Toxic Ventures

Dem tech billionaires to the rescue? The trouble with scale; tracking health worker protests; and more.

Civic tech responds: Here’s a great new report from Ranking Digital Rights’ Jessica Dheere, Nathalie Merechal and Rebecca MacKinnon titled “Getting to the Source of Infodemics: It’s the Business Model.” The tl/dr version: the problem is the toxic culture created by targeted advertising and automated amplification, which content moderation can’t fix downstream.
Civic Hall member Jumana Abu-Ghazaleh, the founder of Pivot for Humanity, has a timely oped in Fast Company arguing that with the increased visibility of the service workers like the low-paid Amazon warehouse workers keeping the delivery-economy going during COVID-19 should come a “new GI Bill” aimed at rewarding and uplifting them.
Say hello to the Health Worker Protest Project, a new multi-lingual effort of the Accountability Research Center to collect reports of health worker protests around the world and raise awareness of accountability challenges.
So far Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s Start Small philanthropic LLC has given away $87 million to 55 nonprofit organizations hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, Mike Scutari reports for As Scutari relates in detail, other billionaires haven’t been anywhere close to as generous.
Act: The Covid Memorial project is looking for volunteers who want to help the June 6 Day of Mourning, when people around the country will honor the 100,000 lives lost to the COVID-19 pandemic in America, so far.
Join in: If you live in California, you can volunteer for Consumer Report’s Data Rights study, which is looking at how well the state is implementing its new online privacy law.
Apply: Citizen University is looking for people interested in joining its Youth Collaboratory or its Civic Saturday Fellowship program.
Tech and politics: Reid Hoffman, Eric Schmidt, Laurene Powell Jobs and Dustin Moskowitz have two things in common: They’re Democrats and they are extremely rich thanks to tech. So, naturally, they believe they know how to win the election for Joe Biden, as Theodore Schleifer reports for Recode. He reveals several previously secret or little-known efforts, like the $18 million Hoffman has poured into Alloy, a start-up aiming to fix the Democratic Party’s historic challenges with its voter file; Schmidt’s OneOne Ventures, which has quietly invested in 20 political start-ups; and Mind the Gap, a funding group that is raising tens of millions to goose voter registration efforts by testing every possible marketing tactic conceivable.
What’s interesting about Schleifer’s article is that not everyone is wowed by this cycle’s self-appointed tech saviors and a number of people speak on the record in the piece about what’s wrong with this data-centric, capital-centric, parachute-the-cool-kids-in approach. “My problem is when Silicon Valley folks think that they know how to do our jobs better. I would never walk into Google or anywhere else and say, ‘Your model sucks,’” Jane Kleeb, the chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, told Schleifer. “I don’t second-guess them, and I’m asking them not to second-guess us.”
“There is no shortage of companies that have asked governments to get out of the way so that they could save the world, only to wind up aggravating the problem that they were scaling up to solve.” So writes Mattathias Schwartz in Rest of World, meditating on “The Trouble With Scale” and pondering the lessons of the genocide that Facebook helped unleash in Myanmar. Those Democratic tech billionaire saviors should read his piece.

Life in Facebookistan: As early as 2016, internal company researchers had discovered that Facebook’s own algorithms were amplifying the growth of extremists groups, Jeff Horwitz and Deepa Seetharaman reported Tuesday for the Wall Street Journal. “64% of all extremist group joins are due to our algorithms,” a 2016 study of its impact in Germany found. More recent internal efforts to investigate potential harms to civic discourse told senior leaders that, “Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness,” according to a slide from a 2018 presentation. “If left unchecked,” it warned, Facebook would feed users “more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention & increase time on the platform.” But as Horwitz and Seetharaman report, Facebook’s senior leaders, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg and policy chief Joel Kaplan, decided to shelve the research and ignore its findings.

Remember when Facebook said that it would clamp down on misinformation about voting, such as false claims about how to vote? Ah, such civic responsibility. Well, as Donie O’Sullivan reports for CNN, the company doesn’t believe that policy extends to false claims made by politicians about voting. In a continuation of its policy of allowing politicians to use its platform to amplify lies, it is choosing to ignore President Trump’s false claim that California’s plan to mail ballots to state voters will lead to massive fraud.

More and more, I’m coming to believe that comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s full-bore assault last year on Facebook as the “greatest propaganda machine in history” that would have allowed Hitler to purchase 30-second ads on his “solution” to the Jewish problem if it were around in the 1930s, rings true as the single clearest description of this toxic, dominating thing that sits in the middle of our online lives, shaping them and irradiating them with its warped value system.

End times: Who needs sports when you can have this?

You are reading First Post, a twice-a-week digest of news and analysis of the world of civic tech, brought to you by Civic Hall, NYC’s community center for civic tech. If you are reading this because someone forwarded it to you, please become a subscriber ($10/m) and support our work or sign up for our newsletter and stay connected with the #CivicTech community.