Stuffed to the Gills

Revisiting Amazon HQ2; AI = plutonium?; misleading political ads; and more.


  • This is civic tech: How Coding it Forward, whose Civic Digital Fellowships are embedding college students in many federal offices, became an integral part of DC’s tech ecosystem in just three years, as reported by Steve Kelman for FCW.

  • Longtime transparency activist Nathaniel Heller offers some views from the civil society angle on how the Open Government Partnership is doing at a time of shrinking civic space.

  • Apply: The deadline to apply for a summer Presidential Innovation Fellowship is April 22nd.

  • Attend: There are still some tickets available for tomorrow night’s Forum @ Civic Hall, “Making Tech Development Civic: Lessons from Amazon HQ2.” Here’s a primer on the issues we’ll be discussing from Forums director Danielle Tomson.

  • Tech and politics: Not only is the 2020 Trump presidential campaign the biggest purchaser of online political ads on Facebook, Judd Legum reports that, based on the company’s digital ad archive, it is spending heavily on ads that use actors (like an African American man who is sometimes shown as older and sometimes as younger) to deliver misleading messages to users targeted by age and gender. Facebook’s ad policy prohibits ads that “contain deceptive, false or misleading content,” Legum notes.

  • New research from a pair of Clemson University professors shows how extensively Russians active on social media targeted Bernie Sanders‘ supporters in 2016, Michael Kranish reports for The Washington Post. And a related Ohio State University study that surveyed people about three demonstrably false articles (about Hillary Clinton’s supposedly poor health, the Pope supposedly endorsing Donald Trump, and Clinton supposedly approving weapons sales to ISIS) concludes that “belief in these fake news stories is very strongly linked to defection from the Democratic ticket by 2012 Obama voters.”

  • Life in Facebookistan: Civil rights organizers have been trying for years to get Facebook to address a range of issues, but as Pema Levy and Tonya Riley report in an in-depth must-read feature for Mother Jones, it wasn’t until last spring that CEO Mark Zuckerberg agreed to a formal civil rights audit. Their blow-by-blow account of years of inconclusive meetings raises troubling questions about what it takes to get a tech giant to actually change its behavior.

  • Newly leaked documents show Zuckerberg using Facebook user data as leverage over companies it was partnering with while promising to protect user privacy, Olivia Solon and Cyrus Farivar report.

  • Trend-setting Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez says she’s stopped using her personal Facebook account, saying that social media is a “public health risk” that can lead to “increased isolation, depression, anxiety, addiction, [and] escapism,” Hamza Shaban reports for The Washington Post. Her campaign account, however, continues to run Facebook ads, and AOC is still tweeting and Instagramming. Just not as much, she says. Hmmm.

  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says tech companies’ days of self-regulation are over, talking to Kara Swisher of Recode.

  • As noted in First Post last week, Google has opened a new temporary NYC Learning Center, where it is offering free tech classes, but our old colleague Jessica McKenzie writes for The Anti-Nihilist website that New Yorkers should beware Googlers bearing gifts. “The vast majority of classes are based on Google products: Learn to manage projects with Google Sheets; get your business online with Google My Business; discover new job opportunities with Google Search. In other words, Google is further entrenching their business monopoly under the pretence of helping entrepreneurs and job seekers,” she writes.

  • Brave new world: How China is using facial recognition technology to track and control the Uighurs, a Muslim minority group, the first known example of using AI for racial profiling, and as Paul Mozur writes for The New York Times, “potentially ushering in a new era of automated racism.” Several of the Chinese companies highlighted are being backed by American investment firms, including Fidelity International, Qualcomm Ventures and Sequoia, Mozur notes.

  • Privacy, shmivacy: How law enforcement in the US taps into a giant but little-known Google database called Sensorvault to dig up old location records from hundreds of millions of cell phone users, as reported by Jennifer Valentino-Devries for The New York Times.

  • In XRDS, Luke Stark argues that facial recognition technology should be viewed as “the plutonium of AI” because it is “dangerous, radicalizing and has few legitimate uses.” Talk about public health risks!

  • Irony watch: Pinboard’s Maciej Ceglowski points out that “The New York Times fancy new ‘Privacy Project’ homepage is stuffed to the gills with third-party tracking scripts.”

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