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Facebook Betrayed America

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Alex Shephard writes in the New Republic:

Seven months ago, Mark Zuckerberg sat before Congress and said he was sorry about the fake news and the data breaches—and that it wasn’t really Facebook’s fault. The company’s founder and CEO had been hauled before Congress to answer for what became known as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which a political consulting firm harvested Facebook data to sow electoral discord to help elect Donald Trump. Zuckerberg, appearing contrite before members of the House and Senate, insisted that Facebook’s flaws stemmed from the company’s commitment to free discourse and improving the world. “Facebook is an idealistic and optimistic company,” he said. “For most of our existence, we focused on all the good that connecting people can bring. … But it’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well.”

But a New York Times report published on Wednesday tells a different story. While Zuckerberg was sitting doe-eyed before Congress, insisting that Facebook only wants to connect people, his company was in fact imitating some of the worst behavior on Facebook to counter the barrage of negative stories the company was facing.

Zuckerberg may have insisted that all of the criticism of Facebook was a byproduct of the company’s core mission, but a crisis PR firm contracted by Facebook linked the site’s critics to George Soros, the liberal Jewish billionaire who is often at the center of right-wing attacks and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. At the same time, top executives, notably Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, were discouraging the company from investigating Russian activity on the site.

This response exposes the hypocrisy at the center of the company: While Zuckerberg was promising to return to the company’s utopian vision of bringing humanity closer together, it was doing everything it could to sow division, all in order to steer clear of negative coverage and eventual regulation.

Facebook has been flooded with negative stories since 2016. First, there was its role in the presidential election, when Russian agents used the platformto spread narratives designed to increase support for Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton. Over the next two years, the ease with which Facebook could be gamed to spread false and divisive stories was demonstrated again and again. The social network became complicit in at least one genocide, in Myanmar, and has been shown again and again to benefit bad actors and dictators—and to just make people unhappy in general. At the same time, the company’s efforts to curb the flow of fake and biased news have been met with furious criticism from the right.

Speaking to Congress, Zuckerberg repeatedly returned to the narrative that Facebook is a net good for humanity. It brings people together and helps them share their stories, he argued. It plays a central role in improving quality of life on an unprecedented, global scale. “My top priority has always been our social mission of connecting people, building community and bringing the world closer together. Advertisers and developers will never take priority over that as long as I’m running Facebook,” he said, dismissing his company’s main source of revenue—targeted advertising—as a negative externality.

While Zuckerberg was traveling the country, posing with cows, apologizing for Facebook’s missteps, and pushing the idea that the platform existed to pull people together rather than pull them apart, Facebook executives were engaged in a furious strategy to protect it:

While Mr. Zuckerberg conducted a public apology tour in the last year, Ms. Sandberg has overseen an aggressive lobbying campaign to combat Facebook’s critics, shift public anger toward rival companies and ward off damaging regulation. Facebook employed a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit activist protesters, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros. It also tapped its business relationships, persuading a Jewish civil rights group to cast some criticism of the company as anti-Semitic.

The Times piece reveals Facebook executives and lobbyists’ campaign of deflection. They pushed the intelligence community not to challenge the company’s response to Russian interference and worked media organizations to push negative stories about the privacy failings of their competitors, such as Google and Apple. Executives berated employees for investigating Russian interference, with Sandberg telling them it “exposed the company legally.” Other executives warned that the extent of Russian interference would be bad for the company politically, because it would reinforce narratives about the 2016 election, while potentially alienating users who had been deceived by fake news. Zuckerberg and Sandberg “ignored warning signs” of data misuse and “then sought to conceal them from view” once they were revealed, according to the Times.

Those who pushed the company to take action were warned that it would only result in political backlash from the right, with former Bush administration deputy chief of staff Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of global public policy, telling employees that “if Facebook implicated Russia further… Republicans would accuse the company of siding with Democrats.” Any action, moreover, could alienate conservative users of the site. According to the Times, Kaplan said that “if Facebook pulled down the Russians’ fake pages, regular Facebook users might also react with outrage at having been deceived: His own mother-in-law, Mr. Kaplan said, had followed a Facebook page created by Russian trolls.”

Kaplan has a point, to an extent. Republicans made a fuss after Facebook (and Twitter) made minor changes aimed at curbing misinformation. Republicans, including Trump, have suggested that conservatives are being “shadow-banned” from social media platforms, while others have suggested tech companies are working to suppress conservative viewpoints. There is no evidence that they are, but the narrative has taken hold. That doesn’t excuse Facebook’s actions. But it was out of fear of conservative backlash that Facebook avoided taking meaningful action to make its platform more secure and less toxic.

The Times investigation is a damning portrait of a company in crisis and puts Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress in a harsher light. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 November 2018 at 1:35 pm

Trump’s Tax Cut Was Supposed to Change Corporate Behavior. Here’s What Happened.

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Jim Tankersley and Matt Phillips report in the NY Times:

The $1.5 trillion tax overhaul that President Trump signed into law late last year has already given the American economy a jolt, at least temporarily. It has fattened the paychecks of most American workers, padded the profits of large corporations and sped economic growth.

Those results weren’t a surprise. Economists across the ideological spectrum predicted the new law would fuel consumer spending, in classic fashion: When the government borrows money and dumps it into the economy, growth tends to accelerate. But Republicans did not sell the law as a sugar-high stimulus. They sold it as a refashioning of the incentives in the American economy — one that would unleash more investment, better efficiency and higher wages, along with enough growth to offset any revenue lost to the government from lower tax rates.

Ten months after the law took effect, that promised “supply-side” bump is harder to find than the sugar-high stimulus. It’s still early, but here’s what the numbers tell us so far:

Proponents of the tax overhaul said it would supercharge the recent lackluster pace of business spending on long-term investments like buildings, factories, equipment and technology.

Such spending is crucial to keeping economic growth strong. And strong growth is central to Republican claims that the tax cuts would ultimately pay for themselves.

Capital spending did pick up steam earlier this year. For companies in the S&P 500, capital expenditures rose roughly 20 percent in the first half of 2018. Much of that was concentrated: The spending of just five companies — Google’s parent, Alphabet, and Facebook, Intel, Exxon Mobil and Goldman Sachs — accounted for roughly a third of the entire rise. Much of that spending went toward technology, including increased investment in data centers and computing, server and networking capacity.

For the full year, Goldman Sachs analysts expect that capital expenditures for companies in the S&P 500 will be up about 14 percent, to $715 billion. Research and development spending, another component of business investment, was expected to be up 12 percent, to $340 billion.

For the economy as a whole, the surge in business investment was a bit less impressive. It’s true that business spending on fixed investment — such as machinery, buildings and equipment — rose, jumping 11.5 percent and 8.7 percent during the first and second quarters. The first-quarter jump was the fastest for investment since 2011.

But that pace fizzled during the third quarter. Recently data showed third-quarter business investment rose at an annual pace of 0.8 percent. The last quarter of the year — traditionally a big one for capital spending — will fill out the picture, but that data won’t be released until early 2019.

It will likely take years to get a better sense of whether the law fundamentally reshaped American corporate investment. But there’s little clear evidence that it is drastically reshaping the way in which most companies invest and spend.

The results of a survey published in late October by the National Association for Business Economics showed that 81 percent of the 116 companies surveyed said they had not changed plans for investment or hiring because of the tax bill.

Cheerleaders for the tax cut argued that the heart of the law — cutting and restructuring taxes for corporations — would give the economy a positive bump, giving companies incentives to invest more, hire more workers and pay higher wages.

Skeptics said that the money companies saved through tax cuts would merely increase corporate profits, rather than trickling down to workers.

JPMorgan Chase analysts estimate that in the first half of 2018, about $270 billion in corporate profits previously held overseas were repatriated to the United States and spent as a result of changes to the tax code. Some 46 percent of that, JPMorgan Chase analysts said, was spent on $124 billion in stock buybacks. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more including more charts.

The tax cut failed except in transferring wealth from the public to corporations and the wealthy by driving up the federal deficit, which taxpayers must pay off.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 November 2018 at 2:49 pm

Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis

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The article’s title in my emailed newsletter:

Inside Facebook’s meltdown: Enveloped by crises, executives covered up problems and waged war against critics, a Times investigation found.

Sheera Frenkel, Nicholas Confessore, Cecilia Kang, Matthew Rosenberg, and Jack Nicas report in the NY Times:

Sheryl Sandberg was seething.

Inside Facebook’s Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters, top executives gathered in the glass-walled conference room of its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. It was September 2017, more than a year after Facebook engineers discovered suspicious Russia-linked activity on its site, an early warning of the Kremlin campaign to disrupt the 2016 American election. Congressional and federal investigators were closing in on evidence that would implicate the company.

But it wasn’t the looming disaster at Facebook that angered Ms. Sandberg. It was the social network’s security chief, Alex Stamos, who had informed company board members the day before that Facebook had yet to contain the Russian infestation. Mr. Stamos’s briefing had prompted a humiliating boardroom interrogation of Ms. Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, and her billionaire boss. She appeared to regard the admission as a betrayal.

“You threw us under the bus!” she yelled at Mr. Stamos, according to people who were present.

The clash that day would set off a reckoning — for Mr. Zuckerberg, for Ms. Sandberg and for the business they had built together. In just over a decade, Facebook has connected more than 2.2 billion people, a global nation unto itself that reshaped political campaigns, the advertising business and daily life around the world. Along the way, Facebook accumulated one of the largest-ever repositories of personal data, a treasure trove of photos, messages and likes that propelled the company into the Fortune 500.

But as evidence accumulated that Facebook’s power could also be exploited to disrupt elections, broadcast viral propaganda and inspire deadly campaigns of hate around the globe, Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg stumbled. Bent on growth, the pair ignored warning signs and then sought to conceal them from public view. At critical moments over the last three years, they were distracted by personal projects, and passed off security and policy decisions to subordinates, according to current and former executives.

When Facebook users learned last spring that the company had compromised their privacy in its rush to expand, allowing access to the personal information of tens of millions of people to a political data firm linked to President Trump, Facebook sought to deflect blame and mask the extent of the problem.

And when that failed — as the company’s stock price plummeted and sparked a consumer backlash — Facebook went on the attack.

While Mr. Zuckerberg conducted a public apology tour in the last year, Ms. Sandberg has overseen an aggressive lobbying campaign to combat Facebook’s critics, shift public anger toward rival companies and ward off damaging regulation. Facebook employed a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit activist protesters, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros. It also tapped its business relationships, persuading a Jewish civil rights group to cast some criticism of the company as anti-Semitic.

In Washington, allies of Facebook, including Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate leader, intervened on its behalf. And Ms. Sandberg wooed or cajoled hostile lawmakers, while trying to dispel Facebook’s reputation as a bastion of Bay Area liberalism.

This account of how Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg navigated Facebook’s cascading crises, much of which has not been previously reported, is based on interviews with more than 50 people. They include current and former Facebook executives and other employees, lawmakers and government officials, lobbyists and congressional staff members. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity because they had signed confidentiality agreements, were not authorized to speak to reporters or feared retaliation.

Facebook declined to make Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg available for comment. In a statement, a spokesman acknowledged that Facebook had been slow to address its challenges but had since made progress fixing the platform.

“This has been a tough time at Facebook and our entire management team has been focused on tackling the issues we face,” the statement said. “While these are hard problems we are working hard to ensure that people find our products useful and that we protect our community from bad actors.”

Even so, trust in the social network has sunk, while its pell-mell growth has slowed. Regulators and law enforcement officials in the United States and Europe are investigating Facebook’s conduct with Cambridge Analytica, a political data firm that worked with Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign, opening up the company to fines and other liability. Both the Trump administration and lawmakers have begun crafting proposals for a national privacy law, setting up a yearslong struggle over the future of Facebook’s data-hungry business model.

“We failed to look and try to imagine what was hiding behind corners,” Elliot Schrage, former vice president for global communications, marketing and public policy at Facebook, said in an interview.

Mr. Zuckerberg, 34, and Ms. Sandberg, 49, remain at the company’s helm, while Mr. Stamos and other high-profile executives have leftafter disputes over Facebook’s priorities. Mr. Zuckerberg, who controls the social network with 60 percent of the voting shares and who approved many of its directors, has been asked repeatedly in the last year whether he should step down as chief executive.

His answer each time: a resounding “No.”

Three years ago, Mr. Zuckerberg, who founded Facebook in 2004 while attending Harvard, was celebrated for the company’s extraordinary success. Ms. Sandberg, a former Clinton administration official and Google veteran, had become a feminist icon with the publication of her empowerment manifesto, “Lean In,” in 2013.

Like other technology executives, Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg cast their company as a force for social good. Facebook’s lofty aims were emblazoned even on securities filings: “Our mission is to make the world more open and connected.”

But as Facebook grew, so did the hate speech, bullying and other toxic content on the platform. When researchers and activists in Myanmar, India, Germany and elsewhere warned that Facebook had become an instrument of government propaganda and ethnic cleansing, the company largely ignored them. Facebook had positioned itself as a platform, not a publisher. Taking responsibility for what users posted, or acting to censor it, was expensive and complicated. Many Facebook executives worried that any such efforts would backfire.

Then Donald J. Trump ran for president. He described Muslim immigrants and refugees as a danger to America, and in December 2015 posted a statement on Facebook calling for a “total and complete shutdown” on Muslims entering the United States. Mr. Trump’s call to arms — widely condemned by Democrats and some prominent Republicans — was shared more than 15,000 times on Facebook, an illustration of the site’s power to spread racist sentiment.

Mr. Zuckerberg, who had helped found a nonprofit dedicated to immigration reform, was appalled, said employees who spoke to him or were familiar with the conversation. He asked Ms. Sandberg and other executives if Mr. Trump had violated Facebook’s terms of service.

The question was unusual. Mr. Zuckerberg typically focused on broader technology issues; politics was Ms. Sandberg’s domain. In 2010, Ms. Sandberg, a Democrat, had recruited a friend and fellow Clinton alum, Marne Levine, as Facebook’s chief Washington representative. A year later, after Republicans seized control of the House, Ms. Sandberg installed another friend, a well-connected Republican: Joel Kaplan, who had attended Harvard with Ms. Sandberg and later served in the George W. Bush administration.

Some at Facebook viewed Mr. Trump’s 2015 attack on Muslims as an opportunity to finally take a stand against the hate speech coursing through its platform. But Ms. Sandberg, who was edging back to work after the death of her husband several months earlier, delegated the matter to Mr. Schrage and Monika Bickert, a former prosecutor whom Ms. Sandberg had recruited as the company’s head of global policy. Ms. Sandberg also turned to the Washington office — particularly to Mr. Kaplan, said people who participated in or were briefed on the discussions.

In video conference calls between the Silicon Valley headquarters and Washington, the three officials construed their task narrowly. They parsed the company’s terms of service to see if the post, or Mr. Trump’s account, violated Facebook’s rules.

Mr. Kaplan argued that Mr. Trump was an important public figure and that shutting down his account or removing the statement could be seen as obstructing free speech, said three employees who knew of the discussions. He also said it could also stoke a conservative backlash.

“Don’t poke the bear,” Mr. Kaplan warned.

Mr. Zuckerberg did not participate in the debate. Ms. Sandberg attended some of the video meetings but rarely spoke.

Mr. Schrage concluded that Mr. Trump’s language had not violated Facebook’s rules and that the candidate’s views had public value. “We were trying to make a decision based on all the legal and technical evidence before us,” he said in an interview.

In the end, Mr. Trump’s statement and account remained on the site. When Mr. Trump won election the next fall, giving Republicans control of the White House as well as Congress, Mr. Kaplan was empowered to plan accordingly. The company hired a former aide to Mr. Trump’s new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, along with lobbying firms linked to Republican lawmakers who had jurisdiction over internet companies.

But inside Facebook, new troubles were brewing.

Minimizing Russia’s Role

In the final months of Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign, Russian agents escalated a yearlong effort to hack and harass his Democratic opponents, culminating in the release of thousands of emails stolen from prominent Democrats and party officials.

Facebook had said nothing publicly about any problems on its own platform. But in the spring of 2016, a company expert on Russian cyberwarfare spotted something worrisome. He reached out to his boss, Mr. Stamos.

Mr. Stamos’s team discovered that Russian hackers appeared to be probing Facebook accounts for people connected to the presidential campaigns, said two employees. Months later, as Mr. Trump battled Hillary Rodham Clinton in the general election, the team also found Facebook accounts linked to Russian hackers who were messaging journalists to share information from the stolen emails.

Mr. Stamos, 39, told Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel, about the findings, said two people involved in the conversations. At the time, Facebook had no policy on disinformation or any resources dedicated to searching for it.

Mr. Stamos, acting on his own, then directed a team to scrutinize the extent of Russian activity on Facebook. In December 2016, after Mr. Zuckerberg publicly scoffed at the idea that fake news on Facebook had helped elect Mr. Trump, Mr. Stamos — alarmed that the company’s chief executive seemed unaware of his team’s findings — met with Mr. Zuckerberg, Ms. Sandberg and other top Facebook leaders.

Ms. Sandberg was angry. Looking into the Russian activity without approval, she said, had left the company exposed legally. Other executives asked Mr. Stamos why they had not been told sooner.

Still, Ms. Sandberg and Mr. Zuckerberg decided to expand on Mr. Stamos’s work, creating a group called Project P, for “propaganda,” to study false news on the site, according to people involved in the discussions. By January 2017, the group knew that Mr. Stamos’s original team had only scratched the surface of Russian activity on Facebook, and pressed to issue a public paper about their findings.

But Mr. Kaplan and other Facebook executives objected. Washington was already reeling from an official finding by American intelligence agencies that Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president, had personally ordered an influence campaign aimed at helping elect Mr. Trump.

If Facebook implicated Russia further, Mr. Kaplan said, Republicans would accuse the company of siding with Democrats. And if Facebook pulled down the Russians’ fake pages, regular Facebook users might also react with outrage at having been deceived: His own mother-in-law, Mr. Kaplan said, had followed a Facebook page created by Russian trolls.

Ms. Sandberg sided with Mr. Kaplan, recalled four people involved. Mr. Zuckerberg — who spent much of 2017 on a national “listening tour,” feeding cows in Wisconsin and eating dinner with Somali refugees in Minnesota — did not participate in the conversations about the public paper. When it was published that April, the word “Russia” never appeared.

Ms. Sandberg’s subordinates took a similar approach in Washington, where the Senate had begun pursuing its own investigation, led by Richard Burr, the North Carolina Republican, and Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat. Throughout the spring and summer of 2017, Facebook officials repeatedly played down Senate investigators’ concerns about the company, while publicly claiming there had been no Russian effort of any significance on Facebook.

But inside the company, employees were tracing more ads, pages and groups back to Russia. That June, a Times reporter provided Facebook a list of accounts with suspected ties to Russia, seeking more information on their provenance. By August 2017, Facebook executives concluded that the situation had become what one called a “five-alarm fire,” said a person familiar with the discussions.

Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg agreed to go public with some findings, and laid plans to release a blog post on Sept. 6, 2017, the day of the company’s quarterly board meeting.

After Mr. Stamos and his team drafted the post, however, Ms. Sandberg and her deputies insisted it be less specific. She and Mr. Zuckerberg also asked Mr. Stamos and Mr. Stretch to brief the board’s audit committee, chaired by Erskine Bowles, the patrician investor and White House veteran.

Mr. Stretch and Mr. Stamos went into more detail with the audit committee than planned, warning that Facebook was likely to find even more evidence of Russian interference.

The disclosures set off Mr. Bowles, who after years in Washington could anticipate how lawmakers might react. He grilled the two men, occasionally cursing, on how Facebook had allowed itself to become a tool for Russian interference. He demanded to know why it had taken so long to uncover the activity, and why Facebook directors were only now being told.

When the full board gathered later that day at a room at the company’s headquarters reserved for sensitive meetings, Mr. Bowles pelted questions at Facebook’s founder and second-in-command. Ms. Sandberg, visibly unsettled, apologized. Mr. Zuckerberg, stone-faced, whirred through technical fixes, said three people who attended or were briefed on the proceedings.

Later that day, the company’s abbreviated blog post went up. It said little about fake accounts or the organic posts created by Russian trolls that had gone viral on Facebook, disclosing only that Russian agents had spent roughly $100,000 — a relatively tiny sum — on approximately 3,000 ads.

Just one day after the company’s carefully sculpted admission, The Times published an investigation of further Russian activity on Facebook, showing how Russian intelligence had used fake accounts to promote emails stolen from the Democratic Party and prominent Washington figures.

A Political Playbook

The combined revelations infuriated Democrats, finally fracturing the political consensus that had protected Facebook and other big tech companies from Beltway interference. Republicans, already concerned that the platform was censoring conservative views, accused Facebook of fueling what they claimed were meritless conspiracy charges against Mr. Trump and Russia. Democrats, long allied with Silicon Valley on issues including immigration and gay rights, now blamed Mr. Trump’s win partly on Facebook’s tolerance for fraud and disinformation.

After stalling for weeks, Facebook eventually agreed to hand over the Russian posts to Congress. Twice in October 2017, Facebook was forced to revise its public statements, finally acknowledging that close to 126 million people had seen the Russian posts.

The same month, Mr. Warner and Senator Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota Democrat, introduced legislation to compel Facebook and other internet firms to disclose who bought political ads on their sites — a significant expansion of federal regulation over tech companies.

“It’s time for Facebook to let all of us see the ads bought by Russians *and paid for in Rubles* during the last election,” Ms. Klobuchar wrote on her own Facebook page.

Facebook girded for battle. Days after the bill was unveiled, Facebook hired Mr. Warner’s former chief of staff, Luke Albee, to lobby on it. Mr. Kaplan’s team took a larger role in managing the company’s Washington response, routinely reviewing Facebook news releases for words or phrases that might rile conservatives.

Ms. Sandberg also reached out to Ms. Klobuchar. She had been friendly with the senator, who is featured on the website for Lean In, Ms. Sandberg’s empowerment initiative. Ms. Sandberg had contributed a blurb to Ms. Klobuchar’s 2015 memoir, and the senator’s chief of staff had previously worked at Ms. Sandberg’s charitable foundation.

But in a tense conversation shortly after the ad legislation was introduced, Ms. Sandberg complained about Ms. Klobuchar’s attacks on the company, said a person who was briefed on the call. Ms. Klobuchar did not back down on her legislation. But she dialed down her criticism in at least one venue important to the company: After blasting Facebook repeatedly that fall on her own Facebook page, Ms. Klobuchar hardly mentioned the company in posts between November and February.

A spokesman for Ms. Klobuchar said in a statement that Facebook’s lobbying had not lessened her commitment to holding the company accountable. “Facebook was pushing to exclude issue ads from the Honest Ads Act, and Senator Klobuchar strenuously disagreed and refused to change the bill,” he said.

In October 2017, Facebook also expanded its work with a Washington-based consultant, Definers Public Affairs, that had originally been hired to monitor press coverage of the company. Founded by veterans of Republican presidential politics, Definers specialized in applying political campaign tactics to corporate public relations — an approach long employed in Washington by big telecommunications firms and activist hedge fund managers, but less common in tech.

Definers had established a Silicon Valley outpost earlier that year, led by Tim Miller, a former spokesman for Jeb Bush who preached the virtues of campaign-style opposition research. For tech firms, he argued in one interview, a goal should be to “have positive content pushed out about your company and negative content that’s being pushed out about your competitor.”

Facebook quickly adopted that strategy. In November 2017, the social network came out in favor of a bill called the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which made internet companies responsible for sex trafficking ads on their sites.

Google and others had fought the bill for months, worrying it would set a cumbersome precedent. But the sex trafficking bill was championed by Senator John Thune, a Republican of South Dakota who had pummeled Facebook over accusations that it censored conservative content, and Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat and senior commerce committee member who was a frequent critic of Facebook.

Facebook broke ranks with other tech companies, hoping the move would help repair relations on both sides of the aisle, said two congressional staffers and three tech industry officials.

When the bill came to a vote in the House in February, Ms. Sandberg offered public support online, urging Congress to “make sure we pass meaningful and strong legislation to stop sex trafficking.”

Opposition Research

In March, The Times and The Observer/Guardian prepared to publish a joint investigation into how Facebook user data had been appropriated by Cambridge Analytica to profile American voters. A few days before publication, The Times presented Facebook with evidence that copies of improperly acquired Facebook data still existed, despite earlier promises by Cambridge executives and others to delete it.

Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg met with their lieutenants to determine a response. They decided to pre-empt the stories, saying in a statement published late on a Friday night that Facebook had suspended Cambridge Analytica from its platform. The executives figured that getting ahead of the news would soften its blow, according to people in the discussions.

They were wrong. The story drew worldwide outrage, prompting lawsuits and official investigations in Washington, London and Brussels. For days, Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg remained out of sight, mulling how to respond. While the Russia investigation had devolved into an increasingly partisan battle, the Cambridge scandal set off Democrats and Republicans alike. And in Silicon Valley, other tech firms began exploiting the outcry to burnish their own brands. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Does it strike you that Facebook management is incompetent?

Written by LeisureGuy

14 November 2018 at 2:18 pm

Military Experts Say We Should Cut Medicare to Fund Bigger Military

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Kevin Drum posts at Mother Jones:

Here is a very brief history of the US military:

1976: “Team B” report concludes that we are woefully underprepared to fight the Soviet Union and that we need an enormous defense buildup.

2001: After 9/11, military concludes that we are too focused on old-fashioned war against Russia and China. We need an enormous defense buildup focused on counterinsurgency, especially in the Middle East.

2018: NDSC report says we have been too focused on terrorism and counterinsurgency in the Middle East. We are dangerously vulnerable to great power attacks and need an enormous defense buildup focused on Russia and China.

Back and forth, back and forth. But perhaps you noticed the common thread here: the words “enormous defense buildup” in all three. Somehow, we always need an enormous defense buildup. In particular, a new report from the National Defense Strategy Commission says we are facing a “crisis” in our military posture and we need the following:

The United States and its NATO allies must rebuild military force capacity and capability in Europe…. U.S. military posture in the Middle East should not become dramatically smaller…. The Army will need more armor, long-range fires, engineering and air-defensive units, as well as additional air-defense and logistical forces…. The Navy must expand its submarine fleet and dramatically recapitalize and expand its military sealift forces…. The Air Force will need more stealthy long-range fighters and bombers, tankers, lift capacity, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms…. The United States must maintain the Marine Corps at no less than its current size…. It is urgently necessary to modernize the U.S. nuclear triad and much of the supporting infrastructure…. DOD should invest in a robust R&D program to anticipate future threats, operate effectively from space, and enhance resiliency…. DOD must ensure a substantial, sustainable, and rapidly scalable supply of preferred weapons such as Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER), Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), and a longer-range High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM)…. DOD must invest in a more resilient and secure logistics and transportation infrastructure…. Congress should eliminate the final two years of caps under the BCA.

Whew! That’s quite a shopping list. But how are we going to pay for it? I draw your attention especially to Recommendation 31:

Defense spending, and discretionary spending more broadly, are not primary drivers of the federal deficit. Recommendation: Congress should look to the entire federal budget, especially entitlements, as well as taxes, to set the nation on a more stable financial footing.

Translation for ordinary people: We should cut Social Security, Medicare, and the social safety net in order to pay for a massive increase in the defense budget. This is despite the fact that we have:

  • 11 carrier strike groups compared to 1 each for China and Russia
  • 12,000 aircraft compared to about 4,000 each for China and Russia.
  • 14 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines compared to 13 for Russia and 4 for China.
  • 51 nuclear-powered attack submarines compared to 22 for Russia and 5 for China
  • Several hundred fifth-generation stealth fighters compared to approximately none for Russia and China
  • 84 Aegis guided missile destroyers and cruisers compared to about a dozen for Russia and 30 for China
  • About 6,000 nuclear missiles compared to 6,000 for Russia and 300 for China.

And so on. But we still need more. Ever, ever more.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 November 2018 at 11:26 am

Marco Rubio, Trumpified

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David Leonhardt writes in the NY Times:

Senator Marco Rubio wasn’t very pleased with yesterday’s edition of this newsletter.

“Left wing commentators have no shame just making things up,” he tweeted, along with a link to the newsletter. “This piece is a work of fiction. No one is stopping #Florida recount. Only thing we ask is they follow the law.”

It was the latest of many false charges that he has levied this week. I want to walk you through those falsehoods this morning. They’re important to debunk, because Rubio is doing something dangerous: Deliberately undermining people’s confidence in our electoral systems for partisan gain.

Rubio, like President Trump, is part of a group of top Republicans who have been making baseless accusations against Democrats. “Now democrat lawyers are descending on #Florida. They have been very clear they aren’t here to make sure every vote is counted,” he tweeted Thursday. “They are here to change the results of election.” That same day, he accused lawyers of coming to Florida to “try to steal a seat in the U.S. Senate.” Yesterday, he repeated the charge, claiming “Dem lawyers” were trying to “steal an election.”

This simply isn’t true. Democratic lawyers — working for or with Senator Bill Nelson, the incumbent — are not trying to steal anything. They have filed lawsuits to make sure the state counts all votes, including ballots that were previously uncounted, misplaced or discarded for dubious technical reasons.

And the state of Florida should carefully count all of the votes. In an extremely close election, like Florida’s Senate race, it is not possible to do so on election night. Rubio, however, is trying to delegitimize a full counting of the votes — to make it look like fraud (a word he used on Twitter yesterday). His goal is transparently cynical. He knows his party’s candidate is currently ahead, and he is trying to make that lead look like the only fair outcome.

Along the way, he’s using a clever bait and switch. He has repeatedly criticized election officials in South Florida for running the vote-counting process poorly. On this score, he is correct. The process in Florida is often slow and sloppy. By now, no one should be surprised to hear that Florida could do a better job of operating its electoral bureaucracy.

But here is the crucial point: There is no reason to believe that this messiness systematically benefits Democrats or Republicans. Multiple Florida agencies have found no evidence of election-related fraud or criminal activity in the two South Florida counties Rubio has focused on. This week, a Florida judge — appointed by a Republican governor — denied a request from Rick Scott, the Republican Senate candidate, saying his campaign had produced no evidence of fraud.

Rubio is doing precisely what I described yesterday: making false accusations of nefarious activity to create political pressure that would halt a full counting of votes. While doing so, he is invoking all sorts of worthy principles — that only “legally cast” votes should be counted and that election officials should stick to deadlines. But he is mixing these principles with false conspiracy theories about scheming Democrats and county officials who are trying to help the Democrats.

There was a different path available. He could have pushed for the interpretation of election law most favorable to Republicans — like his argument that the state should not extend deadlines to count ballots — without lying about what Democrats are doing. That would have been a tough but fair brand of politics.

Instead, Rubio has chosen to employ a classic tool of autocrats. He is using the language of democracy to subvert democracy.

Senator, I may disagree with you on policy. But I’m honestly disappointed and surprised you would stoop to this level. You should be better than President Trump.

Related: . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

14 November 2018 at 9:05 am

Bipartisan Sentencing Overhaul Moves Forward, but Rests on Trump

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Maybe now Congress can actually start to function and do its job, though the Senate is still under GOP control and the GOP opposes having Congress do its job.  Nicholas Fandos and Maggie Haberman report in the NY Times:

A bipartisan group of senators has reached a tentative deal on the most substantial rewrite of the nation’s sentencing and prison laws in a generation, giving judges more latitude to sidestep mandatory minimum sentences and easing drug sentences that have incarcerated African-Americans at much higher rates than white offenders.

The lawmakers believe they can get the measure to President Trump during the final weeks of the year, if the president embraces it.

The compromise would eliminate the so-called stacking regulation that makes it a federal crime to possess a firearm while committing another crime, like a drug offense; expand the “drug safety valve” allowing judges to sidestep mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders; and shorten mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, according to draft text of the bill obtained by The New York Times.

It would also retroactively extend a reduction in the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine signed into law in 2010, potentially affecting thousands of drug offenders serving lengthy sentences.

[Read the bill language here.]

“We have the clearest path forward that we have had in years,” said Holly Harris, the executive director of the Justice Action Network, a bipartisan coalition arguing for an overhaul. “This would be the first time that these members have voted on a piece of legislation that turns away from the lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-keys policies of the 1990s. That is groundbreaking.”

Lawmakers and outside advocates involved in the push expect Mr. Trump to render his judgment on the package as soon as this week. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and the leading voice within the White House for the changes, is likely to brief Mr. Trump on the bill during a broader discussion of legislative priorities with top policy officials on Tuesday, according to one senior administration official, who was granted anonymity to discuss the plans. And at least two influential Republican senators were lobbying the president in its favor.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, has told the senators he will bring the package up for a vote if they can show they had the support of at least 60 senators. Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, a vocal advocate of such changes, committed to putting the compromise on the House floor in a lame-duck session that begins on Tuesday if Mr. Trump endorses it and it can clear the Senate.

“Speaker Ryan has long advocated for criminal justice reform,” said AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Mr. Ryan. “The House passed legislation earlier this year, and we are hopeful the Senate will act so we can get a bill to the president’s desk.”

The support of the famously mercurial Mr. Trump is by no means guaranteed. But if they can secure an endorsement, senators say they can move quickly on the kind of bipartisan achievement that has eluded Mr. Trump — and bedeviled senators and outside advocates of the overhaul for years.

The effort has brought together an unlikely coalition of advocacy groups from the left and the right, including the billionaire conservative brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch and the American Civil Liberties Union. But with the arrival of the Trump administration and its return to tough-on-crime policies, many believed the chances of changing federal law were all but shot.

The bill, called the First Step Act, is more modest than the much-trumpeted set of changes that stalled in the Senate last term, but its provisions are still far-reaching and could win support across the ideological spectrum. It creates a suite of programs and incentives intended to reduce recidivism and prohibits the shackling of female inmates while pregnant, among other prison-focused measures.

In contrast to the 2015 proposal, the elimination of the “stacking” provision and the reduction of mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenders would not apply retroactively — a concession by Democrats that greatly narrows the impact of the changes for the current prison population. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

13 November 2018 at 11:27 am

It’s Probably Too Late to Stop Mueller

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Benjamin Wittes, the editor in chief of Lawfare and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes in the Atlantic:

At the end of last month, with the midterms looming, I gave a talk before a small private audience in California in which I argued for optimism because—among other things—the moment for firing Robert Mueller had passed.

Eighteen months ago, I said, President Donald Trump had an opportunity to disrupt the Russia investigation: He had fired the FBI director and had rocked the Justice Department back on its heels. But Trump had dithered. He had broadcast his intentions too many times. And in the meantime, Mueller had moved decisively, securing important indictments and convictions, and making whatever preparations were necessary for hostile fire. And now Democrats were poised to take the House of Representatives. The window of opportunity was gone.

In the 48 hours since Trump fired Jeff Sessions and installed Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general, I have had occasion to wonder whether I was being overly optimistic a week ago. Whitaker is the kind of bad dream from which career Justice Department officials wake up at night in cold sweats. He’s openly political. The president is confident in his loyalty and that he won’t recuse himself from the investigation—notwithstanding his public statements about it and his having chaired the campaign of one of the grand-jury witnesses. There are legal questions about his installation at the department’s helm. And he’s known as the White House’s eyes and ears at Justice.

It’s bad—very bad.

All of which leads Philip Lacovara, who served in the Watergate special prosecutor’s office, to conclude that it was Mueller, not Trump, who missed his moment. Writing in The Washington PostLacovara worries that “by waiting until after the midterms to issue his final report about President Trump’s possible culpability, Mueller has effectively missed his market and may have doomed the investigation.” With Sessions gone and the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, no longer in charge of the investigation, Lacovara writes:

The new attorney general, whether it is Whitaker or someone else, will be free to constrain Mueller’s investigation and suppress the special counsel’s findings: Any report by Mueller must go to the attorney general, who decides what, if anything, to do with it. Sessions’s replacement will be far more comfortable suppressing the report now that firmer Republican control of the Senate protects not only Trump but also the new attorney general from any risk of being ousted in a post-impeachment trial.

Democrats have much to celebrate about the midterms, but their elation should be tempered by the realization that the election also may have spelled the end for Mueller’s Russia investigation, which was too long in getting to the punch line.

Leave aside for now the question of whether Lacovara’s critique is fair to Mueller. To assess, after all, whether Mueller should have moved faster, one would have to know more about the state of his investigation than I, at least, know. Lacovara is certainly correct about one big thing: The prospects for interference with the Mueller investigation went up dramatically with Whitaker’s appointment.

Yet, that said, I stand by my conclusion. I am still, if only tentatively, of the belief that the prospects for interference are dimmer than fear and panic and another Trump-busted norm have us imagining. Here are 10 reasons to think that Whitaker may have less capacity to foil Mueller than the current moment—and his formal powers—may suggest.

First, Mueller has spread the wealth around. The normal critique of special-counsel investigations is that they hoard jurisdiction, endlessly expand, and become personal roving inquests into their political subjects’ lives. The opposite is the case with Mueller. He has not merely referred to other Justice Department components matters at the margins of his investigation, such as the Michael Cohen situation in New York. He has also let other components handle matters involving core questions of Russian interference in the U.S. elections, such as the Maria Butina and Elena Khusyaynova prosecutions. The result of this strategic step is not just that Mueller is relatively invulnerable to the charge of any kind of power grab or mission creep. It is also that firing him or reining him in only does so much. If Trump imagines these investigations as a cancer on his presidency, they are a cancer that has already metastasized.

Second, the investigation has already progressed very far. It is one thing to squelch an investigation in its crib. It’s another thing to squelch an investigation that has already collected important evidence and brought key cases. The effort to do so cannot take place invisibly, as a great many prosecutors and FBI agents will be aware of what is happening. None of them has to leak anything for that awareness to find its way to Capitol Hill, because the Hill is already aware of the problem and looking for signs. Mueller is by many accounts writing a report, a step that signals a completed investigation or a completed portion of an investigation. The effort to suppress that report could be politically galvanizing and, in its own way, as damaging for the administration as the contents of that report when they eventually become public.

Third, Mueller does not have to remain silent. Mueller has used silence as a powerful strategic instrument throughout his investigation. He has done this for a variety of reasons, and the silence has served him well. Among other things, it has given his voice, if and when he ever chooses to use it, enormous moral and political power. The day that Mueller holds a press conference or stands before cameras and declares that his investigation is facing interference from the Justice Department will be a very big day, perhaps a game-changing day. If the department suppresses his report, he has the capacity to, as James Comey did after his firing, testify before Congress about what happened. Mueller has not hoarded power or jurisdiction, but he has hoarded moral authority. If Whitaker or his successor seeks to frustrate the probe, Mueller can spend down those huge reserves of credibility.

Fourth, the midterms matterand they mean investigations. Squelching a high-profile, politically explosive investigation of the president is hard enough in this country under any circumstances. When the opposition party controls powerful congressional committees and is committed to oversight, it’s that much harder. The Democratic takeover of Congress means that key committees will be watching every move Whitaker and his successor make with respect to the investigation. It means subpoenas for any report they may try to suppress. It means an open and receptive forum for Mueller to testify should he have something to say. It means constant investigation. And it means that the threat of impeachment hangs over everything. This is a very big change, and Mueller is as aware of it as anyone. As a result of Democratic control of the House, he could, for example, write an unclassified summary of his report and conclusions with every expectation that major congressional committees would demand it and release it publicly. He could also, say, write an impeachment referral—if he thought he had evidence Congress needs to see—and dare Whitaker to prevent its transmission to Congress. If Whitaker were to do so, Mueller could resign and announce what happened and let Congress do the rest. Having Democrats in control of the House matters enormously.

Fifth, the confirmation process for the attorney general still matters. Whitaker is ultimately a placeholder. He can do damage while in office, but ultimately the president is going to have to name an attorney general, and the Senate is going to have to confirm that person. That means two big things: Trump has to name someone who can win confirmation, and the nominee has to personally face the Senate Judiciary Committee. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

9 November 2018 at 3:06 pm

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