2021年5月28日 星期五

On Tech: Facebook takes on superspreaders

Internet companies are making it harder for those with big followings to spread misinformation. Finally!

Facebook takes on superspreaders

Jinhwa Oh

Hello, friends! On Tech will not publish on Monday for the Memorial Day holiday.

Big internet companies are finally taking misinformation "superspreaders" seriously. (All it took was a global health crisis and the great lie of a rigged election.)

I've written about influential people, including former President Donald J. Trump, who have been instrumental in spreading false information online about important topics like election integrity and vaccine safety. Some of those same people have repeatedly twisted our beliefs — and internet companies have largely given them a pass.

Let's dig into why habitual misinformation peddlers matter and how internet companies have begun to focus on them — including the new rules put in place by Facebook this week.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube deserve credit for beginning to target repeat misinformation offenders. But I also want people to be aware of the limits of the companies' actions and to understand the challenge of applying these policies fairly and transparently.

How big of a problem are people who repeatedly post untrue things?

A lot of stuff that people say online isn't necessarily true or untrue. We want room for the messy middle. The concern is when information is outright false, and we know that some of the same people are responsible for amplifying that misinformation again and again.

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Last fall, a coalition of misinformation researchers found that about half of all retweets related to multiple and widely spread false claims of election interference could be traced back to just 35 Twitter accounts, including those of Mr. Trump and the conservative activist Charlie Kirk. A research group recently identified the accounts of about a dozen people, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who repeatedly — sometimes for years — pushed discredited information about vaccines or, more recently, false "cures" for Covid-19.

Until recently, it mostly didn't matter whether someone posted junk health information or a false election conspiracy theory once or 100 times, or whether the person was Justin Bieber or your cousin with five Facebook followers. Internet companies typically assessed the substance of each message only in isolation. That made no sense.

How policies are starting to focus on these habitual offenders

The riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 showed the danger of falsehoods repeatedly uttered to a public inclined to believe them. Internet companies began to address the outsize influence of people with large followings who habitually spread false information.

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Facebook on Wednesday said that it would apply stricter punishments on individual accounts that repeatedly post things that the company's fact checkers have deemed misleading or untrue. Posts from habitual offenders will be circulated less in Facebook's news feed, which means that others are less likely to see them. In March, it enacted a similar policy for Facebook groups.

Twitter a couple of months ago created a "five strikes" system in which it escalates punishments for those who tweet misinformation about coronavirus vaccines. Internet companies have suspended accounts of some of the repeat offenders, including Kennedy's.

It's too soon to assess whether these policies are effectively reducing the spread of some outright false information, But it's worthwhile to end the impunity for people who habitually peddle discredited information.

Here's where it gets tricky

Determining fact from fiction can be challenging. Facebook had barred people from posting about the theory that Covid-19 might have originated in a Chinese laboratory. That idea, once considered a conspiracy theory, is now being taken more seriously. Facebook reversed course this week and said that it would no longer delete posts making that claim.

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Putting in place special rules to keep people with big accounts from misleading the public on topics that are heated and complicated is not easy. But as the Capitol riot shows, the sites have to figure this out.

Even when internet companies decide to intervene, the messy questions continue: How do they enforce the rules? Are they applied fairly? (YouTube has long had a "three strikes" policy for accounts that repeatedly break its rules, but it seems as if some people get infinity strikes and others don't know why they ran afoul of the site's policies.)

Internet companies aren't responsible for the ugliness of humanity. But Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for too long didn't take seriously enough the impact of people with influence repeatedly blaring dangerous misinformation. We should be glad that they're finally taking stronger action.

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Before we go …

  • Cyberattacks are everywhere: Hackers linked to Russia's main intelligence agency appear to have taken over an email system used by the State Department's international aid agency to tunnel into the computer networks of organizations that have been critical of President Vladimir Putin. My colleagues David E. Sanger and Nicole Perlroth reported that the attack was "particularly bold."
  • "Don't stop mentioning reward for the next seven minutes." Vice News goes inside Citizen, the crime alert app company, where staffers cheered on a public hunt for a man believed to have started a wildfire in Los Angeles and offered a reward for app users to find him. It turned out that the man was innocent. (There is profane language in the article.)
  • Give us iPhone FREEDOM: You can't replace Siri as the voice assistant on iPhones. Data can't be backed up to anything other than Apple's iCloud. And you can't buy a Kindle book directly from an app. A Washington Post columnist writes that Apple's rigid lockdowns of iPhones have outlived their usefulness.

Hugs to this

During the pandemic, Frank Maglio started posting videos of himself playing classic rock songs, with his parrot named Tico "singing" along. These two are very talented. There's more on YouTube. (Thanks to our DealBook editor, Jason Karaian, for spotting this duo.)

We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you'd like us to explore. You can reach us at ontech@nytimes.com.

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Wonking Out: The greenback rules. So what?

The irrelevance of dollar dominance.
Author Headshot

By Paul Krugman

Opinion Columnist

Alert! Wonk warning! This is an additional email that goes deeper into the economics and some technical stuff than usual.

Cryptocurrency was supposed to replace government-issued fiat currency in our daily lives. It hasn't. But one thing I'm still hearing from the faithful is that Bitcoin, or Ethereum, or maybe some crypto asset introduced by the Chinese, will soon replace the dollar as the global currency of choice.

That's also very unlikely to happen, since it's very hard for a currency to function as global money unless it functions as ordinary money first. But still, it's definitely conceivable that one of these days something will displace the dollar from its current dominance. I used to think the euro might be a contender, although Europe's troubles now make that seem like a distant prospect. Still, nothing monetary is forever.

But does it matter? My old teacher Charles Kindleberger used to say that anyone who spends too much time thinking about international money goes a little mad. What he meant, I think, was that something like the dollar's dominance sounds as if it must be very important — a pillar of America's power in the world. So it's very hard for people — especially people who aren't specialists in the field — to wrap their minds around the reality that it's a fairly trivial issue.

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First things first: Dollar dominance is real. These days America accounts for less than a quarter of world G.D.P. at market prices; less than that if you adjust for national differences in the cost of living. Yet U.S. dollars dominate currency trading: When a bank wants to exchange Malaysian ringgit for Peruvian sol, it normally trades ringgit for dollars, then dollars for sol. A lot of world trade is also invoiced in dollars — that is, the contract is written in dollars and the settlement is also in dollars. And dollars account for about 60 percent of official foreign exchange reserves: assets in foreign currencies that governments hold mainly so they can intervene to stabilize markets if necessary.

As I said, this sounds like a big deal. The dollar is, in a sense, the world's money, and it's natural to assume that this gives the United States what a French finance minister once called "exorbitant privilege" — the ability to buy stuff simply by printing dollars the world has to take. Every once in a while I see news articles asserting that the special role of the dollar gives America the unique ability to run trade deficits year after year, an option denied to other nations.

Except that this just isn't true. Here are the current account balances — trade balances, broadly defined — of a few English-speaking countries over the years, measured as a percentage of their G.D.P.:

We're not the deficit kings.International Monetary Fund

Yes, America has consistently run deficits. Australia has consistently run even bigger deficits; the U.K. has fluctuated around, but has also run big deficits on average. We're not special in this regard.

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Still, can't we borrow money more cheaply because the dollar is top dog? If so, it's a pretty subtle effect. As I write this, 10-year U.S. bonds are yielding 1.6 percent; British 10-years 0.8 percent; Japanese 10-years 0.07 percent. Lots of factors affect borrowing costs, but if the fact that neither the pound nor the yen are major global currencies is a major liability, it's not obvious in the data.

Now, the pound used to be a major international currency. It wasn't overtaken by the dollar as a reserve currency until 1955. It was still a major player into the late 1960s. But then its role quickly evaporated. By 1975 the pound was basically just a normal advanced-country currency, used domestically but not outside the country.

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So did the value of the pound take a big hit when that happened? No. Here's the real pound-dollar exchange rate — the number of dollars per pound, adjusted for differential inflation — since the early 1960s:

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The pound is dead, long live the pound.FRED

There have been some big fluctuations over time, reflecting things like Margaret Thatcher's tight-money policy and Ronald Reagan's mix of tight money and deficit spending. But the pound has in general been much stronger since it stopped being a global currency than it was before. That's not a big mystery: It probably reflects London's continuing role as a global financial hub in an era of financial globalization. But again, it's hard to see evidence that losing global currency status made much difference.

So is the dollar's status completely irrelevant? No. The dollar's popularity does give America a unique export industry — namely, dollars themselves. Or more specifically, Benjamins — $100 bills, which bear the portrait of Benjamin Franklin.

These days the ordinary business of life is largely digital; many Americans rarely use cash. Even the sidewalk fruit and vegetable kiosks in New York often take Venmo. Given that lived reality, it's jarring to learn just how much currency is in circulation: more than $2 trillion, or more than $6000 for every U.S. resident.

What's all that cash being used for? One important clue is the denomination of the notes out there:

It really is all about the Benjamins.Federal Reserve

Yep, it's mainly Benjamins, which by and large can't even be used in stores. They are used for payments people don't want easily traced, usually because they're doing something illicit.

And here's where the dollar plays a special role: We have a lot more large-denomination notes in circulation, relative to the size of our economy, than other countries. In 2016, the value of large-denomination U.S. notes in circulation was more than 6 percent of G.D.P.; the corresponding figure for Canada was only a third as much. The main reason for the difference, almost surely, is that a lot of $100 bills are being held outside the U.S.

This willingness of foreigners to hold American cash means, in effect, that the world has lent the U.S. a substantial amount of money — maybe on the order of $1 trillion — at zero interest. That's not a big deal when interest rates are as low as they are now, but in the past it has been worth more — maybe as much as one quarter percent of G.D.P.

America does, then, get some advantage from the special role of the dollar. But it's hardly a major pillar of U.S. power. And being the world's primary supplier of assets used in illegal activity isn't exactly a role filled with glory.

So is it possible that the dollar will eventually lose its dominance? Yes. Will it matter? Not so you'd notice.

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