Children selling newspapers, 1910. | Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Your local newspaper is dying. Can newsletters replace it?

Substack, the email newsletter startup, might be best known as the home of high-profile writers who leave big publications and set up their own businesses.

Now it wants to become known as a place where journalists you haven’t heard of make a living by covering news in their hometowns.

Substack plans to hand out a total of $1 million in the form of one-year stipends to up to 30 journalists who are interested in covering local news on the platform. A smattering of writers are already using Substack to sell paid subscriptions to newsletters dedicated to local news, and the company thinks, with the right incentive, many more might do it.

“We do see a lot of encouraging signs that the model also works for reporting and for local news,” Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie told me. “And that’s why we’re putting in this sizable chunk of money to make a bigger bet on it.”

The terms of Substack’s local push roughly mirror the “Substack Pro” program it has been using to lure high-profile writers to the platform: Writers can get up to $100,000 in one-time payments, and can also keep 15 percent of any revenue their newsletters generate in the first year. After that, they’re on their own financially but will keep 90 percent of the fees subscribers pay them. Substack says it will also provide mentorship from other Substack journalists, as well as access to subsidized health care and other services.

Substack’s announcement comes as it is generating increasing coverage, controversy, and competition. The startup, which launched in 2017, has become an object of fascination for the chattering-class types, as high-profile writers leave big-time publications to set up shop there — former New York Times columnist Charlie Warzel is the most recent example, along with several of my former colleagues who used to work at Vox Media. In some cases, these journalists have been able to make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year by moving to Substack.

The company has also angered some of its users, who accuse it of providing a platform to writers they find odious. And now that it has proved out a model for paid newsletters, Substack is facing competition from a range of competitors, including Facebook, Twitter, and Ghost, a nonprofit open source platform.

McKenzie and co-founder Chris Best talked about all of those issues with me in this week’s episode of Recode Media. Tl;dr: They argue that they’re not, as some posit, an existential threat to the likes of the New York Times, but that instead they are a new option for some writers; they argue that they host writers with a wide range of opinions and interests and are loath to interfere with any Substack writers’ output; and they say that Substack writers are free to leave for other platforms. Their job is to convince them to stay.

But back to local news, which has been in a steadily worsening crisis for the last 20 years, via a vicious cycle: The internet has steadily stripped away local news outlets’ advertising revenue, which leads to newsroom cutbacks, which leads to weakened products, which leads to declining audiences, which leads to more revenue losses. Repeat.

We’ve also seen various attempts to fix the situation, ranging from Patch, a once-ambitious plan to build all-digital newsrooms in towns across the country that still exists in a scaled-down form, to the American Journalism Project, which wants to combine philanthropy, corporate donations, and subscriber money into a not-for-profit news model.

Substack, to its credit, doesn’t argue that it can single-handedly save local news, just that it thinks there is an audience that will pay to read it and journalists who can make a living selling it.

But that’s very much an untested thesis. Some of the journalists Substack points to as encouraging examples of local journalism say they’re not paying all their bills with Substack revenue. That means they’re not spending all of their time covering local news for Substack, which means Substack is at best an extra source of local news and not a replacement for a gutted newspaper.

Matt Elliott, who covers Toronto politics via his City Hall Watcher Substack, says he has 900 subscribers paying him $5 a month or $50 a year. But it’s one of several gigs, including a weekly column at the Toronto Star and teaching college journalism. Substack, he says, replaces money he used to make selling one-off stories to other outlets — money he is happy to have, since it’s more consistent. “It’s almost like freelance insurance,” he says. “And that’s a powerful thing to have, as somebody who’s been a freelancer.”

Adam Wren, who covers Indiana politics via his Importantville Substack, has 432 subscribers who pay him as much as $150 a year; he says his audience includes local lobbyists as well as national reporters who want to keep tabs on what’s happening in his home state. But he’s only spending five to six hours a week on his newsletter, generally “in the wee hours,” he says. Wren also has a full-time job writing about national politics for Insider. “I have this sense that [Substack] is always going to be supplementary” for his journalism career, he says.

If you want a more encouraging perspective on Substack’s ability to build a local outlet, talk to Joshi Herrmann, a former freelance writer who started The Mill in Manchester, UK, last fall; now he has 850 subscribers paying him about $10 a month and has the money to hire another reporter and to rent a small office space. He thinks he’ll eventually be able to hire five or six reporters, as well as freelancers, all of whom will be writing features and “doing really good in-depth stuff.”

Substack revenues aren’t “the most money I’ve ever made,” Herrmann says, but he says they offer him a chance to make something that doesn’t exist — essentially a local magazine with a business model somewhere between the high-end Financial Times and Patreon. “If it keeps on growing like it has been, this can work.”

Here’s my interview with McKenzie and Best:

A digital sign outside the Nasdaq building in New York displays a bitcoin symbol that resembles a capital B combined with a dollar sign.
On Wednesday, Coinbase, the largest US trading platform for cryptocurrencies, is going public. | Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As Coinbase goes public, cryptocurrency is more mainstream than ever.

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Coinbase, a platform for buying and selling cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, became the first major cryptocurrency company to go public in the United States on Wednesday. It’s a clear sign that crypto is firmly in the mainstream of the finance industry — and it’s not going away anytime soon.

Coinbase stock — which is trading under the ticker COIN — ended its first day at $328 per share, putting the newly public company at a more than $85 billion valuation on Wednesday evening. Throughout the day, Coinbase’s price stayed far above the $250 reference price that the Nasdaq set before trading began, and at one point swung as high as $429. Ahead of the listing, the value of several cryptocurrencies also surged, with bitcoin hitting an all-time high.

In other words, if you’ve been pressing snooze on the bitcoin and blockchain conversation for the past decade, now’s probably a good time to wake up. The company’s direct listing on the Nasdaq is a “coming-out party” for cryptocurrencies, according to Erin Griffith of the New York Times. The tech policy site Protocol similarly declared Wednesday as the “biggest day yet for the crypto world.” As Paul Vigna, a Wall Street Journal cryptocurrency reporter, recently said, “Not only does it make crypto and bitcoin a little more acceptable, it now gives investors another way to invest in bitcoin.”

Even if the average investor doesn’t want to buy or sell cryptocurrencies on their own, Coinbase’s direct listing means average investors can invest in the cryptocurrency economy by investing in one of its biggest players.

If you’re still catching up on the trend, cryptocurrencies are virtual currencies built using blockchain technology, a type of decentralized database that can record interactions, like purchases, across a network of devices. Instead of trusting one system to record all these interactions, a record is kept on every single node of the network.

Bitcoin was the first cryptocurrency, created in 2009 by an anonymous developer under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, and is still the most prominent example of a payment method that’s facilitated along the blockchain. Here’s how Vox’s Timothy Lee explained bitcoin back in 2015:

Like MasterCard or PayPal, it allows money to be transmitted electronically. But Bitcoin is different from these conventional payment networks in two important ways. First, the Bitcoin network is fully decentralized. The MasterCard network is owned and operated by MasterCard Inc. But there is no Bitcoin Inc. Instead, thousands of computers around the world process Bitcoin transactions in a peer-to-peer fashion. Second, MasterCard and PayPal payments are based on conventional currencies such as the US dollar. In contrast, the Bitcoin network has its own unit of value, which is called the bitcoin.

Since then, lots of cryptocurrencies have popped up, and they’ve become their own economic sector, potentially worth trillions of dollars. Cryptocurrencies have historically been very volatile, but in recent years, more traditional financial institutions, including banks, investors, and regulators, have increasingly taken notice.

Here’s where Coinbase comes in. While people can buy cryptocurrencies directly — one individual buyer selling it to another — Coinbase aims to make the process easier by becoming a platform for people to buy, trade, and sell several of these various currencies, including bitcoin. Following its founding in 2012, the company has become the largest of these cryptocurrency platforms by volume in the US, and the second-largest in the world, according to Marketwatch. In its filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company reported that it had about 43 million retail users and that it had raised $3.4 billion in revenue up until the end of 2020, with most of those funds coming from transaction fees.

“What Netscape did for the internet in 1995 is what Coinbase will do for crypto and blockchain in 2021,” Roger Lee, a general partner at the investment firm Battery Ventures, which has invested in Coinbase, told Protocol last week. “The internet was very opaque and a very abstract concept to most people in the mid-’90s. Netscape created a lens through which to interact with it.”

Starting on Wednesday, regular investors now have the opportunity to get their own stake in this marketplace. While the company has gone public, it’s doing so as a direct listing, not a public offering (you can read more on what that means here). Regardless, it’s a big step for cryptocurrencies as they become a more recognized part of the economy.

Cryptocurrency and the blockchain are increasingly commonplace

Coinbase’s public listing is just the latest milestone on cryptocurrency’s journey from nerdy curiosity to mainstream investing opportunity and payment method. Since 2018, Square, the payment processing service, has let most of its payment app Cash App users buy and sell bitcoin. And lately, more and more of them have been doing so. Square CFO Amrita Ahuja said in February that 3 million people did transactions in bitcoin on the app last year, while 1 million did so in January 2021 alone.

Similarly, PayPal began to allow users to buy cryptocurrencies through their accounts last year. The platform expanded its cryptocurrency capabilities this March and started allowing users to exchange their crypto holdings into US dollars in order to pay for things, which is just one step short of allowing users to make purchases with actual cryptocurrency. Paypal has also indicated that users of Venmo, which it owns, will soon be able to transact in cryptocurrencies, too.

More broadly, applications for blockchain technology are appearing in a growing number of domains. The blockchain is key to the digital art being sold as NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, that have become more popular in recent weeks. Blockchain technology has also popped up in vaccine passport apps, voting technology, and even managing supply chains. At the same time, the use of blockchain technology has also raised a wide range of challenges, including the risk of hacking, lack of regulation, and concern that its intense computing requirements can come with a whopping environmental footprint.

So even if you think bitcoin, cryptocurrencies, and the blockchain are weird or confusing, you should expect to see them continue to creep into everyday life.

Update, April 14, 5:10 pm ET: This piece was updated to include the news that Coinbase went public and to include its end-of-day trading price.

Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

A tray of hotdogs in buns on the counter at Pink’s Hot Dogs in Los Angeles.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Five charts that show how dramatically the pandemic affected our spending.

You can paint a picture of the pandemic by what we bought or didn’t buy. You can learn a lot by looking at where we went or didn’t go. And as vaccines become more widely available and the end of the pandemic potentially draws near, you can also use those measures to illustrate which industries have recovered or are still struggling

Recovery from the impacts of the pandemic varies widely by industry, according to new data from Earnest Research, which uses de-identified credit card, debit card, and mobile geolocation data to track spending and foot traffic at businesses in the United States. Even within a category like food or retail, there are winners and losers based on the particulars of the pandemic that made one type more or less popular than another. The data is indexed to the same month two years earlier — so March 2020 data would show the percentage difference from March 2018 — in order to strip out some of the huge dips when many businesses were closed completely during lockdown.

Food

Spending on online grocers like Fresh Direct and Instacart and delivery services like DoorDash and GrubHub soared during the pandemic to rates 400 percent higher than what they had been a couple years earlier, as people sought a safer way to get food than going to the supermarket or restaurants. While below their pandemic peaks, sales remain elevated far above where they had been as these types of commerce continue to grow in popularity.

Restaurant recovery varied by type, though none is booming. Sales at fast food and fast casual restaurants — think Chipotle and Chopt, where you can pick up food but don’t necessarily dine in — are above 2019 levels. Meanwhile, sales at restaurants where people typically dine in, both fine dining chains like Capital Grille or Sugarfish and casual chains like Applebee’s and California Pizza Kitchen, remained depressed.

Supermarket sales are back to the 2019 baseline after sales surged nearly 30 percent in the early pandemic. Perhaps people are over a lockdown spent cooking for themselves, but it’s more likely that grocery shopping has moved online and into meal kits.

Shopping

The biggest areas of apparel growth were in active and athleisure brands like Lululemon, Spanx, and Nike, as Americans worked from home and got comfy. Even from our quarantine isolation, our fashion followed collective trends bolstered by social media. Unflattering bike shorts became the official uniform of pandemic summer.

Unsurprisingly for those of us who have abstained from the strictures of pants and going out, professional and dress attire brands like Brooks Brothers and Banana Republic suffered most, and sales remain down. Purchases of fast fashion and luxury brands, however, are up — perhaps thanks to the beloved quarantine pastime of impulse buying online.

And while certain types of clothing spend have recovered, the physical stores at which they were once purchased haven’t. Earnest Research data on foot traffic by category — which is different from their spending categories because it tracks entities like malls — shows that people haven’t completely returned to clothing stores.

In conjunction with the elevated spending data, this suggests that online sales have taken a bigger portion of clothing sales in a move that’s likely to be permanent.

Fitness

Even before the pandemic, physical gyms were in trouble, as people increasingly opted to work out at home on a new swath of at-home fitness equipment rather than in the gym. The pandemic closures during lockdown might have solidified that trend.

Gym traffic is down 30 percent from pre-pandemic levels and spending is down significantly as well: 40 percent in March 2021 compared with March 2019, according to Earnest data. And it’s possible it will remain depressed, thanks to the enormous growth in spending on at-home workout equipment and subscriptions during the pandemic, with companies like Peloton and NordicTrack seeing rapid growth.

Travel

Travel recovery is a bit harder to pin down, especially since a lot of travel during the pandemic happened locally, with people traveling by car and staying in Airbnbs nearby. The data we have also ends in March, before the CDC gave the green light to vaccinated travelers.

What we do know is that foot traffic to airports, hotels, and rental car establishments remains down. And while numbers are ticking upward, spending data on airlines and online travel also remain depressed as of the end of March, according to Earnest’s data.

That said, many are predicting a travel boom this summer. As more Americans get vaccinated — currently nearly a quarter of the population are fully vaccinated — it is likely that more people will take to the air (or boat or rental car). Three-quarters of Americans are planning a post-vaccine trip within the next six months, according to a new survey from PredictHQ, a demand intelligence company.

“My guess is there’s so much pent-up demand, domestic travel this summer will potentially be bigger than pre-pandemic levels,” PredictHQ CEO Campbell Brown told Recode.

Americans, who have hoarded so many vacation days since the pandemic that some employers are paying them to take off, are about to summer like Europeans, according to the Atlantic, which reported searches and reservations for summer growing rapidly on online portals.

For now, our travel habits are closer to getting back to how they used to be.

Bill Gates has declined to get involved in a tax fight in his home state. | Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

It is relatively easy for a billionaire to say they support higher taxes. More is on the line if they are asked to do something about it.

Billionaires like Bill Gates have long said that they, theoretically, would be in favor of paying much more money in personal taxes.

And yet Gates and some of the wealthiest people in the world are staying silent on a series of active proposals that would do just that, sidestepping a legislative package in their home state of Washington that targets them specifically.

Washington is home to four of the richest people on the planet: Gates, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Bezos’s ex-wife novelist MacKenzie Scott, and longtime Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. And the state in 2021 is also home to some of the most aggressive proposals to tax the ultra-rich, including a first-of-its-kind proposal to tax the wealth of billionaires at the state level.

All four of them have declined to campaign for the tax increase proposals, spurning requests to back the measures and staying on the sidelines.

“They have stayed very, very quiet during this conversation — and it’s not for a lack of trying,” said Noel Frame, the state legislator behind the wealth tax. “I talked to folks who talk to them, and they have chosen not to engage.”

Frame has approached her contacts with ties to the Gates, Ballmer, and Bezos families to see if the billionaires would be interested in publicly supporting her proposal. But she hasn’t even secured a meeting. Other pro-tax activists in Washington state say they have recently spoken with some of those families in recent months about the need, in general, for rate increases.

Asked about the wealth tax, Gates spokespeople didn’t return repeated requests for comment. A spokesperson for Bezos said his boss had no comment on the measure. And aides to Ballmer and the publicity-shy Scott didn’t return a request for comment.

Their silence and inaction bother some activists because Gates and Ballmer, at least, claim to support paying more in taxes. And yet it is relatively easy for a billionaire to say in a television studio or in a blog post that they, in theory, support a far-away, unlikely-to-ever-happen tax increase. Far more is on the line if they are asked to spend their social capital and proactively back a measure that is tangible and alive, working its way through the legislative chambers that they routinely prod on other matters they care about.

So in some ways, the measures in Washington state are a test of whether their rhetoric was just rhetoric — or whether they are prepared to back their beliefs up with muscle.

“Silence is consent,” said Chuck Collins, an inequality critic who collaborated with Gates’s father to push for higher taxes. “Here’s the proposal that your state legislature is considering. Yes or no? Where do you stand?”

These proposals are not all loony legislative long shots that are patently unworthy of their attention, either. The state Senate just narrowly passed the capital gains tax, a priority for Gov. Jay Inslee. And although the wealth tax proposal is seen as unlikely to become law this session, the measure was voted out of committee late last month, a sign that there is some momentum behind it, or at least credibility.

Both measures face their fates this month in the final days of the legislative session. Washington is one of the only states in the country without a state income tax, and progressives there have spent the last decade exploring ways to add new revenue streams, all of which would probably trigger legal fights.

More of the advocacy and energy in Olympia has revolved around the likelier-to-pass capital gains tax proposal, which takes a 7 percent cut off of sales of stocks or bonds in excess of $250,000. While it does not as narrowly target billionaires, it still effectively taxes the well-to-do. Anti-tax activists say it would make Washington, which does not have any capital gains tax right now, a less hospitable place for business.

The wealth tax proposal would levy a 1 percent fee on all assets over $1 billion, an attempt — like its national inspirations — to increase the tax burden that the ultra-rich pay. But critics charge that, unlike the national proposals, Washington state billionaires can easily move out of state and could do so if it passes, sapping Washington of any tax revenue from them at all.

“Why are you going to give these people a reason to make their economic domicile a different state?” said Matt McIlwain, who has helped organize the tech community against tax proposals and runs a venture capital firm that invested early in Amazon. “Come on, Bezos grew up in Texas and Florida. He’s got a bunch of operations and projects in his own life — not to mention different aspects of what’s going on in Amazon — in other states. He doesn’t need Washington state to be his home state.”

The state is the latest battleground in the simmering fight over how much America should tax its richest citizens. The mega-wealthy are facing calls for higher taxes in part due to the pandemic, which has widened inequality. And so while passing a wealth tax through Congress is quite difficult, tax advocates are capitalizing on a vulnerability for the rich: They tend to live near one another, making state and local proposals a side door of sorts into achieving a similar outcome.

Gates, Ballmer, Bezos, and Scott have all gotten much wealthier over the last year when Big Tech stocks surged as the world relied more on tech companies. The foursome has about $500 billion in assets, according to tracking by Bloomberg. At the beginning of 2020, they controlled about $320 billion.

While recruiting billionaire endorsements is not a priority for either the pro-tax or anti-tax activists, Frame said she reached out precisely because it would rebut her critics’ arguments.

“Any time you have the affected taxpayer coming to the table and saying, ‘I’m okay with this change. I’m okay with this increase. Yes, please tax me,’ that’s always a coup,” she said.

Guided by his father, Bill Gates Sr., who served as the public face of a failed push 10 years ago for a state income tax, the younger Gates has been the most consistently vocal about wanting to pay substantially more in taxes. That’s been especially so in his home state of Washington, which he has said has “the most regressive tax system in the country.”

Gates has expressed concern that taxes could go “too far” — including, at times, wealth taxes. But, in general, he has said he supports substantially higher rates, including higher federal estate taxes and capital gains taxes, along with an institution of a state income tax in Washington, which it currently lacks.

“I think the rich should pay more than they currently do, and that includes Melinda and me,” Gates said in a year-end 2019 blog post about his views.

Ballmer’s tax views are more of a moving target, but he has in recent years voiced more and more comfort with increases. An avowed deficit hawk, Ballmer has stressed the need for a closer look at federal spending patterns. But he has also increasingly sounded more fiscally liberal in recent interviews, saying in 2019, for instance, “I certainly know that there are things I believe in that might require more” in tax revenue.

“Because I’ve been very fortunate, I can say to you I’d be happy personally to pay more taxes,” Ballmer said at a conference earlier this year.

Bezos, whose politics have been described as libertarian, has displayed an anti-tax streak: He, along with Ballmer, donated to a group a decade ago that opposed a measure trying to create a state income tax in Washington. And when Bezos said last week that he supported Amazon paying more in corporate income taxes to finance Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, he didn’t offer anything about whether he backed paying more in personal income taxes — another part of the Biden economic package — to finance that same policy goal.

And then there’s Scott, who has the most limited paper trail on these policy questions. She has said nothing to date explicitly about taxes. She has, however, repeatedly expressed deep concerns about wealth inequality — reflecting recently on how the pandemic functioned as a “wrecking ball” for the poor while enriching billionaires, stirring a speculative belief from progressives that she may agree with them,

Activists on both sides aren’t necessarily surprised these billionaires have taken a pass right now. Some Washington political observers think billionaire non-engagement is only sustainable because the wealth tax currently faces long odds this legislative session. The capital gains tax on the cusp of becoming law took years of advocacy before it became a front-burner debate in the state.

And yet John Burbank, a longtime Washington tax activist who has met with Ballmer aides in recent months to discuss progressive state tax policy more generally, said he actually saw the billionaires’ inactivity and neutrality as a win for his side.

Why? Well, he said, at least the billionaires weren’t actively speaking out against the bill — as they might have in the past.

Signage of a “like” thumbs-up is displayed outside Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California, in 2018
Bloomberg/Getty Images

It’s a long shot, and you can’t appeal to remove ads.

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Starting Tuesday, Facebook and Instagram users have a new way to try to get offending Facebook posts removed. The oversight board, a court-like body that the company has created to handle its trickiest content moderation decisions, has announced that users can now appeal decisions made by Facebook to leave posts up.

It’s a big expansion in scope. For the first few months of the oversight board’s operations, users were only able to appeal to the board if they thought Facebook had wrongly taken down their own posts. But now, the oversight board is rolling out a process that allows users to challenge decisions made by Facebook’s content moderation team that resulted in content not being taken down. That could include anything from content a user has flagged because they think it’s a scam to content they believe to be hate speech.

Here’s how it works: To get the oversight board involved in appealing a decision, users first need to report content that they see to Facebook, and then exhaust their options to get the content removed through Facebook’s existing review systems. After Facebook issues its final decision, users are notified. This is where the oversight board can get involved.

If Facebook decides to keep up a post or comment that a user reported, that user will receive a special “Oversight Board Reference ID” and a deadline to appeal the decision to the oversight board. To file such an appeal, users need to log onto the oversight board’s website using their Facebook account, where they’ll need that code for reference when writing up their request for appeal.

 Facebook
When a user reports a piece of content on Facebook, they can request another review, through Facebook, and argue that a post goes against its community guidelines.

If it decides to take on the case, the oversight board will designate a panel of five of its members. (Currently, the board has 20 members, though it eventually wants to expand to 40). After those members deliberate, they’ll issue a draft decision, which the entire board then reviews. If a majority of the board supports the ruling, it’s shared with Facebook, which has said it will respect whatever decision the board makes. In other words, the board’s decisions are supposed to be binding. The board can also issue recommendations based on the issues and questions raised in the case, but those are nonbinding, meaning Facebook doesn’t have to listen.

The oversight board has set up its system so that many users can object to the same post that’s been left up, and the board will compile those complaints into a single file to be reviewed all at once. The oversight board says content including posts, statuses, photos, videos, comments, and even shares are all eligible for the new review system. Importantly, ads that appear on Facebook are not eligible for review, though ads are listed as something that users will be able to appeal decisions about in the future, according to the board’s bylaws. A spokesperson for Facebook told Recode that ads are not yet included in part because they use different systems than organic content, but that Facebook is working to bring ads within the oversight board’s scope.

 Facebook
When a final decision is reached by Facebook, users will receive a “Reference ID” they can refer to in their appeal.

A clear downside to this workflow is that the odds the oversight board takes up your appeal in a case are probably low. The body says that, since it began operations last October, it has received more than 300,000 user appeals, but it’s only issued a handful of decisions. If you appeal your decision and your case isn’t taken up, it’s unlikely you’ll find out why.

Still, it’s notable that Facebook’s oversight board seems to be expanding its scope. Some of the most contentious moderation decisions involve content that Facebook has chosen to leave up.

“Think of the Nancy Pelosi cheapfake video in which footage of the speaker of the House was edited misleadingly so that she appeared intoxicated,” Evelyn Douek, a content moderation expert at Harvard Law School, wrote in Lawfare last year, “or hate speech in Myanmar, or the years that Facebook hosted content from Infowars chief Alex Jones before finally deciding to follow Apple’s lead and remove Jones’s material.”

The announcement comes as the oversight board continues to try to bolster its own legitimacy and introduce itself to Facebook’s billions of users. Some experts have criticized the board for its limited powers, pointing out that it makes decisions post by post and that it doesn’t have discretion over Facebook’s overall design, like the algorithms that decide what gets the most attention in peoples’ News Feeds. Others have said the oversight board is essentially an exercise in public relations and can’t provide the oversight that the company requires.

The “Real Facebook Oversight Board,” a group of scholars and activists who have criticized the company and the oversight board, said that Tuesday’s announcement reflects how “Facebook is washing its hands of the toughest decisions the company itself should be making.” The group added, “And rather than address content moderation issues across its platforms, it’s turning increasingly to adjudicating random, high-profile cases as cover for the company’s failings, instead of seriously grappling with the systemic content moderation crisis that its algorithms and leadership have created.”

At the same time, attention will remain on the oversight board, especially as people await its upcoming decision as to whether to uphold Facebook’s decision to suspend Donald Trump from the service. Trump frequently posted content that Facebook decided to keep up, despite outcry from civil rights groups, Facebook employees, and users.

Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

A union organizer holds a sign that reads, “RWDSU. It’s been a long time coming but I know a change is coming!”
A union organizer waves to cars outside an Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, on March 27. | Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

The union says it will challenge the results over alleged illegal behavior.

A majority of workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama have voted against unionizing with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) in the first election of its size at an Amazon warehouse in the United States. But the union involved already said before the counting was finished that it would likely challenge the results.

“Our system is broken, Amazon took full advantage of that, and we will be calling on the labor board to hold Amazon accountable for its illegal and egregious behavior during the campaign,” RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum said in a statement to Recode on Thursday evening.

RWDSU spokesperson Chelsea Connor said part of the alleged behavior involves Amazon’s placement of a USPS mailbox on the grounds of the Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse at the center of the vote. Some workers have said they were intimidated by the installation of the mailbox, as well as the messages from Amazon to use it, and believe that the company wanted to monitor who voted. The Washington Post reported earlier on Thursday that Amazon officials pressed the USPS to install the mailbox, after the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) denied the company’s request to place a ballot drop box on the property.

Amazon spokesperson Heather Knox previously told the Post that “the RWDSU … pushed for a mail-only election, which the NLRB’s own data showed would reduce turnout. This mailbox — which only the USPS had access to — was a simple, secure, and completely optional way to make it easy for employees to vote, no more and no less.”

The votes against unionizing totaled 1,798, while 738 workers voted to unionize. Another 505 ballots were challenged by either Amazon or the union, but the margin of victory means that the company would still win even if all of the challenged ballots went the union’s way.

“It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true,” Amazon said in a blog post. “Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us. And Amazon didn’t win—our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union.”

Still, the results don’t mean the fight over unionizing this warehouse is over. The union said on Friday morning that it would file “Unfair Labor Practice charges (ULPs) with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) charging that Amazon interfered with the right of its Bessemer, Alabama, employees to vote in a free and fair election.” Beyond the mailbox issue, the union called out Amazon’s messaging that discouraged workers from unionizing because of union dues. In Alabama, though, a union cannot force workers to pay dues.

While union organizers believe just getting to a vote of this size at Amazon is a victory in its own right — Applebaum, the union president, said as much on Thursday evening, calling the vote “an important moment for working people” — a loss will still undoubtedly sting. The pandemic exposed wealth and race inequalities in the US that labor activists used as catalysts for their drive in Bessemer, where organizers say at least 80 percent of Amazon employees are Black. If there were a perfect storm to take Amazon on and win, this might have been it.

The RWDSU had already hinted at the grounds for an appeal to the NLRB in recent months, pointing to the mailbox recently installed on the warehouse grounds, as well as Amazon’s message to workers encouraging them to use the mailbox for their ballots.

“I can’t imagine a situation where the workers vote against the union and there’s not a challenge based on that mailbox,” Rebecca Givan, a labor professor at Rutgers University who has followed the Bessemer union drive closely, told Recode before the vote counting began.

 Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images
Actor Danny Glover (right) and former Berkeley Mayor Gus Newport (second from right) speak with Amazon union organizers on March 27.

If the NLRB rules in favor of the union in its challenge, the board could call for a revote.

Before the vote, labor experts also expected that Amazon would likely challenge the fairness of the election if it lost. Amazon pushed hard for the election to be conducted in person, rather than through mail-in voting, but lost that fight. Lawyers for the company said it wanted as many employees as possible to vote, and argued that NLRB statistics show that mail-in union voting reduces turnout. The company also later lost a request to install cameras in the NLRB room where votes will be tallied, to monitor the ballot boxes during off hours. (Representatives for both Amazon and the union, as well as members of the media, watched the vote counting remotely via Zoom on Thursday and Friday.)

Pro-union Amazon workers were pushing for a seat at the table with management to get more of a say over the demanding pace of work required by the company, as well as the job security, or lack thereof, that comes with Amazon warehouse employment. These workers have said they face constant tracking and surveillance that can be stressful and dehumanizing, as well as what they believe are insufficient break times for the size of the facility, inconsistent timing of breaks during a given shift, and a termination process that can appear one-sided.

While union representatives say union warehouse pay in Alabama averages $18 to $21 an hour compared to an hourly starting wage of $15.30 at Amazon’s Bessemer facility, the topic of pay and benefits isn’t at the top of the list of concerns for many pro-union workers inside Amazon. The company has long said that it didn’t believe the union represented the views of the majority of its workers in Bessemer.

Still, the Bessemer drive might lead to more union pushes elsewhere, whether with the RWDSU or other organizations.

Update, April 9, 2020, 1:28 pm ET: This article has been updated to include Amazon’s comment on the election results.

A metal pin that says “Fully vaccinated” and has a syringe that reads “Covid-19.”
Etsy sellers are racing to make vaccine-themed gear as inoculations roll out across the country. | Mark W. Gray

A lot of sellers did well selling cloth masks. Now some shops are turning to vaccine-themed gear.

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Etsy sellers are racing to meet growing demand for all sorts of vaccine-related gear — from “Fauci Ouchie” buttons to “Pfizer Alumni” T-shirts to protective cases sized for a CDC card — especially as more and more people getting the jab look to celebrate the milestone.

The popularity of vaccine-themed swag is a sign that people aren’t just showing up to get their shot, they’re actually excited to share news of their inoculation and spread the word. That enthusiasm is important as vaccine eligibility continues to open up across the United States and public health campaigns continue to try to reach Americans that are still apprehensive about getting the shot.

Nate Duval, a Massachusetts-based Etsy seller who has been making enamel pins for the past five years, told Recode that out of the many products available on his Etsy shop, the most popular item right now is a blue-and-purple pin that reads “Covid-19 Vaccinated.” He said it’s just the latest product that’s done well amid the pandemic, when sales for items like cloth masks and puzzles have taken off.

“The original concept was thinking of front-line workers, doctors, the elderly, etc.,” Duval said in an email, “but I quickly discovered that the appeal of this idea was far beyond just doctors.”

 Screenshot of Etsy
Plenty of Etsy sellers are leaning into vaccine-themed products.

It’s not just buttons and pins. Etsy sellers are also cashing in on people eager to advertise their vaccination status with all kinds of merch. There are face masks and bracelets that declare the wearer “Vaccinated,” Covid-19 vaccine badge clips, and “Fauci Ouchie” stickers. There’s also plenty of clothing, including T-shirts referencing Hamilton lyrics like “I am not throwin’ away my shot.”

Some sellers are flogging more practical vaccine card sleeves, which are meant to protect the relatively flimsy paper cards bearing the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) insignia that people have been receiving after their inoculations. Other available options are more zany, like Moderna- and Pfizer-themed tumbler cups and this Covid-19 virus-shaped foam party hat complete with an image of a syringe and “Vaccinated” printed on it.

A foam party hat in the shape of a coronavirus with the word “vaccinated” printed on it. Screenshot from Etsy
At least one Etsy seller is offering a vaccine-themed foam party hat.

Vaccine merchandise is selling well. One Etsy seller told Recode that in the past month their shop has sold hundreds of vaccine-themed clothing items. “Pretty soon, people are going to want them for the kids as well. So I’ll be adding those sizes,” said the seller, who asked to remain anonymous so as not to draw too much attention to their shop. “Then we’ll be adding maybe some totes and some other various products.”

Mark W. Gray, a California-based cinematographer who operates an Etsy shop, said that a batch of 500 of his “Fully Vaccinated” pins sold out in just three days, and he’s since sold more than 1,500 on the online marketplace. He added that he’s seen a surge in other vaccine-themed merch, pointing to products he sees online from sellers who use print-on-demand companies like Zazzle and Cafe Press. It seems as though competition is heating up.

“If someone just Googles ‘I want to get a vaccinated shirt,’ they’re going to see the first 50 that pop up out of God knows how many that are actually there,” Gray said. “So it’s kind of lucky for me that people liked my design and I got in early enough.”

Plastic bags full of identical vaccine pins, on a desk with a laptop computer. Mark W. Gray
Etsy seller Mark W. Gray’s vaccine-themed pin workstation.

The race to produce vaccine-themed gear points to Etsy’s broader success as an online marketplace during the pandemic. The company’s stock price has surged steadily since Covid-19 first hit, with its sellers finding opportunities amid increased demand for household goods as people spent more time at home and shopping online.

“The data shows people who’ve never shopped on Etsy, or people who haven’t been back in a while or haven’t been back very often, are suddenly coming to Etsy, and they’re coming to Etsy a lot more often,” the company’s CEO Josh Silverman told NPR Marketplace last May. He estimated at least 60,000 sellers on the site had produced cloth masks and sold them on the platform.

A pin with a cartoon of Anthony Fauci read “Got my Fauci ouchie!” Jamie Earl
The ”Fauci Ouchie!” image that Jamie Earl is selling on Etsy.

Of course, not all the vaccine-themed gear online is celebrating inoculations. On Amazon, it’s easy to find “anti-vaccine” shirts that link pesticides and GMOs to vaccinations, or on Etsy, a T-shirt that declares that the wearer will not “be blackmailed” into carrying a vaccine passport.

Still, overall, some sellers see their vaccine-product-related success as a sign that they can pick up business based on the news cycle and current events — and even encourage others to get the jab as shots become available. Pennsylvanian Jamie Earl, who sells buttons on Etsy, said that while he lost business on political-themed pins as in-person campaigning came to halt, he’s since recouped some of his losses by transitioning to various pandemic-themed buttons.

Earl told Recode he’s already sold more than 400 “Fauci Ouchie!” vaccine-themed buttons, after noticing earlier on in the pandemic that various Anthony Fauci-themed products “sold really well.”

“When people see others displaying the fact that they’ve got their vaccination, and they encourage others,” Earl said, that helps the whole community. “I hope it helps people who are really reticent to get their vaccination.”

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A woman makes her way to the Covid-19 testing site at the California State University Los Angeles campus on February 3. | Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Testing can do things for us now that it couldn’t do before.

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There was a time when we thought Covid-19 testing would save us from the pandemic. As long as we had enough tests and got them in the hands of enough people, we’d be able to identify and contain outbreaks, and life would soon go back to normal.

Clearly, this did not happen.

But now that we have vaccines, death and infection rates are declining, some states are dropping their restrictions, more kids are going back to school, grandparents are giving hugs, and it looks like we’re in for a much safer and better summer than 2020.

So it would be understandable if you thought there wasn’t a place for testing anymore. And you would be wrong.

Testing might be more important now than ever, and new testing technology and government funding and initiatives are making getting tested faster, easier, and cheaper than it’s ever been. Soon — maybe within a few weeks — you might even be able to pick up a test at your local pharmacy and do it yourself. At the same time, many people still don’t know how testing works, what’s out there, or why — and how — they should use testing. Or that it’s important to keep using tests, even after getting vaccinated.

What kind of tests can I get now?

There are basically two flavors of Covid-19-detecting tests: molecular, also known as genetic-based tests, which look for the virus’s RNA; and antigen tests, which look for proteins on the surface of the virus.

The standard genetic RT-PCR tests require several hours to run (usually returning results within a few days) and are considered the most accurate of Covid-19 tests. To get one of these, you can go to a point-of-care site to have a sample collected from your nose (or mouth) and sent to a lab, or you can have a test kit delivered to your home, where you collect your own sample and send it back to a lab yourself. And then you wait for the results. In the earliest days of the pandemic, RT-PCR tests were all that were available, so they might be the ones you’re the most familiar with. There are also rapid genetic tests, which are faster than the PCR test but not as accurate.

Antigen tests can give results within minutes and are cheaper than genetic tests. But they’re not as sensitive as genetic tests and may miss cases where people have low levels of the virus in their system. Many experts see them as accurate detectors of infectious cases, however, and a useful tool for mass screening programs.

The FDA has started to authorize rapid tests that can be run at home, which many experts see as a major advancement for easy, fast, and accessible Covid-19 testing that could make great strides in heading off outbreaks. Several of those tests will be available over the counter — meaning you don’t need to get a prescription from your doctor, thereby removing another barrier to access. More on those tests later.

A person in a lab coat and latex gloves leans out of a van to take a nasal swab of a person standing beside the van. Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
LabQ Diagnostics has mobile Covid-19 testing sites offering free tests all around New York City. LabQ claims that their accuracy is 99.7 percent and their turnaround is up to 48 hours.

We have vaccines now, so do we still even need testing?

Yes.

From a public health perspective, testing can identify possible outbreaks and virus hot spots, and can detect and track emerging new variants, all of which could help us finally stay ahead of the virus rather than simply reacting to it, as we have for the past year.

“This virus is still circulating; we still need to diagnose infection, or to identify the people who need to stay home and not transmit their effects to others,” Jennifer Nuzzo, a doctor of public health and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Recode. “We need to diagnose infections so that we can understand if there are changes in the epidemiology. Are we seeing the case burden shifting to younger ages or different populations than we’ve seen before? That could give us information about if we need new control strategies. Are we seeing increased transmissibility or increased severity? The answer to all of those questions starts with the diagnosis of an infection.”

And there’s a significant percentage of the American population that will refuse to be vaccinated, as well as people who can’t get the shot due to age, lack of access, and health issues. And it will be years before vaccines are widely available to the rest of the world — if ever. Even after getting vaccinated, people should still get a Covid-19 test if they develop symptoms.

Testing didn’t stop surges before, so why will things be any better now?

The Trump administration’s missteps in handling the pandemic are pretty well-known at this point. America was months behind the virus by the time we were able to get the resources and capacity to do the necessary millions of tests a week. We’ve been playing catch-up ever since, and often with tests that have a multiple-day wait for results — not ideal for a virus that can be infectious for days before the onset of symptoms, or spread by people who never show any symptoms at all. That makes the ability to do fast, routine screenings strategically targeted to higher-risk areas and people an important part of containing the disease.

“A year ago, we were basically reliant on slow, costly, lab-based tests for everything,” said Dr. Jonathan Quick, managing director for pandemic response, preparedness, and prevention health initiative at the Rockefeller Foundation. “That was fine for diagnostic testing, but we were doing less than a million tests a week.” It’s not an ideal setup for catching a lot of infectious people quickly.

Now? “It’s been a dramatic shift,” Quick explained. “And that shift has been to the point-of-care, mostly antigen tests. And we’re seeing the at-home tests coming on.” That’s cause for hope that there will be more robust, large-scale screening programs across the country that will catch the virus before it spreads much further.

Many experts are also optimistic that the new administration’s prioritization of testing will smooth the road for this larger and more proactive role in stopping and monitoring the spread of the virus.

“We have, at each step, let the pandemic get ahead of us,” Quick said. “So at this point, it’s really critical that we stay ahead of it. That’s the key role that these tests play.”

The FDA recently made it easier and faster for rapid tests designed to screen individuals multiple times over several days to receive emergency use authorization. Many experts feel these sorts of frequent, rapid tests are necessary to, for instance, safely reopen schools (or at least provide enough reassurance to parents and teachers), workplaces, and large events. The Biden administration also recently issued guidance that insurers should cover the cost of tests even for screening purposes, so people don’t have to have symptoms or have been in contact with someone who has the coronavirus in order to have their test costs covered.

That said, experts warn that testing by itself still isn’t a magic bullet.

“Sometimes people wave technologies like they’re this shiny object that’s going to solve all of our problems,” Nuzzo said. “And it’s never usually the case that a single technology solves all of our problems. It may solve a few, but it could also create some if we’re not smart about it.”

But I got vaccinated, so I’m free! I never have to get tested again, right?

Wrong. We already know that no vaccine has 100 percent guaranteed immunity, especially with new variants that vaccines might not have as much protection against. So if you feel sick — even if you’ve been vaccinated — get tested.

And we’re still finding out if vaccinated people can transmit the virus to others, even if they don’t get sick themselves. That’s why the CDC still recommends that vaccinated people exercise caution in public spaces (masks, social distancing) and when interacting with many people who are not vaccinated.

We also don’t know how long the immunity that vaccines provide lasts. In fact, many experts expect Covid-19 vaccine boosters will be necessary (vaccine makers are already preparing for this). Continuous testing and monitoring of emerging variants will help us determine what those boosters should protect against.

“Vaccine manufacturers need to know what variants are there, because I believe that it’s going to be critical,” said Mara Aspinall, professor and co-founder of the Biomedical Diagnostics program at Arizona State University. “We are likely to need an annual booster vaccine, similar to flu.”

So, while being vaccinated certainly has its advantages and should provide for a welcome sense of relief and relative safety, your days of Covid-19 tests are not over.

I don’t want to wait days to get test results, but I heard antigen tests aren’t accurate. Which test should I get?

How much time do you have? If you’ve got a few days to quarantine as you wait for results and want the so-called “gold standard” for accurate results, then go with the RT-PCR. If quarantining for days is not feasible (for example, it means you can’t work at a job that doesn’t offer paid sick leave), well, that’s time you may not have.

Proponents of rapid antigen tests believe that while the tests aren’t as sensitive to lower levels of the virus as RT-PCR tests and will miss more people who have some virus in their system, they are pretty good at detecting people when they have the highest levels of virus and are the most infectious (which typically starts even before symptoms). And these tests can let people know essentially immediately so they reduce the number of others they might infect.

There are some important nuances and big unknowns, however. For example, we don’t yet know what specific level of virus makes a person contagious or not.

“We need to think about antigen tests differently,” Aspinall said. “They were designed to be fast and frequent.”

Getting two rapid tests a day apart should increase your confidence that the result is accurate, and experts recommend continuing to wear a mask and social distance even if you test negative. If you have symptoms but test negative, the CDC recommends confirming the results with an RT-PCR test.

Why can’t I just grab a Covid-19 test from the drugstore, do it at home, and get results quickly? Where is my pregnancy test, but for Covid-19?

Good news! You may soon be able to do just that. The FDA has now authorized several over-the-counter at-home rapid tests. No prescription needed, no doctor visit necessary. And there are likely more authorizations of other such tests coming.

Bad news: You won’t find them on shelves just yet, and it could be a while before they’re widely available.

“The real game changer is fully at-home self-tests, or do-it-yourself tests,” Aspinall said. “That’s when the power shifts to the individual. … Now we need to have enough capacity at the right price, which does not exist yet.”

The first over-the-counter rapid test to be authorized by the FDA comes from an Australian company called Ellume. Its CEO and founder, Dr. Sean Parsons, told Recode that the company hopes to produce up to 15 million tests a month once its American factory is up and running in the second half of 2021. But Ellume’s test costs about $30, partly because it requires the use of a mobile app to guide users through administering and running the test to reduce errors and maximize accuracy, as well as report results back to public health authorities. Parsons said a cheaper version of the test without an app could be produced, but the increased risk of user error and inaccurate results was too great to do it.

 Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
A Wellness 4 Humanity Covid-19 at-home test kit vending machine seen in New York City. The kits will soon be available in major cities across the country.

Parsons hopes that once Ellume scales up test production — a $231.8 million payment from the Biden administration for 8.5 million tests will allow the company to build its American plant and automate some of its production — it’ll be able to cut the price a bit. Parsons says we should start seeing some tests available for retail purchase next month (he wouldn’t say how many or where), but the test won’t be widely available until the second half of the year.

Another FDA-authorized over-the-counter test, from Cue Health, also uses a mobile app. Cue’s test was initially authorized as a point-of-care test, and the Trump administration gave a $481 million contract to the company to produce 6 million tests, which the company says will be used in schools, doctor’s offices, and nursing homes. The company hasn’t shared details yet about pricing and availability for retail sales.

On March 31, the FDA authorized over-the-counter at-home tests from Quidel and Abbott that may be even easier and cheaper than Ellume’s or Cue’s. Testing proponents have for months been calling for simple paper strip tests for Covid-19, and they are, unsurprisingly, thrilled.

Abbott told Recode that its tests should be available “in the coming weeks.” The company expects to sell them to retailers at less than $10 per test, with the retailers then choosing how much to charge consumers. Quidel says its tests will be available “soon” but the pricing has “yet to be determined.”

While testing is still important, we’ve also seen how ineffective it can be if programs aren’t deployed and managed properly. It’s not just about which tests we have or how many there are — it’s about incorporating them all where and when they’re most needed.

“I’m so adamant that what we need is a strategy above all,” Nuzzo, from Johns Hopkins, said. “You figure out which technology will give you information to be able to take that action. Sometimes it’s going to be a lab test; sometimes it’s going to be a rapid test. But we need to figure it out. We’ve never really done that.”

Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on a laptop screen as he speaks to Congress.
Facebook’s new oversight board isn’t looking at the platform’s core design. | Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Facebook’s oversight board is meant to take on the platform’s toughest content decisions. Should that include its algorithms?

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All eyes are on Facebook’s oversight board, which is expected to decide in the next few weeks if former President Donald Trump will be allowed back on Facebook. But some critics — and at least one member — of the independent decision-making group say the board has more important responsibilities than individual content moderation decisions like banning Trump. They want it to have oversight over Facebook’s core design and algorithms.

This idea of externally regulating the algorithms that determine almost everything you see on Facebook is catching on outside of the oversight board, too. At Thursday’s hearing on misinformation and social media, several members of Congress took aim at the company’s engagement algorithms, saying they spread misinformation in order to maximize profits. Some lawmakers are currently renewing efforts to amend Section 230 — the law that largely shields social media networks from liability for the content that users post to their platforms — so that these companies could be held responsible when their algorithms amplify certain types of dangerous content. At least one member of Congress is suggesting that social media companies might need a special regulatory agency.

All of this plays into a growing debate over who should regulate content on Facebook — and how it should be done.

Right now, the oversight board’s scope is limited

Facebook’s new oversight board — which can overrule even CEO Mark Zuckerberg on certain decisions and is meant to function like a Supreme Court for social media content moderation — has a fairly narrow scope of responsibilities. It’s currently tasked with reviewing users’ appeals if they object to a decision Facebook made to take down their posts for violating its rules. And only the board’s decisions on individual posts or questions that are directly referred to it by Facebook are actually binding.

When it comes to Facebook’s fundamental design and the content it prioritizes and promotes to users, all the board can do right now is make recommendations. Some say that’s a problem.

“The jurisdiction that Facebook has currently given it is way too narrow,” Evelyn Douek, a lecturer at Harvard Law School who analyzes social media content moderation policies, told Recode. “If it’s going to have any meaningful impact at all and actually do any good, [the oversight board] needs to have a much broader remit and be able to look at the design of the platform and a bunch of those systems behind what leads to the individual pieces of content in question.”

Facebook designs its algorithms to be so powerful that they decide what shows up when you search for a given topic, what groups you’re recommended to join, and what appears at the top of your News Feed. To keep you on its platforms as long as possible, Facebook uses its algorithms to serve up content that will encourage you to scroll, click, comment, and share on its platforms — all while encountering the ads that fuel its revenue (Facebook has objected to this characterization).

But these recommendation systems have long been criticized for exacerbating the spread of misinformation and fueling political polarization, racism, and extremist violence. This month, a man said he was able to become an FBI informant regarding a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer because Facebook’s algorithms recommended he join the group where it was being facilitated. While Facebook has taken some steps to adjust its algorithms — after the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, the company said it would permanently stop recommending political groups — many think the company hasn’t taken aggressive enough action.

That’s what’s prompting calls for external regulation of the company’s algorithms — whether from the oversight board or from lawmakers.

Can the oversight board take on Facebook’s algorithms?

“The biggest disappointment of the board … is how narrow its jurisdictions are, right? Like, we were promised the Supreme Court, and we’ve been given a piddly little traffic court,” said Douek, while noting that Facebook has signaled the board’s jurisdiction could broaden over time. “Facebook is strongly going to resist letting the board have the kind of jurisdiction that we’re talking about because it goes to their core business interests, right? What is prioritized in the News Feed is the way that they get engagement and therefore the way that they make money.”

Some members of the board have also started to suggest a similar interest in the company’s algorithms. Recently, Alan Rusbridger, a journalist and member of the oversight board, told a House of Lords committee in the United Kingdom that he expected that he and fellow board members are likely to eventually ask “to see the algorithm — I feel sure — whatever that means.”

“People say to me, ‘Oh, you’re on that board, but it’s well known that the algorithms reward emotional content that polarizes communities because that makes it more addictive,’” he told the committee. Well I don’t know if that’s true or not, and I think as a board we’re going to have to get to grips with that. Even if that takes many sessions with coders speaking very slowly so that we can understand what they’re saying, our responsibility will be to understand what these machines are — the machines that are going in — rather than the machines that are moderating, what their metrics are.”

In an interview with Recode, oversight board member John Samples, of the libertarian Cato Institute, told Recode that the board, which launched only late last year, is just getting started but that it is “aware” of algorithms as an issue. He said that the board could comment on algorithms in its non-binding recommendations.

Julie Owono, also an oversight board member and executive director of the organization Internet Sans Frontières, pointed to a recent case the board considered regarding an automated flagging system that wrongly removed a post in support of breast cancer awareness for violating Facebook’s rules about nudity. “We’ve proved in the decision that we’ve made that we’re completely aware of the problems that exist with AI, and algorithms, and automated content decisions,” she told Recode.

A Facebook spokesperson told Recode the company is not planning to refer any cases regarding recommendation or engagement algorithms to the board, and that content-ranking algorithms are not currently in the scope of the board’s appeal process. Still, the spokesperson noted that the board’s bylaws allow its scope to expand over time.

“I’d also point out that currently, as Facebook adopts the board’s policy recommendations, the board is impacting the company’s operations,” a spokesperson for the oversight board added. One example: In the recent case involving a breast cancer awareness post, Facebook says it changed the language of its community guidelines, as well as improving its machine learning-based flagging systems.

But there are key questions related to algorithms that the board ought to be able to consider, said Katy Glenn Bass, a research director at the Knight First Amendment Institute. The oversight board, she told Recode, should have a “broader mandate” to learn about how Facebook’s algorithms decide what goes viral and what is prioritized in the News Feed, and should be able to study how well Facebook’s attempts to stop the spread of extremism and misinformation are actually working.

Recently, Zuckerberg promised to reduce “politics” in users’ feeds. The company has also instituted a fact-checking program and has tried to discourage people from sharing flagged misinformation with alerts. Following the 2020 election, Facebook tinkered with its News Feed to prioritize mainstream news, a temporary change it eventually rolled back.

“[The board] should have the power to ask Facebook those questions,” Bass told Recode in an email, “and to ask Facebook to let independent experts (like computer scientists) do research on the platform to answer those questions.” Bass, along with other leaders at the Knight First Amendment Institute, has recommended that the oversight board, before ruling on the Trump decision, analyze how Facebook’s “design decisions” contributed to the events at the Capitol on January 6.

Some critics have already begun to say that the oversight board isn’t sufficient for regulating Facebook’s algorithms, and they want the government to institute reform. Better protection for data privacy and digital rights — and legal incentives to curb the platform’s most odious and dangerous content — could force Facebook to change its systems, said Safiya Umoja Noble, a professor at UCLA and member of the Real Facebook Oversight Board, a group of activists and scholars that have raised concerns about the oversight board.

“The issues are the result of almost two decades of disparate and inconsistent human and software-driven content moderation, coupled with machine learning trained on consumer engagements with all kinds of harmful propaganda,” she told Recode. “[I]f Facebook were legally accountable for damages to the public, and to individuals, from the circulation of harmful and discriminatory advertising, or its algorithmic organization and mobilization of violent, hate-based groups, it would have to reimagine its product.”

Some lawmakers also think Congress should take a more aggressive role in Facebook’s algorithms. On Wednesday, Reps. Tom Malinowski and Anna Eshoo reintroduced the Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act, which would take away platforms’ legal liability in cases where their algorithms amplified content that interfere with civil rights or involve international terrorism.

When asked about the oversight board, Rep. Eshoo told Recode: “If you ask me do I have confidence in this, and that someone on some committee said that they’re concerned about algorithms? I mean, I welcome that. But do I have confidence in it? I don’t.”

Madihha Ahussain, special counsel for anti-Muslim bigotry for Muslim Advocates — a civil rights organization that has sounded the alarm about anti-Muslim content on Facebook’s platform — told Recode that while the “jury is still out” on the oversight board’s legitimacy, she’s concerned it’s acting as “little more than a PR stunt” for the company and says the government should “step in.”

“Facebook’s algorithms drive people to hate groups and hateful content,” she told Recode. “Facebook needs to stop caving to political and financial pressures and ensure that their algorithms stop the spread of dangerous, hateful content — regardless of ideology.”

Beyond Facebook, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has floated another way to change how social media algorithms work: giving users more control. Before the Thursday House hearing on misinformation and disinformation, Dorsey pointed to efforts from Twitter to let people choose what their algorithms prioritize (right now, Twitter users can choose to see Tweets reverse-chronologically or based on engagement), as well as a nascent, decentralized research effort called Bluesky, which Dorsey says is working on building “open” recommendation algorithms to provide greater user choice.

While it’s clear there’s growing enthusiasm to change how social media algorithms work and who can influence that, it’s not yet clear what those changes will involve, or whether those changes will ultimately be up to users’ individual decisions, government regulation, or the social networks themselves. Regardless, providing oversight to social media algorithms on the scale of Facebook’s is still uncharted territory.

“The law’s still really, really new at this, so it’s not like we have a good model of how to do it anywhere yet,” says Douek, of Harvard Law. “So in some sense, it’s a problem for the oversight board. And in some sense, it’s a bigger problem for sort of legal systems and the law more generally as we enter the algorithmic age.”

Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

A WeWork sign on the side of a brick building in Dublin.
A year and a half after its failed IPO and a major drop in valuation, WeWork is going public. | Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The troubled co-working company, now valued at $9 billion, is riding the SPAC boom to the public markets.

A year and a half after its failed IPO attempt, WeWork is finally going public. Instead of trying a traditional IPO again, the troubled coworking outfit is using a different financial maneuver: merging with a special purpose acquisition company, known as a SPAC. The deal, which values WeWork at $9 billion including debt, represents a bit of closure for a company that has had a roller coaster few years, going from a tech darling valued at $47 billion to a cautionary tale. It also highlights just how frenzied the SPAC rush has become.

The Wall Street Journal first confirmed on Friday that the company is merging with BowX Acquisition, sponsored by SPAC Bow Capital Management and run by Sacramento Kings owner and Tibco Software founder Vivek Ranadivé. In a way, WeWork is the quintessential SPAC candidate: It’s a high-profile company that has had difficulty going public otherwise. It’s also operating in the buzzy coworking industry: WeWork essentially leases office real estate, makes it look cool, and then subleases that property to companies and individuals looking to rent for the short term.

There are mixed signals for the company’s financial outlook. On one hand, WeWork and other shared office space companies could thrive post-pandemic as businesses rethink their traditional office leases and opt for more flexible solutions. On the other, WeWork posted a loss of nearly $4 billion last year and about the same in 2019. BowX Acquisition is currently trading at $10.72 — more than the standard $10 that SPACs go public at and a sign that this could be a popular acquisition. However, it had traded below $10 earlier when the WeWork merger had already been speculated.

SPAC mergers, like the one between WeWork and BowX Acquisition, are an increasingly popular way for companies to go public. This year is on track for a record number of SPAC companies listing on the stock market. The Journal reported that nearly 300 SPACs have gone public so far in 2021, raising $93 billion. In most years, that’s more than the annual total for IPOs, both traditional and SPAC. Just this morning, the Wall Street Journal also reported that media startups Axios and the Athletic are hoping to merge and go public via a SPAC.

Wait, what are SPACs again?

SPACs are shell companies that go public with the express purpose of raising money to buy private companies — effectively bringing private companies public much faster than if they were to do a traditional IPO.

To be successful, a SPAC needs to merge with a private company within two years or return investors’ money. A share of a SPAC typically costs $10, and buyers are allowed to get their money back if they don’t like the eventual merger. That means they are a relatively safe investment if people buy them around that price. However, a slew of recent SPACs traded much higher. The SPAC that purchased electric car company Lucid traded higher than $60 before announcing the merger, after which the price precipitously declined.

And SPACs have seen increased demand because of an influx of retail investors — regular people investing in companies through apps like Robinhood. While this trend democratizes access to the stock market, critics say it’s also democratizing the ability to lose lots of money. Post-merger SPACs have historically underperformed regular IPO stocks. An index of SPACs, which reached a peak in February, has seen a selloff in recent days in anticipation of more scrutiny by the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

The flurry of SPACs — many of them led by high-profile sponsors and even celebrities —means there’s lots of money out there with which to merge with private companies — more perhaps than there are good companies to buy.

As University of Florida professor and IPO expert Jay Ritter told Recode recently, “There’s now so much money chasing deals, it’s going to be harder and harder to pull off attractive mergers.”

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