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Kamala Harris brings a view from tech’s epicenter to the presidential race

Joe Biden’s decision to name California Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate in the quest to unseat President Trump means that the next vice president could be not only the first Black and Asian American woman on a presidential ticket in the U.S — historic milestones by any account — but also a Californian who built a career in the tech industry’s front yard.

Born in Oakland, Harris served as San Francisco district attorney and later as the attorney general for California before being elected to the Senate in 2016. And while the newly named vice presidential nominee is likely to bring a deeper understanding of the tech industry to the race, her positions on how a Democratic administration should approach tech’s most powerful companies during an unprecedented moment of scrutiny aren’t exactly crystal clear.

Harris attracted considerable support from Silicon Valley executives in her bid for the Democratic nomination, outpacing other candidates in donations from employees from large tech companies early on. While that support shifted around throughout the race and many donors in tech supported multiple candidates, the industry is likely to be happy with Biden’s selection.

Notably, Harris was elected as California attorney general in 2010 and served two terms, overseeing the tech industry through a large portion of its most explosive growth — a measure that likely proves more meaningful in assessing her stance toward regulating the tech industry than the things she said along the campaign trail.

Still, those were arguably simpler times for Silicon Valley, and ones that predated current hot-button conversations around issues like election interference, misinformation wars and antitrust enforcement.

Playing it safe

As the primary developed and then-rival Elizabeth Warren carved out a posture critical of big tech, Harris seldom waded into thorny issues around regulating the tech industry. During an October debate, Harris avoided a question asking about concerns over second order effects if big tech companies were broken up, instead redirecting to the safer political territory of Trump’s Twitter account. Dodging meatier points about tech accountability, Harris called on Twitter to suspend the president’s account for violating its rules, calling the issue “a matter of safety and corporate accountability.”

Earlier this year, in response to a straightforward question asking if companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon should be broken up, Harris again dodged, though signaled that she is concerned in how those companies handle user data.

“I believe that tech companies have got to be regulated in a way that we can ensure the American consumer can be certain that their privacy is not being compromised,” Harris said. Harris also expressed her concerns about user privacy in a 2018 Twitter thread.

“Millions of Americans have no idea how much data Facebook is collecting, from tracking their location and IP address, to following their activities on other websites,” she wrote.

“In the real world, this would be like someone watching what you do, where you go, for how long, and with whom you’re with every day. For most, it would feel like an invasion of privacy.”

A focus on Facebook

In other critiques of tech, Harris has mostly concentrated on Facebook, denouncing its role in spreading Russian disinformation during the 2016 presidential race and expressing worries over how the company handles the data it collects.

When given the chance to press Mark Zuckerberg in person, Harris zeroed in on the company’s handling of the Cambridge Analytica data misuse to its users. More recently, Harris co-authored a letter to Facebook along with Colorado Senator Michael Bennett after the audit’s largely unflattering results were published, pressing the company on election concerns.

“Although the company has shown a recent willingness to rein in disinformation with respect to COVID-19, it has not shown equal resolve to confront voter suppression and learn the lessons of the 2016 election,” the senators wrote. “We share the auditors’ concern that Facebook has failed to use the tools and resources at its disposal to more vigorously combat voter suppression and protect civil rights.”

In another letter to the company, Harris criticized Facebook’s fact-checking policies for climate-related misinformation in light of a New York Times report.

In spite of the harsh talk, Harris seems to be on fairly friendly terms with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who congratulated her on the nomination Tuesday. Back in 2013, Harris apparently contributed to the marketing effort around Sandberg’s now-ubiquitous book Lean In, sharing her own story. Harris also spoke at a cyberbullying event hosted at Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters in 2015 and the two were photographed onstage together.

Antitrust on the back burner?

While we have a handful of public statements from Harris about her views on tech, there’s plenty more that we don’t know. The way she positioned herself in relation to other candidates during the primary might not wholly reflect the kind of priorities she would bring to the vice presidency, and we’ll likely be learning more about those in the coming days.

Right now there are many, many crises on the table for the next administration. If regulating big tech looked like a huge campaign issue back in the pre-pandemic political landscape of 2020, conversations around police brutality and the devastating American failure to contain the coronavirus are now at the fore. Whether issues around antitrust regulation and reining in tech’s power will make it off the back burner remains to be seen, and there are plenty of national five-alarm fires to be put out in the meantime.

While her potential position as the nation’s next vice president doesn’t mean that Harris would be tasked with shaping tech policy or spearheading antitrust efforts, her deep connections to tech’s geographic hub could prove consequential in a Biden presidency and its priorities.

In spite of some question marks around her policy approaches, Harris is a known quantity for the tech industry — one who understands Silicon Valley and who, per her track record, doesn’t look keen to take on the industry’s biggest companies in spite of some recent tough talk. Whatever tech policies emerge out of a Biden/Harris campaign, the fresh vice presidential nominee is connected to tech in a more meaningful way than any other contender for the spot. That alone is something to watch.

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On Facebook, Trump’s next false voting claim will come with an info label

As part of its effort to steel its platform against threats to the 2020 election, Facebook will try surfacing accurate voting info in a new place — on politicians’ own posts.

Starting today, Facebook posts by federal elected officials and candidates — including presidential candidates — will be accompanied by an info label prompting anyone who sees the post to click through for official information on how to vote. The label will link out to usa.gov/voting. For posts that address vote-by-mail specifically, the link will point to a section of the same website with state-by-state instructions about how to register to vote through the mail.

Image via Facebook

Facebook plans to expand the voting info label to apply to all posts about voting in the U.S., not just those from federal-level political figures. That plan remains on track to launch later this summer with Facebook’s Voter Information Center, its previously announced info hub for official, verified information related to the 2020 election. The voter info center, like the coronavirus info center Facebook launched in March, will be placed prominently in order to funnel users toward useful resources.

The company did not mention any specific reason for the decision to prioritize elected officials before other users, but in May Facebook faced criticism for its decision to allow false claims by President Trump about vote-by-mail systems and the 2020 election to remain on the platform untouched. At the time, Twitter added its own voting info label to the same posts, which also appeared as tweets from the president’s account.

In a June post, Mark Zuckerberg discussed voter suppression concerns, saying that Facebook would be “tightening” its policies around content that misleads voters “to reflect the realities of the 2020 elections.” Facebook will also focus on removing false statements about polling places in the 72 hour lead-up to the election. Zuckerberg said that posts with misleading information that could intimidate voters would be banned, using the example of a post falsely claiming ICE officials are checking for documentation at a given polling location.

Zuckerberg made no specific mention of President Trump’s own false claims that expanded mail-in voting in light of the coronavirus crisis would “substantially fraudulent” and result in a “rigged election.” Zuckerberg did say that Facebook would begin labeling some “newsworthy” posts from political figures, leaving the content online but adding a label noting that it violates the platform’s rules.

While false claims from political figures are a cause for concern, they don’t account for the bulk of voting misinformation on the platform. A new report from ProPublica found that many of Facebook’s most well-performing posts about voting contained misinformation. “Of the top 50 posts, ranked by total interactions, that mentioned voting by mail since April 1, 22 contained false or substantially misleading claims about voting, particularly about mail-in ballots,” ProPublica writes in the report, noting that many of the posts appear to break Facebook’s own rules about voting misinformation but remain up with no labels or other contextualization.

While its past enforcement decisions remain controversial and often puzzling, Facebook does appear to be rethinking those choices and gearing up its efforts in light of the coming U.S. election. For Facebook, which goes to sometimes self-defeating lengths to project an aura of political neutrality, that’s less about expanded fact-checking and more about making correct, verified voting information at hand and readily available to users.

In early July, Facebook announced a voter drive that aims to register 4 million new U.S. voters. As part of that effort, Facebook pushed a pop-up info box to app users in the U.S. reminding them to register to vote, check their registration status with links to official state voter registration sites. Those notifications will soon appear in Instagram and Messenger as part of the same voter mobilization push.

Facebook is also apparently mulling the idea of banning all political advertising in the lead-up to November, a decision that would likely alleviate at least one of the company’s headaches at the cost of leaving both political parties, which rely on Facebook ads to reach voters, frustrated.

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Anything less than nationwide vote by mail is electoral sabotage

The global pandemic has cast a light on decades of cumulative efforts to manipulate and suppress voters, showing that the country is completely unprepared for any serious challenge to its elections system. There can be no more excuses: Every state must implement voting by mail in 2020 or be prepared to admit it is deliberately sabotaging its own elections. (And for once, tech might be able to help.)

To visualize how serious this problem is, one has only to imagine what would happen if quarantine measures like this spring’s were to happen in the fall — and considering experts predict a second wave in that period, this is very much a possibility.

If lockdown measures were being intensified and extended not on May 3rd, but November 3rd, how would the election proceed?

The answer is: it wouldn’t.

There would be no real election because so few people in the country would be able to legally and safely vote. This is hardly speculative: We have seen it happen in states where, for lack of any other option, people had to risk their lives, breaking quarantine to vote in person. Naturally it was the most vulnerable groups — people of color, immigrants, the poor and so on — who were most affected. The absurdity of a state requiring voters to gather in large groups while forbidding people to gather in large groups is palpable.

With this problem scaled to national levels, the entire electoral process would be derailed, and the ensuing chaos would be taken advantage of by all and sundry for their own purposes — something we see happening in practically every election.

For the 2020 election, if any elections official in this country claims to value the voters for which they are responsible, voting by mail is the only way to enable every citizen to register and vote securely and remotely. Anything less can only be considered deliberate obstruction, or at best willful negligence, of the electoral process.

Image Credits: Bill Oxford / iStock Unreleased / Getty Images

There’s a fair amount of talk about apps, online portals and other avenues, and these may figure later, but mail is the only method guaranteed right now to securely serve every address and person, providing the fundamental fabric of connectivity that is absolutely necessary to universally accessible voting.

Hand-wringing about fraud, lost ballots and other issues with voting by mail is deliberate, politically motivated FUD (and you can expect a lot of it over the next few months). States where voting by mail is the standard report no such issues; on the contrary, they have high turnout and few problems because it is simple, effective and secure. As far as risk is concerned, there is absolutely no comparison to the widespread and well-documented process and security issues with touchscreen voting systems, even before you bring in the enormous public health concerns of using those methods during a pandemic.

Federal law requires that troops around the world, among others unable to vote in person, are able to request and submit their ballots by mail. That this is the preferred method for voting in combat zones is practically all the endorsement such a system needs. That the president votes by mail is just the cherry on top.

Fear of voters

So why hasn’t voting by mail been adopted more widely? The same reason we have gerrymandered districts: Politicians have manipulated the electoral process for decades in order to stack the deck in their favor. While gerrymandering has been employed with great (and deplorable) effect by both Democratic and Republican officials, voter suppression is employed overwhelmingly by the political right.

While this is certainly a politically charged statement, it’s not really a matter of opinion. The demographics of the voting public are such that as the proportion of the population that votes grows, the aggregate position begins to lean leftward. This happens for a variety of reasons, but the result is that limiting who votes benefits conservatives more than liberals. (I am not so naive to think that if it were the other way around, Democrats would altogether abstain from the practice, but that isn’t the case.)

This is not a new complaint. Deliberate voter suppression goes back a century and more. Nor is the practice equally distributed. For one thing, white, well-off, urban areas are more likely to have effective and modern voting systems and laws.

This is not only because those areas are generally the first to receive all good things, but because voter suppression has been aimed specifically at people of color, immigrants, the poor and so on. Again, this is no longer a controversial or even particularly partisan statement; it has been admitted to by politicians and strategists at every level — including, quite recently, by the president: “They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

When voting by mail was merely a convenient, effective alternative to voting in person, it was fairly easy to speak against it. Now, however, voting by mail is increasingly looking like the only possible method to accomplish an election.

Again, think of how we would vote during a stay-at-home order. Using only today’s methods would be dangerous, chaotic and generally an ineffective way to ask the population at large who they want to lead their city, state and country.

That is no way to conduct an election. Therefore, we currently have no way to conduct a national election. Voting by mail is the only method that can realistically be rolled out to accomplish an effective election in 2020.

Disunited states

Because elections are run by state authorities, voting methods and laws vary widely between them. The quickest way to a nationwide vote-by-mail system would use federal funding and authority, but even if states were in favor of this (they won’t be, as it is an encroachment on their authority), Washington is not. The possibility of a bill implementing universal voting by mail passing the House, Senate and the president’s desk by November is, sadly, remote.

Which is not to say that no one in D.C. is not trying it:

This means it’s down to the states — not great news, considering it is at the state level that voting rights have been eroded and voter suppression enshrined in policy.

The only hope we have is for state authorities to recognize that the 2020 presidential election will be a closely watched litmus test for competence and corruption that will haunt them for years. It’s one thing to put your finger on the scale under normal circumstances. It’s quite another to author a high-profile electoral failure in an election few doubt will be one of the most consequential in American history — especially if that failure was manifestly preventable.

And we know it is preventable because due to federal voting rights laws, every state already has some form of accessible, mail-in or absentee voting. This is not a matter of inventing a new system from scratch, but scaling existing, proven systems in ways already demonstrated and verified over decades. Several states, for instance, have simply announced that all voters will get absentee ballots or applications sent unrequested to their homes. No one said it would be easy, but the first step — committing — is at least simple.

It will be obvious in a few months which state authorities actually care about the vote and which see it as just another instrument to manipulate in order to retain and accrue power. The actions taken in the run-up to this election will be remembered for a long time. As for the federal government interfering with states’ prerogative to run their own elections — that’s a violation of states’ rights that I expect will encounter strong bipartisan opposition.

How tech can help without hindering

Image Credits: NickS (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

The tech world will want to aid in this cause out of several motives, but the simple truth is there’s no way a technological solution can be developed and deployed by November. And not only is it infeasible, but there is serious political opposition to online voting systems to be widely deployed. The idea is a non-starter for this election and probably the next.

Rather than trying, Monolith-style, to evolve voting to the next phase by taking on the whole thing tip to tail, tech should be providing support structures via uniquely digital tools that complement rather than replace effective voting systems.

For example, there is the possibility, however remote, that a mailed ballot will be intercepted by some adversary and modified, shredded, selectively deposited, or what have you. No large-scale fraud has ever been perpetrated, despite what opponents of voting by mail might say. States developed preventative solutions long ago, like secure ballot boxes placed around the city and tamper-evident envelopes.

But end to end security is something at which the tech sector excels, and moreover recent advances make a digitally augmented voting process achievable. And there’s plenty of room for competition and commercial involvement, which sweetens the pot.

Here’s a way that commonplace tech could be deployed to make voting by mail even more secure and convenient.

Imagine a mail-in ballot of the ordinary fill-in-the-bubble type. Once a person makes their selections, they take a picture of the ballot in a dedicated, completely offline app. Via fairly elementary image analysis nearly any phone can now perform, the votes can be detected and tabulated, verified by the voter, then hashed with a unique voter sheet ID into a code short enough to be written down.

The ballot is mailed and (let us say for now) received. When it is processed, the same hash is calculated by the machine reader and placed on an easily accessible list. A voter can check that their vote was tabulated and correctly recorded by entering their hash into a website — which itself reveals nothing about their vote or identity.

What if something goes wrong? Say the ballot is lost. In that case the voter has a record of their vote in both image and physical form (mail-in ballots have little tear-off tabs you keep) and can pursue this issue. The same database that lets them verify their vote was correct will allow them to see if their vote was never cast. If it was interfered with or damaged and the selections differ from what the voter already verified, the hash will differ, and the voter can prove this with the evidence they have — again, entirely offline and with no private information exposed.

This example system only works because smartphones are now so common, and because it is now trivial to process an image quickly and accurately offline. But importantly, the digital aspect only addresses shortcomings of the mail-in system rather than being central to it. You vote with only a ballpoint pen, as simply as possible — but if you want to be sure, you may choose to employ the latest technology to track your vote.

A system like this may not make it in time for the 2020 election, but voting by mail can and must if there is to be an election at all.

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Biden campaign releases a flurry of digital DIY projects and virtual banners (yes, there are Zoom backgrounds)

2020 is a nightmare year by most metrics, and it’s also a worst-case scenario emerging out of a best-case scenario for Joe Biden . After trailing in early primary states, Biden came crashing back on a stunning wave of Super Tuesday support. Now the presumptive Democratic nominee in the midst of a global health crisis that’s immobilized the U.S. workforce and somehow even further polarized American politics, the former vice president will have to navigate completely uncharted waters to find a path to the presidency.

Biden — not the most internetty candidate out of 2020’s wide Democratic field by a long shot — is now tasked with getting creative, connecting with voters not at rallies or traditional events, the kind of thing the famously affable candidate excels at, but through screens. Making those connections is crucial for attracting less-engaged voters, wrangling straying progressives and even maintaining its body of existing supporters, who need to be kept energized to power the campaign into the general election.

To that end, the Biden campaign is rolling out a new collection of digital assets to energize supporters stuck at home and to communicate the Biden brand’s visual language to everybody else. The selection of “Team Joe swag” includes some DIY options for supporters like big “No Malarkey!” home window placards and “We want Joe” button templates.

The campaign is also releasing an array of print-friendly coloring book pages to amuse idle politically inclined progeny. Some of the pages thank front-line workers and immortalize Biden’s two German Shepherds in crayon, while others depict Biden’s more meme-worthy symbols: ice cream cones and his trademark aviator sunglasses. (A viral moment from 2014 combined the two.)

For supporters who aren’t leaning into arts and crafts just yet, there’s “Joementum” phone wallpapers, banners optimized for social media and yes, a full set of Zoom backgrounds depicting Biden’s recent campaign stage: his home library.

Some critics say he needs to ditch his basement studio, but Biden said he plans to follow public health guidelines, hitting the virtual campaign trail from his now-expanded home setup in Delaware via virtual town halls and video chats, like his recent Instagram Live sit-down with U.S. soccer superstar and former Warrenite Megan Rapinoe.

The signs and wallpapers are just a tiny part of the campaign’s big picture, but depending on what comes after, a candidate’s visual signature can sear a political moment into the collective consciousness. Think Obama’s 2008 “Hope” poster by the artist Shepard Fairey, later acquired by the National Portrait Gallery (Fairey himself later denounced the Obama administration’s drone program). Or Trump’s telltale red MAGA hats, which no one will be forgetting any time soon, regardless of how the general election shakes out.

Warm and fuzzy

For a campaign stuck indoors, visual branding is more important than ever. Biden’s visual brand mostly seems to focus on positive feelings that bring people together — kindness, faith, togetherness — rather than policy specifics or even “dump Trump” style calls to action.

“We want to find ways to make people feel involved while they’re cooped up at home,” the campaign’s Deputy National Press Secretary Matt Hill said. “These are tools that are going to help everyone who is involved with the campaign communicate that visually in a time when everyone is particularly logged on.”

Much has been written about how the virtual race poses unique challenges for the Biden campaign. The presumptive Democratic nominee is a candidate best known for his affable, empathetic in-person demeanor. But empathy doesn’t always perform well online, particularly when cast against the sound and fury of the factually unencumbered, cash-flush Trump campaign.

“Branding communicates values, and during this crisis we want to let Joe Biden’s values shine through,” Hill said. “Yes, it’s of course ice cream and aviators, but it’s also decency, empathy, hope and everything that is just the polar opposite of Donald Trump.”

The campaign frames this in broad strokes, good-against-evil language, describing Biden’s online movement as one of “empathy and human connection” out to topple the dark forces at work on the internet. The campaign’s digital director Rob Flaherty has said that 2020 is not just a fight for America itself, but also a “battle for the soul of the internet.”

“Right now, people are craving empathy and good… it gives us an advantage,” Hill said. “You have one side that often fights to win the Twitterverse with vitriol, and then you have us.”

Joementum?

Biden’s campaign has come under some scrutiny in recent weeks for the perception that it’s been slow to adapt to the pandemic era. Obama campaign veterans David Plouffe and David Axelrod penned a New York Times op-ed in early May calling for Biden to step up his digital efforts, likening his current broadcasts to “an astronaut beaming back to earth.”

After weeks of concern from insiders worried the Biden campaign might not be building the online momentum it needs, the campaign just beefed up its previously lean team with a flurry of new hires. The new talent will particularly build out the campaign’s digital operations, which it plans to double in size.

The hires include former Elizabeth Warren staffer Caitlin Mitchell, who will advise the Biden camp on digital strategy and help it scale up, BuzzFeed Video and Kamala Harris campaign alum Andrew Gauthier, who joins the Biden campaign as its video director, and Robyn Kanner, previously Beto for America’s creative director, to lead design and branding.

It will be interesting to see what else emerges out of the “Biden brand,” which doesn’t translate as easily to organic virality as Bernie’s all-purpose “I’m once again asking” meme or the somehow-not-cloying antics of Elizabeth Warren’s lovable golden retriever Bailey. At least for now, the campaign doesn’t seem to view that as a problem.

But cracking virtual campaigning is not the only headwind for the Biden campaign at the moment. Sexual assault allegations by former Biden Senate aide Tara Reade made their way into mainstream reporting in April. And if formulating a response to such serious allegations would be delicate under normal circumstances, the Biden campaign has had to figure out how do it from a silo.

With its early technical difficulties ironed out, the Biden campaign may have a bit more breathing room to get creative. The campaign is focused on what it views as its “core platforms” for now — Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat — but it plans to both “invest more deeply” in those and also look at other platforms in the process of scaling up.

“We’ve already seen volunteers expand on Discord, Reddit, Pinterest and elsewhere,” Biden campaign Director of Digital Content Pam Stamoulis told TechCrunch.

Stamoulis also notes that the campaign is in “close communication” with the major social platforms where it focuses its efforts.

“… We have scheduled and consistent check in times to go over best practices, recommendations, new tools and brainstorm ideas and concepts to help optimize our use of their platforms,” Stamoulis said. “We anticipate working closely with platforms as we continue to move into the general.”

Biden’s stay-the-course digital strategy seems to reflect the thinking of his unlikely Super Tuesday coup, believing that you need the biggest coalition possible and you don’t necessarily build it through the buzziest politics or the flashiest moments. The campaign doesn’t want Biden to go viral as much as it wants him to connect with the most people in the broadest possible sense.

And to his credit, between the South Carolina comeback and his team-of-rivals Super Tuesday trick, Biden pulled it all off somehow. If there’s anything we can count on in 2020, whether it’s U.S. politics or a global health reckoning, it’s that we don’t know what the hell is going to happen. That lesson seems especially resonant for the extremely online among us, who seem to discover again and again that we are but a tiny, self-selecting sliver of the American electorate.

There’s no word on if we’ll see Biden trading island codes for Animal Crossing à la AOC or a virtual likeness of the candidate looming over Fortnite’s map psychedelic Travis Scott-style, but in a truly unusual election year, nothing is quite off the table.

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California turns to vote-by-mail to keep residents safe come November

California Governor Gavin Newsom announced Friday that his state would issue a mail-in ballot to every registered voter for November’s election. Newsom issued the decision as an executive order in coordination with other California officials.

The order will require all county election officials to provide mail-in ballots to voters, but it also provisions for in-person voting stations for Californians with disabilities, those without an address due to homelessness and voters who need voting materials in a language other than English.

According to the order, the governor will coordinate with the secretary of state and the California legislature to make in-person voting as safe as possible. In California, the secretary of state is the top election official, tasked with overseeing voting equipment, security and accessibility.

“Today we become the first state in the nation to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by mailing every registered voter a ballot,” Secretary of State Alex Padilla said of the decision. “We are meeting our obligation to provide an accessible, secure, and safe election this November. Sending every registered voter a ballot by mail is smart policy and absolutely the right thing to do during this COVID-19 pandemic.”

With the November election looming, states are moving swiftly to adapt to the unique challenges posed by a general election in the midst of a pandemic. The primary season offered a preview of the chaos that could come for states that fail to rethink their voting systems, particularly in Wisconsin, where photos depicted long lines and crowded polling stations. As many other states bought time by pushing back their own primaries, Wisconsin went ahead with in-person voting on its original date in spite of warnings from health experts and concern among voters.

While some political figures — President Trump chief among them — seek to frame vote-by-mail as a partisan issue, the reality is that election officials in both red and blue states are looking at sending residents ballots by mail come November.

Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah and Hawaii already safely use vote-by-mail as their primary method of voting and incidents of voter fraud in those states — and other states that allow some voting via absentee ballot — are statistically negligible.

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Three-quarters of Americans lack confidence in tech companies’ ability to fight election interference

A significant majority of Americans have lost faith in tech companies’ ability to prevent the misuse of their platforms to influence the 2020 presidential election, according to a new study from Pew Research Center, released today. The study found that nearly three-quarters of Americans (74%) don’t believe platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google will be able to prevent election interference. What’s more, this sentiment is felt by both political parties evenly.

Pew says that nearly identical shares of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (76%) and Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents (74%) have little or no confidence in technology companies’ ability to prevent their platforms’ misuse with regard to election interference.

And yet, 78% of Americans believe it’s tech companies’ job to do so. Slightly more Democrats (81%) took this position, compared with Republicans (75%).

While Americans had similar negative feelings about platforms’ misuse ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, their lack of confidence has gotten even worse over the past year. As of January 2020, 74% of Americans report having little confidence in the tech companies, compared with 66% back in September 2018. For Democrats, the decline in trust is even greater, with 74% today feeling “not too” confident or “not at all” confident, compared with 62% in September 2018. Republican sentiment has declined somewhat during this same time, as well, with 72% expressing a lack of confidence in 2018, compared with 76% today.

Even among those who believe the tech companies are capable of handling election interference, very few (5%) Americans feel “very” confident in their capabilities. Most of the optimists see the challenge as difficult and complex, with 20% saying they feel only “somewhat” confident.

Across age groups, both the lack of confidence in tech companies and a desire for accountability increase with age. For example, 31% of those 18 to 29 feel at least somewhat confident in tech companies’ abilities, versus just 20% of those 65 and older. Similarly, 74% of youngest adults believe the companies should be responsible for platform misuse, compared with 88% of the 65-and-up crowd.

Given the increased negativity felt across the board on both sides of the aisle, it would have been interesting to see Pew update its 2018 survey that looked at other areas of concern Republicans and Democrats had with tech platforms. The older study found that Republicans were more likely to feel social media platforms favored liberal views while Democrats were more heavily in favor of regulation and restricting false information.

Issues around election interference aren’t just limited to the U.S., of course. But news of Russia’s meddling in U.S. politics in particular — which involved every major social media platform — has helped to shape Americans’ poor opinion of tech companies and their ability to prevent misuse. The problem continues today, as Russia is being called out again for trying to intervene in the 2020 elections, according to several reports. At present, Russia’s focus is on aiding Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign in order to interfere with the Democratic primary, the reports said.

Meanwhile, many of the same vulnerabilities that Russia exploited during the 2016 elections remain, including the platforms’ ability to quickly spread fake news, for example. Russia is also working around blocks the tech companies have erected in an attempt to keep Russian meddling at bay. One report from The NYT said Russian hackers and trolls were now better at covering their tracks and were even paying Americans to set up Facebook pages to get around Facebook’s ban on foreigners buying political ads.

Pew’s report doesn’t get into any details as to why Americans have lost so much trust in tech companies since the last election, but it’s likely more than just the fallout from election interference alone. Five years ago, tech companies were viewed largely as having a positive impact on the U.S., Pew had once reported. But Americans no longer feel as they did, and now only around half of U.S. adults believe the companies are having a positive impact.

More Americans are becoming aware of how easily these massive platforms can be exploited and how serious the ramifications of those exploits have become across a number of areas, including personal privacy. It’s not surprising, then, that user sentiment around how well tech companies are capable of preventing election interference has declined, too, along with all the rest.

Source: Social – TechCrunch

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Trump’s Election Day YouTube takeover plan feels very different in 2020

According to a report from Bloomberg, the Trump campaign called dibs on some of the most prized ad space online in the days leading up to the 2020 U.S. election.

Starting in early November and continuing onto Election Day itself, the campaign will reportedly command YouTube’s masthead, the space at the very top of the video sharing site’s homepage. YouTube is now the second most popular website globally after the online video platform overtook Facebook in web traffic back in 2018. Bloomberg didn’t report the details of the purchase, but the YouTube masthead space is reported to cost as much as a million dollars a day.

The Trump campaign’s ad buy is likely to rub the president’s many critics the wrong way, but it isn’t unprecedented. In 2012, the Obama campaign bought the same space before Mitt Romney landed the Republican nomination. It’s also not a first for the Trump campaign, which bought banner ads at the top of YouTube last June to send its own message during the first Democratic debate.

Screenshot of the Trump campaign’s June 2019 YouTube ads via NPR/YouTube

In spite of the precedent, 2020 is a very different year for political money flowing to tech companies — one with a great degree of newfound scrutiny. The big tech platforms are still honing their respective rules for political advertising as November inches closer, but the kinks are far from ironed out and the awkward dance between politics and tech continues.

The fluidity of the situation is a boon to campaigns eager to plow massive amounts of cash into tech platforms. Facebook remains under scrutiny for its willingness to accept money for political ads containing misleading claims, even as the company is showered in cash by 2020 campaigns. Most notable among them is the controversial candidacy of multi-billionaire Mike Bloomberg, who spent a whopping $33 million on Facebook alone in the last 30 days. In spite of its contentious political ad policies, much-maligned Facebook offers a surprising degree of transparency around what runs on its platform through its robust political ad library, a tool that arose out of the controversy surrounding the 2016 U.S. election.

On the other end of the spectrum, Twitter opted to ban political ads altogether, and is currently working on a way to label “synthetic or manipulated media” intended to mislead users — an effort that could flag non-paid content by candidates, including a recent debate video doctored by the Bloomberg campaign. Twitter is working through its own policy issues in a relatively public way, embracing trial-and-error rather than carving its rules in stone.

Unlike Twitter, YouTube will continue to run political ads, but did mysteriously remove a batch of 300 Trump campaign ads last year without disclosing what policy the ads had violated. Google also announced that it would limit election ad targeting to a few high-level categories (age, gender and ZIP code), a decision the Trump campaign called the “muzzling of political speech.” In spite of its strong stance on microtargeting, Google’s policies around allowing lies in political ads fall closer to Facebook’s anything-goes approach. Google makes a few exceptions, disallowing “misleading claims about the census process” and “false claims that could significantly undermine participation or trust in an electoral or democratic process,” the latter of which leaves an amphitheater-sized amount of room for interpretation.

In recent years, much of the criticism around political advertising has centered around the practice of microtargeting ads to hyper-specific sets of users, a potent technique made possible by the amount of personal data collected by modern social platforms and a strategy very much back in action in 2020. While Trump’s campaign leveraged that phenomenon to great success in 2016, Trump’s big YouTube ad buy is just one part of an effort to see what sticks, advertising to anybody and everybody in the splashiest spot online in the process.

YouTube declined to confirm to TechCrunch the Trump campaign’s reported ad buy, but noted that the practice of buying the YouTube masthead is “common” during elections.

“In the past, campaigns, PACs, and other political groups have run various types of ads leading up to election day,” the spokesperson said. “All advertisers follow the same process and are welcome to purchase the masthead space as long as their ads comply with our policies.”

Source: TechCrunch

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Getting tech right in Iowa and elsewhere requires insight into data, human behavior

What happened in Iowa’s Democratic caucus last week is a textbook example of how applying technological approaches to public sector work can go badly wrong just when we need it to go right.

While it’s possible to conclude that Iowa teaches us that we shouldn’t let tech anywhere near a governmental process, this is the wrong conclusion to reach, and mixes the complexity of what happened and didn’t happen. Technology won’t fix a broken policy and the key is understanding what it is good for.

What does it look like to get technology right in solving public problems? There are three core principles that can help more effectively build public-interest technology: solve an actual problem, design with and for users and their lives in mind and start small (test, improve, test).

Before developing an app or throwing a new technology into the mix in a political process it is worth asking: what is the goal of this app, and what will an app do that will improve on the existing process?

Getting it right starts with understanding the humans who will use what you build to solve an actual problem. What do they actually need? In the case of Iowa, this would have meant asking seasoned local organizers about what would help them during the vote count. It also means talking directly to precinct captains and caucus goers and observing the unique process in which neighbors convince neighbors to move to a different corner of a school gymnasium when their candidate hasn’t been successful. In addition to asking about the idea of a web application, it is critical to test the application with real users under real conditions to see how it works and make improvements.

In building such a critical game-day app, you need to test it under more real-world conditions, which means adoption and ease of use matters. While Shadow (the company charged with this build) did a lightweight test with some users, there wasn’t the runway to adapt or learn from those for whom the app was designed. The app may have worked fine, but that doesn’t matter if people didn’t use it or couldn’t download it.

One model of how this works can be found in the Nurse Family Partnership, a high-impact nonprofit that helps first-time, low-income moms.

This nonprofit has adapted to have feedback loops from its moms and nurses via email and text messages. It even has a full-time role “responsible for supporting the organization’s vision to scale plan by listening and learning from primary, secondary and internal customers to assess what can be done to offer an exceptional Nurse-Family Partnership experience.”

Building on its program of in-person assistance, the Nurse Family Partnership co-designed an app (with Hopelab, a social innovation lab in collaboration with behavioral-science based software company Ayogo). The Goal Mama app builds upon the relationship between nurses and moms. It was developed with these clients in mind after research showed the majority of moms in the program were using their smartphones extensively, so this would help meet moms where they were. Through this approach of using technology and data to address the needs of their workforce and clients, they have served 309,787 moms across 633 counties and 41 states.

Another example is the work of Built for Zero, a national effort focused on the ambitious goal of ending homelessness across 80 cities and counties. Community organizers start with the personal challenges of the unhoused — they know that without understanding the person and their needs, they won’t be able to build successful interventions that get them housed. Their work combines a methodology of human-centered organizing with smart data science to deliver constant assessment and improvements in their work, and they have a collaboration with the Tableau foundation to build and train communities to collect data with new standards and monitor progress toward a goal of zero homelessness.

Good tech always starts small, tests, learns and improves with real users. Parties, governments and nonprofits should expand on the learning methods that are common to tech startups and espoused by Eric Reis in The Lean Startup. By starting with small tests and learning quickly, public-interest technology acknowledges the high stakes of building technology to improve democracy: real people’s lives are at stake. With questions about equity, justice, legitimacy and integrity on the line, starting small helps ensure enough runway to make important changes and work out the kinks.

Take for example the work of Alia. Launched by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), it’s the first benefits portal for house cleaners. Domestic workers do not typically receive employee benefits, making things like taking a sick day or visiting a doctor impossible without losing pay.

Its easy-to-use interface enables people who hire house cleaners to contribute directly to their benefits, allowing workers to receive paid time off, accident insurance and life insurance. Alia’s engineers benefited from deep user insights gained by connecting to a network of house cleaners. In the increasing gig economy, the Alia model may be instructive for a range of employees across local, state and federal levels. Obama organizers in 2008 dramatically increased volunteerism (up to 18%) just by A/B testing the words and colors used for the call-to-action on their website.

There are many instructive public interest technologies that focus on designing not just for the user. This includes work in civil society such as Center for Civic Design, ensuring people can have easy and seamless interactions with government, and The Principles for Digital Development, the first of which is “design with the user.” There is also work being done inside governments, from the Government Digital Service in the U.K. to the work of the United States Digital Service, which was launched in the Obama administration.

Finally, it also helps to deeply understand the conditions in which technology will be used. What are the lived experiences of the people who will be using the tool? Did the designers dig in and attend a caucus to see how paper has captured the moving of bodies and changing of minds in gyms, cafes and VFW halls?

In the case of Iowa, it requires understanding the caucuses norms, rules and culture. A political caucus is a unique situation.

Not to mention, this year the Iowa Caucus deployed several process changes to increase transparency but also complexify the process, which needed to also be taken into account when deploying a tech solution. Understanding the conditions in which technology is deployed requires a nuanced understanding of policies and behavior and how policy changes can impact design choices.

Building a technical solution without doing the user-research to see what people really need runs the risk of reducing credibility and further eroding trust. Building the technology itself is often the simple part. The complex part is relational. It requires investing in capacity to engage, train, test and iterate.

We are accustomed to same-day delivery and instantaneous streaming in our private and social lives, which raises our expectations for what we want from the public sector. The push to modernize and streamline is what leads to believing an app is the solution. But building the next killer app for our democracy requires more than just prototyping a splashy tool.

Public-interest technology means working toward the broader, difficult challenge of rebuilding trust in our democracy. Every time we deploy tech for the means of modernizing a process, we need to remember this end goal and make sure we’re getting it right.

Source: TechCrunch