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Google, Amazon, Facebook Still Profit From Covid-19 Disinformation Sites


Reprinted with permission from Media Matters

Media Matters found that Google, Amazon, and Facebook own some of the most popular trackers present on a recently published list of websites devoted to COVID-19 misinformation. That means trackers from Facebook, Amazon, and Google are aiding these websites -- whether by placing or running ads, retargeting visitors, and/or providing visitor intelligence and behavior analytics -- and ultimately helping them reach an audience and make money.

In August, the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensics Research Lab (DFR Lab) published a list of websites devoted to pushing COVID-19 misinformation. We used a tool to find the tracking software on these sites, yielding a list of companies including Google, Amazon, and Facebook. While not all trackers Media Matters detected monetize or collect data used to target readers, many of them do.

What Are Trackers?

Trackers are bits of code or script placed on a website that convey information to the site owner or a third party.

These trackers "link information about you from different sites, in order to build a profile, based on your browsing history." This data can then be sold or utilized by different parties to target specific information or products to users, such as with targeted ads or political campaigns. According to Forbes:

The rationale is simple: knowing what you click on and where you go informs ad networks about your needs and desires. When they know what you want, they can place ads in your path for those products or services.

That sounds fairly innocuous, and it can be, but the problem is that at scale — and on the open data market — you now have hundreds of virtual avatars in systems that are not under your control. They're profiles that match you to varying degrees: age, location, ethnicity, interests, and potentially much more personal information.

All trackers ultimately allow an entity to try to influence users, and it's done without their knowledge or consent. Not all trackers specifically collect browser histories and build profiles, but they do help a website reach more people and/or make money. If companies, such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon, ceased to serve these websites with their trackers, the websites would reach far fewer people and possibly disincentivize misinformation-for-profit operations.

Trackers Found On COVID-19 Misinformation Websites

Media Matters analyzed the COVID-19 misinformation websites identified by DFR Lab, using a Ghostery-based tool that detects "predefined fingerprints of known web tracking technologies," and found that the most common trackers used were owned by Google (which also owns DoubleClick), Amazon, Gravatar, Switch Concepts, WordPress Stats, and Facebook. We found 53 distinct trackers on 91 of the 146 websites listed by DFR Lab. Of these, we identified 448 total instances of a tracker appearing on a website, or an average of nearly five per website.

Amazon Associates, which provides a range of services like advertising and data collection that help target the best audience via behavioral analysis, appeared on 11 websites. Gravatar, a membership widget that allows users to engage one another, appeared on 36 websites. Facebook and Twitter widgets, which integrate with the social media platforms, appeared on 19 and five websites, respectively. Google, and the companies it owns, accounted for a whopping 161, or 36% of trackers found.

The top five companies providing trackers to COVID-19 misinformation websites include:

Tracker companiesTrackers detected
Google161
Gravatar44
Switch Concepts27
Facebook25
WordPress Stats
22

Over 50 percent of the total instances of trackers appearing on these websites were instances of ad trackers. Among the 254 instances of ad software we found, Google's company DoubleClick accounted for 86, and Switch Concepts accounted for 27. The Facebook Custom Audience advertising tracker appeared on six websites, which is especially troubling because of the precision with which Facebook may be used to target audiences.

The following table depicts the ad trackers and the number of times we detected them:

Ad trackersTracker count
Google's DoubleClick86
Switch Concepts27
Criteo18
AppNexus12
Amazon Associates11
Rubicon10
PubMatic10
OpenX10
BidSwitch10
Advertising.com10
Facebook Custom Audience6
Twitter Advertising2
Other42

Critically, a tracker's presence on a misinformation website doesn't tell us how much money each ad tracker generates. There may be multiple trackers on a site. Not all will generate equal profit, and some trackers might generate little profit. If we considered what percentage of a misinformation website's profit each vendor pays, we would almost certainly see Google's portion grow.

For example, according to the Global Disinformation Index, an organization that researches how mis- and disinformation are monetized, 77 percent of the profit from ads listed on a group of nearly 500 COVID-19 disinformation websites came from Google or a company owned by Google. This means Google may have paid as much as $19.2 million of the $25 million potentially earned by GDI's list of COVID-19 misinformation sites in 2020. (OpenX and Amazon paid out the second and third largest shares of revenues in the Global Disinformation Index report.) One website in the DFR list simply redirected to an Amazon listing rather than using an Amazon Associates tracker, which is an example of another way mis- and disinformation sites monetize and spread false claims.

Recently, NewsGuard, maker of a media literacy browser extension that provides trust ratings for users browsing the internet, published a special report titled Advertising on Misinformation, which explored how misinformation websites generate a substantial profit selling ad space. The report stated that "$2.6 billion in estimated advertising revenue [are] being sent to publishers of misinformation and disinformation each year by programmatic advertisers, including hundreds of millions in revenue supporting false health claims, anti-vaccine myths, election misinformation, partisan propaganda, and other forms of false news."

Why Exposure To Misinformation Matters

Trackers are one way companies can collect data that may help "target customized audiences, or publics, with strategic messaging across devices, channels, and contexts." A report from the Data & Society Research Institute warned that such data -- the same type collected by trackers -- can help build a digital influence machine, which can "identify and target weak points where groups and individuals are most vulnerable to strategic influence." Companies targeting internet users that also work with mis- and disinformation websites may connect the sites with a more receptive audience. And, while these companies profit, we have sadly learned, people who are exposed to COVID-19 misinformation may die preventable deaths as a result.

Amazon Claims Right-Wing Social Platform Parler Is Concealing Owners In Legal Dispute

Amazon has accused Parler, the right-wing social media platform formerly hosted on Amazon’s servers, of attempting to conceal the company’s ownership amid continued legal battles between the two companies. “This is a ginned-up effort to try to throw mud at Parler, when Parler has been completely clear about its ownership,” said Angleo Calfo, an attorney representing the platform. Parler asked a Seattle judge to force Amazon to reinstate the website in February, but the judge denied Parler’s request. Parler then issued a new complaint in King County Superior Court, which Amazon then asked to be...

Amazon Mounts Intense Union-Busting Campaign At Alabama Warehouse

Reprinted with permission from Independent Media Institute

Thousands of warehouse workers at an Amazon plant in Bessemer, Alabama, are at the center of a potentially game-changing union vote taking place right now. On February 8, the warehouse workers were sent ballots by mail to decide over the next seven weeks if they want to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Just getting to this point was a major victory considering the aggressive union busting by the world's largest retailer and the fact that employees are working during a pandemic. If workers vote affirmatively, they would have the first unionized Amazon workplace in the United States.

Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the RWDSU, described to me in an interview the shocking details of what he calls "the most aggressive anti-union effort I've ever seen," aimed at the 5,800-strong workforce. "They are doing everything they possibly can," he said. The company has been "bombarding people with propaganda throughout the warehouse. There are signs and banners and posters everywhere, even in the bathroom stalls."

According to Appelbaum, the company is also texting its workers throughout the course of the day urging a "no" vote and pulling people into "captive-audience" meetings. Unsurprisingly, Amazon is resorting to the most commonly told lie about unions: that it will cost workers more money to be in a union than not. One poster pasted on the wall of the warehouse claims, "you already know the union would charge you almost $500 a year in dues." But Alabama is a "right-to-work" state where workers cannot be compelled to join a union if they are hired into a union shop, nor can they be required to pay dues.

Complementing its heavy-handed in-person union-busting efforts is a slick website that the company created, DoItWithoutDues.com, where photos of happy workers giving thumbs-up signs create a veneer of contentment at the company. On its site, Amazon innocently offers its version of "facts" about a union that include scare-mongering reminders of how joining a union would give no guarantee of job security or better wages and benefits—with no mention of how Amazon certainly does not guarantee those things either.

On the company's own list of "Global Human Rights Principles," Amazon states, "We respect freedom of association and our employees' right to join, form, or not to join a labor union or other lawful organization of their own selection, without fear of reprisal, intimidation, or harassment."

But in a page out of Donald Trump and the Republicans' playbook, the company tried to insist that even in the middle of a deadly pandemic, the union vote must be "conducted manually, in-person, making it easy for associates to verify and cast their vote in close proximity to their workplace." The National Labor Relations Board rejected Amazon's appeal for a one-day physical election.

Ballots were mailed out to workers on February 8, and the union and its advocates are shrewdly using the seven-week-long voting period to campaign and encourage workers to vote "yes." But Amazon is also continuing its efforts at countering the RWDSU. Organizers in Bessemer had taken to engaging the workers while they stopped at a red light upon leaving the Amazon warehouse. But the company, according to Appelbaum, "had the city change the traffic light so our organizers wouldn't be able to speak to them." (A statement from Bessemer city denies the claim.)

So aggressive are Amazon's anti-union tactics that 50 members of Congress sent the company a warning letter saying, "We ask that you stop these strong-arm tactics immediately and allow your employees freely to exercise their right to organize a union." Even the company's own investors are so shocked by the tactics that more than 70 of them signed on to a letter urging Amazon to remain "neutral" in the vote.

The path to this union vote was paved by staggeringly high inequality that worsened during the pandemic as workers were stripped of their insultingly low hazard-bonus of $2 an hour while the company reaped massive gains over the past year. CEO and soon-to-be "Executive Chair" of Amazon, Jeff Bezos is the world's second-richest man. He is now worth a mind-boggling $188 billion and saw his wealth increase by $75 billion, over the past year alone—the same time period that about 20,000 of his workers tested positive for the coronavirus.

Bezos' announcement that he was moving into a new role at the company came on the same day that the Federal Trade Commission announced Amazon had stolen nearly $62 million in tips from drivers working for its "Flex" program. Appelbaum speculated that "what Bezos was trying to do was to create a distraction just like Trump would do," and that "instead of focusing on the $62 million they stole from their drivers, people would talk about the fact that Bezos was getting a new title."

Appelbaum sees the historic union vote in Bessemer as more than just a labor struggle. "Eighty-five percent of the people who work at the facility are African American. We see this being as much a civil rights struggle as a labor struggle," he said. Indeed, conditions at the warehouse are so shocking that they sound like a modern-day, technologically enabled incarnation of slavery. "People were being dehumanized and mistreated by Amazon," said the union president. He explained, "people get their assignments from a robot, they're disciplined by an app on their phone, and they're fired by text message. Every motion they make is being surveilled."

Union advocates are countering Amazon's combative anti-union efforts with their own information war. In addition to organizers talking to the warehouse workers in Bessemer every chance they get, an informational website Bamazonunion.org shares data from various studies about the dangerous working conditions in Amazon facilities. The site reminds workers that unions are able to win contracts where workers can only be fired for "just cause" and not on the whim of managers; that complaints against the company can be filed via formal grievances; and that wages and benefits are negotiated collectively.

As a proud union member of SAG-AFTRA, my colleagues and I at KPFK Pacifica Radio have benefited regularly from such protections even against a small nonprofit public radio station struggling to make ends meet. When faced with a ruthless for-profit corporation that has built its empire on the backs of a nonunionized workforce, Amazon's workers are on the front lines of those who most need the protections a union can provide.

"This election is the most important union election in many, many years because it's not just about this one Amazon facility in Alabama," said Appelbaum. "This election is really about the future of work, what the world is going to look like going forward. Amazon is transforming industry after industry, and they're also transforming the nature of work," he said. Indeed, the level to which Amazon has fought against unionization at just one warehouse in Alabama is an indication of how important it is to the company that its workers remain powerless.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

This Holiday Season, Think About The Amazon Workers

During the hectic holiday shopping season, Jeff Bezos' Amazon may seem like a great option, especially for us procrastinators. Anything you want can be shipped directly to your doorstep. All it takes is a few clicks on the Amazon website — and, of course, some of your hard-earned money.

The media sings the praises of Bezos' concept and business. But what you may not know is that, as head of the Amazon beast, Bezos is hard on his labor force. In fact, he was awarded a less-coveted prize by the International Trade Union Confederation in 2014: "World's Worst Boss."

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‘Essential’ Workers At Amazon And Walmart Protest Unsafe Conditions

Reprinted with permission from DCReport

Low-wage earners helping to keep the nation’s top retailers operating during the COVID-19 crisis are balking at the Trump administration’s bid to return to business as usual by Easter.

Frontline retail workers at Amazon and Walmart forced to work without the benefit of face masks, gloves or hand sanitizer are already afraid they are being exposed to COVID-19. They are calling on corporate CEOs to temporarily shutter their workplaces for thorough disinfection.

Earlier this month, Congress exempted large corporations including Walmart and Amazon from legislation mandating businesses provide emergency paid sick and family leave.

“I do understand the need for workers to be in the store in order for people who need medicine; for people who need supplies who have children — but there’s got be something done to help protect us,” 19-year Walmart worker Cyndi Murray told me this week.

‘Walmart hasn’t done anything to protect its employees. I watch people come in and out of our store and I worry what I’m going to do if I get sick.’

“Maybe at a point, shut down — sanitize the registers,” the Hyattsville, Maryland resident added. “Do they realize how many people come into these little self-checkouts? We have 10 registers inside one of our self-checkouts. Do you know how close people are to each other?”

Amazon warehouse worker Monica Moody, 32, told me the coronavirus pandemic has her and her North Carolina co-workers “freaked out.”

Facilities Need Cleaning

“People are probably coming to work sick and not know it,” Moody said. “We all want the same thing — we need to see the facility shut down temporarily, so it can be cleaned. And we need to be paid. Shut down with full pay.”

The last few weeks on the job have been “a blur” for El Paso Walmart employee Sanjuana Arreola.

“Customers have been rushing into the stores to stock up for weeks in isolation — rice, canned goods, and water — I’m scared,” the married mother of three said. “As a Walmart associate, I don’t get to practice social distancing. Walmart hasn’t done anything to protect its employees. I watch people come in and out of our store and I worry what I’m going to do if I get sick.”

Stacy Rowback is a struggling part-time Walmart employee from Upstate New York with a 14-month-old baby girl to care for back at home. The new mom says Walmart has provided the employees where she works with zero training and protection.

Guarding The Toilet Paper

“They’ve not changed anything in my store,” Rowback told me. “The only thing they are doing is guarding toilet paper.”

All the workers quoted above are part of the Paid Leave for All campaign — a broad coalition of organizations urging Congress to pass a stimulus package that closes loopholes exempting both very large enterprises with 500 or more employees and smaller companies with fewer than 50 workers — and extends family sick leave to all American workers.

Forcing People To Work Sick

“Our nation is only as healthy as the most vulnerable among us,” said Wendy Chun-Hoon, executive director of Family Values @ Work and an executive team member of the Paid Leave for All campaign. “We cannot stop a pandemic if we force people to come to work sick. Walmart has gotten away with denying sick leave, artificially keeping [employee] work hours down, for years.”

Despite increasing deaths and more confirmed cases of COVID-19 nationwide — the country’s chief executive, on March 22, sent out a tweet saying, “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself. At the end of the 15 day period, we will make a decision as to which way we want to go!”

Trump has since made further declarations indicating his administration’s eagerness to drop the social distancing Americans have been practicing the last couple of weeks to quell the economic impact of the coronavirus.

“Yeah — no. That’s not gonna work,” Moody said. “You can’t beat this thing without social distancing. If you want to ease back into it and let everybody go back to work — then just be prepared to get right back onto lockdown.”

Neither Walmart or Amazon responded to requests for comment.

‘Sanitize The Registers’

“Shut down,” a frustrated Murray continued. “Sanitize these registers, these keypads where people stick in their debit cards. What about the baskets? Sanitize them.”

According to Moody, three people from the nightshift where she works have already tested positive for COVID-19.

“I understand we’re the frontline and people are depending on us, [but] we’re human, too,” she said. “We need to be safe, too. Shut it down quick for two weeks and I’ll feel a lot safer going to work. I’m not asking for a permanent closing — I’m asking for it to be cleaned and safe for me to go to work.”

At $11.44 an hour, Arreola says she barely earns enough to put food on her table — let alone stock up for an emergency like the patrons who have stripped grocery and drug store shelves across the country.

“We’re making sure Walmart customers have everything they need — but who’s looking out for us?” she said. “We have to do this before it’s too late.”

Joe Maniscalco is a Brooklyn-based journalist who has spent the last decade covering labor unions and workplace justice issues.

In Nasty Breakup With New York City, Amazon Is At Fault

So Amazon chose Valentine’s Day to announce its breakup with New York City. No, it will not build a new headquarters in Queens as planned. Who is to blame for the split, the tech behemoth or grouchy New Yorkers? If one must choose, I’d say Amazon.

Amazon seemed shocked that the masses were not doing cartwheels in the streets after it selected the Long Island City neighborhood for a new complex to employ 25,000. After all, the company had dozens of other cities groveling for that honor.

The dialogue between Amazon and skeptical Gothamites could have been more enlightened. But at bottom, the problem was a cultural gap of Mideast proportions.

The helipad was the last straw. Let us explain.

Home prices in Long Island City, once a solidly middle- and working-class enclave, were already under pressure as luxury towers sprouted along the waterfront. But established residents and tower dwellers suffer together in a subway system marred by overcrowding and regular breakdowns. Adding tens of thousands of new bodies to the area would not help matters.

The announcement that New York would grant Jeff Bezos and other Amazon brass a helipad enabling them to fly over the discomfort did not sit well, to say the least. Helipads were already controversial in New York, because, you know, helicopters are extremely noisy.

New York City is the crowded heart of a densely populated region. It doesn’t have alfalfa fields at the edge of town on which tbuild a corporate complex that would little change the lived experience of the locals.

That the city and state offered Amazon $3 billion in incentives and subsidies was a big sticking point, though perhaps not the biggest. Polls showed New Yorkers generally in favor of Amazon’s big arrival (though many no doubt saw only the 25,000 jobs figure and not the taxpayer subsidy).

The argument made by activists that it was immoral to ask the citizenry to help out a company run by the richest man in the world was irrelevant. The bottom line was the bottom line. Was the deal good for the people or not? On that, there was informed opinion on both sides.

Mayor Bill de Blasio was all for the Amazon headquarters, but then, he’s for anything that serves real estate interests. Developers already gunning their bulldozers were most devastated by the news.

Amazon’s decision to build additional headquarters reflected growing discontent in its Seattle home base over the disruption, congestion and rising rents set off by constant expansion. Explosive growth worries elite cities everywhere.

In Manhattan, just across the East River from Long Island City, traffic gridlock approaches Istanbul proportions. At rush hour, sidewalks around Grand Central Terminal are so jammed that pedestrians are forced onto the roads.

Some economists argue that New York must land a big tech company like Amazon to diversify an economy so dependent on finance. Actually, the city is also a national leader in the arts, publishing, entertainment and tourism.

And for the record, New York is already home to 320,000 tech jobs. Google, for one, plans to double its workforce in the city, to nearly 20,000 — without subsidies.

Some tech companies in the Long Island suburbs, meanwhile, are relieved that Amazon is a no-go, Newsday reports. They have trouble competing for tech talent as it is.

In working out the deal, Amazon didn’t have one New Yorker on its team. When unions asked it to be “neutral” on the subject of organized labor, the answer was a flat no. Furthermore, the agreement was structured to give locals almost no say in what would happen.

Face it; Aquarius and Scorpio were just not going to get along.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

#EndorseThis: NRA Makes Porn For Unhinged Gun Owners, John Oliver Calls Them Out

The National Rifle Association is run by hypocrites who use the same manipulation tactics they accuse the media of using. You probably knew that, but few journalists have been exposing the NRA’s shameless propaganda like John Oliver of HBO.

In today’s clip (a tad longer than usual, but well worth it) Oliver takes on some of the creepier moments of NRA TV, including Dana Loesch’s “clenched fist of truth” speech, Charlie Daniels (who else?) giving a sermon about guns, blood and gator-grappling, and bank robbers getting complimented on their weapons skills.

Does gun-porn for the heartland sound sad to watch? Prepare to giggle. Oliver destroys every last excerpt from the NRA network, and lets gun-obsessed women know they’re just as absurd as men like Charlie Daniels.

Click play. It’s happening, Harry. It’s happening.

Can These Corporate Titans Reform Health Care — And Tame Big Pharma?

President Trump offered few words about health care in his State of the Union address. He did mention drug prices, though.

“One of my greatest priorities is to reduce the price of prescription drugs,” he said. “In many other countries, these drugs cost far less than what we pay in the United States. … That is why I have directed my administration to make fixing the injustice of high drug prices one of my top priorities.”

Which is an interesting thing for Trump to say, given that he has just made Alex Azar, a top executive at drugmaker Eli Lilly, head of Health and Human Services. Lilly tripled the price of insulin during Azar’s tenure there. Suffice it to say, the one injustice Eli Lilly does not want to fix is high drug prices.

There was a bigger story going on, and it was not unrelated. Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase announced that they are putting their heads together to create a health care plan for their 1.1 million U.S. employees. Sounds like leverage to me. Eight states have fewer people.

During the presidential campaign, Trump vowed that if elected, he would have Medicare negotiate more favorable drug prices with the manufacturers. Since he took office, that pledge has not seen the light of day.

Washington was never good at standing up to the medical-industrial complex. There’s too much money to be made in standing down. And a separation between the public’s wallet and Big Pharma’s desire to extract huge profits is surely one wall Trump will never build.

But the medical industry does not own Amazon, the world’s largest internet company, or Berkshire Hathaway, the conglomerate Fortune ranks as America’s third-most profitable company, or JPMorgan Chase, America’s biggest bank.

The fine details have yet to be revealed, but the stated plan is to create a company that would be free from profit-making incentives. That’s not great news for profit-oriented suppliers. The stocks of UnitedHealth Group, Aetna and CVS — which plans to buy Aetna — all took a beating after the announcement.

The partners say they will use technology to simplify the delivery of health care. And they insist the new system will improve the services available to employees.

The beauty of this corporate trio’s gambit is they are bypassing the politicians. Their aim is to “disrupt” the forces that saddle them with exorbitant prices.

“The ballooning costs of health care act as a hungry tapeworm on the American economy,” Warren Buffett, Berkshire’s fabled CEO, stated with trademark simplicity.

Wonder what they’re going to do about drug prices. The drug Humira offers a window into the challenges.

According to the ads, Humira enables a woman hurting from rheumatoid arthritis to chase her puppy all over the house. (“Ask your doctor about Humira.”) In 2012, Humira cost a ridiculous $19,000 a year. Its maker, AbbVie, recently raised the price to a piratical $38,000.

The bottom line is that the U.S. spends nearly twice as much on health care as a percentage of the economy as do other industrialized countries — while its people use about the same amount of health care. Corporate America has long objected to what this costly health care is doing to its bottom line.

So bringing down the prices is the big game in taming total health care spending. No one says this will be easy, and doubters point to past failed corporate efforts. But these are three giants who don’t scare easily. Amazon has already shown interest in selling pharmaceuticals.

Since Washington won’t do much about the prices for health care, let’s see what Amazon, Berkshire and JPMorgan come up with. Go forth and disrupt, we say.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

PHOTO: Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, speaks  in Washington, D.C.,  October 13, 2015. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque