With help from Leah Nylen and John Hendel
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— Bias or bust? Some Republicans and tech critics have pointed to social media’s bans of former President Donald Trump as another data point in alleged anti-GOP bias. But a new report refuting those claims says those very platforms, in fact, amplify conservative voices.
— Apple’s approach to Trump vs. Biden: Tim Cook’s early correspondence with the new White House has us wondering about the strategy of the Apple CEO — who was the company’s most effective lobbyist during the Trump era — under President Joe Biden.
— Floating around the rumor mill: Some big potential names to become Justice Department antitrust chief and FTC commissioner — and members of Congress are working to ensure their preferences are considered.
IT’S MONDAY. AND FEBRUARY?! WELCOME BACK TO MORNING TECH. I’m your host, Alexandra Levine.
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NEW REPORT CHALLENGES ALLEGATIONS OF ANTI-GOP SOCIAL MEDIA BIAS — As debate continues about Trump’s social media suspensions, a new study finds that tech platforms are not, as often alleged, biased against conservatives. The analysis, out this morning from the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, refutes the longtime accusation that leading Silicon Valley firms like Facebook and Twitter engage in systematic GOP censorship. And it threads together data from internet researchers, nonprofits, nonpartisan think tanks and the social platforms themselves that suggest that the sites’ algorithms, in fact, boost right-leaning voices.
“The claim of anti-conservative animus is itself a form of disinformation: a falsehood with no reliable evidence to support it,” says the report, authored by disinformation researcher Paul Barrett, the Center’s deputy director, and research fellow Grant Sims. “Trump has been the leading purveyor of the bias accusation,” they warned in the report, “but it will not recede with the end of his presidency.”
— Recommendations: The authors urge social media sites to give users more control over how the content in their feeds is moderated, as well as to assign more human moderators (rather than AI) to politicians and other public figures’ accounts. They also call for the Biden administration and 117th Congress to repair Washington’s hostile relationship with Silicon Valley to achieve meaningful regulation and reform — and to that end, recommend establishing a new, federal Digital Regulatory Agency.
— And ICYMI (an antidote to this dreary, wintry morning): SNL’s Kate McKinnon brought up the suspensions of “the accounts of many prominent conservatives” on Saturday night’s show. Watch (an apparent) Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg respond.
TECH QUOTE DU JOUR, VIA FACEBOOK EXEC NICK CLEGG — “It is often asserted that social media is the chief cause of rising polarization; that people are unwittingly trapped in online echo chambers where they’re exposed only to people and content that reinforce their ideological worldview. But the academic evidence simply doesn’t bear this out,” Clegg,Facebook’s vice president for global affairs, wrote Sunday in a blog post, citing research from Stanford, Pew, Reuters Institute and the EU. “The caricature that users are passive victims of algorithmic choices made for them is simply false,” he said.
— The post dealt mainly with the role of data in Europe’s economy, but the problem of polarization remains top-of-mind in Washington. This week’s House Homeland Security hearing on the threat of domestic terrorism in the U.S. — and next week’s Senate impeachment trial for Trump — will likely question social media’s role in dividing and radicalizing the country. Facebook last week announced it would stop recommending political groups to people on the platform and tone down political content in users’ feeds, moves that Zuck said are meant to “turn down the temperature and discourage divisive conversations.”
TIM COOK’S OVERTURE TO BIDEN: A DEPARTURE, OR DEJA VU? — In one of his first direct, public communications with the new White House, the Apple CEO praised Biden’s recent executive order preserving protections for recipients of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. “For our companies, Dreamers are invaluable members of our team,” Cook wrote to Biden Friday on behalf of the CEOs of Business Roundtable, where Cook chairs the organization’s immigration committee.
— The interaction has us wondering: How will Cook navigate the Biden world differently than he did under Trump? Cook was known to engage with Trump more directly than most other tech industry leaders were willing to do, including by quietly visiting him in the Oval Office or meeting him for meals outside the White House. Despite Trump’s contentious relationship with Silicon Valley, Cook became the iPhone maker’s highest-profile and most effective lobbyist with that administration, and we’re eager to see how his approach will look similar — or different — under president No. 46.
THE DARK HORSES FOR ANTITRUST CHIEF, FTC — Progressive groups have lambasted a number of potential candidates for the role of Justice Department antitrust chief over the individuals’ ties to tech companies. While some members of Congress have likewise weighed in publicly, others are working behind the scenes to persuade the Biden administration to consider their preferred candidates.
— Who they’re pushing for antitrust chief: A number of Democrats are rallying for Jonathan Sallet, the former FCC general counsel who successfully defended the agency’s net neutrality rules in court. Sallet also spent the final years of the Obama administration at DOJ’s antitrust division, where he helped kill the Comcast and Time Warner merger and called out concerns about vertical mergers. Over the past two years, Sallet has worked for Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser as the mastermind behind the states’ antitrust case against Google, earning plaudits from Democrats and Republicans alike. Last week, Nebraska’s Republican Attorney General Doug Peterson praised Sallet’s leadership of the states’ suit, saying he has an “excellent mind for antitrust.”
— And for FTC commissioner: Biden has two open spots on the FTC, and some House Democrats are urging him to reserve one slot for a candidate focused on consumer protection and privacy issues. Georgetown’s Alvaro Bedoya tops many lists. Before joining Georgetown, Bedoya was chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary’s subcommittee on privacy and technology, helmed by then-Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.). Born in Peru, Bedoya would also bring much-needed diversity to the FTC, where only a handful of the commissioners have been non-white.
A NUGGET THAT CAUGHT OUR EYE: THE HOUSE GAVEL IN CHARGE OF SECTION 230 — House Energy and Commerce now officially labels the hot-button issue of Section 230 under the jurisdiction of its communications and technology subcommittee, which is chaired by Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.). That captured our attention because during the previous Congress, E&C did not explicitly include the online liability protections among the committee’s jurisdictional breakdowns, and the one big hearing on the topic in late 2019 was a joint session between Doyle’s panel and the consumer protection subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).
— What this could mean for tech legislation: Formally listing the issue under Doyle’s subcommittee means that over the next two years, he’s likely to play a major role in advancing any legislation dealing with the contentious policy topic — although Schakowsky’s subcommittee will have a stake as well. She has notably called for updating Section 230 and weighed legislation on the issue.
— Or just a formality? House E&C Chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) downplayed the significance of any jurisdictional tweaks as purely technical during Thursday’s organizing session, and a committee spokesperson didn’t respond to questions about the addition.
A search is underway at Facebook for a new head of U.S. public policy, a position until now held by former Republican FCC Chair Kevin Martin, who is shifting to become the head of Facebook’s global team for economic policy. … Melissa Nixon, a former director on Facebook’s talent team and Google veteran, has joined Mapbox, a mapping and location cloud platform for developers, as its vice president of people. … Kristen Verderame was named vice president of government relations for the data-centric software company NetApp.
Jesse Spector, former director of tech policy at the Software & Information Industry Association, has joined Glen Echo Group as a senior director. The communications firm also promoted TJ Chase to a director on the creative team, Emma Christman to director of external affairs and engagement, Charlie Vinopal to a senior associate and Carrie Hutcheson to an associate.
Marchex, Somos, Totelcom, Grain Management’s Hunter Communications and Ritter Communications have joined USTelecom | The Broadband Association. … IBM joined the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium as a founding member; Apple and Verizon are among the other member companies.
About that climate announcement just above: “Big Tech says it wants to solve climate change. Its lobbying dollars say otherwise,” Grist reports.
Ask-an-influencer: Hospitals and health care leaders are turning to social media stars (and in some cases, paying them) to encourage their followers to get the coronavirus vaccine, POLITICO reports.
ICYMI: Facebook’s decision to permanently stop recommending political groups to its users — an attempt at depoliticizing conversation on and off the platform — is a major blow for grassroots movements, POLITICO reports.
WeWork drama headed for the big screen: Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway will star in a TV adaptation of “the greed-filled rise and inevitable fall” of WeWork, per The Hollywood Reporter — Leto as WeWork founder Adam Neumann, and Hathaway as his wife and co-founder, Rebekah.
Why China is sending Twitter users to jail: “China’s Communist Party is amping up efforts to control its image around the world by jailing Chinese citizens, many of them ordinary people with little influence, who use foreign social media to criticize Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his government,” WSJ reports.
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