Facebook quietly hired Republican strategy firm Targeted Victory

Facebook is still reeling from the revelation that it hired an opposition research firm with close ties to the Republican party, but its relationship with Definers Public Affairs isn’t the company’s only recent contract work with deeply GOP-linked strategy firms. While that work alone isn’t cause for controversy, Facebook’s work with Republican groups does call into question the ongoing narrative that Facebook operates with an anti-conservative bias.

According to sources familiar with the project, Facebook also contracted with Targeted Victory, described as “the GOP’s go-to technology consultant firm.” Targeted Victory worked with Facebook on the company’s Community Boost roadshow, a tour of U.S. cities meant to stimulate small business interest in Facebook as a business and ad platform. The ongoing Community Boost initiative, announced in late 2017, kicked off earlier this year with stops in cities like and Topeka, Kansas and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Facebook also worked with Targeted Victory on the company’s ad transparency efforts. Over the last year, Facebook has attempted to ward off regulation from Congress over ad disclosure, even putting forth some self-regulatory efforts to appease legislators. Specifically, it has dedicated considerable lobbying resources to slow any progress from the Honest Ads Act, a piece of legislature that would force the company to make retain copies of election ads, disclose spending and more. Targeted Victory, a digital strategy and marketing firm, is not a registered lobbyist for Facebook on any work relating to ad transparency. 

Targeted Victory

On his company biography page, Targeted Victory founder and CEO Zac Moffatt describes his experience helping companies “enhance their brand and get their message out in the current political and media environment,” mentioning Facebook, FedEx and Gillette as corporate clients. The bio page appears to be one of the only public mentions of his work with Facebook and the company was not mentioned alongside Gillette and FedEx on his Linkedin page.

TechCrunch reached out to Facebook to ask if it also contracted with equivalent left-leaning groups or other political firms it was willing to disclose because information about the many firms a company like Facebook contracts with is generally not openly available. The company declined to comment on its political contract work and on the nature of its work with Targeted Victory.

In July and September of this year, Facebook hosted members of Targeted Victory for panels on election integrity and ad transparency, as well as best practices for election season. It’s unclear if Facebook disclosed its financial relationship to the company at the time.

Facebook panel

In March of 2017, a blog post by Targeted Victory mentioned that a new investment would “strengthen [Targeted Victory’s] already unmatched relationships with top teams at Facebook, Google, Twitter and Snapchat” indicating that the company had an established rapport with Facebook and other major tech companies at the time. TechCrunch contacted Targeted Victory about the nature of its work for this story but did not receive a reply.

Like Definers, Targeted Victory was founded by digital team members from Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign who formed their own companies in the election’s aftermath. As TechCrunch previously reported, Facebook’s communications team has a number of ties to Romney’s campaign. The company’s contract work with Definers arose out of those connections, particularly through Andrea Saul, Facebook’s Director of Policy Communications . Though the depth of Facebook’s work with Targeted Victory is not yet known, TechCrunch will continue to report what it learns. 

Prior to Targeted Victory, Moffatt served as the digital director on the Romney campaign, founding his company after the campaign dissolved. Before working on the campaign, Moffatt worked for the Republican National Committee. 

While the extent of Targeted Victory’s work with Facebook is not clear, Moffatt’s firm provides a range of potentially relevant services. On its website, Targeted Victory advertises “public affairs, advertising, media planning, fundraising and reputation management.” The company also offers services in online political advertising and voter targeting as dual areas of expertise. 

Moffatt’s opposition of regulation efforts targeting online political advertising is well known. In an interview with Axios last year, Moffatt criticized congressional interest in regulating political ads. “No government regulator, and very few members of the media, understand how these mediums are being leveraged by campaigns,” Moffatt said, dismissing potential regulation for tech platforms as “a knee-jerk reaction.”

Late last year, Moffatt suggested that Facebook’s efforts to self regulate could boost the social giant’s profits. Specifically, that Facebook’s decision to ask political groups to publish the ads they buy could generate even more interest in ad buys as firms see what their rivals are up to and ratchet up their spending.

Facebook’s visible political money

The world’s largest social network might be regarded as a just another liberal Silicon Valley stronghold by critics on the right, but Facebook’s financial disclosures and contract work tell a fairly different story. Facebook’s lobbying and federal political contributions in recent years depict a company with financial heft doled out to both the left and the right. Facebook’s federal lobbyists and political donations are registered in searchable public databases, but, as with any company, that data only reveals the surface layer of political relationships.

Facebook 2016 congressional contributions via OpenSecrets.org

Over the last three years, Facebook’s registered lobbying expenditures were mostly spent on large, uncontroversial bipartisan firms, a few smaller groups with specific partisan ties and a smattering of other issue-specific specialists. For example, Facebook brought on a Democratic former Senate chief of staff for lobbying related to “data security, online privacy, and elections integrity” and a firm called Capitol Tax Partners to lobby around tax reform.

Facebook PAC Contribution Summary via OpenSecrets.org

Historically, Facebook’s donations to Democratic candidates outweigh those to Republicans, though the numbers approached parity in the 2012 and 2014 election cycles. On the other hand, Facebook’s PAC, established in 2011, favored Republican candidates in three of the last four national election cycles, tipping Democratic by a margin of 1% in 2018. In 2016 Facebook’s PAC gave 44% of contributions to Democrats and 55% to Republican candidates.

At Facebook, Vice President of Global Public Policy Joel Kaplan “oversees all corporate political activity, including lobbying activities and political contributions.” A prominent Republican, Kaplan also oversees Facebook’s state level contributions, collected here, with the help of members of the company’s Public Policy, Legal and Communications departments. Kaplan made headlines in September when he sat in support of Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court nominee accused of sexual violence and later confirmed. Following the confirmation, Kaplan and his wife hosted a party for Kavanaugh.

Making amends with conservatives

It’s not clear when Facebook’s relationship with Targeted Victory began and whether Facebook has ramped up relationships with conservative consultants in recent years or held them steady.

In May 2016, Moffatt attended a high profile meeting with Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg and 15 other prominent conservatives. Facebook ostensibly organized the meeting to mend fences with Republicans who were criticizing the social giant for a perceived bias against conservatives.

“I know many conservatives don’t trust that our platform surfaces content without a political bias,” Mark Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post following the meeting. “I wanted to hear their concerns personally and have an open conversation about how we can build trust.”

After the meeting, Moffatt remarked that anyone who didn’t see Facebook’s bias against conservative voices, part of a broader perceived trend in left-leaning Silicon Valley, “is completely missing the larger picture.”

In spite of the Facebook’s apparent financial ties to some of the GOP’s most closely held strategic groups, its Republican-helmed D.C. office and its contributions to candidates on both the left and right, criticisms that Facebook operates with a left-leaning bias remain a familiar chorus.

For his part, Moffatt was cautiously optimistic following the 2016 meeting with Sandberg and Zuckerberg, noting that “he would actually commend Facebook for being the only one of the major tech groups in Silicon Valley that’s willing to have conversations like this.”

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Sheryl Sandberg knew more of Facebook’s work with Definers than she let on

Two weeks after the New York Times revealed Facebook’s controversial work with Republican opposition research firm Definers Public Affairs, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has changed her story in significant ways.

The latest revelation: Sandberg herself directed Facebook’s communications team to probe the financial ties of George Soros, left-leaning billionaire and frequent political target of the right. The new reporting cites an email between Sandberg and a Facebook senior executive that was circulated more broadly to senior comms and policy staff.

As TechCrunch has learned — and Sandberg herself alluded to in a statement — Sandberg was also looped into emails about Definers, the team that later conducted research into Soros on Facebook’s behalf. Definers was also integrated more deeply into Facebook’s communications operations than has previously been reported.

People knowledgeable of Facebook’s inner workings and those outside of the company expressed surprise at Sandberg’s choice to initially deny any knowledge of the relationship with Definers. “Mark issued an absolute denial and Sheryl followed, which surprised all of us because we knew her denial wasn’t true,” a source familiar with the firm’s work told TechCrunch.

When the Definers story broke, Mark Zuckerberg issued a swift statement denying any knowledge of the firm’s work. Sheryl Sandberg also denied any knowledge of Definers, though walked that statement back four days later when Facebook’s recently departed policy and communications head Elliot Schrage took the blame for the work.

In a statement coupled with his, Sandberg said that she initially did not remember a firm named Definers but upon review admitted that the firm’s work with Facebook was “incorporated into materials” presented to her and that the firm was referenced in “a small number of emails” she had received. Facebook’s decision to hire Definers, a corporate-facing outgrowth of the Republican America Rising PAC known for its fierce opposition research, proved to be a deeply controversial departure from Silicon Valley ethical norms.

How the Definers relationship began

As TechCrunch has learned, Definers began its work with Facebook through Facebook’s content communications team and Facebook’s Director of Policy Communications, Andrea Saul, a former colleague of Definers founder Matt Rhoades. As we previously reported, many members of Facebook’s communications team are former Republican campaign staffers and strategists with ties to the outside firm that Facebook controversially brought in to support its own internal PR efforts.

Definers began working with Facebook last July and over time the firm was integrated more deeply into Facebook’s communications workings. The firm began its work through Facebook’s content communications team and Facebook’s Director of Policy Communications, Andrea Saul, a former colleague of Definers founder Matt Rhoades.

After it was set into motion, Facebook’s relationship with Definers was mostly overseen by Andrea Saul, Tom Reynolds and Ruchika Budhraja in Menlo Park. In Washington D.C., Definers was handled by Andy Stone under Facebook’s chief lobbyist, Joel Kaplan. Kaplan, who worked in the George W. Bush administration with Definers’ founder and its president, was also in the loop due to his role as a strong in-house Republican voice among many at Facebook. Kaplan made headlines recently when he made a public show of support for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh who was accused of sexual violence.

As TechCrunch previously reported, many members of Facebook’s communications team are former Republican campaign staffers and strategists with ties to the outside firm that Facebook controversially brought in to support its own internal PR efforts. Facebook’s Tucker Bounds also has close ties to Definers through his friend Tim Miller, who helped create America Rising, the political action committee prong of the firm. His role in the relationship with Facebook, if any, is not clear.

It’s true that Definers came on board initially for more generic PR support — not oppo research per se — and that’s how the firm’s involvement was framed in an email introducing them into Facebook’s own team. According to a source who spoke with TechCrunch, “The work that they were doing initially was nonpartisan, it was media monitoring.” Definers provided Facebook with its own press lists and engaged in other more mundane day to day PR activities.

Over time, Facebook leaned more heavily on the outside firm. Definers worked closely with Facebook’s policy communications team, checking in through weekly calls. While legal firm WilmerHale prepared the Facebook CEO and COO for their time on the stand, Definers also assisted with all three Congressional hearings that brought Facebook before Congress, including Zuckerberg and Sandberg’s hearings. For Sandberg’s hearing, Definers handled the crisis PR responding to the event and the coverage around the testimony.

“Facebook consultants are on very short leashes,” a source familiar with the work told TechCrunch. “Everything that Definers shared with media was approved by a Facebook employee.” While an outside agency might have more autonomy in working with a different company, Facebook was closely involved in the firm’s work and was likely aware of all of its plans and dealings. “Definers knows where the bodies are buried,” the source told TechCrunch.

So far nothing has turned up to indicate that Zuckerberg, like Sandberg, had prior exposure to the firm’s work. Given his general disinterest in media relations, it is believable that Mark Zuckerberg had no awareness of Definers or the communications team’s deep and often out in the open ties with the external Republican communications firm. Zuckerberg is far less involved in the strategic decisions that go into the way Facebook positions itself to the outside world than Sandberg herself.

Facebook’s communications team is an infamously well-oiled machine and that machine is often put to use to protect Sandberg and promote her agenda — at times over Facebook’s own interests. If Sandberg’s latest and perhaps most surprising admission will at last strain trust in her leadership to a breaking point remains to be seen.

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Zuckerberg won’t step down as Facebook chairman

In a short but amply-hyped interview with CNN, Facebook’s founder and chief executive again responded to criticism over the company’s most recent crisis.

The interview, excerpted from a longer Q&A for a CNN series called “Human Code,” hit most of the main questions that critics have raised about Facebook’s failings and Zuckerberg’s unilateral control over the company.

While we didn’t learn much new, we do know the company’s latest posture about a few leadership issues, the first of which being if Sheryl Sandberg remains secure in her position as COO.

“Sheryl is a really important part of this company… She’s been an important partner with me for 10 years,” Zuckerberg told CNN. “I’m really proud of the work we’ve done together and I hope that we work together for decades to come.”

That answers that, for now anyway.

The second big leadership issue: Will Zuckerberg retain all of the control he currently exercises as the chairman of Facebook’s board.

When asked if he plans to step down as chairman in the midst of his company’s latest crisis, Zuckerberg answered firmly enough to put that question to rest for now.

“That’s not the plan… I’m not currently thinking that that makes sense,” Zuckerberg told CNN.

Facebook has other ties to Definers, the GOP-led opposition research group

In the wake of a fairly catastrophic behind the scenes glimpse into Facebook’s high-level decision making, one question remains: Who brought a controversial Republican opposition research firm into the fold?

In a long call with reporters on Thursday, Mark Zuckerberg denied any knowledge of his company’s own dealings with Definers Public Affairs, the firm in question. Definers Public Affairs is “an outfit of elite GOP operatives” specializing in opposition research — a cutthroat dark art that’s the norm in politics but anomalous in virtue-conscious Silicon Valley.

Founded by a Republican campaign manager lauded for his dirt-digging prowess, Definers is far from a normal, politically neutral contractor. For one, the company shares staff and office space with America Rising, its oppo research-focused PAC, as well as a right-leaning news aggregator called NTK Network that surfaces stories placed by the company’s other wings.

In one effort, Definers pushed back against Facebook critics with a narrative that linked the social network’s detractors to George Soros, the billionaire Democrat and frequent target of anti-semitic conspiracy theories.

Zuckerberg did not mince words about his attitude toward his company’s relationship with Definers. “I learned about this yesterday. In general, this kind of firm might be normal in Washington…. but it’s not the kind of firm that Facebook should be working with,” Zuckerberg said on Thursday, noting that Facebook had cut ties with the firm.

In her statement late on Thursday, Sheryl Sandberg denied any knowledge of the firm too, stating that she didn’t know about the work they were doing for Facebook but “should have.” In the predictably flimsy and characteristically late response, Sandberg denounced conspiracy theories targeting Soros as “abhorrent.”

While the company still hasn’t explained how Facebook tapped the Republican-led firm for crisis communications, there are a few educated guesses to be made.

(TechCrunch contacted Facebook with questions about the scope of the firm’s work and how the relationship began and will update this story if we learn more.)

Other ties to the oppo research group

After denying any knowledge of Definers — curious given that Facebook itself stated that its “relationship with Definers was well known by the media” — Zuckerberg landed on an explanation: “Someone on our comms team must have hired them.” While this passing of the buck is questionable, it’s also probably true.

In fact, a noteworthy chunk of Facebook’s communications team has direct ties to Definers founder Matt Rhoades, who formerly ran Mitt Romney’s campaign bid for president. Facebook’s current Director of Policy Communications Andrea Saul served as the National Press Secretary for the Romney for President campaign from early 2011 to November 2012 under Rhoades. After the Romney campaign dried up, Saul went to work doing PR for Sheryl Sandberg’s nonprofit LeanIn.org for two years and found her way to Facebook in mid-2016.

Jackie Rooney, a Facebook spokesperson and member of Facebook’s Corporate and Internal Communications team, served on the Romney campaign as Chief of Staff to the campaign manager, Matt Rhoades. Rooney has been with Facebook for almost six years. Carolyn Glanville of Facebook’s Corporate Communications team, a relatively new hire at Facebook, also served on the Romney campaign as Deputy Communications Director.

A handful of other Facebook product team members also worked on the Romney campaign though were less directly connected to Rhoades. Romney has fundraised for Definers sister firm, the America Rising PAC, as recently as 2015. America Rising’s stated goal is to serve as “an independent organization that can drive the toughest negative narrative against Democrats.”

Beyond Facebook’s comms connections, another educated guess at the Definers culprit points to Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s deeply influential longtime chief lobbyist.

Kaplan, Facebook’s Vice President of Global Public Policy, served in the George W. Bush White House from 2001 until 2009, first as the Special Assistant to the President for Policy and later as Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy where he “integrated the execution of legislative, communications, and external outreach and policy strategies.” Both Rhoades and Pounder — Definers founder and President, respectively — worked on the Bush campaign in 2004 and went on to serve in the White House after the Bush campaign prevailed, developing some renown for their opposition research work.

“We distill and strategically deploy public information to build and influence media narratives, move public opinion and provide powerful ammunition for your public relations and government affairs efforts,” the group more commonly called Definers boasts. “Nobody else can say the same.”

Chain of Command

Having attended Harvard together, Kaplan and Sandberg are close. At Facebook, Kaplan reported to Communications and Public Policy VP Elliot Schrage before Schrage’s departure announced this June. Schrage reported to Sandberg, though Kaplan was often looped into high level decision making as well as part of “an elite group” of senior executives at the company.

According to the New York Times report, Facebook’s involvement with Definers began prior to October 2017, likely after the group set up shop in Silicon Valley a few months prior. While those conversations at times addressed content controversies, it’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t also shape overarching communications strategy in the midst of ongoing crises as well.

After Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal in March, Kaplan urged Sandberg to ramp up the lobbying efforts of fellow Bush administration alum Kevin Martin. Around the same time Facebook again “expanded” its work with Definers, switching to a more offensive strategy aligned with the on-the-attack style that the firm specializes in.

Like any decent political operative, Kaplan usually shirks the limelight — but not lately. Kaplan made headlines recently by appearing in the supporters section for Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh during the nationally televised hearing. A week later, Kaplan and his wife hosted a celebration party for those who had worked on the Kavanaugh nomination that was attended by the nominee himself.

If there was a time when Facebook’s relationship with Republicans was in fact strained, Silicon Valley’s premier equivocator has swung fully the other way with help from Kaplan. While left-leaning Silicon Valley might balk, his deep Republican establishment ties remain more of an asset than a liability to Facebook and have allowed him to serve effectively in his role for more than 10 years at the company. Facebook continues to scratch its East Coast lobbying itch while giving lip service to West Coast political ideals and generally telling everyone what they want to hear.

The buck stops where

One of tech’s biggest companies bringing a Republican political oppo outfit in to mitigate a relentless series of PR catastrophes is noteworthy in its own right, but Zuckerberg’s ignorance of Facebook’s dalliance with Definers makes the whole thing even more odd. Who knew what and when? Did Sheryl Sandberg really not know that the company was contracting with the group? Given her closeness to Kaplan, Schrage, and her extreme awareness of Facebook’s image, cultivated via the comms team, is that even possible?

As Facebook’s two top executives theatrically recoil in horror at their own company’s foray into the political dark arts, they might be surprised to learn that the oppo is in fact coming from inside the house.

More likely, they wouldn’t be.

Airbnb hosts offer free housing to evacuees displaced by California wildfires

With California’s recent cluster of devastating wildfires destroying homes and claiming lives, Airbnb is offering some shelter to displaced residents in its home state. This week, the company added free housing listings to serve evacuees affected by the Hill and Woolsey Fires outside Los Angeles and the Camp Fire in northern California.

The free Airbnb housing is currently available through November 29, 2018 for both displaced residents and relief workers helping out with recovery. The Camp Fire area shows as many as 700 participating homes in the area and the Hill and Woolsey fire areas show more than 1400.

Airbnb disaster housing

Airbnb disaster housing

The California fires aren’t the first disaster relief housing that Airbnb has coordinated. The company has a disaster relief hub where it surfaces current disasters in which people might be in need of housing. Right now, Airbnb is also coordinating free housing through hosts near Marseille after a building collapsed in the French city earlier this month. Two months ago, Airbnb encouraged hosts to sign up to offer their homes as residents evacuated before Hurricane Florence.

To sign up as an emergency housing host in one of those areas, you can follow the instructions behind the button to “sign up your home” after clicking through to your area from Airbnb’s main emergency housing portal.

Facebook bans the Proud Boys, cutting the group off from its main recruitment platform

Facebook is moving to ban the Proud Boys, a far-right men’s organization with ties to white supremacist groups. Business Insider first reported the decision. Facebook confirmed the decision to ban the Proud Boys from Facebook and Instagram to TechCrunch, indicating that the group (and presumably its leader Gavin McInnes) now meet the company’s definition of a hate organization or figure.

Facebook provided the following statement:

“Our team continues to study trends in organized hate and hate speech and works with partners to better understand hate organizations as they evolve. We ban these organizations and individuals from our platforms and also remove all praise and support when we become aware of it. We will continue to review content, Pages, and people that violate our policies, take action against hate speech and hate organizations to help keep our community safe.”

Even compared to other groups on the far right with online origins, the Proud Boys maximize their impact through social networking. The organization, founded by provocateur and Vice founder McInnes, relies on Facebook as its primary recruitment tool. As we reported in August, the Proud Boys operate a surprisingly sophisticated network for getting new members into the fold via many local and regional Facebook groups. All of it relies on Facebook — the Proud Boys homepage even links out to the web of Facebook groups to guide potential recruits toward next steps.

At the time of writing, Facebook’s ban appeared to affect some Proud Boys groups and not others. The profile of Proud Boys founder McInnes appears to still be functional. Facebook’s decision to act against the organization is likely tied to the recent arrest of five Proud Boys members in New York City on charges including assault, criminal possession of a weapon and gang assault.

Twitter, why are you such a hot mess?

Today, Jack Dorsey tweeted a link to his company’s latest gesture toward ongoing political relevance, a U.S. midterms news center collecting “the latest news and top commentary” on the country’s extraordinarily consequential upcoming election. If curated and filtered properly, that could be useful! Imagine. Unfortunately, rife with fake news, the tool is just another of Twitter’s small yet increasingly consequential disasters.

Beyond a promotional tweet from Dorsey, Twitter’s new offering is kind of buried — probably for the best. On desktop it’s a not particularly useful mash of national news reporters, local candidates and assorted unverifiable partisans. As Buzzfeed news details, the tool is swimming with conspiracy theories, including ones involving the migrant caravan. According to his social media posts, the Pittsburgh shooter was at least partially motivated by similar conspiracies, so this is not a good look to say the least.

Why launch a tool like this before performing the most basic cursory scan for the kind of low-quality sources that already have your company in hot water? Why have your chief executive promote it? Why why why

A few hours after Dorsey’s tweet, likely after the prominent callout, the main feed looked a bit tamer than it did at first glance. Subpages for local races appear mostly populated by candidates themselves, while the national feed looks more like an algorithmically generated echo chamber version of my regular Twitter feed, with inexplicably generous helpings of MSNBC pundits and more lefty activists.

For Twitter users already immersed in conspiracies, particularly those that incubate so successfully on the far right, does this feed offer yet another echo chamber disguised as a neutral news source? In spite of its sometimes dubiously left-leanings, my feed is still peppered with tweets from undercover video provocateur James O’Keefe — not exactly a high quality source.

In May, Twitter announced that political candidates would get a special badge, making them stand out from other users and potential imposters. That was useful! Anything that helps Twitter function as a fast news source with light context is a positive step, but unfortunately we haven’t seen a whole lot in this direction.

Social media companies need to stop launching additional amplification tools into the ominous void. No social tech company has yet exhibited a meaningful understanding of the systemic shifts that need to happen — possibly product-rending shifts — to dissuade bad actors and straight up disinformation from spreading like a back-to-school virus. 

Unfortunately, a week before the U.S. midterm elections, Twitter looks as disinterested as ever in the social disease wreaking havoc on its platform, even as users suffer its real-life consequences. Even more unfortunate for any members of its still dedicated, weary userbase, Twitter’s latest wholly avoidable minor catastrophe comes as a surprise to no one.

Texas has a long history of problems with Hart eSlate voting machines

During early voting in some Texas counties, a handful of voters reported seeing their straight-ticket votes changed to endorse the opposing party. Others reported that an issue with the voting machines appeared to remove any selection for U.S. Senate altogether.

The Texas Secretary of State’s office told TechCrunch that it has received “15-20 calls” from voters this week who reported being affected by the issue. All of those individuals caught the mistake and were able to correct their ballots before casting them, though that does not account for unreported instances in which voters did not notice the changed votes. In Texas, the Secretary of State serves as the chief elections officer.

The issue is specific to Hart eSlates, electronic voting systems created by major voting machine vendor Hart Intercivic. The Secretary of State’s office maintains that this issue is “not due to a malfunction with the machine” but rather is a result of user error. Across Texas, 82 counties use Hart eSlate machines though only Harris, Travis, McLennan, Montgomery, Tarrant and Fort Bend counties have reported issues.

In 2008, the Texas Democratic Party sued then-Secretary of State Roger Williams over a similar straight-ticket voting error affecting the same Hart eSlate machine. The U.S. 5th Circuit Court upheld the Secretary of State’s decision to deploy eSlates, striking down the case.

“I adamantly believe there is evidence that some votes in Texas have not been counted because of defective electronic voting machines, undermining the accuracy and fairness of our elections,” Texas Democratic Party Chair Boyd Richie said of the 2008 decision at the time.

The current Secretary of State maintains that there are safeguards in place to address concerns, urging voters to review their ballot before it is cast.

“The Hart eSlate machines are not malfunctioning, the problems being reported are a result of user error – usually voters hitting a button or using the selection wheel before the screen is finished rendering,” said Sam Taylor, Texas Secretary of State Communications Director.

Taylor added that the Secretary of State’s office has given instructions to election administrators to address the issue with signage, trained election officials on these issues and required county officials to maintain “a meticulous log of any malfunctioning machines, and remove any machines that are malfunctioning.”

The eSlate is a direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machine that employs a selection wheel and five buttons in lieu of a touchscreen.

Image via votetexas.gov

In a 2017 paper, two researchers at Rice University examined the usability of Hart’s eSlate devices, which have been touted for their ease of use by the manufacturer and counties that have adopted them. The research cites a 2008 study of 1500 voters that saw the Hart eSlate rank the lowest for ease of use out of six commonly used electronic voting systems.

“There is evidence, both anecdotal and experimental, suggesting that the eSlate is not particularly usable,” the paper’s authors wrote. “Counties are already spending a great deal of money on the eSlate and using the systems in elections despite potential usability issues that could lead to longer voter times… and mistakes made by voters while making selections on ballots.”

In 2008, a whistleblower at Hart Intercivic filed a lawsuit (William R. Singer v. Hart InterCivic) accusing the company of “false statements… regarding the accuracy, testing, reliability, and security of its voting system, in an effort to secure federal monies.” The lawsuit dissolved after a Supreme Court decision that hobbled cases brought forth by whistleblowers.

Keith Ingram, director of the Texas Secretary of State’s Elections Division, issued a full advisory on the eSlate error:

“We have heard from a number of people voting on Hart eSlate machines that when they voted straight ticket, it appeared to them that the machine had changed one or more of their selections to a candidate from a different party. This can be caused by the voter taking keyboard actions before a page has fully appeared on the eSlate, thereby de-selecting the pre-filled selection of that party’s candidate.

“Specifically, the Hart eSlate system uses a keyboard with an “Enter” button and a selection wheel button. The “Enter” button on a Hart eSlate selects a voter’s choice. The selection wheel button on a Hart eSlate allows the voter to move up and down the ballot. It is important when voting on a Hart eSlate machine for the voter to use one button or the other and not both simultaneously, and for the voter to not hit the “Enter” button or use the selection wheel button until a page is fully rendered.”

When TechCrunch asked about the Secretary of State’s plans to address the known Hart eSlate issue, whether by replacing affected systems or through a firmware update, the office directed us to speak with Hart Intercivic, the machine’s manufacturer. “The eSlate simply records the voter’s inputs; it does not, and cannot, ‘flip’ or ‘switch’ votes,” the company told the Dallas Morning News in an email. Hart Intercivic did not respond to our request for comment.

“All machines must be certified by the US Election Assistance Commission and then our office before being put to use in Elections,” Taylor said. “It’s a very widespread misconception that our office has the ability to simply ‘update’ the machines.”

According to the Waco Tribune, McLennan County Elections Administrator Kathy Van Wolfe said that while she has received calls in the past elections regarding the same issue she has not had any yet this year.

Twitter suspends accounts linked to mail bomb suspect

At least two Twitter accounts linked to the man suspected of sending explosive devices to more than a dozen prominent Democrats were suspended on Friday afternoon.

Cesar Sayoc Jr., 56, was apprehended by federal law enforcement officers in Florida on Friday morning. “Though we’re still analyzing the devices in our laboratory, these are not hoax devices,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said during a press briefing.

Facebook moved fairly quickly to suspend Sayoc’s account on the platform, though two Twitter accounts that appeared to belong to Sayoc remained online and accessible until around 2:30 p.m. Pacific. Both accounts featured numerous tweets, many of which contained far-right political conspiracy theories, graphic images and specific threats.

TechCrunch was able to review the accounts extensively before they were removed. Both known accounts, @hardrockintlet and @hardrock2016, contained many tweets that appeared to threaten violence against perceived political enemies, including Keith Ellison and Joe Biden, an intended recipient of an explosive device.

In one case, those threats had been previously reported to Twitter. Democratic commentator Rochelle Ritchie tweeted that she reported a tweet from @hardrock2016 following her appearance on Fox News. According to a screenshot, Twitter received the report and on October 11 responded that it found “no violation of the Twitter rules against abusive behavior.”

The tweet stated “We will see u 4 sure. Hug your loved ones real close every time you leave home” accompanied by a photo of Ritchie, a screenshot of a news story about a body found in the Everglades and the tarot card representing death.

Between the two accounts linked to Sayoc, many of the threats were depicted with graphic images in sequence. In one tweet on September 18 to former Vice President Joe Biden, the account tweeted images of an air boat, a symbol depicting an hourglass with a scythe and graphic images of a decapitated goat.

Threatening messages that emerge out of a sequence of images would likely be more difficult for machine learning moderation tools to parse, though any human content moderator would have no trouble extracting their meaning. In most cases the threatening images were paired with a verbal threat. At least one archive of a Twitter account linked to Sayoc remains online.

In a statement to TechCrunch, Twitter stated only that “This is an ongoing law enforcement investigation. We do not have a comment.” The company indicated that the accounts were suspended for violating Twitter’s rules, though did not specify which.

The team behind XOXO is taking over Kickstarter’s Drip crowdfunding community

Two years ago, Kickstarter acquired Drip, an indie musician crowdfunding platform, on the eve of the service’s untimely demise. After relaunching Drip last year, Kickstarter is again reinventing the Patreon-like artist platform. This time, by placing it under the stewardship of two guys who love indie creators so much they dreamed up a whole festival about it.

The idea grew out of conversations between Kickstarter principal founder Perry Chen and Andy Baio, Kickstarter’s former (and first) Chief Technology Officer and one half of XOXO Fest, a sometimes annual, very beloved celebration of independent artists and creators. XOXO co-founder Andy McMillan will join Baio on the project, with an undisclosed round of seed funding provided by Kickstarter.

“Andy [McMillan] and I had been thinking about this for some time,” Baio said in an interview with TechCrunch. “The whole thing being about celebrating independent artists, bringing them together to talk about difficult things… So much of what we’ve focused on was that: helping independent artists who use the internet to make a living.”

The two Andys (as they’re known at XOXO) maintain a very active year-round Slack comprised of former XOXO attendees, a responsibility that’s seen them grow into their role as stewards of a community that’s taken on a life of its own, both online and off.

For their new project — the evolution of Drip into a yet-to-be-named community and crowdfunding hub — Baio and McMillan have formed a public-benefit corporation to reflect their values and those of Kickstarter, also a public-benefit corporation. Chen clarifies that the new site is separate from Kickstarter and will “not be a subsidiary in any way, wholly its own thing [with] its own leadership.”

It’s too early to say if Baio and McMillan plan to weave the new platform into XOXO Fest, but the two projects are “really closely aligned in mission,” Baio said. Some of Drip’s existing creators are XOXO Fest regulars and the event itself grew out of a successful Kickstarter that raised $175,511 back in 2012. 

“I think we’re all used to seeing at this point how the platforms that we use have failed,” Baio said. “The challenges that independent artists face are so profound already — to then have the tools and the platforms that you’re using work against you has been a painful thing.”

That pain was a central theme at XOXO Fest this year, which I attended. (Full disclosure: I was also an early member of the XOXO Outpost, a year-round creative space that grew out of the festival.) Across genres, writers, musicians and developers alike expressed concerns that unaddressed harassment, racism and misogyny had turned once well-loved social platforms against some of the users who need them most.

“We really hope that we can show people that this platform reflects the values and care we have for the artists that we care about,” Baio said. “We want it to be sustainable and independent for a long time.”