Nov 20, 2020

Axios Login

A quick note to say that I will be off next week. The team will have you covered for the beginning part of the week and then we will be off a couple days for Thanksgiving. I hope the holiday is safe and meaningful for all of you and want to let you know that among the many, many things I am thankful for is the ability to be in your inbox (even on days I am stuffed between a coupon and that annoying family member of yours).

Today's Login is 1,383 words, about a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: Misinformation flood control is Biden's day 1 challenge

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

President-elect Joe Biden will enter office with no fast fixes at hand to stem a tide of online misinformation that has shaped election-year politics and, unchecked, could undermine his presidency, Axios' Kyle Daly reports.

Where it stands: Election and coronavirus misinformation spreading widely on digital platforms has already done serious damage to the U.S., and it's bound to go into overdrive as the Biden administration starts enacting its agenda.

The big picture: The internet isn't necessarily where conspiracy theories, rumors and targeted disinformation (intentionally spread misinformation) begin. But it's almost always where they put down roots and spread.

The misinformation flood has already accelerated political polarization and deepened the pandemic crisis.

  • Most experts agree that President Trump's repetitions of unsubstantiated claims of election fraud qualify as misinformation. But every effort by online platforms to limit them triggers outcries of "censorship" from his supporters.
  • After Biden's White House move-in date, we can expect less virus misinformation to flow directly from the presidential pulpit.
  • But huge damage to public trust has already taken place as science has become politicized, and measures to toughen online platforms against new misinformation can't restore that trust.

Particularly concerning is the prospect of mis- and disinformation circulating to discourage people from getting a coronavirus vaccine once one arrives.

  • "Obviously, disinformation around the election is important, but disinformation about the vaccine will have a body count," Alex Stamos, former Facebook security chief and head of the Stanford Internet Observatory, told Axios.
  • One idea for stemming the damage: Stamos suggests designating vaccine distribution as critical infrastructure. That would authorize government cyber operators to monitor for disinformation and work with federal, state and local officials to stamp it out.

More broadly, Biden will have few remedies at hand to alter the dynamics that have unleashed the misinformation flood.

  • Some Democrats have floated making platforms culpable for misinformation they fail to remove. But partisan differences make enactment of that idea unlikely.
  • Many Democrats view Trump's executive order targeting Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects online platforms from lawsuits over moderation calls and user-posted content, as sloppy and unconstitutional. Its provisions will likely vanish after Jan. 20.
  • The larger debate over whether to update Section 230 will continue. Biden himself wants to end the law.
  • But revoking or limiting Section 230 protections could end up opening the misinformation floodgates, if platforms decide to moderate less so they're not liable as publishers.

A less dysfunctional approach to managing the pandemic by the Biden administration could help reset the misinformation environment, Karen Kornbluh, a former Clinton and Obama administration official who is now director of the German Marshall Fund's Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative, told Axios.

  • "There's a real opportunity to start getting people to feel more civic-minded and also help them understand how to get access to trusted information," she said.
  • Such an effort could include something like a "digital version of FDR's fireside chats walking people through the facts, the latest developments, and what they need to do to get through the emergency together."
  • Another option Obama White House veteran and former Facebook policy staffer Dipayan Ghosh has suggested: The administration could strike an agreement with industry to share data on disinformation campaigns as they're spreading.

The bottom line: Combating misinformation is likely to prove Biden's toughest tech challenge. Other tech policy efforts on issues like the digital divide and antitrust action against Big Tech can float up and down administration priority lists, but taming misinformation's existential threat is in a class by itself.

2. BuzzFeed buys HuffPost as digital media consolidate

BuzzFeed has agreed to buy progressive news website HuffPost from Verizon Media in an all-stock deal, the companies announced Thursday Axios' Sara Fischer reports.

Why it matters: HuffPost was once one of the most-trafficked news websites on the internet, but an over-reliance on social media distribution and a lack of strategic vision stripped the site of relevance in recent years.

  • The company — which was co-founded as the Huffington Post by BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti, Arianna Huffington and media mogul Ken Lerer — was renamed HuffPost in 2017.
  • Its big, bold headlines and its sprawling network of contributors allowed it to scale across the internet quickly.
  • Verizon Media has been looking for a buyer for HuffPost for years.

Deal details: Verizon Media will invest in BuzzFeed, taking a minority stake in company. The deal is expected to close at the beginning of next year.

  • According to an internal memo sent from Peretti to staff, little will change in the short term on a day-to-day-basis.
  • BuzzFeed News will remain a separate news organization, as will HuffPost. HuffPost will continue to operate its own website, social channels and app. It will also have its own editor-in-chief, which the company is still looking to hire.

What's in it for BuzzFeed? Scale for cheap.

  • BuzzFeed will add HuffPost to its network of big internet brands that perform well on social media.

What's in it for HuffPost? A lifeline.

  • Verizon has had to write down nearly half of its media investments that stem from pricey acquisitions of sites like AOL and Yahoo.
  • AOL bought HuffPost for $315 million in 2011. At the time, HuffPost's sale was considered one of the most successful venture capital exits in media.

What they're saying: The companies are billing the deal as a combination of synergies that will "unlock revenue for both companies through content syndication, new sales opportunities, commerce and [augmented reality]."

Our thought bubble: Once an online media property becomes a playing card that gets traded around the table, it's usually a sign that the vision and energy of the founding team and staff are long gone and the outlet is on an irreversible downward slide.

Note: Former HuffPost co-founder and chairman Ken Lerer, who also served as the chairman to BuzzFeed, is an investor in Axios.

3. Roblox gaming platform files to go public

Roblox, a Silicon Valley-based social gaming platform for tweens and teens, on Thursday filed for a $1 billion initial public offering, Axios' Dan Primack reports.

Why it matters: Roblox was big business before the pandemic, but really skyrocketed once kids were stuck at home due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Financial details: Roblox reports $206 million of losses on $589 million in revenue for the first nine months of 2020, compared to $46 million in losses on $350 million for the same period in 2019.

Usage: The company reports 31.1 million daily active users, and 22.2 billion engaged hours during the first three quarters of 2020.

Investors: The company has raised $335 million since its 2004 founding, most recently this past February at a $4 billion valuation.

Our thought bubble: The pandemic supercharged Roblox's business, making it a leader in what's likely to be a raft of companies that happened to have the right tech business for a socially-distanced time.

4. Cloud gaming services use iPhone's web browser door

One of the biggest trends in gaming is the ability to play console games wherever you are, on whatever type of device, thanks to the magic of cloud streaming. The tricky part has been finding a way to bring such gaming to iOS — since Apple wants to review and approve each game as a separate app.

Yes, but: Google, Nvidia and Microsoft have decided to work around, rather than with, Apple's rules. In recent weeks, all three have announced plans to bring their game services to iOS via the web browser — the one big opening in the wall around Apple's garden.

Driving the news:

  • Google said Thursday that it will begin public testing of its Stadia game service via the iOS Web browser within the next several weeks. "This will be the first phase of our iOS progressive web application," the company said.
  • Nvidia said Thursday that the beta version of its GeForce NOW is available immediately via Safari on iOS.
  • Microsoft said last month it would bring its Xcloud game streaming to iOS next year, also via the web browser.

Between the lines: The move allows the streaming game services to avoid oversight from Apple, or having to deal with its restrictions around payments. However, there could well be performance and/or usability compromises that come with having to play through the browser as compared to a standalone app.

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • Lesbians Who Tech's Debut 2020 summit concludes with, among other things, an appearance by the Indigo Girls.

Trading Places

  • Apple has hired 25-year Intel veteran Barbara Whye as its new head of Inclusion and Diversity, reporting to HR and retail chief Deirdre O'Brien.
  • Qualcomm added Sylvia Acevedo, former CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA, and Intuit executive VP Greg Johnson to its board of directors.

ICYMI

  • Facebook removed 265,000 pieces of content over voting interference during the election. (Axios)
  • Facebook and Apple traded shots over who is putting profits over people when it comes to the privacy of user data. (Bloomberg)
  • Tech jobs site Hired is said to be considering winding down its operations after failing to find a buyer. (The Information)
  • Vietnam says it will shut Facebook down in the country unless it censors more content the government doesn't like. (Reuters)
  • Next up in retro-futuristic urban tech: Air gondolas, aka trams. (Axios)
6. After you Login

Carpe diem. Or, carpe cat food, as the case may be.