Facebook Workers Ask: Did We Help Trump Win?

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Marcin Wichary | Flickr

Facebook is where a lot of the 2016 campaign played out, and it’s also where much of the election post-mortem is focusing. This is hardly the first electoral autopsy to raise issues like echo chambers, fake news, and media misfires — we had all of those in each of the last three presidential cycles, too.

What’s new about the debate this time is how it’s playing out among Facebook employees themselves. They’re beginning to ask a question that every NewCo worker sooner or later faces: Does the platform my company is building promote a mission and set of values that I believe in?

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I’m Sorry Mr. Zuckerberg, But You Are Wrong

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It is heartening to see you begin to grapple with your role in the election. We are all doing the same. And like us, you are going through multiple stages of grief, each with its own set of cognitive biases. If Buster Benson’s handy cheat sheet is to be believed, you are going through a modest version of the “blame others” heuristic. Or, at least, its benevolent cousin, “It’s not my fault.”

(To be fair, in re-reading your post, I notice you didn’t ever come out and say Facebook didn’t deserve part of the blame. Like I said, people tell me you’re a good guy. I suspect you know that Facebook does bear some responsibility after all.)

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Facebook’s Free Data Scheme: All Eyes on the U.S. Market

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Wesley Fryer | Flickr

Is Facebook’s free internet a Trojan horse? Facebook’s free internet plan, Free Basics, didn’t work out well when it debuted in India, but now Facebook has given the project an overhaul and has its eyes on a new market: the U.S. (The Washington Post). Free Basics is a system that lets disadvantaged users get wireless access to certain services and content free — they’re not charged against the monthly data limit. The argument for this “zero rating” concept is: let’s do a better job of bringing the benefits of internet connectivity to people who can’t afford it. The argument against it is, let’s not create a two-tier internet where poorer users get subsidized access but only to services like Facebook that underwrite it. (Last year, Susan Crawford persuasively made the against case.) The devil will be in the details, and it looks like federal regulators are moving with care. But cross your fingers that someone is looking out for the long-term interests of users here, and not just those of the BigCos.

For women in business, it’s the same old same old. U.S. businesses are still failing to make any kind of headway towards gender equality, according to a new study from LeanIn.org and McKinsey. The review of 130 companies finds that women are “underrepresented at every level of the corporate pipeline,” get promoted less than men, and face extra resistance when they ask for raises. It’s even tougher for women of color. While none of this comes as a surprise, the sheer Groundhog Day-like familiarity of such results is getting painful. More than 70 percent of companies have made commitments to diversity, yet the needle has remained stuck. Less talk, more action.

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Here’s Where Your Facebook Profile Sleeps at Night

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Facebook

Facebook’s data center is a cold mirror. Luleå is a town in Sweden, just below the Arctic Circle. Facebook operates a ginormous data center there because the frigid air helps cool its heat-radiating servers, and there’s a bounty of hydroelectric power to fuel them. Yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg posted a set of photos of the Luleå server farm, providing a remarkable tableau of what’s really a kind of modern temple of industry — a data-age Great Pyramid. We think of cloud computing as evanescent bits and ethereal data; these hulking turbines, massive rack arrays, and yawning corridors are the material forms of the cloud, repressed but persistent. The images remind us that there’s really no escape from the corporeal world; we can displace the evidence of our digital media’s physical substrate and tuck it away in the Arctic ice, but it won’t be denied. You’ll also notice how few people inhabit these images. The better we get at maintaining the technology that connects us, the more we disappear from the picture. What stubbornly remains behind: mountains of shredded hard drives. Facebook is showing them off to reassure us about its commitment to privacy, but they’re also a heartbreaking reminder of sheer waste.

Today’s partner is tomorrow’s competitor. Fedex and UPS have thrived as haulers of Amazon’s crates, but now, The Wall Street Journal reports, the Seattle-based online retail giant is weighing bringing the delivery network in house. Running its own fleet of trucks could save Amazon more than $1 billion a year. Taking on its freight-giant partners would also be a vast and risky undertaking for Amazon. Once ubiquitous, this kind of “vertical integration” has fallen out of fashion in corporate circles. But Amazon’s burgeoning, voracious need for speed and capacity is driving it to take all kinds of unconventional steps.

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Facebook Video Gets a Statistical Haircut

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Brownpau | Flickr

When Facebook sneezes, the media catch pneumonia. For some time now the ad-supported online media business has been driven by some simple principles: Advertisers love video; video is hot on Facebook; if you make lots of videos and put them on Facebook, you will make money. But what if this whole equation was based on bad numbers? That seems to be the case, based on the news that Facebook “vastly overestimated” average viewing time for video ads over the past two years (The Wall Street Journal). Naturally, ad buyers are upset, but the rest of us should be, too. Each distortion of the media economy under the influence of Facebook’s dominance means that much less diversity and risk in our informational ecosystem. It’s bad enough that Facebook twiddles the dials on the news feed at will; now we can’t trust its reporting of data. Facebook says the error was innocent, only discovered a month ago, and didn’t affect billing of advertisers. But those now-known-to-be-inflated viewing times certainly cemented Facebook video’s “this is the place to be” appeal. That it took the company two years to come clean only adds to Facebook’s credibility problem.

Yahoo finally tells the world about its gigantic data breach. Speaking of taking two years to come clean: Yahoo’s data breach turns out to be more recent than originally reported — it happened two years ago, in 2014. It’s also way larger than expected: 500 million accounts had their information compromised — that’s as in half a billion (The New York Times). The disclosure has left Yahoo buyer Verizon, which only learned of the data breach two days ago, examining its options. And it has left Yahoo’s customers staring glumly at all their other accounts and wondering what to do about changing their passwords. Yahoo is blaming a “state-sponsored actor” for the hack. (And no, that doesn’t mean an NEA-funded thespian.) Whoever is responsible, the gap between the event and its disclosure does not inspire confidence in the company, its leadership, or its industry.

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Zuckerberg and Chan Vow to Delete Diseases

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Can $3 billion cure everything? “Cure all diseases” is a pretty grand ambition, but no one ever accused Mark Zuckerberg of thinking small. This lofty goal is the aim of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative: a $3 billion effort to conquer all the ailments that plague our lives, beginning with a $600 million research center in San Francisco called the Biohub, organized as a joint effort among Stanford, UCSF and UC-Berkeley (The Verge). Big-buck philanthropic moonshots have a mixed track record: Zuckerberg himself stumbled earlier in his career when he pumped $100 million into Newark’s schools without thinking things through carefully enough. Older and perhaps wiser, Zuckerberg this time around is counseling patience: He and his spouse, Priscilla Chan, aim to eliminate disease in their children’s lifetime, so they’re giving themselves some decades. Zuckerberg isn’t the only big name out there promising health breakthroughs: Joe Biden is leading a national charge on cancer, in all its forms, and Microsoft is touting a research effort to learn how to reprogram cancer cells within 10 years. Let a thousand basic-research gardens bloom—particularly when they make their findings open and public.

The company that makes the machines that read your DNA. If you have ever had your DNA information analyzed, the devices that performed the test were probably made by Illumina — a $25 billion biotech giant profiled in Fast Company. Illumina has brought the cost of gene sequencing down from hundreds of millions of dollars to mere thousands today; the pace outruns Moore’s Law, the famous principle that has governed progress in computing. Illumina also has spun out two high-profile startups: Helix, which is trying to build an app store for gene-sequencing tools, and Grail Bio, which is developing cancer-screening tests. (Read NewCo editor-in-chief John Battelle’s interview with Grail CEO Jeff Huber here.) But now Illumina’s customers, the companies that buy its equipment, fear that it might try to compete with them. That leaves Illumina trying to figure out how to grow an ecosystem in which it can prosper along with those customers. Of course, it’s a lot easier to resolve such dilemmas when markets are this new, and growing this fast.

Another day, another data breach. Yahoo is expected today to confirm reports from last month that hundreds of millions of its users had their data compromised (Recode). That’s lousy news for the hobbling Web giant, which is in the middle of navigating its acquisition by Verizon. The rest of us will probably go about our business; after Target and LinkedIn and countless other giant data-spills, we’ve all become pretty ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ about the phenomenon. While Yahoo struggles to clean up its mess, we should think harder about how thoroughly we’ve tied our digital lives to something as flimsy as an e-mail address/password combo. We need a better, safer, more reliable and convenient identity system. Bring on the biometrics!

Wells Fargo fired its whistleblowers. It was bad enough to learn about Wells Fargo’s history of opening fake accounts for real customers to meet sales quotas. Now we’re learning about Wells employees who tried to blow the whistle on this practice — and lost their jobs as a result (CNN). That suggests a deeper problem at the bank, one that may not be solvable without some larger change. Bank critic Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told Wells CEO John Stumpf, who was testifying before a congressional committee, that he should resign. Even such high-profile turnover won’t make much of a difference, though, unless somebody — a new CEO, a board intervention, shareholder revolt, all of the above — sets out to change a company culture that clearly took a wrong turn.

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Shareholders Force Exxon’s Feet to Climate Fire

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Photo: Lippincott

Today’s Top Stories
 — Climate Isn’t the Only Thing Changing for Exxon Mobil: Investors want to know more about the environmental risks ahead.
 — And Then There Were None: The S&P 500 loses its only black woman CEO.
 — Facebook Isn’t Biased, According to Facebook: Internal research exonerates the company from intentional messing with its Trending Topics. Of course it did.
 — A Tale of Two Countries: The America of big cities is thriving and entrepreneurial. The other is in trouble.
 — Google Turns Off Most Useful Feature of Its New App: It has end-to-end encryption, but it doesn’t ship that way.

Climate Isn’t the Only Thing Changing for Exxon Mobil
 Shareholders are supposedly interested in a rising stock price no matter what, but some attempts to prop up stock prices may benefit the environment, however inadvertently. At Exxon Mobil’s annual meeting tomorrow, investors will vote on a resolution to force the company to reveal what climate change might do to its business (New York Times). Similar resolutions have gone nowhere in the past, but a recent SEC ruling said the vote has to happen this time. Some of those behind the resolution are activist investors who want the company to change policy; others just want transparency so they can make better investment decisions. Either way, it looks like the largest publicly traded energy company in the world is going to have to be more accountable even to those who don’t care about climate change.

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