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Senate Commerce Chair Asks FTC To Probe Facebook's Suspected Deceptions

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The chair of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday asked a regulator to investigate whether Meta Platforms' Facebook misled its advertising customers and the public about the reach of its advertisements.

In a letter to Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan seen by Reuters, Senator Maria Cantwell said "evidence suggests that Facebook may have deceived its advertising customers about its brand safety and advertising metrics" and "may have engaged in deceptive practices."

Meta and the FTC did not immediately comment.

Cantwell added that "public information suggests that Facebook’s potential misrepresentations about brand safety and advertising metrics may be unfair, as well as deceptive."

She said "a thorough investigation by the Commission and other enforcement agencies is paramount, not only because Facebook and its executives may have violated federal law, but because members of the public and businesses are entitled to know the facts regarding Facebook’s conduct."

Cantwell cited a 2020 Senate report that Facebook reportedly controlled approximately 74 percent of the social media market.

In October, Senator Richard Blumenthal said both the Securities and Exchange Commission and the FTC should investigate claims made by a Facebook whistleblower that the company knew its apps were harming the mental health of some young users.

The FTC has filed an antitrust lawsuit against Facebook that urged a court to demand that the company sell two big subsidiaries.

The FTC's case against Facebook represents one of the biggest challenges the government has brought against a tech company in decades, and is being closely watched as Washington aims to tackle Big Tech's extensive market power.

The FTC originally sued Facebook during the Trump administration, and its complaint was rejected by the court. It filed an amended complaint in August that Facebook has asked be tossed out.

(Reporting by David Shepardson and Chris Sanders; editing by Diane Craft and Grant McCool)

Carlson And Fox Go Anti-Vax Wacko With Conspiracy Theorist RFK Jr.

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters

Fox host Tucker Carlson hosted anti-vaxxer and conspiracy theorist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. for a fawning interview on his Fox Nation show Tucker Carlson Today. Kennedy is a well-known figure in anti-vaccine circles and one of the most prominent backers of baseless conspiracy theories attempting to link conditions such as autism to vaccines.

During the November 15 interview, Carlson urged viewers to purchase Kennedy's latest book, a screed accusing Dr. Anthony Fauci of intentionally bungling the pandemic, killing alternatives to the vaccine, and launching an assault on the First Amendment in order to silence critics. Kennedy walked Carlson's audience through a grab bag of his most notorious conspiracy theories, at one point asserting his belief that vaccines had to be one of the "key suspects" behind the rise in cases of autism.


Kennedy suggested that more than 17,000 Americans have died from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, a claim based on a misuse and misunderstanding of U.S. Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System data that Carlson has repeated on his prime-time show.


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.

Why Corporations Are Leading On Vaccine Mandates

Public health is normally the responsibility of government officials and agencies. But the rampaging delta variant of COVID-19 has shown public institutions to be inadequate to the task. So it may be up to the private sector to do the heavy lifting.

Early in the pandemic, the urgent danger forced governors and mayors to take drastic actions that many citizens resented — closing businesses, issuing stay-at-home orders and mandating masks. But the arrival of vaccines sharply curtailed the virus, allowing life to return to near-normal. Even though this virulent variant has sent infections and hospitalizations soaring, public officials are leery of the opposition that new requirements might provoke.

President Joe Biden has shied away from putting any mandates on ordinary Americans, for obvious reasons. When he raised the idea of a door-to-door outreach initiative to encourage vaccinations, Republicans reacted as if the Gestapo were coming to drag people out of their beds. Treading lightly is part of Biden's attempt to restore calm after the nonstop turbulence of the previous four years.

He did issue an order requiring federal employees to either get vaccinated or wear masks and undergo regular testing. But that's not so controversial — if only because the GOP's anti-government zealots don't worry much about inconveniencing Washington bureaucrats.

The mandate will help stem the spread of the disease. But public employees make up just 15 percent of the U.S. workforce. The vast majority of Americans work in the private sector. Fortunately, capitalists can act with greater freedom and less political controversy than governments can.

Some of them are not waiting for brave statesmanship from politicians. A host of corporations have decided that when it comes to boosting vaccinations, they need more than gentle encouragement.

The Walt Disney Co. announced that all salaried and nonunion workers must be vaccinated. Walmart Inc. is requiring inoculations for everyone at its headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. Google and Facebook are doing likewise at their U.S. campuses. Tyson Foods will insist that its 120,000 employees get their shots.

Chicago real estate firm Related Midwest is giving its employees a choice between getting a vaccination and getting a pink slip. United Airlines and Delta Air Lines Inc. will insist on shots for new hires. Hundreds of private (as well as public) colleges and universities have told students and faculty to be vaccinated in time for the fall term.

Some Republican officials are trumpeting their rejection of "vaccine passports," of the sort decreed by New York City for employees and customers of restaurants, bars, fitness centers and performance venues. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida signed a bill forbidding businesses to ask customers for proof of vaccination. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas barred companies that get state funds from imposing such rules.

But even in the GOP, there seems to be no fervent desire to tell businesses what to do. Meddling in conditions of private employment would be conspicuously incompatible with the usual (and usually sound) conservative approach to economic matters.

That's why it's not likely to catch on, even in places where vaccine resistance is most rabid. Republican officeholders seldom embrace policies that antagonize the business community, which accounts for a lot of campaign contributions. Their customary view is that if workers don't like how their employers operate, they are welcome to exercise their God-given right to find another job.

Companies in red states are happily accustomed to operating without a lot of bossy-pants government. They also rarely have to deal with unions, which might push back on mandatory vaccinations.

In Democratic states, of course, policymakers have made a priority of getting the vaccine into people's arms, not indulging those who think it contains a microchip. Even diehard progressives might rather defer to the titans of industry if it means saving lives.

So if businesses are inclined to impose vaccine mandates, no one is going to stop them. And more companies are likely to impose them.

Most adults are already immunized, and many will think they deserve to be protected from irresponsible co-workers. In a labor market where many employers are having trouble finding workers, a vaccine requirement would probably attract more applicants than it would repel.

Elected officials may not want to insist that Americans take this simple step to protect others as well as themselves. But if they aren't willing to lead, they shouldn't stand in the way of those who are.

Follow Steve Chapman on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Pro-Trump GETTR Becoming 'Safe Haven' For Terrorist Propaganda

Just weeks after former President Trump's team quietly launched the alternative to "social media monopolies," GETTR is being used to promote terrorist propaganda from supporters of the Islamic State, a Politico analysis found.

The publication reports that the jihadi-related material circulating on the social platform includes "graphic videos of beheadings, viral memes that promote violence against the West and even memes of a militant executing Trump in an orange jumpsuit similar to those used in Guantanamo Bay."

Politico found at least 250 such regular users since early July, most of which follow each other and use hashtags to promote the jihadi material.

The Islamic State "has been very quick to exploit GETTR," Moustafa Ayad, executive director at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told Politico, adding, "On Facebook, there was on one of these accounts that I follow that is known to be Islamic State, which said 'Oh, Trump announced his new platform. Inshallah, all the mujahideen will exploit that platform.'"

Politico describes the accumulation of terrorist propaganda as "rapid" and called GETTR a "safe haven" for jihadi extremists online, putting the new MAGA alternative to prominent social media apps, like Twitter and Facebook, in an "awkward" position.

Jason Miller, former Trump spokesperson and the CEO of GETTR, dismissed the spike in extremist content, saying, "ISIS is trying to attack the MAGA movement because President Trump wiped them off the face of the earth, destroying the Caliphate in less than 18 months, and the only ISIS members still alive are keyboard warriors hiding in caves and eating dirt cookies."

Miller also flooded his Twitter feed with links to stories that investigate Twitter's problems with ISIS:

According to Politico, however, Twitter works with the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, so that the extremist-related material can be taken down as quickly as possible. GETTR has not yet signed up -- but Politico does note that some jihadi posts were eventually taken down on.

"Buried beneath a misleading and inflammatory headline…even Politico acknowledges GETTR has a robust & proactive moderation system that removes prohibited content, maximizing…A.I. technology and human moderation," said Miller.

Since being kicked off of Twitter and Facebook for inciting a deadly insurrection, Trump has been trying to find new ways to interact with his supporters-- none of which have been particularly successful.

Back in May, he launched a blog called "From the Desk of Donald J. Trump" that he tried to pass off as a social "platform." The site ultimately failed weeks later due to ridicule and poor readership.

Trump's involvement in GETTR is unknown and he has yet to officially sign up for the platform, but the "true marketplace of ideas" has many links to the former president. In addition to Miller's involvement, Miles Guo, the business partner of former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, is also partially funding GETTR.

Politico's findings further outline the grave dangers that social sites with little to no regulation pose.

"We will come at you with slaying and explosions you worshippers of the cross," wrote an account whose name referenced ISIS. "How great is freedom of expression."

Trump And Allies Enraged As Social Media Ban Expands

Steve Cortes, a senior adviser with Donald Trump's election campaign, took to Twitter to complain that Trump and his "movement" were being censored by "Big Tech" as a number of social media platforms suspended the accounts of the White House occupant and his supporters after Wednesday's deadly attack on the Capitol.

"I'm on Bannon's War Room soon discussing Big Tech/Big Brother suppressing the speech of the president and our movement - including Michelle Obama's shameful call for a permanent de-platforming," tweeted Cortes.

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WATCH: Trump Appears In Bizarre Facebook Video Insisting He Won

Reprinted with permission from Alternet

Donald Trump on Wednesday posted a rambling, 46-minute-long video to Facebook in which he asserted that he won the 2020 presidential election, which he did not do.

Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election. Biden received over 81 million votes, the most garnered by a presidential candidate in American history and nearly 7 million more than Trump received.

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