Jan 9, 2020

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

Hello, one last time from Las Vegas and CES 2020. Tomorrow afternoon, I will return to the Bay Area, but not before seeing a few more strange vehicles, moderating one panel and hopefully uncovering a few more things to share.

Today's Login is 1,390 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: Facebook digs in its heels on political ads

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Anyone who was waiting for Facebook to change its controversial political ad policies — particularly the one that allows politicians to lie with impunity — will have to keep waiting, the company made clear today.

Driving the news: Facebook released a raft of small changes to its rules around political ads, including giving consumers the option to block political ads from
their feeds, Axios' Sara Fischer reports.

Yes, but: It's leaving in place its "anything goes" policy toward the content of those ads, and it won't substantially limit campaigns' ability to narrowly target ads to specific audiences — which has been widely criticized as a way to selectively deliver misinformation unchecked.

Details: In a blog post on Thursday, Facebook director of product management Rob Leathern said that seeing fewer political and issue ads "is a common request we hear from people."

  • Facebook admits it can't guarantee that some political ads won't slip through the cracks and reach users who opt out, as the platform can't necessarily promise to track every political ad on its platform.

The big picture: Facebook's decision came alongside a slew of other updates to its political ad policies, including allowing users to see the potential reach of political ads and giving them better search options to find political ads within its library.

  • Since November, reports from inside Facebook have suggested the company was reconsidering some of the most controversial aspects of its broader political ad rules. Today's updates suggest that the company has chosen to stay the course for the 2020 election cycle.

Between the lines: One of the new controls that Facebook is rolling out will have implications far beyond politics.

  • Facebook also explained that later this month it will give users the ability to choose how advertisers targeting users via Facebook's "custom audiences" system can reach them. Advertisers who use the custom audiences approach to make ad targeting more efficient are allowed to create lists using data they have on people, like customer sales lists.
  • The control will apply to all advertisers, not just political advertisers, meaning consumers could limit how a retail or entertainment advertiser targets them using lists.

Our thought bubble: The historic level of investment in political ads this cycle, especially on platforms like Google and Facebook, means that users are being bombarded with political messaging now more than ever. Political fatigue is likely starting to set in.

What's next: Expect relentless criticism from candidates, particularly Democrats, of Facebook's policies — and if power changes hands in D.C. in November, more concrete moves to limit Facebook's influence.

Go deeper: Democrats are unimpressed with Facebook‘s new deepfakes policy

2. The dangerous side of limiting Twitter replies

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Twitter's plan to allow users to control who can reply to their posts, announced Wednesday, is largely welcome news for those who are routinely harassed on the service — including many people of color, women, LGBTQ+ folks and other groups often targeted by online mobs.

However, it could create an even riper environment for misinformation — especially when combined with Twitter's policy of allowing elected officials' tweets to stand, even when they violate the rules that apply to other users.

Why it matters: There are already concerns that the service gives politicians' speech special protections compared to regular users. Now the company would seem to be making it easier for them to screen out dissenting voices.

Driving the news:

  • Twitter on Wednesday announced it will let users decide who can comment on their tweets: all users, those who the user follows, just the people who are mentioned, or no one at all.
  • The new feature is being tested now, but Twitter told Axios it plans to eventually give all users the option, including elected officials.

Twitter noted that users will still be able to "quote tweet" posts that have replies limited — meaning create a new post quoting the tweet in question. Also, per The Verge, Twitter said it will be watching the effect of the new rules on the spread of misinformation.

When it comes to politicians specifically, Twitter notes the policy announced last year that it may flag and limit promotion of tweets that violate its rules — or even take them down if they are found not to be in the public interest.

  • It's worth noting, though, that the company said it expects to use those options rarely — and Twitter has yet to flag any politician's tweets in this manner.

Between the lines: Even if this new reply option is a generally good thing, and even if it makes sense to allow politicians' rule-breaking tweets to remain, the combination of the two policies could be especially dangerous. In theory, it allows a politician to post knowingly false information to a wide audience and also limit who can directly respond with contrary evidence and arguments.

Yes, but: Some see signs that even though President Trump has a record of using Twitter to spark crises, the service had a de-escalating effect in this week's U.S. confrontation with Iran.

  • Wired's Garrett Graff, pointing to the way both Iranian officials and Trump used Twitter in real time Tuesday night to send messages, notes that "world leaders can communicate more quickly and directly than ever in times of crisis."

Our thought bubble: History suggests crisis diplomacy is better pursued in private, by professionals. Maybe next time, Trump and his foreign counterparts could at least exchange DMs instead?

3. J.D. Vance launches VC fund for smaller cities

J.D. Vance speaks at TechCrunch Disrupt 2018 in San Francisco. Photo: Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch

Investor J.D. Vance has raised $93 million to start a venture capital firm, Narya Capital, based in his home state of Ohio, with backing from major names including Peter Thiel, Marc Andreessen, Eric Schmidt and Scott Dorsey, Axios' Kim Hart reports.

Why it matters: Vance's bestselling 2016 memoir, "Hillbilly Elegy," sought to explain the rural, working-class resentment that helped put then-candidate Trump on a path to the White House, and he has been a strong proponent of investing in often-overlooked places.

  • His firm, headquartered in Cincinnati, will invest in startups in mid-size cities such as Salt Lake City, Atlanta and Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, according to a source familiar with the strategy.

The big picture: The majority of U.S. venture capital funding goes to California, New York and Massachusetts.

  • While such investment can play a crucial role in building fast-growing, tech-based economies like Silicon Valley, VC investors don't typically stray outside those markets to look for the next big thing.

Until recently, Vance was managing partner of the first Rise of the Rest Seed Fund, a $150 million early-stage fund connected to AOL co-founder Steve Case's Revolution LLC, a Washington, D.C. venture capital firm. His resume also includes working for Thiel's fund Mithril Capital in San Francisco.

  • Colin Greenspon, who was partner at Rise of the Rest Seed Fund and former managing director at Mithril, is joining Vance as co-founder and partner of Narya Capital, according to Wednesday's SEC filing.

Details: The fund, with a total target of $125 million, will focus on writing first checks in the $5–10 million range, according to a source familiar with the strategy.

Between the lines: The fact that other influential tech investors signed up as limited partners suggests Vance isn't the only one who's bullish about disruption happening between the coasts.

4. Google gets more job seekers despite backlash

The so-called techlash isn't hurting Google, at least by one measure. The search giant told Axios that Google received 3.3 million job applications in 2019, up from 2.8 million applications in 2018 — an 18% increase.

Why it matters: The move comes despite a wave of employee activism and outside calls to rein in the power and scope of Big Tech. One of the big question marks is whether those trends will ever begin to hurt recruiting efforts.

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • CES continues in Vegas. I'm moderating a panel on location-based AI at 11:30am. Come by N256 in the convention center if you are around. I think you will also be able to watch here.
  • Microsoft today rolls out a new tool it has developed, along with The Meet Group, Roblox, Kik and Thorn, to help prevent the exploitation of minors by analyzing text messaging threads for signs of child grooming. The technology is based on a Microsoft patent, but Thorn (the non-profit formed by Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore) will take over the licensing it.

Trading Places

  • Trump nominated Covington & Burling lawyer John Chase Johnson to be FCC inspector general. If confirmed by the Senate, he would replace David Hunt, who has been at the post since January 2011, according to Multichannel News.
  • Sony Interactive Entertainment, the company's PlayStation unit, has hired Microsoft and Dell veteran Veronica Rogers as senior VP of business operations.

ICYMI

  • As part of the Jussie Smollett investigation, a judge has ordered Google to turn over a full year of the actor's data (location, email, etc.). (Chicago Tribune)
  • Uber is making changes to its service in California in the wake of a new state law dealing with contract workers. (Axios)
  • This story about Facebook and a now-deleted Teen Vogue article is worth a read. (NYT)
  • Mozilla has issued a patch for a zero-day flaw that was being actively exploited to allow malicious users to gain access to sensitive parts of computer memory. (Ars Technica)
6. After you Login

There were a lot of great reactions to the announcement from Meghan Markle and Prince Harry that they would "step back" from their royal duties. These were my three favorites.

Ina Fried