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Substack doubles down on uncensored ‘free speech’ with acquisition of Letter

Substack announced last week that it acquired Letter, a platform that encourages written dialogue and debate. The financials of the deal weren’t disclosed, but this acquisition follows Substack’s recent $65 million raise.

Newsletters are all the rage — Facebook launched its exclusive, celeb-studded Bulletin platform last month, and Twitter acquired the newsletter startup Revue earlier this year. Letter doesn’t publish email newsletters like Substack, but rather, it allows writers to engage in epistolary exchanges about fraught topics like Brexit, dating and the 2020 U.S. Presidential election. The idea behind Letter makes sense. Complicated conversations require nuance, yet these online debates too often happen on platforms like Twitter, where short-form tweets make it harder to have nuanced conversations.

“We could see that Letter, like Substack, was working in opposition to the ad-driven attention economy, attempting to change the rules of engagement for online discourse,” Substack wrote in its acquisition announcement.

But this acquisition may be cause for concern among those already troubled by the controversy Substack faced earlier this year, when news came out that the platform offered some writers up to six-figure advances as part of its Substack Pro program. The problem wasn’t that Substack was incentivizing writers to join the platform, but rather, who Substack had hand-picked to pay an advance. Plus, Substack says that it’s up to the writer to disclose whether or not they’re part of Substack Pro, which creates a lack of editorial transparency.

As Substack grew, writers left jobs at Buzzfeed and the New York Times, lured by pay raises and cautious optimism. But as more writers came forward as part of the Substack Pro program, Substack was criticized for subsidizing anti-trans rhetoric, since some of these writers used their newsletters to share such views. Substack admits it’s not entirely apolitical, but the choices of which writers to subsidize, and its decision to use only lightweight moderation tactics, are a strong political choice in an era of the internet when content moderation has a tangible effect on global politics. Some writers even chose to leave the platform.

Annalee Newitz, a non-binary writer who since left the platform, wrote on Substack, “Their leadership are deciding what kinds of writing and writers are worthy of financial compensation. […] Substack is taking an editorial stance, paying writers who fit that stance, and refusing to be transparent about who those people are.”

So, when Substack described its new acquisition Letter as a platform that encourages people to “argue in good faith instead of dropping bombs for retweets,” it made the acquisition worthy of a deeper examination. Statements like this sound agreeable, yet this kind of language often appears in arguments that deem social justice a threat to free speech. But free speech shouldn’t mean endorsing hate speech.

Substack wants to position itself as a neutral platform, and for many writers, it’s a valuable way to make money, especially in an unstable journalism industry. But given that some users have already become skeptical of who Substack chooses to financially incentivize, it’s worth examining the implications of buying Letter, a platform that includes writers associated with the so-called intellectual dark web in its group of twenty “featured writers.” On Letter, some of these writers question the validity of childhood transgender identity and refer to the statement “trans women are women” as propaganda, for example. Substack has already lost the trust of some trans and gender non-conforming writers, and the content on its newly acquired Letter won’t help rebuild that trust.

In addition, Letter co-founder Clyde Rathbone wrote in support of a controversial letter published in Harper’s Magazine, which called for the “concerted repudiation of cancel culture.” But critics of the letter point out that free speech isn’t really at stake here.

The open letter had been signed by over 150 prominent writers — like Gloria Steinem, Noam Chomsky (a Letter author), and Malcolm Gladwell (a Bulletin author). It argued: “We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.” These “professional consequences” echoed the predicament that J.K. Rowling — who also signed the letter — had put herself in. After denying that trans women are women, her reputation suffered. Some might call that “cancel culture,” but others might call it the refusal to continue to platform people who perpetuate harmful beliefs.

“The panic over ‘cancel culture’ is, at its core, a reactionary backlash,” wrote journalist Michael Hobbes. “Conservative elites, threatened by changing social norms and an accelerating generational handover, are attempting to amplify their feelings of aggrievement into a national crisis.”

Substack says it plans to use the acquisition of Letter to help writers collaborate, and that it won’t integrate Letter into its platform. Rather, the Letter team will relocate from Australia to San Francisco to “bring their expertise to help build more of the infrastructure and support.”

TechCrunch asked Substack if the anti-trans content on Letter is cause for concern within the company, given the recent backlash against the platform.

“We think that open debate and disagreement are absolutely part of having free press, and that includes views that you or I may not like,” a representative from Substack said. “Anyone could browse Substack and find things they agree with and things they don’t agree with. Substack has no ad-driven feeds pushing content based on virality and outrage, and there is a direct relationship between writers and readers who can opt out of that anytime. So the bar for us to intervene in that relationship and tell writers what they should be saying is really high, and the fact that Letter allowed writers to openly debate and discuss is consistent with that philosophy.”
We don’t know yet how or if Letter will change Substack — but given the existing discourse around the kind of content Substack pays for, Substack isn’t demonstrating “good faith” with this acquisition.

VC Seth Bannon on how a Biden administration might best support climate startups

It’s too soon to know who will win the U.S. election tomorrow. Tomorrow may even be too soon to know who wins the election. But it’s always a good time to talk with investors about how they’re thinking about the future, and some can’t help but ponder the possibilities if Joe Biden wins the race.

Among these are venture capitalists who are focused on climate change and who are excited by the prospect of a president who sees climate change as an existential threat, especially after the work of the Trump administration, which has officially reversed, rolled back, or revoked 70 environmental rules and regulations over the last four years.

Seth Bannon, whose seed-stage venture firm Fifty Years is focused on impact investing, is among those willing to ponder a President Biden and how his administration could most effectively boost climate tech while simultaneously dealing with COVID-19 and the economy. We had a quick chat about it earlier today.

TC: Joe Biden has a detailed climate plan. What do you think of it?

SB: The overarching way the Biden campaign has said his administration would approach climate change is pretty fantastic. It would invest heavily in R&D so we have great technological climate solutions, then use the scale of government to get technologies into the world. It wants to invest $400 billion in better, cheaper batteries for electrification, $300 billion for cleaner power plants — it’s a very exciting way of going about it. It’s a modern economic job creation plan, and as a Silicon Valley builder, it’s exactly what you’d want to see. It’s not simply about passing more regulations, saying ‘you can’t do this or that.’ It’s predominately about building solutions that will get us out of this mess.

TC: If you were to talk directly with his team, what are some pieces of advice you might offer, based on the plan and what you see in your day-to-day work?

SB: It calls for the creation of an ARPA-C, a new federal agency for low-carbon energy technologies that would be modeled after two agencies that exist: DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and ARPA-E, for Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

I would advise that they give that budget 10x DARPA’s budget, because the scale of this threat is 10x the threat we face from any foreign adversary.

I’d also model the way it works with startups after the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, where companies can apply for small grants — say $125,000 to $250,000 — and if they meet milestones and show the government data, maybe they’re given $1.5 million more. It would be a fantastic accelerant in the space and would make a huge amount of money available to companies investing in pure R&D to figure out carbon capture and using biology to decarbonize industries, using biology to move us away from animal agriculture — all these unsolved technological problems, and government money can be catalyst for getting these things off the ground.

Even more impactful would be if the government said to XYZ startup, ‘Here’s $250,000, and if you meet milestones, we’ll give you $3 million, and if you meet more milestones, we’ll buy your tech.’ Risk is technical, but there’s market risk, too. If the government says, ‘We’ll be your first customer,’ it could go a long way in getting the private market more interested.

TC: If Biden were to be elected, he’d obviously have to prioritize controlling this pandemic and getting Americans back to work. Practically speaking, what would he have time left to tackle and in what order?

SB: It should be an all-of-the-above approach. The exciting thing about climate tech is that there are a lot of different approaches to decarbonizing many industries and removing what’s in the environment. We have [in our portfolio] companies that decarbonizing food, fashion, data storage, transportation, chemicals, mining. Each component of the global economy only contributes 5% to 10% max [to greenhouse gas emissions], so we have to focus on decarbonizing a whole bunch of industries. If I had to choose a few to start, I’d say food, transportation, and energy.

TC: And if Trump gets re-elected? 

SB: If Trump gets reelected, there’s no movement on climate tech, which is unfortunate. If you look at European countries, even conservative factions are starting to realize that investing in climate tech helps you to be more competitive. Even if you don’t believe in it, a lot of sustainability companies are building better products, more cheaply, period. But this administration just doesn’t see it that way and if he gets re-elected, a lot of the regulations we have on the books will continue to get torn away.

TC: You worked briefly in politics, as an operations director for Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont and an organizer for Obama presidential campaign. How are you feeling about tomorrow?

SB: As we sail into things, I feel pretty good. It’s not over until it’s over, but I feel pretty optimistic about where we are. I think the country is ready to heal.

Tech for Campaigns, created to get Democrats elected, on the parties’ biggest differences

Yesterday, a 450-page “investigation on competition in digital markets” was published by the House based on 16 months of evidence gathering, including interviews with employees and past employees and others with first-hand knowledge of the inner workings of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple.

The picture it paints is of companies that have abused their power to enrich themselves in ways previously known and unknown based on evidence collected directly from their current and former employees, as well as others with first-hand knowledge of the company’s internal workings. But House Democrats and Republicans disagree on some of the proposed remedies.

It probably doesn’t surprise Jessica Alter, the cofounder of Tech for Campaigns, an organization that was once described as a Democratic Geek Squad owing to its mission to match volunteers from the tech world — engineers, data scientists, product managers, marketing pros — with Democratic campaigns in need of a winning digital strategy.

Alter, who says Tech for Campaigns’s volunteer network now numbers more than 14,000, talked with us late last week about just how different the political parties are fundamentally, likening the Republican National Committee to a “conglomerate,” and the Democrats’s approach as far more decentralized — often to the latter’s disadvantage. Our conversation (which you can hear here) has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

TC: You were previously a tech founder. For those who don’t know you, why start this organization?

JA: I was pretty uninvolved in politics. I was just a typical techie working at early-stage companies, and I’d started one as well. But in 2017, my cofounders and I got very frustrated. I think the crucible moment for me was the first Muslim ban. And given what our skill sets are and who we know, we decided, ‘Let’s just try to look at helping on the tech and digital front.’

We had a hunch that in the 2016 election, Trump sort of wiped the floor with [the Democrats] on tech and digital, and we were more right [about that hunch] than we wanted it to be. We realized pretty quickly that the Democrats are probably 8 to 10 years behind the Republicans. That’s hard for people to believe, and usually people say, ‘But what about Obama? [His campaign] was good at tech and digital.” But all of that was thrown out. I mean that in the most literal sense.

TC: What percentage of donor dollars go to digital advertising?

JA: TV and [snail] mail still really rules the roost. In 2018, as just one example, for all of the media attention that digital advertising gets, only three to five cents went to digital for every donor dollar that was given. Most of the rest went to TV and mail.

On the tech tools and data side, we’re also far behind. Part of the problem is that there really isn’t an organization whose main thrust is to focus on tech and digital. It’s a part of every organization but it’s siloed, and no one really focuses on it, and no one organization is permanently focused on it. That’s the hole that [we’re] filling, and the way that we do that is through our full time team of. about two dozen people and our now more than 14,000 tech and digital volunteers.

TC: Are all of these volunteers finding you? And when they do offer to help, do they have a campaign in mind or do you assign them to whomever needs the help most?

JA: It’s sort of a double-opt-in system that we’ve built, so you sign up, you tell us your hometown, in addition to where you live now and we will try to match on affinity. But we first match on skill set. So we talked to all the campaign and we develop projects with them, and we know if it’s an email project, it needs these skill sets. Then an  email goes out to people with those skill sets.

TC: You’ve suggested that part of why Democrats have fallen so far behind is because of the way their campaigns are structured. Is it different on the Republican side? Do they have a more unified digital operation?

JA: It’s different on the Republican side — and not exclusively about tech and digital — for a couple of reasons. The Republicans in general are a much more centralized organization. When the RNC or [other] leaders say to do things, it trickles down, and people do it. I’m sure a lot of people have heard the saying that Republicans fall in line and Democrats fall in love. There’s nothing that I’ve heard and understood to be more true than that. The Democrats are just much more decentralized, so it’s hard for things to trickle down as much.

The Republicans also started focusing on digital maybe 10 years ago and they operate much more on their donor side like a conglomerate [whereas] the Democrats operate much more like a portfolio [and] there’s not as much cooperation; it’s just that’s it’s just not happening. So [major donors like the] Koch [brothers] and the Mercer [family] not only believed In digital, but there’s a shared infrastructure there. They have, for example, a data exchange that they’ve had for eight years. The Democrats are still building a first version of theirs, and there are two or three versions of a centralized data exchange, which is the opposite of the point of centralization.

TC: Where are you focusing most of your time and energy?

JA: At the state legislative level, which is where Republican fight, too. The elbows are a lot less sharp, so we’ve been able to make inroads there, helping almost 500 campaigns on almost 700 projects over the last three years. But also, the state level campaigns are these concentric circles that overlap between incredibly strategic, incredibly cheap, and incredibly ignored.

State legislatures control basically every major issue that anyone cares about. That includes health care, voting rights, the environment, education, [and] a woman’s right to choose. If Roe v. Wade gets overturned. It’s not that abortion [becomes] illegal; it’s that the states will decide. The state legislatures in most states also control federal redistricting. So if you own the state legislatures, you actually own all those issues.

State legislators are about one 100th of the cost of a federal race, too. It’s just a good ROI decision. People need to understand that Republicans run things like a business, and they make very good ROI-based decisions. I don’t find that to be true with Democrats nearly enough. You have very analytical people who, in their normal lives, are extremely focused on ROI, yet when it comes to politics, they’re just purely emotional. I understand it, but it doesn’t serve the end goal.

TC: This is because they’re decentralized?

JA: We were showing one of our tools to one of the state Democratic parties, and their comment was, ‘Oh, we try to build this every two years.’ When they build [something], they don’t if that’s happening in Maine. They don’t show it to Michigan. It’s not because they don’t like each other. They just don’t talk. And so every two years, your donors are paying to rebuild the same thing. And there isn’t any standard tech or digital training for candidates or their staffers.

When we go into states, we provide that, [and] not in the sense that we’re going to make them gurus of how to run digital ads or data, but so they understand why it’s different and what the power of digital to make them more demanding of whoever they’re working [including paid consultants] on the digital side.

TC: You’re saying it’s chaos out there. You’re giving these campaigns tools and information they didn’t have, but of course, campaigns disband. Is anyone holding on to the tools and information that you’re providing them?

JA: The whole mission of tech for campaigns is to be the permanent tech and digital arm for the Democrats. As you rightly said, campaigns disband every two years and break down completely. Within a week and a half, everyone scatters. So you can’t expect that to change completely. [But we hope to be] this lasting presence in tech and digital that subsists cycle over cycle and in between cycles — to be this permanent presence that can build a real competitive advantage. Because if you break everything down every two years, you’ll never win at tech and digital.

TC: How do you fund your work? Through donations? Grants? Is there a money-making component of this business?

JA: We’re a 527 nonprofit, so we are mostly sustained by donations from individuals and organization. Because of campaign finance, we do sell software that we build, but it’s not going to be a it’s not a big business.

TC: In ‘Silicon Valley,’ politics have become so charged. Are the people who volunteer fearful of revealing their political affiliations in a way that they perhaps weren’t before? Or is the opposite happening?

JA:  I feel like there’s a lot more desire for people to be outspoken in the last few years, even more so than  between 2016 and 2018. Because things have gotten so out of control, people really want a way to channel their frustration and anger and sadness. So we don’t we don’t find that people want to hide it, no.

TC: Some readers are Donald Trump supporters. Some are Biden supporters who might want to help. Is there anything specific you’d want them to know, heading into the election?

JA: First, I’d say, don’t despair. We are we are solving this. [But] it’s not a one-month or even a one-cycle solve, so  get in touch with us about what you can do.

Twitter hides Trump tweet behind notice for potentially dissuading people from voting

Twitter flagged one of President Donald Trump’s tweets on Monday, placing it behind a notice that warns users it violates the platform’s rules against dissuading people from voting.

In the tweet, posted on Monday, Trump claimed mail drop boxes are a “voter security disaster” and also said they are “not COVID sanitized.” Twitter’s notice says that the tweet violates its rules about civic and election integrity, but it “determined it may be in the public’s interest for the Tweet to remain accessible.” Users can still retweet it with comment, but are nor prevented from liking, replying, or retweeting it alone.

Through its Twitter Safety account, the company gave more details, saying that the tweet had been flagged for “making misleading health claims that could potentially dissuade people from participation in voting.” It also cited a section from its Civic Integrity Policy, highlighting a line that forbids users from making “misleading claims about process procedures or techniques which could dissuade people from participating” in elections.

Per our policies, this Tweet will remain on the service given its relevance to ongoing public conversation. Engagements with the Tweet will be limited. People will be able to Retweet with Comment, but not Like, Reply, or Retweet it. pic.twitter.com/USuaRr5ING

— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) August 23, 2020

Mail-in ballots, which are expected to be used more widely by states in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, have become a partisan issue leading up to the November presidential election. Despite what Trump said in his tweet, expert consensus is that mail-in ballots and absentee ballots are both secure. Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states COVID-19 is spread mostly through close contact from person to person. Though it is possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose, or possibly eyes, the CDC says this is “not thought to be main way the virus spreads.”

After years of controversy over how the platform handled the president’s tweets that contained misleading, false, or incendiary statements, Twitter has recently begun taking a harder stance on Trump’s account. In May, Twitter applied fact-check labels about mail-in ballots to two of Trump’s tweets.

Days later, Trump signed an executive order targeting Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives internet companies legal protections that shield them from liability for user-created content while also giving them power to make moderation decisions. The executive order argued that platforms forfeit their rights to legal protection when they moderate content, as Twitter did when it applied fact-check labels to Trump’s tweets.

Though it is not clear if Trump’s executive order is legally enforceable, it may serve to intimidate some platforms. Twitter called the order a “reactionary and politicized approach to a landmark law,” and its actions on Trump’s tweets today may indicate that the company does not see it as a threat.

TechCrunch has contacted the White House and Twitter for comment.

We don't need April Fools' Day anymore because we're living a fake news nightmare

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I remember the halcyon days when April Fools’ Day was a bit of harmless fun. We’d read fake stories from the newspaper over our cornflakes and have a good chuckle. Fake news was just something that happened once a year. But, those days are gone

We are now living in the age of fake news; where mistruths are presented as truths, and believed at face value. Fake news is no longer a once-yearly event, it’s a 365-day-a-year news cycle. And, that’s why April Fools’ Day needs to die. 

“April’s Fool Day is a day when you have to constantly engage the critical and sceptical part of the brain so you don’t get duped,” says Claire Wardle, Director of Research and Strategy of First Draft News. “Now that we are increasingly encountering information that has been fabricated, manipulated or is downright misleading, we need to be engaging those same parts of our brains every day and questioning what we’re seeing in our social feeds.” Read more…

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