Counting Up

WinRed vs ActBlue; Facebook civil rights audit; census challenges; and much more.


  • This is civic tech: Here’s a map of “Hard to Count Communities,” which shows the local tracts which were least likely to mail back their census questionnaire in 2010 and thus may require more in-person follow-up in 2020, or that are populated by groups at risk of being undercounted, built by Steven Romalewski of the Center for Urban Research at CUNY in partnership with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. (For more background start here.)

  • Just stumbled on EveryPublicMeeting.com, a free crowd-sourced directory of upcoming local public meetings coming up across the United States. It’s a project of Include People, which says it’s building tech to make organizing easier.

  • Speaking of free crowd-sourced services, check out Hush City, a mobile app that is helping users identify, access and evaluate “everyday quiet areas” in their cities. (The app shows 103 such places in New York City, which as a New Yorker I find hard to believe. Well, actually…)

  • Sofia Gross and Ashley Spillane have published a new study for Harvard’s Ash Center on the power of companies to increase voter turnout. They focus on Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, Endeavor, Gap Inc., Patagonia, Snap, Inc., Spotify, Target, and Twitter. Their interviews found that “companies encouraging voter participation do so because senior leadership believes the effort is not only good for democracy, but also good for business. The business benefits described by case study participants included meeting consumer expectations for engagement in social and political issues, raising brand awareness with new audiences, and increasing employee satisfaction.”

  • Software originally developed by EDGI to keep track of changes to government websites is now being used by the Internet Archive to make it easy for users to spot changes to webpages stored in the Wayback Machine. A very nice example of open source in action!

  • The July edition of Code for All’s monthly dispatch, tracking the work of civic tech groups around the world, is now out. Subscribe here.

  • Watch: All the plenary keynote talks from Personal Democracy Forum 2019 are now up on YouTube.

  • Apply: The AI Now Institute at NYU is looking to hire an executive director.

  • Tech and politics: WinRed, the GOP’s long awaited answer to ActBlue, is here. As Carrie Levin and Peter Overby report for NPR, “WinRed, backed by President Trump’s reelection campaign and Republican Party committees and congressional leaders, has the party’s imprimatur in a way previous efforts did not. The effort is a partnership between Data Trust, a nonprofit clearinghouse for Republican data, and for-profit payment-processing firm Revv, and Republicans say the ‘green wave” of money that Democrats rode in 2018 will provide momentum for their own efforts.”

  • President Trump hailed WinRed’s launch and shared the news of his own fundraising page on the site.

  • ActBlue, which has channeled more than $3 billion in small donations and has more than 7 million people signed up using its service, had this to say about WinRed’s launch: “Trump & the GOP have decided they want in on the power of the grassroots. But you can’t manufacture the people power that small-dollar donors on the left have built over the last 15 years.” (On June 30, the end of the most recent fundraising quarter, ActBlue tallied more than 390,000 contributions to campaigns and organizations just for that one day—the most ever for a single day.)

  • Dave Karpf, a Civicist contributing editor who studies internet-powered politics as a professor at Georgetown University, had this to say when I asked for his take on WinRed:

    “They’ll likely succeed at getting all the party actors onto the same centralized fundraising platform, while failing at all the other things that make ActBlue ActBlue. And that’s fine, because the impetus for this is so different from the impetus for ActBlue. Republicans aren’t creating this because they have recognized that they need to (a) empower the grassroots or (b) raise more money for their candidates. They’re creating this because Sheldon Adelson said they had to. They’ll succeed in linking fundraising software to a centralized database. A few central actors will make out like bandits in the process. But the big donor-dominated party will still be big donor-dominated. WinRed won’t be used to support upstart challengers to the party leadership, because the party leadership controls WinRed and challenges to Trump are verboten.
  • Remember when it was a big deal when Phil de Vellis, a consultant connected to a company helping the 2008 Obama presidential campaign, admitted he secretly made an anti-Hillary Clinton viral video (a very effective parody of Apple’s Big Brother ad)? Now, The New York Times’s Matthew Rosenberg reports that a consultant working for President Trump’s re-election campaign is “trolling” Joseph Biden‘s campaign with a website, JoeBiden.info that “breezily mocks the candidate in terms that would warm the heart of any Bernie Sanders supporter,” and our collective response is a shrug. The consultant, Patrick Mauldin, has also made fake sites targeting other Democratic candidates.

  • Twitter has decided to start labeling tweets from national figures that may break its rules, but that the company believes are in the public’s interest to be viewable, Elizabeth Dwoskin and Tony Romm report for The Washington Post. The policy will apply to candidates and officials with more than 100,000 followers, including President Trump, and viewers will see a screen that says “The Twitter Rules about abusive behavior apply to this Tweet” before being able to see the actual content.

  • Future of work: The Service Employees International Union is split over whether state chapters should negotiate deals with ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft that fall short of giving drivers full protections as employees, Noam Scheiber reports for The New York Times.

  • Life in Facebookistan: Longtime civil rights lawyer Laura Murphy has released a progress report on her ongoing civil rights audit of Facebook, flagging “important steps ” the company is putting into place while “also recognizing that more work is ahead.” Among the improvements she notes: Facebook’s banning this past March of praise for white nationalism and white separatism, and its implementation of a new advertising system that will no longer allow targeting by age, gender or zip code in ads related to US housing, employment or credit. Sharp-eyed Facebook watcher Casey Newton of The Verge notes that Facebook is considering creating a special queue for hate speech so content moderators get better at dealing with it, and worries that this may have the effect of traumatizing those workers more than currently. He writes:

    Facebook is only in the earliest stages of surveying moderators about their mental health, as part of an effort to establish a baseline it can improve over time. There are currently no caps on the amount of graphic or racist content that a moderator can be subjected to in a day, and the company says there is currently no research on what levels of exposure are safe for the human mind. And even before its survey of moderator well-being is finished, Facebook is simultaneously undertaking a new experiment on the mental health of thousands of contractors like the one who wrote me. It’s classic move-fast Facebook — placate one group of vocal critics, even if it puts a less vocal group at risk — and I worry about the consequences. It would be a shame if a civil rights audit of the platform led to a new mental health crisis among its contractors.
  • Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, which has pressured Facebook for years on these issues, applauded the report, telling Joseph Cox of Motherboard, “It’s a public record of accountability; it’s Facebook being open and transparent about what they’ve done, and it allows us, the public, advocacy organizations, and people who do public interest work to examine the space between what they said they’ve done, and what the experience is for everyday people. That is really important. This is why we led the call for the audit in the first place.”

  • A secret Facebook group for members of the U.S. Border Patrol is rife with jokes about the deaths of migrants and other racist content, ProPublica’s A.C. Thompson reports.

  • Chickens, meet roost: As politicians from both sides of the political aisle turn up the rhetorical heat on Facebook, it’s fun to read former Facebook data scientist Hamdan Azhar‘s expose of how many of them rely on the site for campaigning. He reports that 81 sitting US Senators and at least 176 House members have Facebook tracking pixels on their campaign homepages. (His data is here.) He writes: “Politicians of both parties today claim to care about our privacy, and many of them have positioned themselves as ardent critics of the intrusive role of big tech companies in our lives. Yet, when it comes to their own campaigns, a significant number of them are sharing our web browsing data with Facebook, using computer code buried on their websites. With Facebook having become a core part of the modern political campaign apparatus, can we really trust politicians when they claim that they will be the ones to defend our privacy and protect us from Facebook?”

  • Of course, the “privacy” practices of political campaigns are a magnitude worse than those of Facebook, as anyone who gets unsolicited mail, email or text messages asking for campaign contributions must realize. Campaigns regularly rent and sell their lists to others without asking their list members for permission to do so.

  • Internet of Shit: The maker of DeepNude, the app that used AI to create realistic nude images from pictures of clothed women, has announced that he has killed the project, saying that while he expects someone will make money from such a tool, he didn’t want to be the one responsible for it, Samantha Cole reports for Motherboard.

  • Happy Independence Day! First Post will be back next week…and in the meantime, tanks for the memories!

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