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D.C. Memo: Un-liking Facebook

A Facebook whistleblower, a challenger to Rep. Betty McCollum and a federal boost for ranked choice voting — for state and local elections.

image of frances haugen speaking in congressional hearing
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
REUTERS/Pool/Jabin Botsford

Hello and welcome back to the D.C. Memo. This week you can find me, along with every other political reporter out here, wondering when we are going to get a deal on the infrastructure and budget bills. We are tired of writing about these things, but that’s showbiz, baby. Here’s what else is on tap this week: A Facebook whistleblower, a challenger to Rep. Betty McCollum and a federal boost for ranked choice voting — for state and local elections.

Infrastructure, in the words of MN representatives

At risk of continuing to inundate D.C. Memo readers with infrastructure and budget news, lawmakers are still arguing over how everything is going to play out. The New York Times has been all over this coverage, but we at MinnPost found it notable that their story from Saturday featured Minnesota Reps. Ilhan Omar and Dean Phillips to represent the progressive and moderate takes, respectively, on the two bills. (If you’ve been reading MinnPost, you’ll know that we did this in August.)

The Times maintains that President Joe Biden has “nurtured the fragile peace between his party’s fractious center and left by convincing both sides he is their ally.” Indeed, Biden has struggled to pass his priority infrastructure bill despite Democrats having control of the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate (barely). This is due primarily to a split amongst progressive Democrats like Omar and moderate Democrats like Phillips.

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The Times story quoted Phillips saying that delaying the infrastructure bill (progressives want to delay it until they can get a vote on reconciliation) is not “the linear and expeditious path to which most of us would aspire.” Phillips acknowledged last Friday that the chances of Biden serving as a bridge between progressives and moderates had “been sadly diminished” after what he called the president’s “nothing burger” of a visit to the Capitol. Loving the word choice here, Dean.

On the other hand, Omar, whip of the nearly 100-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, told reporters that progressive blockaders were the ones “trying to make sure that the president has a success.”

“If we pass the infrastructure bill alone, we are not even accomplishing 10 percent of his agenda,” Omar said.

If you’re thinking that this sounds like the same story we’ve been hearing for months, you’re not wrong. This same squabble of progressives vs. moderates has been playing out for several months, and the self-imposed voting deadline of September 27 came and went without a vote. It’s likely we’ll still be hearing about all this for a while.

Facebook face-off

Sen. Amy Klobuchar has been in the center of a lot of the Facebook news this week as she led a Senate hearing Tuesday where she and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation heard from a Facebook whistleblower.

The whistleblower, who recently revealed her identity, is Frances Haugen, a former product manager at Facebook. At the Senate hearing, she testified and took questions from senators of both parties, largely surrounding the company’s harmful effects on young users.

At Facebook, Haugen studied how the company’s algorithm amplified misinformation and was exploited by foreign antagonists. She told Congress that Facebook time and time again chose to maximize its growth rather than implement safeguards on its various platforms.

“You have said privacy legislation is not enough — I completely agree with you,” Klobuchar said to Haugen. “But I think you know, we have not done anything to update our privacy laws in this country, our federal privacy laws. Nothing. Zilch, in any major way. Why? Because there are lobbyists around every single corner of this building that have been hired by the tech industry.”

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A somewhat surprising takeaway from this hearing: Republicans and Democrats are actually united on regulating Facebook.

During the hearing, Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas turned to Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and said they should put aside their partisan differences to tackle a common goal: reining in Facebook.

On such regulation, Blumenthal said: “Our differences are very minor.” Moran replied that he shares that view.

Haugen urged lawmakers to look into the algorithms that drive main feeds in Facebook and Instagram, which reward engagement, which in turn help sensational content like posts that show hate or misinformation travel and reach millions of people.

“We have done nothing when it comes to making the algorithms more transparent, allowing for the university research that you referred to,” Klobuchar said. “Why? Because Facebook and the other tech companies are throwing a bunch of money around this town, and people are listening to them.”

McCollum has a challenger

Minnesota’s Fourth District Rep. Betty McCollum, the state’s current longest-serving member of Congress,  faces a primary challenger in the 2022 midterm election. Amane Badhasso, works for St. Paul’s Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity, announced that she will be running against McCollum.

According to Badhasso’s website, she fled violence in Ethiopia as a child, becoming a refugee in Kenya and making her way to Minnesota at the age of 13, arriving through a refugee resettlement program.

“For too long, too many in the Fourth Congressional have been left behind,” Badhasso said in a press release. “The struggle to pass long overdue funding for America’s crumbling infrastructure and the build back better agenda to support working families this week demonstrates the need for bold leadership in congress. … From my work in the community as an organizer, I know our neighbors need a transformative vision to ensure we all prosper. I promise to be a fierce advocate to ensure no one in our district is left behind.”

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McCollum has held the Fourth District since 2001, and before that was a member of the Minnesota House starting in 1993. She holds a lot of power in Congress as chair of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.

Phillips is pro-(ranked-)choice

Third District Rep. Dean Phillips joined Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) and Angus King (I-Maine) in reintroducing the Voter Choice Act to adopt a ranked choice voting model for elections, also known as an “instant runoff.” The Voter Choice Act provides $40 million in federal grants to cover up to 50 percent of the cost for local and state governments that choose to adopt ranked choice voting.

Ranked choice voting allows voters to rank candidates in a race, essentially voting for multiple candidates in order of preference instead of just voting for one’s top choice. If no candidate gets more than 50% of first-choice votes, a new recounting process is triggered. The candidate who did the worst is eliminated, and that candidate’s voters’ second-choice picks are redistributed.

Research has shown that ranked-choice voting helps women and candidates of color.

“Our democracy is at a crossroads. Amid historic division and partisan rancor, we must take meaningful action to improve our electoral system from the ground up,” Phillips said in a statement announcing the bill. “That is why, as cities, states, and even political parties – both red and blue – have recognized, we need ranked choice voting. RCV is simple, empowers voters, and rewards candidates who broaden support beyond their base. The Voter Choice Act provides financial resources and technical assistance to communities seeking to adopt RCV without imposing a mandate on communities not yet ready for change.”

What I’m reading

    • Who is the bad art friend?” New York Times Magazine. I feel obligated to recommend this story because it has been the entirety of The Discourse on Twitter and other social media all week. This wild ride includes a woman donating her kidney to a stranger, a friend kind of stealing her story, a lawsuit and subpoenas of group chat transcripts (a worst nightmare scenario, in my opinion). I won’t spoil the plot any more, but I implore you to read this extremely strange and well-written piece.
    • What even counts as science writing anymore?” The Atlantic. Once again, I am telling you to read an Ed Yong story in The Atlantic. This is an introspective piece by the wonderful science writer on how the concept of science writing has almost fundamentally changed during the pandemic. When nearly every aspect of daily life now revolves around COVID-19 and its butterfly effect on our lives, isn’t everything science writing?

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  • Your friend group should look like the cast of a twenty-something drama (and other myths about Millennial friendship),” Catapult. I may be biased as a twenty-something Millennial, but this column seemed to speak about my own friendships in a way that was familiar to me, yet that I hadn’t consciously thought about before. The idea of “transitional friendship,” that some friends grow with you, somehow, is something I’ve experienced as I have to almost re-meet friends I made as a child, now well into adulthood. There’s something very comforting about the friends who understand where you came from, and how that plays into who you are today.

That’s all from me this week. Thanks for reading. As always, please feel free to send any questions, comments or stories about the joy of catching up with old friends to ahackett@minnpost.com, or follow me on Twitter at @byashleyhackett.