Twitter will finally let you turn on two-factor authentication without giving it a phone number

Two-factor authentication is good! SMS-based two-factor authentication? Not the best option. After countless tales of people having their phone numbers and inbound SMS hijacked by way of SIM swapping, its clear that SMS just isn’t the right solution for sending people secondary login codes.

And yet, for many years, it’s been the mandatory go-to on Twitter . You could switch to another option later (like Google Authenticator, or a physical Yubikey) — but to turn it on in the first place, you were locked into giving Twitter a phone number and using SMS.

Twitter is getting around to fixing this, at long last. The Twitter Safety team announced that you’ll be able to enable two-factor without the need for a phone number, starting sometime today.

This news comes just a few months after Jack Dorsey’s own Twitter account was hacked (seemingly by way of a SIM swap) and a few weeks after Twitter had to admit it was using phone numbers provided during the two-factor setup process for serving targeted ads.

Some users are reporting that the setup process still requests a phone number, so it seems like this change is being rolled out rather than launching for everyone immediately.

Twitter makes its political ad ban official

The ban on political ads announced by Twitter two weeks ago has come into effect, and the rules are surprisingly simple — perhaps too simple. No political content as they define it may be promoted; Candidates, parties, governments or officials, PACs, and certain political nonprofit groups are banned from promoting content altogether.

The idea intended to be made manifest in these policies is that “political message reach should be earned, not bought,” as the company puts it. It’s hard to argue with that (but Facebook will anyway). The new rules apply globally and to all ad types.

It’s important to make clear at the outset that Twitter is not banning political content, it is banning the paid promotion of that content. Every topic is fair game and every person or organization on Twitter can pursue their cause as before — they just can’t pay to get their message in front of more eyeballs.

In its briefly stated rules, the company explains what it means by “political content”:

We define political content as content that references a candidate, political party, elected or appointed government official, election, referendum, ballot measure, legislation, regulation, directive, or judicial outcome.

Also banned are:

Ads that contain references to political content, including appeals for votes, solicitations of financial support, and advocacy for or against any of the above-listed types of political content.

That seems pretty straightforward. Banning political ads is controversial to begin with, but unclear or complicated definitions would really make things difficult.

A blanket ban on many politically-motivated organizations will also help clear the decks. Political action committees, or PACs, and their deep-pocketed cousins the SuperPACs, are banned from advertising at all. That makes sense, since what content would they be promoting other than attempts to influence the political process? 501(c)4 nonprofit organizations, not as publicly notorious as PACs but huge spenders on political causes, are also banned.

There are of course exemptions, both for news organizations that want to promote coverage of political issues, and “cause-based” content deemed non-political.

The first exemption is pretty natural — although many news organizations do have a political outlook or ideological bent, it’s a far cry from the practice of donating millions directly to candidates or parties. But not just any site can take advantage — you’ll have to have 200,000 monthly unique visitors, make your own content with your own people, and not be primarily focused on a single issue.

The “cause-based” exemption may be where Twitter takes the most heat. As Twitter’s policy states, it will allow “ads that educate, raise awareness, and/or call for people to take action in connection with civic engagement, economic growth, environmental stewardship, or social equity causes.”

These come with some restrictions: They can only be targeted to the state, province, or region level — no zip codes, so hyper-local influence is out. And politically-charged interests may not be targeted, so you can’t send your cause-based ads just to “socialists,” for example. And they can’t reference or be run on behalf of any of the banned entities above.

But it’s the play in the definition that may come back to bite Twitter. What exactly constitutes “civic engagement” and “social equity causes”? Perhaps these concepts were only vaguely defined by design to be accommodating rather than prescriptive, but if you leave an inch for interpretation, you’d better believe bad actors are going to take a mile.

Clearly this is meant to allow promotion of content like voter registration drives, disaster relief work, and so on. But it’s more than possible someone will try to qualify, say, an anti-immigrant rally as “public conversation around important topics.”

I asked Twitter whether additional guidance on the cause-based content rules would be forthcoming, but a representative simply pointed me to the very language I quoted.

That said, policy lead at Twitter Vijaya Gadde said that the company will attempt to be transparent with its decisions on individual issues and clear about changes to the rules going forward.

“This is new territory,” she tweeted. “As with every policy we put into practice, it will evolve and we’ll be listening to your feedback.”

And no doubt they shall receive it — in abundance.

I ran digital ads for a presidential campaign, and Twitter is right to ban them

As the digital director for Congressman Seth Moulton’s 2020 presidential campaign, I was responsible for everything the campaign did on the internet: the emails you claim to hate, the videos we hoped would go viral, the online infrastructure that supported organizers in the field, and more. But our biggest investment of both time and money, by far, was in digital advertising.

For our campaign and many others, digital ads were the single biggest expense outside of payroll. Yet these ads are terrible for campaigns, toxic for democracy and are even bad for the companies who profit off them. Last week, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey took a bold first step in banning political ads — Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google CEO Sundar Pichai should follow suit.

Digital ads are one of the most important channels for acquiring new supporters and serving them that all-important question: “Will you chip in $10, $5, or whatever you can to support our campaign? Even $1 helps!” When the Democratic National Committee announced in February that presidential candidates would need a minimum of 65,000 individual donors to qualify for the first two debates, acquiring these small dollar donors became a do-or-die priority for campaigns.

The trouble is, when 25 campaigns are competing in a Democratic donor market that had just five competitors in 2016, and when each campaign is desperate to acquire new donors, prices go up. Way up.

We — and I suspect many others — routinely ran what were supposed to be revenue-generating ads at a loss, spending $10, $20, or even $30 in order to acquire one new donor and their contribution of as little as $1. This is a terrible deal for campaigns: they hemorrhage cash in order to lose money acquiring more, costing weeks or months of valuable runway, all while Facebook pockets the difference. At scale, the consequence is massive: the remaining 18 Democratic candidates have already spent over $53 million on Facebook and Google this cycle, most of it these kinds of ads.

This is $53 million — plus millions more from prolific former candidates like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Gov. Jay Inslee — which would have otherwise been invested in infrastructure to turn out voters and help Democrats in November no matter who is the nominee. Instead, it went straight into Facebook and Google’s coffers.

These ads are toxic to our democracy.

Due to short online attention spans, the character limits that enforce them and the engagement algorithms that act as gatekeepers to the digital world, campaigns must distill complex issues down to a two sentence pseudo-essence that would leave even debate moderators unsatisfied. And if you want to have a prayer of anyone clicking on your ad, it had better be as inflammatory as possible — people click when they’re angry.

The easiest way to do this is to simply make things up, something most campaigns would never consider, but which Zuckerberg made clear in congressional testimony this week his platform would happily enable. Companies like Facebook and Google force us to present voters with a world that is black and white, in which all nuance is distraction, and in which civic engagement is something that can be done from your phone for just $1 (Unless you’d like to make this a monthly recurring donation? Your support has never been more crucial!). This does not an informed, healthy democracy make.

Political ads are not even good for the companies that serve them. On a quarterly earnings call the same day as Dorsey’s announcement, Zuckerberg estimated that political ads run by candidates would make up just 0.5% of Facebook’s 2020 revenue. Assuming similar performance to the previous 12 months, in which Facebook earned $66 billion, this would be about $330 million in political ad revenue.

In exchange, Facebook has earned itself years of bad PR, increased regulatory risk as congressional leaders are beginning to see it as a national security problem, and even existential risk as leading presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren has vowed to break up the company if elected. All over revenues that hardly even justify the opportunity cost of Zuckerberg’s hours of preparation for congressional hearings.

So who benefits from these kinds of ads? Those who want to create a chaotic information environment in the United States in which facts are subjective, reality is ephemeral and the only information you can trust comes from the people manipulating social media to feed it to you. It is therefore no surprise that one of the first organizations to condemn Dorsey’s decision was the Russian state-sponsored media outlet Russia Today.

Presented with a choice between minuscule revenues and existential risk, between patching a bug in American democracy and abetting Russian propaganda, Dorsey made a wise choice for both his bottom line and his country. Zuckerberg and Pichai would do well to follow his lead.

Saudi Arabia reportedly recruited Twitter employees to steal personal data of activists

Saudi Arabian officials allegedly paid at least two employees of Twitter to access personal information on users the government there was interested in, according to recently unsealed court documents. Those users were warned of the attempt in 2015, but the full picture is only now emerging.

According to an AP report citing the federal complaint, Ahmad Abouammo and Ali Alzabarah were both approached by the Saudi government, which promised “a designer watch and tens of thousands of dollars” if they could retrieve personal information on certain users.

Abouammo worked for Twitter in media partnerships in the Middle East, and Alzabarah was an engineer; both are charged with acting as unregistered Saudi agents — spies.

Alzabarah reportedly met with a member of the Saudi royal family in Washington, D.C. in 2015, and within a week he had begun accessing data on thousands of users, including at least 33 that Saudi Arabia had officially contacted Twitter to request information on. These users included political activists and journalists critical of the royal family and Saudi government.

This did not go unnoticed and Alzabarah, when questioned by his supervisors, reportedly said he had only done it out of curiosity. But when he was forced to leave work, he flew to Saudi Arabia with his family literally the next day, and now works for the government there.

The attempt resulted in Twitter alerting thousands of users that they were the potential targets of a state-sponsored attack, but that there was no evidence their personal data had actually been exfiltrated. Last year, the New York Times reported that this event had been prompted by a Twitter employee groomed by Saudi officials for the purpose. And now we learn there was another employee engaged in similar activity.

The cases in question are still open and as such more information will likely come to light soon. I asked Twitter for comment on the events and what specifically it had done to prevent similar attacks in the future. It did not respond directly to these queries, instead providing the following statement:

We would like to thank the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice for their support with this investigation. We recognize the lengths bad actors will go to try and undermine our service. Our company limits access to sensitive account information to a limited group of trained and vetted employees. We understand the incredible risks faced by many who use Twitter to share their perspectives with the world and to hold those in power accountable. We have tools in place to protect their privacy and their ability to do their vital work. We’re committed to protecting those who use our service to advocate for equality, individual freedoms, and human rights.

Twitter suspends accounts affiliated with Hamas and Hezbollah

Twitter suspended several accounts affiliated with Hamas and Hezbollah over the weekend after being repeatedly asked to do so by a bipartisan group of U.S. Representatives. The lawmakers—Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), Tom Reed (R-NY), Max Rose (D-NY) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA)—criticized the company for allowing the accounts to stay up even though Hamas and Hezbollah are designated as Foreign Terrorist Organizations by the United States government.

The accounts suspended include Hamas’ English and Arabic-language accounts and ones belonging to Al-Manar, a television station linked to Hezbollah, and Hamas-affiliated news service Quds News Network.

Hamas' suspended English-language Twitter account

Hamas’ suspended English-language Twitter account

Twitter initially told the congressmen that it distinguishes between political and military factions of those organizations. In an Oct. 22 response, the House members told Twitter that “this distinction is not meaningful, nor is it widely shared. Hezbollah and Hamas are terrorist organizations as designated by the United States Government. Period.”

On Nov. 1, Twitter’s director of public policy in the United States and Canada Carlos Monje Jr., replied that the accounts had been suspended after a review.

“Twitter’s policy is to remove or terminate all accounts it identifies as owned or operated by, or directly affiliated with, any designated foreign terrorist association. If Twitter identifies an account as affiliated with Hamas or Hizballah [sic], Twitter’s policy is to terminate that account,” he wrote in a letter to the congressmen.

Monje added that “Twitter also takes significant steps to identify accounts that are not directly affiliated with a designated foreign terrorist organization but which nonetheless promote or support violent extremism.”

Raja Adulhaq, co-founder of Quds News Network, told the Wall Street Journal that three of the news agency’s accounts had been removed and described the suspensions a “clear censorship of Palestinian narratives.”

The accounts’ suspension comes as social media companies, including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, face increased scrutiny from lawmakers over what content and advertising they allow on their platform. Twitter recently said it would stop running political ads, an announcement that came after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended his company’s policy of not fact-checking political ads while testifying in front of Congress last month.

TechCrunch has contacted Twitter for comment.

Airbnb to ban ‘party houses’ in wake of Halloween shooting that left 5 dead

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said Saturday the company will ban “party houses” and take other steps to safeguard hosts and guests after five people died at a Halloween party hosted at California home that was rented on the service.

Chesky made the announcement via a series of tweets Saturday. “What happened on Thursday night in Orinda, CA was horrible,” Chesky wrote. “I feel for the families and neighbors impacted by this tragedy — we are working to support them.”

Chesky then announced that party houses would be banned and that the company is “redoubling” efforts to combat unauthorized parties.

Chesky announced several other measures to increase safety, including the expansion of manual screenings of high-risk reservations flagged by Airbnb’s risk detection technology and creating a dedicated “party house” rapid response team

Margaret Richardson, from Airbnb’s executive team, has been tasked to accelerate the review process to enact these new policies as soon as possible, he added.

 

Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office said the party had been advertised on social media as a mansion party, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Police were headed to the home Oct. 31 over noise complaints when the gunfire began around 10:50 p.m. Several people died at the scene. The fifth victim died Friday night.

Twitter’s political ads ban is a distraction from the real problem with platforms

Sometimes it feels as if Internet platforms are turning everything upside down, from politics to publishing, culture to commerce, and of course swapping truth for lies.

This week’s bizarro reversal was the vista of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, a tech CEO famed for being entirely behind the moral curve of understanding what his product is platforming (i.e. nazis), providing an impromptu ‘tweet storm’ in political speech ethics.

Actually he was schooling Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg — another techbro renowned for his special disconnect with the real world, despite running a massive free propaganda empire with vast power to influence other people’s lives — in taking a stand for the good of democracy and society.

So not exactly a full reverse then.

In short, Twitter has said it will no longer accept political ads, period.

Whereas Facebook recently announced it will no longer fact-check political ads. Aka: Lies are fine, so long as you’re paying Facebook to spread them.

You could argue there’s a certain surface clarity to Facebook’s position — i.e. it sums to ‘when it comes to politics we just won’t have any ethics’. Presumably with the hoped for sequitur being ‘so you can’t accuse us of bias’.

Though that’s actually a non sequitur; by not applying any ethical standards around political campaigns Facebook is providing succour to those with the least ethics and the basest standards. So its position does actually favor the ‘truth-lite’, to put it politely. (You can decide which political side that might advantage.)

Twitter’s position also has surface clarity: A total ban! Political and issue ads both into the delete bin. But as my colleague Devin Coldewey quickly pointed out it’s likely to get rather more fuzzy around the edges as the company comes to defining exactly what is (and isn’t) a ‘political ad’ — and what its few “exceptions” might be.

Indeed, Twitter’s definitions are already raising eyebrows. For example it has apparently decided climate change is a ‘political issue’ — and will therefore be banning ads about science. While, presumably, remaining open to taking money from big oil to promote their climate-polluting brands… So yeah, messy.

There will clearly be attempts to stress test and circumvent the lines Twitter is setting. The policy may sound simple but it involves all sorts of judgements that expose the company’s political calculations and leave it open to charges of bias and/or moral failure.

Still, setting rules is — or should be — the easy and adult thing to do when it comes to content standards; enforcement is the real sweating toil for these platforms.

Which is also, presumably, why Facebook has decided to experiment with not having any rules around political ads — in the (forlorn) hope of avoiding being forced into the role of political speech policeman.

If that’s the strategy it’s already looking spectacularly dumb and self-defeating. The company has just set itself up for an ongoing PR nightmare where it is indeed forced to police intentionally policy-provoking ads from its own back-foot — having put itself in the position of ‘wilfully corrupt cop’. Slow hand claps all round.

Albeit, it can at least console itself it’s monetizing its own ethics bypass.

Twitter’s opposing policy on political ads also isn’t immune from criticism, as we’ve noted.

Indeed, it’s already facing accusations that a total ban is biased against new candidates who start with a lower public profile. Even if the energy of that argument would be better spent advocating for wide-ranging reform of campaign financing, including hard limits on election spending. If you really want to reboot politics by levelling the playing field between candidates that’s how to do it.

Also essential: Regulations capable of enforcing controls on dark money to protect democracies from being bought and cooked from the inside via the invisible seeding of propaganda that misappropriates the reach and data of Internet platforms to pass off lies as populist truth, cloaking them in the shape-shifting blur of microtargeted hyperconnectivity.

Sketchy interests buying cheap influence from data-rich billionaires, free from accountability or democratic scrutiny, is our new warped ‘normal’. But it shouldn’t be.

There’s another issue being papered over here, too. Twitter banning political ads is really a distracting detail when you consider that it’s not a major platform for running political ads anyway.

During the 2018 US midterms the category generated less than $3M for the company.

And, secondly, anything posted organically as a tweet to Twitter can act as a political call to arms.

It’s these outrageous ‘organic’ tweets where the real political action is on Twitter’s platform. (Hi Trump.)

Including inauthentically ‘organic’ tweets which aren’t a person’s genuinely held opinion but a planted (and often paid for) fake. Call it ‘going native’ advertising; faux tweets intended to pass off lies as truth, inflated and amplified by bot armies (fake accounts) operating in plain sight (often gaming Twitter’s trending topics) as a parallel ‘unofficial’ advertising infrastructure whose mission is to generate attention-grabbing pantomimes of public opinion to try and sway the real thing.

In short: Propaganda.

Who needs to pay to run a political ad on Twitter when you can get a bot network to do the boosterism for you?

Let’s not forget Dorsey is also the tech CEO famed for not applying his platform’s rules of conduct to the tweets of certain high profile politicians. (Er, Trump again, basically.)

So by saying Twitter is banning political ads yet continuing to apply a double standard to world leaders’ tweets — most obviously by allowing the US president to bully, abuse and threaten at will in order to further his populist rightwing political agenda — the company is trying to have its cake and eat it.

More recently Twitter has evolved its policy slightly, saying it will apply some limits on the reach of rule-breaking world leader tweets. But it continues to run two sets of rules.

To Dorsey’s credit he does foreground this tension in his tweet storm — where he writes [emphasis ours]:

Internet political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse: machine learning-based optimization of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes. All at increasing velocity, sophistication, and overwhelming scale.

These challenges will affect ALL internet communication, not just political ads. Best to focus our efforts on the root problems, without the additional burden and complexity taking money brings. Trying to fix both means fixing neither well, and harms our credibility.

This is good stuff from Dorsey. Surprisingly good, given his and Twitter’s long years of free speech fundamentalism — when the company gained a reputation for being wilfully blind and deaf to the fact that for free expression to flourish online it needs a protective shield of civic limits. Otherwise ‘freedom to amplify any awful thing’ becomes a speech chiller that disproportionately harms minorities.

Aka freedom of speech is not the same as freedom of reach, as Dorsey now notes.

Even with Twitter making some disappointing choices in how it defines political issues, for the purposes of this ad ban, the contrast with Facebook and Zuckerberg — still twisting and spinning in the same hot air; trying to justify incoherent platform policies that sell out democracy for a binary ideology which his own company can’t even stick to — looks stark.

The timing of Dorsey’s tweet-storm, during Facebook’s earnings call, was clearly intended to make that point.

“Zuckerberg wants us to believe that one must be for or against free speech with no nuance, complexity or cultural specificity, despite running a company that’s drowning in complexity,” writes cultural historian, Siva Vaidhyanathan, confronting Facebook’s moral vacuousness in a recent Guardian article responding to another Zuckerberg ‘manifesto’ on free speech. “He wants our discussions to be as abstract and idealistic as possible. He wants us not to look too closely at Facebook itself.”

Facebook’s position on speech does only stand up in the abstract. Just as its ad-targeting business can only run free of moral outrage in unregulated obscurity, where the baked in biases — algorithmic and user generated — are safely hidden from view so people can’t joins the dots on how they’re being damaged.

We shouldn’t be surprised at how quickly the scandal-prone company is now being called on its ideological BS. We have a savvier political class as a result of the platform-scale disinformation and global data scandals of the past few years. People who have have seen and experienced what Facebook’s policies translate to in real world practice. Like compromised elections and community violence.

With lawmakers like these turning their attention on platform giants there is a genuine possibility of meaningful regulation coming down the pipe for the antisocial media business.

Not least because Facebook’s self regulation has always been another piece of crisis PR, designed to preempt and steer off the real thing. It’s a cynical attempt to maintain its profitable grip on our attention. The company has never been committed to making the kind of systemic change necessary to fix its toxic speech issues.

The problem is, ultimately, toxicity and division drives engagement, captures attention and makes Facebook a lot of money.

Twitter can claim a little distance from that business model not only because it’s considerably less successful than Facebook at generating money by monopolizing attention, but also because it provides greater leeway for its users to build and follow their own interest networks, free from algorithmic interference (though it does do algorithms too).

It has also been on a self-proclaimed reform path for some time. Most recently saying it wants to be responsible for promoting “conversational health on its platform. No one would say it’s there yet but perhaps we’re finally getting to see some action. Even if banning political ads is mostly a quick PR win for Twitter.

The really hard work continues, though. Namely rooting out bot armies before their malicious propaganda can pollute the public sphere. Twitter hasn’t said it’s close to being able to fix that.

Facebook is also still failing to stem the tide of ‘organic’ politicized fake content on its platform. Fakes that profit at our democratic expense by spreading hate and lies.

For this type of content Facebook offers no searchable archive (as it now does for paid ads which it defines as political) — thereby providing ongoing cover for dark money to do its manipulative hack-job on democracy by free-posting via groups and pages.

Plus, even where Facebook claims to be transparently raising the curtain on paid political influence it’s abjectly failing to do so. Its political ads API is still being blasted by research academics as not fit for purpose. Even as the company policy cranks up pressure on external fact-checkers by giving politicians the green light to run ads that lie.

It has also been accused of applying a biased standard when it comes to weeding out “coordinated inauthentic behavior”, as Facebook euphemistically calls the networks of fake accounts set up to amplify and juice reach — when the propaganda in question is coming from within the US and leans toward the political right.

 

Facebook denies this, claiming for example that a network of pages on its platform reported to be exclusively boosting content from US conservative news site, The Daily Wire, arereal pages run by real people in the U.S., and they don’t violate our policies. (It didn’t offer us any detail on how it reached that conclusion.) 

A company spokesperson also said: “We’re working on more transparency so that in the future people have more information about Pages like these on Facebook.”

So it’s still promising ‘more transparency’ — rather than actually being transparent. And it remains the sole judge interpreting and applying policies that aren’t at all legally binding; so sham regulation then. 

Moreover, while Facebook has at times issued bans on toxic content from certain domestic hate speech preachers’, such as banning some of InfoWars’ Alex Jones’ pages, it’s failed to stop the self-same hate respawning via new pages. Or indeed the same hateful individuals maintaining other accounts on different Facebook-owned social properties. Inconsistency of policy enforcement is Facebook’s DNA.

Set against all that Dorsey’s decision to take a stance against political ads looks positively statesmanlike.

It is also, at a fundamental level, obviously just the right thing to do. Buying a greater share of attention than you’ve earned politically is regressive because it favors those with the deepest pockets. Though of course Twitter’s stance won’t fix the rest of a broken system where money continues to pour in and pollute politics.

We also don’t know the fine-grained detail of how Twitter’s algorithms amplify political speech when it’s packaged in organic tweet form. So whether its algorithmic levers are more likely to be triggered into boosting political tweets that inflame and incite, or those that inform and seek to unite.

As I say, the whole of Twitter’s platform can sum to political advertising. And the company does apply algorithms to surface or suppress tweets based on its proprietary (and commercial) determination of ‘engagement quality’. So its entire business is involved in shaping how visible (or otherwise) tweeted speech is.

That very obviously includes plenty of political speech. Not for nothing is Twitter Trump’s platform of choice.

Nothing about its ban on political ads changes all that. So, as ever, where social media self-regulation is concerned, what we are being given is — at best — just fiddling around the edges.

A cynical eye might say Twitter’s ban is intended to distract attention from more structural problems baked into these attention-harvesting Internet platforms.

The toxic political discourse problem that democracies and societies around the world are being forced to grapple with is as a consequence of how Internet platforms distribute content and shape public discussion. So what’s really key is how these companies use our information to program what we each get to see.

The fact that we’re talking about Twitter’s political ad ban risks distracting from the “root problems” Dorsey referenced in passing. (Though he would probably offer a different definition of their cause. In the tweet storm he just talks about “working hard to stop people from gaming our systems to spread misleading info”.)

Facebook’s public diagnosis of the same problem is always extremely basic and blame-shifting. It just says some humans are bad, ergo some bad stuff will be platformed by Facebook — reflecting the issue back at humanity.

Here’s an alternative take: The core issue underpinning all these problems around how Internet platforms spread toxic propaganda is the underlying fact of taking people’s data in order to manipulate our attention.

This business of microtargeting — or behavioral advertising, as it’s also called — turns everyone into a target for some piece of propaganda or other.

It’s a practice that sucks regardless of whether it’s being done to you by Donald Trump or by Disney. Because it’s asymmetrical. It’s disproportionate. It’s exploitative. And it’s inherently anti-democratic.

It also incentivizes a pervasive, industrial-scale stockpiling of personal data that’s naturally hostile to privacy, terrible for security and gobbles huge amounts of energy and computing resource. So it sucks from an environmental perspective too.

And it does it all for the very basest of purposes. This is platforms selling you out so others can sell you stuff. Be it soap or political opinions.

Zuckerberg’s label of choice for this process — “relevant ads” — is just the slick lie told by a billionaire to grease the pipes that suck out the data required to sell our attention down the river.

Microtargeting is both awful for the individual (meaning creepy ads; loss of privacy; risk of bias and data misuse) and terrible for society for all the same reasons — as well as grave, society-level risks, such as election interference and the undermining of hard-won democratic institutions by hostile forces.

Individual privacy is a common good, akin to public health. Inoculation — against disease or indeed disinformation — helps protect the whole of us from damaging contagion.

To be clear, microtargeting is also not only something that happens when platforms are paid money to target ads. Platforms are doing this all the time; applying a weaponizing layer to customize everything they handle.

It’s how they distribute and program the masses of information users freely upload, creating maximally engaging order out of the daily human chaos they’ve tasked themselves with turning into a compelling and personalized narrative — without paying a massive army of human editors to do the job.

Facebook’s News Feed relies on the same data-driven principles as behavioral ads do to grab and hold attention. As does Twitter’s ‘Top Tweets’ algorithmically ranked view.

This is programmed attention-manipulation at vast scale, repackaged as a ‘social’ service. One which uses what the platforms learn by spying on Internet users as divisive glue to bind our individual attention, even if it means setting some of us against each another.

That’s why you can publish a Facebook post that mentions a particular political issue and — literally within seconds — attract a violently expressed opposing view from a Facebook ‘friend’ you haven’t spoken to in years. The platform can deliver that content ‘gut punch’ because it has a god-like view of everyone via the prism of their data. Data that powers its algorithms to plug content into “relevant” eyeballs, ranked by highest potential for engagement sparks to fly.

It goes without saying that if a real friendship group contained such a game-playing stalker — who had bugged everyone’s phones to snoop and keep tabs on them, and used what they learnt to play friends off against each other — no one would imagine it bringing the group closer together. Yet that’s how Facebook treats its captive eyeballs.

That awkward silence you could hear as certain hard-hitting questions struck Zuckerberg during his most recent turn in the House might just be the penny dropping.

It finally feels as if lawmakers are getting close to an understanding of the real “root problem” embedded in these content-for-data sociotechnical platforms.

Platforms that invite us to gaze into them in order that they can get intimate with us forever — using what they learn from spying to pry further and exploit faster.

So while banning political ads sounds nice it’s just a distraction. What we really need to shatter the black mirror platforms are holding against society, in which they get to view us from all angles while preventing us from seeing what they’re doing, is to bring down a comprehensive privacy screen. No targeting against personal data.

Let them show us content and ads, sure. They can target this stuff contextually based on a few generic pieces of information. They can even ask us to specify if we’d like to see ads about housing today or consumer packaged goods? We can negotiate the rules. Everything else — what we do on or off the platform, who we talk to, what we look at, where we go, what we say — must remain strictly off limits.

Daily Crunch: Twitter is banning political ads

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Jack Dorsey says Twitter will ban all political ads

Arguing that “internet political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse,” CEO Jack Dorsey announced that Twitter will be banning all political advertising — albeit with “a few exceptions” like voter registration.

Not only is this a decisive move by Twitter, but it also could increase pressure on Facebook to follow suit, or at least take steps in this direction.

2. Apple beats on Q4 earnings after strong quarter for wearables, services

Apple’s iPhone sales still make up over half of its quarterly revenues, but they are slowly shrinking in importance as other divisions in the company pick up speed.

3. Facebook shares rise on strong Q3, users up 2% to 2.45B

More earnings news: Despite ongoing public relations crises, Facebook kept growing in Q3 2019, demonstrating that media backlash does not necessarily equate to poor business performance.

4. Driving license tests just got smarter in India with Microsoft’s AI project

Hundreds of people who have taken the driver’s license test in Dehradun (the capital of the Indian state of Uttarakhand) in recent weeks haven’t had to sit next to an instructor. Instead, their cars were affixed with a smartphone that was running HAMS, an AI project developed by a Microsoft Research team.

5. Crunchbase raises $30M more to double down on its ambition to be a ‘LinkedIn for company data’

Good news for our friends at Crunchbase, which got its start as a part of TechCrunch before being spun off into a separate business several years ago. CEO Jager McConnell also says the site currently has tens of thousands of paying subscribers.

6. Deadspin writers quit after being ordered to stick to sports

The relationship between new management at G/O Media (formerly Gizmodo Media Group/Gawker Media) and editorial staff seems to have been deteriorating for months. This week, it turned into a full-on revolt over auto-play ads and especially a directive that Deadspin writers must stick to sports.

7. What Berlin’s top VCs want to invest in right now

As we gear up for our Disrupt Berlin conference in December, we check in with top VCs on the types of startups that they’re looking to back right now. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

Twitter banning political ads is the right thing to do, so it will be attacked mercilessly

Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey announced abruptly — though the timing was certainly not accidental — that the platform would soon disallow any and all political advertising. This is the right thing to do, but it’s also going to be hard as hell for a lot of reasons. As usual in tech and politics, no good deed goes unpunished.

Malicious actors state-sponsored and otherwise have and will continue to attempt to influence the outcome of U.S. elections via online means including political ads and astroturfing. Banning such ads outright is an obvious, if rather heavy-handed solution — but given that online platforms seem to have made little progress on more targeted measures, it’s the only one realistically available to deploy now.

“Not allowing for paid disinformation is one of the most basic, ethical decisions a company can make,” wrote Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) in a tweet following the news. “If a company cannot or does not wish to run basic fact-checking on paid political advertising, then they should not run paid political ads at all.”

One of the reasons Facebook has avoided restricting political ads and content is that by doing so it establishes itself as the de facto arbiter between “appropriate” and “inappropriate,” and the fractal-complex landscape that creates across thousands of cultures, languages, and events. Don’t cry for Mark Zuckerberg, though — this is a monster of his own creation. He should have retired when I suggested it.

But Twitter’s decision to use a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel doesn’t remove the inherent difficulties in the process. Twitter is just submitting itself for a different kind of punishment. Because instead of being the arbiter of what is appropriate, it will be the arbiter of what is political.

This is slightly less fraught than Facebook’s task, but Twitter will not be able to avoid accusations — perhaps even true ones — of partisanship and bias.

For instance, the fundamental decision to disallow political advertising seems pretty straightforward and nonpartisan. Incumbents rely on traditional media more and progressives tend to be younger and more social media–savvy. So is this taking away a tool suited to left-leaning challengers? But incumbents tend to have bigger budgets and their spend on social media has been increasing, so could this be considered a way to curb that trend? Who this affects and how is not a clear-cut fact but something campaigns and pundits will squabble about endlessly.

Or consider the announcement Dorsey made right off the bat that “ads in support of voter registration will still be allowed.” Voter registration is a good nonpartisan goal, right? In fact it’s something many conservative lawmakers have consistently opposed, because unregistered voters, for a multitude of reasons, skew toward the liberal side. So this too will be considered a partisan act.

Twitter will put out official guidelines in a few weeks, but it’s hard to see how they can be satisfactory. Will industry groups be able to promote tweets about how their new factory is thriving because of a government grant? Will an advocacy organization be able to promote a tweet about a serious situation on the border? Will news outlets be able to promote a story about the election? What about a profile of a single candidate? What about an op-ed on an issue?

The difference between patrolling the interior of the politics world, and patrolling its borders, so to speak, may appear significant — but it’s really just a different kind of trouble. Twitter is entering a world of pain.

But at least it’s moving forward. It’s the right decision, even if it’s a hard one and could hit the bottom line pretty hard (not that Twitter has ever cared about that). The decision to do this while Facebook is dismantling its credibility with a series of craven, self-interested actions is a canny one. Even if Twitter fails to get this right, it can at least say it’s trying.

And lastly it should be said that it also happens to be a good choice for users and voters, a rare exception to the parade of user-hostile decisions coming out of the big tech and media companies. Going into an election year, we can use all the good news we can get.

Zuckerberg defends political ads that will be 0.5% of 2020 revenue

As Jack Dorsey announced his company Twitter would drop all political ads, Facebook CEO Zuckerberg doubled-down on his policy of refusing to fact check politicians’ ads. “At times of social tension there has often been an urge to pull back on free expression . . . We will be best served over the long term by resisting this urge and defending free expression.”

Still, Zuckerberg failed to delineate between freedom of expression, and freedom of paid amplification of that expression which inherently favors the rich.

During today’s Q3 2019 earnings call where Facebook beat expectations and grew monthly users 2% to 2.45 billion, Zuckerberg spent his time defending the social network’s lenient political ad policy. You can read his full prepared statement here.

One clear objective was to dispel the idea that Facebook was motivated by greed to keep these ads. Zuckerberg explained “We estimate these ads from politicians will be less than 0.5% of our revenue next year.” For reference, Facebook earned $66 billion in the 12 months ending Q3 2019, so Facebook might earn around $330 million to $400 million in political ads next year. Unfortunately, it’s unclear if Zuckerberg meant 0.5% of ads were political or just from politicians without counting issue ads and PACs.

Zuckerberg also said that given Facebook removed 50 million hours per day of viral video watching from its platform to support well-being which hurt ad viewership and the company’s share price, Facebook clearly doesn’t act solely in pursuit of profit.

We just shared our community update and quarterly results. Here’s what I said on our earnings call. — Before we…

Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Facebook’s CEO also tried to bat down the theory that Facebook is allowing misinformation in political ads to cater to conservatives or avoid calls of bias from them. “Some people say that this is just all a cynical political calculation and that we’re acting in a way that we don’t really believe because we’re just trying to appease conservatives” he said, responding that “frankly, if our goal was that we’re trying to make either side happy then we’re not doing a very good job because I’m pretty sure everyone is frustrated.” 

Instead of banning political ads, Zuckerberg voiced support for increasing transparency about how ads look, how much is spent on them, and where they’re run. “I believe that the better approach is to work to increase transparency. Ads on Facebook are already more transparent than anywhere else. We have a political ads archive so anyone can scrutinize every ad that’s run.” 

He mentioned that political ads are run by “Google, YouTube, and most internet platforms”, seeming to stumble for a second as he was likely prepared to cite Twitter too until it announced it would drop all political ads an hour earlier. He omitted that Pinterest and TikTok have also banned political ads.

It doesn’t help that hundreds of Facebook’s own employees have called on their CEO to change the policy. He concluded that no one could accuse Facebook of not deeply thinking through the question and its downstream ramifications. Zuckerberg did leave himself an out if he chooses to change the policy, though. “I’ve considered whether we should not [sell political ads] in the past, and I’ll continue to do so.”

Dorsey had tweeted that “We’ve made the decision to stop all political advertising on Twitter globally. We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought.” Democrat Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez expressed support for Twitter’s move while Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale called it “a very dumb decision”

Twitter’s CEO took some clear swipes at Zuckerberg, countering his common arguments for allowing misinformation in politician’s ads. “Some might argue our actions today could favor incumbents. But we have witnessed many social movements reach massive scale without any political advertising. I trust this will only grow.” Given President Trump had outspent all Democratic candidates on Facebook ads as of March of this year, it’s clear that deep-pocketed incumbents could benefit from Facebook’s policy.

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Trump continues to massively outspend Democratic rivals on Facebook ads. Via NYT

Miming Facebook’s position, Dorsey tweeted “It‘s not credible for us to say: ‘We’re working hard to stop people from gaming our systems to spread misleading info, buuut if someone pays us to target and force people to see their political ad…well…they can say whatever they want!”

Twitter doesn’t earn much from political ads, citing only $3 million in revenue from the 2018 mid-term elections, or roughly 0.1% of its $3 billion in total 2018 revenue. That means there will be no major windfall for Facebook from Twitter dropping political ads. But now all eyes will be on Facebook and Google/YouTube. If Sundar Pichai and Susan Wojcicki move in line with Dorsey, it could make Zuckerberg even more vulnerable to criticism.

$330 million might not be a big incentive for Facebook or Zuckerberg, but it still sounds like a lot of money to earn from ads that potentially lie to voters. I respect Facebook’s lenient policy when it comes to speech organically posted to users, organizations, or politicians’ own accounts. But relying on the candidates, press, and public to police speech is dangerously idealistic. We’ve seen how candidates will do anything to win, partisan press will ignore the truth to support their team, and the public aren’t educated or engaged enough to consistently understand what’s false.

Zuckerberg greatest mistakes have come from overestimating humanity. Unfortunately, not everyone wants to bring the world closer together. Without safeguards, Facebook’s tools can help tear it apart. It’s time for Facebook and Zuckerberg to recognize the difference between free expression and paid expression.