Farhad’s and Natasha’s Week in Review: Tech Tackles Trump, Again

Amazon and Microsoft signed briefs in support of a lawsuit challenging Trump’s move, and Microsoft said it would pay the legal fees of the 39 DACA recipients in its work force. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg called Trump’s move “particularly cruel” and held a Facebook Live chat with three DACA recipients. Just about every other exec in tech also spoke out against the decision.

And yet, there was a kind of kabuki aspect to the whole thing — a feeling that all this was all going according to what has become a kind of script for Trump-tech relations. Trump does something, the tech industry condemns it, Trump ignores them, then we all move on to the next thing. For some of the most powerful companies in the world, the tech giants sure do seem powerless to get the president to do what they want, don’t they?

Natasha: It does seem like a comedown for the masters of the tech universe to have to repeatedly confront the fact that they have little clout with this White House.

Still, a few tech executives came out swinging against the president’s attempt to dismantle DACA. For me, Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, emerged this week as a moral compass on this issue, telling NPR that, if the government tried to deport any Microsoft employees, “it’s going to have to go through us to get to that person.” Them’s fighting words.

But I see a related big issue here for the tech industry: trust in the data economy.

Undocumented immigrants who participated in the DACA program gave their fingerprints, home addresses, school records and other very personal information to the federal government. If those personal details get used to try deport them, it will make people who are uneasy about giving their data to get services even more leery.

It seems to me the fate of the DACA database will not only give us clues about whether the Trump administration intends to use data as a weapon to further disenfranchise the already disenfranchised. It could also impact consumers’ trust in the popular online services that are stockpiling their personal data.

Facebook battles Russian trolls.

Farhad: Interesting, I hadn’t considered that. Speaking of Trump, Facebook said this week that it had discovered something it probably should have mentioned maybe a year ago — that a shady Russian organization known to traffic in “troll” accounts spent about $100,000 on Facebook ads in 2015 and 2016.

What this all means is pretty hazy. It could be that these ads were part of a Russian influence campaign aimed at changing votes during the election. Facebook is cooperating with investigators, so we may learn more at some point in the future. But this could all be disconnected from any alleged Russian plan to get Trump elected. For one thing, the ad buy is pretty small, and some of the ads were purchased even before Trump was in the running. Who knows?

To me, what’s interesting about this is that we’re learning about it 10 months after the election. Facebook was at the center of the postelection controversy over “fake news” and other shenanigans meant to monkey with the vote. So why did it take the company so long to figure this out? And should we take that to mean there’s a lot more icky that happened on Facebook around the election that it still hasn’t found?

Natasha: Once upon a time, I was a cub foreign correspondent, reporting from Moscow. My years as a journalist in Russia incline me to believe that there’s much more to come out on Russian meddling in the American election — whether through propaganda campaigns on Facebook or other technological means.

Just last week, our colleagues investigated the implications of the Russian hacking of voter check-in software in Durham, N.C., where many people were prevented from voting. And on Wednesday, Latanya Sweeney, a Harvard professor who is a computer scientist, and colleagues published a report showing that weaknesses in how government websites authenticate individuals could leave the country vulnerable to massive, state-sponsored voter identity theft.

But back to your question on why it took Facebook so long to figure out that a Kremlin-linked group had bought ads on the social network.

Facebook has come under a lot of fire recently for sloppy advertising practices. First, there were the errors in the way the company reported audience statistics to advertisers. Then there was a report by ProPublica that found Facebook’s ad-targeting process would have allowed advertisers to exclude black and Hispanic users from seeing housing ads.

Is the latest news on the Russian ad buy indicative of a larger problem of weak Facebook oversight of its advertising system?

How technology is changing schools.

Farhad: What a world — a huge tech company that can’t figure out how to do basic math.

Finally, let’s go back to school. You cover how technology and the tech industry are shaping education, for better and worse. You’ve been working on a fantastic series on the topic, and I wanted to chat about your piece this past weekend about “teacher influencers.” For readers who haven’t had a chance to go through it yet, can you give us a brief synopsis?

Natasha: Glad to hear you’re enjoying the series, Farhad! The latest story looks at how ed-tech start-ups are tapping tech-savvy schoolteachers to give feedback and spread the companies’ products to their peers. The piece generated heated discussion on Twitter about how the teacher-influencer phenomenon is making it difficult for educators to distinguish a teacher’s genuine product enthusiasm from a company-connected tweet.

Farhad: Right. In general, the idea of teachers being social media celebrities strikes me as genuinely strange for everyone involved. Following your teacher on Twitter is probably as awkward as running into them at the beach might have been when I was a kid. But anyway, I look forward to more of your series! Talk soon!

Natasha: Bye!

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