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Hello there, everyone! Mike Isaac here, your trusty, San Francisco-based reporter covering all things Facebook, ride-hailing and other Silicon Valley ephemera. It has been a while since I wrote my last newsletter, so bear with me if I’m a bit rusty.
Social media was the thing to watch this week. The midterm elections finally took place, with Americans poised to see whether or not a widely predicted “blue wave” of Democrats would sweep the country. As it turned out, that wave was more of a choppy surf; Dems took back the House, while Republicans held onto their majority in the Senate.
As Americans made their way to the polls on Tuesday, another big story was whether we would see a repeat of the 2016 presidential election: Everyone was looking for trolls and disinformation.
Facebook, home to more than two billion regular users, was the obvious target. Since Russian-backed trolls succeeded in a widespread influence campaign that reached millions of Americans in 2016, Facebook has been under pressure to safeguard its network against the threat of further foreign meddling. The company, to much ado from the press, set up a “War Room” to catch any last-minute information operations.
There were other blind spots even before the election in the United States. WhatsApp, the encrypted messaging app owned by Facebook used by more than a billion people globally, was a key target for political disinformation in Brazil ahead of its presidential election.
Jair Bolsonaro, often called the Donald Trump of Brazil, surged to an Election Day victory, aided — at least in part — by voter suppression and disinformation tactics that flooded private groups in WhatsApp. That problem is more difficult to deal with on WhatsApp because it is encrypted. And users generally trust private messaging services more than they do more public venues like Facebook.
Facebook has also spent the past month dealing with fallout from a breach involving tens of millions of its users, a gargantuan lapse that came at the worst possible time. Regulators are taking a closer look at the company in response, while Facebook-connected apps have scrambled to increase their security. Now the social media giant is on the hunt to buy a security company to help out, though it hasn’t publicly announced a decision.
Election Day in the United States was indeed a spectacle for Facebook, but for different reasons than we thought. Save for one episode, the day went off without much of a hitch. We’re still holding our breath, but according to Facebook, there were no enormous reveals, no last-minute election night disasters, nothing that seemed to throw the electoral process completely off the rails.
Crazy, right? Not so fast, says my colleague Kevin Roose. We shouldn’t be letting Facebook off the hook so easily. It was months of pressure that made Facebook take disinformation issues seriously. Just because we made it through the midterms without a significant impact from disinformation doesn’t mean meddlers won’t give it another try somewhere else in the world.
No doubt, it wasn’t for lack of trying by a Russia-linked group. The day before the election, Facebook, acting on a tip from the F.B.I., took down a handful of rogue accounts linked to a Russian troll outfit, the Internet Research Agency. Finally, Facebook and law enforcement officials seem to be on the same page in the disinformation fight.
I guess we should be happy that things didn’t go completely sideways after two years of scrutiny and preparation. Perhaps, at least for a moment, we can breathe a collective sigh of relief.
That is, until the next Election Day.
Here are a handful of other things you may have missed last week:
■ In a last-minute decision, Amazon appears close to deciding on splitting its second headquarters outside Seattle, settling on locations in Long Island City, in Queens, and Arlington, Va. There is a growing concern among critics that Amazon has played cities in a prolonged game to get the best possible deal on taxes and concessions from local government leaders.
■ After a New York Times article shed light on a history of sexual harassment scandals at Google, workers at the company’s global offices walked out in protest last week. Now, Google has acquiesced to at least part of the workers’ list of demands, overhauling its sexual harassment policies.
■ In more Google news, the company is said to be shopping for new real estate in New York City, which could result in a 1.3-million-square-foot expansion into St. John’s Terminal in the West Village. The site, if it goes through, is expected to be finished in 2022. An expansion of that size could more than double the number of workers Google employs in New York, which is now around 7,000.
■ Facebook released its Portal video chat device this week, the first piece of hardware it has built from the ground up. I tested the Portal and Portal Plus units with my colleague Farhad Manjoo and found them useful, if not otherwise creepy because of Facebook’s privacy scandals.
■ And finally, Mario A. Segale, a Seattle-area real estate developer who unwittingly lent his name to Nintendo’s most famous video game hero — Super Mario — died this week at the age of 84.
When Nintendo’s game designers were struggling to name the character, Mr. Segale knocked on their office door. He was there to yell at Minoru Arakawa, then the president of Nintendo of America, for being past due on the rent. As soon as he left, the team knew it had its name: “Super Mario!” Mr. Arakawa said.
Mike Isaac writes about social media and other technology for The New York Times. You can follow him on Twitter here: @MikeIsaac
Mike Isaac is a technology reporter based in San Francisco. He covers Facebook and Uber, among other tech companies. He previously worked for Re/Code, AllThingsD and Wired, and is currently writing a book on Uber, due out in 2019.
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