Technical Difficulties: Hot firefighters put out conspiracy theories

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As smoke enveloped several western states and thousands of Oregonains were forced to evacuate their homes, social media accounts began spreading false information that “Antifa” and/or the Proud Boys were lighting fires in a coordinated attack (?) on the West Coast. The rumors spread so quickly that the FBI had to release a statement, saying “conspiracy theories and misinformation take valuable resources away local fire and police agencies… Please help our entire community by only sharing validated information from official sources.”

The misinformation was so bad that local sheriff’s offices and hot firefighters took to social media to debunk the misinformation.

Look, first responders have enough to deal with putting out real fires. Maybe companies should throw them a bone and put out their own fires for a change.

  • Insider: People can’t get enough of this ‘hot firefighter’ debunking conspiracy theories on TikTok

  • Axios: Exclusive: False fire rumors keep spreading on Facebook despite ban

  • Media Matters: A conspiracy theory about West Coast wildfires is flooding Facebook despite the site’s promises to remove misinformation

  • New York Times: False Rumors That Activists Set Wildfires Exasperate Officials

  • Gizmodo: Debunked ‘Antifa’ Wildfire Rumors Spread on Facebook Overload 911, Spur Calls to Violence

  • BBC: Oregon wildfires: False Oregon fire rumours ‘inundate’ officers


Facebook has a global democracy problem. Or a priorities problem, to be more precise.

That was the clear takeaway from a bombshell BuzzFeed report this week on an exit memo from Sophie Zhang, a recently-fired Facebook data scientist who worked to combat fake engagements around the world. Zhang – who wrote that she felt like she had ‘blood on her hands’ – turned down a $64,000 severance package that would have required signing a non-disparagement agreement because she felt it was so important to tell her story.

At the same time, Vice News reported that rampant, unchecked hate speech on Facebookin Ethiopia – where Facebook has no full-time employees and the Community Standards are not available in the nation’s two main languages – is pushing the country toward genocide. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the exact same tragedy happened in Myanmar.

Two years ago, Mark Zuckerberg testified, “We have a responsibility to not just build tools, but to make sure that they’re used for good.” By any reasonable measure, the company is failing in that task. And while their challenges are undoubtedly significant, the argument that they don’t have the resources to get this right is hard to believe with the $5 billion profits they report each quarter.

Ultimately, it comes down to priorities. Zhang, explaining Facebook’s failure to prevent abuses of the platform by bad actors, got to the heart of the problem: “We simply didn’t care enough to stop them.”

  • BuzzFeed: “I Have Blood on My Hands”: A Whistleblower Says Facebook Ignored Global Political Manipulation

    • “Facebook ignored or was slow to act on evidence that fake accounts on its platform have been undermining elections and political affairs around the world, according to an explosive memo sent by a recently fired Facebook employee and obtained by BuzzFeed News.”

    • “Zhang said she turned down a $64,000 severance package from the company to avoid signing a nondisparagement agreement. Doing so allowed her to speak out internally, and she used that freedom to reckon with the power that she had to police political speech.”

  • New York Times: “In the three years I’ve spent at Facebook, I’ve found multiple blatant attempts by foreign national governments to abuse our platform on vast scales to mislead their own citizenry,” said Sophie Zhang

  • Vice: Hate Speech on Facebook Is Pushing Ethiopia Dangerously Close to a Genocide  |  Ethnic violence set off by the assassination of a popular singer has been supercharged by hate speech and incitements shared widely on the platform.

    • The company opened its first content moderation center on the continent last year, promising to employ 100 people… It’s unclear if Facebook has filled those roles, or how many — if any — it has designated to deal with the situation in Ethiopia.

    • Additionally, Facebook’s Community Standards are not available in Ethiopia’s two main languages (the company says it is working on it) and the company has no full-time employees in the country.

Relatedly, Sarah Frier and Kurt Wagner have a must-read story for Bloomberg Businessweek (with a must-see cover) about Zuckerberg’s coziness with the White House, and Facebook’s profit-driven appeasement of those in power around the world. We were honored to be quoted in the piece.

  • Bloomberg: Facebook Needs Trump Even More Than Trump Needs Facebook

    • “Zuckerberg isn’t easily influenced by politics. But what he does care about—more than anything else perhaps—is Facebook’s ubiquity and its potential for growth. The result, critics say, has been an alliance of convenience between the world’s largest social network and the White House, in which Facebook looks the other way while Trump spreads misinformation about voting that could delegitimize the winner or even swing the election.”

    • “‘Facebook, more so than other platforms, has gone out of its way to not ruffle feathers in the current administration,’ says Jesse Lehrich, co-founder of Accountable Tech, an organization making recommendations to tech companies on public-policy issues. ‘At best, you could say it’s willful negligence.’”


When it comes to the TikTok ordeal, each development has seemingly been stupider than the last, and today’s were no exception. But first, let’s zoom out, because there are many complex and consequential dynamics at play here.

There are difficult questions on how to cope with China’s techno-authoritarianism – from immediate threats like surveillance and information warfare, to the broader assault on democratic values; questions about competition, of both the market and great-power variety. And ultimately, the free and open internet is on the line. All of which make the White House’s haphazard flexes particularly maddening.

Ostensibly in the name of “national security,” the White House announced today that WeChat and TikTok would be removed from app stores in the U.S. beginning Sunday. TikTok was granted an extension on its mandate to sell, and will be usable through November 12, but upgrades and maintenance will be halted in the meantime – ironically, blocking Americans from downloading security updates.

Remember, Microsoft was seemingly close to a deal to acquire TikTok six weeks ago – and the data and tech that pose concerns in the hands of a Chinese-owned company. But then the White House intervened, Beijing retaliated with new export laws, Oracle cut a logic-defying deal to become TikTok’s “trusted tech partner,”, and Trump fumed that he couldn’t take a cut.

Now, we’re careening toward the splinternet, millions of Americans will lose access to their sole means of communication with friends and family in China (WeChat), and the only thing changing about TikTok for now is we can’t download security updates.

Everything’s totally fine, I’m just gonna pour myself a drink.

  • AP: US bans WeChat, TikTok from app stores citing security risk

  • Washington Post: Trump administration bans WeChat, TikTok from app stores beginning on Sunda

  • TechCrunch: In the WeChat, TikTok U.S. shut down order, TikTok gets Nov 12 stay, keeping it up through the US election and Oracle dealmaking

  • Vice News: Trump Protects TikTok Users’ Security By Cutting Them Off From Security Updates

  • Yahoo! Finance: TikTok boss calls out Facebook, Instagram to team up against Trump ban

  • ABC News (August 27, 2020): For Chinese Americans, WeChat ban threatens to upend business and community


Last week Accountable Tech released our comprehensive Election Integrity Roadmap for social media platforms as they navigate election season. The Roadmap proposes a number of proposals that would stem the most dangerous vectors of disinformation and incitement between now and official results.

The Roadmap got a big shoutout from one Hillary Rodham Clinton:

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We gotta say, on this issue … #ImWithHer (*ducks a tomato*)


  • HuffPost: ‘It’s Out Of Control’: How QAnon Undermines Legitimate Anti-Trafficking Efforts

  • Wall Street Journal: Facebook to Curb Internal Debate Over Sensitive Issues Amid Staff Discord

  • Washington Post: Pro-Trump youth group enlists teens in secretive campaign likened to a ‘troll farm,’ prompting rebuke by Facebook and Twitter

  • CBS News: Trump tweets doctored video of Biden, prompting flag by Twitter

  • HuffPost: Portland Proud Boys Rally Promoted On Facebook Pages Despite Extremist Ban

  • AdWeek: Barack Obama Stars in Snapchat PSA Aimed at Younger and First-Time Voters

  • Deadline: Twitter Slaps Labels On Donald Trump’s Tweets Casting Doubt On Mail-In Voting

  • Protocol: Oracle pushed Section 230 reform to spite Amazon and Google. Then came its deal with TikTok.

  • NPR: Google Says It Doesn’t Monopolize Digital Ad Market. Senators Don’t Buy It

  • Wall Street Journal: FTC Preparing Possible Antitrust Suit Against Facebook