are still competing to determine who will be the party's nominee.
  3. Some Democrats have brought digital ad buying and strategy in-house to cut costs. That could make it harder for them to tap the kind of up-to-date thinking and savvy agencies can offer.
  4. Both sides have invested in texting infrastructure. But so far, Republicans have the edge in using text messages for fundraising and messaging.

Yes, but: Democrats have the advantage in small-dollar online donations.

  • ActBlue, a payment processing system used by most of the major Democratic presidential candidates, has pioneered small-dollar donations and donation tracking since 2016.
  • WinRed, the Republicans' rival system, only launched in July.

Our thought bubble: It's hard to envision any candidate winning the 2020 race without a top-notch strategy for digital and social media.

What's next: CEO Mark Zuckerberg will talk about Facebook's role in the 2016 and 2020 elections on an interview with NBC News' Lester Holt this evening.

2. What we're using: Google Pixel 4

Photo: Google

One of the things I've always liked about the Pixel line is that, for an iPhone user, it's always the easiest of the major Android offerings to adapt to.

That continues with the latest model, the Pixel 4. I've only had my review unit for a couple days, but as with past models, there's virtually no learning curve.

What's to like:

  • For journalists, students and others that have to take meeting notes, the Pixel 4 has one heck of a selling point: The new recorder app is capable of automatically transcribing voice recordings.
  • Google has put a lot of focus on the camera as well, adding a zoom lens and further improving night photography, a strong point on last year's Pixels.
  • At $799, the Pixel 4 starts out cheaper than the flagship models from Samsung and Apple.

What's not:

  • As much as I like more compact phones, the smaller model is starting to feel a bit too small, especially given its comparatively large bezels.
  • The Face Unlock feature works when you are looking right at the device, but seems to struggle from other angles. Also, unlike the iPhone, it works when a user's eyes are closed, a potential security risk. (Google says it will add an option to prevent this in the coming months.)
  • A rather paltry battery means that heavy users probably won't get a full day of use.

The fine print: The Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL go on sale Thursday, with the larger model starting at $899. Unlike with past launches, the Pixel 4 family will be available from all the major carriers.

The bottom line: One of the best Android phones just got better. At least at first blush, the Pixel 4 seems to be a solid choice for mainstream customers who want a powerful, easy-to-use Android phone.

3. Huawei plans to license 5G tech in U.S.

Huawei's Germany headquarters. Photo: Rolf Vennenbernd/picture alliance via Getty Images

Chinese telecom giant Huawei has reportedly held early-stage discussions in recent weeks with unnamed U.S. telecoms companies on "licensing its 5G network technology to them," a Huawei executive told Reuters.

Why it matters: The U.S. and China are locked in a race to get 5G networks up and running to connect devices and machines at lightning speed, Orion Rummler reports.

U.S. critics have accused Huawei of assisting Chinese espionage, benefiting from the theft of trade secrets and violating trade sanctions. Historically, the U.S. has preferred European equipment-makers Ericsson and Nokia as suppliers of 5G technology.

Go deeper: Why Huawei is the United States' 5G boogeyman

4. In AI we trust — too much

AI systems intended to help people make tough choices — like prescribing the right drug or setting the length of a prison sentence — can instead end up effectively making those choices for them, thanks to human faith in machines.

And as Axios' Kaveh Waddell reports, humans are not only outsourcing the responsibility for these hard calls, but also placing too much stock in their algorithmic decisions.

How it works: These programs generally offer new information or a few options meant to help a human decision-maker choose more wisely. But an overworked or overly trusting person can fall into a rubber-stamping role, unquestioningly following algorithmic advice.

Why it matters: Over-reliance on potentially faulty AI can harm the people whose lives are shaped by critical decisions about employment, health care, legal proceedings and more.

The big picture: This phenomenon is called automation bias. Early studies focused on autopilot for airplanes — but as automation technology becomes more complex, the problem could get much worse with more dangerous consequences.

  • AI carries an aura of legitimacy and accuracy, burnished by overeager marketing departments and underinformed users.
  • But AI is just fancy math. Like any equation, if you give it incorrect inputs, it will return wrong answers. And if it learns patterns that don't reflect the real world, its output will be equally flawed.

Where it stands: Automation bias caused by simpler technologies has already been blamed for real-world disasters.

  • In 2016, a patient was prescribed the wrong medication when a pharmacist chose a similarly named drug from a list on a computer. A nurse noticed — but administered the meds anyway, assuming the electronic record was correct. The patient had heart and blood pressure problems as a result.
  • In 2010, a pipeline dumped nearly 1 million gallons of crude oil into Michigan wetlands and rivers after operators repeatedly ignored "critical alarms." They were desensitized because of previous false alarms, according to a 2016 post-mortem report — showing another threat from over-reliance on machines.

Kaveh's full report is here, and worth a read.

5. Take Note

On Tap

It's a very busy conference week.

Trading Places

  • Lisa Nelson is stepping down as managing director of M12, Microsoft's venture capital unit, per GeekWire.
  • Gojek CEO Nadiem Makarim is stepping down to join Indonesian President Joko Widodo's cabinet.


  • German researchers created malicious voice assistant apps that spy on users, and Google and Amazon approved them. (Ars Technica)
  • Google's share of the U.S. online ad market will dip slightly this year, while Amazon is seen gaining, per eMarketer. (MediaPost)
  • Oracle co-CEO Mark Hurd died Friday at age 62. (Axios)
  • Politicians from across the political spectrum lambasted Apple on Friday for removing an iPhone app used by protesters in Hong Kong to track police movements. (The Verge)
  • Russian hackers took over Iranian hackers' systems, and U.S. and U.K. intelligence agencies have now exposed both. (Axios)
6. After you Login

I think you need this to get your week started — two string instrument performers playing a duet across the tracks, on opposite platforms of a New York subway station.

Ina Fried