Inside the Two Years That Shook Facebook—and the World


One day in late February of 2016, Mark Zuckerberg sent a memo to all of Facebook’s employees to address some troubling behavior in the ranks. His message pertained to some walls at the company’s Menlo Park headquarters where staffers are encouraged to scribble notes and signatures. On at least a couple of occasions, someone had crossed out the words “Black Lives Matter” and replaced them with “All Lives Matter.” Zuckerberg wanted whoever was responsible to cut it out.

“ ‘Black Lives Matter’ doesn’t mean other lives don’t,” he wrote. “We’ve never had rules around what people can write on our walls,” the memo went on. But “crossing out something means silencing speech, or that one person’s speech is more important than another’s.” The defacement, he said, was being investigated.

All around the country at about this time, debates about race and politics were becoming increasingly raw. Donald Trump had just won the South Carolina primary, lashed out at the Pope over immigration, and earned the enthusiastic support of David Duke. Hillary Clinton had just defeated Bernie Sanders in Nevada, only to have an activist from Black Lives Matter interrupt a speech of hers to protest racially charged statements she’d made two decades before. And on Facebook, a popular group called Blacktivist was gaining traction by blasting out messages like “American economy and power were built on forced migration and torture.”

So when Zuckerberg’s admonition circulated, a young contract employee named Benjamin Fearnow decided it might be newsworthy. He took a screenshot on his personal laptop and sent the image to a friend named Michael Nuñez, who worked at the tech-news site Gizmodo. Nuñez promptly published a brief story about Zuckerberg’s memo.

A week later, Fearnow came across something else he thought Nuñez might like to publish. In another internal communication, Facebook had invited its employees to submit potential questions to ask Zuckerberg at an all-hands meeting. One of the most up-voted questions that week was “What responsibility does Facebook have to help prevent President Trump in 2017?” Fearnow took another screenshot, this time with his phone.

Fearnow, a recent graduate of the Columbia Journalism School, worked in Facebook’s New York office on something called Trending Topics, a feed of popular news subjects that popped up when people opened Facebook. The feed was generated by an algorithm but moderated by a team of about 25 people with backgrounds in journalism. If the word “Trump” was trending, as it often was, they used their news judgment to identify which bit of news about the candidate was most important. If The Onion or a hoax site published a spoof that went viral, they had to keep that out. If something like a mass shooting happened, and Facebook’s algorithm was slow to pick up on it, they would inject a story about it into the feed.

Facebook prides itself on being a place where people love to work. But Fearnow and his team weren’t the happiest lot. They were contract employees hired through a company called BCforward, and every day was full of little reminders that they weren’t really part of Facebook. Plus, the young journalists knew their jobs were doomed from the start. Tech companies, for the most part, prefer to have as little as possible done by humans—because, it’s often said, they don’t scale. You can’t hire a billion of them, and they prove meddlesome in ways that algorithms don’t. They need bathroom breaks and health insurance, and the most annoying of them sometimes talk to the press. Eventually, everyone assumed, Facebook’s algorithms would be good enough to run the whole project, and the people on Fearnow’s team—who served partly to train those algorithms—would be expendable.

The day after Fearnow took that second screenshot was a Friday. When he woke up after sleeping in, he noticed that he had about 30 meeting notifications from Facebook on his phone. When he replied to say it was his day off, he recalls, he was nonetheless asked to be available in 10 minutes. Soon he was on a video­conference with three Facebook employees, including Sonya Ahuja, the company’s head of investigations. According to his recounting of the meeting, she asked him if he had been in touch with Nuñez. He denied that he had been. Then she told him that she had their messages on Gchat, which Fearnow had assumed weren’t accessible to Facebook. He was fired. “Please shut your laptop and don’t reopen it,” she instructed him.

That same day, Ahuja had another conversation with a second employee at Trending Topics named Ryan Villarreal. Several years before, he and Fearnow had shared an apartment with Nuñez. Villarreal said he hadn’t taken any screenshots, and he certainly hadn’t leaked them. But he had clicked “like” on the story about Black Lives Matter, and he was friends with Nuñez on Facebook. “Do you think leaks are bad?” Ahuja demanded to know, according to Villarreal. He was fired too. The last he heard from his employer was in a letter from BCforward. The company had given him $15 to cover expenses, and it wanted the money back.

The firing of Fearnow and Villarreal set the Trending Topics team on edge—and Nuñez kept digging for dirt. He soon published a story about the internal poll showing Facebookers’ interest in fending off Trump. Then, in early May, he published an article based on conversations with yet a third former Trending Topics employee, under the blaring headline “Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News.” The piece suggested that Facebook’s Trending team worked like a Fox News fever dream, with a bunch of biased curators “injecting” liberal stories and “blacklisting” conservative ones. Within a few hours the piece popped onto half a dozen highly trafficked tech and politics websites, including Drudge Report and Breitbart News.

The post went viral, but the ensuing battle over Trending Topics did more than just dominate a few news cycles. In ways that are only fully visible now, it set the stage for the most tumultuous two years of Facebook’s existence—triggering a chain of events that would distract and confuse the company while larger disasters began to engulf it.

This is the story of those two years, as they played out inside and around the company. WIRED spoke with 51 current or former Facebook employees for this article, many of whom did not want their names used, for reasons anyone familiar with the story of Fearnow and Villarreal would surely understand. (One current employee asked that a WIRED reporter turn off his phone so the company would have a harder time tracking whether it had been near the phones of anyone from Facebook.)

The stories varied, but most people told the same basic tale: of a company, and a CEO, whose techno-optimism has been crushed as they’ve learned the myriad ways their platform can be used for ill. Of an election that shocked Facebook, even as its fallout put the company under siege. Of a series of external threats, defensive internal calculations, and false starts that delayed Facebook’s reckoning with its impact on global affairs and its users’ minds. And—in the tale’s final chapters—of the company’s earnest attempt to redeem itself.

In that saga, Fearnow plays one of those obscure but crucial roles that history occasionally hands out. He’s the Franz Ferdinand of Facebook—or maybe he’s more like the archduke’s hapless young assassin. Either way, in the rolling disaster that has enveloped Facebook since early 2016, Fearnow’s leaks probably ought to go down as the screenshots heard round the world.

II

By now, the story of Facebook’s all-consuming growth is practically the creation myth of our information era. What began as a way to connect with your friends at Harvard became a way to connect with people at other elite schools, then at all schools, and then everywhere. After that, your Facebook login became a way to log on to other internet sites. Its Messenger app started competing with email and texting. It became the place where you told people you were safe after an earthquake. In some countries like the Philippines, it effectively is the internet.

The furious energy of this big bang emanated, in large part, from a brilliant and simple insight. Humans are social animals. But the internet is a cesspool. That scares people away from identifying themselves and putting personal details online. Solve that problem—make people feel safe to post—and they will share obsessively. Make the resulting database of privately shared information and personal connections available to advertisers, and that platform will become one of the most important media technologies of the early 21st century.

But as powerful as that original insight was, Facebook’s expansion has also been driven by sheer brawn. Zuckerberg has been a determined, even ruthless, steward of the company’s manifest destiny, with an uncanny knack for placing the right bets. In the company’s early days, “move fast and break things” wasn’t just a piece of advice to his developers; it was a philosophy that served to resolve countless delicate trade-offs—many of them involving user privacy—in ways that best favored the platform’s growth. And when it comes to competitors, Zuckerberg has been relentless in either acquiring or sinking any challengers that seem to have the wind at their backs.

Facebook’s Reckoning

Two years that forced the platform to change

by Blanca Myers

March 2016

Facebook suspends Benjamin Fearnow, a journalist-­curator for the platform’s Trending Topics feed, after he leaks to Gizmodo.

May 2016

Gizmodo reports that Trending Topics “routinely suppressed conservative news.” The story sends Facebook scrambling.

July 2016

Rupert Murdoch tells Zuckerberg that Facebook is wreaking havoc on the news industry and threatens to cause trouble.

August 2016

Facebook cuts loose all of its Trending Topics journalists, ceding authority over the feed to engineers in Seattle.

November 2016

Donald Trump wins. Zuckerberg says it’s “pretty crazy” to think fake news on Facebook helped tip the election.

December 2016

Facebook declares war on fake news, hires CNN alum Campbell Brown to shepherd relations with the publishing industry.

September 2017

Facebook announces that a Russian group paid $100,000 for roughly 3,000 ads aimed at US voters.

October 2017

Researcher Jonathan Albright reveals that posts from six Russian propaganda accounts were shared 340 million times.

November 2017

Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch gets pummeled during congressional Intelligence Committee hearings.

January 2018

Facebook begins announcing major changes, aimed to ensure that time on the platform will be “time well spent.”

In fact, it was in besting just such a rival that Facebook came to dominate how we discover and consume news. Back in 2012, the most exciting social network for distributing news online wasn’t Facebook, it was Twitter. The latter’s 140-character posts accelerated the speed at which news could spread, allowing its influence in the news industry to grow much faster than Facebook’s. “Twitter was this massive, massive threat,” says a former Facebook executive heavily involved in the decisionmaking at the time.

So Zuckerberg pursued a strategy he has often deployed against competitors he cannot buy: He copied, then crushed. He adjusted Facebook’s News Feed to fully incorporate news (despite its name, the feed was originally tilted toward personal news) and adjusted the product so that it showed author bylines and headlines. Then Facebook’s emissaries fanned out to talk with journalists and explain how to best reach readers through the platform. By the end of 2013, Facebook had doubled its share of traffic to news sites and had started to push Twitter into a decline. By the middle of 2015, it had surpassed Google as the leader in referring readers to publisher sites and was now referring 13 times as many readers to news publishers as Twitter. That year, Facebook launched Instant Articles, offering publishers the chance to publish directly on the platform. Posts would load faster and look sharper if they agreed, but the publishers would give up an element of control over the content. The publishing industry, which had been reeling for years, largely assented. Facebook now effectively owned the news. “If you could reproduce Twitter inside of Facebook, why would you go to Twitter?” says the former executive. “What they are doing to Snapchat now, they did to Twitter back then.”

It appears that Facebook did not, however, carefully think through the implications of becoming the dominant force in the news industry. Everyone in management cared about quality and accuracy, and they had set up rules, for example, to eliminate pornography and protect copyright. But Facebook hired few journalists and spent little time discussing the big questions that bedevil the media industry. What is fair? What is a fact? How do you signal the difference between news, analysis, satire, and opinion? Facebook has long seemed to think it has immunity from those debates because it is just a technology company—one that has built a “platform for all ideas.”

This notion that Facebook is an open, neutral platform is almost like a religious tenet inside the company. When new recruits come in, they are treated to an orientation lecture by Chris Cox, the company’s chief product officer, who tells them Facebook is an entirely new communications platform for the 21st century, as the telephone was for the 20th. But if anyone inside Facebook is unconvinced by religion, there is also Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act to recommend the idea. This is the section of US law that shelters internet intermediaries from liability for the content their users post. If Facebook were to start creating or editing content on its platform, it would risk losing that immunity—and it’s hard to imagine how Facebook could exist if it were liable for the many billion pieces of content a day that users post on its site.

And so, because of the company’s self-image, as well as its fear of regulation, Facebook tried never to favor one kind of news content over another. But neutrality is a choice in itself. For instance, Facebook decided to present every piece of content that appeared on News Feed—whether it was your dog pictures or a news story—in roughly the same way. This meant that all news stories looked roughly the same as each other, too, whether they were investigations in The Washington Post, gossip in the New York Post, or flat-out lies in the Denver Guardian, an entirely bogus newspaper. Facebook argued that this democratized information. You saw what your friends wanted you to see, not what some editor in a Times Square tower chose. But it’s hard to argue that this wasn’t an editorial decision. It may be one of the biggest ever made.

In any case, Facebook’s move into news set off yet another explosion of ways that people could connect. Now Facebook was the place where publications could connect with their readers—and also where Macedonian teenagers could connect with voters in America, and operatives in Saint Petersburg could connect with audiences of their own choosing in a way that no one at the company had ever seen before.

III

In February of 2016, just as the Trending Topics fiasco was building up steam, Roger ­McNamee became one of the first Facebook insiders to notice strange things happening on the platform. McNamee was an early investor in Facebook who had mentored Zuckerberg through two crucial decisions: to turn down Yahoo’s offer of $1 billion to acquire Facebook in 2006; and to hire a Google executive named Sheryl Sandberg in 2008 to help find a business model. McNamee was no longer in touch with Zuckerberg much, but he was still an investor, and that month he started seeing things related to the Bernie Sanders campaign that worried him. “I’m observing memes ostensibly coming out of a Facebook group associated with the Sanders campaign that couldn’t possibly have been from the Sanders campaign,” he recalls, “and yet they were organized and spreading in such a way that suggested somebody had a budget. And I’m sitting there thinking, ‘That’s really weird. I mean, that’s not good.’ ”

But McNamee didn’t say anything to anyone at Facebook—at least not yet. And the company itself was not picking up on any such worrying signals, save for one blip on its radar: In early 2016, its security team noticed an uptick in Russian actors attempting to steal the credentials of journalists and public figures. Facebook reported this to the FBI. But the company says it never heard back from the government, and that was that.

Instead, Facebook spent the spring of 2016 very busily fending off accusations that it might influence the elections in a completely different way. When Gizmodo published its story about political bias on the Trending Topics team in May, the ­article went off like a bomb in Menlo Park. It quickly reached millions of readers and, in a delicious irony, appeared in the Trending Topics module itself. But the bad press wasn’t what really rattled Facebook—it was the letter from John Thune, a Republican US senator from South Dakota, that followed the story’s publication. Thune chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, which in turn oversees the Federal Trade Commission, an agency that has been especially active in investigating Facebook. The senator wanted Facebook’s answers to the allegations of bias, and he wanted them promptly.

The Thune letter put Facebook on high alert. The company promptly dispatched senior Washington staffers to meet with Thune’s team. Then it sent him a 12-page single-spaced letter explaining that it had conducted a thorough review of Trending Topics and determined that the allegations in the Gizmodo story were largely false.

Facebook decided, too, that it had to extend an olive branch to the entire American right wing, much of which was raging about the company’s supposed perfidy. And so, just over a week after the story ran, Facebook scrambled to invite a group of 17 prominent Republicans out to Menlo Park. The list included television hosts, radio stars, think tankers, and an adviser to the Trump campaign. The point was partly to get feedback. But more than that, the company wanted to make a show of apologizing for its sins, lifting up the back of its shirt, and asking for the lash.

According to a Facebook employee involved in planning the meeting, part of the goal was to bring in a group of conservatives who were certain to fight with one another. They made sure to have libertarians who wouldn’t want to regulate the platform and partisans who would. Another goal, according to the employee, was to make sure the attendees were “bored to death” by a technical presentation after Zuckerberg and Sandberg had addressed the group.

The power went out, and the room got uncomfortably hot. But otherwise the meeting went according to plan. The guests did indeed fight, and they failed to unify in a way that was either threatening or coherent. Some wanted the company to set hiring quotas for conservative employees; others thought that idea was nuts. As often happens when outsiders meet with Facebook, people used the time to try to figure out how they could get more followers for their own pages.

Afterward, Glenn Beck, one of the invitees, wrote an essay about the meeting, praising Zuckerberg. “I asked him if Facebook, now or in the future, would be an open platform for the sharing of all ideas or a curator of content,” Beck wrote. “Without hesitation, with clarity and boldness, Mark said there is only one Facebook and one path forward: ‘We are an open platform.’”

Inside Facebook itself, the backlash around Trending Topics did inspire some genuine soul-searching. But none of it got very far. A quiet internal project, codenamed Hudson, cropped up around this time to determine, according to someone who worked on it, whether News Feed should be modified to better deal with some of the most complex issues facing the product. Does it favor posts that make people angry? Does it favor simple or even false ideas over complex and true ones? Those are hard questions, and the company didn’t have answers to them yet. Ultimately, in late June, Facebook announced a modest change: The algorithm would be revised to favor posts from friends and family. At the same time, Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s News Feed boss, posted a manifesto titled “Building a Better News Feed for You.” People inside Facebook spoke of it as a document roughly resembling the Magna Carta; the company had never spoken before about how News Feed really worked. To outsiders, though, the document came across as boilerplate. It said roughly what you’d expect: that the company was opposed to clickbait but that it wasn’t in the business of favoring certain kinds of viewpoints.

The most important consequence of the Trending Topics controversy, according to nearly a dozen former and current employees, was that Facebook became wary of doing anything that might look like stifling conservative news. It had burned its fingers once and didn’t want to do it again. And so a summer of deeply partisan rancor and calumny began with Facebook eager to stay out of the fray.

IV

Shortly after Mosseri published his guide to News Feed values, Zuckerberg traveled to Sun Valley, Idaho, for an annual conference hosted by billionaire Herb Allen, where moguls in short sleeves and sunglasses cavort and make plans to buy each other’s companies. But Rupert Murdoch broke the mood in a meeting that took place inside his villa. According to numerous accounts of the conversation, Murdoch and Robert Thomson, the CEO of News Corp, explained to Zuckerberg that they had long been unhappy with Facebook and Google. The two tech giants had taken nearly the entire digital ad market and become an existential threat to serious journalism. According to people familiar with the conversation, the two News Corp leaders accused Facebook of making dramatic changes to its core algorithm without adequately consulting its media partners, wreaking havoc according to Zuckerberg’s whims. If Facebook didn’t start offering a better deal to the publishing industry, Thomson and Murdoch conveyed in stark terms, Zuckerberg could expect News Corp executives to become much more public in their denunciations and much more open in their lobbying. They had helped to make things very hard for Google in Europe. And they could do the same for Facebook in the US.

Facebook thought that News Corp was threatening to push for a government antitrust investigation or maybe an inquiry into whether the company deserved its protection from liability as a neutral platform. Inside Facebook, executives believed Murdoch might use his papers and TV stations to amplify critiques of the company. News Corp says that was not at all the case; the company threatened to deploy executives, but not its journalists.

Zuckerberg had reason to take the meeting especially seriously, according to a former Facebook executive, because he had firsthand knowledge of Murdoch’s skill in the dark arts. Back in 2007, Facebook had come under criticism from 49 state attorneys general for failing to protect young Facebook users from sexual predators and inappropriate content. Concerned parents had written to Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal, who opened an investigation, and to The New York Times, which published a story. But according to a former Facebook executive in a position to know, the company believed that many of the Facebook accounts and the predatory behavior the letters referenced were fakes, traceable to News Corp lawyers or others working for Murdoch, who owned Facebook’s biggest competitor, MySpace. “We traced the creation of the Facebook accounts to IP addresses at the Apple store a block away from the MySpace offices in Santa Monica,” the executive says. “Facebook then traced interactions with those accounts to News Corp lawyers. When it comes to Facebook, Murdoch has been playing every angle he can for a long time.” (Both News Corp and its spinoff 21st Century Fox declined to comment.)

Zuckerberg took Murdoch’s threats seriously—he had firsthand knowledge of the older man’s skill in the dark arts.

When Zuckerberg returned from Sun Valley, he told his employees that things had to change. They still weren’t in the news business, but they had to make sure there would be a news business. And they had to communicate better. One of those who got a new to-do list was Andrew Anker, a product manager who’d arrived at Facebook in 2015 after a career in journalism (including a long stint at WIRED in the ’90s). One of his jobs was to help the company think through how publishers could make money on the platform. Shortly after Sun Valley, Anker met with Zuckerberg and asked to hire 60 new people to work on partnerships with the news industry. Before the meeting ended, the request was approved.

But having more people out talking to publishers just drove home how hard it would be to resolve the financial problems Murdoch wanted fixed. News outfits were spending millions to produce stories that Facebook was benefiting from, and Facebook, they felt, was giving too little back in return. Instant Articles, in particular, struck them as a Trojan horse. Publishers complained that they could make more money from stories that loaded on their own mobile web pages than on Facebook Instant. (They often did so, it turned out, in ways that short-changed advertisers, by sneaking in ads that readers were unlikely to see. Facebook didn’t let them get away with that.) Another seemingly irreconcilable difference: Outlets like Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal depended on paywalls to make money, but Instant Articles banned paywalls; Zuckerberg disapproved of them. After all, he would often ask, how exactly do walls and toll booths make the world more open and connected?

The conversations often ended at an impasse, but Facebook was at least becoming more attentive. This newfound appreciation for the concerns of journalists did not, however, extend to the journalists on Facebook’s own Trending Topics team. In late August, everyone on the team was told that their jobs were being eliminated. Simultaneously, authority over the algorithm shifted to a team of engineers based in Seattle. Very quickly the module started to surface lies and fiction. A headline days later read, “Fox News Exposes Traitor Megyn Kelly, Kicks Her Out For Backing Hillary.”

V

While Facebook grappled internally with what it was becoming—a company that dominated media but didn’t want to be a media company—Donald Trump’s presidential campaign staff faced no such confusion. To them Facebook’s use was obvious. Twitter was a tool for communicating directly with supporters and yelling at the media. Facebook was the way to run the most effective direct-­marketing political operation in history.

In the summer of 2016, at the top of the general election campaign, Trump’s digital operation might have seemed to be at a major disadvantage. After all, Hillary Clinton’s team was flush with elite talent and got advice from Eric Schmidt, known for running ­Google. Trump’s was run by Brad Parscale, known for setting up the Eric Trump Foundation’s web page. Trump’s social media director was his former caddie. But in 2016, it turned out you didn’t need digital experience running a presidential campaign, you just needed a knack for Facebook.

Over the course of the summer, Trump’s team turned the platform into one of its primary vehicles for fund-­raising. The campaign uploaded its voter files—the names, addresses, voting history, and any other information it had on potential voters—to Facebook. Then, using a tool called Look­alike Audiences, Facebook identified the broad characteristics of, say, people who had signed up for Trump newsletters or bought Trump hats. That allowed the campaign to send ads to people with similar traits. Trump would post simple messages like “This election is being rigged by the media pushing false and unsubstantiated charges, and outright lies, in order to elect Crooked Hillary!” that got hundreds of thousands of likes, comments, and shares. The money rolled in. Clinton’s wonkier messages, meanwhile, resonated less on the platform. Inside Facebook, almost everyone on the executive team wanted Clinton to win; but they knew that Trump was using the platform better. If he was the candidate for Facebook, she was the candidate for LinkedIn.

Trump’s candidacy also proved to be a wonderful tool for a new class of scammers pumping out massively viral and entirely fake stories. Through trial and error, they learned that memes praising the former host of The Apprentice got many more readers than ones praising the former secretary of state. A website called Ending the Fed proclaimed that the Pope had endorsed Trump and got almost a million comments, shares, and reactions on Facebook, according to an analysis by BuzzFeed. Other stories asserted that the former first lady had quietly been selling weapons to ISIS, and that an FBI agent suspected of leaking Clinton’s emails was found dead. Some of the posts came from hyperpartisan Americans. Some came from overseas content mills that were in it purely for the ad dollars. By the end of the campaign, the top fake stories on the platform were generating more engagement than the top real ones.

Even current Facebookers acknowledge now that they missed what should have been obvious signs of people misusing the platform. And looking back, it’s easy to put together a long list of possible explanations for the myopia in Menlo Park about fake news. Management was gun-shy because of the Trending Topics fiasco; taking action against partisan disinformation—or even identifying it as such—might have been seen as another act of political favoritism. Facebook also sold ads against the stories, and sensational garbage was good at pulling people into the platform. Employees’ bonuses can be based largely on whether Facebook hits certain growth and revenue targets, which gives people an extra incentive not to worry too much about things that are otherwise good for engagement. And then there was the ever-present issue of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. If the company started taking responsibility for fake news, it might have to take responsibility for a lot more. Facebook had plenty of reasons to keep its head in the sand.

Roger McNamee, however, watched carefully as the nonsense spread. First there were the fake stories pushing Bernie Sanders, then he saw ones supporting Brexit, and then helping Trump. By the end of the summer, he had resolved to write an op-ed about the problems on the platform. But he never ran it. “The idea was, look, these are my friends. I really want to help them.” And so on a Sunday evening, nine days before the 2016 election, McNamee emailed a 1,000-word letter to Sandberg and Zuckerberg. “I am really sad about Facebook,” it began. “I got involved with the company more than a decade ago and have taken great pride and joy in the company’s success … until the past few months. Now I am disappointed. I am embarrassed. I am ashamed.”

Eddie Guy

VI

It’s not easy to recognize that the machine you’ve built to bring people together is being used to tear them apart, and Mark Zuckerberg’s initial reaction to Trump’s victory, and Facebook’s possible role in it, was one of peevish dismissal. Executives remember panic the first few days, with the leadership team scurrying back and forth between Zuckerberg’s conference room (called the Aquarium) and Sandberg’s (called Only Good News), trying to figure out what had just happened and whether they would be blamed. Then, at a conference two days after the election, Zuckerberg argued that filter bubbles are worse offline than on Facebook and that social media hardly influences how people vote. “The idea that fake news on Facebook—of which, you know, it’s a very small amount of the content—influenced the election in any way, I think, is a pretty crazy idea,” he said.

Zuckerberg declined to be interviewed for this article, but people who know him well say he likes to form his opinions from data. And in this case he wasn’t without it. Before the interview, his staff had worked up a back-of-the-­envelope calculation showing that fake news was a tiny percentage of the total amount of election-­related content on the platform. But the analysis was just an aggregate look at the percentage of clearly fake stories that appeared across all of Facebook. It didn’t measure their influence or the way fake news affected specific groups. It was a number, but not a particularly meaningful one.

Zuckerberg’s comments did not go over well, even inside Facebook. They seemed clueless and self-absorbed. “What he said was incredibly damaging,” a former executive told WIRED. “We had to really flip him on that. We realized that if we didn’t, the company was going to start heading down this pariah path that Uber was on.”

A week after his “pretty crazy” comment, Zuckerberg flew to Peru to give a talk to world leaders about the ways that connecting more people to the internet, and to Facebook, could reduce global poverty. Right after he landed in Lima, he posted something of a mea culpa. He explained that Facebook did take misinformation seriously, and he presented a vague seven-point plan to tackle it. When a professor at the New School named David Carroll saw Zuckerberg’s post, he took a screenshot. Alongside it on Carroll’s feed ran a headline from a fake CNN with an image of a distressed Donald Trump and the text “DISQUALIFIED; He’s GONE!”

At the conference in Peru, Zuckerberg met with a man who knows a few things about politics: Barack Obama. Media reports portrayed the encounter as one in which the lame-duck president pulled Zuckerberg aside and gave him a “wake-up call” about fake news. But according to someone who was with them in Lima, it was Zuckerberg who called the meeting, and his agenda was merely to convince Obama that, yes, Facebook was serious about dealing with the problem. He truly wanted to thwart misinformation, he said, but it wasn’t an easy issue to solve.

One employee compared Zuckerberg to Lennie in Of Mice and Men—a man with no understanding of his own strength.

Meanwhile, at Facebook, the gears churned. For the first time, insiders really began to question whether they had too much power. One employee told WIRED that, watching Zuckerberg, he was reminded of Lennie in Of Mice and Men, the farm-worker with no understanding of his own strength.

Very soon after the election, a team of employees started working on something called the News Feed Integrity Task Force, inspired by a sense, one of them told WIRED, that hyperpartisan misinformation was “a disease that’s creeping into the entire platform.” The group, which included Mosseri and Anker, began to meet every day, using whiteboards to outline different ways they could respond to the fake-news crisis. Within a few weeks the company announced it would cut off advertising revenue for ad farms and make it easier for users to flag stories they thought false.

In December the company announced that, for the first time, it would introduce fact-checking onto the platform. Facebook didn’t want to check facts itself; instead it would outsource the problem to professionals. If Facebook received enough signals that a story was false, it would automatically be sent to partners, like Snopes, for review. Then, in early January, Facebook announced that it had hired Campbell Brown, a former anchor at CNN. She immediately became the most prominent journalist hired by the company.

Soon Brown was put in charge of something called the Facebook Journalism Project. “We spun it up over the holidays, essentially,” says one person involved in discussions about the project. The aim was to demonstrate that Facebook was thinking hard about its role in the future of journalism—essentially, it was a more public and organized version of the efforts the company had begun after Murdoch’s tongue-lashing. But sheer anxiety was also part of the motivation. “After the election, because Trump won, the media put a ton of attention on fake news and just started hammering us. People started panicking and getting afraid that regulation was coming. So the team looked at what Google had been doing for years with News Lab”—a group inside Alphabet that builds tools for journalists—“and we decided to figure out how we could put together our own packaged program that shows how seriously we take the future of news.”

Facebook was reluctant, however, to issue any mea culpas or action plans with regard to the problem of filter bubbles or Facebook’s noted propensity to serve as a tool for amplifying outrage. Members of the leadership team regarded these as issues that couldn’t be solved, and maybe even shouldn’t be solved. Was Facebook really more at fault for amplifying outrage during the election than, say, Fox News or MSNBC? Sure, you could put stories into people’s feeds that contradicted their political viewpoints, but people would turn away from them, just as surely as they’d flip the dial back if their TV quietly switched them from Sean Hannity to Joy Reid. The problem, as Anker puts it, “is not Facebook. It’s humans.”

VII

Zuckerberg’s “pretty crazy” statement about fake news caught the ear of a lot of people, but one of the most influential was a security researcher named Renée DiResta. For years, she’d been studying how misinformation spreads on the platform. If you joined an antivaccine group on Facebook, she observed, the platform might suggest that you join flat-earth groups or maybe ones devoted to Pizzagate—putting you on a conveyor belt of conspiracy thinking. Zuckerberg’s statement struck her as wildly out of touch. “How can this platform say this thing?” she remembers thinking.

Roger McNamee, meanwhile, was getting steamed at Facebook’s response to his letter. Zuckerberg and Sandberg had written him back promptly, but they hadn’t said anything substantial. Instead he ended up having a months-long, ultimately futile set of email exchanges with Dan Rose, Facebook’s VP for partnerships. McNamee says Rose’s message was polite but also very firm: The company was doing a lot of good work that McNamee couldn’t see, and in any event Facebook was a platform, not a media company.

“And I’m sitting there going, ‘Guys, seriously, I don’t think that’s how it works,’” McNamee says. “You can assert till you’re blue in the face that you’re a platform, but if your users take a different point of view, it doesn’t matter what you assert.”

As the saying goes, heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, and McNamee’s concern soon became a cause—and the beginning of an alliance. In April 2017 he connected with a former Google design ethicist named Tristan Harris when they appeared together on Bloomberg TV. Harris had by then gained a national reputation as the conscience of Silicon Valley. He had been profiled on 60 Minutes and in The Atlantic, and he spoke eloquently about the subtle tricks that social media companies use to foster an addiction to their services. “They can amplify the worst aspects of human nature,” Harris told WIRED this past December. After the TV appearance, McNamee says he called Harris up and asked, “Dude, do you need a wingman?”

The next month, DiResta published an ­article comparing purveyors of disinformation on social media to manipulative high-frequency traders in financial markets. “Social networks enable malicious actors to operate at platform scale, because they were designed for fast information flows and virality,” she wrote. Bots and sock puppets could cheaply “create the illusion of a mass groundswell of grassroots activity,” in much the same way that early, now-illegal trading algorithms could spoof demand for a stock. Harris read the article, was impressed, and emailed her.

The three were soon out talking to anyone who would listen about Facebook’s poisonous effects on American democracy. And before long they found receptive audiences in the media and Congress—groups with their own mounting grievances against the social media giant.

VIII

Even at the best of times, meetings between Facebook and media executives can feel like unhappy family gatherings. The two sides are inextricably bound together, but they don’t like each other all that much. News executives resent that Facebook and Google have captured roughly three-quarters of the digital ad business, leaving the media industry and other platforms, like Twitter, to fight over scraps. Plus they feel like the preferences of Facebook’s algorithm have pushed the industry to publish ever-dumber stories. For years, The New York Times resented that Facebook helped elevate BuzzFeed; now BuzzFeed is angry about being displaced by clickbait.

And then there’s the simple, deep fear and mistrust that Facebook inspires. Every publisher knows that, at best, they are sharecroppers on Facebook’s massive industrial farm. The social network is roughly 200 times more valuable than the Times. And journalists know that the man who owns the farm has the leverage. If Facebook wanted to, it could quietly turn any number of dials that would harm a publisher—by manipulating its traffic, its ad network, or its readers.

Emissaries from Facebook, for their part, find it tiresome to be lectured by people who can’t tell an algorithm from an API. They also know that Facebook didn’t win the digital ad market through luck: It built a better ad product. And in their darkest moments, they wonder: What’s the point? News makes up only about 5 percent of the total content that people see on Facebook globally. The company could let it all go and its shareholders would scarcely notice. And there’s another, deeper problem: Mark Zuckerberg, according to people who know him, prefers to think about the future. He’s less interested in the news industry’s problems right now; he’s interested in the problems five or 20 years from now. The editors of major media companies, on the other hand, are worried about their next quarter—maybe even their next phone call. When they bring lunch back to their desks, they know not to buy green bananas.

This mutual wariness—sharpened almost to enmity in the wake of the election—did not make life easy for Campbell Brown when she started her new job running the nascent Facebook Journalism Project. The first item on her to-do list was to head out on yet another Facebook listening tour with editors and publishers. One editor describes a fairly typical meeting: Brown and Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, invited a group of media leaders to gather in late January 2017 at Brown’s apartment in Manhattan. Cox, a quiet, suave man, sometimes referred to as “the Ryan Gosling of Facebook Product,” took the brunt of the ensuing abuse. “Basically, a bunch of us just laid into him about how Facebook was destroying journalism, and he graciously absorbed it,” the editor says. “He didn’t much try to defend them. I think the point was really to show up and seem to be listening.” Other meetings were even more tense, with the occasional comment from journalists noting their interest in digital antitrust issues.

As bruising as all this was, Brown’s team became more confident that their efforts were valued within the company when Zuckerberg published a 5,700-word corporate manifesto in February. He had spent the previous three months, according to people who know him, contemplating whether he had created something that did more harm than good. “Are we building the world we all want?” he asked at the beginning of his post, implying that the answer was an obvious no. Amid sweeping remarks about “building a global community,” he emphasized the need to keep people informed and to knock out false news and clickbait. Brown and others at Facebook saw the manifesto as a sign that Zuckerberg understood the company’s profound civic responsibilities. Others saw the document as blandly grandiose, showcasing Zuckerberg’s tendency to suggest that the answer to nearly any problem is for people to use Facebook more.

Shortly after issuing the manifesto, Zuckerberg set off on a carefully scripted listening tour of the country. He began popping into candy shops and dining rooms in red states, camera crew and personal social media team in tow. He wrote an earnest post about what he was learning, and he deflected questions about whether his real goal was to become president. It seemed like a well-­meaning effort to win friends for Facebook. But it soon became clear that Facebook’s biggest problems emanated from places farther away than Ohio.

IX

One of the many things Zuckerberg seemed not to grasp when he wrote his manifesto was that his platform had empowered an enemy far more sophisticated than Macedonian teenagers and assorted low-rent purveyors of bull. As 2017 wore on, however, the company began to realize it had been attacked by a foreign influence operation. “I would draw a real distinction between fake news and the Russia stuff,” says an executive who worked on the company’s response to both. “With the latter there was a moment where everyone said ‘Oh, holy shit, this is like a national security situation.’”

That holy shit moment, though, didn’t come until more than six months after the election. Early in the campaign season, Facebook was aware of familiar attacks emanating from known Russian hackers, such as the group APT28, which is believed to be affiliated with Moscow. They were hacking into accounts outside of Facebook, stealing documents, then creating fake Facebook accounts under the banner of DCLeaks, to get people to discuss what they’d stolen. The company saw no signs of a serious, concerted foreign propaganda campaign, but it also didn’t think to look for one.

During the spring of 2017, the company’s security team began preparing a report about how Russian and other foreign intelligence operations had used the platform. One of its authors was Alex Stamos, head of Facebook’s security team. Stamos was something of an icon in the tech world for having reportedly resigned from his previous job at Yahoo after a conflict over whether to grant a US intelligence agency access to Yahoo servers. According to two people with direct knowledge of the document, he was eager to publish a detailed, specific analysis of what the company had found. But members of the policy and communications team pushed back and cut his report way down. Sources close to the security team suggest the company didn’t want to get caught up in the political whirlwind of the moment. (Sources on the politics and communications teams insist they edited the report down, just because the darn thing was hard to read.)

On April 27, 2017, the day after the Senate announced it was calling then FBI director James Comey to testify about the Russia investigation, Stamos’ report came out. It was titled “Information Operations and Facebook,” and it gave a careful step-by-step explanation of how a foreign adversary could use Facebook to manipulate people. But there were few specific examples or details, and there was no direct mention of Russia. It felt bland and cautious. As Renée DiResta says, “I remember seeing the report come out and thinking, ‘Oh, goodness, is this the best they could do in six months?’”

One month later, a story in Time suggested to Stamos’ team that they might have missed something in their analysis. The article quoted an unnamed senior intelligence official saying that Russian operatives had bought ads on Facebook to target Americans with propaganda. Around the same time, the security team also picked up hints from congressional investigators that made them think an intelligence agency was indeed looking into Russian Facebook ads. Caught off guard, the team members started to dig into the company’s archival ads data themselves.

Eventually, by sorting transactions according to a series of data points—Were ads purchased in rubles? Were they purchased within browsers whose language was set to Russian?—they were able to find a cluster of accounts, funded by a shadowy Russian group called the Internet Research Agency, that had been designed to manipulate political opinion in America. There was, for example, a page called Heart of Texas, which pushed for the secession of the Lone Star State. And there was Blacktivist, which pushed stories about police brutality against black men and women and had more followers than the verified Black Lives Matter page.

Numerous security researchers express consternation that it took Facebook so long to realize how the Russian troll farm was exploiting the platform. After all, the group was well known to Facebook. Executives at the company say they’re embarrassed by how long it took them to find the fake accounts, but they point out that they were never given help by US intelligence agencies. A staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee likewise voiced exasperation with the company. “It seemed obvious that it was a tactic the Russians would exploit,” the staffer says.

When Facebook finally did find the Russian propaganda on its platform, the discovery set off a crisis, a scramble, and a great deal of confusion. First, due to a miscalculation, word initially spread through the company that the Russian group had spent millions of dollars on ads, when the actual total was in the low six figures. Once that error was resolved, a disagreement broke out over how much to reveal, and to whom. The company could release the data about the ads to the public, release everything to Congress, or release nothing. Much of the argument hinged on questions of user privacy. Members of the security team worried that the legal process involved in handing over private user data, even if it belonged to a Russian troll farm, would open the door for governments to seize data from other Facebook users later on. “There was a real debate internally,” says one executive. “Should we just say ‘Fuck it’ and not worry?” But eventually the company decided it would be crazy to throw legal caution to the wind “just because Rachel Maddow wanted us to.”

Ultimately, a blog post appeared under Stamos’ name in early September announcing that, as far as the company could tell, the Russians had paid Facebook $100,000 for roughly 3,000 ads aimed at influencing American politics around the time of the 2016 election. Every sentence in the post seemed to downplay the substance of these new revelations: The number of ads was small, the expense was small. And Facebook wasn’t going to release them. The public wouldn’t know what they looked like or what they were really aimed at doing.

This didn’t sit at all well with DiResta. She had long felt that Facebook was insufficiently forthcoming, and now it seemed to be flat-out stonewalling. “That was when it went from incompetence to malice,” she says. A couple of weeks later, while waiting at a Walgreens to pick up a prescription for one of her kids, she got a call from a researcher at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism named Jonathan Albright. He had been mapping ecosystems of misinformation since the election, and he had some excellent news. “I found this thing,” he said. Albright had started digging into CrowdTangle, one of the analytics platforms that Facebook uses. And he had discovered that the data from six of the accounts Facebook had shut down were still there, frozen in a state of suspended animation. There were the posts pushing for Texas secession and playing on racial antipathy. And then there were political posts, like one that referred to Clinton as “that murderous anti-American traitor Killary.” Right before the election, the Blacktivist account urged its supporters to stay away from Clinton and instead vote for Jill Stein. Albright downloaded the most recent 500 posts from each of the six groups. He reported that, in total, their posts had been shared more than 340 million times.

Eddie Guy

X

To McNamee, the way the Russians used the platform was neither a surprise nor an anomaly. “They find 100 or 1,000 people who are angry and afraid and then use Facebook’s tools to advertise to get people into groups,” he says. “That’s exactly how Facebook was designed to be used.”

McNamee and Harris had first traveled to DC for a day in July to meet with members of Congress. Then, in September, they were joined by DiResta and began spending all their free time counseling senators, representatives, and members of their staffs. The House and Senate Intelligence Committees were about to hold hearings on Russia’s use of social media to interfere in the US election, and McNamee, Harris, and ­DiResta were helping them prepare. One of the early questions they weighed in on was the matter of who should be summoned to testify. Harris recommended that the CEOs of the big tech companies be called in, to create a dramatic scene in which they all stood in a neat row swearing an oath with their right hands in the air, roughly the way tobacco executives had been forced to do a generation earlier. Ultimately, though, it was determined that the general counsels of the three companies—Facebook, Twitter, and Google—should head into the lion’s den.

And so on November 1, Colin Stretch arrived from Facebook to be pummeled. During the hearings themselves, DiResta was sitting on her bed in San Francisco, watching them with her headphones on, trying not to wake up her small children. She listened to the back-and-forth in Washington while chatting on Slack with other security researchers. She watched as Marco Rubio smartly asked whether Facebook even had a policy forbidding foreign governments from running an influence campaign through the platform. The answer was no. Rhode Island senator Jack Reed then asked whether Facebook felt an obligation to individually notify all the users who had seen Russian ads that they had been deceived. The answer again was no. But maybe the most threatening comment came from Dianne Feinstein, the senior senator from Facebook’s home state. “You’ve created these platforms, and now they’re being misused, and you have to be the ones to do something about it,” she declared. “Or we will.”

After the hearings, yet another dam seemed to break, and former Facebook executives started to go public with their criticisms of the company too. On November 8, billionaire entrepreneur Sean Parker, Facebook’s first president, said he now regretted pushing Facebook so hard on the world. “I don’t know if I really understood the consequences of what I was saying,” he said. “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” Eleven days later, Facebook’s former privacy manager, Sandy Parakilas, published a New York Times op-ed calling for the government to regulate Facebook: “The company won’t protect us by itself, and nothing less than our democracy is at stake.”

XI

The day of the hearings, Zuckerberg had to give Facebook’s Q3 earnings call. The numbers were terrific, as always, but his mood was not. Normally these calls can put someone with 12 cups of coffee in them to sleep; the executive gets on and says everything is going well, even when it isn’t. Zuckerberg took a different approach. “I’ve expressed how upset I am that the Russians tried to use our tools to sow mistrust. We build these tools to help people connect and to bring us closer together. And they used them to try to undermine our values. What they did is wrong, and we are not going to stand for it.” The company would be investing so much in security, he said, that Facebook would make “significantly” less money for a while. “I want to be clear about what our priority is: Protecting our community is more important than maximizing our profits.” What the company really seeks is for users to find their experience to be “time well spent,” Zuckerberg said—using the three words that have become Tristan Harris’ calling card, and the name of his nonprofit.

Other signs emerged, too, that Zuckerberg was beginning to absorb the criticisms of his company. The Facebook Journalism Project, for instance, seemed to be making the company take its obligations as a publisher, and not just a platform, more seriously. In the fall, the company announced that Zuckerberg had decided—after years of resisting the idea—that publishers using Facebook Instant Articles could require readers to subscribe. Paying for serious publications, in the months since the election, had come to seem like both the path forward for journalism and a way of resisting the post-truth political landscape. (WIRED recently instituted its own paywall.) Plus, offering subscriptions arguably helped put in place the kinds of incentives that Zuckerberg professed to want driving the platform. People like Alex Hardiman, the head of Facebook news products and an alum of The New York Times, started to recognize that Facebook had long helped to create an economic system that rewarded publishers for sensationalism, not accuracy or depth. “If we just reward content based on raw clicks and engagement, we might actually see content that is increasingly sensationalist, clickbaity, polarizing, and divisive,” she says. A social network that rewards only clicks, not subscriptions, is like a dating service that encourages one-night stands but not marriages.

XII

A couple of weeks before Thanksgiving 2017, Zuckerberg called one of his quarterly all-hands meetings on the Facebook campus, in an outdoor space known as Hacker Square. He told everyone he hoped they would have a good holiday. Then he said, “This year, with recent news, a lot of us are probably going to get asked: ‘What is going on with Facebook?’ This has been a tough year … but … what I know is that we’re fortunate to play an important role in billions of people’s lives. That’s a privilege, and it puts an enormous responsibility on all of us.” According to one attendee, the remarks came across as blunter and more personal than any they’d ever heard from Zuckerberg. He seemed humble, even a little chastened. “I don’t think he sleeps well at night,” the employee says. “I think he has remorse for what has happened.”

During the late fall, criticism continued to mount: Facebook was accused of becoming a central vector for spreading deadly propaganda against the Rohingya in Myanmar and for propping up the brutal leadership of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. And December brought another haymaker from someone closer by. Early that month, it emerged that Chamath Palihapitiya, who had been Facebook’s vice president for user growth before leaving in 2011, had told an audience at Stanford that he thought social media platforms like Facebook had “created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric” and that he feels “tremendous guilt” for being part of that. He said he tries to use Facebook as little as possible and doesn’t permit his children to use such platforms at all.

The criticism stung in a way that others hadn’t. Palihapitiya is close to many of the top executives at Facebook, and he has deep cachet in Silicon Valley and among Facebook engineers as a part-owner of the Golden State Warriors. Sheryl Sandberg sometimes wears a chain around her neck that’s welded together from one given to her by Zuckerberg and one given to her by Palihapitiya after her husband’s death. The company issued a statement saying it had been a long time since Palihapitiya had worked there. “Facebook was a very different company back then and as we have grown we have realized how our responsibilities have grown too.” Asked why the company had responded to Palihapitiya, and not to others, a senior Facebook executive said, “Chamath is—was—a friend to a lot of people here.”

Roger McNamee, meanwhile, went on a media tour lambasting the company. He published an essay in Washington Monthly and then followed up in The Washington Post and The Guardian. Facebook was less impressed with him. Executives considered him to be overstating his connection to the company and dining out on his criticism. Andrew Bos­worth, a VP and member of the management team, tweeted, “I’ve worked at Facebook for 12 years and I have to ask: Who the fuck is Roger McNamee?”

Zuckerberg did seem to be eager to mend one fence, though. Around this time, a team of Facebook executives gathered for dinner with executives from News Corp at the Grill, an upscale restaurant in Manhattan. Right at the start, Zuckerberg raised a toast to Murdoch. He spoke charmingly about reading a biography of the older man and of admiring his accomplishments. Then he described a game of tennis he’d once played against Murdoch. At first he had thought it would be easy to hit the ball with a man more than 50 years his senior. But he quickly realized, he said, that Murdoch was there to compete.

XIII

On January 4, 2018, Zuckerberg announced that he had a new personal challenge for the year. For each of the past nine years, he had committed himself to some kind of self-improvement. His first challenge was farcical—wear ties—and the others had been a little preening and collegiate. He wanted to learn Mandarin, read 25 books, run 365 miles. This year, though, he took a severe tone. “The world feels anxious and divided, and Facebook has a lot of work to do—whether it’s protecting our community from abuse and hate, defending against interference by nation-states, or making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent,” Zuckerberg declared. The language wasn’t original—he had borrowed from Tristan Harris again—but it was, by the accounts of many people around him, entirely sincere.

That New Year’s challenge, it turned out, was a bit of carefully considered choreography setting up a series of announcements, starting with a declaration the following week that the News Feed algorithm would be rejiggered to favor “meaningful interactions.” Posts and videos of the sort that make us look or like—but not comment or care—would be deprioritized. The idea, explained Adam Mosseri, is that, online, “interacting with people is positively correlated with a lot of measures of well-being, whereas passively consuming content online is less so.”

To numerous people at the company, the announcement marked a huge departure. Facebook was putting a car in reverse that had been driving at full speed in one direction for 14 years. Since the beginning, Zuckerberg’s ambition had been to create another internet, or perhaps another world, inside of Facebook, and to get people to use it as much as possible. The business model was based on advertising, and advertising was insatiably hungry for people’s time. But now Zuckerberg said he expected these new changes to News Feed would make people use Facebook less.

The announcement was hammered by many in the press. During the rollout, Mosseri explained that Facebook would downgrade stories shared by businesses, celebrities, and publishers, and prioritize stories shared by friends and family. Critics surmised that these changes were just a way of finally giving the publishing industry a middle finger. “Facebook has essentially told media to kiss off,” Franklin Foer wrote in The Atlantic. “Facebook will be back primarily in the business of making us feel terrible about the inferiority of our vacations, the relative mediocrity of our children, teasing us into sharing more of our private selves.”

People who know him say Zuckerberg has truly been altered in the crucible of the past several months.

But inside Facebook, executives insist this isn’t remotely the case. According to Anker, who retired from the company in December but worked on these changes, and who has great affection for the management team, “It would be a mistake to see this as a retreat from the news industry. This is a retreat from ‘Anything goes if it works with our algorithm to drive up engagement.’” According to others still at the company, Zuckerberg didn’t want to pull back from actual journalism. He just genuinely wanted there to be less crap on the platform: fewer stories with no substance; fewer videos you can watch without thinking.

And then, a week after telling the world about “meaningful interactions,” Zuckerberg announced another change that seemed to answer these concerns, after a fashion. For the first time in the company’s history, he said in a note posted to his personal page, Facebook will start to boost certain publishers—ones whose content is “trustworthy, informative, and local.” For the past year, Facebook has been developing algorithms to hammer publishers whose content is fake; now it’s trying to elevate what’s good. For starters, he explained, the company would use reader surveys to determine which sources are trustworthy. That system, critics were quick to point out, will surely be gamed, and many people will say they trust sources just because they recognize them. But this announcement, at least, went over a little better in boardrooms and newsrooms. Right after the post went up, the stock price of The New York Times shot up—as did that of News Corp.

Zuckerberg has hinted—and insiders have confirmed—that we should expect a year of more announcements like this. The company is experimenting with giving publishers more control over paywalls and allowing them to feature their logos more prominently to reestablish the brand identities that Facebook flattened years ago. One somewhat hostile outside suggestion has come from Facebook’s old antagonist Murdoch, who said in late January that if Facebook truly valued “trustworthy” publishers, it should pay them carriage fees.

The fate that Facebook really cares about, however, is its own. It was built on the power of network effects: You joined because everyone else was joining. But network effects can be just as powerful in driving people off a platform. Zuckerberg understands this viscerally. After all, he helped create those problems for MySpace a decade ago and is arguably doing the same to Snap today. Zuckerberg has avoided that fate, in part, because he has proven brilliant at co-opting his biggest threats. When social media started becoming driven by images, he bought Instagram. When messaging took off, he bought WhatsApp. When Snapchat became a threat, he copied it. Now, with all his talk of “time well spent,” it seems as if he’s trying to co-opt Tristan Harris too.

But people who know him say that Zuckerberg has truly been altered in the crucible of the past several months. He has thought deeply; he has reckoned with what happened; and he truly cares that his company fix the problems swirling around it. And he’s also worried. “This whole year has massively changed his personal techno-­optimism,” says an executive at the company. “It has made him much more paranoid about the ways that people could abuse the thing that he built.”

The past year has also altered Facebook’s fundamental understanding about whether it’s a publisher or a platform. The company has always answered that question defiantly—platform, platform, platform—for regulatory, financial, and maybe even emotional reasons. But now, gradually, Facebook has evolved. Of course it’s a platform, and always will be. But the company also realizes now that it bears some of the responsibilities that a publisher does: for the care of its readers, and for the care of the truth. You can’t make the world more open and connected if you’re breaking it apart. So what is it: publisher or platform? Facebook seems to have finally recognized that it is quite clearly both.

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Beyond the Bitcoin Bubble


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The sequence of words is meaningless: a random array strung together by an algorithm let loose in an English dictionary. What makes them valuable is that they’ve been generated exclusively for me, by a software tool called MetaMask. In the lingo of cryptography, they’re known as my seed phrase. They might read like an incoherent stream of consciousness, but these words can be transformed into a key that unlocks a digital bank account, or even an online identity. It just takes a few more steps.

On the screen, I’m instructed to keep my seed phrase secure: Write it down, or keep it in a secure place on your computer. I scribble the 12 words onto a notepad, click a button and my seed phrase is transformed into a string of 64 seemingly patternless characters:

1b0be2162cedb2744d016943bb14e71de6af95a63af3790d6b41b1e719dc5c66

This is what’s called a “private key” in the world of cryptography: a way of proving identity, in the same, limited way that real-world keys attest to your identity when you unlock your front door. My seed phrase will generate that exact sequence of characters every time, but there’s no known way to reverse-engineer the original phrase from the key, which is why it is so important to keep the seed phrase in a safe location.

That private key number is then run through two additional transformations, creating a new string:

0x6c2ecd6388c550e8d99ada34a1cd55bedd052ad9

That string is my address on the Ethereum blockchain.

Ethereum belongs to the same family as the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, whose value has increased more than 1,000 percent in just the past year. Ethereum has its own currencies, most notably Ether, but the platform has a wider scope than just money. You can think of my Ethereum address as having elements of a bank account, an email address and a Social Security number. For now, it exists only on my computer as an inert string of nonsense, but the second I try to perform any kind of transaction — say, contributing to a crowdfunding campaign or voting in an online referendum — that address is broadcast out to an improvised worldwide network of computers that tries to verify the transaction. The results of that verification are then broadcast to the wider network again, where more machines enter into a kind of competition to perform complex mathematical calculations, the winner of which gets to record that transaction in the single, canonical record of every transaction ever made in the history of Ethereum. Because those transactions are registered in a sequence of “blocks” of data, that record is called the blockchain.

The whole exchange takes no more than a few minutes to complete. From my perspective, the experience barely differs from the usual routines of online life. But on a technical level, something miraculous is happening — something that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago. I’ve managed to complete a secure transaction without any of the traditional institutions that we rely on to establish trust. No intermediary brokered the deal; no social-media network captured the data from my transaction to better target its advertising; no credit bureau tracked the activity to build a portrait of my financial trustworthiness.

Continue reading the main story

And the platform that makes all this possible? No one owns it. There are no venture investors backing Ethereum Inc., because there is no Ethereum Inc. As an organizational form, Ethereum is far closer to a democracy than a private corporation. No imperial chief executive calls the shots. You earn the privilege of helping to steer Ethereum’s ship of state by joining the community and doing the work. Like Bitcoin and most other blockchain platforms, Ethereum is more a swarm than a formal entity. Its borders are porous; its hierarchy is deliberately flattened.

Oh, one other thing: Some members of that swarm have already accumulated a paper net worth in the billions from their labors, as the value of one “coin” of Ether rose from $8 on Jan. 1, 2017, to $843 exactly one year later.

You may be inclined to dismiss these transformations. After all, Bitcoin and Ether’s runaway valuation looks like a case study in irrational exuberance. And why should you care about an arcane technical breakthrough that right now doesn’t feel all that different from signing in to a website to make a credit card payment?

But that dismissal would be shortsighted. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the recent history of the internet, it’s that seemingly esoteric decisions about software architecture can unleash profound global forces once the technology moves into wider circulation. If the email standards adopted in the 1970s had included public-private key cryptography as a default setting, we might have avoided the cataclysmic email hacks that have afflicted everyone from Sony to John Podesta, and millions of ordinary consumers might be spared routinized identity theft. If Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, had included a protocol for mapping our social identity in his original specs, we might not have Facebook.

The true believers behind blockchain platforms like Ethereum argue that a network of distributed trust is one of those advances in software architecture that will prove, in the long run, to have historic significance. That promise has helped fuel the huge jump in cryptocurrency valuations. But in a way, the Bitcoin bubble may ultimately turn out to be a distraction from the true significance of the blockchain. The real promise of these new technologies, many of their evangelists believe, lies not in displacing our currencies but in replacing much of what we now think of as the internet, while at the same time returning the online world to a more decentralized and egalitarian system. If you believe the evangelists, the blockchain is the future. But it is also a way of getting back to the internet’s roots.

Once the inspiration for utopian dreams of infinite libraries and global connectivity, the internet has seemingly become, over the past year, a universal scapegoat: the cause of almost every social ill that confronts us. Russian trolls destroy the democratic system with fake news on Facebook; hate speech flourishes on Twitter and Reddit; the vast fortunes of the geek elite worsen income equality. For many of us who participated in the early days of the web, the last few years have felt almost postlapsarian. The web had promised a new kind of egalitarian media, populated by small magazines, bloggers and self-organizing encyclopedias; the information titans that dominated mass culture in the 20th century would give way to a more decentralized system, defined by collaborative networks, not hierarchies and broadcast channels. The wider culture would come to mirror the peer-to-peer architecture of the internet itself. The web in those days was hardly a utopia — there were financial bubbles and spammers and a thousand other problems — but beneath those flaws, we assumed, there was an underlying story of progress.

Last year marked the point at which that narrative finally collapsed. The existence of internet skeptics is nothing new, of course; the difference now is that the critical voices increasingly belong to former enthusiasts. “We have to fix the internet,” Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs’s biographer, wrote in an essay published a few weeks after Donald Trump was elected president. “After 40 years, it has begun to corrode, both itself and us.” The former Google strategist James Williams told The Guardian: “The dynamics of the attention economy are structurally set up to undermine the human will.” In a blog post, Brad Burnham, a managing partner at Union Square Ventures, a top New York venture-capital firm, bemoaned the collateral damage from the quasi monopolies of the digital age: “Publishers find themselves becoming commodity content suppliers in a sea of undifferentiated content in the Facebook news feed. Websites see their fortunes upended by small changes in Google’s search algorithms. And manufacturers watch helplessly as sales dwindle when Amazon decides to source products directly in China and redirect demand to their own products.” (Full disclosure: Burnham’s firm invested in a company I started in 2006; we have had no financial relationship since it sold in 2011.) Even Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web itself, wrote a blog post voicing his concerns that the advertising-based model of social media and search engines creates a climate where “misinformation, or ‘fake news,’ which is surprising, shocking or designed to appeal to our biases, can spread like wildfire.”

For most critics, the solution to these immense structural issues has been to propose either a new mindfulness about the dangers of these tools — turning off our smartphones, keeping kids off social media — or the strong arm of regulation and antitrust: making the tech giants subject to the same scrutiny as other industries that are vital to the public interest, like the railroads or telephone networks of an earlier age. Both those ideas are commendable: We probably should develop a new set of habits governing how we interact with social media, and it seems entirely sensible that companies as powerful as Google and Facebook should face the same regulatory scrutiny as, say, television networks. But those interventions are unlikely to fix the core problems that the online world confronts. After all, it was not just the antitrust division of the Department of Justice that challenged Microsoft’s monopoly power in the 1990s; it was also the emergence of new software and hardware — the web, open-source software and Apple products — that helped undermine Microsoft’s dominant position.

The blockchain evangelists behind platforms like Ethereum believe that a comparable array of advances in software, cryptography and distributed systems has the ability to tackle today’s digital problems: the corrosive incentives of online advertising; the quasi monopolies of Facebook, Google and Amazon; Russian misinformation campaigns. If they succeed, their creations may challenge the hegemony of the tech giants far more effectively than any antitrust regulation. They even claim to offer an alternative to the winner-take-all model of capitalism than has driven wealth inequality to heights not seen since the age of the robber barons.

That remedy is not yet visible in any product that would be intelligible to an ordinary tech consumer. The only blockchain project that has crossed over into mainstream recognition so far is Bitcoin, which is in the middle of a speculative bubble that makes the 1990s internet I.P.O. frenzy look like a neighborhood garage sale. And herein lies the cognitive dissonance that confronts anyone trying to make sense of the blockchain: the potential power of this would-be revolution is being actively undercut by the crowd it is attracting, a veritable goon squad of charlatans, false prophets and mercenaries. Not for the first time, technologists pursuing a vision of an open and decentralized network have found themselves surrounded by a wave of opportunists looking to make an overnight fortune. The question is whether, after the bubble has burst, the very real promise of the blockchain can endure.

To some students of modern technological history, the internet’s fall from grace follows an inevitable historical script. As Tim Wu argued in his 2010 book, “The Master Switch,” all the major information technologies of the 20th century adhered to a similar developmental pattern, starting out as the playthings of hobbyists and researchers motivated by curiosity and community, and ending up in the hands of multinational corporations fixated on maximizing shareholder value. Wu calls this pattern the Cycle, and on the surface at least, the internet has followed the Cycle with convincing fidelity. The internet began as a hodgepodge of government-funded academic research projects and side-hustle hobbies. But 20 years after the web first crested into the popular imagination, it has produced in Google, Facebook and Amazon — and indirectly, Apple — what may well be the most powerful and valuable corporations in the history of capitalism.

Blockchain advocates don’t accept the inevitability of the Cycle. The roots of the internet were in fact more radically open and decentralized than previous information technologies, they argue, and had we managed to stay true to those roots, it could have remained that way. The online world would not be dominated by a handful of information-age titans; our news platforms would be less vulnerable to manipulation and fraud; identity theft would be far less common; advertising dollars would be distributed across a wider range of media properties.

To understand why, it helps to think of the internet as two fundamentally different kinds of systems stacked on top of each other, like layers in an archaeological dig. One layer is composed of the software protocols that were developed in the 1970s and 1980s and hit critical mass, at least in terms of audience, in the 1990s. (A protocol is the software version of a lingua franca, a way that multiple computers agree to communicate with one another. There are protocols that govern the flow of the internet’s raw data, and protocols for sending email messages, and protocols that define the addresses of web pages.) And then above them, a second layer of web-based services — Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter — that largely came to power in the following decade.

The first layer — call it InternetOne — was founded on open protocols, which in turn were defined and maintained by academic researchers and international-standards bodies, owned by no one. In fact, that original openness continues to be all around us, in ways we probably don’t appreciate enough. Email is still based on the open protocols POP, SMTP and IMAP; websites are still served up using the open protocol HTTP; bits are still circulated via the original open protocols of the internet, TCP/IP. You don’t need to understand anything about how these software conventions work on a technical level to enjoy their benefits. The key characteristic they all share is that anyone can use them, free of charge. You don’t need to pay a licensing fee to some corporation that owns HTTP if you want to put up a web page; you don’t have to sell a part of your identity to advertisers if you want to send an email using SMTP. Along with Wikipedia, the open protocols of the internet constitute the most impressive example of commons-based production in human history.

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Credit Photo illustration by Delcan & Company. Balloons by Jenue & Laura Ortega.

To see how enormous but also invisible the benefits of such protocols have been, imagine that one of those key standards had not been developed: for instance, the open standard we use for defining our geographic location, GPS. Originally developed by the United States military, the Global Positioning System was first made available for civilian use during the Reagan administration. For about a decade, it was largely used by the aviation industry, until individual consumers began to use it in car navigation systems. And now we have smartphones that can pick up a signal from GPS satellites orbiting above us, and we use that extraordinary power to do everything from locating nearby restaurants to playing Pokémon Go to coordinating disaster-relief efforts.

But what if the military had kept GPS out of the public domain? Presumably, sometime in the 1990s, a market signal would have gone out to the innovators of Silicon Valley and other tech hubs, suggesting that consumers were interested in establishing their exact geographic coordinates so that those locations could be projected onto digital maps. There would have been a few years of furious competition among rival companies, who would toss their own proprietary satellites into orbit and advance their own unique protocols, but eventually the market would have settled on one dominant model, given all the efficiencies that result from a single, common way of verifying location. Call that imaginary firm GeoBook. Initially, the embrace of GeoBook would have been a leap forward for consumers and other companies trying to build location awareness into their hardware and software. But slowly, a darker narrative would have emerged: a single private corporation, tracking the movements of billions of people around the planet, building an advertising behemoth based on our shifting locations. Any start-up trying to build a geo-aware application would have been vulnerable to the whims of mighty GeoBook. Appropriately angry polemics would have been written denouncing the public menace of this Big Brother in the sky.

But none of that happened, for a simple reason. Geolocation, like the location of web pages and email addresses and domain names, is a problem we solved with an open protocol. And because it’s a problem we don’t have, we rarely think about how beautifully GPS does work and how many different applications have been built on its foundation.

The open, decentralized web turns out to be alive and well on the InternetOne layer. But since we settled on the World Wide Web in the mid-’90s, we’ve adopted very few new open-standard protocols. The biggest problems that technologists tackled after 1995 — many of which revolved around identity, community and payment mechanisms — were left to the private sector to solve. This is what led, in the early 2000s, to a powerful new layer of internet services, which we might call InternetTwo.

For all their brilliance, the inventors of the open protocols that shaped the internet failed to include some key elements that would later prove critical to the future of online culture. Perhaps most important, they did not create a secure open standard that established human identity on the network. Units of information could be defined — pages, links, messages — but people did not have their own protocol: no way to define and share your real name, your location, your interests or (perhaps most crucial) your relationships to other people online.

This turns out to have been a major oversight, because identity is the sort of problem that benefits from one universally recognized solution. It’s what Vitalik Buterin, a founder of Ethereum, describes as “base-layer” infrastructure: things like language, roads and postal services, platforms where commerce and competition are actually assisted by having an underlying layer in the public domain. Offline, we don’t have an open market for physical passports or Social Security numbers; we have a few reputable authorities — most of them backed by the power of the state — that we use to confirm to others that we are who we say we are. But online, the private sector swooped in to fill that vacuum, and because identity had that characteristic of being a universal problem, the market was heavily incentivized to settle on one common standard for defining yourself and the people you know.

The self-reinforcing feedback loops that economists call “increasing returns” or “network effects” kicked in, and after a period of experimentation in which we dabbled in social-media start-ups like Myspace and Friendster, the market settled on what is essentially a proprietary standard for establishing who you are and whom you know. That standard is Facebook. With more than two billion users, Facebook is far larger than the entire internet at the peak of the dot-com bubble in the late 1990s. And that user growth has made it the world’s sixth-most-valuable corporation, just 14 years after it was founded. Facebook is the ultimate embodiment of the chasm that divides InternetOne and InternetTwo economies. No private company owned the protocols that defined email or GPS or the open web. But one single corporation owns the data that define social identity for two billion people today — and one single person, Mark Zuckerberg, holds the majority of the voting power in that corporation.

If you see the rise of the centralized web as an inevitable turn of the Cycle, and the open-protocol idealism of the early web as a kind of adolescent false consciousness, then there’s less reason to fret about all the ways we’ve abandoned the vision of InternetOne. Either we’re living in a fallen state today and there’s no way to get back to Eden, or Eden itself was a kind of fantasy that was always going to be corrupted by concentrated power. In either case, there’s no point in trying to restore the architecture of InternetOne; our only hope is to use the power of the state to rein in these corporate giants, through regulation and antitrust action. It’s a variation of the old Audre Lorde maxim: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” You can’t fix the problems technology has created for us by throwing more technological solutions at it. You need forces outside the domain of software and servers to break up cartels with this much power.

But the thing about the master’s house, in this analogy, is that it’s a duplex. The upper floor has indeed been built with tools that cannot be used to dismantle it. But the open protocols beneath them still have the potential to build something better.

One of the most persuasive advocates of an open-protocol revival is Juan Benet, a Mexican-born programmer now living on a suburban side street in Palo Alto, Calif., in a three-bedroom rental that he shares with his girlfriend and another programmer, plus a rotating cast of guests, some of whom belong to Benet’s organization, Protocol Labs. On a warm day in September, Benet greeted me at his door wearing a black Protocol Labs hoodie. The interior of the space brought to mind the incubator/frat house of HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” its living room commandeered by an array of black computer monitors. In the entrance hallway, the words “Welcome to Rivendell” were scrawled out on a whiteboard, a nod to the Elven city from “Lord of the Rings.” “We call this house Rivendell,” Benet said sheepishly. “It’s not a very good Rivendell. It doesn’t have enough books, or waterfalls, or elves.”

Benet, who is 29, considers himself a child of the first peer-to-peer revolution that briefly flourished in the late 1990s and early 2000s, driven in large part by networks like BitTorrent that distributed media files, often illegally. That initial flowering was in many ways a logical outgrowth of the internet’s decentralized, open-protocol roots. The web had shown that you could publish documents reliably in a commons-based network. Services like BitTorrent or Skype took that logic to the next level, allowing ordinary users to add new functionality to the internet: creating a distributed library of (largely pirated) media, as with BitTorrent, or helping people make phone calls over the internet, as with Skype.

Sitting in the living room/office at Rivendell, Benet told me that he thinks of the early 2000s, with the ascent of Skype and BitTorrent, as “the ‘summer’ of peer-to-peer” — its salad days. “But then peer-to-peer hit a wall, because people started to prefer centralized architectures,” he said. “And partly because the peer-to-peer business models were piracy-driven.” A graduate of Stanford’s computer-science program, Benet talks in a manner reminiscent of Elon Musk: As he speaks, his eyes dart across an empty space above your head, almost as though he’s reading an invisible teleprompter to find the words. He is passionate about the technology Protocol Labs is developing, but also keen to put it in a wider context. For Benet, the shift from distributed systems to more centralized approaches set in motion changes that few could have predicted. “The rules of the game, the rules that govern all of this technology, matter a lot,” he said. “The structure of what we build now will paint a very different picture of the way things will be five or 10 years in the future.” He continued: “It was clear to me then that peer-to-peer was this extraordinary thing. What was not clear to me then was how at risk it is. It was not clear to me that you had to take up the baton, that it’s now your turn to protect it.”

Protocol Labs is Benet’s attempt to take up that baton, and its first project is a radical overhaul of the internet’s file system, including the basic scheme we use to address the location of pages on the web. Benet calls his system IPFS, short for InterPlanetary File System. The current protocol — HTTP — pulls down web pages from a single location at a time and has no built-in mechanism for archiving the online pages. IPFS allows users to download a page simultaneously from multiple locations and includes what programmers call “historic versioning,” so that past iterations do not vanish from the historical record. To support the protocol, Benet is also creating a system called Filecoin that will allow users to effectively rent out unused hard-drive space. (Think of it as a sort of Airbnb for data.) “Right now there are tons of hard drives around the planet that are doing nothing, or close to nothing, to the point where their owners are just losing money,” Benet said. “So you can bring online a massive amount of supply, which will bring down the costs of storage.” But as its name suggests, Protocol Labs has an ambition that extends beyond these projects; Benet’s larger mission is to support many new open-source protocols in the years to come.

Why did the internet follow the path from open to closed? One part of the explanation lies in sins of omission: By the time a new generation of coders began to tackle the problems that InternetOne left unsolved, there were near-limitless sources of capital to invest in those efforts, so long as the coders kept their systems closed. The secret to the success of the open protocols of InternetOne is that they were developed in an age when most people didn’t care about online networks, so they were able to stealthily reach critical mass without having to contend with wealthy conglomerates and venture capitalists. By the mid-2000s, though, a promising new start-up like Facebook could attract millions of dollars in financing even before it became a household brand. And that private-sector money ensured that the company’s key software would remain closed, in order to capture as much value as possible for shareholders.

And yet — as the venture capitalist Chris Dixon points out — there was another factor, too, one that was more technical than financial in nature. “Let’s say you’re trying to build an open Twitter,” Dixon explained while sitting in a conference room at the New York offices of Andreessen Horowitz, where he is a general partner. “I’m @cdixon at Twitter. Where do you store that? You need a database.” A closed architecture like Facebook’s or Twitter’s puts all the information about its users — their handles, their likes and photos, the map of connections they have to other individuals on the network — into a private database that is maintained by the company. Whenever you look at your Facebook newsfeed, you are granted access to some infinitesimally small section of that database, seeing only the information that is relevant to you.

Running Facebook’s database is an unimaginably complex operation, relying on hundreds of thousands of servers scattered around the world, overseen by some of the most brilliant engineers on the planet. From Facebook’s point of view, they’re providing a valuable service to humanity: creating a common social graph for almost everyone on earth. The fact that they have to sell ads to pay the bills for that service — and the fact that the scale of their network gives them staggering power over the minds of two billion people around the world — is an unfortunate, but inevitable, price to pay for a shared social graph. And that trade-off did in fact make sense in the mid-2000s; creating a single database capable of tracking the interactions of hundreds of millions of people — much less two billion — was the kind of problem that could be tackled only by a single organization. But as Benet and his fellow blockchain evangelists are eager to prove, that might not be true anymore.

So how can you get meaningful adoption of base-layer protocols in an age when the big tech companies have already attracted billions of users and collectively sit on hundreds of billions of dollars in cash? If you happen to believe that the internet, in its current incarnation, is causing significant and growing harm to society, then this seemingly esoteric problem — the difficulty of getting people to adopt new open-source technology standards — turns out to have momentous consequences. If we can’t figure out a way to introduce new, rival base-layer infrastructure, then we’re stuck with the internet we have today. The best we can hope for is government interventions to scale back the power of Facebook or Google, or some kind of consumer revolt that encourages that marketplace to shift to less hegemonic online services, the digital equivalent of forswearing big agriculture for local farmers’ markets. Neither approach would upend the underlying dynamics of InternetTwo.

The first hint of a meaningful challenge to the closed-protocol era arrived in 2008, not long after Zuckerberg opened the first international headquarters for his growing company. A mysterious programmer (or group of programmers) going by the name Satoshi Nakamoto circulated a paper on a cryptography mailing list. The paper was called “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System,” and in it, Nakamoto outlined an ingenious system for a digital currency that did not require a centralized trusted authority to verify transactions. At the time, Facebook and Bitcoin seemed to belong to entirely different spheres — one was a booming venture-backed social-media start-up that let you share birthday greetings and connect with old friends, while the other was a byzantine scheme for cryptographic currency from an obscure email list. But 10 years later, the ideas that Nakamoto unleashed with that paper now pose the most significant challenge to the hegemony of InternetTwo giants like Facebook.

The paradox about Bitcoin is that it may well turn out to be a genuinely revolutionary breakthrough and at the same time a colossal failure as a currency. As I write, Bitcoin has increased in value by nearly 100,000 percent over the past five years, making a fortune for its early investors but also branding it as a spectacularly unstable payment mechanism. The process for creating new Bitcoins has also turned out to be a staggering energy drain.

History is replete with stories of new technologies whose initial applications end up having little to do with their eventual use. All the focus on Bitcoin as a payment system may similarly prove to be a distraction, a technological red herring. Nakamoto pitched Bitcoin as a “peer-to-peer electronic-cash system” in the initial manifesto, but at its heart, the innovation he (or she or they) was proposing had a more general structure, with two key features.

First, Bitcoin offered a kind of proof that you could create a secure database — the blockchain — scattered across hundreds or thousands of computers, with no single authority controlling and verifying the authenticity of the data.

Second, Nakamoto designed Bitcoin so that the work of maintaining that distributed ledger was itself rewarded with small, increasingly scarce Bitcoin payments. If you dedicated half your computer’s processing cycles to helping the Bitcoin network get its math right — and thus fend off the hackers and scam artists — you received a small sliver of the currency. Nakamoto designed the system so that Bitcoins would grow increasingly difficult to earn over time, ensuring a certain amount of scarcity in the system. If you helped Bitcoin keep that database secure in the early days, you would earn more Bitcoin than later arrivals. This process has come to be called “mining.”

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Credit Photo illustration by Delcan & Company. Source image: Koosen/Shutterstock.

For our purposes, forget everything else about the Bitcoin frenzy, and just keep these two things in mind: What Nakamoto ushered into the world was a way of agreeing on the contents of a database without anyone being “in charge” of the database, and a way of compensating people for helping make that database more valuable, without those people being on an official payroll or owning shares in a corporate entity. Together, those two ideas solved the distributed-database problem and the funding problem. Suddenly there was a way of supporting open protocols that wasn’t available during the infancy of Facebook and Twitter.

These two features have now been replicated in dozens of new systems inspired by Bitcoin. One of those systems is Ethereum, proposed in a white paper by Vitalik Buterin when he was just 19. Ethereum does have its currencies, but at its heart Ethereum was designed less to facilitate electronic payments than to allow people to run applications on top of the Ethereum blockchain. There are currently hundreds of Ethereum apps in development, ranging from prediction markets to Facebook clones to crowdfunding services. Almost all of them are in pre-alpha stage, not ready for consumer adoption. Despite the embryonic state of the applications, the Ether currency has seen its own miniature version of the Bitcoin bubble, most likely making Buterin an immense fortune.

These currencies can be used in clever ways. Juan Benet’s Filecoin system will rely on Ethereum technology and reward users and developers who adopt its IPFS protocol or help maintain the shared database it requires. Protocol Labs is creating its own cryptocurrency, also called Filecoin, and has plans to sell some of those coins on the open market in the coming months. (In the summer of 2017, the company raised $135 million in the first 60 minutes of what Benet calls a “presale” of the tokens to accredited investors.) Many cryptocurrencies are first made available to the public through a process known as an initial coin offering, or I.C.O.

The I.C.O. abbreviation is a deliberate echo of the initial public offering that so defined the first internet bubble in the 1990s. But there is a crucial difference between the two. Speculators can buy in during an I.C.O., but they are not buying an ownership stake in a private company and its proprietary software, the way they might in a traditional I.P.O. Afterward, the coins will continue to be created in exchange for labor — in the case of Filecoin, by anyone who helps maintain the Filecoin network. Developers who help refine the software can earn the coins, as can ordinary users who lend out spare hard-drive space to expand the network’s storage capacity. The Filecoin is a way of signaling that someone, somewhere, has added value to the network.

Advocates like Chris Dixon have started referring to the compensation side of the equation in terms of “tokens,” not coins, to emphasize that the technology here isn’t necessarily aiming to disrupt existing currency systems. “I like the metaphor of a token because it makes it very clear that it’s like an arcade,” he says. “You go to the arcade, and in the arcade you can use these tokens. But we’re not trying to replace the U.S. government. It’s not meant to be a real currency; it’s meant to be a pseudo-currency inside this world.” Dan Finlay, a creator of MetaMask, echoes Dixon’s argument. “To me, what’s interesting about this is that we get to program new value systems,” he says. “They don’t have to resemble money.”

Pseudo or not, the idea of an I.C.O. has already inspired a host of shady offerings, some of them endorsed by celebrities who would seem to be unlikely blockchain enthusiasts, like DJ Khaled, Paris Hilton and Floyd Mayweather. In a blog post published in October 2017, Fred Wilson, a founder of Union Square Ventures and an early advocate of the blockchain revolution, thundered against the spread of I.C.O.s. “I hate it,” Wilson wrote, adding that most I.C.O.s “are scams. And the celebrities and others who promote them on their social-media channels in an effort to enrich themselves are behaving badly and possibly violating securities laws.” Arguably the most striking thing about the surge of interest in I.C.O.s — and in existing currencies like Bitcoin or Ether — is how much financial speculation has already gravitated to platforms that have effectively zero adoption among ordinary consumers. At least during the internet bubble of late 1990s, ordinary people were buying books on Amazon or reading newspapers online; there was clear evidence that the web was going to become a mainstream platform. Today, the hype cycles are so accelerated that billions of dollars are chasing a technology that almost no one outside the cryptocommunity understands, much less uses.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the hype is warranted, and blockchain platforms like Ethereum become a fundamental part of our digital infrastructure. How would a distributed ledger and a token economy somehow challenge one of the tech giants? One of Fred Wilson’s partners at Union Square Ventures, Brad Burnham, suggests a scenario revolving around another tech giant that has run afoul of regulators and public opinion in the last year: Uber. “Uber is basically just a coordination platform between drivers and passengers,” Burnham says. “Yes, it was really innovative, and there were a bunch of things in the beginning about reducing the anxiety of whether the driver was coming or not, and the map — and a whole bunch of things that you should give them a lot of credit for.” But when a new service like Uber starts to take off, there’s a strong incentive for the marketplace to consolidate around a single leader. The fact that more passengers are starting to use the Uber app attracts more drivers to the service, which in turn attracts more passengers. People have their credit cards stored with Uber; they have the app installed already; there are far more Uber drivers on the road. And so the switching costs of trying out some other rival service eventually become prohibitive, even if the chief executive seems to be a jerk or if consumers would, in the abstract, prefer a competitive marketplace with a dozen Ubers. “At some point, the innovation around the coordination becomes less and less innovative,” Burnham says.

The blockchain world proposes something different. Imagine some group like Protocol Labs decides there’s a case to be made for adding another “basic layer” to the stack. Just as GPS gave us a way of discovering and sharing our location, this new protocol would define a simple request: I am here and would like to go there. A distributed ledger might record all its users’ past trips, credit cards, favorite locations — all the metadata that services like Uber or Amazon use to encourage lock-in. Call it, for the sake of argument, the Transit protocol. The standards for sending a Transit request out onto the internet would be entirely open; anyone who wanted to build an app to respond to that request would be free to do so. Cities could build Transit apps that allowed taxi drivers to field requests. But so could bike-share collectives, or rickshaw drivers. Developers could create shared marketplace apps where all the potential vehicles using Transit could vie for your business. When you walked out on the sidewalk and tried to get a ride, you wouldn’t have to place your allegiance with a single provider before hailing. You would simply announce that you were standing at 67th and Madison and needed to get to Union Square. And then you’d get a flurry of competing offers. You could even theoretically get an offer from the M.T.A., which could build a service to remind Transit users that it might be much cheaper and faster just to jump on the 6 train.

How would Transit reach critical mass when Uber and Lyft already dominate the ride-sharing market? This is where the tokens come in. Early adopters of Transit would be rewarded with Transit tokens, which could themselves be used to purchase Transit services or be traded on exchanges for traditional currency. As in the Bitcoin model, tokens would be doled out less generously as Transit grew more popular. In the early days, a developer who built an iPhone app that uses Transit might see a windfall of tokens; Uber drivers who started using Transit as a second option for finding passengers could collect tokens as a reward for embracing the system; adventurous consumers would be rewarded with tokens for using Transit in its early days, when there are fewer drivers available compared with the existing proprietary networks like Uber or Lyft.

As Transit began to take off, it would attract speculators, who would put a monetary price on the token and drive even more interest in the protocol by inflating its value, which in turn would attract more developers, drivers and customers. If the whole system ends up working as its advocates believe, the result is a more competitive but at the same time more equitable marketplace. Instead of all the economic value being captured by the shareholders of one or two large corporations that dominate the market, the economic value is distributed across a much wider group: the early developers of Transit, the app creators who make the protocol work in a consumer-friendly form, the early-adopter drivers and passengers, the first wave of speculators. Token economies introduce a strange new set of elements that do not fit the traditional models: instead of creating value by owning something, as in the shareholder equity model, people create value by improving the underlying protocol, either by helping to maintain the ledger (as in Bitcoin mining), or by writing apps atop it, or simply by using the service. The lines between founders, investors and customers are far blurrier than in traditional corporate models; all the incentives are explicitly designed to steer away from winner-take-all outcomes. And yet at the same time, the whole system depends on an initial speculative phase in which outsiders are betting on the token to rise in value.

“You think about the ’90s internet bubble and all the great infrastructure we got out of that,” Dixon says. “You’re basically taking that effect and shrinking it down to the size of an application.”

Even decentralized cryptomovements have their key nodes. For Ethereum, one of those nodes is the Brooklyn headquarters of an organization called ConsenSys, founded by Joseph Lubin, an early Ethereum pioneer. In November, Amanda Gutterman, the 26-year-old chief marketing officer for ConsenSys, gave me a tour of the space. In our first few minutes together, she offered the obligatory cup of coffee, only to discover that the drip-coffee machine in the kitchen was bone dry. “How can we fix the internet if we can’t even make coffee?” she said with a laugh.

Planted in industrial Bushwick, a stone’s throw from the pizza mecca Roberta’s, “headquarters” seemed an unlikely word. The front door was festooned with graffiti and stickers; inside, the stairwells of the space appeared to have been last renovated during the Coolidge administration. Just about three years old, the ConsenSys network now includes more than 550 employees in 28 countries, and the operation has never raised a dime of venture capital. As an organization, ConsenSys does not quite fit any of the usual categories: It is technically a corporation, but it has elements that also resemble nonprofits and workers’ collectives. The shared goal of ConsenSys members is strengthening and expanding the Ethereum blockchain. They support developers creating new apps and tools for the platform, one of which is MetaMask, the software that generated my Ethereum address. But they also offer consulting-style services for companies, nonprofits or governments looking for ways to integrate Ethereum’s smart contracts into their own systems.

The true test of the blockchain will revolve — like so many of the online crises of the past few years — around the problem of identity. Today your digital identity is scattered across dozens, or even hundreds, of different sites: Amazon has your credit-card information and your purchase history; Facebook knows your friends and family; Equifax maintains your credit history. When you use any of those services, you are effectively asking for permission to borrow some of that information about yourself in order perform a task: ordering a Christmas present for your uncle, checking Instagram to see pictures from the office party last night. But all these different fragments of your identity don’t belong to you; they belong to Facebook and Amazon and Google, who are free to sell bits of that information about you to advertisers without consulting you. You, of course, are free to delete those accounts if you choose, and if you stop checking Facebook, Zuckerberg and the Facebook shareholders will stop making money by renting out your attention to their true customers. But your Facebook or Google identity isn’t portable. If you want to join another promising social network that is maybe a little less infected with Russian bots, you can’t extract your social network from Twitter and deposit it in the new service. You have to build the network again from scratch (and persuade all your friends to do the same).

The blockchain evangelists think this entire approach is backward. You should own your digital identity — which could include everything from your date of birth to your friend networks to your purchasing history — and you should be free to lend parts of that identity out to services as you see fit. Given that identity was not baked into the original internet protocols, and given the difficulty of managing a distributed database in the days before Bitcoin, this form of “self-sovereign” identity — as the parlance has it — was a practical impossibility. Now it is an attainable goal. A number of blockchain-based services are trying to tackle this problem, including a new identity system called uPort that has been spun out of ConsenSys and another one called Blockstack that is currently based on the Bitcoin platform. (Tim Berners-Lee is leading the development of a comparable system, called Solid, that would also give users control over their own data.) These rival protocols all have slightly different frameworks, but they all share a general vision of how identity should work on a truly decentralized internet.

What would prevent a new blockchain-based identity standard from following Tim Wu’s Cycle, the same one that brought Facebook to such a dominant position? Perhaps nothing. But imagine how that sequence would play out in practice. Someone creates a new protocol to define your social network via Ethereum. It might be as simple as a list of other Ethereum addresses; in other words, Here are the public addresses of people I like and trust. That way of defining your social network might well take off and ultimately supplant the closed systems that define your network on Facebook. Perhaps someday, every single person on the planet might use that standard to map their social connections, just as every single person on the internet uses TCP/IP to share data. But even if this new form of identity became ubiquitous, it wouldn’t present the same opportunities for abuse and manipulation that you find in the closed systems that have become de facto standards. I might allow a Facebook-style service to use my social map to filter news or gossip or music for me, based on the activity of my friends, but if that service annoyed me, I’d be free to sample other alternatives without the switching costs. An open identity standard would give ordinary people the opportunity to sell their attention to the highest bidder, or choose to keep it out of the marketplace altogether.

Gutterman suggests that the same kind of system could be applied to even more critical forms of identity, like health care data. Instead of storing, say, your genome on servers belonging to a private corporation, the information would instead be stored inside a personal data archive. “There may be many corporate entities that I don’t want seeing that data, but maybe I’d like to donate that data to a medical study,” she says. “I could use my blockchain-based self-sovereign ID to [allow] one group to use it and not another. Or I could sell it over here and give it away over there.”

The token architecture would give a blockchain-based identity standard an additional edge over closed standards like Facebook’s. As many critics have observed, ordinary users on social-media platforms create almost all the content without compensation, while the companies capture all the economic value from that content through advertising sales. A token-based social network would at least give early adopters a piece of the action, rewarding them for their labors in making the new platform appealing. “If someone can really figure out a version of Facebook that lets users own a piece of the network and get paid,” Dixon says, “that could be pretty compelling.”

Would that information be more secure in a distributed blockchain than behind the elaborate firewalls of giant corporations like Google or Facebook? In this one respect, the Bitcoin story is actually instructive: It may never be stable enough to function as a currency, but it does offer convincing proof of just how secure a distributed ledger can be. “Look at the market cap of Bitcoin or Ethereum: $80 billion, $25 billion, whatever,” Dixon says. “That means if you successfully attack that system, you could walk away with more than a billion dollars. You know what a ‘bug bounty’ is? Someone says, ‘If you hack my system, I’ll give you a million dollars.’ So Bitcoin is now a nine-year-old multibillion-dollar bug bounty, and no one’s hacked it. It feels like pretty good proof.”

Additional security would come from the decentralized nature of these new identity protocols. In the identity system proposed by Blockstack, the actual information about your identity — your social connections, your purchasing history — could be stored anywhere online. The blockchain would simply provide cryptographically secure keys to unlock that information and share it with other trusted providers. A system with a centralized repository with data for hundreds of millions of users — what security experts call “honey pots” — is far more appealing to hackers. Which would you rather do: steal a hundred million credit histories by hacking into a hundred million separate personal computers and sniffing around until you found the right data on each machine? Or just hack into one honey pot at Equifax and walk away with the same amount of data in a matter of hours? As Gutterman puts it, “It’s the difference between robbing a house versus robbing the entire village.”

So much of the blockchain’s architecture is shaped by predictions about how that architecture might be abused once it finds a wider audience. That is part of its charm and its power. The blockchain channels the energy of speculative bubbles by allowing tokens to be shared widely among true supporters of the platform. It safeguards against any individual or small group gaining control of the entire database. Its cryptography is designed to protect against surveillance states or identity thieves. In this, the blockchain displays a familial resemblance to political constitutions: Its rules are designed with one eye on how those rules might be exploited down the line.

Much has been made of the anarcho-libertarian streak in Bitcoin and other nonfiat currencies; the community is rife with words and phrases (“self-sovereign”) that sound as if they could be slogans for some militia compound in Montana. And yet in its potential to break up large concentrations of power and explore less-proprietary models of ownership, the blockchain idea offers a tantalizing possibility for those who would like to distribute wealth more equitably and break up the cartels of the digital age.

The blockchain worldview can also sound libertarian in the sense that it proposes nonstate solutions to capitalist excesses like information monopolies. But to believe in the blockchain is not necessarily to oppose regulation, if that regulation is designed with complementary aims. Brad Burnham, for instance, suggests that regulators should insist that everyone have “a right to a private data store,” where all the various facets of their online identity would be maintained. But governments wouldn’t be required to design those identity protocols. They would be developed on the blockchain, open source. Ideologically speaking, that private data store would be a true team effort: built as an intellectual commons, funded by token speculators, supported by the regulatory state.

Like the original internet itself, the blockchain is an idea with radical — almost communitarian — possibilities that at the same time has attracted some of the most frivolous and regressive appetites of capitalism. We spent our first years online in a world defined by open protocols and intellectual commons; we spent the second phase in a world increasingly dominated by closed architectures and proprietary databases. We have learned enough from this history to support the hypothesis that open works better than closed, at least where base-layer issues are concerned. But we don’t have an easy route back to the open-protocol era. Some messianic next-generation internet protocol is not likely to emerge out of Department of Defense research, the way the first-generation internet did nearly 50 years ago.

Yes, the blockchain may seem like the very worst of speculative capitalism right now, and yes, it is demonically challenging to understand. But the beautiful thing about open protocols is that they can be steered in surprising new directions by the people who discover and champion them in their infancy. Right now, the only real hope for a revival of the open-protocol ethos lies in the blockchain. Whether it eventually lives up to its egalitarian promise will in large part depend on the people who embrace the platform, who take up the baton, as Juan Benet puts it, from those early online pioneers. If you think the internet is not working in its current incarnation, you can’t change the system through think-pieces and F.C.C. regulations alone. You need new code.

The New Internet Police Protecting You From Freedom of Thought and Speech


Before the Internet was launched in 1992, our thoughts, values and beliefs were informed by our family and friends and by the books, magazines and newspapers we read and by what we heard on radio and saw on television. If we wanted to communicate with each other we would pick up the telephone, write a letter or meet face to face.

The Internet changed everything.

The World Wide Web gave us electronic access to free, uncensored information on our computers, tablets and cell phones and the ability to instantly share that information with each other. It connected us together in a virtual public square, where we could do our own research and talk about our personal experiences, and express what we think and believe and how we feel about important issues that affect our lives.

There are three billion people on the Internet communicating with each other. 1 Except for the printing press created in the 15th century, there is no other single means of communication that has had as profound an impact on freedom of thought and speech as the World Wide Web.

Yes, the Internet has changed everything. And, now, everyone needs to know how the Internet is changing.

In the very near future you may not be able to find information about vaccine science, policy and law published on websites like NVIC.org and TheVaccineReaction.org or be able to connect with us on social media platforms to have an open conversation about it. With the cancellation of net neutrality in the U.S. in 2017,3 the two decade forging of public-private business partnerships between governments and politically powerful corporations and institutions has cleared the way for factual information about health to be censored as “fake news” and quietly removed from the Internet if it does not conform with public health policy and government recommendations for use of pharmaceutical and food products.

Has the Internet been hijacked by Wall Street? It sure looks that way.

An electronic wall is being built to block you from getting information you want so you only get information someone else decides you need. An electronic burning of the books has begun, and the people are being silently herded into a virtual Dark Age. While this censorship is starting with conversations about health and vaccination, it will not end there.

Those who have bought and control the Internet now have the power to restrict or block any kind of information they do not want you to see or talk about with your family, friends and others you connect with online.5

So who is doing the judging of what is truth and what is “fake news” online?

The Internet Police Thinking and Speaking for You

Web of Trust6 and Snopes,7 both for-profit enterprises, have attempted to police the Internet for the past decade by rating websites for “trustworthiness” or branding articles published online as “true” or “false,” even as they themselves became embroiled in controversy about trustworthiness.10 But Snopes and Web of Trust are rookies compared to the professional SWAT team hired this year by a new corporation, NewsGuard Technologies, Inc., to rate websites and online publications so, in their own words, they can quote “fight false news, misinformation and disinformation.”11 12 13 14 15 16 17 NewsGuard is collaborating with The Paley Center for Media,18 Google,19 Microsoft,20 21 Publicis,22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 schools, libraries32 and other institutions to protect you and your children from news and perspective they think will harm you and society.

There is no question that “fake news” is a real problem in both mainstream and alternative media when demonstrably false information is deliberately disguised as fact. However, it is also a real problem when demonstrably factual information or perspective is mislabeled as “fake news,” simply because it criticizes government policy or threatens the bottom line of corporations selling government recommended commercial products like liability free vaccines.

One of the most politically powerful public-private partnerships today is the lucrative one that has been forged by the pharmaceutical industry with government,33 34 35 36 37 38 mainstream media39 and wealthy philanthropic foundations with political agendas.40 41 42 43 44 45

NVIC Giving a Voice for the Vaccine Injured, Defending Human Rights

It has been 25 years since the nonprofit charity founded in 1982 by parents of vaccine injured children, the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), began posting vaccine information on the Internet. Our mission is to prevent vaccine injuries and deaths through public education and to protect the ethical principle of informed consent to medical risk taking, which serves as the foundation for the ethical practice of medicine.46 The co-founders and parent representatives of NVIC have a long, transparent public record of consumer advocacy, including working with Congress to secure vaccine safety informing, recording, reporting and research provisions in the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 and serving on federal vaccine advisory committees and testifying in congressional and state legislative hearings.47 48

We represent and give a voice to a vulnerable minority, the ones for whom the risks of vaccination turn out to be 100 percent. But we also represent and give a voice to people who believe that the human right to freedom of thought, speech, conscience and informed consent must be protected.49

Verifiable Facts About Vaccination Not “Fake News”

Ten years before the birth of the Internet, one of the best-kept secrets in America was that vaccines can and do cause injury and death and that some individuals are more vulnerable to being harmed by vaccination. In 1982, an Emmy award winning television documentary DPT: Vaccine Roulette produced by consumer reporter Lea Thompson alerted parents and pediatricians that the whole cell pertussis vaccine in DPT shots could brain damage children.50 51 It was a mainstream media outlet – NBC – that blew the whistle on the pharmaceutical industry’s neglect, and the medical establishment’s denial of DPT vaccine reactions, and the 50-year failure of industry and government to improve the safety of a vaccine mandated for all children to attend school.

These are verifiable facts: the truth, not “fake news.”

Three years later in 1985, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich published DPT: A Shot in the Dark, a book that further documented the risks and failures of the old crude whole cell pertussis vaccine.52 A year later, Congress passed the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act. In that legislation, for the first time the US government acknowledged that FDA licensed and CDC recommended vaccines can and do injure children.53 54

Since the 1986 Act was passed, the government has awarded four billion dollars in compensation to thousands of children and adults who have suffered permanent injuries, or whose loved ones have died after being given federally licensed and recommended vaccines.55

These are verifiable facts: the truth, not “fake news.”

Between 1991 and 2013, the National Academy of Sciences published a series of reports on vaccine adverse effects.56 These reports confirmed that vaccines can cause brain and immune system disorders, and that genetic, biological and environmental risk factors make some individuals more vulnerable to being harmed but doctors don’t know how to identify them because of gaps in vaccine science.57

These are verifiable facts: the truth, not “fake news.”

More than 684,000 adverse events following vaccination, including hospitalizations, injuries and deaths, have been reported to the federal government since 1990.58 This number is estimated to represent less than one percent of all vaccine adverse events that have actually occurred.59

These are verifiable facts; the truth, not “fake news.”

The U.S. government now recommends that children receive 69 doses of 16 vaccines between the day of birth and age 18, with 50 doses given before the age of six,60 which is triple the number of vaccinations given to children in 1983.61 Almost all of these vaccinations are mandated by states for children to attend school62 and some children are being refused medical care and adults are being fired from their jobs if they don’t get every one of them, even after suffering vaccine reactions and deterioration in health.63 64 65 66 67

Vaccine policy and mandates have helped to create a global vaccine market now projected to bring in a staggering $57 billion dollars for drug companies by 2025.68 69

These are verifiable facts, not “fake news.” But very soon you may not be able to get this information or talk about it online.

It is already happening.

Discrimination and Censorship: NVIC’s Information Targeted Online

Traffic to NVIC’s websites has fallen more than 50 percent since net neutrality was cancelled last year and access to our online information was restricted by suppressive algorithms and rating systems.70

Although NVIC takes a pro-education, pro-informed consent position and does not make vaccine use recommendations, NVIC’s Pinterest account was recently suspended.71 The reason given was that Pinterest takes action “against accounts that repeatedly save content that includes harmful advice, misinformation that targets individuals or protected groups or content that originates from disinformation campaigns” and that Pinterest operators “don’t allow advice when it has immediate or detrimental effects on a Pinner’s health or on public safety. This includes promotion of false cures for terminal or chronic illnesses and anti-vaccination advice,” adding that they rely on “information from national and internationally recognized institutions like the CDC and WHO World Health Organization” to guide their judgments.

NVIC is awaiting the judgment of NewsGuard Technologies about whether our weekly online journal newspaper The Vaccine Reaction will be given a green or red rating, which will send a signal to major search engines and social media platforms with the power to preserve or censor and make information disappear from the Internet.

Censoring Information for The Greater Good?

The new Internet Police scrubbing the World Wide Web of information they do not want you to see or talk about is part of the larger culture war going on today in our country and in many countries.72 73 When it comes to vaccination, discrimination and censorship is justified in the name of public safety and The Greater Good.74 75

Who’s greater good? Who among us in society should be given the power to take away our freedom to seek and obtain knowledge, to engage in rational thinking, to speak in the public square and follow the judgment of our conscience when making decisions about what we are willing to risk our lives and our children’s lives for?

In America, where the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution guarantees civil liberties to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority, we cannot wait any longer to publicly discuss and answer that question. It is a question that needs open public discussion, not censorship, because what is at stake affects not only freedom of thought and speech, but the loss of autonomy, the first and most sacred of all natural rights that protects every one of us from exploitation by wealthy corporations and politically powerful institutions.

Taking Positive Action with Eyes Wide Open and No Fear

In this time of oppression, we cannot know what needs to be done unless we go forward with our eyes wide open, understanding the new reality without fearing it. It is time to collect, preserve and cherish the good books, articles, films, videos and podcasts that have been published about vaccination and share them with our family and friends; time to save and download to our computers and external hard drives the written and video information still online that we want to keep and share with our children and our grandchildren. Time to expand the open public record by attending, testifying at and recording every legislative hearing, every town hall gathering, and every federal vaccine advisory committee meeting where people discuss vaccination or attempt to eliminate the human right to autonomy and censor freedom of thought and speech.

If the doors to the Internet are closing, we can still stand up and speak in the smaller public squares that have always been there. We can come together and talk the old fashioned way, meeting in cafes, hotels, churches and in the privacy of our own homes. We can set up telephone trees and stay in touch by mail the way we did before the Internet. We can still use the World Wide Web to create private messaging and host webinars. We can create new ways of communicating with each other using more secure channels for uncensored conversations about vaccination and health.

No matter what happens to the Internet, the best way to not lose touch with us is to register today for the free online NVIC Advocacy Portal, which is a secure communications network that puts you in electronic contact with your own legislators and provides you with real time information about vaccine-related legislation moving in your state. Taking that action provides us with an address to send you information in the mail, which also happens if you make a charitable donation to NVIC in any amount.

Today, everybody knows somebody who was healthy, got vaccinated and was never healthy again. NVIC has been here for 36 years telling the truth about vaccination and advocating for better quality vaccine science, higher government vaccine safety licensing standards, more humane public health policies and protection of informed consent rights. The truth about vaccination is out there now and the truth will shine bright and clear in the end, no matter who tries to stop it from being known.

It’s your health, your family, your choice and our mission continues: No forced vaccination. Not in America.


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The Divide Between Silicon Valley and Washington Is a National-Security Threat


Personnel work at the Air Force Space Command Network Operations and Security Center at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado.
Personnel work at the Air Force Space Command Network Operations and Security Center at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado.

Closing the gap between technology leaders and policy makers will require a radically different approach from the defense establishment.

A silent divide is weakening America’s national security, and it has nothing to do with President Donald Trump or party polarization. It’s the growing gulf between the tech community in Silicon Valley and the policy-making community in Washington.

Beyond all the acrimonious headlines, Democrats and Republicans share a growing alarm over the return of great-power conflict. China and Russia are challenging American interests, alliances, and values—through territorial aggression; strong-arm tactics and unfair practices in global trade; cyber theft and information warfare; and massive military buildups in new weapons systems such as Russia’s “Satan 2” nuclear long-range missile, China’s autonomous weapons, and satellite-killing capabilities to destroy our communications and imagery systems in space. Since Trump took office, huge bipartisan majorities in Congress have passed tough sanctions against Russia, sweeping reforms to scrutinize and block Chinese investments in sensitive American technology industries, and record defense-budget increases. You know something’s big when senators like the liberal Ron Wyden and the conservative John Cornyn start agreeing.

In Washington, alarm bells are ringing. Here in Silicon Valley, not so much. “Ask people to finish the sentence, ‘China is a ____ of the United States,’” said the former National Economic Council chairman Keith Hennessey. “Policy makers from both parties are likely to answer with ‘competitor,’ ‘strategic rival,’ or even ‘adversary,’ while Silicon Valley leaders will probably tell you China is a ‘supplier,’ ‘investor,’ and especially ‘potential market.’”

In the past year, Google executives, citing ethical concerns, have canceled an artificial-intelligence project with the Pentagon and refused to even bid on the Defense Department’s Project JEDI, a desperately needed $10 billion IT-improvement program. While stiff-arming Washington, Google has been embracing Beijing, helping the Chinese government develop a more effective censored search engine despite outcries from human-rights groups, American politicians, and, more recently, its own employees. Since the 2016 presidential election, Facebook executives have been apologizing to Congress in public while waging a campaign to deny, delay, and deflect regulation and stifle critics in private.

Former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Google’s Eric Schmidt, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman, Code for America’s Jen Pahlka, and others have been working hard to bridge the divide, bringing technology innovation to Washington and a sense of national service to the tech industry. But their efforts are nowhere near enough. The rift is real, deep, and a long time coming, because it’s really three divides converging into one.

There is a yawning civil-military relations gap between the protectors and the protected. When World War II ended, veterans could be found in seven out of 10 homes on a typical neighborhood street. Today it’s two. Less than half a percent of the U.S. population serves on active duty. A senior executive from a major Silicon Valley firm recently told us that none of the company’s engineers had ever seen anyone from the military.

It should come as no surprise that when people live and work in separate universes, they tend to develop separate views. The civil-military gap helps explain why many in tech companies harbor deep ethical concerns about helping warfighters kill people and win wars, while many in the defense community harbor deep ethical concerns about what they view as the erosion of patriotism and national service in the tech industry. Each side is left wondering, How can anyone possibly think that way? Asked last week what he would tell engineers at companies like Google and Amazon, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford said, “Hey, we’re the good guys … It’s inexplicable to me that we wouldn’t have a cooperative relationship with the private sector.”

There’s a training gap between leaders in Washington, who are mostly lawyers struggling to understand recent technological advances, and leaders in Silicon Valley, who are mostly engineers struggling to understand the age-old dynamics of international power politics. Congress has 222 lawyers but just eight engineers. On the Senate Armed Services Committee, it’s even more stark. Of its 25 members, 17 are lawyers and just one is an engineer. (He’s actually the only engineer in the entire Senate.) In the past, policy makers didn’t have to work that hard to understand the essence of breakthrough technologies like the telegraph, the automobile, and nuclear fission. Sure, technology moved faster than policy, but the lag was more manageable. Digital technologies are different, spreading quickly and widely on the internet, with societal effects that are hard to imagine and nearly impossible to contain. Understanding these technologies is far more challenging, and understanding them fast is essential to countering Russia and China.

At the same time, today’s brightest young engineers barely remember 9/11, view the Cold War as ancient history rather than lived experience, and can get computer-science degrees at elite institutions without ever taking a course about cybersecurity or thinking about what is in the national interest. For technologists, technology holds the promise of a brighter future, not the peril of dark possibilities. Their overriding challenge is getting a breakthrough to work, not imagining how it could be used by bad actors in nefarious ways.

The congressional hearings with the Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on April 10 and 11 brought the two perspectives—and the chasm between them—into full view. For the tech community, it was a jaw-dropping moment that revealed just how little members of Congress know about the products and companies that are transforming global politics, commerce, and civil society. Senator Orrin Hatch appeared surprised to learn that Facebook earned the majority of its revenue through ad sales. “How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” Hatch asked quizzically. “Senator, we run ads,” replied Zuckerberg, his aides grinning behind him. Senator Lindsey Graham asked whether Twitter was the same thing as Facebook. Even Senator Brian Schatz, considered one of Congress’s tech aficionados, didn’t seem to know the difference between social media, email, and encrypted text messaging. As Ash Carter wrote, “All I can say is that I wish members [of Congress] had been as poorly prepared to question me on war and peace in the scores of testimonies I gave as they were when asking Facebook about the public duties of tech companies.”

For the policy-making community, the hearings were a jaw-dropping moment showing just how much naïveté and profits were driving Facebook’s decisions, and just how little Zuckerberg and his team ever considered the possibility that all sorts of bad actors could use their platform in all sorts of very bad ways. In his opening statement, Zuckerberg admitted, “Facebook is an idealistic and optimistic company. For most of our existence, we focused on all of the good that connecting people can do.” Zuckerberg added, “But it’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm.”

The third divide is generational. In Washington, power runs vertically and rests in the hands of gray eminences. In Silicon Valley, power runs horizontally and rests in the hands of wunderkinds and their friends. Steve Jobs was 21 years old when he started Apple with his buddy Steve Wozniak. Bill Gates quit college his junior year to start Microsoft. Zuckerberg launched Facebook in his sophomore dorm room. Larry Page and Sergey Brin were old men, starting Google at the age of 25. In the policy world, 30 years of experience usually makes you powerful. In the technical world, 30 years of experience usually makes you obsolete. Policy makers who think college engineering students should be grateful for the opportunity to shadow them and photocopy during college summers have it all wrong. Interns on Capitol Hill answer phones. Interns at SpaceX launch rockets into orbit. For gray eminences silently lamenting in their Washington corner offices, “Who needs these whiny young Millennials?” the answer is: America does.

It’s hard to overstate just how foreign the worlds of Washington and Silicon Valley have become to each other. At the exact moment that great-power conflict is making a comeback and harnessing technology is the key to victory, Silicon Valley and Washington are experiencing a “policy makers are from Mars, tech leaders are from Venus” moment, with both sides unable to trust or understand each other. Even the dress codes are vexing and perplexing. In the tech industry, adults dress like college kids. Inside the Beltway, college kids dress like adults.

Closing this divide is a national-security imperative. And it requires thinking differently, generating inspiration rather than just regulation, and targeting the leaders of tomorrow, not just the leaders of today.

For starters, the Pentagon needs a messaging overhaul. Stop telling engineering students at top universities, “If you want to make money, go into industry, but if you want a mission bigger than yourself, work for me.” When Admiral Mike Rogers, who led the U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, gave this standard recruiting pitch to Stanford undergraduates a few years ago, it fell flat. It still does. We recently held a focus group of Stanford computer-science majors. When we tested the message on them, heads started shaking in a Wow, you just don’t get it kind of way. “One of the main reasons people pick companies is they want to do social good,” said  Anna Mitchell, a senior. “People would laugh if the government said the only way to be impactful is to work in government.”

For these students and their peers, the desire for impact is real and deep. They believe that they can achieve large-scale change faster and better outside the government than within it. “A message suggesting a dichotomy of working in companies versus helping your country alienates a good portion of people on the fence,” Michael Karr, a Stanford junior, told us. “If you’re working on autonomous vehicles, you could be saving lives by making cars safer.” So what message does work? Giving them opportunities for impact at scale that don’t take a lifetime of moving up the ladder. Deploying the best young engineers against the toughest challenges, early. Telling them what Kevin tells potential recruits: If you do cyber operations for anyone else, you’ll get arrested. If you do them for me in the Air Force, you’ll get a medal.

The Pentagon also needs to create ambassadors, not lifers. More than getting technical experts into government for their entire careers, we need to get more national-security-minded engineers into tech companies. Winning hearts and minds in the tech world starts early, with new college graduates who are more open to new experiences that can last a lifetime. Imagine a Technology Fellows Program like the White House Fellows program, only younger. It would select the 50 most talented American engineering students graduating from college for a prestigious, one-year, high-impact stint in government service, working directly for senior leaders like the Air Force chief of staff, the secretary of defense, or the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East.

Tech fellows would work on the most important projects and participate in special programs for their cohort to bond and form a lifelong network. “People really care about their cohort,” said Andrew Milich, a Stanford senior specializing in artificial intelligence. Tech fellows could defer company jobs or take a leave of absence, knowing that all the other fellows would be the best in the world who would also be heading back to industry. The goal isn’t for them to stay in government. The goal is for their government experience to stay with them. As one of our students told us, “Everyone has a friend at Google.” Imagine the ripple effects if these friend networks across the tech industry included tech-fellow alumni.

Doing it right won’t be easy. The Tech Fellows Program would have to be high on prestige and low on bureaucracy. Fellows would need flexibility to select projects that align with their values, not just their expertise. As the sophomore Gleb Shevchuk told us, “There has to be a transparent discussion of ethics. The program has to come off as a program that understands the concerns of people who dislike certain things the government is doing.” Google engineers may object to helping the Pentagon improve its targeting algorithms, but they might jump at the chance to defend U.S. satellites from attacks in space.

In addition, the program would have to reduce logistical pain points dramatically. Tech companies compete aggressively on quality-of-life dimensions for their workforce—locating in cities where top talent wants to live, providing free housing and transportation, and offering exciting programs outside of the job. The Tech Fellows Program would need to do the same. The National Security Agency has cutting-edge technological programs that would be a natural fit for tech fellows, but that’s a hard sell. The hot cities for attracting top engineers include Austin, Seattle, San Francisco, New York, and Denver—but not Fort Meade.

In the longer term, the Pentagon needs a radically new civilian talent model. Programs like the Air Force’s Kessel Run and the Defense Digital Service are breaking new ground to bring technology and tech talent into the Pentagon, but these programs are green shoots surrounded by red tape. Will Roper, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology, and logistics, and someone who is no stranger to innovating inside the Defense Department, would like to see a much more fluid pathway in and out of industry and government. “I would invest to make the term revolving door superlative instead of pejorative,” he told a Georgetown class. “The people that we want are going to be people in industry that will want to come in and help us, and be able to go back out and come back in and help us, [so] that we’re continually refreshing the ideas, the creative thought … and right now we make it damn difficult to get in and out of government.”

These challenges are substantial, but small steps could have big impact over time. Congress could start by holding hearings with the goal of writing the best proposals into the National Defense Authorization Act this year. And if Congress doesn’t take action, then the Pentagon should, creating a Rapid Capabilities Office dedicated to developing new civilian talent programs, just like it has for developing new technologies.

In 1957, the launch of Sputnik spawned a fear that an underfunded education system had allowed the U.S. to lose its technological advantage to the Soviets. A year after the launch, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, increasing funding for science, mathematics, and foreign-language education at all levels and allowing for substantially more low-cost student loans. Within a decade, the number of college students in the U.S. had more than doubled, supercharging U.S. breakthroughs in the space race. What our national leaders realized in 1957 is still true today: What people know and how they think are just as important to the nation’s defense as the weapon systems we deploy.

Light at the end of the tunnel for UN climate talks


KATOWICE, Poland (AP) — A deal on the rules that govern the Paris climate accord appeared within grasp Saturday, as officials from almost 200 countries worked to bridge remaining differences after two weeks of U.N. talks in Poland.

The 2015 Paris Agreement was a landmark moment in international diplomacy, bringing together governments with vastly different views to tackle the common threat of global warming. But while the accord set a headline target of keeping average global temperatures from rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) — or 1.5 C (2.7 F) if possible — much of the fine print was left unfinished.

The meeting in Poland’s southern city of Katowice was meant to finalize how countries report their emissions of greenhouses gases — a key factor in man-made climate change — and the efforts they’re taking to reduce them. Poor countries also wanted assurances on financial support to help them cut emissions, adapt to inevitable changes such as sea level rise and pay for damage that’s already happened.

“We’ve come a long way,” Canada’s environment minister, Catherine McKenna, told The Associated Press ahead of a planned plenary meeting Saturday afternoon. “There’s been really late negotiations, there’s been big group negotiations, there’s been shuttle diplomacy all through the night, and now we are coming to the wire.”

One major sticking point during the talks was how to create a functioning market in carbon credits. Economists believe an international trading system could be an effective way to drive down emissions and raise large amounts of money for measures to curb global warming.

“We want billions to flow into trillions. And I’m someone who believes that it’s not just about national governments,” McKenna said. “Ultimately the market is going to play a huge role in the cleaner solutions that we need, supporting countries and being efficient and how we do this.”

Emerging economies such as Brazil have pushed back against rich countries’ demands to cancel piles of carbon credits still lingering from a system set up under the 1997 Kyoto accord. “There are still a range of possible outcomes and Brazil continues to work constructively with other parties to find a workable pathway forward,” said the country’s chief negotiator, Antonio Marcondes.

The talks in Poland took place against a backdrop of increasing concern among scientists that global warming is proceeding faster than governments are responding to it. A recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that while it’s possible to cap global warming at 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) by the end of the century compared to pre-industrial times, this will require a dramatic overhaul of the global economy including a shift away from fossil fuels.

Alarmed by efforts to include this in the final text of the meeting, the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait blocked endorsement of the report mid-way through the talks, prompting uproar from vulnerable countries and environmental groups.

While some officials questioned the format of the meeting, which has grown to a huge event with tens of thousands of participants, the head of Greenpeace International, Jennifer Morgan, stressed how important it was to bring all countries of the world together on the issue.

“We need a multilateral process especially for the poorest and smallest countries that don’t go to G-20,” she said, referring to the Group of 20 major and emerging economies that met recently in Argentina. “But the lack of ambition by some rich countries, like the European Union, is worrying, especially as we are staring the 1.5 report in the face.”

‘We are in trouble.’ Global carbon emissions reached a record high in 2018.


As nations assemble in Poland for climate talks, the figures suggest there is no clear end in sight to the growth of humanity’s contribution to climate change.

Poland hosts critical U.N. climate talks

As environmental activists protest in Brussels, the United Nations’ climate change talks begin in Poland on Dec. 2. (Reuters) By Brady Dennis and Chris Mooney December 5

Global emissions of carbon dioxide are reaching the highest levels on record, scientists projected Wednesday, in the latest evidence of the chasm between international goals for combating climate change and what countries are doing.

Between 2014 and 2016, emissions remained largely flat, leading to hopes that the world was beginning to turn a corner. Those hopes appear to have been dashed. In 2017, global emissions grew 1.6 percent. The rise in 2018 is projected to be 2.7 percent.

The expected increase, which would bring fossil fuel and industrial emissions to a record high of 37.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, is being driven by a nearly 5 percent growth of emissions in China and more than 6 percent in India, researchers estimated, along with growth in many other nations. Emissions by the United States grew 2.5 percent, while those of the European Union declined by just under 1 percent.

As nations continue climate talks in Poland, the message of Wednesday’s report was unambiguous: When it comes to promises to begin cutting the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change, the world is well off target.

“We are in trouble. We are in deep trouble with climate change,” United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said this week at the opening of the 24th annual U.N. climate conference, where countries will wrestle with the ambitious goals they need to meet to sharply reduce carbon emissions in the coming years.

“It is hard to overstate the urgency of our situation,” he said. “Even as we witness devastating climate impacts causing havoc across the world, we are still not doing enough, nor moving fast enough, to prevent irreversible and catastrophic climate disruption.”

Steam rises from the brown coal-fired power plant Neurath, center, and Niederaussem, left, operated by RWE in Bergheim, Germany, on Tuesday. The Rhenish Brown Coal Field is Europe’s largest carbon dioxide source. (Sascha Steinbach/EPA-EFE)

Guterres was not commenting specifically on Wednesday’s findings, which were released in a trio of scientific papers by researchers with the Global Carbon Project. But his words came amid a litany of grim news in the fall in which scientists have warned that the effects of climate change are no longer distant and hypothetical, and that the effects of global warming will only intensify in the absence of aggressive international action.

In October, a top U.N.-backed scientific panel found that nations have barely a decade to take “unprecedented” actions and cut their emissions in half by 2030 to prevent the worst consequences of climate change. The panel’s report found “no documented historic precedent” for the rapid changes to the infrastructure of society that would be needed to hold warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.

The day after Thanksgiving, the Trump administration released a nearly 1,700-page report co-written by hundreds of scientists finding that climate change is already causing increasing damage to the United States. That was followed by another report detailing the growing gap between the commitments made at earlier U.N. conferences and what is needed to steer the planet off its calamitous path.

Coupled with Wednesday’s findings, that drumbeat of daunting news has cast a considerable pall over the international climate talks in Poland, which began this week and are scheduled to run through Dec. 14.

Negotiators there face the difficult task of coming to terms with the gap between the promises they made in Paris in 2015 and what’s needed to control dangerous levels of warming — a first step, it is hoped, toward more aggressive climate action beginning in 2020. Leaders at the conference also are trying to put in place a process for how countries measure and report their greenhouse gas emissions to the rest of the world in the years ahead.

But while most of the world remains firmly committed to the notion of tackling climate change, many countries are not on pace to meet their relatively modest Paris pledges. The Trump administration has continued to roll back environmental regulations and insist that it will exit the Paris agreement in 2020. Brazil, which has struggled to rein in deforestation, in the fall elected Jair Bolsonaro, a president-elect who has pledged to roll back protections for the Amazon.

The biggest emissions story in 2018, though, appears to be China, the world’s largest emitting country, which grew its output of planet-warming gases by nearly a half-billion tons, researchers estimate. (The United States is the globe’s second-largest emitter.)

The country’s sudden, significant increase in carbon emissions could be linked to a wider slowdown in the economy, environmental analysts said.

“Under pressure of the current economic downturn, some local governments might have loosened supervision on air pollution and carbon emissions,” said Yang Fuqiang, an energy adviser to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a U.S. environmental organization.

China’s top planning agency said Wednesday that three areas — Liaoning in the northeast Rust Belt and the big coal-producing regions of Ningxia and Xinjiang in the northwest — had failed to meet their targets to curb energy consumption growth and improve efficiency last year.

But Yang said that these areas were not representative of the whole country and that China was generally on the right track. “There is still a long way ahead in terms of pollution control and emissions reduction, but we expect to see more ambitions in central government’s plans and actions,” he said.

Such changes — in all large-emitting nations — have to happen fast.

Scientists have said that annual carbon dioxide emissions need to plunge almost by half by 2030 if the world wants to hit the most stringent — and safest — climate change target. That would be either keeping the Earth’s warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius — when it is already at 1 degrees — or only briefly “overshooting” that temperature.

But emissions are far too high to limit warming to such an extent. And instead of falling dramatically, they’re still rising.

Wednesday’s research makes clear the intimidating math behind the fundamental shift that scientists say is required. While some nations continue to grow their emissions and some are shrinking them, overall there are still more additions than subtractions.

“We’re not seeing declines in wealthy countries that outpace the increases in other parts of the world,” said Rob Jackson, a researcher at Stanford University who contributed to the research as part of the Global Carbon Project.

The problem of cutting emissions is that it leads to difficult choices in the real world. A growing global economy inevitably stokes more energy demand. And different countries are growing their emissions — or failing to shrink them — for different reasons.

“India is providing electricity and energy to hundreds of millions of people who don’t have it yet,” Jackson said. “That’s very different than in China, where they are ramping up coal use again in part because their economic growth has been slowing. They’re greenlighting coal-based projects that have been on hold.”

The continuing growth in global emissions is happening, researchers noted, even though renewable energy sources are growing. It’s just that they’re still far too small as energy sources.

“Solar and wind are doing great; they’re going quite well,” said Glen Peters, director of the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo and another of the Global Carbon Project research’s authors. “But in China and India, the solar and wind are just filling new demand. You could say if you didn’t have solar or wind, emissions could be higher. But solar and wind are nowhere near big enough yet to replace fossil fuels.”

A worker unloads a bowl of charcoal onto a wire mesh filter at a coal wholesale market in Mumbai on Nov. 10. India is making a gradual shift away from fossil fuels to make its growth more sustainable and offer relief to its cities choked with air pollution. (Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg News)

The figures the researchers provided are an estimate based on available energy and cement industry data through the first nine months of the year, and projections based on economic trends and the amount of carbon tied to economic activity in different countries. The estimated growth could change a bit, Jackson said — it’s possible the final number could be between an increase of 1.8 percent and 3.7 percent. But either way, there’s little doubt that 2018 hit a record high for global emissions.

In the United States, emissions in 2018 are projected to have risen 2.5 percent, driven in part by a very warm summer that led to high air conditioning use and a very cold winter in the Northeast, but also by a continued use of oil driven by low gas prices and bigger cars. U.S. emissions had been on a downturn, as coal plants are being replaced by natural gas plants and renewable energy, but that momentum ground to a halt this year, at least temporarily. In Europe, cars also have been a major driver of slower-than-expected emissions reductions.

As for China, coal accounts for about 60 percent of China’s total energy consumption, but the government hopes to bring it down to 10 percent by 2050.

Thanks to increased investment in green energy, China’s carbon intensity, or the amount of carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP, declined by 46 percent by 2017 from 2005 levels, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment reported earlier this week. It had expected it would take until 2020 to reach the targeted 40 to 45 percent reduction.

“With these goals met, a very solid foundation has been laid for meeting the target of halting the increase of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, and even accomplishing that sooner than planned,” Xie Zhenhua, China’s special representative for climate change affairs, told the state-owned news agency Xinhua ahead of the meeting in Poland.

China will remain steadfast and active in addressing climate change and implementing the Paris agreement, Xie said.

But officials and analysts alike point out that the United States is not doing its part to combat global warming. “We would also love to see the United States embrace its responsibilities by returning to the Paris climate deal,” said Yang of the NRDC.

Despite the overwhelming challenges, Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, still holds high hopes for the talks in Poland.

“I’m an optimist because of human nature,” Espinosa said in an interview. She suspects the spate of ominous climate news might have prompted a tipping point at which societies begin demanding aggressive actions from their leaders to stave off the most disastrous effects of climate change.

“I think we have kind of reached the limit,” she said. “When we are facing the limit, I think we need to come up with something more creative, more ambitious, stronger and bolder.”

What Do African Aid Recipients Think Of Charity Ads?


Triptych of charity advertisements from (L-R) Save the Children, CARE, and Dubai Cares. Save the Children/CARE/Dubai Cares

It’s a question that charities often debate: How should their fund-raising ads portray the people they’re trying to help?

If the ads display graphic human suffering to elicit donations, they run the risk of exploiting the subjects or making them look helpless.

If the ads are more upbeat — showing aid recipients who are smiling, for example — they may ignore the subject’s strife and put the power to transform the subject’s life in the hands of rich, Western donors.

While this dilemma is often discussed among charity professionals,the debate hasn’t always included the people in the images — the aid recipients themselves.

So a group of researchers wanted to turn the tables. What do those who are supported by aid think? That’s the topic of a new survey, “Which Image Do You Prefer? A Study Of Visual Communications In Six African Countries.”

The findings show a mixed bag of reactions from the survey respondents to 10 ads — but the most common emotion was sadness.

“Right now, I feel like we are inferiors as a continent. It’s as if we are always begging,” said one 22-year-old Ethiopian man. “I understand that there are some of our people who are in need, who cannot even have a meal a day. But are we the only ones to whom that happens? The Western countries have problems, too.”

Researchers from the University of East Anglia and Radi-Aid, a charity watchdog project of the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH), surveyed 74 people who live in communities supported by aid in Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, South Africa, Uganda and Zambia.

The participants were asked to share their perceptions of ads from international aid groups like Oxfam, Save the Children and CARE. Three ads featureda positive subject — a smiling child, for example — three negative, three neutral and one without a person in it.

A selection of responses were published anonymously in the report, as is standard practice with surveys, says David Girling, coauthor of the study and a lecturer at the School of International Development at the University of East Anglia.

One of the favorites was from a global education charity called Dubai Cares. A little boy with a big smile holds a handmade yellow truck.The text on the ad says “I can teach you how to make a car from a plastic jug. Can you teach me to read?”

An ad by the global education charity Dubai Cares. Dubai Cares

“I love this [Dubai Cares ad], it shows that Africa has something to give as much as most of the adverts that show Africa to be in a place where they always have to ask and always look up to other countries to help. We also have something we can give out, that is why I like this one.” – Female, 22, Zambia

Another favorite came from Save the Children. A child refugee fleeing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is shown in a glass box, as if she were a museum artifact. The text reads, “We must make this a thing of the past.”

This ad from the global aid group Save the Children raises awareness from those displaced by war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Save the Children

“I like the Save the Children advert. Because it depicts that these people have no home. They have no shelter and no refuge. They have no place where they can go or nobody they can look up to.” – Female, 52, Malawi

One of the lowest-ranked ads came from CARE International U.K. It depicts a child in a ragged T-shirt with a sad expression, carrying a small jug of water. One woman said she wanted to know the story behind the picture.

A fundraising ad from the global charity CARE International U.K. CARE

“If you look at the child in the CARE advert, she is carrying a container of water, but we don’t know why … It has been [portrayed] as if the girl is suffering, but we don’t know because this is just a picture … I understand that maybe … if you bring such a picture, someone will feel sorry and give money.” – Female, 54, Malawi

In an email statement to NPR, Shabnam Amini from CARE International U.K. responded: “The CARE advert reviewed in Radi-Aid’s report is from 2013 … [and] is no longer used by CARE. While there is limited space in a print advert to tell somebody’s story, CARE ensured that additional information about the context and detail of Elsa’s story was held online at the time.”

Other criticisms of the ads overall included a lack of diversity in age groups, ethnicity and occupation.

“Out of 10 pictures, eight of them have used children. So why are they using children? And most of the children they are using are black. There are also white kids who are suffering. Why focus on kids as though it is the kids who are doing poverty? Why not cover their parents, or what they eat and where they live?” – Female, 48, South Africa

One of the most heart-wrenching aspects of the survey was how sad the advertisements made the participants feel, says Girling. He traveled to a focus group taking place in Johannesburg and observed everyone as they looked over the ads for the first time.

“People sat there shaking their heads in silence,” he says. “They felt sad that people in their own countries were suffering, and they didn’t have the ability to help them.”

“I went back to my hotel after that feeling quite choked myself,” he adds.

Even though the images elicited feelings of sorrow, 71 percent of the respondents found that the ads were an accurate representation of Africa’s state of affairs.

“If I look at all of these pictures that are in front of me, they are the things that are really going on in Africa. It’s really, really going on. You can see some countries fighting against each other, you can see some sickness too, you can see some people will be happy, so many different things.” – Male, 32, Ghana

And the respondents generally agreed that using “negative imagery” — what the report defines as images of a person visibly suffering from war, famine or other crises — is an effective way “to pull on heartstrings to elicit a donation,” says Girling.

At What Point Does A Fundraising Ad Go Too Far?

“They said they need all the help they can get,” says Girling, who attended a few focus groups in person. “As long as the images were an accurate representation [of the issue] and didn’t exploit people, and the images didn’t involve nudity or bloodshed, then they were OK for

[sad]

pictures to be used.”

That surprised Beathe Øgård, president of SAIH and the report’s co-author. These are precisely the types of images that her project Radi-Aid have been trying to eliminate from the aid sector.

“Stereotypes and over-simplification [of development problems] create a skewed view of how Westerners look at Africa,” she says.

But perhaps, she adds, it’s time “to start a new debate and reflect upon the findings we’ve seen. It should be possible to show both negative and positive imagery.”

Anti-vaccine Italian Government Sacks Entire Health Expert Board


World

The vaccine-skeptic Italian government has sacked every member of the country’s health advisory board, raising fears that the populist administration will sideline accepted science and inflict long-lasting damage on public health.Health minister Giulia Grillo removed all 30 members of the Higher Health Council Monday, arguing it is time to “give space to the new,” The Guardian reported.R

The council is the country’s most prominent body of technical-scientific experts, who advise the government on health policy.

Grillo is a member of the Five Star Movement (MS5)—the senior party in Italy’s ruling coalition, which has previously supported unproven cures for cancer and promised to overturn laws making vaccines mandatory for children.

Explaining her decision, Grillo wrote on Facebook, “We are the #governmentofchange and, as I have already done with the appointments of the various organs and committees of the ministry, I have chosen to open the door to other deserving personalities.”

Among those removed from their posts is former council president, Roberta Siliquini, who also serves as the head of the school of hygiene and preventive medicine at the University of Turin.

Siliquini told The Guardian: “We are worried about why they have decided to remove people who were selected due to their experience and competencies at the highest level.” She added, “We are also worried about who will make up the next council and especially if the nominations are politically motivated.”

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In this file photo, a doctor injects a vaccine for a baby on October 31, 2017 in Quimper, France

The members of the board usually serve three-year terms, and it is unusual for them to be cut short, especially with such little explanation. Grillo wrote that some members “could be reappointed,” but “not the leaders…who must have the trust of and be in full harmony with the minister in charge.”

Siliquini said she had never met Grillo since the new minister was appointed six months ago. “We’re the organisation that helps them, from a scientific and technical point of view, to make decisions on policy,” Siliquini explained. “But she never asked us anything during these six months, which was probably a strong signal.”

MS5 came to power earlier this year on a wave of anti-establishment sentiment, allying with the far-right Lega Nord party to lead an unlikely populist coalition. The party’s health care policy has prompted concern by seemingly dismissing swathes of accepted science and instead embracing conspiracy theories and fraudulent medicine.

MS5 has previously lent support to a controversial stem-cell therapy—known as Stamina—promoted by psychologist Davide Vannoni, who claimed it could perform miracles and cure diseases including cancer. Experts since claim to have proven the therapy is a scam.

Current Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte also has links to the scam, having represented a the family of a girl with a degenerative disease in 2013, calling on the government to allow her access to Stamina treatment.

MS5—then still a burgeoning force—seized on the debate to accuse the establishment of withholding new medical treatments from ordinary citizens, despite having no evidence that the method even worked.

The party’s vaccine-skepticism has also been well-publicized. During this year’s election campaign, MS5 promised to reform a law that made 10 vaccines mandatory and required a doctor’s note to confirm the injections. In June, Grillo said parents could “self-certify” that their children had been vaccinated and waved the requirement for doctor confirmation.

This caused chaos when the new school year began in September, with thousands of children with compromised immune systems forced to stay at home for fear that classmates had not been vaccinated against potentially deadly diseases.

But a fresh measles epidemic has forced the government into a U-turn. Authorities have now said the vaccines obligation will remain in place and have called for 800,000 infants, children and young adults to be injected against the virus, The Telegraph noted.

Economists Who Changed Thinking on Climate Change Win Nobel Prize


The ideas of William Nordhaus and Paul Romer have shaped today’s policies on greenhouse gas emissions.
Economists Who Changed Thinking on Climate Change Win Nobel Prize
William Nordhaus (left) and Paul Romer.

A pair of U.S. economists, William Nordhaus and Paul Romer, share the 2018 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for integrating climate change, and technological change, into macroeconomics, which deals with the behaviour of an economy as a whole.

Nordhaus, at the University of Yale in New Haven, Connecticut, is the founding father of the study of climate change economics. Economic models he has developed since the 1990s are now widely used to weigh the costs and benefits of curbing greenhouse gas emissions against those of inaction. His studies are central to determining the social cost of carbon, an attempt to quantify the total cost to society of greenhouse-gases, including hidden factors such as extreme weather and lower crop yields. The metric is increasingly used when implementing climate change policies.

“Nordhaus was in a position early on to think about climate change from a human welfare and well-being perspective,” says Ottmar Edenhofer, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. “Without him, there wouldn’t be such a subject of climate economics.”

Romer, who is at the NYU Stern School of Business in New York, was honoured for his work on the role of technological change in economic growth. The economist is best-known for his studies on how market forces and economic decisions facilitate technological change. His ‘endogenous growth theory’, developed in the 1990s, opened new avenues of research on how policies and regulations can prompt new ideas and economic innovation.

And Romer’s work also has implications for policies relating to climate-change mitigation. “He showed clearly that unregulated free markets will not sufficiently invest in research and development activities,” says Edenhofer.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in a statement: “William D. Nordhaus and Paul M. Romer have designed methods for addressing some of ourtime’s most basic and pressing questions about how we create long-term sustained and sustainableeconomic growth.”

What’s in a Half a Degree? 2 Very Different Future Climates


A new IPCC report shows the impacts in the near future that can be avoided by limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius instead of 2 degrees C.
What's in a Half a Degree? 2 Very Different Future Climates
Coral reefs, like this bleached specimen in Malaysia, could be virtually wiped out if global temperatures rise by 2 degrees C. A more limited warming of 1.5 degrees C would still cause 70 to 90 percent of reefs to disappear.

A mere half a degree could spell the difference between the Arctic being ice-free once a decade and once a century; between coral reefs being almost entirely wiped out and up to 30 percent hanging on; and between a third of the world’s population being exposed to extreme heat waves and a tenth.

These alternate futures were laid out last week in a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that explores the possibility of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial times by 2100, instead of the 2-degree C upper limit agreed to in the landmark Paris agreement three years ago. The report exposes the closing window humanity has to choose which future it wants.

Preventing a temperature rise of 2 degrees C will be a major challenge, one that the current commitments from various countries will likely be unable to meet. And that is before Pres. Donald Trump pulls the U.S. out of the agreement. But the report says a 1.5-degree C limit is not impossible—although it will require immediate and drastic action, because the current pace of emissions would breach that level between 2030 and 2052. The most likely scenario for achieving that goal may require blowing past it, and then sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to bring temperatures back in line.

With disruptions to the climate system already being felt now amid just under 1 degree C of warming, even the 1.5-degree C goal seems poised to bring major negative impacts. Preventing another half degree of warming on top of that, however, would spare entire ecosystems, cities and vulnerable populations from exponentially worse damage. “We still have choices to make; we’ve seen some of the leading-edge damage already,” says Kim Cobb, a climate scientist at Georgia Institute of Technology, who is an author on the next major IPCC report.

Here are some of the climate consequences that can be avoided if warming is limited to 1.5 degrees C:

Heat: Rising average temperatures have a clear connection to how often heat waves happen, and how bad they get when they do. Studies have already shown the fingerprints of global warming on major heat waves in today’s climate, and things will only get worse as temperatures on the hottest days rise faster than the global average. One study cited in the new report used climate models to see how the share of the world’s population exposed to a heat wave (one with a 5 percent chance of occurring in any given year) would change. That number increased from less than 10 percent of the population now to 50 percent with 1.5 degree C of warming, and more than 70 percent at 2 degrees C.

Ecosystems: Coral reefs have already been battered by warming and acidifying oceans, with widespread bleaching in recent years. Reefs have one of the bleaker future outcomes: a temperature rise of 2 degrees C would eliminate 99 percent of today’s reefs whereas 1.5 degrees C could save a sliver of them, with losses between 70 and 90 percent. Other animals face major losses in places to live. The amount of climatically suitable habitat lost by vertebrates and plants would double from a 1.5- to 2-degree C regime, and triple for invertebrates.

Arctic: The Arctic has already warmed at about double the rate of the planet as a whole, causing permafrost to thaw and sea ice to steadily melt. The jump from 1.5 to 2 degrees C could mean an extra 1.5 million to 2.5 million square kilometers of permafrost disappear, while the Arctic Ocean would go from seeing ice-free conditions in the summer once every 100 years to once every 10.

Food and Water: Warming temperatures also threaten the water and food sources humans depend on. Allowing the global temperature to rise by 2 degrees C could double the losses in annual ocean fish catches, up the number of people exposed to water stress by 50 percent and increase the declines in the yields of key staple crops such as maize, rice and wheat.

Credit: Amanda Montañez; Sources: “Extreme Heat Waves under 1.5° C and 2° C Global Warming,” by Alessandro Dosio et al., in Environmental Research Letters, Vol. 13, No. 5; April 25, 2018 (heat wave data); Carbon Brief, “The Impacts of Climate Change at 1.5 C, 2 C and Beyond”; accessed October 12, 2018, https://interactive.carbonbrief.org/impacts-climate-change-one-point-five-degrees-two-degrees/# (rainfall data); Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5° C”; October 8, 2018 (arctic, habitat loss, and coral reef data)
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