Nov 5, 2018

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

In case you haven't heard, there's an election coming up.

1 big thing: False claims of election interference

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

If bad actors attempting to manipulate elections weren't bad enough, tech companies are now seeing a growing threat in the final days before the U.S. midterm elections: Bad actors pretending they were able to manipulate the vote.

This was already on the list of things tech companies worry about, but now they are starting to see such operations in action, according to sources familiar with the companies' thinking.

Why it matters: The environment of distrust has most of America ready to believe that someone has stolen the election, and that makes it possible for meddlers to take credit for manipulation even when it hasn't happened.

  • With less than 2 days until voting ends, there's evidence that some of the same actors that have actively been trying to manipulate the election are now using social media to try to overstate their influence.

Details: As evidence, sources point to a video that was posted late last month of a purported Russian troll farm whistleblower "confessing" to all manner of misdeeds.

  • The video didn't get widespread pickup from the media before being pulled down by YouTube, but did get coverage from a handful of sites, including the left-leaning ThinkProgress.
  • Former Facebook security chief Alex Stamos cautioned against putting too much stock in anything said by an admitted troll. "You have to be super careful with anything said by an admitted member of a 'disinformation factory,'" he said. "That includes things that would seem like admissions of guilt."
  • The companies are seeing other examples, but sources declined to go into details on them.
  • Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen warned last week that even if foreign governments and hackers aren't able to disrupt actual voting on Election day, they might look "to sow confusion, discord and mistrust by placing stories in social media or state sponsored media that something was wrong."

Facebook and Google officials declined to comment.

The context: Concern about false claims of interference comes as the U.S. government, the Big Tech players and others are working overtime in an effort to thwart actual interference attempts, which continue as well.

Be smart: Experts caution people to be extra careful in the next 48 hours when they see stories about election interference. Make sure that the outlet reporting the news is credible.

The bottom line: After 2016's election interference, the government and tech industry made it harder for would-be overseas meddlers to use the same techniques this year.

  • But a fearful and divided American public knows that such interference could happen again. That creates a new kind of vulnerability to false claims — one that sources now say is being exploited.
2. Trump's Big Tech contradictions

President Trump facing Axios' Jim VandeHei (on left) and Jonathan Swan in an interview on "Axios on HBO"

President Trump told "Axios on HBO" his administration is looking seriously at antitrust investigations of Google, Facebook and Amazon. In the next breath, he argued they are great companies that he wants to help.

Why it matters: Trump's inconsistent approach toward Silicon Valley has had the world's most powerful technology companies on edge — and that's exactly where he wants them. But his wavering stance makes it difficult to set national priorities around serious tech issues, such as consumer privacy, data security and competition.

What he's saying: The following excerpts from the interview illustrate Trump's self-contradictions on this topic.

On the monopoly power of Google, Facebook and Amazon:

"I leave it to others, but I do have a lot of people talking about monopoly when they mention those three in particular ... We are looking at [antitrust] very seriously ... Look, that doesn't mean we're doing it, but we're certainly looking and I think most people surmise that, I would imagine."

On the EU's aggressive regulatory approach:

"The European Union takes a lot of money out of our companies and I actually went to my people and said 'you know, if they're gonna do it we should be the one doing it, not them.' These are our companies ... and they're great companies."
"I'm not looking to hurt these companies, I'm looking to help them. As far as antitrust is concerned, we'll have to take a look at that but I want them to do well. I want Amazon to do well. I want Google to do well. I want Facebook — I want all of 'em to do [well] — these are great companies."

Yes, but: Several of Trump's statements during the interview underscore some misunderstandings regarding existing tech policy...

EU taxes: He said the EU "taxes our companies terribly."

    • Fact check: European countries have different tax structures, which is why some U.S. companies choose to house profits in countries with lower tax rates.
    • Earlier this year, the European Commission proposed a digital services tax that would apply a 3% tax on revenues of tech companies operating within EU borders. That proposal, as well as similar proposals announced by other countries, has not yet been finalized.

Obama era: When asked if he's considered breaking the companies up, he responded: "In fact a lot of people thought that it was gonna happen and then I guess the previous administration stopped it from happening."

    • Fact check: The Obama administration approved acquisitions by these companies (with conditions, in some cases) that some say have helped to solidify their dominance, such as Facebook's acquisition of WhatsApp.
    • After a nearly 2-year investigation, the Federal Trade Commission determined Google had not violated antitrust laws in how it arranged search results. But there was no investigation focused on breaking up any of the companies.
    • Under former President Obama, regulators did take action when the firms violated consumer protection laws, such as when Google settled with the Justice Department over illicit drug ads and when Facebook settled with the FTC for making information public after telling users it would be kept private.

Our thought bubble: Trump wants the companies to "do well" — but on his terms. He may not have much power to directly force policy action.

Read more of the full piece and watch the video here.

3. Gab is back online

Gab, the "free speech" social network where the alleged Pittsburgh synagogue shooter posted about his plans, is back online.

Why it matters: The site was forced offline after being dropped by key infrastructure partners, including GoDaddy, Stripe and PayPal.

The latest: Gab tweeted over the weekend that it was returning to the web with a new hosting service — By Sunday night it was indeed back and, according to reports, once again home to a host of anti-Semitic comments.

Go deeper: Social network Gab under scrutiny in wake of Pittsburgh shooting

4. Report: Amazon in "advanced talks" for HQ2

Amazon is in "advanced talks" to tap Crystal City, Va., for its second headquarters, the Washington Post reports.

Details: The e-commerce company is in discussions with the city to decide "how quickly it would move employees there, which buildings it would occupy and how an announcement about the move would be made to the public," per the Post, citing people familiar with the process.

  • Amazon has largely kept the decision-making process under wraps.

What they're saying:

  • Mike Grella, a director of economic development and public policy: "Memo to the genius leaking info about Crystal City, VA as #HQ2 selection. You’re not doing Crystal City, VA any favors. And stop treating the NDA you signed like a used napkin."

What to watch: The company considered announcing its decision by the end of October, but has delayed until November, according to the Post.

Go deeper:

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • Web Summit takes place today through Thursday in Lisbon, Portugal.
  • Priceline parent Booking Holdings reports earnings after the markets close.

Trading Places


6. After you Login

Unicorns are rare. But you know what's even rarer? A unicorn landing the dismount.

Ina Fried