Dec 9, 2020

Axios Login

G'day mates. No, I haven't been to Australia. I haven't been anywhere since March. (Editor's note: It's a touchy subject.)

Situational awareness: Most of the country's state attorneys general are likely to file an antitrust lawsuit against Facebook today, the Washington Post reported late Tuesday. The Federal Trade Commission is also expected to file suit today; federal and state regulators have been probing whether Facebook's major past acquisitions — notably Instagram and WhatsApp — have hurt competition.

Today's Login is 1,465 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: The search for better ways to measure misinformation
Data: NewsWhip; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Facebook and other big online platforms insist they're removing more and more misinformation. But they can't say whether they're actually stemming the tide of lies, and neither can we, because the deluge turns out to be impossible to define or measure, Axios' Kyle Daly reports.

Why it matters: The tech companies mostly won't share data that would let researchers better track the scale, spread and impact of misinformation. So the riddle remains unsolved, and the platforms can't be held accountable.

Where it stands: Quantifying the volume of misinformation online requires three things: a clear definition of the stuff you're measuring; a way to divide it into countable units; and the ability to see into vast pools of online data to find and enumerate it.

The catch: Different people disagree over which pieces of information are actually misinformation.

  • The other catch: Big platforms are reluctant to share data, because releasing it could help competitors and might violate users' privacy rights.

We're not entirely in the dark, and have some simple but useful tools. Among them:

  • Google Trends measures the total volume of searches for a given term and can capture the tipping point when false narratives break out into the mainstream.
  • NewsWhip gauges the attention particular topics are receiving by measuring the social media interactions — Facebook and Twitter likes and shares, for example — that news stories and other links about them garner. (It's how we built our chart above.)

Yes, but: Such methods provide just a small part of the picture — and nothing about whether the people clicking on misinformation are actually buying it.

  • "Measurement of reach alone never tells you the story of where it is that [misinformation is] having influence," said Camille François, the chief information officer of social media analysis firm Graphika, which has proposed its own scale for measuring misinformation-incident severity.

Between the lines: So-called "super spreaders" of misinformation — such as President Trump and his family, who hoist large volumes of often obscure misinformation to large followings — play a big role here. But they're far from the only factor.

The big picture: Experts Axios talked with point to several big problems with existing methods of quantifying misinformation.

1. The numbers that are available are incomplete and potentially misleading.

  • Twitter and Facebook have offered snapshots of how much material they've taken down around certain topics, but not the total volume of material they're reviewing.
  • Observers aren't sold on relying on the platforms' own assessments. "They make mistakes in both directions," said Ian Vandewalker, who focuses on influence and disinformation campaigns as senior counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
  • "They're using algorithms, so they miss a lot of things, and they also have a lot of false positives."

2. The public internet is only one stream in the broader misinformation deluge.

  • False claims and conspiracy theories are increasingly being spread in private Facebook groups, private chat servers on platforms like Discord, private texts and messaging groups. They also surface in partisan media outlets, elected officials' public statements and everyday real-world conversation.
  • "It is in all types of spaces," said Amy Mitchell, director of journalism research at Pew Research Center. "This is not just a social media phenomenon."

3. "Misinformation" can be a subjective category.

  • Something like "5G towers spread COVID-19" is an easily adjudicated false claim. But most misinformation appears in shades of gray, coming as a misleading gloss on events or statistics with some basis in reality.
  • Claims that downplay the threat posed by the coronavirus, for instance, often leave out the fact that it can be more deadly to people with pre-existing conditions — and that many people who have survived the virus are suffering long-term health complications.
  • And the language of misinformation is often innuendo and obfuscation — vague allusions to conspiracies and malfeasances rather than bald-faced lies.

What's next: To measure misinformation, we may need to think less about counting grains of sand and focus more on following currents. That would mean a greater effort on classifying and tracking the communities discussing topics linked to misinformation.

  • Understanding who’s driving discussion of a topic can serve as a shortcut for individuals to judge its merits without relying on platform enforcement or transparency.
  • "We need to empower the users who consume this information with more information about the agenda behind the groups that are promoting it," said Jonathon Morgan, CEO of Yonder, an artificial intelligence startup that monitors mis- and disinformation.
2. Scoop: WhatsApp goes after Apple

Photo: Carsten Rehder/picture alliance via Getty Images

Facebook’s messaging service WhatsApp is protesting Apple’s demand that developers detail the user data they collect for use in new privacy labels coming to the App Store, Axios' Sara Fischer reports.

The state of play: WhatsApp says the provision is anti-competitive because Apple's own encrypted messaging service, iMessage, is preinstalled on iPhones and doesn't need to be downloaded from Apple's App Store, where the privacy labels are now required.

  • "We think labels should be consistent across first and third party apps as well as reflect the strong measures apps may take to protect people's private information," a WhatsApp spokesperson told Axios.

Catch up quick: Apple announced this summer that it would require app makers to submit information detailing exactly what types of data they collect on users.

  • That information will inform labels that will tell users, for instance, if an app collects "financial information" or "user content."
  • WhatsApp believes those terms could spook users about what data it actually collects, giving it a competitive disadvantage to iMessage.

What they're saying: "While WhatsApp cannot see people's messages or precise location, we're stuck using the same broad labels with apps that do," a WhatsApp spokesperson said.

  • WhatsApp submitted the required information to Apple on Monday and has put up a blog post to more explain the information it collects relative to how it will be categorized in the coming labels.

The big picture: The privacy "nutrition labels" are part of a greater privacy push by Apple following its latest iOS 14 system update in September. Some of the updates have drawn criticism from Facebook and other app publishers like gaming developers.

What's next: Apple required all app developers to submit the privacy information by Tuesday. It's unclear when the nutrition labels will begin appearing in Apple's App Store.

Go deeper: Frenemies Facebook and Apple square off

3. Cybersecurity firm FireEye hit by nation-state hackers

Photo illustration: Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Cybersecurity firm FireEye said Tuesday it had been hacked by what the company called "a nation with top-tier offensive capabilities," compromising its internal software and systems, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Why it matters: The company said the attacker sought information about its government customers and accessed the firm's internal tools used to test the cyber defenses of its clients.

  • FireEye noted it had no evidence thus far that data belonging to its clientele had been jeopardized, and said it's investigating the breach with the help of the FBI and industry partners, such as Microsoft.

Russia's SVR intelligence agency appears to be behind the hack, a source told the Washington Post.

  • In response, FireEye "has developed more than 300 countermeasures for its customers to help shield them from attacks" using the stolen tools, the company’s CEO told the Post.
  • The hack was a "sniper shot," a person familiar with the breach told the Post, with the SVR putting together infrastructure "solely for a breach into FireEye," the person said to the Post.
4. Senate confirms Trump's FCC pick

Photo: Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Senate voted 49-46 Tuesday to confirm Trump's nominee to the Federal Communications Commission, setting up the Biden administration to start with a deadlocked agency, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill reports.

Why it matters: Nathan Simington's addition to the FCC will mean Democrats will lack a majority at the telecom regulator once President-elect Joe Biden takes office and will struggle to advance party priorities such as reinstating net neutrality rules.

Background: Simington worked in the telecom arm of the Commerce Department and was involved in its petition to the FCC to implement Trump's executive order aimed at limiting online platforms’ ability to moderate content.

What they're saying: Democrats opposed Simington's confirmation, given his work on the social media order and the resulting deadlock at the FCC.

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • DoorDash is expected to begin trading after pricing its shares at a higher-than-expected $102 apiece.
  • Also expected to begin trading is, an AI software company founded by Tom Siebel. The company priced 15.5 million shares at $42 per share.
  • Asana is slated to report earnings after the markets close.

Trading Places


  • Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey is donating $15 million to help fund guaranteed income projects across the U.S. (Axios)
  • Huawei tested AI software that could recognize Uighur minorities and alert authorities. (Washington Post)
  • PornHub agreed to make changes to its service, including limiting uploads and eliminating downloads in the wake of a New York Times report on underage victims whose images were used in videos on the site. (Associated Press)
6. After you Login

I've been trying to up my game this week. We already had a dog literally eating a kid's homework and my co-worker's toddler running away with her cellphone. Today, I offer up this study, which finds that the louder a howler monkey screams, the smaller its, um, family jewels.