Lies and Alibis

GOTV in 2020; Online political ads' future; voting machine worries; and more.


  • This is civic tech: Nasma Ahmed, Matthew Claudel, Zahra Ebrahim, Christopher Pandolfi, and Bianca Wylie have curated a massive compendium of short essays prompted in one way or another by the massive challenge that Sidewalk Toronto has brought to the conversation about tech’s role in the future of our cities. 
  • Here’s a new guide to free and low-cost tech courses in NYC, published by Women.nyc (which is focused on making New York City “the best place in the world for women to succeed”).
  • Democracy.works has published a new report with the Ad Council called “Driving Voter Turnout in 2020: Research on Effective Messaging Strategies for Each Generation.” The report used a mix of social listening (looking at online conversations about voting) and focus groups, and studied five message frames: Issue,  Empowerment,  Identity, Companionship and Plan/Ease. And one very interesting finding: online chatter about voting exploded in 2018, with 36% more mentions that year than 2016 and 2017 combined. At the moment, 2019 is trailing 12% behind 2018’s pace.   
  • Here’s a wonderful story of how students in Hong Kong in 1989 turned to the technology of their time, the fax machine, to try to break the news blockade keeping people inside China from knowing what was actually happening at Tienanmen Square, courtesy of King-wa Fu, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Hong Kong, writing for Quartz. They got a list of all the fax numbers then available in the Yellow Pages, and then “used phone-in talk shows and newspaper stories to recruit Hong Kong companies with underused fax machines. We managed to get a pool of more than 500 corporate partners to join the crowd-faxing campaign,” he writes, calling it an early example of crowdsourcing. 
  • Information disorder continued: Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced yesterday that his company has decided to stop accepting political advertising globally, including so-called issue ads. “We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought.” In a series of tweets (what else?), Dorsey explains that since micro-targeted misinformation is already increasing in “velocity, sophistication, and overwhelming scale,” it’s “best to focus our efforts on the root problems.” In what can only be read as a criticism of his peer Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Dorsey adds, “it’s not credible for us to say: ’We’re working hard to stop people from gaming our systems to spread misleading info, buuut [sic] if someone pays us to target and force people to see their political ad…well…they can say whatever they want! [wink emoji]” Dorsey’s move puts more pressure on Facebook to reconsider its own newly announced decision to allow paid political ads from politicians that spread misinformation.
  • Longtime civic tech professional and veteran digital marketer Adriel Hampton decided a week ago that he was going to take direct action to confront the contradictions in Facebook’s new policy, first by using his political action committee, which is aptly named “The Reality Online Lefty League” (TROLL) to buy ads claiming that Republican Senator Lindsey Graham supports the Green New Deal. The ads were rejected by Facebook’s fact-checkers (and the new ad policy doesn’t exempt PACs from factuality, only politicians–I know that doesn’t make sense but what else here does?). So on Monday Hampton filed to run for Governor of California, and by Tuesday night Facebook declared that “This person has made clear he registered as a candidate to get around our policies, so his content, including ads, will continue to be eligible for third-party fact-checking.” In effect, Facebook’s current policy is that it’s ok for politicians to amplify lies using their platform, except for a politician who says truthfully that he’s planning to lie. 
  • In an op-ed written exclusively for Civicist, Hampton explains that he is serious about his candidacy and isn’t just using it as a gimmick to get around Facebook’s political ad rules. As he writes, he believes that Facebook “has become more and more biased toward Donald Trump and the Republicans [and] this is the greatest threat to U.S. democracy in my lifetime.” (We have invited Facebook to reply.)
  • Leaders of the civil rights community who have been in long negotiations with Facebook, trying to change its impact on minorities in a number of ways, are livid about the company’s political ad policy, Craig Timberg reports for The Washington Post.
  • Related: Facebook critic Siva Vaidhyanathan argues in Wired that if Zuckerberg just slowed everything down and focused on improving his core product, rather than trying to launch new products like cryptocurrency Libra, the company might be doing better in the public eye.
  • Tech and elections: Jessica Huseman, one of the best journalists covering the election tech beat, has a blockbuster report for ProPublica on ES&S, the country’s dominant provider of voting machine technology and primary successor to Diebold. Don’t read it if you don’t want to lose sleep. The issues she raises are less about individual cases of lost ballots (more than 150,000 that inexplicably disappeared from Georgia’s 2018 lieutenant governor’s race) and more about how lack of competition and oversight in the sector contribute to lax standards and little innovation. Worth noting: the nonprofit Voting Works which is aiming to build an open-source voting machine made from affordable, off-the-shelf parts.

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