‘Thumb-Stopping,’ ‘Humaning,’ ‘B4H’: The Strange Language of Modern Marketing.‘HUMANING’
That gust of wind you felt coming from Silicon Valley on Wednesday morning was the social media industry’s tentative sigh of relief.
For the last four years, executives at Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media companies have been obsessed with a single, overarching goal: to avoid being blamed for wrecking the 2020 U.S. election, as they were in 2016, when Russian trolls and disinformation peddlers ran roughshod over their defenses.
So they wrote new rules. They built new products and hired new people. They conducted elaborate tabletop drills to plan for every possible election outcome. And on Election Day, they charged huge, around-the-clock teams with batting down hoaxes and false claims.
So far, it appears those efforts have averted the worst. Despite the frantic (and utterly predictable) attempts from President Trump and his allies to undermine the legitimacy of the vote in the states where he is losing, there have been no major foreign interference campaigns unearthed this week, and Election Day itself was relatively quiet. Fake accounts and potentially dangerous groups have been taken down quickly, and Facebook and Twitter have been unusually proactive about slapping labels and warnings in front of premature claims of victory. (YouTube was a different story, as evidenced by the company’s slow, tepid response to a video that falsely claimed that Mr. Trump had won the election.)
The week is young, of course, and there’s still plenty of time for problems. Election-related disinformation is already trending up — some of it targeted at Latinos — and will only increase as votes are challenged in the courts, and conspiracy theorists capitalize on all the uncertainty to undermine confidence in the eventual results.
But the platforms’ worst fears haven’t yet materialized. That’s a good thing, and a credit to the employees of those companies who have been busy enforcing their rules.
At the same time, it’s worth examining how Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are averting election-related trouble, because it sheds light on the very real problems they still face.
For months, nearly every step these companies have taken to safeguard the election has involved slowing down, shutting off or otherwise hampering core parts of their products — in effect, defending democracy by making their apps worse.
They added friction to processes, like political ad-buying, that had previously been smooth and seamless. They brought in human experts to root out extremist groups and manually intervened to slow the spread of sketchy stories. They overrode their own algorithms to insert information from trusted experts into users’ feeds. And as results came in, they relied on the calls made by news organizations like The Associated Press, rather than trusting that their systems would naturally bring the truth to the surface.
Nowhere was this shift more apparent than at Facebook, which for years envisioned itself as a kind of post-human communication platform. Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive, often spoke about his philosophy of “frictionless” design — making things as easy as possible for users. Other executives I talked to seemed to believe that ultimately, Facebook would become a kind of self-policing machine, with artificial intelligence doing most of the dirty work and humans intervening as little as possible.
But in the lead-up to the 2020 election, Facebook went in the opposite direction. It put in place a new, cumbersome approval process for political advertisers, and blocked new political ads in the period after Election Day. It throttled false claims, and put in place a “virality circuit-breaker” to give fact-checkers time to evaluate suspicious stories. And it temporarily shut off its recommendation algorithm for certain types of private groups, to lessen the possibility of violent unrest. (On Thursday, The New York Times reported that the company was taking other temporary measures to tamp down election-related misinformation, including adding more friction to the process of sharing posts.)
All of these changes may, in fact, make Facebook safer. But they also involve dialing back the very features that have powered the platform’s growth for years. It’s a telling act of self-awareness, as if Ferrari had realized that it could only stop its cars from crashing by replacing the engines with go-kart motors.
“If you look at Facebook’s election response, it was essentially to point a lot of traffic and attention to these hubs that were curated by people,” said Eli Pariser, a longtime media executive and activist who is working on Civic Signals, a new project that is trying to reimagine social media as a public space. “That’s an indication that ultimately, when you have information that’s really important, there’s no substitute for human judgment.”
Twitter, another platform that for years tried to make communication as frictionless as possible, spent much of the past four years trying to pump the brakes. It brought in more moderators, revamped its rules, and put more human oversight on features like Trending Topics. In the months leading up to the election, it banned political ads, and disabled sharing features on tweets containing misleading information about election results, including some from the president’s account.
YouTube didn’t act nearly as aggressively this week, but it has also changed its platform in revealing ways. Last year, it tweaked its vaunted recommendation algorithm to slow the spread of so-called borderline content. And it started promoting “authoritative sources” during breaking news events, to prevent cranks and conspiracy theorists from filling up the search results.
All of this raises the critical question of what, exactly, will happen once the election is over and the spotlight has swiveled away from Silicon Valley. Will the warning labels and circuit-breakers be retired? Will the troublesome algorithms get turned back on? Do we just revert to social media as normal?
Camille François, the chief innovation officer of Graphika, a firm that investigates disinformation on social media, said it was too early to say whether these companies’ precautions had worked as intended. But she conceded that this level of hypervigilance might not last.
“There were a lot of emergency processes put in place at the platforms,” she said. “The sustainability and the scalability of those processes is a fair question to ask.”
Mr. Pariser said that the platforms’ work to prevent election interference this year raised bigger questions about how they will respond to other threats.
“These platforms are used for really important conversations every day,” Mr. Pariser said. “If you do this for U.S. elections, why not other countries’ elections? Why not climate change? Why not acts of violence?”
These are the right questions to ask. The social media companies may have gotten through election night without a disaster. But as with the election itself, the real fights are still ahead.
OAKLAND, Calif. — When Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai, the chief executives of Apple and Google, were photographed eating dinner together in 2017 at an upscale Vietnamese restaurant called Tamarine, the picture set off a tabloid-worthy frenzy about the relationship between the two most powerful companies in Silicon Valley.
As the two men sipped red wine at a window table inside the restaurant in Palo Alto, their companies were in tense negotiations to renew one of the most lucrative business deals in history: an agreement to feature Google’s search engine as the preselected choice on Apple’s iPhone and other devices. The updated deal was worth billions of dollars to both companies and cemented their status at the top of the tech industry’s pecking order.
Now, the partnership is in jeopardy. Last Tuesday, the Justice Department filed a landmark lawsuit against Google — the U.S. government’s biggest antitrust case in two decades — and homed in on the alliance as a prime example of what prosecutors say are the company’s illegal tactics to protect its monopoly and choke off competition in web search.
The scrutiny of the pact, which was first inked 15 years ago and has rarely been discussed by either company, has highlighted the special relationship between Silicon Valley’s two most valuable companies — an unlikely union of rivals that regulators say is unfairly preventing smaller companies from flourishing.
“We have this sort of strange term in Silicon Valley: co-opetition,” said Bruce Sewell, Apple’s general counsel from 2009 to 2017. “You have brutal competition, but at the same time, you have necessary cooperation.”
Apple and Google are joined at the hip even though Mr. Cook has said internet advertising, Google’s bread and butter, engages in “surveillance” of consumers and even though Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder, once promised “thermonuclear war” on his Silicon Valley neighbor when he learned it was working on a rival to the iPhone.
Apple and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, worth more than $3 trillion combined, do compete on plenty of fronts, like smartphones, digital maps and laptops. But they also know how to make nice when it suits their interests. And few deals have been nicer to both sides of the table than the iPhone search deal.
Nearly half of Google’s search traffic now comes from Apple devices, according to the Justice Department, and the prospect of losing the Apple deal has been described as a “code red” scenario inside the company. When iPhone users search on Google, they see the search ads that drive Google’s business. They can also find their way to other Google products, like YouTube.
A former Google executive, who asked not to be identified because he was not permitted to talk about the deal, said the prospect of losing Apple’s traffic was “terrifying” to the company.
The Justice Department, which is asking for a court injunction preventing Google from entering into deals like the one it made with Apple, argues that the arrangement has unfairly helped make Google, which handles 92 percent of the world’s internet searches, the center of consumers’ online lives.
Online businesses like Yelp and Expedia, as well as companies ranging from noodle shops to news organizations, often complain that Google’s search domination enables it to charge advertising fees when people simply look up their names, as well as to steer consumers toward its own products, like Google Maps. Microsoft, which had its own antitrust battle two decades ago, has told British regulators that if it were the default option on iPhones and iPads, it would make more advertising money for every search on its rival search engine, Bing.
What’s more, competitors like DuckDuckGo, a small search engine that sells itself as a privacy-focused alternative to Google, could never match Google’s tab with Apple.
Apple now receives an estimated $8 billion to $12 billion in annual payments — up from $1 billion a year in 2014 — in exchange for building Google’s search engine into its products. It is probably the single biggest payment that Google makes to anyone and accounts for 14 to 21 percent of Apple’s annual profits. That’s not money Apple would be eager to walk away from.
In fact, Mr. Cook and Mr. Pichai met again in 2018 to discuss how they could increase revenue from search. After the meeting, a senior Apple employee wrote to a Google counterpart that “our vision is that we work as if we are one company,” according to the Justice Department’s complaint.
A forced breakup could mean the loss of easy money to Apple. But it would be a more significant threat to Google, which would have no obvious way to replace the lost traffic. It could also push Apple to acquire or build its own search engine. Within Google, people believe that Apple is one of the few companies in the world that could offer a formidable alternative, according to one former executive. Google has also worried that without the agreement, Apple could make it more difficult for iPhone users to get to the Google search engine.
A spokesman for Apple declined to comment on the partnership, while a Google spokesman pointed to a blog post in which the company defended the relationship.
Even though its bill with Apple keeps going up, Google has said again and again that it dominates internet search because consumers prefer it, not because it is buying customers. The company argues that the Justice Department is painting an incomplete picture; its partnership with Apple, it says, is no different than Coca-Cola paying a supermarket for prominent shelf space.
Other search engines like Microsoft’s Bing also have revenue-sharing agreements with Apple to appear as secondary search options on iPhones, Google says in its defense. It adds that Apple allows people to change their default search engine from Google — though few probably do because people typically don’t tinker with such settings and many prefer Google anyway.
Apple has rarely, if ever, publicly acknowledged its deal with Google, and according to Bernstein Research, has mentioned its so-called licensing revenue in an earnings call for the first time this year.
According to a former senior executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality contracts, Apple’s leaders have made the same calculation about Google as much of the general public: The utility of its search engine is worth the cost of its invasive practices.
“Their search engine is the best,” Mr. Cook said when asked by Axios in late 2018 why he partnered with a company he also implicitly criticized. He added that Apple had also created ways to blunt Google’s collection of data, such as a private-browsing mode on Apple’s internet browser.
The deal is not limited to searches in Apple’s Safari browser; it extends to virtually all searches done on Apple devices, including with Apple’s virtual assistant, Siri, and on Google’s iPhone app and Chrome browser.
The relationship between the companies has swung from friendly to contentious to today’s “co-opetition.” In the early years of Google, the company’s co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, saw Mr. Jobs as a mentor, and they would take long walks with him to discuss the future of technology.
In 2005, Apple and Google inked what at the time seemed like a modest deal: Google would be the default search engine on Apple’s Safari browser on Mac computers.
Quickly, Mr. Cook, then still a deputy to Mr. Jobs, saw the arrangement’s lucrative potential, according to another former senior Apple executive who asked not to be named. Google’s payments were pure profit, and all Apple had to do was feature a search engine its users already wanted.
Apple expanded the deal for its big upcoming product: the iPhone. When Mr. Jobs unveiled the iPhone in 2007, he invited Eric Schmidt, Google’s then chief executive, to join him onstage for the first of Apple’s many famous iPhone events.
“If we just sort of merged the two companies, we could just call them AppleGoo,” joked Mr. Schmidt, who was also on Apple’s board of directors. With Google search on the iPhone, he added, “you can actually merge without merging.”
Then the relationship soured. Google had quietly been developing a competitor to the iPhone: smartphone software called Android that any phone maker could use. Mr. Jobs was furious. In 2010, Apple sued a phone maker that used Android. “I’m going to destroy Android,” Mr. Jobs told his biographer, Walter Isaacson. “I will spend my last dying breath if I need to.”
A year later, Apple introduced Siri. Instead of Google underpinning the virtual assistant, it was Microsoft’s Bing.
Yet the companies’ partnership on iPhones continued — too lucrative for either side to blow it up. Apple had arranged the deal to require periodic renegotiations, according to a former senior executive, and each time, it extracted more money from Google.
“You have to be able to maintain those relationships and not burn a bridge,” said Mr. Sewell, Apple’s former general counsel, who declined to discuss specifics of the deal. “At the same time, when you’re negotiating on behalf of your company and you’re trying to get the best deal, then, you know, the gloves come off.”
Around 2017, the deal was up for renewal. Google was facing a squeeze, with clicks on its mobile ads not growing fast enough. Apple was not satisfied with Bing’s performance for Siri. And Mr. Cook had just announced that Apple aimed to double its services revenue to $50 billion by 2020, an ambitious goal that would be possible only with Google’s payments.
By the fall of 2017, Apple announced that Google was now helping Siri answer questions, and Google disclosed that its payments for search traffic had jumped. The company offered an anodyne explanation to part of the reason it was suddenly paying some unnamed company hundreds of millions of dollars more: “changes in partner agreements.”
WASHINGTON — The Justice Department accused Google of illegally protecting its monopoly over search and search advertising in a lawsuit filed on Tuesday, the government’s most significant legal challenge to a tech company’s market power in a generation.
In a 57-page complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, the agency accused Google of locking out competition in search by obtaining several exclusive business contracts and agreements. Google’s deals with Apple, mobile carriers and other handset makers to place its search engine as the default option for consumers accounted for most of its dominant market share in search, the agency said, a figure that it put at around 80 percent.
“For many years,” the suit said, “Google has used anticompetitive tactics to maintain and extend its monopolies in the markets for general search services, search advertising and general search text advertising — the cornerstones of its empire.”
The suit reflects the pushback against the power of the nation’s largest corporations, and especially technology giants like Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple. Conservatives like President Trump and liberals like Senator Elizabeth Warren have been highly critical of the concentration of power in a handful of tech behemoths.
Attorney General William P. Barr, who was appointed by Mr. Trump, has played an unusually active role in the investigation. He pushed career Justice Department attorneys to bring the case by the end of September, prompting pushback from lawyers who wanted more time and complained of political influence. Mr. Barr has spoken publicly about the inquiry for months and set tight deadlines for the prosecutors leading the effort.
The lawsuit may stretch on for years and could set off a cascade of other antitrust lawsuits from state attorneys general. About four dozen states and jurisdictions have conducted parallel investigations and are expected to bring separate complaints against the company’s grip on technology for online advertising. Eleven state attorneys generals, all Republicans, signed on to support the federal lawsuit.
A victory for the government could remake one of America’s most recognizable companies and the internet economy that it has helped define since it was founded by two Stanford University graduate students in 1998. The Justice Department will not immediately put forward remedies, such as selling off parts of the company, in the lawsuit, the officials said. Such actions are typically pursued in later stages of a case.
Ryan Shores, an associate deputy attorney general, said “nothing is off the table” in terms of remedies.
Google has long denied accusations of antitrust violations, and the company is expected to fight the government’s efforts by using its global network of lawyers, economists and lobbyists. Alphabet, valued at $1.04 trillion and with cash reserves of $120 billion, has fought similar antitrust lawsuits in Europe. The company spent $12.7 million lobbying in the United States in 2019, making it one of the top corporate spenders in Washington.
The company says it has strong competition in the search market, with more people finding information on sites like Amazon. It says its services have been a boon for small businesses.
“Today’s lawsuit by the Department of Justice is deeply flawed,” Kent Walker, the company’s chief legal officer, said in a blog post. “People use Google because they choose to, not because they’re forced to, or because they can’t find alternatives.”
Mr. Walker said the lawsuit would do “nothing to help consumers. To the contrary, it would artificially prop up lower-quality search alternatives, raise phone prices and make it harder for people to get the search services they want to use.”
Democratic lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee released a sprawling report on the tech giants two weeks ago, also accusing Google of controlling a monopoly over online search and the ads that come up when users enter a query.
“A significant number of entities — spanning major public corporations, small businesses and entrepreneurs — depend on Google for traffic, and no alternate search engine serves as a substitute,” the report said. The lawmakers also accused Apple, Amazon and Facebook of abusing their market power. They called for more aggressive enforcement of antitrust laws, and for Congress to consider strengthening them.
The scrutiny reflects how Google has become a dominant player in communications, commerce and media over the last two decades. That business is lucrative: Last year, Google brought in $34.3 billion in search revenue in the United States, according to the research firm eMarketer. That figure is expected to grow to $42.5 billion by 2022, the firm said.
In its complaint, the Justice Department said that Google’s actions had hurt consumers by stifling innovation, reducing choice and diminishing the quality of search services, including consumer data privacy. It also said that advertisers that use its products “must pay a toll to Google’s search advertising and general search text advertising monopolies.”
The lawsuit is the result of an investigation that has stretched for more than a year. Prosecutors have spoken with Google’s rivals in technology and media, collecting information and documents that could be used to build a case.
The Justice Department also investigated Google’s behavior and acquisitions in the overall market for digital advertising, which includes search, web display and video ads.
But the search case is the most straightforward, giving the government its best chance to win. To prevail, the Justice Department has to show two things: that Google is dominant in search, and that its deals with Apple and other companies hobble competition in the search market.
Gene Kimmelman, a former senior antitrust official at the agency, said the case focused on how Google’s lock on search allowed it to “control a treasure trove of user data and deny access to competitors.” He said the focus on contracts was significant because some were made when Microsoft’s Bing and Yahoo posed a competitive threat to Google’s search.
In its blog post, Google argued that there is nothing wrong with its agreements with Apple, other handset manufacturers and carriers, comparing them to cereal brands paying for prominent placement on store shelves. It also said it was not difficult for consumers to switch default settings from Google to another search engine.
Mr. Barr, a former telecom executive at Verizon who once argued an antitrust case before the Supreme Court, signaled that he would put the tech giants under new scrutiny at his confirmation hearing in early 2019. He said that “a lot of people wonder how such huge behemoths that now exist in Silicon Valley have taken shape under the nose of the antitrust enforcers.”
He put the investigation under the control of his deputy, Jeffrey Rosen, who in turn hired an aide from a major law firm to oversee the case and other technology matters. Mr. Barr’s grip over the investigation tightened when the head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division, Makan Delrahim, recused himself from the investigation because he represented Google in its acquisition of the ad service DoubleClick in 2007.
Mr. Barr pushed prosecutors to wrap up their inquiries — and decide whether to bring a case — before Election Day. While Justice Department officials are usually tight-lipped about their investigations until a case is filed, Mr. Barr publicly declared his intention to make a decision on the Google matter by the end of the summer.
This year, most of the roughly 40 lawyers building the case said they opposed bringing a complaint by Mr. Barr’s Sept. 30 deadline. Some said they would not sign the complaint, and several left the case this summer.
In a call with reporters on Tuesday, the agency’s lawyers were guarded about many aspects of the investigation, such as whether they considered building out the case to other parts of Google’s business or about their conversations with the company. They specifically avoided answering a question about whether the agency spoke to Larry Page, Google’s co-founder and former chief executive of its parent company, Alphabet.
Google last faced serious scrutiny from an American antitrust regulator nearly a decade ago, when the Federal Trade Commission investigated whether it had abused its power over the search market. The agency’s staff recommended bringing charges against the company, according to a memo reported on by The Wall Street Journal. But the agency’s five commissioners voted in 2013 not to bring a case.
Other governments have been more aggressive toward the big tech companies. The European Union has brought three antitrust cases against Google in recent years, focused on its search engine, advertising business and Android mobile operating system. Regulators in Britain and Australia are examining the digital advertising market, in inquiries that could ultimately implicate the company.
“It’s the most newsworthy monopolization action brought by the government since the Microsoft case in the late ‘90s,” said Bill Baer, a former chief of the Justice Department’s antitrust division. “It’s significant in that the government believes that a highly successful tech platform has engaged in conduct that maintains its monopoly power unlawfully, and as a result injures consumers and competition.”
Google and its allies will likely criticize the suit as politically motivated. The Trump administration has attacked Google, which owns YouTube, and other online platform companies as being slanted against conservative views.
The lawsuit will likely outlast the Trump administration. The Justice Department spent more than a decade taking on Microsoft. The agency filed its lawsuit against the company in 1998 and the settlement was approved in 2002.
Google’s representatives said they anticipated that it would be at least a year before the case went to trial.
While it is possible that a new Democratic administration would review the strategy behind the case, experts said it was unlikely that it would be withdrawn under new leadership.
Steve Lohr contributed reporting
About 20 years ago, I typed Google.com into my web browser for the first time. It loaded a search bar and buttons. I punched in “D.M.V. sample test,” scrolled through the results and clicked on a site.
Wow, I thought to myself. Google’s minimalist design was a refreshing alternative to other search engines at the time — remember AltaVista, Yahoo! and Lycos? — which greeted us with a jumble of ads and links to news articles. Even better, Google seemed to show more up-to-date, relevant results.
And the entire experience took just a few seconds. Once I found the link I needed, I was done with Google.
Two decades later, my experience with Google is considerably different. When I do a Google search in 2020, I spend far more time in the internet company’s universe. If I look for chocolate chips, for example, I see Google ads for chocolate chips pop up at the top of my screen, followed by recipes that Google has scraped from across the web, followed by Google Maps and Google Reviews of nearby bakeries, followed by YouTube videos for how to bake chocolate chip cookies. (YouTube, of course, is owned by Google.)
It isn’t just that I am spending more time in a Google search, either. The Silicon Valley company has leveraged the act of looking for something online into such a vast technology empire over the years that it has crept into my home, my work, my devices and much more. It has become the tech brand that dominates my life — and probably yours, too.
On my Apple iPhone, I use Google’s apps for photo albums and maps, along with tools for calendar, email and documents. On my computer and tablet, the various web browsers I use feature Google as the default search bar. For work, I use Google Finance (to look up stock quotes), Google Drive (to store files), Google Meet (to teleconference) and Google Hangouts (to communicate).
In my home, Google is also everywhere. My Nest home security camera is made by Google. A Google voice service rings my door buzzer. To learn how to repair a gutter, I recently watched home improvement videos on YouTube. In online maps, Google has photos of my house taken from outer space and camera-embedded cars.
By my unofficial estimate, I spend at least seven hours a day on Google-related products.
Google’s prevalence has brought the company to a critical point. On Tuesday, the Justice Department sued it for anticompetitive practices, in the most significant antitrust action by the U.S. government against a technology company in decades. The government’s case focused on Google’s search and how it appeared to create a monopoly through exclusive business contracts and agreements that locked out rivals.
Google said in a tweet that the lawsuit was “deeply flawed.” The company added, “People use Google because they choose to, not because they’re forced to or because they can’t find alternatives.”
To Gabriel Weinberg, the chief executive of DuckDuckGo, which offers a privacy-focused search engine, what I have experienced was Google’s plan all along.
“I don’t think it was happenstance,” he said. “They’ve been using their different products to maintain their dominance in their core market, which is search.”
That has created a privacy cost for many of us, Mr. Weinberg said. Google, he said, collects reams of information about us across its products, allowing it to stitch together detailed profiles about our behavior and interests.
So in 2012, Mr. Weinberg broke up with Google and purged his accounts. “I got to understand the privacy implications of building massive profiles on people — and the massive harm,” he said.
But Jeff Jarvis, a professor at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism and the author of “What Would Google Do?,” a book about the search giant’s rise, said there was still plenty of room outside Google’s world. For one, we don’t use Google for social media — we’re on Facebook and TikTok. Artificial intelligence, even the type that Google is developing, is still pretty unintelligent, he added.
“The internet is still very, very young,” Mr. Jarvis said.
To test that argument, I decided to catalog Google’s presence in our lives. Here are some results.
When we browse the web, we are probably interacting with Google without even realizing it. That’s because most websites that we visit contain Google’s ad technologies, which track our browsing. When we load a web article containing an ad served by Google, the company keeps a record of the website that loaded the ad — even if we didn’t click on the ad.
And guess what. Most ads we see are served by Google. Last year, the company and Facebook accounted for 59 percent of digital ad spending, according to the research firm eMarketer. Google dominates 63 percent of that slice of the pie.
Google’s ad technologies also include invisible analytics code, which runs in the background of many websites. About 74 percent of the sites we visit run Google analytics, according to an analysis by DuckDuckGo. So that’s even more data we are feeding about ourselves to Google, often without knowing it.
Phones and Computers
Let’s start with Android, the most popular mobile operating system in the world. People with Android devices inevitably download apps from Google’s Play store.
Android includes Google’s staple apps for maps and email, and Google search is prominently featured for looking up articles and digging through device settings. Google’s voice-powered virtual assistant is also part of Android devices.
Even if you own an Apple iPhone, as I do, Google looms large.
Google has been the default search bar on the iPhone’s Safari browser since 2007. Gmail is the most popular email service in the world, with more than 1.5 billion users, so chances are you use it on your iPhone. And good luck finding a service other than YouTube for watching those cooking and music videos on your phone.
In fact, Google owns 10 of the 100 most-downloaded apps in the Google and Apple app stores, according to App Annie, a mobile analytics firm.
Outside smartphones, Google is the dominant force on our personal computers. By some estimates, more than 65 percent of us use Google’s Chrome web browser. And in education, our schools have chosen the Chromebook, low-cost PCs that run Google’s operating system, as the most widely used tech tool for students.
This can be brief: YouTube is by far the largest video-hosting platform. Period. About 215 million Americans watch YouTube, spending 27 minutes a day on the site, on average. That’s up from 22 minutes a few years ago, according to eMarketer.
Another way you might watch Google videos is through YouTube TV, a streaming service that offers a modest bundle of TV channels. Released in 2017, YouTube TV had more than two million users last year, according to Google. That’s not far behind Sling TV, a similar bundle service introduced by Dish in 2015, which had about 2.6 million subscribers last year.
The Home and Beyond
If you recently bought an internet-connected gadget for your home, chances are that Google is behind it. After all, the company offers Google Home, one of the most popular smart speakers and powered by Google’s virtual assistant, and it owns Nest, the smart-home brand that makes internet-connected security cameras, smoke alarms and thermostats.
We often interact with Google even when we use an app that lacks a clear connection with it. That’s because Google provides the cloud infrastructure, or the server technology that lets us stream videos and download files, to other brands. If you’re using TikTok in the United States, guess what: You’re in Google’s cloud. (TikTok may soon switch cloud providers under a deal with Oracle.)
Even Mr. Weinberg, who quit Google, said he had been unable to shake its services entirely. He said he still watched the occasional Google-hosted video when there was no alternative.
“If somebody’s sending a video that I need to watch and it’s only on YouTube, then that’s just the reality,” he said.
The Justice Department sued Google on Tuesday, accusing the company of illegally abusing its dominance in internet search in ways that harm competitors and consumers.
The suit is the first antitrust action against the company, owned by Alphabet, to result from investigations by the Justice Department, Congress and 50 states and territories. State attorneys general and federal officials have also been investigating Google’s behavior in the market for online advertising. And a group of states is exploring a broader search case against Google.
Here is what you need to know about the suit.
What is really happening here?
This is one step against a single company. But it is also a response to the policy question of what measures, if any, should be taken to curb today’s tech giants, which hold the power to shape markets, communication and even public opinion.
Politics steered the timing and shape of this suit. Attorney General William P. Barr wanted to move quickly to take action before the election, making good on President Trump’s pledge to take on Big Tech. Eleven states joined the suit.
What is the Justice Department saying Google did illegally?
This is a monopoly defense case. The government says that Google is illegally protecting its dominant position in the market for search and search advertising with the deals it has struck with companies like Apple. Google pays Apple billions of dollars a year to have its search engine set as the default option on iPhones and other devices.
The Justice Department is also challenging contracts Google has with smartphone makers that use Google’s Android operating system, requiring them to install its search engine as the default.
The Justice Department also investigated Google’s behavior and acquisitions in the overall market for digital advertising, which includes search, web display and video ads. Online advertising was the source of virtually all of Alphabet’s $34 billion in profit last year.
But the search case is the most straightforward, giving the government its best chance to win. To prevail, the Justice Department has to show two things — that Google is dominant in search, and that its deals with Apple and other companies hobble competition in the search market.
What will be Google’s defense?
In short: We’re not dominant and competition on the internet is just “one click away.”
That is the essence of recent testimony in Congress by Google executives. Google’s share of the search market in the United States is about 80 percent. But looking only at the market for “general” search, the company says, is myopic. Nearly half of online shopping searches, it notes, begin on Amazon.
Next, Google says the deals the Justice Department is citing are entirely legal. Such company-to-company deals violate antitrust law only if they can be shown to exclude competition. Users can freely switch to other search engines, like Microsoft’s Bing or Yahoo Search, anytime they want, Google insists. Its search service, Google says, is the runaway market leader because people prefer it.
What is the consumer harm when Google’s search service is free?
Consumer harm, the government argues, can result in several ways. Less competition in a market means less innovation and less consumer choice in the long run. That, in theory, could close the market to rivals that collect less data for targeted advertising than Google. Enhanced privacy, for example, would be a consumer benefit.
Goods that are free to consumers are not exempt from antitrust oversight. In the landmark Microsoft case of the late 1990s, the software giant bundled its web browser for free into its dominant Windows operating system. Microsoft lost because, using restrictive contracts, it bullied personal computer makers and others to try to prevent them from offering competing web browser software — competition that could have undermined the Windows monopoly.
What happens next?
Unless the government and Google reach a settlement, they’re headed to court. Trials and appeals in such cases can take years.
Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain: Google will face continued scrutiny for a long time.
The instructions were clear: Write an article calling out Sara Gideon, a Democrat running for a hotly contested U.S. Senate seat in Maine, as a hypocrite.
Angela Underwood, a freelance reporter in upstate New York, took the $22 assignment over email. She contacted the spokesman for Senator Susan Collins, the Republican opponent, and wrote an article on his accusations that Ms. Gideon was two-faced for criticizing shadowy political groups and then accepting their help.
The short article was published on Maine Business Daily, a seemingly run-of-the-mill news website, under the headline “Sen. Collins camp says House Speaker Gideon’s actions are hypocritical.” It extensively quoted Ms. Collins’s spokesman but had no comment from Ms. Gideon’s campaign.
Then Ms. Underwood received another email: The “client” who had ordered up the article, her editor said, wanted it to add more detail.
The client, according to emails and the editing history reviewed by The New York Times, was a Republican operative.
Maine Business Daily is part of a fast-growing network of nearly 1,300 websites that aim to fill a void left by vanishing local newspapers across the country. Yet the network, now in all 50 states, is built not on traditional journalism but on propaganda ordered up by dozens of conservative think tanks, political operatives, corporate executives and public-relations professionals, a Times investigation found.
The sites appear as ordinary local-news outlets, with names like Des Moines Sun, Ann Arbor Times and Empire State Today. They employ simple layouts and articles about local politics, community happenings and sometimes national issues, much like any local newspaper.
But behind the scenes, many of the stories are directed by political groups and corporate P.R. firms to promote a Republican candidate or a company, or to smear their rivals.
One of the websites in the network is Illinois Valley Times.
Nearly every story at the top of the homepage in early September was about Sue Rezin, a Republican state senator. Ms. Rezin said in an interview that she didn’t know why the outlet focused on her so much, but that she didn’t mind all the positive coverage.
As of Oct. 14, one reporter had written 34 of his last 40 stories on the site about Ms. Rezin. When contacted, he said the company would not let him speak to reporters.
The network is largely overseen by Brian Timpone, a TV reporter turned internet entrepreneur who has sought to capitalize on the decline of local news organizations for nearly two decades. He has built the network with the help of several others, including a Texas brand-management consultant and a conservative Chicago radio personality.
The Times uncovered details about the operation through interviews with more than 30 current and former employees and clients, as well as thousands of internal emails between reporters and editors spanning several years. Employees of the network shared emails and the editing history in the site’s publishing software that revealed who requested dozens of articles and how.
Mr. Timpone did not respond to repeated attempts to contact him by email and phone, or through a note left at his home in the Chicago suburbs. Many of his executives did not respond to or declined requests for comment.
The network is one of a proliferation of partisan local-news sites funded by political groups associated with both parties. Liberal donors have poured millions of dollars into operations like Courier, a network of eight sites that began covering local news in swing states last year. Conservative activists are running similar sites, like the Star News group in Tennessee, Virginia and Minnesota.
But those operations run just several sites each, while Mr. Timpone’s network has more than twice as many sites as the nation’s largest newspaper chain, Gannett. And while political groups have helped finance networks like Courier, investors in news operations typically don’t weigh in on specific articles.
While Mr. Timpone’s sites generally do not post information that is outright false, the operation is rooted in deception, eschewing hallmarks of news reporting like fairness and transparency. Only a few dozen of the sites disclose funding from advocacy groups. Traditional news organizations do not accept payment for articles; the Federal Trade Commission requires that advertising that looks like articles be clearly labeled as ads.
Most of the sites declare in their “About” pages that they to aim “to provide objective, data-driven information without political bias.” But in April, an editor for the network reminded freelancers that “clients want a politically conservative focus on their stories, so avoid writing stories that only focus on a Democrat lawmaker, bill, etc.,” according to an email viewed by The Times.
Other news organizations have raised concerns about the political bent of some of the sites. But the extent of the deceit has been concealed for years with confidentiality contracts for writers and a confusing web of companies that run the papers. Those companies have received at least $1.7 million from Republican political campaigns and conservative groups, according to tax records and campaign-finance reports, the only payments that could be traced in public records.
Editors for Mr. Timpone’s network assign work to freelancers dotted around the United States and abroad, often paying $3 to $36 per job. The assignments typically come with precise instructions on whom to interview and what to write, according to the internal correspondence. In some cases, those instructions are written by the network’s clients, who are sometimes the subjects of the articles.
The emails showed a salesman for Mr. Timpone’s sites offering a potential client a $2,000 package that included running five articles and unlimited news releases. The salesman stressed that reporters would call the shots on some articles, while the client would have a say on others.
Ian Prior, a Republican operative, was behind the articles about Ms. Gideon, the Senate candidate in Maine, as well as articles promoting Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Roy Blunt of Missouri, according to the internal records. Mr. Prior previously worked for the Senate Leadership Fund, a political action committee that has spent $9.7 million against Ms. Gideon.
Juan David Leal, who has worked in the Mexico office of the Berkeley Research Group, a consulting firm, ordered up articles criticizing the Mexican government’s response to the coronavirus.
And employees at the Illinois Opportunity Project, a conservative advocacy group, requested dozens of articles about specific Republican politicians in Illinois. The group has paid $441,000 to Mr. Timpone’s companies, according to the nonprofit’s tax records.
A spokeswoman for Ms. Collins, the Maine senator, said the campaign answers questions “from media outlets of all stripes and persuasions,” including the Maine Beacon, a local-news outlet funded by a liberal group.
Mr. Prior leads a P.R. firm that markets its ability to get coverage in local-news outlets. He said in an email that he pitches stories to a variety of outlets, including Mr. Timpone’s network because it “actually covers local issues.” He did not respond to questions about whether he had paid for the coverage.
The Illinois Opportunity Project did not respond to requests for comment. Mr. Leal did not comment for this article.
Some of the most popular articles on Mr. Timpone’s sites get tens of thousands of shares on social media. That is a modest reach in the national conversation. But with the focus on small towns, less readership is needed to make an impact. In some of those towns, Mr. Timpone’s outlets also publish newspapers and deliver them, unsolicited, to doorsteps.
Ben Ashkar, the chief operating officer of Locality Labs, one of the companies connected to the sites, was the sole executive at the network who spoke on the record for this article. He said he didn’t think people could pay for coverage.
“I hope not,” he said. “How would I know? Honestly I don’t think people are paying.”
Mr. Timpone, who turns 48 this month, got his start in politics by covering it. In the 1990s, he was a news anchor and reporter at Illinois TV stations. Eventually he became the spokesman for the State House’s Republican minority leader.
A personable guy and persuasive salesman, according to people who know him, Mr. Timpone then became focused on replacing the old print guard as a digital-news mogul.
“Big metro papers are like the fly in your house that gets slow and you just catch it with your hand,” he said in a 2015 interview with Dan Proft, a conservative radio talk show host in Chicago.
About a decade ago, Mr. Timpone started Journatic, a service that aimed to automate and outsource reporters’ jobs, selling it to two of the nation’s largest chains, Hearst and Tribune Publishing. He used rudimentary software to turn public data into snippets of news. That content still fills most of his sites. And for the articles written by humans, he simply paid reporters less, even using workers in the Philippines who wrote under fake bylines.
When the radio show “This American Life” revealed his strategy in 2012, Mr. Timpone defended his approach as a way to save local news. “No one covers all these small towns,” he said. “I’m not saying we’re the solution, but we’re certainly on the road to the solution.”
Around 2015, he teamed up with Mr. Proft and started a chain of websites and free newspapers focused on suburban and rural areas of Illinois.
The publications looked like typical news outlets that covered their communities. But a political action committee controlled by Mr. Proft paid Mr. Timpone’s companies at least $646,000 from 2016 to 2018, according to state campaign finance records, money that largely came from Dick Uihlein, a conservative megadonor and the head of the shipping-supply giant Uline.
After complaints, the Illinois Board of Elections ordered the newspapers to say Mr. Proft’s committee funded them. A small disclaimer in their “About” pages now says the sites are funded, “in part, by advocacy groups who share our beliefs in limited government.” The Illinois sites are virtually the only ones in Mr. Timpone’s network with such a disclosure.
The regulators’ questions didn’t slow Mr. Timpone down. He doubled the size of the Illinois network to 34 sites, and by 2017 was expanding to other states. He also added dozens of sites with focuses beyond politics, including 11 that look like traditional legal-news publications but are funded by a U.S. Chamber of Commerce group.
Then, from June through October last year, the network ballooned further, from roughly 300 sites to nearly 1,300, according to a Times analysis of data collected by the Global Disinformation Index, an internet research group. (The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University tallied a similar number of sites in the network.)
Timpone network websites
Watch the number of sites in the network grow over time.
“It’s astounding to see how quickly the sites have popped up across the country in an attempt to fill the news void,” said Penelope Muse Abernathy, a University of North Carolina journalism professor who has calculated that about 2,100 newspapers have folded across the country since 2004, a 25 percent decline.
Some of the new sites have only the automated content, but they have quickly sprung to life when local news has arisen. That happened in August when protests erupted in Kenosha, Wis., after the police shot an unarmed Black man. One of the sites, Kenosha Reporter, published multiple articles about the criminal backgrounds of the man and protesters. One of those articles was shared 22,000 times on Facebook, reaching 2.6 million people, according to CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned data tool.
Mr. Timpone’s role in the network is supported by public and internal documents. In emails viewed by The Times, he assigned stories, and editors called him the network’s top executive.
But the web of companies behind the network make it more difficult to track the money behind the sites, and even Mr. Timpone’s oversight of them. It is unclear whether that is intentional. Those companies include Metric Media, Locality Labs, Newsinator, Franklin Archer and Interactive Content Services. The exact ownership of the companies is also unclear.
Most of the network’s new sites say they are part of Metric Media. A Texas P.R. consultant named Bradley Cameron says in his online résumé that he is the general manager of Metric Media and is “currently retained by private investors to develop a national media enterprise.” Internal records show that the same editors run Metric Media’s news operations and Mr. Timpone’s other sites.
Tanner Salyers, a city councilman in Mount Vernon, population 17,000, said that when he emailed Metric Media to ask what its plans were for the town’s only newspaper, Mr. Timpone called back to say that he now owned the Mount Vernon News and that he would rebuild it. Yet since the change in ownership, Mr. Salyers said, the newspaper has cut much of its staff and reduced print circulation to two days a week from six.
“I’m the first person to admit that the Mount Vernon News was not Pulitzer material,” Mr. Salyers said. “But nevertheless, it was local and independent. You could go to the grocery store and bump into the writers.” Now, a reporter based in Atlanta has covered local happenings, he said, and not well. When a water line broke last week, forcing the town’s residents to boil their water, the Mount Vernon News didn’t mention it.
The Times spoke with 16 reporters who have worked for Mr. Timpone. Many said they overlooked their doubts about the job because the pay was steady and journalism gigs were scarce.
Pat Morris said she had begun writing for the network after being laid off from The Florham Park Eagle in northern New Jersey.
“I wanted to make a living,” she said. “I was tired of banging on doors.” She thought the sites were a “content mill” to sell ads, but she eventually figured out the mission. She quit in July.
Ms. Underwood, who wrote the Maine Business Daily article, said she, too, had felt duped once the political agenda had become clear.
“You say you’re never going to dance with the devil like that; you just judge people for doing it,” Ms. Underwood said. “And then you’re just in the exact same position.”
In the publishing tool used by reporters and editors at Mr. Timpone’s websites is a list of names with a peculiar title: “Story watchers.” These are Mr. Timpone’s clients.
The Times reviewed the history behind dozens of articles in the publishing tool, revealing more than 80 story watchers. Many have pitched stories with instructions on what reporters should write, whom they should talk to and what they should ask. Over 17 days in July, these clients ordered up around 200 articles, company records show.
Internal documents show how much influence the clients have. “The clients pay us to produce a certain amount of copy each day for their websites,” said one “tool kit” for new writers. “In some cases, the clients will provide their own copy.”
John Tillman, an activist who once led the Illinois Opportunity Project and whose other groups have paid Mr. Timpone’s companies hundreds of thousands of dollars, said in an email that some of the payments to Mr. Timpone were to underwrite his news operation. Mr. Timpone, he said, allows “community leaders and influencers” to “pitch (not ‘order’) story ideas.”
Mr. Ashkar, the Locality Labs executive, said the sites wrote more about Republicans because they, unlike Democrats, talked to the reporters. “It’s like covering a beat, right? You’re a journalist,” he said. “They make relationships with people, and then they’re trusted and then they write stories about them.”
He said he didn’t find the sites’ focus on certain politicians unusual.
“Go look at The New York Times. It’s all about Trump,” Mr. Ashkar said. “How’s that any different?”
Jeanne Ives, a Republican candidate for the U.S. House in Illinois, has had a direct financial relationship with the operation.
Ms. Ives has paid Mr. Timpone’s companies $55,000 over the past three years, according to state and federal records. During that time, the Illinois sites have published overwhelmingly positive coverage of her, including running some of her news releases verbatim.
In an interview, she said her payments were to create her website and monitor her Wikipedia page. One $14,342 payment included the note “Advertising-newspaper.” Ms. Ives initially could not explain why. She later called back to say Mr. Timpone had bought Facebook ads for her.
Asked if she was paying for positive coverage, she replied: “Oh, no, there’s none of that going on. I assure you. Oh, my gosh, no. Oh, no, not at all.”
Ms. Ives is listed as a “story watcher.” She said she did not know why.
Articles for a Magnate
In March, Monty Bennett, the hotel magnate, faced a crisis. The coronavirus had halted travel, and his company, Ashford, which oversees more than 100 hotels, was facing big losses. So he ordered up a news article.
“I want to push our government to go after China. Why should this murderous regime be let off the hook while we suffer,” said a story pitch attributed to Mr. Bennett on the publishing tool behind Mr. Timpone’s sites.
The pitch resulted in an article that repeated his claims on DC Business Daily, which appears to be a straightforward business and politics news outlet in Washington.
“A national hotel chain executive said he is fed up with the way the United States is dealing with China in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic,” the article began. There was no disclosure that Mr. Bennett had ordered it.
Mr. Bennett, a major donor to President Trump, also used the sites to lobby for a stimulus bill to help his company, according to documents. Mr. Bennett posted a link to one of the articles on Twitter.
Ashford received around $70 million in federal loans intended for small businesses, making the publicly traded company the single largest recipient of such loans — and Mr. Bennett the subject of national anger.
In response, P.R. professionals began ordering positive articles about him on Mr. Timpone’s sites, according to records in the publishing system. Eventually, Mr. Bennett returned the federal money.
But he was not done using Mr. Timpone’s sites. Now Mr. Bennett owed money to creditors. One pitch attributed to him in the publishing system instructed a reporter to call one of his creditors and ask, “Why did you say you were going to help, but then don’t help?”
A site called New York Business Daily ran the article, saying the creditor was squeezing the finances of a struggling Manhattan hotel.
What the article didn’t mention: Mr. Bennett owned the hotel and dictated the article.
His spokeswoman said in a statement that Mr. Bennett “has no relationship with the websites.” She added that he had spoken to numerous news outlets “to obtain economic aid for the hotel industry.”
After The Times presented evidence that he directly ordered articles, lawyers representing Mr. Timpone sent The Times a cease and desist letter, demanding that it not publish the information.
Ben Decker, Jacob Meschke and Jacob Silver contributed reporting. Data analysis was contributed by Kellen Browning, Mariel Wamsley, Emile Robert, Elaine Chen, Ellie Zhu and Lindsey Cook. Susan Beachy, Kitty Bennett and Alain Delaquérière contributed research.
15 researchers propose a new standard for advertising disclosures
Dear Mr. Zuckerberg, Mr. Dorsey, Mr. Pichai and Mr. Spiegel: We need universal digital ad transparency now!
The negative social impacts of discriminatory ad targeting and delivery are well-known, as are the social costs of disinformation and exploitative ad content. The prevalence of these harms has been demonstrated repeatedly by our research. At the same time, the vast majority of digital advertisers are responsible actors who are only seeking to connect with their customers and grow their businesses.
Many advertising platforms acknowledge the seriousness of the problems with digital ads, but they have taken different approaches to confronting those problems. While we believe that platforms need to continue to strengthen their vetting procedures for advertisers and ads, it is clear that this is not a problem advertising platforms can solve by themselves, as they themselves acknowledge. The vetting being done by the platforms alone is not working; public transparency of all ads, including ad spend and targeting information, is needed so that advertisers can be held accountable when they mislead or manipulate users.
Our research has shown:
- Advertising platform system design allows advertisers to discriminate against users based on their gender, race and other sensitive attributes.
- Platform ad delivery optimization can be discriminatory, regardless of whether advertisers attempt to set inclusive ad audience preferences.
- Ad delivery algorithms may be causing polarization and make it difficult for political campaigns to reach voters with diverse political views.
- Sponsors spent more than $1.3 billion dollars on digital political ads, yet disclosure is vastly inadequate. Current voluntary archives do not prevent intentional or accidental deception of users.
While it doesn’t take the place of strong policies and rigorous enforcement, we believe transparency of ad content, targeting and delivery can effectively mitigate many of the potential harms of digital ads. Many of the largest advertising platforms agree; Facebook, Google, Twitter and Snapchat all have some form of an ad archive. The problem is that many of these archives are incomplete, poorly implemented, hard to access by researchers and have very different formats and modes of access. We propose a new standard for universal ad disclosure that should be met by every platform that publishes digital ads. If all platforms commit to the universal ad transparency standard we propose, it will mean a level playing field for platforms and advertisers, data for researchers and a safer internet for everyone.
The public deserves full transparency of all digital advertising. We want to acknowledge that what we propose will be a major undertaking for platforms and advertisers. However, we believe that the social harms currently being borne by users everywhere vastly outweigh the burden universal ad transparency would place on ad platforms and advertisers. Users deserve real transparency about all ads they are bombarded with every day. We have created a detailed description of what data should be made transparent that you can find here.
We researchers stand ready to do our part. The time for universal ad transparency is now.
Jason Chuang, Mozilla
Kate Dommett, University of Sheffield
Laura Edelson, New York University
Erika Franklin Fowler, Wesleyan University
Michael Franz, Bowdoin College
Archon Fung, Harvard University
Sheila Krumholz, Center for Responsive Politics
Ben Lyons, University of Utah
Gregory Martin, Stanford University
Brendan Nyhan, Dartmouth College
Nate Persily, Stanford University
Travis Ridout, Washington State University
Kathleen Searles, Louisiana State University
Rebekah Tromble, George Washington University
Abby Wood, University of Southern California
OAKLAND, Calif. — Twitter, risking the ire of its best-known user, President Trump, said on Friday that it would turn off several of its routine features in an attempt to control the spread of misinformation in the final weeks before the presidential election.
The first notable change, Twitter said, will essentially give users a timeout before they can hit the button to retweet a post from another account. A prompt will nudge them to add their own comment or context before sharing the original post.
Twitter will also disable the system that suggests posts on the basis of someone’s interests and the activity of accounts they follow. In their timelines, users will see only content from accounts they follow and ads.
And if users try to share content that Twitter has flagged as false, a notice will warn them that they are about to share inaccurate information.
Most of changes will happen on Oct. 20 and will be temporary, Twitter said. Labels warning users against sharing false information will begin to appear next week. The company plans to wait until the result of the presidential election is clear before turning the features back on.
“Twitter has a critical role to play in protecting the integrity of the election conversation, and we encourage candidates, campaigns, news outlets and voters to use Twitter respectfully and to recognize our collective responsibility to the electorate to guarantee a safe, fair and legitimate democratic process this November,” the Twitter executives Vijaya Gadde and Kayvon Beykpour said in a statement.
They said the “extra friction” on retweets was designed to “encourage everyone to not only consider why they are amplifying a tweet, but also increase the likelihood that people add their own thoughts, reactions and perspectives to the conversation.”
If users decide they don’t have anything to add, they will be able to retweet after the prompt.
The change is likely to have a direct impact on Mr. Trump’s online activity. Since returning to the White House on Monday after a hospital stay to treat the coronavirus, he has been on a Twitter tear. On Tuesday evening, for example, he tweeted or retweeted posts from other accounts about 40 times.
Twitter stopped short of shutting down its Trending Topics feature, a change that many critics say would do the most to fight misinformation because people can game the feature to promote false or misleading information. Instead, Twitter will expand its effort to fact-check and provide context to items that trend in the United States.
Social media companies have moved in recent months to fight the spread of misinformation around the presidential election. Facebook and Google have committed to banning political ads for an undetermined period after polls close on Nov. 3. Facebook also said a banner at the top of its news feed would caution users that no winner had been declared until news outlets called the presidential race.
The companies are trying to avoid a repeat of the 2016 election, when Russian operatives used them to spread falsehoods and hyperpartisan content in an attempt to destabilize the American electorate.
Over the last year, Twitter has slowly been stripping away parts of its service that have been used to spread false and misleading information. Jack Dorsey, the chief executive, announced last year that the company would no longer allow political advertising. Twitter has more aggressively fact-checked misinformation on the service — including misleading tweets from Mr. Trump.
That has led to a backlash from the Trump administration. Mr. Trump, who has 87 million followers on Twitter, has called for a repeal of legal protections Twitter and other social media companies rely on.
But Twitter’s fact-checking has continued. It recently began adding context to its trending topics, giving viewers more information about why a topic has become a subject of widespread conversation on Twitter. This month, Twitter plans to add context to all trending topics presented on the For You page for users in the United States.
“This will help people more quickly gain an informed understanding of the high-volume public conversation in the U.S. and also help reduce the potential for misleading information to spread,” Ms. Gadde and Mr. Beykpour said.
Twitter’s trends illustrate which topics are most popular on the service by highlighting content that is widely discussed. The trends often serve as an on-ramp for new users who are discovering how to find information on Twitter, but internet trolls and bots have often exploited the system to spread false, hateful or misleading information.
As recently as July, trending topics have been hijacked by white nationalists who pushed the anti-Semitic hashtag #JewishPrivilege and by QAnon, a conspiracy group that made the furniture company Wayfair trend on Twitter with false claims that the company engaged in child trafficking. The embarrassing episodes led critics to call on Twitter to shut down trends altogether.
SAN FRANCISCO — Over the past few weeks, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and his lieutenants have watched the presidential race with an increasing sense of alarm.
Executives have held meetings to discuss President Trump’s evasive comments about whether he would accept a peaceful transfer of power if he lost the election. They watched Mr. Trump tell the Proud Boys, a far-right group that has endorsed violence, to “stand back and stand by.” And they have had conversations with civil rights groups, who have privately told them that the company needs to do more because Election Day could erupt into chaos, Facebook employees said.
That has resulted in new actions. On Wednesday, Facebook said it would take more preventive measures to keep political candidates from using it to manipulate the election’s outcome and its aftermath. The company now plans to prohibit all political and issue-based advertising after the polls close on Nov. 3 for an undetermined length of time. And it said it would place notifications at the top of the News Feed notifying people that no winner had been decided until a victor was declared by news outlets.
“This is shaping up to be a very unique election,” Guy Rosen, vice president for integrity at Facebook, said in a call with reporters on Wednesday.
Facebook is doing more to safeguard its platform after introducing measures to reduce election misinformation and interference on its site just last month. At the time, Facebook said it planned to ban new political ads for a contained period — the week before Election Day — and would act swiftly against posts that tried to dissuade people from voting. Mr. Zuckerberg also said Facebook would not make any other changes until there was an official election result.
But the additional moves underscore the sense of emergency about the election, as the level of contentiousness has risen between Mr. Trump and his opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr. On Tuesday, to help blunt further political turmoil, Facebook also said it would remove any group, page or Instagram account that openly identified with QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy movement.
For years, Facebook has been striving to avoid another 2016 election fiasco, when it was used by Russian operatives to spread disinformation and to destabilize the American electorate. Mr. Zuckerberg has since spent billions of dollars to hire new employees for the company’s “integrity” and security divisions, who identify and clamp down on interference. He has said the amount of money spent on securing Facebook exceeded its entire revenue of roughly $5.1 billion during its first year as a public company in 2012.
“We believe that we have done more than any other company over the past four years to help secure the integrity of elections,” Mr. Rosen said.
Yet how successful the efforts have been are questionable. The company continues to find and take down foreign interference campaigns, including three Russian disinformation networks as recently as two weeks ago.
Domestic misinformation has also mushroomed, as Facebook has said it will not police speech from politicians and other leading figures for truthfulness. Mr. Zuckerberg, who supports unfettered speech, has not wavered from that position as Mr. Trump has posted falsehoods and misleading comments on the site.
For next month’s election, Facebook has gamed out almost 80 scenarios — what technology and security workers call “red teaming” exercises — to figure out what could go wrong and to protect against the situations. It also updated its policies to outlaw certain types of statements and threats from elected officials, capped by last month’s sweeping set of changes.
But after weeks of Mr. Trump declining to say he would accept the election’s outcome, while also directing his supporters to “watch” the polls, Facebook decided to ramp up protective measures.
Asked why the company was acting now, Facebook executives said they were “continuing to evaluate and plan for different scenarios” with the election.
Representatives from the Trump and Biden campaigns did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Vanita Gupta, president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said Facebook’s moves were “important steps” to “combat disinformation and the premature calling of election results before every vote is counted.”
The open-ended ban on political advertising is especially significant, after Facebook resisted calls to remove the ads for months. Last month, the company had said it only would stop accepting new political ads in the week before Election Day, so existing political ads would continue circulating. New political ads could have resumed running after Election Day.
But Facebook lags other social media companies in banning political ads. Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, banned all political ads from the service a year ago because, he said, they could rapidly spread misinformation and had “significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle.” Last month, Google said it, too, would ban all political and issue ads after Election Day.
Mr. Zuckerberg has said that ads give less well-known politicians the ability to promote themselves, and that eliminating those ads could hurt their chances at broadening their support base online.
Facebook also said it would rely on a mix of news outlets, including Reuters and The Associated Press, to determine whether a candidate had secured the presidency. Until those news organizations called the race, Facebook said, it would place notifications in the News Feed to say no candidate had won. That buttresses what the company had said it would do last month, when it announced that it would attach labels to posts redirecting users to Reuters if Mr. Trump or his supporters falsely claimed an early victory.
To tamp down on potential intimidation at ballot boxes, Facebook also plans to remove posts that call for people to engage in poll watching “when those calls use militarized language or suggest that the goal is to intimidate, exert control, or display power over election officials or voters.”
Mr. Trump and others have talked about watching polls in recent weeks. In a debate with Mr. Biden last week, Mr. Trump urged his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully” on Election Day. His son, Donald Trump Jr., said he wanted to see an “army for Trump” swarming the polls, raising concerns about the threat of violence at the ballot box.
Facebook, which has been criticized for unevenly removing posts and inconsistently enforcing its policies against toxic content, said it had already taken down many posts where people were trying to interfere with the vote. Between March and September, it removed more than 120,000 posts from Facebook and Instagram in the United States because the messages violated its voter interference policies.
Some researchers said Facebook was still not going far enough.
“If we are to believe that Facebook will faithfully enforce its own new policies, then they should take down the posts of the powerful users — including the president’s son — who have already called for violent intimidation around voting and on Election Day,” said Shannon McGregor, a senior researcher with the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill,
The company said that it wouldn’t shy away from eliminating more posts as the election approaches. On Tuesday, it took down a post from Mr. Trump where he falsely claimed the flu was more deadly than the coronavirus.
“I want to underscore that we remove this content regardless of who posts it,” said Monica Bickert, head of global policy management at Facebook. “That includes the president.”