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Facebook Tried to Limit QAnon. It Failed.

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OAKLAND, Calif. — Last month, Facebook said it was cracking down on activity tied to QAnon, a vast conspiracy theory that falsely claims that a satanic cabal runs the world, as well as other potentially violent extremist movements.

Since then, a militia movement on Facebook that called for armed conflict on the streets of U.S. cities has gained thousands of new followers. A QAnon Facebook group has also added hundreds of new followers while questioning common-sense pandemic medical practices, like wearing a mask in public and staying at home while sick. And a campaign that claimed to raise awareness of human trafficking has steered hundreds of thousands of people to conspiracy theory groups and pages on the social network.

Perhaps the most jarring part? At times, Facebook’s own recommendation engine — the algorithm that surfaces content for people on the site — has pushed users toward the very groups that were discussing QAnon conspiracies, according to research conducted by The New York Times, despite assurances from the company that that would not happen.

None of this was supposed to take place under new Facebook rules targeting QAnon and other extremist movements. The Silicon Valley company’s inability to quash extremist content, despite frequent flags from concerned users, is now renewing questions about the limits of its policing and whether it will be locked in an endless fight with QAnon and other groups that see it as a key battleground in their online war.

The stakes are high ahead of the Nov. 3 election. QAnon groups, which have cast President Trump as the hero in their baseless conspiracy, have spread and amplified misinformation surrounding the election. Among other things, they have shared false rumors that widespread voter fraud is already taking place and have raised questions about the competency of the Postal Service with mail-in ballots.

“In allowing QAnon groups to get to this point and continue to grow, Facebook has created a huge problem for themselves and for society in a more general sense,” said Travis View, a host of QAnon Anonymous, a podcast that seeks to explain the movement.

The QAnon movement has proved extremely adept at evading detection on Facebook under the platform’s new restrictions. Some groups have simply changed their names or avoided key terms that would set off alarm bells. The changes were subtle, like changing “Q” to “Cue” or to a name including the number 17, reflecting that Q is the 17th letter of the alphabet. Militia groups have changed their names to phrases from the Bible, or to claims of being “God’s Army.”

Others simply tweaked what they wrote to make it more palatable to the average person. Facebook communities that had otherwise remained insulated from the conspiracy theory, like yoga groups or parenting circles, were suddenly filled with QAnon content disguised as health and wellness advice or concern about child trafficking.

A Facebook spokeswoman said the company was continuing to evaluate its best practices. “Our specialists are working with external experts on ways to disrupt activity designed to evade our enforcement,” said the spokeswoman.

Facebook and other social media companies began taking action against the extremist groups this summer, prompted by rapid growth in QAnon and real-world violence linked to the group and militia-style movements on social media.

Twitter moved first. On July 21, Twitter announced that it was removing thousands of QAnon accounts and was blocking trends and key phrases related to the movement from appearing in its search and Trending Topics section. But many of the QAnon accounts on Twitter returned within weeks of the initial ban, according to researchers who study the platform.

In a statement on Thursday, Twitter said that impressions, or views, of QAnon content had dropped by 50 percent since it had rolled out its restrictions.

Then on Aug. 19, Facebook followed. The social network said it was removing 790 QAnon groups from its site and was introducing new rules to clamp down on movements that discuss “potential violence.” The effect would be to restrict groups, pages and accounts belonging to extremist groups, in the company’s most sweeping action against QAnon and other such groups that had used Facebook to call for violence.

About 100 QAnon groups on Facebook tracked by The Times in the month since the rules were instituted continued to grow at a combined pace of over 13,600 new followers a week, according to an analysis of data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned analytics platform.

That was down from the period before the new restrictions, when the same groups added between 15,000 and 25,000 new members a week. Even so, it indicated that QAnon was still recruiting new followers.

Members of those groups were also more active than before. Comments, likes and posts within the QAnon groups grew to over 600,000 a week after Facebook’s rules went into effect, according to CrowdTangle data. Previous weeks had seen an average of less than 530,000 interactions a week.

“The groups, including QAnon, feel incredibly passionate about their cause and will do whatever they can do attract new people to their conspiracy movement. Meanwhile, Facebook has nowhere near the same type of urgency or mandate to contain them,” Mr. View said. “Facebook is operating with constraints and these extremist movements are not.”

Researchers who study QAnon said the movement’s continued growth was partly related to Facebook’s recommendation engine, which pushes people to join groups and pages related to the conspiracy theory.

Marc-André Argentino, a Ph.D. candidate at Concordia University who is studying QAnon, said he had identified 51 Facebook groups that branded themselves as anti-child trafficking organizations, but which were actually predominantly sharing QAnon conspiracies. Many of the groups, which were formed at the start of 2020, spiked in growth in the weeks after Facebook and Twitter began enforcing new bans on QAnon.

The groups previously added dozens to hundreds of new members each week. Following the bans, they attracted tens of thousands of new members weekly, according to data published by Mr. Argentino.

Facebook said it was studying the groups, but has not taken action on them.

The company is increasingly facing criticism, including from Hollywood celebrities and civic rights groups. On Wednesday, celebrities including Kim Kardashian West, Katy Perry and Mark Ruffalo said they were freezing their Instagram accounts for 24 hours to protest Facebook’s policies. (Instagram is owned by Facebook.)

The Anti-Defamation League also said it was pressing Facebook to take action on militia groups and other extremist organizations. “We have been warning Facebook safety teams literally for years about the problem of dangerous and potentially violent extremists using their products to organize and to recruit followers,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the A.D.L., said.

The A.D.L., which has been meeting with Facebook for months about its concerns, has publicly posted lists of hate groups and conspiracy organizations present on the social network. David L. Sifry, the vice president of A.D.L.’s Center for Technology and Society, said that the A.D.L. has had similar conversations about extremist content with other platforms like Twitter, Reddit, TikTok and YouTube, which have been more receptive.

“The response we get back is markedly different with Facebook,” he said. “There are people of good conscience at every single one of these platforms. The core difference is leadership.”

Sheera Frenkel reported from Oakland, Calif., and Tiffany Hsu from Hoboken, N.J. Davey Alba contributed reporting from New York and Ben Decker from Boston.

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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