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Kamala Harris’s Big Tech Connections

When Kamala Harris, then San Francisco’s district attorney, was running to become California’s attorney general in 2010, she did not hide her excitement about speaking at Google’s Silicon Valley campus.

“I’ve been wanting to come to the Google campus for a year and a half,” she said. “I’ve been wanting to come because I want these relationships and I want to cultivate them.”

For Ms. Harris, as a Bay Area politician, connections to tech have been essential and perhaps inescapable. In past campaigns — her two elections to be attorney general, her successful run for the Senate, and her failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination — she relied on Silicon Valley’s tech elite for donations. And her network of family, friends and former political aides has fanned throughout the tech world.

Those close industry ties have coincided with a largely hands-off approach to companies that have come under increasing scrutiny from regulators and lawmakers around the world. As California’s attorney general, critics say, Ms. Harris did little to curb the power of tech giants as they gobbled up rivals and muscled into new industries. As a senator, consumer advocacy groups said, she has often moved in lock step with tech interests.

Now that she is the running mate to Joseph R. Biden Jr., tech industry critics worry that a Biden administration with Ms. Harris would mean a return to the cozy relationship that Silicon Valley enjoyed with the White House under President Barack Obama.

Although vice presidents rarely set policy, as a former state attorney general, Ms. Harris is expected to have a say in Mr. Biden’s political appointments at the Justice Department, including officials who oversee antitrust enforcement. She could also have a significant influence on tech policy in a Biden administration, since Mr. Biden has largely focused on other issues.

“This is good news” for tech companies, said Hal Singer, an economist who specializes in antitrust and a managing director at Econ One, a consulting firm. “They probably feel like they have one of their own and that at the margin this is going to help push back against any reform.”

A spokeswoman for Ms. Harris declined to comment for this story.

Silicon Valley’s Democratic power brokers have been enthusiastic backers of Ms. Harris. In her first statewide campaign, she raised 36 percent more money than her Republican opponent with the help of large donations from prominent tech investors like the billionaire John Doerr, who was an early investor in Google, and Ron Conway, a venture capitalist who is active in Democratic politics.

In her re-election bid, donations poured in from big players in tech, like Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, Jony Ive, Apple’s former top design executive, and Marc Benioff, chief executive of Salesforce.

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Credit…Asa Mathat

She also hobnobbed with Silicon Valley heavyweights. Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs and an influential philanthropist, hosted a fund-raiser for Ms. Harris in the backyard of her Palo Alto home in 2013. That same year, Ms. Harris attended the lavish wedding of Sean Parker, an early Facebook executive.

In addition, her family, friends, and former staff members are part of the revolving door between government and the tech industry.

Lartease Tiffith left his position as a senior counsel in Ms. Harris’s Senate office in late 2018 and became an in-house lobbyist for Amazon, focusing on privacy and security issues. Rebecca Prozan, who ran Ms. Harris’s first campaign for district attorney in San Francisco, is a top government affairs official for Google in California. Tony West, Ms. Harris’s brother-in-law and a former Justice Department official, is the chief legal officer for Uber.

“There are familial connections and a level of mutual affection with Silicon Valley that goes above and beyond the fact that she is a San Francisco politician,” said Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, a left-leaning watchdog group that has criticized Ms. Harris’s ties to Big Tech and other corporate interests.

A decade ago, the perception of the tech industry was very different. It was a bright spot in an economy still recovering from the financial crisis. A campaign stop at the Google campus helped politicians raise their profile — and perhaps, a little money — while benefiting from an association with a company recognized as an engine of innovation.

Addressing Google’s employees in 2010, Ms. Harris presented herself not as a potential foe with the power to rein in Google but as a pragmatic ally who could speak the language of the tech industry. She said she was an innovator, seeking to disrupt the status quo in government.

Ms. Harris danced around sensitive issues. With online privacy, she said, she wanted to strike a balance between what’s good for business and protecting consumers. When asked about antitrust enforcement, she said it was important not to be shortsighted. A state on the verge of bankruptcy, as California was then, “cannot stand in the way of business growth and development,” she said.

That month, David Drummond, then Google’s top lawyer, personally donated $6,500, the maximum allowed at the time, to her campaign. Google also kicked in another $6,500. Backed by tech money, Mr. Harris eked out a victory in one of the closest statewide races in California history, setting her career on the trajectory that has now catapulted her to being the first Black woman on the presidential ticket of a major political party.

Ms. Harris rarely challenged the major tech companies after she became California’s attorney general.

Jamie Court, president of the California-based Consumer Watchdog, said his group lobbied Ms. Harris in 2011 to support legislation that would force companies to stop monitoring the online activity of users if they clearly stated that they did not want to be tracked. She refused to sponsor the bill or support it, he said.

Two years later, Ms. Harris sponsored — and California enacted — a less stringent law, requiring companies to post in privacy policies whether they abide by do-not-track requests and what personally identifiable information they collect.

“She presided over this era of great consolidation and power in the hands of these tech giants and she didn’t do a thing,” said Mr. Court.

But Ms. Harris’s supporters said that when she did act, her familiarity with the technology industry helped her prod the companies into action. Danielle Keats Citron, a law professor at Boston University, said she saw that firsthand when she worked with Ms. Harris in early 2015 to fight so-called revenge pornography — a term for posting explicit images or videos of a person without their permission.

Ms. Harris pressured the companies to act without threatening legal action by calling a round table with top executives and policy advocates. Twitter and Reddit started to ban such photos and videos, and then Google agreed to remove explicit pictures from search results if a victim had made a request to do so.

“She was not afraid to take them on,” said Ms. Citron, who thinks the companies were more attentive because she “was not some gadfly.”

When Ms. Harris arrived on Capitol Hill in 2017, activists expected her to be a vocal supporter of a Senate billed called SESTA, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, reducing the immunity protection that shielded companies like Backpage.com, a major classified advertising website that was repeatedly accused of enabling the sex trafficking of minors.

The Internet Association, a trade group representing internet companies, opposed key parts of the bill out of concern that it would weaken the liability protections for big online sites. Ms. Harris eventually signed onto the bill, after it was watered down, and the same day the Internet Association gave its stamp of approval.

Ms. Citron, who advised Ms. Harris in the Senate about the bill, said Ms. Harris had initially been reluctant because of flaws in the legislation. But her hesitance was a letdown to groups that had been relying on her early support.

“Her absence as a vocal advocate on behalf of SESTA was glaring and it’s very suspect,” said Lisa Thompson, who then was in charge of policy for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, in 2019.

Supporters of tough regulations governing autonomous vehicles felt similarly let down by Ms. Harris. As attorney general in California, she threatened legal action against Uber unless the company removed its driverless cars from San Francisco roads. Activists hoped she would be a champion on Capitol Hill for autonomous car regulation.

In 2017, proposed legislation called the AV Start Act concerned safety groups, because a provision of the bill established federal regulations for autonomous vehicles that would have pre-empted the tougher rules already in place in California. The bill failed, and Ms. Harris’s office stayed out of the debate, despite repeated requests from safety groups for her involvement, said Joan Claybrook, a consumer activist.

“They weren’t cooperative and we never knew why,” said Ms. Claybrook, who was working with the organization Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

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Credit…Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On the campaign trail, Mr. Biden has been critical of major technology companies. In a December interview with the editorial board of The New York Times, he attacked Facebook as “totally irresponsible” for its handling of misinformation and said liability protection for social media companies from what users post to their sites should be revoked.

But a crackdown on Big Tech is not a public pillar of his agenda. Of the 46 policy papers listed on the campaign’s website, none directly address his plan for the industry. And employees and allies of the major technology companies are prominent within the nearly 700-person committee advising the campaign on tech policy.

When progressives like Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts called for a breakup of big tech companies during a debate in October, Ms. Harris took a more moderate stance. She called for action from the Justice Department.

“We need a president who has the guts to appoint an attorney general who will take on these huge monopolies,” Ms. Harris said.

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Kamala Harris and Disinformation: Debunking 3 Viral Falsehoods

As Joseph R. Biden Jr. announced that he had selected Senator Kamala Harris of California as his vice-presidential running mate, internet trolls got to work.

Since then, false and misleading information about Ms. Harris has spiked online and on TV. The activity has jumped from two dozen mentions per hour during a recent week to over 3,200 per hour in the last few days, according to the media insights company Zignal Labs, which analyzed global television broadcasts and social media.

Much of that rise is fueled by fervent supporters of President Trump and adherents of the extremist conspiracy movement QAnon, as well as by the far left, according to a New York Times analysis of the most widespread falsehoods about Ms. Harris. On Thursday, Mr. Trump himself encouraged one of the most persistent falsehoods, a racist conspiracy theory that Ms. Harris is not eligible for the vice presidency or presidency because her parents were immigrants.

“Sadly, this wave of misinformation was predictable and inevitable,” said Melissa Ryan, chief executive of Card Strategies, a consulting firm that researches disinformation.

Many of the narratives are inaccurate accusations that first surged last year during Ms. Harris’s campaign to become the Democratic presidential nominee. Here are three false rumors about Ms. Harris that continue circulating widely online.

On Wednesday, a day after Mr. Biden announced his selection, the falsehood that Ms. Harris is connected to a child-trafficking conspiracy known as PizzaGate was published on the conspiracy-mongering website Infowars, which set off a round of sharing on social media.

PizzaGate hinges on the baseless notion that Hillary Clinton and Democratic elites ran a child sex-trafficking ring through a Washington pizza restaurant. According to the rumors about Ms. Harris, she is tied to the conspiracy because her sister was invited by John Podesta, Ms. Clinton’s presidential campaign manager, to a “Hillary pizza party” in 2016.

By Friday morning, more than 4,200 tweets discussed the unfounded theory about Ms. Harris’s connection to PizzaGate, according to Dataminr, a social media monitoring service.

On Facebook, users in dozens of QAnon groups and pages posted about the rumor. The falsehood reached up to 624,000 people, according to The Times’s analysis. On Instagram, which Facebook owns, 77 more posts tried to spread the lie further.

And on YouTube, a QAnon channel with over 100,000 followers pushed the conspiracy, too. “Remember, we know what pizza was code language for,” Daniel Lee, a YouTube personality popular in conspiracy circles, told his audience. The video was viewed 30,000 times.

A Facebook spokeswoman, Liz Bourgeois, said in an email on Friday that “it’s up to our fact-checking partners to determine which claims they rate, and they take a number of factors into consideration.” She acknowledged that as of Friday afternoon, there were no fact-checks so far on the widely shared posts falsely tying Ms. Harris to PizzaGate.

Twitter said on Friday that it permanently suspended people associated with QAnon who used many different accounts or tried to evade a previous suspension.

“We deploy a number of tools to add context to and address misinformation,” including applying labels, not recommending tweets and limiting the reach of tweets, a Twitter spokesman, Trenton Kennedy, said.

YouTube said Friday that it was reducing the spread of borderline content on the video site, including QAnon content, but that the video flagged by The Times did not violate its guidelines.

Falsehoods about Ms. Harris’s heritage — in particular that she is “not Black” — were among the most widely spread misinformation that Zignal Labs tracked. Since Tuesday, the argument had been mentioned over 40,000 times, the company found.

“Kamala Harris is not an American Black,” said one tweet that collected 2,300 likes and shares after it was first posted on Wednesday. “She is half Indian and half Jamaican. She is robbing American Blacks of their history. Kamala is as Black American as Obama.”

In a Facebook post on Tuesday night, Candace Owens, a right-wing commentator, posted a widely shared post questioning Ms. Harris’s heritage. “I am SO EXCITED that we get to watch Kamala Harris, who swore into congress as an ‘Indian-American,’ now play the ‘I’m a black a woman’ card all the way until November,” she wrote.

Facebook soon added a fact check to Ms. Owens’s post, requiring users to click past a label noting that third-party fact checkers found “this information has no basis in fact.”

Ms. Harris, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, was born in 1964 in Oakland, Calif., a few years after her parents arrived in the United States. According to The Associated Press, Ms. Harris has long identified as Black; she was not sworn into Congress identifying only as Indian-American. In interviews, Ms. Harris has regularly spoken about how her mother, who was from India, raised her as Black.

Ms. Owens said in an email on Friday: “It is absurd to censor a truth followed by a future guess. This is why I am already in legal proceedings with Facebook fact-checkers. They have now begun censoring statements that were never said.”

Other memes on Facebook labeling Ms. Harris as “Kamala Dolezal” were liked and shared thousands of times, according to the Times analysis. The posts referred to Rachel Dolezal, a former official at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People who was later revealed to be white and was charged in 2018 with welfare fraud.

Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at Syracuse University who teaches digital ethics, said she was “absolutely not surprised” by the viral misinformation questioning Ms. Harris’s heritage.

“Regardless of political party, sexism and racism have long been fixtures in American public life,” Ms. Phillips said.

One of the most convoluted lies that has spread on social media involves the actor Jussie Smollett and the baseless allegation that Ms. Harris is his aunt and knew in advance that Mr. Smollett was planning to stage an assault against himself early last year.

According to the unsubstantiated narrative, when the Chicago Police Department and the F.B.I. investigated the alleged assault, Ms. Harris appeared in Mr. Smollett’s phone records, so she must have been in on the hoax.

The right-wing website True Pundit published an article pushing this argument in November. The article gained new prominence on social media this week, shared nearly 2,000 times on Twitter and reaching 180,000 people, according to CrowdTangle, a tool to analyze interactions across social networks.

A February 2019 article on FactCheck.org concluded that there was no relation between Ms. Harris and Mr. Smollett, and that evidence of her role in the hoax was nonexistent.

Ms. Harris did initially condemn the news of the apparent attack on Mr. Smollett, but when the police said the assault had been staged, she put out a new statement saying she was “sad, frustrated and disappointed” by the development.

Sheera Frenkel contributed reporting. Ben Decker contributed research.