posted about 19 hours ago on re/code
Federal agencies routinely buy cellphone location data from private companies. | Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images Private companies collect location data on millions of Americans and provide it to the DHS, IRS, FBI, and DEA — no warrants needed. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will investigate its own use of location data after it was revealed that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was purchasing cellphone location data from commercial vendors for use in its work. The DHS’s Office of the Inspector General recently informed Sens. Sherrod Brown, Ed Markey, Brian Schatz, Elizabeth Warren, and Ron Wyden — all Democrats — that it would audit the agency’s policies regarding cellphone surveillance. The OIG’s letter comes in response to those senators’ request for an investigation last October. CBP has refused to reveal much about how it uses the data purchased from commercial vendors other than confirming publicly available information that such contracts with those vendors exist. The type of location data in question is collected from millions of phones, with most people unaware that their movements are being tracked this way and unable to find out who has access to that information. There are few laws regulating location data companies, and government agencies have used this to their advantage, spending millions to gain access to this information. Privacy advocates have long decried this practice, and privacy-minded lawmakers have pushed for investigations and laws to regulate it. Location data purchased from private companies gives government agencies access to potentially enormous amounts of personal data from millions of people who aren’t suspected of or involved in any crimes. While there are few laws regarding private companies’ collection and use of this data, law enforcement typically has to have a warrant and show cause to get this information on its own. Obtaining it through a private vendor with no such restrictions is a way to get around those constraints, and currently a legal gray area. “If federal agencies are tracking American citizens without warrants, the public deserves answers and accountability,” Wyden said in a statement sent to Recode. “I won’t accept anything less than a thorough and swift inspector general investigation that sheds light on CBP’s phone location data surveillance program.” CBP is one of several law enforcement and government agencies that purchase location data from private companies — data they otherwise would not have such easy access to and which their own rules may forbid them from obtaining. The Wall Street Journal reported in February that the DHS’s CBP and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arms used location data from a company called Venntel to locate undocumented immigrants and routes they used to cross the border. Records show that CBP has given Venntel hundreds of thousands of dollars to access its location database. “CBP is not above the law and refused to answer questions about purchasing people’s mobile location history without a warrant — including from shady data brokers like Venntel,” Warren added. “I’m glad that the Inspector General agreed to our request to investigate this potentially unconstitutional abuse of power by the CBP because we must protect the public’s Fourth Amendment rights to be free from warrantless searches.” The agency has maintained that it only uses a limited amount of anonymized data in accordance with its policies, but experts say it’s not difficult to identify a device’s owner given enough information about where that device has been and when. And there’s so little transparency in how this data is collected that it’s doubtful anyone knows for sure if it even follows whatever policies agencies have in place. Not to be outdone, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced on Wednesday that it is suing the DHS to force the agency to make its records over phone location data purchases public after the agency ducked its Freedom of Information Act requests. “It’s critical we uncover how federal agencies are accessing bulk databases of Americans’ location data and why,” Nathan Freed Wessler, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Technology, and Privacy Project, said in a statement sent to Recode. “There can be no accountability without transparency.” The DHS is not the only government agency to purchase and use Venntel’s services. Venntel also has contracts with the FBI and the DEA. The Internal Revenue Service also tried Venntel in 2017 and 2018 but apparently didn’t find the data useful in its work, the Wall Street Journal reported. And Venntel is not the only location data company that works with the government in this way: X-Mode and Babel Street also have deals with government agencies and their contractors. Other parts of the government are fighting back. In June, the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform began investigating “the collection and sale of sensitive mobile phone location data” to federal agencies for law enforcement purposes. The IRS is also in the middle of an audit of its use of Venntel, prompted by another request from Wyden and Warren. In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in Carpenter v. United States that law enforcement couldn’t buy cellphone tower data without a warrant, and the FCC recently issued hundreds of millions of dollars in fines to Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint/T-Mobile for selling tower data to private companies without customer knowledge or consent. The kind of data Venntel sells, the company says, comes from other means: typically, trackers placed in mobile apps. But there are other sources as well. Location data companies also work with other companies that supply this data or purchase it directly from the app developers, making it hard for anyone — including their own customers — to know exactly what they have and where they got it. Venntel, for example, is a subsidiary of Gravy Analytics, which says it has data location information from “tens of thousands of apps” acquired through “many different data partners,” giving it access to “billions of daily location signals.” Venntel does provide device owners with a way to “opt-out” of having their location data collected by the company, but it requires users to know their device’s mobile identifier (Venntel suggests downloading an app to find out) and then making the opt-out request every time that identifier is reset — which Apple and Android devices now allow customers to do as a privacy-preserving measure. Users must also have cookies enabled on their browser when submitting the request. It remains to be seen what, if anything, the DHS’s investigation of itself will reveal or do, or if the ACLU’s lawsuit will be successful. Either way, unregulated and persistent collection and sale of our location data gives data brokers a tremendous amount of information about us, which, in turn, can be used in all kinds of ways by all kinds of purchasers — including the government. Your privacy options, by contrast, are limited. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

Read More...
posted 1 day ago on re/code
Shaneé Benjamin for Vox A look at the finances, footprints, and futures of department store chains. The pandemic has been terrible for numerous industries, and department stores are no exception. Once the main place many Americans did their clothing and other retail shopping, department stores have long been in decline, along with the malls that they anchored. The decline of department stores, which have substantial footprints in physical real estate, is indicative of how shopping in America is continually moving online. Americans are still buying plenty — retail sales have already risen beyond their pre-pandemic highs, according to census data — but the shopping landscape has changed. A spate of department store bankruptcies, declining sales, and closures, as well as a variety of new businesses popping up in their place show that retail in America is in a state of rapid transition. These trends also provide a number of clues as to where this will all land. Death of department stores by the numbers A big challenge for department stores in recent years is the sheer overhead of the physical space they occupy. This is part of the reason why online retailers have an edge. They sell all the same stuff as department stores, but their real estate footprint is much smaller. And the pandemic meant that Americans couldn’t go to these stores safely — or legally — exacerbating a long-term trend away from shopping in stores. In turn, e-commerce sales surged this year. Online retail sales jumped 32 percent in the second quarter compared to the first quarter, reaching $211.5 billion, according to Census Bureau data. That’s 16 percent of all retail sales. It has since modulated a bit to 14 percent as more businesses reopened in the third quarter, but a new spate of shutdowns could reverse that. !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-G7mNU");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-G7mNU");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() Meanwhile, department store sales have been declining, according to data from the Census Bureau. After sales took a dive in the spring when stay-at-home orders kept people out of stores, the sector is having trouble recovering as Covid-19 numbers are surging again this fall. (Note that if department stores used separate establishments to fulfill their online orders, that wouldn’t be included in the data below, so total revenue should be higher.) !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-yIG3S");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-yIG3S");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() Department stores have upped their online presence, with digital sales at Kohl’s, Nordstrom, and Macy’s up double digits in the second quarter of 2020, according to Coresight Research. But that hasn’t been enough to compensate for overall revenue decline. For the publicly traded department stores, total revenue — which includes online sales — has generally been stagnant if not declining for the past decade, with a precipitous drop this year due to the pandemic. According to earnings reported at the beginning of 2020, annual profit declined for Kohl’s, Macy’s, Dillard’s, Nordstrom, and J.C. Penney. !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-qM0X6");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-qM0X6");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() Foot traffic is another way to look at how department stores’ physical retail operations have declined. Nationwide, foot traffic to major department stores is currently about half what it was last year, according to data from SafeGraph. A new round of lockdowns could bring foot traffic back to where it was this spring: next to nothing. !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-gsoLS");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-gsoLS");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() As a result of these pressures, a slew of department stores filed for bankruptcy this year, beginning with J.C. Penney, Neiman Marcus, and Stage Stores this spring, followed by Century 21, Stein Mart, and Lord & Taylor this summer. Retailers in general have filed for bankruptcy en masse this year, according to a CB Insights report. “The Covid-19 pandemic has only accelerated the fall of several retailers, which have faced dwindling sales and growing debt over the past few years as consumer preferences change,” the report states. !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-QqTBU");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-QqTBU");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() Even department stores that haven’t gone bankrupt are shuttering stores in an effort to cut costs and rightsize their sprawling footprints. As a result, the total number of department stores has declined precipitously in the past few years. There are currently about 6,000 department stores in the US, according to market research firm IBISWorld, and that number is expected to decline by about another 2,000 in the next five years. In February, even before the pandemic began to shutter businesses in the US, Macy’s announced it would be closing more than 20 percent of its stores. This spring, J.C. Penney announced it would close nearly 200 stores this year and another 50 next year — about 30 percent of its stores. Nordstrom announced closures of its own in May. !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-paJAA");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-paJAA");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() Additionally, department stores like Macy’s are opting for smaller footprints as fewer people go to stores and more people shop online. Instead of a place to buy things, the remaining physical stores are functioning as showrooms. “They show you the sexiest goods to stimulate demand and start you thinking, knowing you’re going to pull out your phone and shop there,” Victor Calanog, head of commercial real estate economics at Moody’s, told Recode. They’re also experimenting with different store formats to better serve the areas they’re in, according to MJ Munsell, chief creative officer at architecture and design firm MG2. That can mean smaller stores with merchandise particular to the location, stores geared toward picking up merchandise purchased online, and stores that offer, for example, services like tailoring or makeup application. “The idea that you build the same store throughout the country and people will come is archaic,” she said. The second lives of the fallen department stores The story of dying department stores is also one of new beginnings. Half of department stores within malls could close by the end of 2021, according to Green Street Advisors, and the average department store ranges from 100,000 to 160,000 square feet. All these closures are going to leave behind lots of empty space and unpaid bills — retailers owe $52 billion in back rent — as well as the potential for new businesses to overtake the old. Whether or not it’s viable to repurpose old department stores depends on a number of factors, including location, the building itself, and the needs of other growing businesses. What department stores have been repurposed into falls generally into three buckets: other traditional retail space; something entirely different like restaurants or apartments; or — what has become the de facto replacement — warehouses or fulfillment centers for online retailers like Amazon. Department stores located in regional malls — that is, large malls in densely populated areas — have the best odds of being repurposed, according to Brandon Hardin, a research economist at the National Association of Realtors who worked on the report. “Assuming they’re in the right location, a significant portion could be repurposed into something more useful,” Hardin told Recode. Smaller malls located in less populous areas will have a harder time finding new uses. Department store locations in city centers, especially those in historic buildings, lend themselves well to upscale apartments and offices. Meanwhile, ones located in the suburbs can benefit from conversions that make the space feel more urban. “There’s convenience to living in the suburbs because there’s a lot there, but not a sense of community necessarily,” MG2’s Munsell said. “People are craving the notion that they can go to a space, get something to eat, exercise, meet friends — it gives a sense of place to suburban environments.” As such, MG2 is in the process of reconceptualizing suburban malls, one in Florida and one on the West Coast, to be mixed-use community destinations. The plans include turning the malls and their giant parking lots into a combination of housing, entertainment, restaurants, and pedestrian-friendly green spaces, in addition to new retail space. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) compiled a number of case studies about how malls and the department stores that serve as their anchor tenants have been or are already being repurposed. !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-8Sl5k");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-8Sl5k");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() According to an NAR survey in March, among 94 malls identified as formerly vacant, about a third were simply turned into other types of retail stores or popups. A number of malls have been turned into mixed-use buildings, with much of the retail being replaced by a combination of offices, apartments, and hotel rooms. A handful of others were turned into a wide variety of businesses, including medical offices, fitness centers, churches, and even one cricket stadium. For example, Los Angeles’s Westside Pavilion — this is the iconic mall that used to house Macy’s and Nordstrom and was featured in the movie Clueless — has been converted into office space for Google. Creative Commons The Westside Pavilion mall in Los Angeles, which was featured in Clueless, is being converted into Google office space. Hudson Pacific Properties An artist rendering of repurposed space at the Westside mall. The million square feet of retail space of Worcester Center Galleria in Massachusetts has been converted into 500,000 square feet of office space, 1,000 residential units, and 168 hotel rooms, as well as 350,000 feet of new retail. And then there are warehouses and fulfillment centers. A lot of the conditions that once made department stores in large malls viable also work well for online fulfillment centers. They’re centrally located spaces large enough to hold the goods needed for large nearby populations. Becoming distribution centers represents a productive second life for department stores — albeit one coated in a bit of irony, since the online retailers who use them are part of the reason for department stores’ decline in the first place. The Wall Street Journal reported this summer that Simon Property Group, the biggest mall operator, was discussing turning some of their 11 Sears and 63 J.C. Penney stores — both of which have filed for bankruptcy — into fulfillment locations for Amazon, their biggest competitor. That would provide a much-needed source of revenue for Simon, which received only 85 percent of its expected rent last quarter. Amazon has already converted a number of former retail spaces into online facilities. Last year, Amazon finished construction on an 855,000-square-foot fulfillment center in the place of what had once been the closed and condemned Euclid Square Mall in Ohio. That was the second time an Amazon fulfillment store rose from the ashes of a dead Ohio mall. Indeed, it’s likely many malls and department stores will meet a similar fate. Industrial space commands lower rent than retail, so mall owners will not be getting their previous premiums on those locations. For now, though, anything is better than empty space.

Read More...
posted 2 days ago on re/code
In factory farms, pigs are sometimes locked in crates the width and length of their bodies, so they can’t even turn around.  | Getty Images These are the most effective charities for reducing animal suffering. If you care about animals and want to reduce their suffering, but aren’t sure exactly how, Animal Charity Evaluators has you covered. The California-based nonprofit has released its annual list of top recommended animal charities. Most of these charities focus on strategies that aim to improve conditions on factory farms — or to get around factory farming altogether by promoting the transition to a plant-based diet. Concentrating on factory farms makes sense, because they are sites of suffering on a massive scale. It’s not just the death that takes place there — in the US alone, factory farming kills about 9 billion land animals each year — but the suffering that animals are forced to endure while they’re alive. Hens, calves, and pigs are often confined in spaces so small they can barely move, and conditions are so galling that “ag-gag” laws exist to hide the cruelty from the public. When we hear about some of these conditions — like the fact that chickens are forced to produce eggs at such a fast rate that their intestines sometimes partially fall out under the strain — we may want to put a stop to them. But it can be hard to know which charities will actually make good use of our dollars. Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE) researches and promotes the most high-impact, effective ways to help animals. The group uses three main criteria when deciding whether to recommend an organization, as my colleague Kelsey Piper previously explained: Charities must be “likely to produce the greatest gains for animals” — that is, they’re doing high-impact work and they’ve got the evidence to back it up. Charities must “actively evaluate and improve their programs” — they’re constantly trying to figure out the most effective way to advocate for animals (which may change over time) and adjusting their programming accordingly. Charities must “have a demonstrated need for more funding” — they actually need more money on hand in order to reach everyone they know how to reach (which is not the case for every charity). With this in mind, ACE has selected its four top charities of 2020: 1) The Albert Schweitzer Foundation: This group does outreach to corporations to demand they use humanely raised products. It also does legal work; for example, it defended undercover investigators in a case in Germany. It’s also one of the first animal charities starting to prioritize corporate outreach on behalf of farmed fish. “We believe that farmed fish advocacy can be particularly impactful,” ACE writes, “due to the large scale and neglectedness of farmed fish suffering.” There’s good reason to think fish feel pain and that fish are more emotionally complex than you might think. 2) The Good Food Institute: This organization promotes the development of delicious plant-based alternatives to meat, dairy, and eggs. (Think Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat.) It offers business, legal, scientific, and strategic advice to plant-based companies, and advocates for regulations that won’t penalize their products in the consumer market. In the long run, developing plant-based foods could prove very effective at weakening the animal agriculture industry — possibly more effective than moral arguments against factory farming. “There are few charities working in this area, and GFI has shown strong leadership and efficiency,” ACE writes. 3) The Humane League: This organization runs successful campaigns urging corporations to adopt higher animal welfare standards. It also conducts grassroots legislative advocacy. Importantly, it has an evidence-driven outlook, collecting and using data to guide its approach, and testing news ways to improve its programs. 4) Wild Animal Initiative: A new entry this year (the other three were also on last year’s list), this group is doing something unique: researching and advocating for ways to help wild animals. Instead of focusing on the welfare of animals in factory farms, it’s focused on the welfare of free-ranging animals from birds to raccoons to insects. It studies questions like: Which animals are capable of subjective experiences? What is the quality of their lives like in the wild? How can we safely and sustainably help them? ACE also named some standout charities — organizations it says are doing good work despite not making it into the top four — such as Anima International, which runs corporate campaigns, releases undercover investigations, organizes protests and conferences on animal advocacy, and pushes restaurants and food service companies to make plant-based options available. If you donate to one of the charities above, you can be reasonably confident that your money will be used effectively to minimize animal suffering. And if you’re not sure which of them you’d like to donate to, you can give to the Recommended Charity Fund and leave it up to ACE to distribute the money based on what their research suggests is most effective at the time. Is it misguided to worry about animals when so many humans are suffering? Americans are increasingly concerned with animal welfare. The incredibly rapid embrace of plant-based meat products like Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat is, in part, attributable to a growing sense that we can and should be inflicting far less suffering on animals. A 2015 Gallup poll found that 62 percent of Americans said animals deserve some legal protections. Another 32 percent — nearly one-third — expressed an even stronger pro-animal stance, saying they believe animals should get the same rights as people. In 2008, only 25 percent voiced that view. It seems more and more Americans are coming to see animals as part of our moral circle, the imaginary boundary we draw around those we consider worthy of ethical consideration. Some people, however, react to this with a bout of “whataboutism”: What about urgent human problems like the pandemic and poverty? Underlying this objection is typically a sense that we can’t afford to “waste” compassion on animal suffering, because every bit of caring we devote to that cause means we have less to devote to human suffering. But as Vox’s Ezra Klein wrote, recent research from Harvard’s Yon Soo Park and Dartmouth’s Benjamin Valentino showed that concern for human suffering and concern for animal suffering is not zero-sum — in fact, where you find one, you tend to find the other: In one half of the study, they used General Social Survey data to see whether people who supported animal rights were likelier to support a variety of human rights, a test of whether abstract compassion is zero-sum. Then they compared how strong animal treatment laws were in individual states to how strong laws were protecting human beings, a test of whether political activism is zero-sum. The answer, in both cases, is that compassion seems to beget compassion. People who strongly favored government help for the sick “were over 80 percent more likely to support animal rights than those who strongly opposed it,” the authors write. The finding held even after controlling for factors like political ideology. Support for animal rights was also correlated — though the size of the effect was smaller — with support for LGBT individuals, racial and ethnic minorities, unauthorized immigrants, and low-income people. Similarly, states that did the most to protect animal rights also did the most to protect and expand human rights. States with strong laws protecting LGBT residents, strong protections against hate crimes, and inclusive policies for undocumented immigrants were much likelier to have strong protections for animals. The question of why these correlations exist is up for debate, but the bottom line is that we’d better hope our society takes action on animal suffering: If it does, we’re more likely to see it taking action on human suffering, too. Sign up for the Future Perfect newsletter. Twice a week, you’ll get a roundup of ideas and solutions for tackling our biggest challenges: improving public health, decreasing human and animal suffering, easing catastrophic risks, and — to put it simply — getting better at doing good.

Read More...
posted 2 days ago on re/code
Shaneé Benjamin for Vox In movies like Splash, Miracle on 34th Street, and The Women, the department store is where we go to learn middle-class values. There’s a French movie from 1930, black-and-white and silent, that begins with a young country girl named Denise walking into Paris. Upon her arrival, Denise is greeted by ads: sign after sign, billboards, banners, parades, fliers that blow right into her outstretched hands. And all of them are advertising just one thing: the city’s grand new department store, Au Bonheur des Dames, The Ladies’ Paradise. At this magical new department store, from which the film takes its title, Denise can find whatever she wants. That’s what the ads promise her: The department store holds all that you desire. The department store is one of the great movie and TV backdrops of the 20th century. Expansive, luxurious, and filled with props that lend themselves to everything from comedy to romance to horror, department stores are by their nature cinematic. The camera sweeps lovingly over their racks upon racks of goods in movies and TV alike: Splash, Mad Men, Miracle on 34th Street, The Queen’s Gambit, Dawn of the Dead. Department stores are where we go to find all that we desire. And they teach us what it is that we’re supposed to desire, too. Under capitalism, you are what you buy. If you’re a respectable member of the bourgeoisie, for most of the 20th century, you buy at a department store. So the department store offers pop culture a place for teasing out issues of class, and specifically the middle class. For nearly a century, the department store has been where pop culture has gone to think about the middle class. And now, as the American middle class compresses, the department store is leaving, too. At the department store, you can learn to become a real girl Arguably the greatest cinematic innovation of the department store film is the makeover montage. The chance to watch characters try on identity after identity, and every last one of those identities is for sale. And at the center of the makeover montage is the character learning how to perform class and gender, how to become respectably middle class, and how to live out a hegemonic gender identity. This idea goes back to Au Bonheur Des Dames, which features Denise, newly hired as an in-store model at that fancy department store, learning how to walk and dress the way a bourgeois woman walks and dresses. She paces back and forth through the models’ dressing room in her slip while the other models laugh and jeer at her, but by the time the store hosts a fashion show, she’s learned how to sway her hips correctly. And it stretches to this year, when 2020’s The Queen’s Gambit sees chess prodigy Beth go straight to a department store with her chess winnings so she can buy proper suburban ’60s teen black-and-white saddle shoes, all the better to lord it over the mean girls at school who mocked her for her orphanage-standard brown ones. In 1984’s Splash, when Madison the mermaid wants to learn how to be a human woman, she heads right to Bloomingdales, where a kindly saleslady informs her that her mens’ suiting just won’t do. The saleslady puts her in a miniskirt and heels, and Madison wanders over to the electronics department to watch a jazzercise class on a TV bank. Within hours, she’s speaking fluent English. Perhaps the most elaborate department store makeover montage of all comes in 1987’s Mannequin, when Emmy — a time-traveling Egyptian ghost who is also a department store mannequin; truly, this movie is exquisite — leads her window-dresser boyfriend through a variety of quick-change costumes and dances. As synth-heavy ’80s hits play in the background, rapidly they become rock stars, gangsters, vampires, and beach bums. The character justification for this montage is that Emmy longed to see the world and try out new things back when she was alive, but she never had the chance. Now that she’s a mannequin within the rich, wide world of a department store, she can do it all — kind of. She can be anyone she wants to be because the multitude of clothes offered by a department store will make her that person. Emmy doesn’t need real life as long as she has the department store. And the department store offers employment to those deserving members of the middle class who have fallen on hard times. When Mad Men secretary Joan leaves her office job upon her marriage, only to find that her husband can’t support them after all, she gets a job at a department store. When The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Midge divorces her husband, before her career in standup comedy works out, she too supports herself with a department store job. But the class movement the department store offers isn’t always presented as a good thing. The adultery that powers 1930’s The Women begins when a wealthy husband goes to a department store to buy perfume for his wife, and then he ends up falling for the perfume salesgirl. And when the wife’s rich and catty friends go to the store to confront the salesgirl, such are her savvy street smarts that they end up falling into an elegant store-branded trash bin, shrieking in humiliation. When the salesgirl enters another department store as a customer and dares to meet the wife on equal footing, the wife knows at last that she has lost. Even horror movies know that department stores are where we go to reestablish our identities as safe, respectable members of the bourgeoisie. In George Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead, it’s the mall and especially J.C. Penney where the survivors of a zombie plague try to shelter. But the zombies are irresistibly drawn there too, by “some kind of instinct. Memory.” After all, “this was an important place in their lives.” The story of the department store in pop culture is the story of the rise and fall of the middle class In pop culture, the department store builds and reaffirms the middle class, and in this way the store itself comes to stand in for the class. Films and TV have tracked the creation and supremacy of department stores, and also their decline. And the message is clear: When the store that sells all your desires with a smile is in danger, the middle class is, too. The department store must be protected. Not that the department store is always in danger. When Au Bonheur des Dames hit screens in 1930 and codified the tropes of the department store movie, the department store is the big new bully on the street, and it’s destroying Denise’s family boutique drapery. It drives her uncle to madness, and after he runs at the department store with a gun, he’s fatally run over by one of their trucks. The shop’s owner, stricken with remorse, offers to give the store up — but Denise, seeing the writing on the wall, tells him no: He must keep the store and marry her. Together, they will make Au Bonheur des Dames into the biggest store in the world, never mind what lives are destroyed in the process. That is their dream; that is capitalism. By 1947, Miracle on 34th Street sees the department store transcending any questions of bullying other stores or being in any danger itself. The Macy’s where Kris Kringle sets up shop simply is, as eternal and unchanging as the vision of Christmas that Hollywood was at the same time busily enshrining into American popular consciousness. And when Kris Kringle institutes a new policy of sending shoppers to competitors if Macy’s doesn’t stock exactly what they’re looking for, it comes across as an act of condescending noblesse oblige. Of course Macy’s can afford to be generous. Everyone knows that its competitors don’t pose it any real threat. When the store that sells all your desires with a smile is in danger, the middle class is, too But by the time Mannequin came around in 1987, the classic grand and gracious department store of the beginning of the century — stores like the Herald Square Macy’s of Miracle on 34th Street — was already in danger. The tawdry new-money department store had arrived to threaten it. In Mannequin, Emmy’s store of choice, Prince & Co., is represented onscreen by Philadelphia’s iconic Wanamaker building. Wanamakers was the first American department store, and it’s built like a cathedral, with a giant organ that spans multiple stories of the vast marble mezzanine and an ethos of fine craftsmanship and personalized customer service. Prince & Co. is facing stiff competition from trashy nearby Illustra, which features plastic hangers, windowless underground shopping levels, faceless modern mannequins, and budget-friendly low prices. But Emmy and her boyfriend are able to bring a new level of prestige and excitement to Prince & Co. with their groundbreaking window displays — which means that as they save Prince & Co. from Illustra, they’re saving a specific idea of what it means to be middle class. The trajectory these films outline is one in which stores get progressively more and more impersonal and soulless. And every time they do so, our pop culture warns us, we take a step away from beauty and humanity and a step toward alienation and self-loathing. But the journey doesn’t end with the transition from elegant Prince & Co. to cheap and convenient Illustra. Since the 1980s, department stores have slowly faded out of popular culture’s present day. Sure, Rachel on Friends worked at Bloomingdales, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith had a shootout in a department store in 2005. But generally, department stores have stopped feeling all that relevant to pop culture that’s meant to be contemporary and urgent. Instead, over the past few decades, when department stores have shown up in the movies or on TV, they’ve tended to be in period pieces, where part of the point is to get lost in the glamour of a bygone world: Cate Blanchett swanning through a department store toy floor in her fur coat in 2015’s Carol; Rachel Brosnahan pitching the perfect red lipstick on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. And in 2015, a new show emerged about a store that continued that promise to sell you all that you desire. “One-stop shopping for everything you could ever need,” is how this new store is described in the opening of the first episode. “Do you want to be thinner, fatter, happier, sadder? Are you looking for friendship? Solitude? Or even love?” This new store was there to sell them all to you. But it’s not a department store. The show is Superstore, and the store it’s describing is Cloud Nine, a big-box store in the mold of Walmart or Target. That’s the new place our pop culture sends us to find everything we desire: a store just as destructive to mom-and-pop businesses as Au Bonheur des Dames was, but without the seductive trappings of luxury and glamour to compensate. The new signifier of the middle class is a lot more precarious and a lot less beautiful than the old one was. And the superstore isn’t the last step, either. After all, if there’s a single place in the world that’s going to sell you all that you desire, that will take us to the final word on convenience, affordability, and alienation, it’s not the department store. And it’s not the superstore, either. It’s the Everything Store. It’s Amazon.

Read More...
posted 3 days ago on re/code
Ajit Pai is leaving the FCC when the Biden administration begins. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images Pai’s business-loving, regulation-undoing legacy will likely last for years to come. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chair Ajit Pai has announced that he will leave the agency on January 20, when Joe Biden is sworn in as president. This gives Biden at least one commissioner slot to fill on his first day in office and, should that choice be confirmed, a Democrat majority to fulfill his vision of what the FCC should be and do for the next four years. Pai’s controversial tenure as FCC chair has been marked by business-friendly deregulation that helped media conglomerates get even bigger while doing little for lower-income people who couldn’t afford internet access — which has become an even more essential service during the pandemic. Pai also awarded billions of dollars in subsidies to broadband companies for providing internet access to remote locations, an investment of public dollars to close the digital divide that red state lawmakers found especially beneficial. “It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve at the Federal Communications Commission, including as Chairman of the FCC over the past four years,” Pai said in a statement. “I am grateful to President Trump for giving me the opportunity to lead the agency in 2017, to President Obama for appointing me as a Commissioner in 2012, and to Senate Majority Leader McConnell and the Senate for twice confirming me. To be the first Asian-American to chair the FCC has been a particular privilege. As I often say: only in America.” “While we did not always agree on policy matters, I always valued our shared commitment to public service,” Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic FCC commissioner who is likely to become the acting chair when Biden takes office, said in a statement. Geoffrey Starks, the other Democrat on the commission, issued a similar if slightly less formal statement: “Chairman Pai and I may disagree on many policy issues, but we are in full agreement about two things: the outstanding quality of the FCC’s staff and the tremendous abilities of Patrick Mahomes.” Pai, a Republican, joined the FCC after working for Verizon, a fact he used to gleefully troll his Democratic colleagues who were concerned about Pai’s ties to the company. And since he’d been granted a second five-year term by President Trump in 2017, Pai could have stayed on as a commissioner until that term expired, but it’s customary for chairs to leave the agency when a new administration comes in. The FCC is considered to be an independent agency with five commissioners (no more than three of whom can be from one political party) who are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Under Pai, the FCC set about deregulating the industries under its purview as much as possible and reversing landmark Obama-era decisions. The net neutrality repeal is probably the most well-known example of both. During the Obama years, the FCC reclassified internet service providers (ISPs) as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act, giving the agency more authority over them and forcing ISPs to treat all internet traffic the same. That would mean, for instance, that ISPs couldn’t charge more for certain types of traffic or restrict access to certain websites. Pai was a vocal opponent of this policy as a commissioner under Obama, and repealed it as soon as he possibly could after taking over as chair. Pai’s reasoning was that such regulations would hamper investment and growth in a burgeoning industry (whether or not the internet can still be considered a burgeoning industry is up for debate). Pai called for a “light touch framework,” akin to the Clinton administration’s approach from decades earlier (when the internet truly was a burgeoning industry). This light-touch framework gave the FCC little recourse when the pandemic hit. The crisis left millions of Americans to rely on the internet more than ever, but they had fewer protections from exploitive rate increases or sudden service cuts. Pai’s initiatives to reduce fraud in the agency’s universal lifeline service, which subsidizes phone and internet for lower-income people, made it harder for people who actually needed it to qualify for and stay in the program, and his actions reduced the number of companies that could provide it. The $9.25 internet service subsidy also didn’t cover the cost of most people’s vastly increased data needs. Pai’s solutions to these problems included asking broadband companies not to cut off subscribers who couldn’t pay their bills during the first few months of the pandemic, and to pause lifeline service de-enrollment temporarily. However, Pai refused to extend the E-Rate program, which gives educational institutions heavily discounted internet and telecommunications services, to the private homes that became classrooms when the pandemic shut schools and libraries down. One of Pai’s last acts for the agency will likely be his attempt to use Title II to assert the FCC’s authority over internet service providers, platforms, and sites by “clarifying” Section 230, which gives those services immunity from liability for user content while still allowing internet companies to moderate that content as they see fit. For example: if someone posts something defamatory about you on Facebook, you can sue that user but you can’t sue Facebook. Ironically, this is the opposite of a light-touch framework, the legal justification for which rests on having a Title II authority over internet services that Pai decidedly didn’t want and worked hard to remove. But Section 230 was a pet cause of President Trump, especially as social media platforms increasingly cracked down on accounts that spread misinformation. Trump was enraged, for instance, when his election-related tweets and Facebook posts were labeled with fact-checks. Conservatives have increasingly asserted that tech companies are biased against certain political viewpoints, although studies have shown that social media actually amplifies and spreads conservative content far more than liberal content. Trump issued an executive order in May asking the FCC to dictate what content platforms could moderate and how, in order to keep their Section 230 protections. In October, Pai issued a statement saying the FCC would do as Trump asked. With Biden’s election, it’s exceedingly unlikely this will happen. Pai’s business-friendly FCC also tried to “strengthen local voices” and modernize media ownership rules by increasing how many television and radio stations one company may own and allowing them to own different media outlets in the same market. Some of these rules were struck down in court. Meanwhile, a proposed merger between conservative local television provider Sinclair Broadcast Group and Tribune Media Company, which would have put Sinclair stations in roughly 70 percent of American homes, fell apart when Sinclair lied about its plans to sell off stations in order to comply with FCC ownership regulations. Pai was an initial proponent of the Sinclair takeover — to the extent that he was investigated for showing preferential treatment to the company (he was cleared) — but would ultimately defy Trump and vote to block the merger. Sinclair ended up with a record $48 million fine from the FCC. Tribune’s stations were sold to a different company, Nexstar, which then became the largest television station owner in the country. Pai’s FCC also approved the Sprint/T-Mobile merger, which decreased the number of major American wireless carriers from four to three. Pai said the deal would speed up the rollout of 5G. He also took a hands-off approach to the Time Warner/AT&T merger, saying the FCC didn’t need to review or approve it because it didn’t involve the transfer of airwave licenses, effectively clearing the way for the massive media conglomerate despite the Department of Justice’s antitrust concerns. While Pai’s FCC may not have done much for urban and lower-income Americans, it did provide billions in funding for access to broadband in rural and tribal communities and — despite delays and interagency fights — eventually begin to expand 5G service across the country. With Pai’s departure and Republican commissioner Michael O’Rielly’s term expiring at the end of the year, Biden will either begin his presidency with a 2-1 Democrat majority FCC or an FCC split along party lines. That depends on if Trump’s nominee to replace O’Rielly, Nathan Simington, is confirmed. Simington is seen as a major proponent of Trump’s Section 230 executive order and didn’t seem to be popular among Senate Democrats in his November confirmation hearing. Some Republicans have committed to voting for him, but a date for the vote has not yet been scheduled, and there isn’t much time left. Should Simington not be confirmed, Trump appointee Brendan Carr would be left as the sole Republican commissioner on a three-person panel. Carr’s statement about Pai’s departure was significantly longer and more detailed than the other commissioners’, saying that Pai “cares deeply about the digital divide,” thanking him for his “courageous and principled service to the country,” and saying he would “leave behind an [unparalleled] record of accomplishments — one that would not even fit in his oversized coffee mug.” Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

Read More...
posted 3 days ago on re/code
The fates of the American middle class and American department stores have always been intertwined. Department stores, once a symbol of the American middle class, have been declining for years, along with the shopping malls they anchor in communities across the US. Just last year, both the high-end Barneys and the country’s oldest department store, Lord & Taylor, went bankrupt and announced plans to close all their locations. Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which shocked the economy, hitting lower- and middle-income Americans the hardest by forcing them out of work and deeper into debt, with little or no relief in sight. The crisis also temporarily shuttered most nonessential physical retail stores and kept people at home for months, giving them more reasons than ever before to shop online at e-commerce giants like Amazon or from the smaller direct-to-consumer brands whose ads follow us all around the internet. As we near the end of 2020, the prognosis for the American department store is grimmer than it’s ever been. The reasons extend far beyond Covid-19 or even the continued rise of online shopping, and have more to do with trends in the American economy that have been shrinking the middle class while enriching the already wealthy. That’s why the decline of these retail giants is something to pay attention to. They employ hundreds of thousands of people and occupy an outsize space in our communities; their gradual disappearance, as well as what is replacing them, tells us something about where we’re headed. —Samantha Oltman, editor of Recode The death of the department store and the American middle class The collapse of America’s middle class crushed department stores. Amazon and the pandemic are the final blows. by Jason Del Rey Pop culture’s department stores taught us what to want | coming Tuesday by Constance Grady The death and rebirth of America’s department stores, in charts | coming Wednesday by Rani Molla What one of Amazon’s biggest critics thinks about the future of the industry | coming Thursday by Shirin Ghaffary How retailers track your every move in exchange for coupons and convenience | coming Friday by Sara Morrison

Read More...
posted 3 days ago on re/code
A shot from Hell or High Water (2016). | CBS Films/YouTube Rural America on film, from Appalachia to the Ozarks, coal miners to sharecroppers. Let’s not mince words: Netflix’s new Oscar-bait Hillbilly Elegy is not the ode to vanishing rural American life it seems to want to be. In the name of presenting an empathetic view of the Appalachian community where it’s set, Ron Howard’s film, based on the bestselling memoir by lawyer J.D. Vance, dredges up a litany of cringe-y tropes and stereotypes about poverty, drug use, classism, and fading small-town America. Outside of a few pointed shots of bricked-up buildings and storefronts with peeling paint, the film has remarkably little to say about either the hillbilly life of its title or hillbillies themselves and their struggle to survive. What’s odd is that it’s not like there’s a shortage of films that Howard and his production team could have cribbed. There are so many better films that tackle the subject matter of rural American identity that we felt compelled to round them up for anyone who wants cinematic insight into hillbillies, rednecks, and rural life generally. (And no, Deliverance is not one of them.) Below we present 11 films, a mix of dramas and documentaries, that are far better elegies for the rural Americans they depict than the one currently getting all the buzz. First Language: The Race to Save Cherokee (2014) This short documentary film tells the story of a dwindling community of Native Americans in mountainous North Carolina as they fight to keep knowledge of the Cherokee language alive and thriving. Featuring both Cherokee and English subtitles, the film uses the fight to teach the Cherokee language as a gateway to discussing the many larger challenges and grim realities of indigenous life in the US. Most stories about Native Americans inevitably focus on reservation life in the West. It’s rare to get such a frank look at the communities who remain in the South, especially Appalachia. With its lovely lingering shots of the Carolina blue hills juxtaposed against glimpses of contemporary modern Cherokee life, First Language is not only a revealing portrait of Smoky Mountain culture, but it’s also a reminder that forced assimilation always comes at a cost — in this case, one still being felt centuries later. Where to watch: YouTube Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018) RaMell Ross’s tremendous, Oscar-nominated film Hale County might best be thought of as a tone poem rather than a traditional documentary. Through assembled footage of a rural Alabama county and stunning cinematography, Ross provides a close read of everyday Black life powerful enough to rival anything since Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. The result: a film that transforms the mundanity of normal American life into a beautiful, Tarkovsky-esque epic. It’s incredibly rare to find any film about Black communities in rural America that’s not using racism as the central conflict. (Consider: Mississippi Burning, Beloved, The Color Purple, and a film chosen for this list, Mudbound.) The weight of racial injustice does loom large over Hale County, but its primary work is to poeticize its subjects rather than frame them as victims. Through Ross’s delicate, soft lens, it’s kept at bay, at least for a while — much like the oncoming thunderstorm that serves as the film’s evening backdrop. Where to watch: Amazon Prime, YouTube Harlan County, USA (1976) The 1976 Oscar winner for Best Documentary, Harlan County, USA, documents the tense strike of unionized Eastern Kentucky miners to win higher wages in the face of institutional corruption, violent intimidation, and even murder. Documentarian Barbara Kopple became far more than an observant bystander on the production, often using her camera crew’s presence to quell intimidation tactics against the striking miners. Even so, the reality of life in the mining community and anti-union violence as she captures it on film is eye-opening and utterly engrossing. In the middle of a heated union meeting, one woman pulls a gun out of her cleavage and gleefully waves it around. “I ain’t here for a man, I’m here for a contract!” another union woman declares. She’s later voted president of the association. Rock on. Where to watch: YouTube Hell or High Water (2016) Gritty and infused with desperation, Hell or High Water is a modern heist Western that churns around a broader, relatable economic anxiety. It’s a post-recession No Country For Young Men, fueled by the housing crisis, fading towns, and the internal conflict between a Texan’s DIY wherewithal and an economic system that’s failed to protect him. It’s kind of astonishing that Scottish filmmaker David McKenzie hopped across the pond to deliver this sensitive, sumptuous look at two brothers whose determination to save the family from destitution drives them to embark on a modern-day bank-robbing spree. Hell or High Water could have easily been cliched and over the top, but its solid cast, deep reliance on setting, and well-worn sense of place save it, muting its melodramatics and turning it instead into a meditation on the thwarted hopes and dreams of the American heartland. Where to watch: Amazon Prime, YouTube The Last Picture Show (1971) Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 film about a dying southwestern town is a beautiful, devastating masterpiece — a film ostensibly about slow rural decay and the boredom of small-town life that seethes with tension and repressed emotion. Set in a fading Texas hamlet just before the Korean War, the film follows a group of high schoolers — including real-life siblings Timothy and Sam Bottoms — as they teeter between adolescence and adulthood, each getting a taste of sex, love, and disappointment as the war looms over them all. The Last Picture Show is probably most famous for Bogdanovich’s decision to film in black and white in order to capture the feeling of a bygone era. But also memorable is its all-star ensemble cast, which includes a young Beau Bridges, unforgettable turns from Ellen Burstyn and Eileen Brennan, Oscar-winning performances from Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman, and a head-turning screen debut from a teenage Cybill Shepard. Its characters feel like transplants from a Tennessee Williams play that have grown too worn out from dust and despair to perform their typical dramatic Tennessee Williams bullshit. Instead, the film suggests that its epic conflicts have all been forgotten, repressed, and laid aside as its community focuses on just getting by. Never you mind, never you mind. Where to watch: Amazon Prime, YouTube Mudbound (2017) Mudbound, Dee Rees’s stunning look at the legacy of sharecropping and racial tensions in 1940s Mississippi, garnered Netflix four Oscar nominations, including a groundbreaking nod for cinematographer Rachel Morrison. Though it’s packed with historic detail, its story of neighboring families struggling to make peace and survive off the land could almost take place at any time during the last 200 years: Neither the land nor the turbulent racial tensions that divide Mudbound’s poor farmers are any easier to master today than they were in the post-war-era South. The Odyssey. We follow escaped convict George Clooney and his two sidekicks (John Turturro and Tim Blake-Nelson, both sublime) across a daguerreotype-toned landscape of folk symbols. His goal? Make his way back to his wife and kids before she remarries — and, incidentally, before one of the historic floodings overseen by the Tennessee Valley Authority. This film was completely overshadowed by its tremendously successful, critically acclaimed soundtrack, which was ubiquitous in my bluegrass town (and everywhere else) for about a year after its release. Easily one of the best compilation soundtracks ever assembled, it's a must-hear, and a cultural journey in its own right — but don’t sleep on the movie itself. What a delight. Where to watch: Amazon Prime, YouTube October Sky (1999) Another film based on the true memoir of a small-town Appalachian boy who made good, October Sky adapts NASA engineer Homer Hickam’s life, with wide-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal playing the rocket-obsessed son of a coal miner. Like other biopics in its vein — Coal Miner’s Daughter comes to mind — October Sky runs on optimism in the face of hardship. But it also counters its up-by-your-bootstraps mantra with the reminder that life in the coal mines is often hopeless, with regional poverty leading to a generational cycle that forces many people to follow in their parents’ footsteps and become miners themselves. In the face of that bleak reality, Hickam’s unrelenting positivity is almost daffy. But Gyllenhaal, for whom this was a breakout role, sells this unlikely success story by lacing his performance with sheer desperation — a grim determination to escape being trapped between a mountain and a hard place. Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube Songcatcher (2000) Yet another historical Appalachian folk tale, Songcatcher is loosely based on the real-life work of folklorists and linguists — not something you hear every day as the basis for a plot. Janet McTeer's fictional linguistic anthropologist, a proper Edwardian Englishwoman, arrives in the backwoods of North Carolina to study the unique regional folk dialects, only to find herself a stranger in a strange land, far out of her depth. Though the storyline is sometimes cheesy, Songcatcher benefits from having a singular and compelling subject, as well as from a unique and often thrilling soundtrack. The ensemble cast features performances from actual folk singers, like Iris Dement, whose hypnotic twang must be heard to be believed. Songcatcher is worth watching just to hear Dement’s rich voice encapsulate a nation's worth of hope and despair. Where to watch: Amazon Prime, YouTube Where the Red Fern Grows (1974) This film about a boy and his two prized coon hounds growing up in the Ozarks will never be on any best-of lists unless they involve movies about dogs. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a more influential film for a certain subset of conservative, rural America. For a good period of my life growing up, I was subjected to Where The Red Fern Grows multiple times a week: at pre-school, at church, at grade school. Something about its mix of folksy Americana and nostalgia for a bygone vision of wilderness conquest, its overtly Christian themes, and cute dogs made this 1974 film (not to be confused with its 2003 remake or its odd 1992 sequel) a go-to form of indoctrination for countless ’80s and ’90s children across the region. The fact that it’s also a notoriously sad film may have even made it more bitterly endearing. This is, perhaps, a film that embodied a familiar cycle: one of rural American dreams set alight, then smothered, only to smolder again thanks to a heady cocktail of faith, resilience, and ideology. Where to watch: YouTube Winter’s Bone (2008) Before Ozark put the idea of “Ozark noir” into our heads, Debra Granik’s 2008 film Winter’s Bone did it first. It’s still the best version of it, too. It’s a bleak, beautiful, terrifying film that drew a Best Picture Oscar nod and launched its star Jennifer Lawrence’s entire career. Winter’s Bone tells the story of a determined 17-year-old named Ree who embarks on the darkest hero’s quest: She has to find her missing father in order to keep her family’s house and keep her family together. To do that, she must navigate a world of drug lords and secrets and somehow uncover the truth without winding up dead herself. And she has to manage it almost entirely alone. The general public mainly knows Lawrence through her goofy celeb persona and later career choices, but in Winter’s Bone, she turns in a performance that’s just about perfect. Co-star John Hawkes also got an Oscar nomination for playing her decrepit but well-meaning uncle, the only adult who has Ree’s back, to whatever degree he can. Filmed in the poverty-ridden Ozark community where it’s set, the landscape we see in Winter’s Bone is squalid but refreshingly authentic. Granik’s camera frames it unrelentingly and without judgment, allowing us to confront Ree’s everyday reality, and inevitably to see the humanity of everyone who endures it. As a statement on rural American life, it’s unique, unforgettable, and deeply empathetic. Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube

Read More...
posted 3 days ago on re/code
Shaneé Benjamin for Vox The collapse of America’s middle class crushed department stores. Amazon and the pandemic are the final blows. In a New Jersey suburb seven miles west of Midtown Manhattan, the American Dream is on shaky ground. The Dream in question isn’t the mythological notion that upward social mobility is within reach for all hard-working Americans. It’s a $5 billion, 3 million-square-foot shopping and entertainment complex in East Rutherford featuring an indoor ski slope, an ice-skating rink, and a Nickelodeon-branded amusement park. The complex finally opened last fall, but it’s now facing huge new challenges. The development’s complicated 17-year history, marked by ownership changes, false starts, and broken promises, had already put American Dream in a precarious situation. The Covid-19 pandemic hitting in March made things much worse. And whether the mall makes it in the long term will hinge in part on how it deals with the collapse of three of the marquee department stores that were to anchor the entire complex and draw foot traffic — Barneys New York, Lord & Taylor, and Century 21 — which all have gone bankrupt and closed, or are planning to close, all their stores in the US. Around 100 storefronts in American Dream opened their doors to customers in October and November, but the complex’s future is not guaranteed. Its owners, Triple Five Group, missed several mortgage payments this summer, and it’s not clear who might fill the enormous holes left by the three fallen department store chains, or which other retail tenants will opt out of their leases now that the development is missing three of its anchors. While the story of American Dream is unique in many ways, its struggles are emblematic of the bleak future facing many US malls and department stores — whose destinies have long been intertwined. The downfall of these once-crown jewels of retail will have meaningful impacts on the Americans who work for them and the communities they’ve long called home. More than half of all mall-based department stores will close by the end of 2021 Across the US, department stores are shrinking or shuttering altogether. In 2011, US department stores employed 1.2 million employees across 8,600 stores, according to estimates from the research firm IBISWorld. But in 2020, there are now fewer than 700,000 employees in the sector, working across just over 6,000 locations. The reasons for the struggles are both shared and unique. Since the Great Recession began in late 2007, the vast majority of income growth in the US has gone to high-income households, squeezing middle-class households and altering where they spend money. As a result, chains that sell brands at sharp discounts like TJ Maxx, Ross, and Dollar General have become more popular, siphoning away shoppers from full-price department stores like Macy’s and J.C. Penney that were designed to cater to a stronger middle class of yesteryear. All department stores are also facing the reality that they are no longer the main way most shoppers discover or access new brands — which was once perhaps their main appeal as one-time innovators. Consumer brands have increasingly become focused on building connections with customers through their own stores, websites, social media platforms, and other online-only marketplaces. All the while, department stores’ contraction is upending local labor markets and the communities they called home. And rock bottom is not even here yet. More than half of all mall-based department stores will close by the end of 2021, according to estimates by Green Street Advisors, a commercial property research firm. And that will have a massive impact on malls; as of January, department stores accounted for nearly one out of every three square feet in malls. “The department store genre has been taking the great American shopping mall down with it, slowly but inevitably,” said Mark Cohen, the director of retail studies at Columbia University who was previously the CEO of multiple department store chains in the US and Canada. What happens when an entire sector of retail, one that employs more than half a million people, is in free fall — and is slowing or dragging down shopping malls like the American Dream with it? And what becomes of the local communities across the country whose social identities and local economies rested on, at least in part, now-fallen department stores and the malls they buttressed? We’re about to find out. What’s killing the department store For much of the last century, US department store chains played an important role in many Americans’ lives and an innovative role in the retail sector. For the American middle class of the 20th century, department stores helped shape what successfully living the American dream looked like. These stores were often an entry point into fashion and home furnishing trends once reserved for only the wealthiest, since they offered large selections of name brands at affordable prices all under one roof — first in big cities, and then following population exoduses out to the suburbs. And as the main attractions for malls in the suburban US, they played a foundational role in the idea of shopping as a social activity in the second half of the 20th century. Department store employees also had it pretty good, for a time. The sector was welcoming to women salespeople, providing a path to certain corporate roles for those who found success, according to the book From Main Street to Mall: The Rise and Fall of the American Department Store. A successful salesperson working in one of these stores, especially before large chains came to dominate the sector, could make a career of their role, providing for a family, no college degree needed. Those days are mostly long gone. Since the Great Recession began in 2007, the middle 40 percent of the US saw its income shrink But over the last two decades especially, a confluence of other factors has placed several giants on death’s door and put even the most innovative in a precarious situation. These factors were both external and internal: Amazon led a boom in online shopping, and many brands that once relied on department stores began selling directly to customers online and in their own stores. Meanwhile, many department store chains made the wrong bets, investing more heavily in store expansion while underinvesting in merchandise differentiation and e-commerce strategies. But perhaps most critically for the chains targeting the middle class — think Macy’s, J.C. Penney, and Bon-Ton — this category of households has been struggling since the Great Recession began in 2007. According to a 2018 study from consulting firm Deloitte, “the middle 40 percent” of the country saw its income shrink in the previous decade, while more than $8 out of every $10 in income growth nationwide went to high-income households. As a result, discount chains that sell name brands at a bargain — like TJ Maxx and Ross stores — became much more attractive to middle-class shoppers than department stores selling at full price. The treasure-hunting aspect of stores like TJ Maxx and Home Goods also added to their appeal over many of their department store competitors. Macy’s, the largest traditional department store in the country, said earlier this year that it planned to close 125 of its 800-plus stores — and that was before the pandemic. But department stores catering to wealthier customers have failed, too. In addition to Sears and J.C. Penney, higher-end stores Barneys New York, Lord & Taylor, and Neiman Marcus have all filed for bankruptcy in the last two years. Even Nordstrom, viewed by industry insiders as the most progressive traditional department store chain, is facing significant headwinds. While overall US e-commerce sales increased 45 percent year over year from April to June as pandemic shutdowns pushed more shoppers online, Nordstrom registered just 20 percent growth in online sales. As more Americans came online and as social media platforms rose in popularity, brands started establishing direct relationships online and through their own stores that chipped away at their reliance on department stores for finding customers. For a while, department stores still could provide a way to reach mostly older consumers who preferred in-person shopping or others who didn’t have internet access, but the chains became more complementary for popular brands rather than remaining a crucial sales channel. More mid-priced brands such as Levi’s and Adidas started selling on Amazon and other online marketplaces as department stores targeting the middle class started to struggle, meaning chains like Macy’s now had serious online competition, too. And since Amazon and other top online retailers are in many cases more convenient than visiting a large store where salespeople are trained and paid less than they once were, department store advantages further diminished. Finally, some private equity companies — investment firms that buy up struggling companies in part by saddling them with debt — have taken aim at the sector, and the debt associated with their takeovers has hastened the demise of some department store chains like Neiman Marcus. The Dallas-based luxury chain filed for bankruptcy earlier this year under crushing debt from its PE owner. The chain was also late to e-commerce — and when it finally started getting aggressive around 2014, introducing free shipping and returns to better compete with Nordstrom, it didn’t work and instead crimped its profits. The company’s bottom line was also hurt by some of the biggest brands it sells moving from a wholesale model to a more flexible and lower-risk model that was less profitable for Neiman Marcus. While a private equity owner didn’t force these moves, the fallout from these crises coupled with a heavy debt burden was a recipe for disaster. How the decline of department stores is reshaping communities While the pandemic has accelerated contraction of the department store industry, the sector has been in a slow descent for decades. And the communities they call home, which experienced the upside of their presence during the golden years, are now faced with a series of cascading challenges. “First they become an eyesore; it’s aesthetically damaging,” said Vicki Howard, the author of From Main Street to Mall. “Second, there’s the jobs. … Third, it impacts the consumers themselves that have turned to that area for leisure activities, for places to go in the winter, to go with their kids.” “It’s quite a big economic and social and cultural phenomenon to have these department stores closing. ... They occupy such a physical place as well as a social space.” “It’s quite a big economic and social and cultural phenomenon to have these department stores closing — and malls also,” she added. “They occupy such a physical place as well as a social space.” The decline of department stores and the malls they supported has required local governments to get creative. In Bartlesville, Oklahoma, a city of 36,000 near the border of Kansas, local officials have embraced discount chains as the local Washington Park Mall has struggled. The city provided $1.5 million in incentives in 2016 to develop an outdoor shopping center with popular discount retailers TJ Maxx and Ross to help offset the longtime troubles of the mall, once anchored by the department stores Sears, J.C. Penney, and Dillard’s. (Sears and J.C. Penney both closed their stores there in recent years, and Dillard’s recently turned its mall location into a clearance store.) “We’ve been exceedingly fortunate to have replaced the mall’s legacy brands with up-and-coming brands better aligned with today’s consumer preferences,” David Wood, Bartlesville’s economic development chief, told Recode in an email. The city also provided a $200,000 incentive to divide an old Kmart into five smaller retail establishments, including outlet stores Ollie’s and Burkes Outlet, as well as a Dollar Tree store. The new retail additions, Wood added, “have largely offset the employment loss — with rising sales tax collections, too.” Taxable physical retail sales dropped in 2015 and 2016 in Bartlesville but grew modestly in 2018 and 2019. Of course, department store jobs are different from discount chain jobs, which have lower average hourly pay and which rarely offer sales commissions. In Madison, Wisconsin, local city-planning officials are looking ahead to a possible future where their city won’t have malls anchored by department stores. They have been discussing potential redevelopment plans for the areas around the community’s struggling East Towne Mall and West Towne Mall since 2018, and the discussions took on added significance when the malls’ owner filed for bankruptcy in early November. Several of the malls’ anchor tenants have closed up shop in the last few years, including the department store chains Boston Store and Sears. While the Madison economy is diverse outside of retail, with a large research university and state government offices calling the city home, city planners believe it is critical to start discussing potential redevelopment plans, whether or not the mall’s owner ends up selling or gets on board with redevelopment, because by the time large commercial properties are in true distress, the ripple effects can be dangerous. “Longer-term vacancies can sometimes snowball and have the effect of spreading and negatively impacting surrounding areas,” said Ben Zeller, a city planner for Madison. Madison officials have been studying other mall redevelopment plans around the country for ideas about what to do. If redevelopment of these Madison malls do end up happening and they look anything like projects in other communities that city planners are studying, the retail presence would likely be downsized and supplemented by new residential buildings and non-retail employers. Zeller himself lives in an apartment building built on a former mall parking lot in another part of Madison. At a high level, Zeller told Recode that such redevelopment plans are complex, which means they take time: 15 to 20 years or longer to complete. One challenge involves the fragmented ownership structure of large mall properties, where the main mall may be owned by one business and the department store anchors and restaurants could be owned by separate entities. Another challenge involves restructuring the public street network around malls. “It’s very difficult to have a future neighborhood created when there are blocks [in existing mall developments] that are 100 to 200 acres as opposed to a normal city block,” he added. Residential neighborhoods typically need shorter street connections to make public transportation and walking viable. Zeller added that the city wants to make sure that, no matter who buys in, “we ultimately end up with a connected public street network, adequate parkland to serve new residential uses, integrated transit, an improved bike network, and other components of complete neighborhoods.” In short, communities can rebound from department store chain failures — and the ripple effect on malls — if they have the time and resources to plan two decades into the future like Madison is starting to. But not every American community does. What it means for the people who depend on retail jobs While some of the evolution that the department store sector has gone through marked natural generational shifts in consumer behavior, the industry’s failures have had a significant impact for those who work in retail, extinguishing the idea of retail sales positions as careers — which in the 20th century was an advantage for department stores. “It’s a negative cycle. If you have less career-oriented employees and higher turnover, you invest less in those employees,” said Jason Goldberg, the chief commerce strategy officer at the global advertising holding company Publicis. “It creates this vicious cycle and then you can’t recruit good employees. They were turned from advisers and very relationship-based salespeople into cashiers.” With few exceptions, the idea of a department store sales job being a career hasn’t been a reality for decades. In the mid-1900s, they could be steady, family-supporting jobs with fixed schedules. But in the decades following the birth of big-box retailers Walmart, Kmart, and Target — all in 1962 — retail wages began dropping as traditional chains chased the lower-paying labor models of the new discount retailers. So where are department store employees going? In the five-year period from 2015 to 2019, more started working in discount chains like Dollar General. “I would have to guess that by 1980 it was not likely that a single-wage earner could support a family while working on the selling floor of a retail store,” said Cohen, the Columbia professor and former department store executive. Yes, there are still top salespeople at chains like Nordstrom or Neiman Marcus who might pull in six figures, but they are the few exceptions to the rule. So where are department store employees going as their employers cut jobs, close stores, or go bankrupt? In the five-year period from 2015 to 2019, more started working in discount chains. The category of the retail industry that includes dollar stores like Dollar General jumped into the Top 5 categories of employment that attracted workers who had recently left or were laid off from a department store job. (This job transition data was based on a Brookings Institution analysis of current population survey public-use microdata provided to Recode by Chad Shearer, a former senior research associate at the think tank who is now an economic development consultant.) That may not be a great thing, as least as it relates to employee earnings. While Dollar General’s stock price has nearly tripled over the last five years, its front-line employees don’t see much of that enrichment. Average hourly base pay at Dollar General is $9, according to the job review site Glassdoor, compared to $11 at Macy’s. And, yes, the rise of e-commerce can be seen in this job movement data, too. During the same five-year period, if you combine the “electronic shopping” and “warehousing” job sectors (which both include e-commerce companies) into one category of employment, the combined sector moves into the Top 10 for industries where employees who had recently left department store roles went to work next. It’s possible e-commerce employers should rank even higher in reality since many e-commerce warehouse employees are technically hired by third-party temporary employment firms. There are trade-offs to this shift. On one hand, Amazon warehouse employees in the US make a base wage of $15 an hour, which is a higher base pay than most entry-level department store jobs. But the work is often much more physical in nature than a retail job, requiring workers to pick or stow hundreds of items per hour at a rapid pace and be able to lift up to 50 pounds of goods. The reality is that when it comes to finding a job in 2020, Amazon and Walmart — already the two biggest private-sector employers in the US — are the retailers offering work. While so many industries have contracted, they’ve added hundreds of thousands of new job openings this year alone. And as department stores continue to cut jobs, the largest players in the new retail economy capture more power in the labor market. How to rebuild from department stores’ ruins There is no silver bullet for US department stores to immediately start thriving again, so the best many can do is simply try to adapt and survive. For chains that still have a nationwide presence — like Macy’s or Nordstrom — that means fewer large, full-price stores and more investment in e-commerce sales, potentially supplemented by smaller pickup points for online orders to offset expensive shipping costs. Macy’s executives have also said the company plans to test smaller stores that aren’t attached to malls in an effort to unhitch their destiny from struggling regional malls built for a weakening American middle class. As department stores fight their uphill battles, they are being replaced by competition that can provide better prices, selection, or convenience to shoppers of all wealth levels As these chains fight their uphill battles, they are being replaced by a bevy of options that can provide better prices, selection, or convenience to shoppers of all wealth levels. The best discount chains, for example, are still thriving a decade after the Great Recession ended. Even without a strong e-commerce presence, the parent company of TJ Maxx, Marshalls, and Home Goods is moving steadily through the pandemic, with a stock price equal to what it was before Covid-19 hit the US hard in mid-March. And Dollar General’s stock price hit an all-time high in October; the company is now worth nearly $53 billion. Brands that sell apparel and cosmetics — key product categories for many department store chains — continue to sell more goods directly to shoppers through their own stores and websites rather than through department store chains. This direct connection gives brands — whether they’re established or new startups — more control over how their goods are displayed, more information about who their customers are, and often better profit margins. Nike, for example, stopped selling through department stores Belk and Dillard’s earlier this year and is no longer available at the online retailer Zappos. Under Armour announced it would cut its wholesale partners in North America by 2,000 to 3,000 stores, too. New online retailers that attract digital-savvy consumers and, in turn, more brands — like Stitch Fix, Rent the Runway, The RealReal, and ThredUp — also were stealing market share from department stores pre-pandemic. And yes, Amazon continues to be the titan of the modern retail world. It’s at least seven times bigger than No. 2 Walmart in e-commerce, and it’s continuing to invest in beefing up its physical store presence as well. While the online giant’s direct impact on department stores was minimal for much of its history, things have changed in recent years. Amazon is still not a high-end fashion destination, but it is absolutely a place where a majority of Americans are willing to buy footwear, casual clothing, or basics like underwear and socks. In April, the retail research firm Coresight said that more than 70 percent of apparel shoppers bought clothing or footwear on Amazon in the prior 12 months — an increase of 10 percentage points from 2019 and 25 percentage points from 2018. At the weakest moment for department stores, Amazon is becoming a more powerful direct competitor. Taken together, the future for department stores is bleak, and for many of the malls they anchor, too. Yes, the US has too many retail stores — 40 percent more retail square feet per person than No. 2 Canada — and too many subpar malls, considering current shopping trends. Yes, the retailers courting business away from department stores are providing superior products, prices, or experiences that are resonating better with US shoppers. Yes, it is normal in capitalism for industry categories to fall while others rise. But the communities across the country that depended on these stores and malls as job creators will have to get creative to rebuild around their ruins. And the Americans who once saw a department store sales job as a potential career, or at least an entry path to a better-paying retail corporate job, have by now faced a new reality: Many of the biggest retailers hiring today — discount chains and e-commerce giants — are offering less pay, or perhaps better pay but less personable and more grueling work. Even if you could snap your fingers and return this retail sector to glory, it wouldn’t solve the key societal and macroeconomic problems connected to its decline. While the median US household brought in 48 percent more income in 2018 than in 1970, the vast majority of those gains happened prior to 2000. Along the way, the middle class’s income share — which many of the biggest department store chains catered to — has shrunk by 19 percentage points as the rich keep getting richer. In turn, most shoppers value discounts above all else — who can blame them? And for those who can afford it, the convenience of Amazon Prime delivery and its endless virtual shelves of merchandise is very difficult to beat. If the American dream of department stores wasn’t fully extinguished before 2020, the year of the pandemic will make sure it is.

Read More...
posted 3 days ago on re/code
Shaneé Benjamin for Vox The collapse of America’s middle class crushed department stores. Amazon and the pandemic are the final blows. In a New Jersey suburb seven miles west of Midtown Manhattan, the American Dream is on shaky ground. The Dream in question isn’t the mythological notion that upward social mobility is within reach for all hard-working Americans. It’s a $5 billion, 3 million-square-foot shopping and entertainment complex in East Rutherford featuring an indoor ski slope, an ice-skating rink, and a Nickelodeon-branded amusement park. The complex finally opened last fall, but it’s now facing huge new challenges. The development’s complicated 17-year history, marked by ownership changes, false starts, and broken promises, had already put American Dream in a precarious situation. The Covid-19 pandemic hitting in March made things much worse. Whether the mall makes it in the long term will hinge in part on how it deals with the collapse of three of the marquee department stores that were to anchor the complex and draw foot traffic — Barneys New York, Lord & Taylor, and Century 21 — which all have gone bankrupt and closed, or are planning to close all their stores in the US. Around 100 storefronts in American Dream opened their doors to customers in October and November, but the complex’s future is not guaranteed. Its owners, Triple Five Group, missed several mortgage payments this summer, and it’s not clear who might fill the enormous holes left by the three fallen department store chains, or which other retail tenants will opt out of their leases now that the development is missing three of its anchors. While the story of American Dream is unique in many ways, its struggles are emblematic of the bleak future facing many US malls and department stores — whose destinies have long been intertwined. The downfall of these once-crown jewels of retail will have meaningful impacts on the Americans who work for them and the communities they’ve long called home. More than half of all mall-based department stores will close by the end of 2021 Across the US, department stores are shrinking or shuttering altogether. In 2011, US department stores employed 1.2 million employees across 8,600 stores, according to estimates from the research firm IBISWorld. But in 2020, there are now fewer than 700,000 employees in the sector, working across just over 6,000 locations. The reasons for the struggles are both shared and unique. Since the Great Recession began in late 2007, the vast majority of income growth in the US has gone to high-income households, squeezing middle-class households and altering where they spend money. As a result, chains that sell brands at sharp discounts like TJ Maxx, Ross, and Dollar General have become more popular, siphoning away shoppers from full-price department stores like Macy’s and J.C. Penney that were designed to cater to a stronger middle class of yesteryear. Department stores are also facing the reality that they are no longer the main way most shoppers discover or access new brands — which was once perhaps their main appeal as one-time innovators. Consumer brands have increasingly become focused on building connections with customers through their own stores, websites, social media platforms, and other online-only marketplaces. All the while, department stores’ contraction is upending local labor markets and the communities they called home. And rock bottom is not even here yet. More than half of all mall-based department stores will close by the end of 2021, according to estimates by Green Street Advisors, a commercial property research firm. And that will have a massive impact on malls; as of January, department stores accounted for nearly one out of every three square feet in malls. “The department store genre has been taking the great American shopping mall down with it, slowly but inevitably,” said Mark Cohen, the director of retail studies at Columbia University who was previously the CEO of multiple department store chains in the US and Canada. What happens when an entire sector of retail, one that employs more than half a million people, is in free fall — and is slowing or dragging down shopping malls like the American Dream with it? And what becomes of the local communities across the country whose social identities and local economies rested on, at least in part, now-fallen department stores and the malls they buttressed? We’re about to find out. What’s killing the department store For much of the last century, US department store chains played an important role in many Americans’ lives and an innovative role in the retail sector. For the American middle class of the 20th century, department stores helped shape what successfully living the American dream looked like. These stores were often an entry point into fashion and home furnishing trends once reserved for only the wealthiest, since they offered large selections of name brands at affordable prices all under one roof — first in big cities, and then following population exoduses out to the suburbs. And as the main attractions for malls in the suburban US, they played a foundational role in the idea of shopping as a social activity in the second half of the 20th century. Department store employees also had it pretty good, for a time. The sector was welcoming to women salespeople, providing a path to certain corporate roles for those who found success, according to the book From Main Street to Mall: The Rise and Fall of the American Department Store. A successful salesperson working in one of these stores, especially before large chains came to dominate the sector, could make a career of their role, providing for their family, no college degree needed. Those days are mostly long gone. Since the Great Recession began in 2007, the middle 40 percent of the US saw its income shrink But over the last two decades, a confluence of other factors has placed several giants on death’s door and put even the most innovative in a precarious situation. These factors were both external and internal: Amazon led a boom in online shopping, and many brands that once relied on department stores began selling directly to customers online and in their own stores. Meanwhile, many department store chains made the wrong bets, investing more heavily in store expansion while underinvesting in merchandise differentiation and e-commerce strategies. But perhaps most critically for the chains targeting the middle class — think Macy’s, J.C. Penney, and Bon-Ton — this category of households has been struggling since the Great Recession began in 2007. According to a 2018 study from consulting firm Deloitte, “the middle 40 percent” of the country saw its income shrink in the previous decade, while more than $8 out of every $10 in income growth nationwide went to high-income households. As a result, discount chains that sell name brands at a bargain — like TJ Maxx and Ross stores — became much more attractive to middle-class shoppers than department stores selling at full price. The treasure-hunting aspect of stores like TJ Maxx and Home Goods also added to their appeal over many of their department store competitors. Macy’s, the largest traditional department store in the country, said earlier this year that it planned to close 125 of its 800-plus stores — and that was before the pandemic. But department stores catering to wealthier customers have failed, too. In addition to Sears and J.C. Penney, higher-end stores Barneys New York, Lord & Taylor, and Neiman Marcus have all filed for bankruptcy in the last two years. Even Nordstrom, viewed by industry insiders as the most progressive traditional department store chain, is facing significant headwinds. While overall US e-commerce sales increased 45 percent year over year from April to June as pandemic shutdowns pushed more shoppers online, Nordstrom registered just 20 percent growth in online sales. As more Americans came online and as social media platforms rose in popularity, brands started establishing direct relationships online and through their own stores, which chipped away at their reliance on department stores for finding customers. For a while, department stores still could provide a way to reach mostly older consumers who preferred in-person shopping or others who didn’t have internet access, but the chains became more complementary for popular brands rather than remaining a crucial sales channel. More mid-priced brands such as Levi’s and Adidas started selling on Amazon and other online marketplaces as department stores targeting the middle class started to struggle, meaning chains like Macy’s now had serious online competition, too. And since Amazon and other top online retailers are in many cases more convenient than visiting a large store where salespeople are trained and paid less than they once were, department store advantages further diminished. Finally, some private equity companies — investment firms that buy up struggling companies in part by saddling them with debt — have taken aim at the sector, and the debt associated with their takeovers has hastened the demise of some department store chains like Neiman Marcus. The Dallas-based luxury chain filed for bankruptcy earlier this year under crushing debt from its PE owner. The chain was also late to e-commerce — when it finally started getting aggressive around 2014, introducing free shipping and returns to better compete with Nordstrom, it didn’t work and instead crimped its profits. The company’s bottom line was also hurt by some of the biggest brands it sells moving from a wholesale model to a more flexible and lower-risk model that was less profitable for Neiman Marcus. While a private equity owner didn’t force these moves, the fallout from these crises coupled with a heavy debt burden was a recipe for disaster. How the decline of department stores is reshaping communities While the pandemic has accelerated contraction of the department store industry, the sector has been in a slow descent for decades. And the communities they call home, which experienced the upside of their presence during the golden years, are now faced with a series of cascading challenges. “First they become an eyesore; it’s aesthetically damaging,” said Vicki Howard, the author of From Main Street to Mall. “Second, there’s the jobs. … Third, it impacts the consumers themselves that have turned to that area for leisure activities, for places to go in the winter, to go with their kids.” “It’s quite a big economic and social and cultural phenomenon to have these department stores closing. ... They occupy such a physical place as well as a social space.” “It’s quite a big economic and social and cultural phenomenon to have these department stores closing — and malls also,” she added. “They occupy such a physical place as well as a social space.” The decline of department stores and the malls they supported has required local governments to get creative. In Bartlesville, Oklahoma, a city of 36,000 near the border of Kansas, local officials have embraced discount chains as the local Washington Park Mall has struggled. The city provided $1.5 million in incentives in 2016 to develop an outdoor shopping center with popular discount retailers TJ Maxx and Ross to help offset the longtime troubles of the mall, once anchored by the department stores Sears, J.C. Penney, and Dillard’s. (Sears and J.C. Penney both closed their stores there in recent years, and Dillard’s recently turned its mall location into a clearance store.) “We’ve been exceedingly fortunate to have replaced the mall’s legacy brands with up-and-coming brands better aligned with today’s consumer preferences,” David Wood, Bartlesville’s economic development chief, told Recode in an email. The city also provided a $200,000 incentive to divide an old Kmart into five smaller retail establishments, including outlet stores Ollie’s and Burkes Outlet, as well as a Dollar Tree store. The new retail additions, Wood added, “have largely offset the employment loss — with rising sales tax collections, too.” Taxable physical retail sales dropped in 2015 and 2016 in Bartlesville but grew modestly in 2018 and 2019. Of course, department store jobs are different from discount chain jobs, which have lower average hourly pay and rarely offer sales commissions. In Madison, Wisconsin, local city-planning officials are looking ahead to a possible future where their city won’t have malls anchored by department stores. They have been discussing potential redevelopment plans for the areas around the community’s struggling East Towne Mall and West Towne Mall since 2018, and the discussions took on added significance when the malls’ owner filed for bankruptcy in early November. Several of the malls’ anchor tenants have closed up shop in the last few years, including the department store chains Boston Store and Sears. While the Madison economy is diverse outside of retail, with a large research university and state government offices calling the city home, city planners believe it is critical to start discussing potential redevelopment plans, whether or not the mall’s owner ends up selling or gets on board with redevelopment, because by the time large commercial properties are in true distress, the ripple effects can be dangerous. “Longer-term vacancies can sometimes snowball and have the effect of spreading and negatively impacting surrounding areas,” said Ben Zeller, a city planner for Madison. Madison officials have been studying other mall redevelopment plans around the country for ideas about what to do. If redevelopment of these Madison malls do end up happening and they look anything like projects in other communities that city planners are studying, the retail presence would likely be downsized and supplemented by new residential buildings and non-retail employers. Zeller himself lives in an apartment building built on a former mall parking lot in another part of Madison. At a high level, Zeller told Recode that such redevelopment plans are complex, which means they take time: 15 to 20 years or longer to complete. One challenge involves the fragmented ownership structure of large mall properties, where the main mall may be owned by one business and the department store anchors and restaurants could be owned by separate entities. Another challenge involves restructuring the public street network around malls. “It’s very difficult to have a future neighborhood created when there are blocks [in existing mall developments] that are 100 to 200 acres as opposed to a normal city block,” he added. Residential neighborhoods typically need shorter street connections to make public transportation and walking viable. Zeller added that the city wants to make sure that, no matter who buys in, “we ultimately end up with a connected public street network, adequate parkland to serve new residential uses, integrated transit, an improved bike network, and other components of complete neighborhoods.” In short, communities can rebound from department store chain failures — and the ripple effect on malls — if they have the time and resources to plan two decades into the future like Madison is starting to. But not every American community does. What it means for the people who depend on retail jobs While some of the evolution that the department store sector has gone through marked natural generational shifts in consumer behavior, the industry’s failures have had a significant impact for those who work in retail, extinguishing the idea of retail sales positions as careers — which in the 20th century was an advantage for department stores. “It’s a negative cycle. If you have less career-oriented employees and higher turnover, you invest less in those employees,” said Jason Goldberg, the chief commerce strategy officer at the global advertising holding company Publicis. “It creates this vicious cycle and then you can’t recruit good employees. They were turned from advisers and very relationship-based salespeople into cashiers.” With few exceptions, the idea of a department store sales job being a career hasn’t been a reality for decades. In the mid-1900s, they could be steady, family-supporting jobs with fixed schedules. But in the decades following the birth of big-box retailers Walmart, Kmart, and Target — all in 1962 — retail wages began dropping as traditional chains chased the lower-paying labor models of the new discount retailers. So where are department store employees going? In the five-year period from 2015 to 2019, more started working in discount chains like Dollar General. “I would have to guess that by 1980 it was not likely that a single-wage earner could support a family while working on the selling floor of a retail store,” said Cohen, the Columbia professor and former department store executive. Yes, there are still top salespeople at chains like Nordstrom or Neiman Marcus who might pull in six figures, but they are the few exceptions to the rule. So where are department store employees going as their employers cut jobs, close stores, or go bankrupt? In the five-year period from 2015 to 2019, more started working in discount chains. The category of the retail industry that includes dollar stores like Dollar General jumped into the Top 5 categories of employment that attracted workers who had recently left or were laid off from a department store job. (This job transition data was based on a Brookings Institution analysis of current population survey public-use microdata provided to Recode by Chad Shearer, a former senior research associate at the think tank who is now an economic development consultant.) That may not be a great thing, as least as it relates to employee earnings. While Dollar General’s stock price has nearly tripled over the last five years, its frontline employees don’t see much of that enrichment. Average hourly base pay at Dollar General is $9, according to the job review site Glassdoor, compared to $11 at Macy’s. The rise of e-commerce can be seen in this job movement data, too. During the same five-year period, if you combine the “electronic shopping” and “warehousing” job sectors (which both include e-commerce companies) into one category of employment, the combined sector moves into the Top 10 for industries where employees who had recently left department store roles went to work next. It’s possible e-commerce employers should rank even higher in reality, since many e-commerce warehouse employees are technically hired by third-party temporary employment firms. There are trade-offs to this shift. On the one hand, Amazon warehouse employees in the US make a base wage of $15 an hour, which is a higher base pay than most entry-level department store jobs. But the work is often much more physical in nature than a retail job, requiring workers to pick or stow hundreds of items per hour at a rapid pace and to be able to lift up to 50 pounds of goods. The reality is that when it comes to finding a job in 2020, Amazon and Walmart — already the two biggest private-sector employers in the US — are the retailers offering work. While so many industries have contracted, they’ve added hundreds of thousands of new job openings this year alone. And as department stores continue to cut jobs, the largest players in the new retail economy capture more power in the labor market. How to rebuild from department stores’ ruins There is no silver bullet for US department stores to immediately start thriving again, so the best many can do is simply try to adapt and survive. For chains that still have a nationwide presence — like Macy’s or Nordstrom — that means fewer large, full-price stores and more investment in e-commerce sales, potentially supplemented by smaller pickup points for online orders to offset expensive shipping costs. Macy’s executives have also said the company plans to test smaller stores that aren’t attached to malls in an effort to unhitch their destiny from struggling regional malls built for a weakening American middle class. As department stores fight their uphill battles, they are being replaced by competition that can provide better prices, selection, or convenience to shoppers of all wealth levels As these chains fight their uphill battles, they are being replaced by a bevy of options that can provide better prices, selection, or convenience to shoppers of all wealth levels. The best discount chains, for example, are still thriving a decade after the Great Recession ended. Even without a strong e-commerce presence, the parent company of TJ Maxx, Marshalls, and Home Goods is moving steadily through the pandemic, with a stock price equal to what it was before Covid-19 hit the US in March. And Dollar General’s stock price hit an all-time high in October; the company is now worth nearly $53 billion. Brands that sell apparel and cosmetics — key product categories for many department store chains — continue to sell more goods directly to shoppers through their own stores and websites rather than through department store chains. This direct connection gives brands — whether they’re established or new startups — more control over how their goods are displayed, more information about who their customers are, and often better profit margins. Nike, for example, stopped selling through department stores Belk and Dillard’s earlier this year and is no longer available at the online retailer Zappos. Under Armour announced it would cut its wholesale partners in North America by 2,000 to 3,000 stores. New online retailers that attract digital-savvy consumers and, in turn, more brands — like Stitch Fix, Rent the Runway, The RealReal, and ThredUp — were also stealing market share from department stores pre-pandemic. But Amazon continues to be the titan of the modern retail world. It’s at least seven times bigger than No. 2 Walmart in e-commerce, and it’s continuing to invest in beefing up its physical store presence as well. While the online giant’s direct impact on department stores was minimal for much of its history, things have changed in recent years. Amazon is still not a high-end fashion destination, but it is absolutely a place where a majority of Americans are willing to buy footwear, casual clothing, or basics like underwear and socks. In April, the retail research firm Coresight said that more than 70 percent of apparel shoppers bought clothing or footwear on Amazon in the prior 12 months — an increase of 10 percentage points from 2019 and 25 percentage points from 2018. At the weakest moment for department stores, Amazon is becoming a more powerful direct competitor. Taken together, the future for department stores is bleak, and for many of the malls they anchor. Yes, the US has too many retail stores — 40 percent more retail square feet per person than No. 2 Canada — and too many subpar malls, considering current shopping trends. Yes, the retailers courting business away from department stores are providing superior products, prices, or experiences that are resonating better with shoppers. Yes, it is normal in capitalism for industry categories to fall while others rise. But the communities across the country that depended on these stores and malls as job creators will have to get creative to rebuild around their ruins. And the Americans who once saw a department store sales job as a potential career, or at least an entry path to a better-paying retail corporate job, now face a new reality: Many of the biggest retailers hiring today — discount chains and e-commerce giants — are offering less pay, or perhaps better pay but less personable and more grueling work. Even if you could snap your fingers and return this retail sector to glory, it wouldn’t solve the key societal and macroeconomic problems connected to its decline. While the median US household brought in 48 percent more income in 2018 than in 1970, the vast majority of those gains happened prior to 2000. Along the way, the middle class’s income share — which many of the biggest department store chains catered to — has shrunk by 19 percentage points as the rich keep getting richer. In turn, most shoppers value discounts above all else — who can blame them? And for those who can afford it, the convenience of Amazon Prime delivery and its endless virtual shelves of merchandise is very difficult to beat. If the American dream of department stores wasn’t fully extinguished before 2020, the year of the pandemic will make sure it is.

Read More...
posted 8 days ago on re/code
TV shoppers at a Best Buy in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2018. | Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images Streaming TV should be easy, but fights among Roku, Amazon, HBO, and NBC are making it hard. When Wonder Woman 1984 opens in theaters on Christmas Day, most HBO Max subscribers will be able to watch the movie at home. Emphasis on most: Right now, that group of HBO Max subscribers does not include those who use a Roku device to watch streaming TV. This is because Roku, which dominates the US market for streaming devices, and AT&T’s WarnerMedia, which owns HBO Max, don’t have a deal to put the new service on Roku’s streaming boxes, sticks, and TVs. If the two companies don’t get a deal done soon, it’s unlikely they’ll have anything in place for the holiday season, according to people who work at both companies. Call it the collateral damage of the streaming wars, which bring you an enormous amount of choice about what you can watch and where you can watch it — but also require you to make sure the device and streaming service you want to use are playing together nicely. So on the one hand, you can now pick and choose between streaming TV packages that have just about everything or “skinny bundles” that leave out things like sports; you can also sign up for services like Disney+ because you want to see The Mandalorian and then easily unsubscribe when you’re done. On the other hand, you can’t watch Peacock, Comcast’s new streaming service, on Amazon’s Fire TV, or Apple TV+ on Google devices — at least without doing some work beyond pointing and clicking. It’s not like the old days of cable TV when programmers and distributors also fought periodically but they never asked you to figure out whether your TV set worked with their cable box. Instead, both sides are looking at it as a way to set new terms: Who controls the way streaming video gets to you? How does the money you spend on that video get split up? What about the money advertisers spend trying to reach you? Because all of this is new — and because everyone thinks it’s going to change a lot in the coming years — you’re probably going to see these kinds of scrimmages happening periodically. Even if Roku and HBO Max come to terms in the near future, that deal likely won’t be a long-term one, which means they could end up in a fight again in a year or two. There are a lot of people caught in the middle of these skirmishes, too. HBO Max, for instance, has around 9 million users; Roku has 46 million users, giving it an estimated 30 percent of the streaming device market. If it’s any consolation for frustrated HBO Max subscribers, they’re not alone. As of right now, anyone who wants to watch Peacock can’t watch it on Amazon devices. That’s a big group of people: Peacock has at least 15 million subscribers, and Amazon’s Fire ecosystem is the second-most-popular streaming tech in the US. Peacock is trying to work out a deal with Amazon, and maybe that will happen before the holidays, too. These things are moving targets: Peacock, which launched last spring, didn’t get a deal to land on Roku devices until September. HBO Max, which launched in May, didn’t get an Amazon deal until mid-November. Even if your streaming plans aren’t going to be interrupted by these two fights, it’s worth understanding the backstory to them. They’re fundamentally about money, of course. But the variations in them shine some light on the way the companies plan to make money from you, the viewer. In the case of Comcast’s Peacock and Amazon, the main sticking point seems to be over who will have direct contact with the viewer, as well as access to their viewing habits and other valuable data. (Comcast is an investor in Vox Media, which owns this site.) In the past, Amazon has been able to sell access to HBO and other streaming services via its “channels” offering in its Prime Video hub — which meant Amazon controlled billing and every other point of contact with the programmers’ customers. But increasingly, programmers want to wrest that control back. They want to distribute their own apps on Amazon’s Fire TV app store. They’re also okay with giving Amazon a cut of the revenue they make from subscriptions, but they want a direct line to their viewer. You can see how this played out with the new deal that WarnerMedia and Amazon struck to get HBO Max onto Amazon devices. While neither company is commenting publicly about the terms, people familiar with the negotiations say the deal essentially unwinds a previous agreement that had allowed Amazon to sell HBO subscriptions itself. Instead, WarnerMedia will use its own HBO Max app, which is available on the Amazon Fire TV app store. The distinction shouldn’t matter much to you, the person who wants to stream the new season of Succession. It mattered enough to Amazon and WarnerMedia to fight about it for months. When it comes to HBO Max and Roku, it’s a little harder to parse the dispute. People I’ve talked to on both sides seem frustrated. But the main negotiating points that Roku has with partners are well-known: Roku wants a slice of every subscription dollar consumers spend on its platform; it wants the ability to sell advertising on ad-supported services on its platform, and in some cases, it wants shows or movies from programmers that it can stream on its own Roku-branded service. (As part of its new deal with Comcast, for instance, Roku gets to run the media company’s NBC News Now show live on its free Roku channel.) Industry officials say that Roku, which has seen a steady rise in users over the past few years, has been increasingly aggressive about the terms it asks for. Scott Rosenberg, a senior vice president who handles programming deals for Roku, says that’s not the case. He says that companies that work with Roku benefit because Roku benefits when they do well. “Partners who have a growth mindset, who embrace the opportunity, see enormous growth,” Rosenberg told me. The old cable TV distributors, he says, “were toll-takers” who made the same amount of money regardless of what you watched. “They weren’t particularly incented to drive [a programmer’s] success.” Roku and Amazon dominate streaming TV, but they’re not the only ones that end up in disputes. You can get to Netflix on Apple’s Apple TV box, for instance, but not on Apple’s Apple TV app because Netflix doesn’t want Apple to have access to its data or its customers. As Netflix CEO Reed Hastings put it in 2019: “Apple’s a great company. We want to have people watch our shows on our services.” Apple, meanwhile, doesn’t have its Apple TV app available on most devices running Google’s Android software. There’s a flip side of all of this: You can argue, with a straight face, that TV is better than it’s ever been. In the old days, you were unlikely to lose the channels you loved to a dispute between programmers and distributors — but you didn’t have any choice about the channels you paid for. Now you do, and that’s great. And just because a programmer and a TV distributor are at odds doesn’t mean you’re completely out of luck. It just means you need to investigate workarounds, which can range from watching on your laptop to streaming a show on your phone and casting it to your TV to buying an extra gadget that is compatible with the programmer you want and plugging that into your TV. Which is what I do, with an older Apple TV box, so we can watch HBO Max on our Roku TV. It’s not ideal. But it will let us watch Wonder Woman.

Read More...
posted 9 days ago on re/code
Parler is attracting the posts that Twitter and Facebook don’t allow, like hate speech and conspiracy theories about the US election. | Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images Conservatives are flocking to a site where they can post things that Facebook and Twitter don’t allow. In recent weeks, you may have been hearing more about a site called Parler, which conservatives are touting as an alternative to Twitter and Facebook. From Ivanka Trump to the governor of Nebraska, right-wing influencers are asking those frustrated with alleged Big Tech censorship to join them on Parler, a two-year-old app and website that promises free speech online. It’s social media — minus the curation algorithms and content moderation. Parler, which has been around since 2018, looks at first glance a lot like Twitter and Facebook. Open the app, there are profiles pushing doubt about the 2020 election’s results and declarations that the mainstream tech platforms are targeting free speech. With just a few clicks, it’s easy to find even more extreme right-wing voices and hate speech. Overall, the site appears like an amalgamation of some of the most odious factions of social media, centralized on one platform that’s attracted millions of users. In the final days of the 2020 election, Parler’s popularity exploded. Searches for “Parler” have surged since late October, and the app saw a spike in downloads after Joe Biden won the White House. Currently, Parler is No. 4 in the news category on the Apple App Store. (At one point in November, the app actually reached the top slot in the App Store, though it’s since fallen significantly in the rankings.) The Washington Post reports that the site now has more than 10 million users, and the company’s COO has said that the user base is continuing to grow by the millions. These numbers are still small compared to platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, which collectively boast billions of users. But Parler is becoming a topic of conversation on those platforms, too. Between November 10 and 16, Parler reached its highest number of mentions ever on Twitter (1.5 million) according to data collected by Zignal Labs. In the past month, posts mentioning Parler have racked up hundreds of thousands of “Likes” on Facebook. As it’s grown, Parler has become a way station for hate speech and misinformation that Twitter and Facebook wouldn’t allow. The site is also where many Trump supporters are spreading the false narrative that the 2020 presidential election was rigged. The burgeoning influence of Parler is part of a broader trend of fringe outlets like One America News and Newsmax hoping to reel in an audience of Trump loyalists, especially after he leaves office. This flurry of post-election attention is not the first time Parler has made the news. Over the summer, Parler started to see new users after Twitter put warning labels on several tweets from President Trump, prompting prominent conservatives to coax their followers into joining the app. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz even posted a video announcing his decision to move to Parler. I’m proud to join @parler_app — a platform gets what free speech is all about — and I’m excited to be a part of it. Let’s speak. Let’s speak freely. And let’s end the Silicon Valley censorship. Follow me there @tedcruz! pic.twitter.com/pzUFvhipBZ— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) June 25, 2020 But despite the recent attention, some say the rise of Parler fits into the larger history of American conservatives and their relationship with the media. “This follows a pattern of what the right wing has done [since] the rise of talk radio in the ’80s, and then through live cable TV, and then the rise of social media,” Lawrence Rosenthal, the chair of the University of California Berkeley’s Center for Right-Wing Studies, told Recode. “In each case, what you found is that the right wing gives up on participating in mainstream media and creates an alternative universe.” Parler is just the latest iteration of this phenomenon, Rosenthal explained. If Parler is looking to become a real competitor to the social media giants it criticizes, the company still has a very long way to go. While Parler is intent on not moderating much of its content, pressures to do so could grow as its users try to bend the few rules the site does have. Parler looks and works like Twitter, but there are important differences When you first sign up for Parler, the site asks for standard information like a phone number and an email address. Parler also provides a list of suggested follows — mostly conservative influencers — and recommended hashtags during the signup process. Once you reach the homepage, the site prompts you to post something (“What’s new?”) and provides an updated inventory of posts and threads from accounts you follow. Some of these accounts are verified, and some use hashtags (which you can search separately). There’s also a private messaging feature that’s similar to direct messages on Twitter and a “Discover” tab, where Parler features “all of the latest news” from accounts that users don’t already follow. In the “Verification” tab, users are prompted to provide images of a government identification card as well as a selfie in order to earn “Citizen” status on the app. Parler eschews content curation, and posts from people you follow appear chronologically — not algorithmically sorted as posts appear on Facebook and Twitter. “We do not curate your feed; we do not pretend to be qualified to do so,” state the company’s guidelines. While there are some limitations, like certain illegal activity, Parler’s community guidelines promise users that the platform will be “viewpoint-neutral” and that “removing community members or member-provided content [will] be kept to the absolute minimum.” Parler emphasizes that it doesn’t have a particular ideological affiliation, but much of the content on the platform is conservative, and the site also has conservative backers. The site also immediately steers new users to conservative voices and content. When Recode started a new account on the site, we were prompted to follow a slew of prominent right-wing personalities and brands, including PragerU, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Dinesh D’Souza. Parler A Parler feed could include a slew of prominent conservatives. Meanwhile, the company’s leadership is adamant that Parler is a “town square,” not a “publisher,” language that harks to the ongoing debate over the Communication Decency Act’s Section 230 which regulates how social media sites moderate content. Scroll through the platform, and content ranges from standard Republican talking points to conspiracy theories and hate speech. Recode identified users of the site promoting Holocaust denialism, Nazism, QAnon, and all sorts of other offensive content. Parler has also become a home for an alleged Russian disinformation campaign, which the platform said it would not take down because it hadn’t heard from US law enforcement. “When you have this sort of mingling, and common cause, between extremists and non-extremists, I think that’s what makes it a bit different and unique,” said Oren Segal, the vice president of the ADL Center on Extremism. Segal says that he doesn’t think the platform itself is extremist, but that it does allow such content to proliferate. “You have certain elements on the platform that talk about stolen elections and illegitimate elections and disinformation or misinformation more broadly,” Segal explained. “That is not only animating some of those who are on the platform who are not extremists, but it’s actually the lifeblood of extremists.” Parler did not respond to Recode’s request for comment. In response to criticism that the app hosts conspiracy theorists and white supremacists, Parler CEO John Matze told CNBC, “Our general premise is that we believe in the good of the American people as a whole, and that people should be able to have these discussions and let the crazies come out and let the world see who they are and talk with them, and not let them hide and fester and do some nasty things.” He added, “If you can say it on the street of New York, you can say it on Parler.” But Matze has also expressed frustration with some users. While the platform has promoted itself under the banner of free speech, some lines have already been drawn. The site has banned pornography and spam, and community guidelines published earlier this year emphasize that content that seems to be related to crime will also be removed. Meanwhile, a good number of people have been banned from the platform for posting vulgar content, as well as some parody accounts and those that posted pictures of feces. Instead of paid content moderators, the site employs volunteers, who constitute a “community jury” that votes on what violates Parler’s limited rules. We’re still learning more about who is behind Parler Based in Nevada, the company behind Parler is run primarily by two people: Matze and Jared Thomson, who serves as CTO. Neither of them had a particular public profile before creating the app. Jeffrey Wernick, a bitcoin enthusiast and early Airbnb investor, serves as the company’s chief operating officer. But there are other people funding the app. Earlier this month, Parler confirmed to the Wall Street Journal that conservative megadonor Rebekah Mercer was the company’s lead investor and agreed to fund Parler only if it gave users control over what they saw on the platform. She recently declared in a Parler post that the site was a “beacon to all who value their liberty, free speech, and personal privacy.” Robert Mercer, who is Rebekah’s father and a billionaire hedge fund investor, previously invested $15 million in Cambridge Analytica, the political consulting firm hired by the Trump campaign in 2016 and excoriated for harvesting the personal data of nearly 100 million Facebook users. Rebekah Mercer served on the board of Cambridge Analytica. Another notable funder of Parler is Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent and conservative podcast host with a very popular conservative Facebook page. Despite his apparent success on mainstream platforms — Bongino has nearly 3 million followers on Twitter and nearly 4 million on Facebook — he regularly urges his fans to join him on Parler. This isn’t necessarily surprising. The conservatives operating on Parler as well as the mainstream social media platforms seem to be trying to get the best of both worlds. This serves as a reminder that, despite Parler’s advertisements, it is not building an alternative to Facebook and Twitter as much as it’s becoming another node in a messy social media ecosystem. “You can build a very strong following on these platforms and then use it to promote your activity on other platforms,” Diara Townes, an investigative researcher and the community engagement lead at First Draft, a project that fights misinformation and disinformation, told Recode. “Not only can they continue sharing the content that they’re sharing on Facebook, they can now go to the next level and share content that isn’t going to be flagged or moderated, so they can have both pieces of the pie.” How the platform is changing in Trump’s final days as president There’s much speculation that, after he leaves office, Trump will create a conservative media venture of his own and bring his supporters along. But it’s also possible Parler might become part of the president’s future, too. For now, it doesn’t seem as though Trump has a formal presence on the platform. Trump has never tweeted about Parler, and accounts that purport to be him on the platform aren’t verified. But if Trump did go all-in on Parler, he could certainly bring many more of his supporters with him. But whether Parler can scale beyond its roots is unclear. Media Matter’s Angelo Carusone notes that, at a certain point, the platform will have to draw more aggressive lines about what is and isn’t allowed if it wants to attract a larger, less-extreme user base. Some social media researchers have made the point that if Parler actually wants to reach a wider audience, it will have to adapt. As the Stanford Internet Observatory’s Renée DiResta recently wrote in the Atlantic, “For some Trump supporters, the whole point of politics is to ‘own the libs,’ but on Parler, there are no libs around to own.” Parler is not the only social network to woo fringe groups. The shooter responsible for the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting was a user of the site Gab, which has also been used by neo-Nazis for recruitment. While Gab has lost hosting providers in the past, it’s still functional, and its leaders claim that, like Parler, it’s seen a surge of usage following the election. Despite its claims and ambitions, it seems unlikely that Parler would ever supplant any of the major social media platforms. Many of its most popular users are still active on Twitter and Facebook, and to some extent, Parler still needs those platforms to spread the word about itself. The internet companies that do moderate content — those on the right like to call this censorship — also give potential Parler users something to get outraged about. Whether or not Parler can thrive on this outrage remains to be seen. After all, a platform can’t build itself just because people hate the alternatives. It still needs something to keep its users interested on its own. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

Read More...
posted 10 days ago on re/code
A Biden campaign worker checks their phone while canvassing in Pennsylvania in early November. | Mark Makela/Getty Images It was Silicon Valley’s attempt to fix the party’s infrastructure. One of the most expensive, highest-profile efforts to fix the Democratic Party’s data woes is shutting down. Alloy, a group started with $35 million in part from Silicon Valley billionaire Reid Hoffman, said on Monday that it would begin to “wind down its operations” next year after the runoff elections in Georgia. The decision is a huge reversal in fortunes for Alloy, which had massive hype when announced but has failed to live up to its original promise, many Democratic data operatives have said over the course of the year. Alloy was originally seen as a tech solution that the party establishment — the Democratic National Committee — couldn’t provide. Plotted in the aftermath of the 2016 election when Democrats across the board saw their flagging data operation as one of the many reasons why Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump, Alloy was originally envisioned as a new data exchange where all Democratic efforts could swap information on progressive voters. But when it was introduced, the effort angered some party leaders who saw it as a stereotypical attempt by hubristic Silicon Valley billionaires to fix a problem they didn’t understand. Also complicating Alloy’s path was that the Democratic Party ended up having its own solution to its 2016 errors. The Democratic Party started building out a data portal called the Democratic Data Exchange, which attracted some of its own tech money. Many data operatives grew to see the two efforts as largely duplicative, and the relationship between Alloy and the Democratic Party could be tense at times, with some party leaders seeing Alloy as an “existential threat.” Alloy ended up largely focusing on voter-registration efforts during the 2020 cycle, a more humble mission and one that its leaders feel was successful: It checked that 23 million voters were registered. “We will close out this chapter of Alloy by cheering on those carrying forward with the ongoing work of protecting and strengthening our democracy,” Alloy said in an email to its partners on Monday that was obtained by Recode. Big news:Alloy, the $35 million data play from Reid Hoffman to fix the Democratic Party, is ending its operations next year.From an email out to partners this AM: “Beginning in 2021, we will begin to transition Alloy to wind down its operations.” pic.twitter.com/MHI8yRTQqo— Teddy Schleifer (@teddyschleifer) November 23, 2020 The announcement on Monday is a far cry from the initial expectations of Alloy. It was seen as a long-term fix to a long-term problem, not something that would end operations after just one presidential cycle. Half of the money for Alloy came from LinkedIn founder Hoffman, who has become one of the Democratic Party’s most controversial donors. Several political projects of Hoffman’s have failed, although he has argued that he is merely making a number of high-risk, high-upside political investments like he does in his day job as a venture capitalist. But no single project was more closely associated with him than Alloy — his team was even willing to essentially repay some progressive groups if they decided to use it. This is expected to be just the first of the post-election reconsiderations both parties will have to do when it comes to their tech.

Read More...
posted 11 days ago on re/code
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris met with Gov. Gavin Newsom over the Creek fire in California on September 15. | Carlos Avila Gonzalez/San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images What will Gavin Newsom do? Some of California’s biggest political donors are urging Gov. Gavin Newsom to choose a woman of color to fill the seat of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. Given how rare it has been for a Senate seat in the country’s largest state to become vacant, California leaders have been hard at work trying to lobby Newsom ever since Harris was chosen for the Democratic ticket this summer. And now the lobbying is becoming more public. On Monday, about 150 of the state’s biggest women donors will ratchet up the pressure with a public letter to Newsom saying that he should not replace Harris with a white woman, never mind a man. “We urge you to continue this Californian tradition by appointing a woman of color to Vice President-elect Harris’s US Senate seat,” the donors write in the letter, which will appear as a full-page ad in the state’s two largest newspapers, the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, and was shared early with Recode. “Women of color are the core drivers of electoral progress in our country, and their voices should be heard in the nation’s highest governing body. California is fortunate to have a strong pipeline of women of color in elected office who are prepared to serve; as Californians and political supporters, we look forward to you selecting one of them.” Signatories of the letter — which is officially authored by two donor groups, Electing Women Bay Area and the Los Angeles Women’s Collective — include Silicon Valley psychiatrist Karla Jurvetson, one of the country’s biggest Democratic donors; Gretchen Sisson, a sociologist and on-the-rise Democratic fundraiser; Susan Pritzker, a scion of the famous hotel family that has bankrolled Newsom’s ambitions for years; and Dagmar Dolby, the billionaire philanthropist. The decision before Newsom could be one of the politically diciest of his governorship. Newsom is also under pressure from Latino groups to name California’s first Hispanic senator, and Alex Padilla, California’s secretary of state, who is Hispanic, is considered a top contender, in part because he is personally close with Newsom. Another possible Latino choice is California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. There are several woman of color who are believed to be competitors with Padilla, including Karen Bass, a Los Angeles congresswoman who is Black and was a finalist to be Joe Biden’s vice-presidential selection; and Barbara Lee, a Black congresswoman from Oakland known for her anti-war stance. Senate seats in California don’t come up that often. Harris’s counterpart in the Senate, Dianne Feinstein, has held her seat for almost 30 years. Harris’s predecessor, Barbara Boxer, sat in hers for 25. So Newsom is likely staring down a decision that will well outlast him. Last month, Newsom lamented about “the stress of having to choose between a lot of friends, to choose between quality candidates — and the fact that whoever you pick, there are going to be a lot of people who are going to be upset.”

Read More...
posted 14 days ago on re/code
BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti. | Asa Mathat The Times’s subscription business is booming. But the BuzzFeed CEO has a critique. Jonah Peretti co-founded the Huffington Post, then left to start BuzzFeed. Now he’s running both companies: BuzzFeed is picking up HuffPost from Verizon, the phone company that thought it wanted to be in the media business and then changed its mind. I talked to Peretti about the rationale for the deal (scale, scale, scale), whether he can guarantee that all HuffPost employees will keep their jobs (no), how much Verizon paid him to take HuffPost off its hands (he won’t say), and whether he wants to buy more stuff (yes, probably). You can hear all of that in our Recode Media podcast. But I was struck by something we talked about at the end of our chat when I asked him about the success of the New York Times, which has been thriving over the last few years, while BuzzFeed, like many digital media companies, has had to retrench. The irony, as Peretti is well aware, is that in 2014, the Times’s leadership was terrified that the paper was about to be surpassed by the likes of ... BuzzFeed and HuffPost. The paper created a 96-page “innovation report” to help it fight back. The Times, Peretti allowed, has since refined a very good subscription business model, which has allowed it to make better journalism by hiring more and better talent. This is not a controversial opinion. But the next part may be: The New York Times, Peretti argued, can’t really be called “the paper of record” anymore — because of that same subscription model. “A subscription business model leads towards being a paper for a particular group and a particular audience and not for the broadest public,” Peretti said. He’s alluding, in part, to the theory that the Times’s subscriber base wants to read a certain kind of news and opinion — middle/left of center, critical of Donald Trump, etc. — and that straying from that can cost it subscribers. But he’s also simply arguing that the act of requiring readers to pay to read cuts the Times off from a big audience. Peretti’s solution to that problem, it turns out, sounds a whole lot like a combined BuzzFeed/HuffPost — publications that are widely distributed, supported by advertising, and free*: “Will a subscription newspaper that is read by a subset of society have as big an impact as it could on voters, on the broad public, on young people, on the more diverse rising generation of millennials and Gen Z?” he argued. “I think there’s a huge opportunity to serve those consumers. And not all of them are going to be subscribers to any publication.” I can’t argue with Peretti on one front: The Times, with 7 million subscribers and an ambition to get to 10 million, soon, certainly isn’t reaching everyone. And there’s a dangerous gap between the people with the time, money, and inclination to inform themselves with the Times and everyone else. And if he wants to fill it with free news from his newly augmented media empire, I wish him well. He most certainly won’t fix the problem alone. But if along the way he makes more good journalism available to more people, I’ll applaud it. * Both publications do invite their readers to support them with donations (as does Vox.com) but don’t require payment to read or consume any of the work they produce.

Read More...
posted 14 days ago on re/code
An attendee at a rally for Latina voters in Las Vegas in October. | Melina Mara/Washington Post via Getty Images Democrats are paying attention after a surprising number of Latino voters in swing states supported Trump. One of the big surprises of the 2020 election was how even though most Latino voters across the US voted for Joe Biden, in some counties of competitive states like Florida and Texas, a higher than expected percentage of Latinos supported Donald Trump. One factor that many believe played a role: online misinformation about the Democratic candidate. It’s still too early to know exactly why these voters favored Trump, a candidate who made demonizing Latino immigrants a cornerstone of his campaign and administration. For one, Latinos in the US are a diverse group of almost 60 million people who represent more than 15 origin countries and encompass a range of generational, socioeconomic, and religious identities. And we’re still waiting for more complete demographic data on voter turnout. But Democrats are increasingly worried about the influence of misinformation on social media aimed at Latino voters in the runup to the election. The misleading narratives continue to spread on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, as well as in closed chat groups like WhatsApp and Telegram, in addition to the more traditional platforms like television, radio, and talking points coming directly from elected officials. Several misinformation researchers told Recode that they’re seeing alarming amounts of misinformation about voter fraud and Democratic leaders being shared in Latino social media communities. Biden is a popular target, with misinformation ranging from exaggerated claims that he embraces Fidel Castro-style socialism to more patently false and outlandish ones, for instance that the president-elect supports abortion minutes before a child’s birth or that he orchestrated a caravan of Cuban immigrants to infiltrate the US Southern border and disrupt the election process. “What I’ve seen during this election looks to be a multifaceted misinformation effort seeking to undermine Biden and Harris’s support amongst the Latino community,” said Sam Woolley, a misinformation and propaganda researcher at the University of Texas Austin. “I think that political groups understand that the Latino vote matters and they are showing they are willing to use any and all informational tactics to get what they want.” Democratic strategists looking ahead to the 2022 midterm elections are concerned about how this might sway Latino voters in the future. They acknowledge that conservatives in traditional media and the political establishment have pushed false narratives as well, but say that social media misinformation deserves special attention: It appears to be a growing problem, and it can be hard to track and understand. Timothy Durigan, a security analyst for the Democratic National Committee, said that while Democrats “survived” the threat of misinformation this cycle, there hasn’t been the kind of structural change from social media companies that would prevent such viral misinformation from continuing to spread. The DNC regularly flags content it believes violates social media policies, and the organization promotes counter-messaging against viral conspiracies. But the volume of misinformation is overwhelming. “We’re limited in what we’re able to do,” Durigan said. Some of the misleading messages — like that Biden is a radical socialist — aren’t uniquely aimed at the Latino community; Trump often made this claim during his campaign. But these comparisons take on a new intensity with some immigrants from countries like Cuba or Venezuela who have lived under socialist governments and may be deeply opposed to them. And they may be more likely to believe a message shared by friends, family members, or people from their cultural community in a WhatsApp or Telegram group rather than an arbitrary mainstream US news outlet; research has found that people believe news articles more when they’re shared by people they trust. “What we’re worried about moving forward is that many of these groups and influencers aren’t necessarily going to stop sharing misinformation, but will move into platforms like Parler, WhatsApp, and Telegram, which is going to make it much more difficult to monitor,” said Flavia Colangelo, a researcher at GQR, a research firm that advises Democratic campaigns on Spanish-language disinformation. Politicians and social media researchers are still working on the full post-mortem of what happened in the 2020 election with Latino voters, but they’re already finding clear takeaways about what kinds of viral misinformation spreads, how it gains traction, and what companies like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter can do to minimize its impact — if they decide to do so. Misleading narratives on socialism, abortion, and racial tensions One of the most pervasive themes of the misinformation targeting Spanish-speaking communities in the US during the election is the false idea that Joe Biden is a radical socialist, along the lines of the late Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro or late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Biden has repeatedly disavowed socialism and is in fact criticized by some progressive Democrats for being too centrist. Other misleading narratives attack Democrats’ stances on religious freedom, abortion, and race relations. The Trump campaign itself has targeted Latino voters with this message, running Spanish-language ads on Facebook, YouTube, and Spanish-language TV stations in states like Florida and Arizona promoting this message of Biden’s “extremism.” “Socialist Joe Biden has embraced the extremist politics of the left. Don’t let his radical politics be implemented in our grand country. Learn more about his progressive ideas,” reads a translation of one Spanish-language Facebook ad run by the Trump campaign, which ran in the months ahead of the election. That specific Facebook ad had between 1.6 million and 1.9 million impressions on the platform and cost the Trump campaign over $26,000, according to data compiled about political ads on Facebook from July 1 until November 3 by Laura Edelson, a researcher at the NYU School of Engineering’s Ad Observatory project, which tracks Facebook ads. On Facebook and YouTube, making a claim like “Biden is an extreme socialist” isn’t a violation of their policies. What the platforms ban is misleading content about voting, as well as content linked to harmful conspiracy theories like QAnon. (After Recode provided examples, YouTube removed a popular Spanish-language channel that was promoting QAnon conspiracies, as well as a political video containing coronavirus misinformation.) Misinformation spreading in Latino communities wasn’t a problem for Democrats just in the presidential campaign, it cropped up in congressional races, too. Democratic House Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a first-generation Latina who lost her Florida reelection campaign, has publicly blamed a “targeted disinformation campaign to Latinos” as one of the main reasons for her loss. “Not only did House Republicans benefit at the ballot box from harmful disinformation that targeted Hispanic and Latino voters, but they shamelessly embraced that disinformation as a central pillar in their 2020 campaign strategy,” said Benjamin Block, a digital rapid response director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. And political ads were only one part of these misinformation campaigns. Researchers say a growing network of Spanish-language political news influencers, including Aliesky Rodriguez, Eduardo Menoni, and John Acquaviva, have built devoted followings on social media through US political commentary oriented to a Latino audience — much of it rife with misinformation or misleading narratives. Such influencers often start on YouTube or Facebook and then carry on the conversation in private WhatsApp and Telegram group chats, many of which have tens of thousands of members who post thousands of messages a day. These private chats are also more difficult for fact-checkers to monitor. “It’s rare that we see such a sort of emergence of parallel conversations amongst multiple social media groups like WhatsApp, and social media sites in one specific region,” said Woolley. One prominent Florida-based Cuban-American personality, Alex Otaola, whose YouTube videos rack up hundreds of thousands of views, went so far as to falsely claim that Democrats were going to send a caravan of Cuban immigrants to storm the US border to disrupt the election. He also made a video announcing a “lista roja” (red list) he planned to give to Trump, naming Cubans living in the US who Otaola baselessly asserted were Castro loyalists planning to subvert Trump’s presidency. Less than a month before the election, Otaola landed a visit with Trump, where he delivered the list to the president in person. A spokesperson for YouTube told Recode that Otaola’s caravan video does not violate its policies. “As we announced a few months ago, our deceptive practices policy prohibits misleading viewers about how to vote: for example, content aiming to mislead voters about the time, place, means, or eligibility requirements for voting. Expressing views on the outcome of a current election or process of counting votes is allowed under our policy.” Another prevalent theme in many Spanish-language social media groups is the idea that Biden isn’t a “real” Catholic. As NBC News has reported, one of the lies used to bolster this claim is that Biden is in favor of abortion minutes before a scheduled birth. Even though Latinos identify with various ideologies and religions, a majority — around 55 percent — of Latino Americans identified as Catholic in a 2013 Pew poll. “When Latinx people see this content, they think, ‘that’s a compatriot, I’m going to trust them,’” said Jaime Longoria, an investigative researcher focusing on Spanish-language disinformation with the research nonprofit First Draft News. “It feels like a huge oversight for me that these platforms have allowed all this misinformation to keep spreading.” Another tactic these campaigns employ is exploiting racial tensions in Latino communities — in many cases, to align the Black Lives Matter movement with anarchy and anti-Latino prejudice. These tactics ramped up in the summer as images of protests broke out across the country for racial justice this summer in the wake of police killings of Black people. (Biden and other Democrats have largely been supportive of this movement, although Biden has not backed some activists’ calls to defund the police.) “In my research, one of the first things I noticed is a lot of content online whose sole purpose was to antagonize Latinx people against Black people,” Longoria said. In one viral video that was posted in several Latino social media communities, a group of Black protesters is seen insulting migrant Latino workers at a construction site in Washington, DC. A caption for the original video, posted on an entertainment blog, read, “Protesters tell Mexican workers to stop stealing your jobs,” according to DCist. Another video seemingly aimed at pitting Latinos against Black people showed a Black woman disrupting a Latino child’s birthday party. The woman disrupting the party was falsely linked to the Black Lives Matter movement in a caption posted by the Facebook page “Infodemik.” Facebook flagged the video as false after an investigation by its third-party fact-checkers, but one instance of the video alone has some 180,000 shares and 77,000 comments on the platform. These kinds of tactics can have a real impact on their targeted audience. Saiph Savage, who researches misinformation at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Civic Tech Lab, said there is a “data void” in the Latino community for Spanish-language news about US politics. There are only two major Spanish-language broadcast news networks in the US: Univision and Telemundo. This leaves room for media operations — not just on the internet, but also via local radio channels and newspapers — to spread less-accurate reporting, Savage said. And increasingly, some members of the Latino community feel that the major Spanish-language networks are biased against conservatives, perpetuated in part, Savage and Longoria said, by viral conspiracy theories spread online — including the unproven accusation that star Univision anchor Jorge Ramos is working on behalf of the Democratic Party. Looking ahead to 2022, Democrats are worried Though the 2020 election is over, misinformation about it continues to spread on social media. Some Latino American online influencers are promoting conspiracy theories about voter fraud — many in line with widely debunked claims Trump has been making — comparing unproven corruption in the US election to countries such as Venezuela and Cuba. In a YouTube live video posted last week with over 40,000 views, three popular Latino social media influencers warned viewers about a California woman claiming that her dog was sent a mail-in ballot, as an example of mass voter fraud — despite the fact that the anecdote has been widely discredited. “You don’t even see this in the tyrannical, communist dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro,” said Eduardo Menoni, a popular Venezuelan social media personality who now lives in Colombia, according to his Facebook page, in the video. As Democrats face a weaker House majority than anticipated, which could erode further in 2022, they worry about the continued threat of misinformation like this influencing a key voting bloc. Party officials from the Democratic Campaign Congressional Committee (DCCC) and the DNC are calling on social companies like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to do a better job moderating their platforms. “The DCCC took on the threat of organic disinformation, but that work cannot fall on the shoulders of campaigns and party committees alone,” said Block, who heads up the DCCC’s disinformation research efforts. “Social media companies must step up to the plate and combat organic disinformation to protect voters who use their platforms.” The DNC’s Durigan told Recode that Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging software, which Latinos use more compared to any other ethnic or racial group in the US, is a particular area of concern for the party. “That product is kind of inherently problematic,” Durigan said. “They have marketed pretty aggressively their encrypted communication software with capability for fairly large group conversation and easy forwarding.” A spokesperson for Facebook said that the company takes Spanish-language misinformation seriously. Ahead of the 2020 election, the company added two new US-fact-checking partners who review content in Spanish on Facebook and Instagram. It also put a Spanish-language version of a chatbot in WhatsApp to answer people’s questions about the election, as well as a Spanish-language version of its voting information center on Facebook and Instagram. Facebook also limits people from spreading a message to five people or groups at a time in order to limit the spread of viral misinformation, and in April it took further steps to limit viral claims to only being forwarded to one chat or group at a time. But several Democratic operatives said that new policies still don’t go far enough, and that the company should be doing more to limit and fact-check viral false claims within the app. But as social media companies face pressure from Democrats to do more about viral Spanish-language misinformation, Republicans continue to accuse tech companies of censoring conservative views when they more aggressively enforce their rules around political misinformation. This puts companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in a political tug-of-war over how legislators on opposite sides of the aisle think they should be running their companies. At the same time, the Democratic Party has been called on to take accountability for its own failings to combat false narratives. Several party operatives told Recode that in order to combat viral disinformation on social media, the party also needs to increase its efforts to reach Latino voters on the ground, specifically in states such as Florida and Texas. In Arizona, Democrats effectively worked with local Latino progressive groups to do grassroots door-to-door outreach, which Colangelo believes helped minimize the impact of viral misinformation to some extent. “Countering disinformation online requires offline trust-building,” Colangelo said. “It’s introducing the candidate early and saying, ‘Here’s the Democratic Party, here’s what we stand for, here’s what we’ve done for your community, and here’s what we plan to do next.’ So when someone comes in and says, ‘this candidate is a socialist and they’re going to raise your taxes’ — voters already know that’s not true.”

Read More...
posted 14 days ago on re/code
Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Vanity Fair Gimlet’s Lydia Polgreen tells Peter Kafka about how her parent company Spotify plans to turn music listeners into podcast devotees. Spotify wants to own the podcasting space, and it’s made that clear with a series of high-profile acquisitions and deals over the past two years — including the Ringer, Gimlet, Joe Rogan, and, most recently, Megaphone. Its next goal: get more of its 300 million users to start listening to podcasts. Peter Kafka talked to Gimlet Media’s new head of content, Lydia Polgreen, about how she plans to achieve that at the Code [email protected] series. “Our goal is to get people into the habit of listening to content on Spotify that’s not music,” Polgreen said. While the growth of podcasts has been strong, it’s still a tiny fraction of overall listening for the service. She pointed to the latest Edison research that podcasting hit an all-time high in 2020, now accounting for a 6 percent share of audio consumption in the United States. To that end, Gimlet is experimenting with mixed media extensions of podcasts, like vodcasting (video podcasting), and it’s leveraging Spotify’s robust predictive algorithm to feed music listeners shortform spoken content in the Daily Drive, its recommendation service. “Just as Spotify helped people discover the best music for them — it didn’t just know what you liked, but it was able to predict what you might like,” Polgreen said. “There’s a lot of really fascinating work going on at the company that’s trying to solve this problem for spoken word audio too.” The most recent iteration of this looks a lot like traditional FM radio. Last month, Gimlet Media launched The Get Up, a morning show that mixes daily news and talk with Spotify’s personalized music recommendations — “that special sauce Spotify has with music,” said Polgreen. Deciding to reinvent the drive-time radio show during a pandemic, when a large share of would-be commuters are homebound, doesn’t seem like great timing. But according to Polgreen, half a million people have tuned in so far. And after an initial dip, Gimlet listenership is back to where it was pre-pandemic. Polgreen also told Kafka some of her other ideas for audio: a daily shortform soap opera-style fiction podcast, and a weekly, appointment-listening documentary show. “We’ve yet to see a show that’s become the 60 Minutes for audio,” she said. Watch Kafka’s full interview with Lydia Polgreen above to hear more about her vision for podcasting at Spotify, why she left a long career at the New York Times to join HuffPost after the 2016 election, and her thoughts on Joe Rogan’s interview controversies.

Read More...
posted 14 days ago on re/code
Longtime Stitch Fix executive Mike Smith. | Stitch Fix Stitch Fix’s Mike Smith is leaving the online apparel retailer. Mike Smith is a versatile and well-respected executive in the e-commerce industry. He also happens to one of the few Black C-level leaders in tech. Now he wants to play a bigger role in changing that. Smith has served as president, COO, and interim CFO over eight-plus years at Stitch Fix, the online apparel retailer and personal styling service. But he told Recode on Thursday that he plans to leave his executive role at the $4 billion publicly traded company in the coming months to start a venture capital firm. His goal is to get more money into the hands of tech entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds, namely Black, Latinx, and women founders. “I’ve been fortunate that I’ve done well being out in this ecosystem, and I want [there to be] more people like me,” Smith told Recode. “When I look around and I’m the only one or one of the few, it just shouldn’t be the case.” As a racial reckoning swept the US this year in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, some of the Silicon Valley elite who decide how to invest billions into startups have confronted their own role in the systemic issues of economic inequality prevalent in the US. Only 1 percent of VC-backed entrepreneurs are Black, and less than 2 percent are Latinx. Meanwhile, the percentage of VC dollars invested in female founders has barely increased since 2012. According to a Morgan Stanley report published this week, 61 percent of venture capitalists say that the Black Lives Matter movement has impacted their investment strategy, and 43 percent of these investors say that funding “multicultural-founded” companies is now one of their top priorities, up from 33 percent in 2019. Smith said he was happy to field calls this summer from startup investors and other business leaders who wanted his advice on how to help solve issues of racial injustice and economic inequality. “The dialogue needs to happen and there needs to be vulnerability where people can admit, ‘I don’t know what to do,’” Smith said. At the same time, this summer’s events and conversations made Smith want to do more. “I considered either being CEO of a company or joining a venture firm, and then George Floyd happened and the racial unrest, and I really took stock of, ‘What do I want my impact to look like over the next 10 to 15 years of my career?” Smith said. “And it was super meaningful to process all that was going on this summer and realize, I do think the broadest impact that I can have is doing venture capital and starting my own firm, with diversity being a really important pillar of the firm.” While Smith said his firm won’t ignore founders who aren’t from underrepresented backgrounds, there will be a “big focus” on evaluating ideas from those entrepreneurs who are. “That pipeline has been underrepresented, that pipeline hasn’t had access. And we think we’ll find great founders,” he said. Smith has for years served as both a formal and informal adviser to a growing network of Black and women founders, and believes that will put him in a position to get in front of the next great wave of entrepreneurs. The investment firm, which Smith will run with a partner he’s not ready to announce, will favor investments in consumer companies based on his experiences over the last two decades working at Stitch Fix and Walmart.com before that. “Dollars spent in this country and the world are spent by more people who are non-white, and there’s a lot of Black influence on culture in this country,” Smith said. “But I don’t think we’ve seen as much participation in wealth creation, specifically in technology, in the Black community.” Though Smith will leave his full-time role as interim chief financial officer when Stitch Fix hires a permanent replacement soon, the company is naming him to its board of directors — a rare offer to a departing executive. Smith also serves on the boards of publicly traded companies Ulta Beauty and Herman Miller, as well as startups Mayvenn and Imperfect Foods.

Read More...
posted 14 days ago on re/code
A scene from Wonder Woman 1984. | WarnerMedia Why you can see Wonder Woman 1984 at home on Christmas Day. On Christmas Day, you can see Wonder Woman 1984 in movie theaters — if theaters are open where you live — or you can watch it at home on HBO Max. That’s a remarkable thing. It’s the first time you’ve ever been able to decide exactly when and where you want to watch a big, would-be-blockbuster Hollywood movie on opening day. Distribution plans for a superhero movie aren’t the most important news at the moment — we are, after all, battling a pandemic that has killed 250,000 Americans. But it’s also worth noting that this modestly pro-consumer move — giving people the chance to see a comic book movie wherever they want to see it — is only happening because of the pandemic. And the move also tells you a lot about the state of both the movie theater business (it’s in a lot of trouble) and the streaming business, which is in a desperate race for scale. Quickish background: Hollywood movie studios and the big movie theater chains have been fighting for years over “windows”: the amount of time between when a movie comes to theaters and when you can watch it at home. Most of the studios have been trying to shrink that window. They want you to be able to rent a big movie at home weeks, not months, after it debuts in theaters. Theaters, for obvious reasons, want to keep that gap as big as possible. And since theaters represent a big chunk of the revenue a movie can generate, they’ve been able to more or less hold the line. You could sometimes see an indie movie at home at the same time it debuted in theaters, but for big movies and big studios, it never happened. Even attempts to experiment with alternate models — in 2011, Universal studios proposed letting you rent Tower Heist, a terrible Eddie Murphy/Ben Stiller movie, for $60 while it was still in theaters — haven’t gone anywhere. Enter the pandemic, which closed theaters and forced studios to try different strategies. Most studios moved most of the big movies they planned to debut this year, like Dune or the latest Fast & Furious sequel, to 2021. Then they experimented a bit with everything else: Universal allowed people to rent Trolls 2 and other movies at home. Other studios took movies that were supposed to go into theaters and folded them into their own streaming services: Hamilton debuted on Disney+, The Witches went to HBO Max. Disney also tried a hybrid option by letting Disney+ subscribers watch Mulan at home — if they paid an extra $30. But until now no one has let you pick if you want to watch a true blockbuster in a theater with other people, or at home with friends and family. (The first Wonder Woman movie, released in 2017, grossed more than $800 million worldwide, which means WarnerMedia, the unit of AT&T that owns both Warner Bros. studio and HBO Max, expect the sequel to be a giant hit as well.) The fact that this is happening now reveals a couple things: The movie theaters have completely lost the leverage they once had. In the past, WarnerMedia would have never tried this because the big theater chains would have made credible threats, including refusing to show the movie in their theaters. (This is why, by the way, you could see Netflix’s The Irishman in theaters last year only in small chains and indie theaters. The big chains, like AMC, simply refused to show the movie because they are angry at and threatened by Netflix in general.) But the big chains can’t threaten the movie studios anymore. That’s because they’re either not open, period, or because people don’t want to see movies in theaters, even when they can. WarnerMedia did try bringing Tenet, a would-be blockbuster, to theaters earlier this year, and pandemic-scarred US audiences simply refused to go. And while movie theaters expect to open again in 2021, they will do so in a very weakened state. They have spent this year bleeding money and trying to stave off bankruptcy. There’s a good chance many of the theater chains will have to close many of their locations in the near future; there’s also a good chance some of them will end up with new owners after filing for Chapter 11. One indication of how weak the theaters are: Earlier this year, Universal cut a deal with AMC, the world’s biggest theater chain, to shorten — but not eliminate — the theater-to-home window. That pact was considered astonishing, and it required Universal to give AMC a cut of its home rental sales. But a PR rep for WarnerMedia says the company isn’t changing its existing deals with theaters in any way for Wonder Woman 1984. The theaters that show it can get the cut of box office revenue they always get, and nothing more. That is: WarnerMedia is betting that the big chains will show the movie, on their terms, which they hate. And that they won’t be able to do anything to retaliate. Big media desperately wants to catch up to Netflix. WarnerMedia executives are fully aware that giving people the chance to watch Wonder Woman 1984 at home means that many people are going to watch Wonder Woman 1984 at home, which means they’re going to sell many fewer tickets. Meaning: This is going to cost WarnerMedia a bunch of money. But the company clearly thinks that giving audiences a reason to subscribe to HBO Max is worth it. The streaming service — a mix of the old HBO plus a bunch of new stuff — got off to a slow start when it launched this spring, and it is hoping that a new, family-friendly superhero movie will be a reason for people to subscribe over the holidays. And WarnerMedia needs a lot of people to do that: Its owner, AT&T, has promised Wall Street that it is going to become one of the dominant streaming services, along with Netflix and Disney. It will either ultimately be rewarded or punished based on that performance, rather than the near-term performance of its studio. So cutting off some movie revenue now — and making theaters upset along the way — will be worth it for WarnerMedia if it can turn HBO Max into a real Netflix competitor. And if it can’t, the money it loses on Wonder Woman 1984 won’t matter much anyway.

Read More...
posted 14 days ago on re/code
Urgent care centers are one of few places people can drop in for coronavirus tests without an appointment. | Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images Americans are using urgent care to get coronavirus tests. They may continue to use it after the pandemic. Demand for urgent care is spiking as the country continually breaks daily records for new Covid-19 cases. This makes sense: Americans are seeking out coronavirus tests more than ever and urgent care centers are one of few places people can walk up and get one without an appointment. In fact, urgent care is quickly becoming the go-to health care destination for a growing share of the population. As the third wave of the pandemic began across the United States, visits to urgent care jumped nearly 10 percent in October compared to September according to the industry group Urgent Care Association — and urgent care centers had already been busier than ever after starting to offer Covid-19 tests in earnest back in May. Fifty percent more people are going to urgent care currently than is typical for this time of year, according to data from Solv, an app that handles online and in-person booking for urgent care centers. Searches for urgent care on Google are at an all-time high, as are searches for Covid-19 testing. A big reason for this growth is the unique role that urgent care centers have played in the American health care system. Urgent care centers are standalone medical practices where patients can drop in for immediate medical care for anything from fractures to the flu, no appointment necessary. Their hours tend to be longer — some are 24 hours, 7 days a week — than primary care doctors, though their copays are usually higher. While state testing sites, pharmacies, community clinics, and primary care doctors all offer Covid-19 tests, urgent care centers do so on demand. In addition to the record number of Covid-19 cases, urgent care centers are seeing a rise in the number of people seeking testing because it’s the start of the season for colds and flu, which have similar symptoms to Covid-19. Many people are also getting tested as a way of trying to safely visit family for the holidays. It’s not clear exactly what share of the 172 million coronavirus tests conducted so far in the US have been done through urgent care centers, but it’s certainly sizable and growing. Urgent Care Association CEO Lou Ellen Horwitz said urgent care centers are conducting a “tremendous” number of Covid-19 tests, which accounts for the “vast majority of visits.” Urgent care centers were doing about 725,000 tests per week in late October, which roughly amounted to 10 percent of the total tests per week in the US at that time. Since the number of tests urgent care centers conduct per week has grown so quickly — as has the total number of tests conducted in the US — we don’t have precise current numbers for urgent care’s contribution. The urgent care market has grown rapidly and is estimated to be $28 billion in the US this year, and coronavirus care is likely to add to its growth. That said, all this new business might not be that great for the financial viability of urgent care in the short term, since Covid-19 tests and precautions are so expensive. Insurance companies commonly pay urgent cares a flat fee per visit, regardless of what services are provided. The cost for Covid-19 tests and the added personal protective equipment needed is high — high enough that the reimbursement from insurance companies does not always cover the total cost of conducting these tests, according to Horwitz. There is a provision in the federal CARES Act that should help cover these added costs, but Horwitz says that has been a “struggle in reality,” though she’s hopeful that insurance companies and urgent care will sort out fair payment. Regardless, Covid-19 tests are continuing to be a large portion of urgent care’s new business. And the extent to which these clinics remain popular after the pandemic could have lasting effects on how health care is delivered in the United States. The rise of urgent care and the decline of primary care businesses The first urgent care clinics launched in the early 1980s, and the concept grew slowly through the early aughts. They began to grow more rapidly thanks to shortages — both real and perceived — of primary care doctors and a growing effort to avoid expensive emergency room visits. Then, about a decade ago, investors started pouring money into the industry, whose retail model seemed to fit American consumerism, and health systems started opening their own urgent care centers. There are currently more than 10,000 urgent care centers in the US, up 44 percent from five years ago, according to the Urgent Care Association. Urgent care had been gaining in popularity long before the pandemic due to a unique space it filled between primary care doctors and emergency room visits. Research published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that Americans had increasingly been going to urgent care for “low-acuity conditions” — complaints like respiratory infections, muscle strains, and rashes. From 2008 to 2015, urgent care centers saw a 120 percent increase in those types of visits. These places are also equipped to treat more severe injuries like fractures or wounds that need stitches. Indeed, Americans have been utilizing urgent care to avoid expensive emergency room bills. Young people especially have been drawn to the convenience of urgent care, where longer hours and walk-in appointments seem to outweigh the cost of bigger copays. At the same time, the number of Americans getting health care from primary care doctors has been declining, which could be detrimental to people’s health, according to a report in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Estimates from the Urgent Care Association indicate that urgent care represented more than 23 percent of all primary care visits in the US before the pandemic, and that number is undeniably higher now. “Primary care is super important because it’s associated with better outcomes and lower health care costs,” said one of the report’s authors, Ishani Ganguli, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a primary care physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She added that primary care is also important for coordinating all of a person’s medical care and for finding underlying problems that could be missed in one-off visits to urgent care. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images Coronavirus testing was very limited this spring when this photo was taken. Availability is now much higher, but still not as high as it needs to be. While urgent care has certainly been taking some of that traffic, there are other reasons for that decline, according to Ganguli’s research. The internet, accessible from the comfort and privacy of our homes, is the first stop for many Americans looking for answers about their health. And sometimes those answers — what to do about pink eye, for example — obviate the need for medical care. The rising cost of health care, meanwhile, means that some people cannot afford to see a doctor. Other reasons for the decline in visits to primary care doctors have to do with how their practices have changed. Patients are getting more done in fewer visits and are supplementing those visits with calls and emails to their primary care doctors. These are positive developments for patients, but they can have a negative effect on the bottom lines of medical practices. Doctors are often paid by the visit, which doesn’t always take into consideration this increased care. Doctors are increasingly adding online portals for communication and telehealth visits, reducing the need for in-person visits, and online health care grew rapidly due to the necessities of the coronavirus pandemic. The share of Americans who tried telemedicine had already doubled this spring. Online visits, however, are not being covered by insurance companies or Medicare at the same rates as in-person appointments. That coupled with people putting off routine care during the pandemic has forced some primary care businesses across the country to close. There’s been a lot of interest from policymakers, insurers, and doctors in moving from a per-service payment model to a per-person system, and the pandemic is making it more likely. But by the time that happens, many of the primary care businesses operating in the US will have already gone under. What this means for medical care The increased use of urgent care doesn’t have to be a bad thing for primary care. It can be a complement to it. While urgent care can be used to treat one-off issues like the flu or stitching a wound, primary care physicians can focus on managing more long-term and major health care needs. “If I were to redraw the medical system to decide where do I want primary care doctors spending time, it would be on the sicker population,” Ateev Mehrotra, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and a hospitalist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, said, referring to those with more severe health conditions. “If that means that other providers are taking care of flu and sinusitis, so be it.” As far as the pandemic is concerned, urgent care centers have become a critical part of a patchwork of health care providers who can meet the high demand for testing in lieu of a national strategy. Their on-demand appointments, relatively straightforward test offerings, and ubiquity have made urgent care centers ideal places for the public to find Covid-19 tests, in addition to other medical care. “It makes good sense to me to get certain services at urgent care. Covid testing is a good example of that,” said Ganguli, who thinks urgent care and primary doctors can collaborate to create more informed, holistic treatment. “The ideal future state is that retail clinics and urgent care are an extension of what primary care is already doing, helping us do that job better.” The fear, however, is that people will use urgent care centers in place of seeing a regular primary care physician. When you go to urgent care, you see a different nurse or doctor each time, whereas at primary care you’d see your regular doctor, who could follow your health over time and across different providers. “By skipping primary care, you risk delayed or missed diagnoses of major yet treatable conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, cervical cancer, and depression, as well as higher medical bills,” Ganguli said. The consequences of going to urgent care rather than seeing a regular doctor also depend on the patient and their particular situation. “If we’re talking about younger, healthier folks, it’s fine to have a more convenient care option,” Mehrotra said. “My concern goes up if people using it have a lot of medical conditions or are on lots of medications.” While urgent care centers serve all sorts of demographics, millennials and people with young children tend to be top customers, according to Horwitz, the head of the Urgent Care Association. It’s less popular among elderly people, who are more familiar with the primary care model and who see a wider range of doctors whose care needs to be coordinated. Horwitz added that there has been a low rate of urgent care patients who have needed to be transferred to the emergency room. This suggests that people aren’t mistakenly using urgent care for more serious issues. How urgent care could be at the center of Covid-19 care Urgent care was a bridge between primary care and the emergency room in normal times, and now, it’s filling a variety of needs around the coronavirus. That includes not only testing but advising people on treating the illness, quarantining properly, and, if necessary, when to go to the emergency room. In order to stop the spread of the virus, it’s essential that people know whether they have it in the first place. Some 193 million tests per month are necessary to safely operate schools and nursing homes, according to a report released in September by the Rockefeller Foundation. Currently, the US is doing less than a quarter of that. To reach that level of testing, all Covid-19 test providers, including urgent cares, will have to accommodate more customers. For many, Covid-19 testing will be their first experience using urgent care. Horwitz says urgent cares “fully intend to participate” in distributing coronavirus vaccines, so those visits likely won’t be their last. One of the major challenges with the coronavirus vaccines, once they are ultimately approved for use, will be distributing them to the population. That task will largely fall to the states, which will in turn work with local medical providers like urgent care centers to make sure that those who need it can get it, beginning with priority populations like health care workers and the elderly. Horwitz expects urgent care’s popularity, buoyed by coronavirus testing and — someday —vaccines, to increase the use of urgent care for other reasons after the pandemic. “Coronavirus gives urgent care the opportunity to show their communities as well as government entities what urgent care is capable of,” Horwitz said.

Read More...
posted 15 days ago on re/code
Amanda Northrop/Vox Americans are embracing dangerous conspiratorial beliefs, from QAnon to coronavirus denial. Eleanor’s dad loved science — or so she thought. Eleanor grew up listening to stories of the Apollo missions and audio clips from space expeditions. Every weekend, the two of them hopped on a train to downtown Philadelphia to visit the Franklin Institute, where they would explore the planetarium, flight simulators, and technology exhibits. “It was our special thing,” Eleanor, now an elementary school teacher who requested that Vox not use her real name to protect her privacy, told me. That was several years ago. In 2020, Eleanor began to glimpse a much different version of her father. “I’m going to a protest,” he told her in April. At first, she assumed he was attending a Black Lives Matter march or a similar event. But no — her father was protesting to reopen the state of Pennsylvania, then under lockdown due to Covid-19, because he thought the governor was exaggerating the threat of the virus. Other dissonant moments followed. Eleanor’s father didn’t just disagree with Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf — suddenly, Wolf was “a dictator.” Her father started following fringe communities and groups online, arguing that masks were “a muzzle and a control device,” a way for the government to somehow manipulate the populace. Then he began enthusiastically repeating the false claims of Stella Immanuel, a Houston pediatrician who went viral earlier this year for claiming hydroxychloroquine could “cure” Covid-19. (Immanuel has also declared, among other things, that ovarian cysts are caused by sex with demons, that scientists are experimenting with alien DNA, and that reptilian humanoids are running the government.) Once, when Immanuel appeared on a TV news segment, Eleanor’s father and stepmother began cheering, as though they were at a political rally instead of at home watching a far-right conspiracy theorist. “I genuinely thought, ‘Is this early-onset dementia?’” Eleanor told me. “It seemed so out of character.” Eleanor’s story of a family member’s surprising, sudden embrace of conspiracy theories echoes countless others that have emerged in recent years, hand in hand with America’s ever more divergent ideological spectrum. The era of Donald Trump’s presidency alone has seen numerous unfounded conspiracy theories enter the mainstream, from increasing numbers of anti-vaxxers fueling measles outbreaks to Pizzagate — the conspiracy theory that emerged shortly before the 2016 election and alleged that politicians were running a child-trafficking ring — to numerous Covid-19 hoaxes. There’s no hard evidence that conspiracy theories are circulating more widely today than ever before. But over the past five years, it has certainly seemed like average Americans have bought into them more and more. Surveys within the past year have shown that a quarter of US citizens believe the mainstream media is lying to them about Covid-19, and that it is “definitely” or “probably true” that the outbreak was intentionally planned. Meanwhile, the headline-grabbing QAnon, a conspiracy theory that evolved from Pizzagate and posits that Trump has been working in secret to capture high-powered figures who are engaged in child abduction and trafficking, is still a niche belief. But a quarter of those who know what it is think there’s at least some truth to it, and that number is growing rapidly as the QAnon theory begins to converge with Covid-19 theories. Kyle Grillot/AFP via Getty Images QAnon demonstrators protest on August 22 in Los Angeles. As 2020 enters the home stretch, new conspiracy theories seem to keep coming up. The latest? Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud during the presidential election, which many of his followers are echoing, despite zero evidence, in any state, to support the assertion. “We’re nine months into the pandemic,” said Ben Radford, a folklorist, psychologist, and fellow with the Center for Inquiry whose research interests include contemporary conspiracies and hoaxes. “Some people are out of a job. There’s lots of uncertainty. And some people will channel that uncertainty into conspiracy theories.” But how did we get to a place where previously science-minded and logic-loving dads can find conspiracy theories with ease, and where once-fringe paranoia is now embedded in our country’s politics? Why did baseless theories about health, science, and sinister world leadership get to be so popular, and why now? Let’s walk through the factors leading to the current explosion of conspiracy theories — and what we can do to combat them. Sociopolitical turbulence tends to generate conspiracies The history of conspiracy theories is somewhat short, relative to human evolution. According to Radford, the first conspiracy theories as we might recognize them now likely didn’t spring up until the mid-15th century, with the invention of the Gutenberg press in the 1440s. Movable type allowed for the wider spread of information — and anxious reinterpretation of that information. “Suddenly you not only have knowledge that is reproducible, but you also have other people who are writing about things that may have a different perspective,” Radford said. This was the moment, he argues, in which the first conflicts of information arose over what was true and what wasn’t. Conspiracy theories have most often flourished during times of great sociopolitical upheaval and uncertainty. “You see this kind of boom in conspiracies whenever there’s political or social unrest throughout history,” Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist who researches conspiracies at the Social Decision-Making Lab at Cambridge, told me. “Whenever there is significant uncertainty in the world.” Take the Salem witch trials in the 1690s, another transformative moment in conspiratorial thinking. These events were prompted by sweeping social and political changes in Puritan New England: frontier wars with American Indians, expanding roles for women, and challenges to religious authority. The prevailing fear of Salem witch hunters wasn’t that the woman next door might be a witch, but rather that a vast network of witches existed and were gathering in secret, plotting to do evil. This basic idea of a covert network of evildoers threads through most 20th-century moral panics, from the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories circulated by the Nazis to McCarthyism to the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and ’90s. Conspiracy theories provide people with a feeling of control when presented with troubling and disturbing information, calming our fears of the inevitable or unknown. “A lot of these conspiracies detract from some scary themes in the world,” van der Linden told me. “Climate change, coronavirus. It’s just another way to deny reality and having to think about your own fragility in the world. It’s an escape for people who are not so tolerant of uncertainty.” MPI/Getty Images The trial of George Jacobs for witchcraft at the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts, circa 1692. For people who want a sense of order, conspiracy theories may provide a belief framework — even if it’s a negative one. “It tells people the world isn’t just random,” Radford said. “The world’s going to hell, but there is some master plan. People take comfort in that, in a sort of perverse way.” Troubling times further breed conspiracy theories on the principle of supply and demand: The circumstances from which they are born lead to their proliferation. But if conspiracy theories have historically gotten a boost from geopolitical turbulence, modern-day conspiracies have several other unprecedented factors working in their favor, — starting with memes and misinformation. The modern misinformation crisis allows conspiracy theories to flourish Conspiracy theories are often seen as akin to folklore or urban legends — as mostly harmless, “what if” entertainment. But in the United States, conspiracy theories have much more power than these tales do. The conspiracy theory can be a political weapon, thanks to what historian Richard J. Hofstadter called “the paranoid style”: a tendency toward hyper-vigilant, alarmist, and absolutist beliefs that stem from a combination of “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” This tendency, which Hofstadter thought belonged only to a small minority of people, now undergirds much of American politics. Once-obscure conspiratorial ideas are now habitually deployed by national leaders like Trump and members of his outgoing administration, specifically to create further political tension. “Typically, folklore spreads without much intentional direction,” Radford said. “What’s fascinating over the past few months and years is the weaponization of folklore and the weaponization of these sorts of legends in which you have, for example, Russian disinformation agencies.” Social media facilitates the spread of information, giving rise to viral formats like memes. Conspiracy theories are memetic — they mutate easily and take on new forms — which makes them a perfect fit for social media platforms. Mario Tama/Getty Images Supporters of President Donald Trump hold up their phones with messages referencing the QAnon conspiracy theory at a campaign rally in Las Vegas on February 21. That’s why blatantly absurd yet longstanding conspiracy tropes — such as the centuries-old fear that people in power are kidnapping children to drink their blood — can keep going and going and going: These tropes trigger moral outrage, prompting audiences to spread the story, which then keeps morphing into new forms like stories in a game of Telephone. For example, the “drinking the blood of children” trope — used for centuries to justify oppression of Jewish people — has been applied QAnon’s claim that high-powered Democrats are kidnapping kids to harvest their blood. Such ideas, no matter how far-fetched, can keep spreading indefinitely as they transform and reach vast new audiences. More people are profiting off the spread of conspiracy theories than ever It’s not just social media that contributes to fearmongering and the spread of misinformation: Many controversial figures spread conspiracy theories not because they believe in them and want to warn the public, but because they may have other agendas. Alex Jones, the host of the alarmist far-right show Infowars, is perhaps the most successful, visible example of someone building an empire out of peddling conspiracy theories — the more absurd, the better. But he’s not alone. Conspiracy theories flourish on TikTok, Facebook, and YouTube (which has long fought a battle against those who spread them) not just because individual theories go viral, but because their creators can become hugely influential. “They think they’re given the key. If you’re woke, and you’re taking the red pill, or blue pill, or whatever the hell pill it is, then you know; you understand what’s going on.” One prominent example is Teal Swan, a new-age vlogger notorious for urging her 750,000 followers toward suicidal ideation. Swan released a video in May that strongly implied that various world governments had facilitated the Covid-19 pandemic to profit from individuals, and that anyone entering quarantine was “a herd animal” being “controlled by others.” If you run a Google search on Swan, the results suggest that she is “an American teacher,” thus lending her an unearned authority — a status she shares with many other conspiracy theory gurus. Another example is Dave Hayes, a Christian writer and YouTuber who’s become a minor leading figure in the QAnon-believers community after he claimed that God explained QAnon to him in a series of prophetic dreams. Hayes and Swan have long built their brands around bizarre ideas; Hayes, for example, promotes a book on his website that he describes as a guide to prophecy and raising the dead. These figures have little to lose by claiming to be authorities on conspiracy theories, and plenty to gain — from monetized YouTube views to lucrative consulting gigs to sales of books and writings. This brings us to someone who’s directly profited from the recent spread of conspiracy theories in an atypical way: President Trump. Radford has argued that Trump’s dedication to spreading unfounded or unscientific ideas is a huge reason conspiracy theories have gained such traction over the past decade. “Like him or hate him, Trump has used and benefited from and promoted conspiracy theories in a way that no previous president has,” Radford told me. “It’s just unprecedented.” Researchers have found that when Trump publicly endorses a belief, his followers become more likely to believe it, regardless of whether it’s factually supported. Joe Raedle/Getty Images A sign in the shape of a Q is held up President Donald Trump attends a Make America Great Again Rally in Tampa, Florida, on July 31, 2018. Trump has a long history of promoting conspiracy theories, dating from well before his time in politics; in 2007, he claimed that vaccines cause autism. His political career arguably started when he began to spread the false “birther” conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the US. Conspiracy theories have consistently been key to galvanizing his pious voter base. His supporters’ fears over “illegal votes” currently serve as the foundation for Trump’s attempts to dispute his election loss to President-elect Joe Biden. Eleanor told me she blames Trump specifically for her father’s rapidly evolving distrust of mainstream media, which, like many Trump supporters, he now abbreviates simply as “MSM.” Instead of getting his information from regular media sources, Eleanor said, her father uses Trump’s Twitter feed — which has been dominated lately by the president’s unfounded claims that the election was a scam — as his primary news source. “It’s not even a conversation that you can have” with him, she told me, “and this is where I think Trump is so dangerous. What he’s done to just instill that distrust of the media — you can’t even say, ‘Well, here’s an article I read that differs from what you said.’ They’re like, ‘Oh, like I’m going to believe CNN. Oh, like I’m going to believe the New York Times.’ So it’s all a lie.” Eleanor feels that Trump has emboldened this type of thinking. “Before, there was maybe a little bit of shame or embarrassment” in believing that social institutions like the media were conspiring against the people, she said. But now, many people seem to proudly indulge in this belief; her father, at Trump’s explicit urging, has claimed that the mainstream media is all part of the big conspiracy. Eleanor’s reluctance to talk to her father about all of this over fear of the outcome is another factor in the inexorable spread of conspiracy theories: Confronting them with criticism and logic seems to only make them stronger and more difficult to quell. Conspiracy theories are resistance-proof — and increasingly disruptive People who adopt the conspiratorial mindset derive three main benefits from doing so. First, there’s an epistemic benefit: Whatever conspiracy theory they believe in provides a framework for understanding the world and bringing order to random events. Second, there’s an existential benefit, in that the conspiracy theory can distract them from facing their fears about sociopolitical upheaval and uncertainty. And third, there’s a social benefit, in that the conspiracy theory provides them with a community of similarly disaffected thinkers who can validate one another’s anxieties and shared worldview. The epistemic benefit is especially important, given the rise in polarization across the ideological spectrum. Vox’s David Roberts has called this trend “tribal epistemology,” in which “information is evaluated based not on conformity to common standards of evidence” but on whether your community or “tribe” advocates for it. In this environment, Roberts argues, the primary institutions of society — government, academia, science, and media, which used to be seen as impartial authorities — can be rejected if they contradict your tribe’s worldview. A partisan refusal to compromise was once a sign of extremism, but it’s now almost expected, at least in certain tribes. “Truth,” then, is whatever the tribal rhetoric says it is. This cultish approach to information can directly impact how “facts” are transmitted and received. When people at either end of the political spectrum consider the news media to be biased or corrupt, they’re prone to support even more biased, less objective sources of information. And because those sources tend to embrace conspiracy theories that align with tribal rhetoric, the theories then become difficult to debunk. Conspiracy theorists have what Radford describes as “self-reinforcing belief systems,” which is also part of why the theories spread so quickly — particularly the political ones. Often, an emotional byproduct of a conspiracy theory is to make the audience feel as though they’ve arrived at a profound new realization about the world on their own. “They think they’re thinking more critically, when in fact they’re thinking less critically,” van der Linden said. “The conspiracy theory provides an access point to people,” Radford told me. “They think they’re given the key, right? So they’ll say, ‘Well, if you’re woke, and you’re taking the red pill, or blue pill, or whatever the hell pill it is, then you know; you understand what’s going on.’” People who have bought in often believe they can see patterns, codes, and symbols that the rest of us can’t — a false phenomenon called apophenia, which further validates their beliefs. Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images A father and son wait for President Donald Trump to speak at a “Keep America Great” rally on August 1, 2019, in Cincinnati, Ohio. For those who are already unorthodox thinkers, the conspiracy theory offers a form of validation. Online, van der Linden observed, “there’s a whole community out there posting the same thing, validating your beliefs, and you get to chat with people with the same worldview as yours. ... You feel marginalized in society, but now you have a group that you belong to and [are] affiliated with. And it’s a really strong way for people to feel empowered socially, to connect through these conspiracies.” Once someone has accepted one far-fetched conspiracy theory, it often becomes easier to accept others. Even in cases where two conspiracy theories contradict each other, many conspiracy advocates will believe both of them — because they’ve found an even deeper rationale to explain the inconsistencies. “And before you know it,” said van der Linden, “they’re wrapped up in this worldview where everything is a conspiracy.” Believing in a conspiracy theory doesn’t make someone unintelligent, ignorant, or evil. It just means they’ve encountered bad information — and these days, bad information is everywhere. Many people who believe in conspiracy theories often don’t just accept the theory as truth — they allow it to influence their entire life. “We sometimes refer to [conspiratorial groupthink] as a quasi-religious worldview,” van der Linden told me. “It’s not religion, because it’s not institutionalized, but it has all the features of extreme religious groups.” One quasi-religious trait is how conspiracy theories seem to rapidly change the lives and relationships of their advocates. Across the US, families and friendships are increasingly becoming divided over QAnon or similar conspiracy theories. (And lest you think it’s a generational thing, it’s not; kids are falling for it, too.) On Reddit, where QAnon-peddling groups have recently been banned, the subreddits r/QAnonCasualties and r/ReQovery offer spaces for family members to process what’s happened to their loved ones. In a since-deleted post, one woman wrote about having to escape from her family cabin after her mother and aunts brought her there for a weekend retreat, in what she said turned out to be an attempt to isolate her and reprogram her into accepting QAnon beliefs. Although QAnon is not a religion, the theory’s community acts on its followers in similar ways, leading some to try to convert unbelievers — or, if failing, to shun them. “I think my marriage of 13 years is over because of QAnon,” detailed another member who said their partner had succumbed to belief in QAnon. “Today, we began a discussion about [Supreme Court Justice] Amy Coney Barrett and while it started as civil it blew out of proportion so quickly,” another wrote. “My mom called me ‘pure evil,’ said I was a demon ... and that all Democrats were killing babies to drink their blood.” Reddit user graneflatsis, a moderator of QAnonCasualties who’s in their 50s, told me that a few common themes had emerged from the forum that resembled stories of cult-like behavior: stories of QAnon believers displaying mania, as well as signs of sleep deprivation due to so much time spent researching and recruiting for the cause. “Whoever Q is just kept at it and added more lurid details,” graneflatsis told me. (“QAnon” can refer to the original anonymous 4chan poster, known as “QAnon” or “Q,” whose theories form the basis of QAnon beliefs, or it can refer to the beliefs themselves, i.e., the QAnon conspiracy theory.) “QAnon has the right chemistry, as far as a conspiracy goes,” graneflatsis said. “Pizzagate gave QAnon a lot of [momentum] that lasts till today. The narrative that these anons are saving the world is so attractive to folk disenchanted with the way things are.” Alex Wong/Getty Images The sign of Comet Ping Pong pizzeria on Connecticut Avenue in Northwest Washington, DC. Scott Olson/Getty Images A campaign rally guest holds a Q sign as President Trump speaks a rally in Lewis Center, Ohio, on August 4, 2018. As much as conspiracy theories can bring people together, they can also alienate people from larger society. “Conspiracies completely disrupt the extent to which people care about other people,” van der Linden told me. Researchers have found, he added, that “one of the negative effects of conspiracy theories is that people are less willing to help others. People are less willing to engage politically, people are less willing to do something about global warming.” At the extreme edges of the conspiratorial belief system, this kind of us-versus-them worldview can engender violence. Graneflatsis told me that while “there’s a subsection of folk who just like [QAnon] because it gives them some ammo to use against Democrats,” the moderators of QAnonCasualties have had to ban numerous QAnon supporters attempting to recruit members of the community, many using violent rhetoric. Political scientists and researchers who study extremism have warned that QAnon, in particular, mirrors the wider rise in extremism around the globe and encourages its supporters to act on extremist impulses. Within the past year, QAnon supporters have allegedly engaged in numerous bizarre acts of disruption and crimes, including attempted kidnapping, plotting to assassinate government officials, and committing voter fraud. In 2019, the FBI labeled QAnon a brand of domestic terrorism. But if some conspiracy theories are now being considered forms of violent extremism, that indicates how different today’s conspiracy theories are from the traditional UFO or JFK variety. They seem to be disrupting the lives of more people than ever — which is why there’s so much clamor about what, if anything, we can do about dismantling them. Conspiracy theories aren’t easy to stop — but empathy for believers is a crucial first step The knee-jerk tendency most rational-minded people have when confronted with a conspiracy theory that seems absurd to them is to deploy a combination of yelling, dismissiveness, and logic or scientific evidence to talk the conspiracy theorist out of their belief. When all else fails, the rational person may resort to shunning the believer outright. The problem with these approaches is that they generally make the believer feel defensive, which causes them to double down on their belief systems. That’s not an ideal outcome — especially considering that, as Radford and van der Linden both stressed to me, many people, when left to their own devices, eventually talk themselves out of a conspiracy theory. They often “wake up” to the discovery that their favorite conspiracy theory is actually more fringe, racist, anti-Semitic, or otherwise dangerous than they realized. This is where empathy comes in. Radford stressed that conspiracy theories aren’t limited to one side of the political spectrum, and neither is the magical thinking that spawns them. “If you take a deep dive into any given person’s belief system, you’ll probably find at least a few deeply held beliefs that aren’t based in fact,” he pointed out. Believing in a conspiracy theory doesn’t make someone unintelligent, ignorant, or evil. It just means they’ve encountered bad information — and these days, bad information is everywhere. Nearly everyone I spoke to while reporting this story had a loved one who’d adopted conspiratorial thinking to some degree. That’s actually how graneflatsis wound up moderating QAnonCasualties. “My father was brainwashed by Fox News into this really angry guy that would just shout at the TV all day,” they said. Graneflatsis says they eventually talked their dad out of it by applying a cocktail of logic, empathy, and good humor to cut the tension and keep things even-toned and nonthreatening. One strategy that often works to convince people to rethink their positions on fake news and propaganda, meanwhile, is to discuss the common mechanisms behind the spread of misinformation. A key to recognizing the lie behind a conspiracy, van der Linden says, is to note that the tactics of spreading a conspiracy theory stay the same even if the specifics of the theory change. The use of a false authority figure, the appeal to an individual’s anger and prejudices, and the urgency of the claim — these are all conspiratorial mainstays. To help spread awareness of such tactics, van der Linden’s research team recently designed and released an online game, Go Viral!, that teaches the player to recognize the factors that help spread fake news. The game was based on research that found that people who are educated to recognize how misinformation spreads are less likely to be duped by it, or to spread it themselves in turn. That information might be useful for Eleanor, who told me she wanted to speak to me for this story in part as a form of therapy, and in part because she didn’t know what to do. “I have one sister and one brother and I’m sure [my dad is] ashamed of the fact that we’re dirty liberals, all three of us,” she said. “We haven’t talked about it at all. This conversation has not been had.” Unfortunately, ignoring conspiracy theories in the hope they’ll go away, or out of fear that acknowledging them will somehow validate them, may be the wrong choice. Left unchallenged, a conspiracy theory can create a shift in people’s views. For example, through his research, van der Linden found that even 30 seconds of exposure to a global warming hoax can make people less willing to sign a petition to take action against climate change. “And that’s exposure to a conspiracy among people who don’t believe in conspiracy,” he told me. “It’s [not] only the people who are deeply entangled in this for whom this is damaging.” But for those who are exhausted by constant ideological warfare, ignoring fringe beliefs and the people who spout them may just be the easiest option. Van der Linden pointed out that a lot of people, in general, are burned out. Ideally, he said, people would have “a network and trust and support that enables different ideas about the world. But I think the problem is people’s patience has run out. Political hostility is rampant; polarization is too high at the moment to create the conditions that are necessary for that.” Still, he said, an approach of “actively open-minded thinking” is the best path forward that he’s found. “I think at the end of the day, you know, being open-minded will help everyone.” However, something that van der Linden told me about one of his close family members was both unsettling and revealing. The relative, once a die-hard 9/11 truther, has become less radicalized over time — not particularly because of any tactics van der Linden deployed, but because he started a family and simply had less time to do conspiracy theory research. And this — life simply taking its course — is what Radford tells me may eventually bring an end to the current wave of conspiratorial thinking dominated by QAnon, coronavirus denial, and their ilk. He argued that there’s a “fad aspect” to the current trend — that conspiracy theories and moral panics have existed for centuries, and while the human tendency to embrace them won’t ever disappear completely, it will diminish in the face of political and economic stability. “A lot of this is rooted in social anxiety about politics, about the pandemic,” he said. “Sooner or later, life will gradually return to normalcy.” Still, it’s undeniable that we face ongoing battles against misinformation, on subjects from Covid-19 to climate change, from vaccines to votes. The legitimization of conspiracies over the past decade, especially during the Trump administration, has fundamentally altered the way many of us receive and accept information, so that now many people, without any evidence, view scientific method and fact-based journalism as suspicious, and see once-trusted leaders as nefarious plotters. The damage to the public trust has been severe and won’t be easily healed. And while the idea of a return to normalcy is something many of us long for, it seems foolish to accept, uncritically, that normalcy will come back to save us. If anything, conspiracy theories seem to have shifted American society toward an ever-widening gap between belief and reality — one in which a consensus on what “normal” is seems further away than ever. Stephen Maturen/Getty Images A woman holds a sign that reads “Q Sent Me” outside the governor’s mansion on November 7 in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Read More...
posted 16 days ago on re/code
Joe Biden and Barack Obama meet with tech executives in the White House in December 2013. | Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images Who will have a seat at the table? When it comes to Silicon Valley, Joe Biden is something of a blank slate. And for Silicon Valley, that means Joe Biden is something of an opportunity. So Big Tech reformers and Big Tech allies are gearing up for a spirited fight in the coming months over the types of people who will staff the Biden administration. Those personnel decisions will offer some of the first revelations into how exactly the president-elect will regulate the tech industry and its titans, a high-stakes question about the American economy that he mostly avoided answering during his campaign. That ambiguity is making the transition period all the more important, a dozen people with ties to the Biden team tell Recode. Reformers want to make sure they at least have a seat at the table and that they aren’t boxed out by well-paid industry interests. Forces aligned with the industry, meanwhile, want to make sure that a Biden administration isn’t too captive to the online left, even though they know it won’t resemble the halcyon days of Barack Obama. Back then, Silicon Valley was a celebrated part of America’s innovation economy. Since Obama left office, though, the tech industry has become radioactive to parts of both the left and the right, part of a “techlash” that has culminated in calls to break up Big Tech companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Tech critics worry that these companies and their leaders have amassed too much control over Americans’ lives when it comes to privacy, the economy, and politics. Now Obama’s former No. 2 will have to answer these important questions on dicier terrain: Will he pursue this breakup? Will he inflame the tensions or cool them? Will he side more with the reformers or the industry? The next few months will test the influence and muscle of both sides. Tech insiders have been among Biden’s biggest donors and are well-organized. But Biden has to be sensitive to a far left that is deeply skeptical of any corporate incursions — and is often louder. “They’re in a difficult political situation,” said Rob Atkinson, the head of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation think tank, who helped lead a tech advisory committee for Biden during the campaign. “It’s almost like a draft lottery for what team you want. You want to pick somebody on your team from the progressive wing and then somebody more from the tech or moderate wing. He’s going to have to do both.” The draft has already begun: Phones are ringing across the tech industry as people close to the Biden campaign gauge some leaders’ interest in joining the administration and other Silicon Valley veterans hunt for inroads. Lobbyists and activists alike are researching names who they might want to push on Capitol Hill or disparage in the press. People in the Bay Area who raised money for Biden are being overwhelmed with requests to pass along resumes to his inner circle. And Biden’s team is encouraging experts who served on Biden’s tech advisory committee to apply for positions in the administration. Flashpoints, too, have already emerged that speak to these new battle lines. Activists have grown concerned about a report that Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google and a vocal defender of technology giants, was “being talked about” to lead a new tech task force out of the White House. (The report did not say who was doing this talking.) On Monday, a dozen progressive groups wrote to the Biden transition effort to plead that Schmidt not be appointed to this task force. The letter — shared first with Recode — amounted to a warning shot not just about one particular tech billionaire but about the influence of the tech industry on politics more broadly. “The appointment of Schmidt risks fracturing a Democratic coalition that your campaign and so many others worked so hard to build over the past several months,” said the letter-writers, which included activist groups like Demand Progress, the Revolving Door Project, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a group allied with leading Big Tech critic Elizabeth Warren. “While the appointment of Schmidt may attract praise from certain elites in both Washington and Silicon Valley, it risks alienating an overwhelming majority of the electorate, including within the Democratic base, who want to see the economic power of major corporations reined in.” Silicon Valley sources close to the Biden team tell Recode that they are unaware of any planned formal role for Schmidt and that they find one hard to believe given the optics of Big Tech. A source familiar with the matter said there have been no discussions between the Biden transition team and Schmidt about a role. Sources do, however, expect Schmidt, a bipartisan veteran of the Washington scene who had wide influence during the Obama years but also has had complimentary things to say about Jared Kushner, to at least have considerable access to the Biden White House. There’s also the possibility that some aides at Schmidt’s philanthropic foundation, which is stacked with former Obama hands, will decamp for the new administration. Schmidt and the Biden transition team declined to comment. The battle over Schmidt is just one of several personnel fights that will likely play out in the first year of the new administration. Other key positions that tech voices will surely try to influence include the chairs of the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, and the head of the Department of Justice’s antitrust division — all roles that police tech giants’ behavior. People allied with Big Tech say they aren’t concerned with developing blacklists of reformers who must be repelled. But they are concerned about the converse — that the progressives are organizing themselves to torpedo any and all people who worked in the industry, even if they have relevant policy expertise about complicated topics that would prove valuable to the country. “You would really want to have an administration that doesn’t have industry voices as a part of it? That to me sounds like a really problematic outcome,” said Matt Perault, a former Facebook policy executive who now leads Duke’s Center on Science and Technology Policy and has offered policy advice to the Biden team. “So I hope there aren’t those kinds of litmus tests.” It’s still too early to know how this will work out. Few heavyweights are ultimately expected to take staff jobs. But some names are beginning to be privately bandied about by people with ties to the transition effort. Laurene Powell Jobs, the philanthropist and wife of the late Steve Jobs, stirred some DC speculation that she might be interested in a role with her statement about her hopes for the new administration, a source told Recode. Meg Whitman, the longtime tech executive who most recently served as the CEO of Quibi, is earning a look as a potential secretary of commerce. (Whitman, a Republican, often appeared on calls for Biden’s national finance committee.) Former presidential candidate and tech dystopian Andrew Yang has also attracted buzz and confirmed interest in serving as the country’s chief technology officer, a position that some Silicon Valley supporters hope will be at the Cabinet level. But what casts a shadow over all of this jockeying is that Biden and his aides were, and will continue to be, reluctant to seem too cozy with high-profile tech insiders, according to people who have spoken with these aides. The reason these names matter so much is that Biden has largely kept Silicon Valley guessing about where exactly he falls when it comes to tech policy. Over the course of the race, he and his aides made plain their disdain for Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg, who Biden said was “a real problem.” But they had less to say about other tech giants. Biden has promised to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law that shields social media companies from lawsuits, but he’s released few details about that plan. And he has sounded the alarm about corporate consolidation, but stopped short of calling for a breakup of Big Tech. That lack of clarity has also been reflected in his personnel decisions thus far. The 700 names on Biden’s “Innovation Policy Committee,” a working group of volunteers meant to help the campaign surface policy ideas, feature both industry insiders and prominent activists calling for a breakup. Biden’s hiring of tech executives for his transition, such as Apple’s top lobbyist, Cynthia Hogan, could be seen as a capitulation to Big Tech — but it could also be read as Biden merely rehiring his former aides, including his former counsel, Hogan, who just happened to have spent a few years at the tech giants. That all has given both sides reason for optimism. So, too, has the presence of two senior Biden advisers, Bruce Reed and new chief of staff Ron Klain, who each have ties to tech leaders. Both reformers and industry allies see them as reasonable brokers. Jim Steyer, the head of Common Sense Media and a prominent privacy critic of Big Tech, said he has passed along names and ideas to people like Reed, a close friend of his. He is not naive and expects the tech industry to still have access to Biden, but not exclusive access like under Obama. “Do I think that the Biden administration is going to turn over his tech agenda to the industry? No, I do not,” Steyer said. “They’re not going to be bought and sold by the tech industry.” But if the old adage that “personnel is policy” is true, the next few weeks will reveal whether any of this optimism is misplaced. But even before any compromises, there are already signs of just how much the Overton window has shifted when it comes to Silicon Valley over the last four years. Before Election Day in 2016, for example, Facebook’s No. 2, Sheryl Sandberg, was seen as a leading contender to be secretary of the treasury in a Clinton administration. Now, four years later in an incoming Democratic administration, the possibility of a Treasury Secretary Sandberg seems unthinkable — if not downright ludicrous.

Read More...
posted 16 days ago on re/code
Twitter is working on new features that go beyond the public 280-character tweet. | John Nacion/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images The company that’s famous for being a public platform is trying something more private. Twitter is finally letting users post ephemeral content, starting today. The new feature — which has been tested in various markets this year — is called Fleets, and it looks an awful lot like Snapchat Stories. Twitter is also testing out a new audio feature called audio spaces that largely resembles the embattled, invitation-based startup audio app Clubhouse which launched earlier this year. Together, these new efforts show how Twitter, a famously public-facing platform, is attempting to expand how people interact on its platform. Twitter, of course, is doing what Facebook has done many times: imitating aspects of its competitors’ successful products in an attempt to stay on the same footing. These new features also indicate that Twitter, like Facebook, is increasingly interested in private and group-based interactions. Both new tools show that Twitter wants to appeal to users who might be more reluctant to share publicly and permanently on the platform. In terms of active users, Twitter is still quite a bit smaller than Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok. “It’s no surprise that the typical conversation on Twitter is a short burst of high-brevity exchanges back and forth between multiple people,” said Twitter product lead Kayvon Beykpour. “That’s very powerful. But if we want to allow for a wider range of conversations to unfold, we need to support other formats. We need to support other use cases that help people have more thoughtful debate, more thoughtful exchanges, that you can’t pack into 280 characters.” The new Fleets feature, for example, allows users to post to their followers content that disappears after 24 hours. It really does look a lot like Stories on Facebook and Instagram — and Snapchat. Just as they are on Facebook and Instagram Stories, links to Fleets appear in the top portion of the Twitter app, and they’re also accessible by clicking through someone’s account profile picture. Like Instagram and Snapchat Stories, people will be able to share reactions to other tweets, videos, and photos. Eventually, users will be able to incorporate stickers and live broadcasts, the company said. Notably, Twitter has not built a way to prevent someone from taking a screenshot of a Fleet or a way to provide a notification when someone takes a screenshot of your tweet. Importantly, Fleets can’t be retweeted or shared. Replies to Fleets will be private and will function as part of Twitter’s existing direct message system. The goal, in part, is to beckon users reluctant to post publicly on the app to engage in this way. Again, Fleets launches today worldwide, so every Twitter user, including President Trump, will have access to the new feature. Twitter Fleets are disappearing message that look almost identical to Instagram Stories. Then there’s audio spaces, an audio-based conversation tool. Spaces builds on the audio tweets feature Twitter launched earlier this year that allowed people to post recordings of their voice up to 140 seconds long. That tool has continued to roll out through this fall, and the company is also incorporating transcription features in 2021, following criticisms that the tool isn’t accessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing. The idea behind audio spaces is to make Twitter’s audio feature more conversational. With the new feature, a user will be able to start a conversation and then allow others to participate or listen in. The company likens the feature to a “well-hosted dinner party” and anticipates that the tool will be used for debate. Yes, it looks a lot like Clubhouse. Audio spaces won’t be available to the general public yet. Twitter still plans to do some experimenting and — also like Clubhouse — plans to start rolling out the feature through a limited number of invitations. “We are going to launch this first experiment of spaces to a very small group of people, a group of people who are disproportionately impacted by abuse and harm on the platform, women and those from marginalized backgrounds,” said Maya Gold Patterson, a staff designer at the platform. The company reiterated that all content on Twitter, including Fleets and audio spaces, is subject to Twitter’s rules. Just like regular tweets, Fleets are also subject to Twitter’s various labels, including those for false or misleading content. Twitter Audio spaces are a new way to have live conversations on Twitter. While these new and upcoming features are an attempt to get users doing new things on its platform, they will also invite new challenges in content moderation. With audio spaces, for example, Twitter must tackle the tricky, technical question of moderating live audio content. Clubhouse has faced an uphill battle in creating and enforcing rules for its platform and recently came under scrutiny after a 300-person conversation devolved into anti-Semitic commentary. At the same time, the Fleets feature provides a new avenue for misinformation to spread, and the push toward more direct messages means non-public content is less accessible to other users and moderators. Still, we shouldn’t expect Twitter to stop experimenting anytime soon. The company says it’s still studying how well its election season product modifications worked, and has hinted that it may continue to tinker with those features. Twitter is also exploring ways of facilitating private apologies and promoting forgiveness in an effort to encourage more empathy on the platform. Just last month, company CEO Jack Dorsey hinted that he’s interested in letting users choose their own algorithms, a move that could dramatically alter Twitter as we know it. All these moves are signs that the platform isn’t interested in limiting itself to what it’s done before — and a reminder that social media companies still feel perfectly comfortable ripping off each other’s products. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

Read More...
posted 16 days ago on re/code
Amazon The pandemic was a huge boost for Amazon’s grocery business. Can it do the same for this new offering? When Amazon spent $750 million to acquire the online pharmacy PillPack in 2018, it was clear the tech giant had interest in the prescription drug market. Now we know how serious it was. Amazon will start selling prescription medications on its main Amazon website and app on Tuesday, and will offer two-day delivery of these medications to Prime members for no extra fee. Prime members without prescription drug coverage, or with coverage that isn’t great, can also save up to 80% on generic and 40% on brand name drugs when paying out of pocket without insurance. Prices with, and without insurance, can be compared at checkout. “Our goal is to make accessing prescription medications as simple as any other purchase: saving customers time, giving them more control over their purchases, and helping them stay healthy,” Amazon spokesperson Jacqui Miller said in an email. Prescription drugs are a $500 billion market in the US, with patients spending $67 billion out of pocket at US retail pharmacies in 2019, according to IQVIA, a health data provider. Amazon’s brick-and-mortar retail competitors like Walmart, Target, and Costco all have significant pharmacy presences across their chains of stores, and Amazon wants a piece of that, too. When Amazon executives talk about the desire to sell every genuine product in the world through Amazon.com, it’s now clear that medications aren’t excluded. Amazon’s acquisition of the startup in PillPack in 2018 gave the company entry into the growing online segment of the pharmacy industry, with a focus on Americans who have chronic illnesses and take multiple medications every day. PillPack presorts medications for its customers, before shipping them to their door. An Amazon spokesperson said customers with those prescription medication needs should still order directly through PillPack, which operates five pharmacies in the US and is licensed nationwide, but does not ship to Hawaii. But by offering the option to purchase prescription drugs through the main Amazon website, the tech giant is attempting to appeal to a broader base of consumers who don’t take multiple medications daily, but might need a prescription drug in the house — perhaps blood pressure medication, an Epipen for a food allergy, or prescription pills for anxiety. However, Amazon’s online pharmacy offering isn’t a fit — at least not yet — for customers who need a prescription filled the same day for an illness that needs immediate treatment. Patients who want to use Amazon to purchase medications can instruct their doctor to send prescriptions to Amazon Pharmacy just like any other retail pharmacy. The company said it accepts “most” insurance plans. The discounts Prime customers get when paying for medication without insurance are administered by a separate company called Inside Rx. Inside Rx has relationships with more than 50,000 pharmacy locations, meaning Prime members can also use these discounts at pharmacy competitors like Walmart, Costco, CVS and Walgreens, with the latter two offering free home delivery of prescription medication. Over its 25-year history, Amazon has convinced online shoppers to trust buying an ever-expanding assortment of product types from the company: from books and DVDs in its early days, to clothing, jewelry and packaged foods, to vitamins, supplements, and fresh groceries more recently. But perhaps no new product launch will test the trust that people have in Amazon more than whether they trust the company with prescription medication. After all, Amazon does have some counterfeit issues, and last year notified customers that a merchant had sold knockoff supplements through Amazon.com. Launching the new service in the midst of the pandemic, however, may help the adoption curve, with the potential that more people will want to avoid waiting in line at brick-and-mortar pharmacies as Covid-19 infections soar nationwide. Amazon already has seen an enormous increase in its online grocery business during the pandemic.

Read More...
posted 17 days ago on re/code
The crew of SpaceX’s Crew-1 head to the launch pad. | Gregg Newton/AFP via Getty Images Elon Musk’s private space company has now successfully launched two crewed flights into orbital space. Elon Musk’s SpaceX just launched the first operational crewed flight into orbital space, following up on its successful test flight several months ago and bringing us one step closer to private commercial space travel. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Crew-1 capsule, seated on top of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket, took off on Sunday night with four astronauts on board — three from NASA and one from Japan’s JAXA — for a return flight to the International Space Station (ISS). The launch follows its crewed test flight last May, for which two astronauts successfully launched, docked at ISS for two months, then safely returned to Earth with its crew. Sunday’s flight was the first operational one — that is, the first flight since NASA certified the capsule for spaceflight, following its successful crewed test — in SpaceX’s contract with NASA to send astronauts to and from ISS, which both the company and the government agency hope will be a lasting and mutually beneficial relationship. Falcon 9 launches Crew Dragon on its first operational flight with astronauts on board, beginning regular crew flights to the @space_station from the U.S. pic.twitter.com/C8oBqMcAuj— SpaceX (@SpaceX) November 16, 2020 "It is not over. This was a beautiful launch... but remember, this is a six-month mission, and it's the first of many."Administrator @JimBridenstine looking toward the future of the Crew-1 mission and the @Commercial_Crew program. #LaunchAmerica pic.twitter.com/7cKcu5mM1J— NASA (@NASA) November 16, 2020 But it’s also a relationship born out of necessity. The United States retired its own Space Shuttle program in 2011, and has had to rely on Russian rockets to travel to the ISS ever since. Rather than building its own spacecraft, NASA decided to invest billions in private companies like SpaceX to develop vehicles that would escort its supplies and crews instead. SpaceX’s rise Using $100 million of his PayPal payout, Musk founded SpaceX in 2002, predating his Tesla car company by more than a year. As the story goes, Musk wanted to put plants on Mars, but it was too expensive to acquire the rockets to do so. So he started his own company, SpaceX, to see if he couldn’t get those costs down. In early years, the venture seemed destined for failure: Between 2006 and 2008, the first three launches of its Falcon 1 rocket failed. But the fourth rocket succeeded later in 2008, and the fifth carried a satellite into orbit in 2009. After this, and with some funding from NASA, SpaceX accelerated development of the Falcon 9 rocket, which first took flight in 2010. This two-stage rocket powered by nine Merlin engines has now launched nearly 100 times, carrying satellites into orbit and supplies to ISS; now, it’s brought people to ISS as well. It’s failed just twice: once in flight in 2015 and once on the launch pad in 2016. It’s also the first and only orbital rocket that’s partially reusable — the booster section lands itself back on Earth after launch — which significantly cuts down on operating costs. There’s also the Falcon Heavy, a heavy-lift launch vehicle that looks like a Falcon 9 rocket with two Falcon 9 boosters strapped to the sides. On its 2018 maiden voyage, it sent a Tesla into space, complete with a dummy driver clad in a spacesuit. It’s still up there somewhere. On the second Falcon Heavy launch, all three rockets returned safely to Earth. After the third and most recent launch, the Falcon Heavy earned certification from the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program, which is part of the United States Space Force. SpaceX then became the first private company to send a crew into orbital space with the Crew Dragon Demo-2 test flight, which was operated by NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley. With the successful test flight under its belt, SpaceX and NASA had the green light to begin operational flights to and from ISS. The first of those was Sunday’s launch, with a crew of NASA astronauts Victor Glover, Michael S. Hopkins, and Shannon Walker, and JAXA’s Soichi Noguchi. SpaceX astronauts in both the test and operational missions have been escorted to their launches in Tesla cars, both giving Musk’s electric car company some nice cross-promotion and demonstrating just how commercial our new era of space travel has become. Impressive as the success of SpaceX has been, Elon Musk still has his sights set on greater things. The company’s most ambitious project yet, the SpaceX Starship, is underway. Intended to be a fully reusable, stainless steel, heavy-lift launch vehicle that would tower over the iconic Saturn V rocket developed for the NASA Apollo missions, the Starship is supposed to go to the moon, Mars, “and beyond.” In fact, NASA has already included the Starship on its list of commercial launch systems for the Artemis missions, which are scheduled to land a man and a woman on the moon by 2024. The successful crewed flights set up SpaceX for an even brighter future. The company has become NASA’s preferred launch partner and now handles about two-thirds of the agency’s launches under government contracts worth billions. SpaceX also offers a “rideshare” option that will carry smaller payloads to orbit for as little as $1 million. The company also just raised more than $1.9 billion in fresh funding to keep developing its Crew Dragon capsule, Starship program, and Starlink satellite business. A second operational crewed flight to ISS is already planned for spring 2021. SpaceX also hopes to sell seats to (presumably wealthy) space tourists someday. NASA’s fall SpaceX, now valued at about $46 billion, rose to prominence after NASA fell from grace. The federal space agency has to rely on private companies to send its astronauts into space after NASA ended the Space Shuttle program in 2011. At that time, NASA shifted its attention to Mars and Earth science and away from space shuttles and a return trip to the moon. Under President Trump, however, NASA has turned back again to putting astronauts back on the moon with the launch of its Artemis program in 2017. The incoming Biden administration may change things up once again. Suffice it to say, there’s been some shifting of priorities at NASA. In the years since the Space Shuttle program ended, American astronauts have had to hitch rides on Russian rockets to get to and from the ISS at a cost of $86 million each and an unquantifiable amount of national pride. (SpaceX, by contrast, is estimated to charge $55 million per astronaut for these round-trip flights.) This arrangement with Russia is not supposed to last forever. SpaceX The Crew Dragon capsule, shown here atop the Falcon 9 rocket, is equipped with touchscreens and a streamlined interior. Over the past decade, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program has awarded billions to a handful of private companies to develop crewed space vehicles to carry NASA astronauts to and from the ISS. Rather than use private companies as contractors that fulfill government orders, as it did in the past, NASA gave private companies funding to develop their own commercial efforts, which NASA could then use for its own ends. That means space exploration is now a business, and many of its biggest innovations are coming from the private sector, which is partially subsidized by public money. Through these arrangements, Boeing has developed its Starliner capsule, which has no launch date yet and has been beset with difficulties, and SpaceX built the Crew Dragon capsule. And NASA is just fine with this, as the new partnerships shifts some of the cost of developing and constructing spacecraft onto private industry. And it’s not just companies that make spaceships; NASA recently awarded Nokia the right to build a 4G mobile network on the moon as part of its effort to establish a more permanent presence there. We need to talk about Elon No discussion of SpaceX would be complete with some hand-wringing over its controversial founder and CEO — Musk himself has made sure of that. His biographer Ashlee Vance interviewed Musk for Bloomberg as the Demo-2 launch approached. Vance highlighted how Musk has recently made himself a lightning rod of criticism for suggesting that Covid-19 is fake and generally being awful on Twitter. Vance writes: Even the most fervent Musk hater, of whom there are plenty in the US, has to feel some twinge of pride. At a moment when the American Empire can seem to be in decline, here’s a clear sign that great things remain possible and that humans have much left to achieve. “America is still the land of opportunity more than any other place, for sure,” Musk says, waxing patriotic. “There is definitely no other country where I could have done this—immigrant or not.” That it’s a multibillionaire, Covid-19-truthing, entrepreneurial huckster/hero delivering this message is pretty much perfect for America in 2020. Vance added that Musk’s “business tactics and behavior can oscillate between infuriating and appalling.” Indeed. Musk’s Twitter account has 40 million followers, and the tone of his tweets tends to alternate between that of a self-promotional businessman and an angsty teenager. Musk’s tweets alone have gotten him sued by a cave diver and the Securities and Exchange Commission. (He won the first case and settled the second, with an agreement that personally cost him $20 million and his chairmanship of Tesla’s board.) Just this year, Musk has vowed in a tweet to sell his possessions, after which he tweeted, “My gf … is mad at me.” He also said the price of his own company’s stock was “too high,” named his new child X Æ A-Xii, repeatedly downplayed the coronavirus pandemic, and forced his Tesla employees to work through it — even defying government orders to reopen a factory early. SpaceX, which is considered critical infrastructure, never stopped. When Musk did seem to take the pandemic seriously, it was to offer his companies’ assistance in manufacturing ventilators. But that help never really came — although in fairness, neither did the feared nationwide ventilator shortage that prompted those tweets. Musk’s May tweet urging followers to “take the red pill,” a term that has well-known far-right and men’s rights activist connections, got a response from Ivanka Trump, who simply said, “Taken!” Most recently, Musk appears to have contracted the coronavirus himself, tweeting that he “most likely” had the virus. He complained of “symptoms of a minor cold,” which were apparently treated with DayQuil. But after taking four rapid Covid antigen tests, two of which were positive and two of which were negative, Musk said “something extremely bogus is going on.” He was forced to miss Sunday’s launch and a Twitter user dubbed him “Space Karen” for his multiple complaints about the accuracy of coronavirus tests. “#SpaceKaren” and “Space Karen” trended on the platform afterward. (“Karen” has become a term for entitled white people who become outraged when they don’t get their way in various aspects of life.) Yet while Musk’s bizarre, attention-seeking behavior may be a turnoff for many, his businesses make enough money and are cool enough to investors that SpaceX and Tesla seem to be succeeding in spite of Musk’s increasingly controversial public image. The US government, however, is not a business, and it has not taken well to Musk’s antics. Along with the SEC’s $20 million fine, NASA investigated and scolded him after he smoked pot while appearing on a podcast in 2018. Still, SpaceX is undeniably an accomplishment, and its successful crewed launches will be an essential step toward Musk’s plans for the moon or Mars or wherever he ultimately decides to go. At this point, it’s hard to imagine the future of space travel without SpaceX and without Musk.

Read More...
posted 17 days ago on re/code
Barack Obama speaks at a Biden rally in November 2020. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images President Obama loved the internet. Now he has second thoughts. Back in 2008, Barack Obama famously harnessed the internet and social media to help win the White House. He kept up the embrace once he got there. Now he worries that the internet and social media have helped create “the single biggest threat to our democracy.” Obama has been saying a version of this for four years — since he left the White House — but his words are getting steadily more pointed. He’s clearly sounding an alarm, but it’s not exactly clear what he thinks we should do about it. His latest critique comes in a new interview between Obama and Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg, and before we go any further we should put it in full context: Obama was discussing a media landscape dominated not just by Facebook but by Fox News that allows Americans to choose their own distorted reality. Which means, he says, we no longer have a shared set of facts. That assessment is now conventional wisdom among many critics of the TV and internet ecosystem. There’s almost no practical, constructive argument about how we should respond to that problem. Obama doesn’t offer one in his interview, either. And again, it’s incorrect to say that Obama is laying the problems of our broken information landscape solely at the feet of Facebook or any other particular tech company. But he is certainly lacing into them now in a way he didn’t do prior to leaving the White House. Obama: Now you have a situation in which large swaths of the country genuinely believe that the Democratic Party is a front for a pedophile ring...I was talking to a volunteer who was going door-to-door in Philadelphia in low-income African American communities, and was getting questions about QAnon conspiracy theories. Goldberg: Is this new malevolent information architecture bending the moral arc away from justice? Obama: I think it is the single biggest threat to our democracy. Later in the interview, Obama makes it quite clear that much of his concern is specifically about the internet — which he is also quite clear isn’t “going away” — and the big platforms that sort and distribute most of the internet for most people: Obama: I don’t hold the tech companies entirely responsible, because this predates social media. It was already there. But social media has turbocharged it. I know most of these folks. I’ve talked to them about it. The degree to which these companies are insisting that they are more like a phone company than they are like The Atlantic, I do not think is tenable. They are making editorial choices, whether they’ve buried them in algorithms or not. The First Amendment doesn’t require private companies to provide a platform for any view that is out there. At the end of the day, we’re going to have to find a combination of government regulations and corporate practices that address this, because it’s going to get worse. If you can perpetrate crazy lies and conspiracy theories just with texts, imagine what you can do when you can make it look like you or me saying anything on video. We’re pretty close to that now... Goldberg: It’s that famous Steve Bannon strategy: flood the zone with shit. Obama: If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis. Obama’s criticisms of Fox News and the Rupert Murdoch empire predate his time in the White House. It continued once he was there. During his eight-year tenure, though, Obama was quite welcoming to the tech industry, and vice versa: Obama stocked the White House with Silicon Valley veterans, and White House veterans later landed important jobs in Silicon Valley. And Google executives in particular, starting with former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, had frequent meetings with White House staff. Near the end of Obama’s presidency, the Wall Street Journal reported that career regulators wanted to pursue antitrust charges against Google but were overruled by political appointees. Obama certainly understood the power of social media, which helped him get into office. In the last days of the 2016 presidential campaign, Obama was reportedly obsessed with a BuzzFeed story about Macedonian teens flooding Facebook with fake news. But it wasn’t until after the election that Obama sounded off in public about “active misinformation” on Facebook and TV. Days later, he pulled Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg aside for a private plea “to take the threat of fake news and political disinformation seriously.” And while Obama made a point of keeping a low profile during most of the Trump era, when he did surface, he would often take pains to spell out his criticisms of social media: “I do think the large platforms — Google and Facebook being the most obvious, Twitter and others as well, are part of that ecosystem — have to have a conversation about their business model that recognizes they are a public good as well as a commercial enterprise,” he said at an MIT event in 2018. “We have to have a serious conversation about, what are the business models, the algorithms, the mechanisms, whereby we can create more of a common conversation. And that can not just be a commercially driven conversation.” Obama was calling for a “serious conversation” about our information dystopia two years ago. Now he’s calling for “a combination of government regulations and corporate practices” to deal with it. It is difficult to be optimistic that we’ll get there. It’s hard to see the federal government regulating big tech in a serious way, because Democrats and Republicans don’t have shared facts about the problem; Republicans, in fact, have elected a QAnon promoter to Congress. And Big Tech isn’t remotely comfortable regulating itself — it would rather have government regulate big tech. And it would be surprising if Joe Biden — who had little to say about tech during his presidential campaign — and Kamala Harris — a longtime ally of Silicon Valley — make it a focus in a pandemic presidency. A modest suggestion: Barack Obama is still working on the second volume of his memoirs. This seems like a problem worth focusing on after that.

Read More...