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A few reads about tech and politics - Issue #318

This week, we're returning to some of the topics that have always popped up in this email: tech and politics.

First, a mea culpa: in the past, I've linked to well-written hot takes about how social media influences everything and some scorching takes about how Russian bots or spies impacted US elections. The further we get from events like Obama's 2012 re-elect or the 2016 primary, the less, well, true those opinions appear to be. I need to do better a linking to things that hold up.

That brings us directly to today's reading. The WSJ has an excellent piece on just how sticky political content is on Facebook's platform. It took them more than a year to get some kinds of political content out of the newsfeed because every time they tried to diminish it, they saw that people became less interested in the newsfeed. It's almost like people want to see political content more than personal stuff! The old saw is that every tech company eventually becomes an advertiser; the new truism may be that every interesting place on the internet becomes a letter-to-the-editor page in the worst way.

The second link today is a great study (worth reading in its entirety!) attempting to isolate and measure the impact of Russia's online influence campaign on US political opinions and votes. To put it simply, the authors found the attempt was real but it didn't make any meaningful difference. People saw Tweets from Russia's influence operation, but those people were not influenced by the tweets. As much as I and many others thought that social media could shape opinions for the good and were disappointed, we're now seeing that social media can't really shape opinions for the worse. We should be relieved.

(It's still not a great look to have Russian spies working to see your favored politicians elected, even if they don't do it successfully.)

The final piece is some tech news that should actually matter in the longer term. The DOJ is finally going after Google's crown jewels: the core technology that makes its ads worth buying in the first place. If this case gains traction, it might be the Standard Oil or Glass-Steagall moment we've been waiting for. Or, it might be the DOJ piling on an also-ran: the fastest growing ads businesses are no longer in search and social, it's in Amazon.


Facebook wanted out of politics; it was messier than expected

Hitting mute button on political content recommendations brought unintended consequences, documents show.



Russian tweets had no meaningful opinion or election influence

We find no evidence of a meaningful relationship between exposure to the Russian foreign influence campaign and changes in attitudes, polarization, or voting behavior.



Google's most serious antitrust challenge to date

The US government is coming after the company's ad business — and it might win.