Sign up for our daily briefing

Make your busy days simpler with Axios AM/PM. Catch up on what's new and why it matters in just 5 minutes.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Stay on top of the latest market trends

Subscribe to Axios Markets for the latest market trends and economic insights. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Sports news worthy of your time

Binge on the stats and stories that drive the sports world with Axios Sports. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Tech news worthy of your time

Get our smart take on technology from the Valley and D.C. with Axios Login. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Get the inside stories

Get an insider's guide to the new White House with Axios Sneak Peek. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Denver news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Denver

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Des Moines news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Des Moines

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Twin Cities news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Twin Cities

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Tampa Bay news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Tampa Bay

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Charlotte news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Charlotte

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As real world harms triggered by digital activity multiply, technology companies are scrambling to avoid being a conduit for deceit.

Why it matters: As the digital realm becomes more intertwined with our lives, big companies are under increasing pressure to help mitigate offline harm caused by technologies like automated advertising, social algorithms, artificial intelligence and digital editing tools.

Driving the news: Google announced last week that in 2018 it removed 2.3 billion ads and 1 million ad accounts that violated the company's policies. Many of those ads, Google's director of sustainable ads Scott Spencer tells Axios, were linked to fake or dangerous businesses.

"Our goal is to think more about how we can ensure safety in online and offline transactions. This is an increasingly big focus of ours. You couldn't vet the quality of a product or service through Yellow Pages, but we're trying to do just that."
— Spencer

Be smart: Since nearly anyone can create a business and make it look legitimate online, companies like Facebook and Google are cracking down on ads that promote businesses engaged in deceptive or dangerous practices offline.

  • Addiction treatment facilities, Spencer says, are one example of a type of business whose ads Google evaluates with expert help. When Google saw an increase in ads for these facilities, it began restricting advertising opportunities only to certified organizations.
  • Ticket resellers, third-party tech support, and local services (like repairmen) are also examples of businesses Google is working with experts to evaluate.
  • Psychics who mine Facebook to seem clairvoyant are being shown up by pranksters who make up fictional Facebook profiles. The New York Times detailed a sting operation in which a "guerrilla skeptic" outfit set out to expose one celebrity psychic: They attended an event held by the psychic, dressed up in the roles of their made-up Facebook personas. Somehow, the psychic "knew" their fake stories.

The threat of physical harm from online activity has become increasingly more apparent in recent weeks.

  • Anti-vaccination content that's long appeared in search results and on social media is now being regulated by social platforms after the U.S. government attributed recent measles outbreaks in part to reduced vaccination levels in some areas, spurring a media frenzy around the issue.
  • Terrorist attacks and mass shootings, like the recent New Zealand mosque attack, highlight ways that extremists are using social media channels to inspire hate and spread horrifying footage of mass killings. Tech platforms, particularly YouTube, have been under pressure from regulators and advertisers to crack down on content that could incite this type of behavior.
  • Fake rallies have been a problem for Facebook for a while, but an instance last month in Ukraine shows just how susceptible people around the world can be to fake promises of money or political activism. In this case, a Facebook user offered cash to anyone willing to turn up at a fake rally in freezing conditions in support of a non-existent candidate's bid to become president of Ukraine. Hundreds showed up, per BBC.

The bottom line: Shady businesses have always swindled people, even before they were able to easily create fake profiles, events and ads. But digital platforms give bad actors a whole new online toolkit to perpetrate fraud and mayhem in the offline world.

Go deeper

Updated 3 hours ago - Health

California surpasses 50,000 COVID-19 deaths

A man prepares a funeral arrangement in in Los Angeles, California, Feb. 12. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

California's death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 50,000 on Wednesday, per Johns Hopkins data.

The big picture: It's the first state to record more than 50,000 deaths from the coronavirus.

4 hours ago - Technology

Facebook bans Myanmar military

A protester holds a placard with a three-finger salute in front of a military tank parked aside the street in front of the Central Bank building during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo by Aung Kyaw Htet/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Facebook said on Wednesday it would ban the rest of the Myanmar military from its platform.

The big picture: It comes some three weeks after the military overthrew the civilian government in a coup and detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi, causing massive protests to erupt throughout the country. Military leaders have been using internet blackouts to try to maintain power in light of the coup.

It's harder to fill the Cabinet

Data: Chamberlain, 2020, "United States of America Cabinet Appointments Dataset" Chart: Will Chase/Axios

It's harder now for presidents to win Senate confirmation for their Cabinet picks, an Axios data analysis of votes for and against nominees found.

Why it matters: It's not just Neera Tanden. The trend is a product of growing polarization, rougher political discourse and slimming Senate majorities, experts say. It means some of the nation's most vital federal agencies go without a leader and the legislative authority that comes with one.