The most important piece of info in the New York Times’ extensive investigation into Facebook’s post-2016 crises doesn’t occur until the final quarter of the article:
From the article:
In July, as Facebook’s troubles threatened to cost the company billions of dollars in market value, Mr. Schumer confronted Mr. Warner, by then Facebook’s most insistent inquisitor in Congress.
Back off, he told Mr. Warner, according to a Facebook employee briefed on Mr. Schumer’s intervention. Mr. Warner should be looking for ways to work with Facebook, Mr. Schumer advised, not harm it. Facebook lobbyists were kept abreast of Mr. Schumer’s efforts to protect the company, according to the employee.
A Senate aide briefed on the exchange said that Mr. Schumer had not wanted Mr. Warner to lose sight of the need for Facebook to tackle problems with right-wing disinformation and election interference, as well as consumer privacy and other issues.
A top politician urging an ostensibly neutral social media platform take sides politically by cracking down on the “disinformation” of just one side sounds like a big story to me, but readers have to get through thousands of words before this is briefly mentioned. Schumer acting as the protector of Facebook within the Senate is also interesting: given that Facebook has indeed cracked down on the right – Schumer’s political opponents, these details hint at a quid pro quo relationship between Schumer and the tech giant.
Or it could simply be because Schumer’s own daughter works at the company, as The Times notes. Regardless of the reason, the cosy relationship between the Senate Minority Leader and one of the most powerful tech companies on the planet should probably be a little higher up in the New York Times’ piece.
Instead of leading with this, the New York Times chose to focus its attention on Facebook’s attempts to court the right and right-wing media. Ordinary, if problematic corporate behavior, like hiring ex-Republican staffers to assist in its conservative outreach is presented as major news. (The New York Times doesn’t seem to have a problem with the huge number of Obama and Hillary alumni working at the highest levels of the company.)
The article misrepresents Russian involvement on Facebook, saying it was intended to “hack and harass [Trump’s] Democratic opponents.” But this is a narrative that is contradicted by the evidence, which shows that the majority of Russian ads aimed to stoke racial tensions (with left-wing as well as right-wing content) rather than support particular candidates. The New York Times doesn’t even acknowledge criticism of the narrative from Facebook’s VP. Like most liberal outlets engaged in the Trump-Russia narrative, it also fails to mention that the research so far indicates the effect of fake news and propaganda online to be approximately zero.
The article also spends a great deal of time discussing the relationship between Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, one of the most contrived tech scandals of the year. The New York Times reporters describe the former company as “a political data firm linked to President Trump,” unwittingly revealing their own biases. We’ve always known that Facebook shared masses of user data with third parties — there were reports about this as far back as 2010. We’ve also known that this data can help presidential candidates get elected. Obama’s former data chief Carol Davidsen has admitted that Facebook was “surprised” that the campaign gained access to the “entire social graph” of the U.S., but nonetheless let them continue, even admitting to the campaign that they allowed the campaign to do things “they wouldn’t have allowed someone else to do because they were on our side.”
Did Cambridge Analytica breach Facebook’s rules? Yes, but the bigger story is that those rules didn’t even exist before 2014, when everyone from the Obama campaign to the creators of Farmville preyed on user data. Davidsen’s admission gets scant attention because it reveals why politicians and the mainstream media haven’t panicked about Facebook’s widely-known data collection practices earlier — it’s because of Trump, not because of the data collection. Davidsen revealed that the Obama campaign was able to “ingest the entire social network of the U.S. that’s on Facebook” all the way back in 2015. This was a startling admission, revealing a data harvesting operation far more extensive than Cambridge Analytica’s — and there was no scandal!
Indeed, despite the fact that Facebook has since suspended 200 apps that may have misused users’ personal data, the media still focuses relentlessly on Cambridge Analytica. It’s a partisan trick, designed to pressure Facebook for allowing the Trump campaign to use its platform successfully in 2016, shrouded in the non-partisan issue of privacy. The icing on the cake? Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower hailed as a hero by the media founded his own data analysis company, Eunoia Technologies, where Wylie said he wanted to build “the NSA’s wet dream.” The Canadian Liberal Party awarded the same company a $100,000 contract. You’re unlikely to find any of this information in most mainstream coverage of Facebook’s data scandals, including this New York Times piece.
The Times also seems to think it’s newsworthy that Facebook began an outreach campaign to Republicans and conservatives, facilitated by its hiring of the Silicon Valley breach of a public affairs firm headed by former Jeb Bush staffer (I will stretch the definition of “conservative” on the Times behalf here). This is normal, if problematic, behavior for a corporation, especially at a time when Republicans controlled all three branches of the federal government. The New York Times reports that Millers’ firm, Definers Public Affairs, sought to defend Facebook’s reputation to conservatives by tying its left-wing critics to George Soros. The mainstream media will surely see this as scandalous, but it’s as much as a no-brainer as tying your right-wing opponents to the Koch brothers if your goal is to court the socialist left.
Ignore the hype, and there are still eye-opening details in the Times’ investigation. For example, the fact that Facebook reportedly backed new federal sex trafficking legislation called SESTA as a matter of political opportunism rather than concern for the victims. So much for Silicon Valley’s much-vaunted “values!”
Google and others had fought the bill for months, worrying it would set a cumbersome precedent. But the sex trafficking bill was championed by Senator John Thune, a Republican of South Dakota who had pummeled Facebook over accusations that it censored conservative content, and Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat and senior commerce committee member who was a frequent critic of Facebook.
Facebook broke ranks with other tech companies, hoping the move would help repair relations on both sides of the aisle, said two congressional staffers and three tech industry officials.
Another fascinating tidbit: Facebook CEO personally made inquiries about the possibility that Donald Trump may have breached the platform’s terms of service while he was still a candidate.
Then Donald J. Trump ran for president. He described Muslim immigrants and refugees as a danger to America, and in December 2015 posted a statement on Facebook calling for a “total and complete shutdown” on Muslims entering the United States. Mr. Trump’s call to arms — widely condemned by Democrats and some prominent Republicans — was shared more than 15,000 times on Facebook, an illustration of the site’s power to spread racist sentiment.
Mr. Zuckerberg, who had helped found a nonprofit dedicated to immigration reform, was appalled, said employees who spoke to him or were familiar with the conversation. He asked Ms. Sandberg and other executives if Mr. Trump had violated Facebook’s terms of service.
Another eye-opener: Facebook contacted the anti-defamation league (ADL) to frame left-wing protesters as anti-semitic after they displayed posters depicting Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg as an octopus encircling the globe. The ADL, which has partnered with Facebook and other tech giants to fight “cyberhate,” was happy to do its bidding in that instance.
Eddie Vale, a Democratic public relations strategist who led the protest, later said the image was meant to evoke old cartoons of Standard Oil, the Gilded Age monopoly. But a Facebook official quickly called the Anti-Defamation League, a leading Jewish civil rights organization, to flag the sign. Facebook and other tech companies had partnered with the civil rights group since late 2017 on an initiative to combat anti-Semitism and hate speech online.
That afternoon, the A.D.L. issued a warning from its Twitter account.
“Depicting Jews as an octopus encircling the globe is a classic anti-Semitic trope,” the organization wrote. “Protest Facebook — or anyone — all you want, but pick a different image.” The criticism was soon echoed in conservative outlets including The Washington Free Beacon, which has sought to tie Freedom from Facebook to what the publication calls “extreme anti-Israel groups.”
The key here is that a group that works with Facebook is also describing its political critics as anti-semitic. As Breitbart News editor-at-large Joel Pollak writes, the anti-defamation league should consider removing the word “anti” from its name.
The New York Times is partisan left-wing media pretending to be neutral. Its coverage priorities reflect that, and there’s plenty of spin in its writeup of this investigation. Like other partisan media though, it is also capable of unearthing valuable details about the tech companies that have come to dominate our society. Look closely, and you’ll find them.