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How Facebook users wield multiple accounts to spread toxic politics – POLITICO

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Facebook has known for years about a major source of political vitriol and violent content on its platform and done little about it: individual people who use small collections of accounts to broadcast reams of incendiary posts.

Meet SUMAs: a smattering of accounts run by a single person using their real identity, known internally at Facebook as Single User Multiple Accounts. And a significant swath of them spread so many divisive political posts that they’ve mushroomed into a massive source of the platform’s toxic politics, according to internal company documents and interviews with former employees.

While plenty of SUMAs are harmless, Facebook employees for years have flagged many such accounts as purveyors of dangerous political activity. Yet, the company has failed to crack down on SUMAs in any comprehensive way, the documents show. That’s despite the fact that operating multiple accounts violates Facebook’s community guidelines.

Company research from March 2018 said accounts that could be SUMAs were reaching about 11 million viewers daily, or about 14 percent of the total U.S. political audience. During the week of March 4, 2018, 1.6 million SUMA accounts made political posts that reached U.S. users.

“A large amount of content comes from a small number of individuals,” said Katie Harbath, Facebook’s former director of public policy, in reference to the dangerous political content on the platform.

She argued that SUMAs’ proliferating posts hurt political discourse and said the company has failed to institute rules that could curb the spread of the inflammatory posts.

That’s backed up by disclosures made to the Securities and Exchange Commission and provided to Congress in redacted form by the legal counsel of whistleblower Frances Haugen. The redacted versions were reviewed by a consortium of news organizations, including POLITICO.

A Facebook spokesperson said the leaked documents don’t paint a comprehensive picture.

“It’s not a revelation that we study duplicate accounts, and this snapshot of information doesn’t tell the full story,” Facebook’s Joe Osborne said in a statement. “We enforce our community standards regardless of the kind of account that someone is using.”

Yet researchers who study misinformation in social media say the SUMA problem is a prime example of Facebook missing an opportunity to rein in inflammatory content.

About the Facebook Papers

POLITICO and 16 other American news organizations are publishing stories based on the Facebook Papers — internal documents taken by whistleblower Frances Haugen before leaving the company.

The Facebook Papers include company research, internal message board threads, emails, project memos, strategy plans and presentations that Haugen captured by snapping photos of her computer screen.

The disclosures were submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission and provided to Congress in redacted form by Haugen’s legal counsel. The consortium of media outlets has reviewed the redacted versions received by Congress, documents that black out the names of many lower-level employees. The documents were previously obtained by The Wall Street Journal, but our coverage provides new revelations from the files.

The group of media outlets coordinated on an embargo date of Monday to ensure enough time for reporters to review thousands of documents. This collection does not include all the files Haugen captured, and POLITICO expects to publish further stories as more documents become available.

“Facebook has completely lost control over the ways in which its platform has sort of pushed content that is not only not credible but also outrageous and at times extremely divisive,” said Ramesh Srinivasan, director of the Center For Global Digital Cultures at UCLA.

The March 2018 research warned that SUMAs artificially promote certain political viewpoints by providing a case study of an account under the name of Daisy Nunez, a “likely SUMA” who was participating in “unsavory behavior” that the company’s policies didn’t adequately address and couldn’t contain.

The research author said Nunez posted hundreds of links a day — sometimes at the rate of one per minute — and some 1,500 each week of “sensational and highly divisive” content. She saved links and built “a bank of some of the worst, most divisive content, to reshare later,” the author wrote.

A former Facebook employee who had worked on SUMA issues, and spoke to POLITICO on condition of anonymity to avoid unwanted attention to their current employer, said individuals running SUMAs use their authentic identities across all of the accounts, evading Facebook’s “fake account” policy by not impersonating another individual. The fact that these accounts weren’t lying about their identities, and some had relatively benign uses, led to a reluctance from the company to crack down on them heavily.

Even so, Facebook staff regularly identify SUMAs by finding groups of accounts that use the same identity — same birthday, the same or slightly different name — across multiple accounts.

SUMAs typically use the same email address and same first names across accounts, along with “other data that they recycle and that can be used to fingerprint people,” Haugen told reporters in a briefing.

The other former staffer said some SUMAs are benign, belonging to people who want to have separate personal and business profiles. Internal research from January 2018 viewed by POLITICO noted that they’re a trend with teens who want to keep at least one account more private. But SUMAs start to raise red flags when they post with great frequency.

Accounts that frequently post or comment, even if they do so manually, violate Facebook’s community standards against spamming. Yet SUMAs can easily wield their multiple accounts to avoid running afoul of the rules, simply by switching between profiles, the former Facebook staffer said.

“Duplicate accounts provide an avenue for people who are doing bad behavior just to restart immediately upon being kicked off the platform,” Haugen told reporters.

The company does move to stop people from making duplicate accounts in the first place, like redirecting them to recover their existing profiles.

Harbath and the former employee said Facebook could target SUMAs more aggressively if it chose to — particularly those posting dangerous political rhetoric. The anonymous staffer told POLITICO that the company’s existing algorithms are “pretty good” at detecting SUMAs posting political speech.

Facebook has also chosen to push back against more intensive efforts to remove SUMAs. The mere fact that an account is a SUMA usually isn’t enough to warrant a takedown. Instead the account would first need to make at least one or two clear violations of Facebook’s rules — such as posting violent, bullying or harassing content.

“When looking at a lot of these, there was a strong push from other parts of the company that actions needed to be justified and clearly explained as a violation of rules,” Harbath said, adding that they often did not have the “stomach for blunt actions” that could result in a “high number of false positives” — or accounts wrongly taken down.

Facebook did take action against some political SUMAs in October 2018, such as removing the Right Wing News page and other pages run by Brian Kolfage. According to Facebook, the company removed more than 5 billion inauthentic accounts in 2020 before they were flagged, although Facebook didn’t specify how many were SUMAs. The company describes both SUMAs and fake accounts as “inauthentic.”

Message board comments from 2018 show that staffers were torn about Facebook’s approach, with some arguing that since SUMAs represented real people they should be treated leniently despite their violation of Facebook policies on multiple accounts.

“A SUMA account represents the realistic views of a user, just under a pseudonym,” one employee commented in response to the March 2018 research that warned of the dangers of these accounts. “They generally aren’t posting as a drastically different individual or representing views that are not their own in an electorate to which they don’t belong.”

SUMAs make up a large portion of Facebook’s new sign-ups despite the company’s ban on multiple accounts. In a 2021 internal Facebook post titled, “Update on the FB unwanted SUMA problem,” one employee wrote that SUMAs comprised 40 percent to 60 percent of fresh accounts.

The same document warned that Facebook’s AI model that identifies SUMAs both undercounts them and underestimates their effects.

The problem is also evolving. Harbath noted some operators’ growing sophistication in using multiple devices for their accounts.

Facebook also could have business motives for leaving SUMAs mostly alone. Employees and academics who study social media ethics said trying to boot these accounts would likely disrupt sign-ups and use of the site, especially if people are wrongly targeted.

“You want the system to be frictionless, you want it to be easy to create an account, because that’s where the money” is, said Hany Farid, a UC Berkeley professor specializing in misinformation and digital forensics.

It’s unclear if a crackdown would have a significant effect on Facebook’s advertising revenue. The company said it has disclosed to Facebookers, advertisers and investors alike that these accounts exist.

“Nothing in this story changes the estimate of duplicate accounts we disclose in our public filings, which includes new users, or that we provide context on in our ad products, ad interfaces, in our help centers, and in other places,” Facebook’s Osborne said.

Farid was skeptical that Facebook couldn’t parse out these accounts and remove them — arguing that the company tends to downplay or tout its powers depending on whether its executives are being hauled up before Congress or recruiting advertisers.

“You can’t, on the one hand, monetize to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars a year phenomenal amounts of data and personal information, and then on the other side when it comes to mitigating harms, say, ‘Yeah, we don’t know how to do this,’” he said.

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Study: Politics Outweighed COVID Severity in Reopening Decisions – Inside Higher Ed

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The political leaning of the county in which a college or university is located is the factor most closely associated with whether it offered in-person or remote instruction in fall 2020, research released Tuesday shows. The article, published in Springer’s Research in Higher Education, finds that the severity of the pandemic near a college and sociopolitical factors in its state were also associated with institutional decisions on how to offer instruction.

State political factors were a stronger factor for four-year public institutions than for four-year private or community colleges, while county political preferences had a stronger effect on four-year private and two-year public institutions.

“Given that in-person instruction was associated with increased COVID-19 incidence in the local area,” the authors write, “polarization, political identification, and institutions feeling compelled to operate as politicized entities (to stay close to the ‘in-group’) likely made the severity of the pandemic worse. These outcomes are aligned with the general findings [of previous research] that institutions seemed to give more weight to sociopolitical features over pandemic severity when choosing in-person instruction for Fall 2020.”

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Why American Politics Is So Stuck — and What New Research Shows About How to Fix It – POLITICO Magazine

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Why does American politics feel so stuck these days, with bipartisan bills vanishingly rare and solutions seemingly taking a back seat to constant attacks?

Our newly published research suggests an answer — and maybe a way to get un-stuck.

Most policies are rife with trade-offs. They have an intended outcome and some regrettable side-effects. Our recent studies suggest that political polarization in the United States runs so deep that it leads partisans to see the other side’s intended outcome as a ruse and the side effects as the real intention. In other words, Democrats and Republicans not only disagree about policy matters; they believe the other party’s agenda is intentionally designed to do harm.

We call this tendency the partisan trade-off bias, and it applies to both parties. To a Democrat, the purpose of an environmental policy that reduces carbon emissions, for example, is to preserve the environment, and a corresponding loss of coal mining jobs is an unfortunate side effect. But a Republican, our research finds, might look at that same policy and see a plot to eradicate jobs in the fossil fuels industry. Meanwhile, a Democrat might presume a Republican push to lower corporate tax rates is more about helping the wealthy and hurting the poor than fueling economic growth.

Of course, skepticism about motives is sometimes warranted. But, oftentimes, it is misguided, and the deeper it runs, the harder it is to get anything through the policymaking process. Unless politicians find a way to lessen the effects of the partisan trade-off bias, we’re likely to keep seeing stalemates on important policy issues.

We documented the partisan trade-off bias across five studies using online samples of a total of 1,236 participants, a mix of Republicans and Democrats. As an example, in one of our studies participants were randomly assigned to view a set of policy trade-offs, some proposed by Republicans and some proposed by Democrats. The policies dealt with taxes, environmental regulation, gun control and voting rights. Participants then rated how intentional they perceived the negative side effects of each policy to be. The more participants identified with the Republican Party, the more intentional they perceived the side effects of the Democratic-proposed policies to be, and the more participants identified with the Democratic Party, the more intentional they perceived the side effects of Republican-proposed policies to be.

In a nutshell, our studies showed that the negative side effects associated with different policy trade-offs are not interpreted by opponents as side effects at all, but as intended goals of the policy.

To date, the political science literature has shown that political polarization leads partisans not only to dislike each other, but to see the other side increasingly as a threat to the country. Our identification of the partisan trade-off bias reveals a psychological tendency that might help to explain this perception of threat. After all, how can you get along with someone who you perceive as intentionally trying to do harm?

The good news is that by identifying the partisan trade-off bias, our research points a path forward: Policymakers who pay more attention to this bias might be better equipped to achieve compromise. This means that rather than focusing only on the main goal of a policy, they need to communicate clearly to the public what is intentional and what is a regrettable side-effect of that goal.

Fortunately, our studies also suggest this might be achievable. The partisan trade-off bias happens not because people don’t understand a given policy, but because they don’t trust the policymakers who are pushing that policy. We found that the level of trust a person feels toward a policymaker proposing a policy is a crucial driver of the partisan trade-off bias. And when we were able to increase people’s trust in the policymaker in our studies, we saw the partisan tradeoff bias decrease substantially.

Existing research suggests there are many ways politicians can earn others’ trust, but one of the most powerful is also the simplest: making sure people feel their voices are heard and listened to before a policy is announced, including both those inclined to like and dislike a policy. When we told participants in our studies that a policymaker spoke with stakeholders from all sides of the political spectrum before rolling out a proposal, the partisan tradeoff bias subsided.

Practically speaking, these findings suggest that announcing a big policy goal, and then doing press tours and campaigns to tout its benefits, likely does little to build trust. What happens before the policy is announced is crucial to building broad support for the policy. Politicians need to make it clear that they are speaking with and listening to those likely to be affected by a policy’s side effects. In the context of climate policy, a politician might visit coal miners in West Virginia or oil and gas workers in Texas while in the process of formulating a plan to reduce emissions, for example. The more widely the politician can advertise these efforts — across multiple types of media and across the ideological spectrum — the better.

Giving people a voice in the process does not mean they will change their minds about the value of the policy. But it does increase the chances that they will see the policy as a sincere attempt to solve problems rather than a form of hidden malice. That, in turn, can help lower the temperature and de-escalate the cycle of polarization. The same lesson holds for those of us who are not policymakers but ordinary citizens who want to have better conversations about politics. If you think you know what the other side’s real intentions are, think again. What you see as malice might be an unintended side effect. And if you want someone to give you the benefit of the doubt, put in the work of making them feel heard before you make yourself heard.

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A new reason to move: politics – Yahoo Canada Finance

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Blue states will get bluer, and red redder, in coming years, as more Americans factor political issues into their relocation decisions and head for places with like-minded tribes.

That’s the forecast from real-estate brokerage Redfin, which included “more migration for political reasons” in its outlook for the housing market in 2022. The deepening political polarization of the country includes new city- and statewide laws likely to attract adherents and repel detractors, driving political issues deeper into community life. Texas this year passed the nation’s strictest anti-abortion law, for instance. A Mississippi anti-abortion law could lead the Supreme Court to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion legal everywhere. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe, states will once again be free to set their own abortion statutes, creating a drastic dividing line between permissive and restrictive states.

Another Supreme Court case, involving gun rights, could make it easier to carry concealed weapons in New York and 7 other states, eroding gun-control efforts propagated largely by Democratic governors and mayors. On the other hand, marijuana is now legal in 19 mostly blue and purple states. Cities such as Philadelphia, San Francisco and New York are experimenting with police reform meant to cut down on lower-level arrests. Public-school curricula is a new flash point between parents who want racial and social justice taught in schools, and traditionalists who feel threatened by “wokeness.”

A U.S. Supreme Court police officer walks past its building as rulings are expected in Washington, U.S. November 22, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

A U.S. Supreme Court police officer walks past its building as rulings are expected in Washington, U.S. November 22, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The Covid pandemic led to sharp disparities in masking rules, school opening policies and business restrictions among states and cities. That’s on top of longstanding differences in regulation and taxation between traditionally Democratic and Republican states. While there’s nothing new about regional differences in governing styles, policy polarization is making it easier for Americans to live in areas they find ideologically compatible. It’s also getting harder for liberals to find a comfortable enclave in conservative states, and vice versa.

[Click here to get Rick Newman’s stories by email.]

Moving patterns reflect politics

Americans seem increasingly likely to sort themselves into ideological groups by geography. “We know people are leaving blue counties and moving to red counties,” says Daryl Fairweather, chief economist at Redfin. “I think this will start to happen at the state level and at the neighborhood level. After next year’s midterm elections, we’ll be able to see if neighborhoods become more polarized.”

Up till now, the migration from blue states to red states has largely been driven by affordability. Blue states along the coasts typically have higher living costs and taxation levels than, say southern red states such as Texas and Florida. More and more, however, moving patterns reflect overt political choices.

An October Redfin survey of people who recently moved, for instance, found that 40% said they would prefer or insist on living in a place where abortion is fully legal. The portion taking the opposite view—saying they would prefer or refuse to live in an area where abortion is fully legal—was 32%. It’s not unusual for survey respondents to express strong opinions on abortion, but it may be new for people to factor such views into moving decisions. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe and more states ban or severely restrict abortion, it could become a bigger factor in relocation.

HOUSTON, TEXAS - AUGUST 12: A newly sold home is shown on August 12, 2021 in Houston, Texas. Home prices have climbed during the pandemic as low interest rates and working from home has become more abundant. Home prices around the country continue to surge in the second quarter as strong demand continues to overwhelm the supply of homes for sale. Nationwide, the median single-family existing-home sales price increased by 22.9% in the second quarter. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)HOUSTON, TEXAS - AUGUST 12: A newly sold home is shown on August 12, 2021 in Houston, Texas. Home prices have climbed during the pandemic as low interest rates and working from home has become more abundant. Home prices around the country continue to surge in the second quarter as strong demand continues to overwhelm the supply of homes for sale. Nationwide, the median single-family existing-home sales price increased by 22.9% in the second quarter. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

A newly sold home is shown on August 12, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

The Redfin survey of movers also gauged attitudes toward other touchy political topics. Larger percentages favored living in areas with liberal policies such as strong voter protections, gender anti-discrimination laws and legal weed. But 23% said they don’t want to live in places with strong anti-discrimination laws, 22% don’t want to live in a state with legal weed, and 16% don’t want to live where there are strong voter protections.

Americans consider many factors when deciding where to live, and some of those factors have political overtones. Many parents base home-buying decisions on the quality of schools, which drives up home prices in the best school districts and creates de facto segregation. The white-flight phenomenon has a similar effect, with whites who can afford to leaving urban areas for places where they consider quality of life better.

But those types of location decisions are based more on family-first attitudes than the liberal-conservative divide that’s taking root now. Americans choose a political tribe when they vote, donate money to political causes and decide which cable-news station to watch. Perhaps it’s only natural that Americans want to live among their political comrades, as well. Like much of America, real-estate listings are trending toward liberal or conservative.  

Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips.

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