EXAMPLES OF CORRUPT CORPORATE BEHAVIOR Part 2

Here are three recent examples of corrupt corporate behavior. They show the breadth of greed-driven corporate corruption from seriously harming public health to illegal market manipulation to criminal money laundering. (This previous post highlighted three other examples.)

Example #1: As one of the most egregious cases of corporate corruption moves toward an end, Purdue Pharma (the maker and incredibly corrupt promoter of the addictive, opioid pain killer OxyContin) has pleaded guilty to criminal charges. It has admitted to:

  • Impeding the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in its efforts to stem the crisis of opioid addiction,
  • Failing to have effective procedures to prevent diversion of prescription OxyContin to the black market while assuring the DEA that it did,
  • Lying to the DEA to get approval to produce greater amounts of OxyContin, and
  • Paying kickbacks to doctors and engaging in other illegal schemes to get doctors to increase their prescribing of OxyContin.

These guilty pleas were part of a settlement of criminal and civil charges with the federal Department of Justice that will require the company to pay $8.3 billion in penalties and forfeitures over a number of years. The majority of this money will go to state, local, and tribal governments to pay for treatment and prevention of opioid addiction. Over the last 20 years, the opioid crisis has contributed to over 470,000 deaths in the U.S. and it appears to be getting worse during the coronavirus pandemic. [1] The $8.3 billion amount, if calculated on a per death basis, values each death at less than $18,000, without including any calculation of the harm to those who have or are suffering from OxyContin-related drug abuse but have, so far, survived.

Attorneys general of about half of the states are opposing the settlement, asking for harsher penalties for the company and particularly for the members of the Sackler family who owned and controlled Purdue. Under current settlement provisions, the very wealthy Sackler family will pay only $225 million to settle civil charges. No criminal charges have been filed against them, although that is still a possibility. (Here’s a previous post with more details about Purdue.)

Example #2: Teva Pharmaceutical has been charged by the U.S. Department of Justice with conspiring to fix prices and manipulate the market for generic drugs. The criminal charges allege that these actions resulted in at least $350 million in overcharges over a 3 ½ year period. Five other generic drug makers that were also part of this investigation have pleaded guilty and have agreed to pay a total of $426 million to settle the charges against them. Teva and these other companies are also facing civil lawsuits by states’ attorneys general and others. [2]

Teva fills 10% of the generic drug prescriptions in the U.S. and a criminal conviction could lead to it being banned from doing business with Medicare and Medicaid. A conviction would also weaken its defense against the civil lawsuits.

Example #3: At least $100 billion a year of cash flows through U.S. banks that is abetting tax dodging, fraud, corruption, or money laundering for drug dealers, terrorists, and other unsavory individuals and entities. Banks are required to file Suspicious Activity Reports for transactions that may involve criminal activity. Typically, these reports are not public but over 2,000 of them were recently leaked and they identified over 18,000 suspicious transactions between 1999 and 2017. And this may just be the tip of the iceberg. Banks report these suspicious transactions but go ahead and process them (instead of blocking them) because they earn significant fees on them. Almost half of the suspicious money flowed through Deutsche Bank’s U.S. subsidiary, but just about every prominent U.S. bank was involved. [3]

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that often the corporations that conduct these cash transfers are created and registered in states, notably Delaware, or offshore tax havens (e.g., Cayman Islands and the Virgin Islands) where disclosure of the true owner(s) of the corporation (those who will benefit from its activities) is not required. This combination of corrupt banks, weak banking regulations, and lax corporate registration requirements has led to the U.S. being one of the preferred global destinations for tainted money.

One of the frequent activities of these shell companies (i.e., companies with unidentified owners and no purpose other than to facilitate anonymous movement of cash) is to purchase high-end real estate. A large portion of luxury real estate in Boston and Seattle, for example, is purchased by shell companies, often with cash (i.e., no mortgage loan). Experiments with temporary local transparency rules, such as requiring the disclosure of the true owners on cash real estate transactions of over $1 million, has resulted in declines in such transactions of 70% to 95%. Legislation has been introduced in Congress to require full disclosure of the beneficial owner(s) of all corporations but it is not making any progress.

Clearly, to prevent corrupt corporate behavior, the U.S. needs stronger regulation of corporations, from its biggest banks to drug companies to shell corporations. Without it, greed runs wild and corrupt U.S. corporations will aid and abet drug dealing, terrorism, and harm to the health and financial well-being of mainstream Americans. These corrupt activities also, of course, result in the rich in getting richer at the expense of everyday Americans.

[1]      Mulvihill, G., 11/25/20, “OxyContin maker Purdue pleads guilty to criminal charges,” The Boston Globe from the Associated Press

[2]      Griffin, R., 8/27/20, “Teva fights US claims of price fixing,” The Boston Globe from Bloomberg News

[3]      Collins, C., 9/21/20, “FinCen files shine spotlight on suspicious bank transfers,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/09/21/fincen-files-shine-spotlight-suspicious-bank-transfers)

FACEBOOK KNOWINGLY PROMOTES DISINFORMATION

Facebook (FB) facilitates an accelerating spread of disinformation; this is widely recognized and well-documented. (See my previous post on this.) Facebook allows toxic speech and dangerous misinformation to spread unchecked on its monopolistic platform. This affects and infects our public discourse and knowledge base, undermining the health of our democracy. However, stopping it runs counter to Facebook’s economic interests because increased activity, regardless of its content, is what increases its revenue. [1]

Recently, damning evidence has come to light of Facebook’s manipulation of its News Feed to favor right-wing sources that are known to be deceptive over trustworthy news sources.

In late 2017, Facebook was in the process of making significant changes in the computer programming code or algorithm it uses to determine which of the overwhelming plethora of sources each of us is shown in our Facebook News Feed. It claimed it was working to bring people together and to prioritize trusted and informative news sources.

It was uncovered recently that FB ran experiments with its first iteration of a revised News Feed algorithm that revealed it would dramatically curtail the dissemination of right-wing, less-than-trustworthy sites, such as Breitbart, the Daily Wire, and the Daily Caller. FB’s software engineers were told to modify the algorithm to reduce the negative effects on these right-wing sites.

A second iteration of the new algorithm was ready in January 2018 and its effects were presented to senior executives at FB. The data showed that it reversed the curtailment of right-wing, less-than-trustworthy sites and instead curtailed distribution of progressive-leaning, credible news sources. The presentation included bar charts showing the impact on a dozen or so specific news sources.

This second iteration of the new News Feed algorithm was, nonetheless, put into use, based in part on support from FB’s Vice President of Global Public Policy, Joel Kaplan, and right-wing-leaning employees working for him. (Kaplan would later loudly support his friend Brett Kavanaugh during Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings.) This was not the first time Kaplan had acted to promote right-wing disinformation. For example, in December 2016, when an internal investigation found that a group of FB accounts, mostly based overseas, were behind a lot of the promotion of right-wing disinformation, Kaplan objected to disabling these accounts because “it will disproportionately affect conservatives.” He also has defended and protected right-wing sites that violated FB policies, opposing sanctions on them. [2]

The new News Feed algorithm expanded dissemination of content from the right-wing Daily Wire that routinely shares false content and spreads malicious stories such as ones describing being transgendered as a “delusion,”  calling abortion providers “assassins,” and labeling progressive members of Congress as not “loyal to America.” On the other hand, the new algorithm reduced dissemination of content from left-leaning Mother Jones magazine that provides rigorously fact-checked reporting and investigative journalism that has won it numerous journalism awards, including seven National Magazine Awards (three times for General Excellence). It has also been a National Magazine Award finalist 24 other times. In 2017, it won the Magazine of the Year award from the American Society of Magazine Editors.

In the six months after implementation of the changes in Facebook’s News Feed algorithm, FB traffic to trustworthy, left-leaning Mother Jones articles declined 37% from the previous six months. This means that the over one million Mother Jones followers and others on FB saw fewer of its articles in their News Feeds. On the other hand, over the summer of 2020, the deceptive right-wing Daily Wire had more Facebook engagement (i.e., likes, comments, and shares) than any other English-language publisher in the world. [3]

These data belie Zuckerberg’s claim when he announced the News Feed changes in January 2018 that the goals were “bringing people closer together” and fighting “sensationalism, misinformation and polarization.” He didn’t mention that he and FB were tipping the scales to favor less-than-factual right-wing sources.

Why did this happen? Facebook was tweaking its News Feed algorithm because user engagement was falling, which threatened its revenue and stock price. Zuckerberg and FB may also have wanted to avoid antagonizing Trump and the right-wing Republicans in power in the federal government, thereby reducing the likelihood that they would attack FB either verbally or through government investigations and regulations. Right-wing and “conservative” politicians had been criticizing FB for “liberal” bias (without evidence). A former Facebook employee said that it was made clear  that changes to the News Feed algorithm could not hurt Breitbart, Trump-advisor Steve Bannon’s mouthpiece.

Facebook uses its monopolistic power to determine which publishers’ content the public sees. This power of selective partial censorship and propaganda promotion is Big Brother-type power that we all should be concerned about and fear. Free speech in today’s America  is relative; it is based on how much money one has to broadcast one’s voice or on how FB treats you. Zuckerberg’s claim that he supports unfettered free speech is disingenuous given that FB tips the scales to favor certain sources and disfavor others.

FB’s marketplace power and dissemination of harmful disinformation need to be addressed by government policies and regulations. Slowing the spread of  misinformation and malicious content from a handful of the most active and therefore most harmful sites would have a dramatic effect.

Facebook should be held accountable for disseminating false, misleading, or inflammatory content. Regulation is one way to do this and competition is another. As a monopolistic platform lacking competition, FB has no incentive to do anything but pursue profits and/or Zuckerberg’s personal agenda. FB should be regulated like a monopolistic utility as the phone company once was or as private electricity and gas utilities are. Anti-trust laws should be used to stop FB’s anti-competitive practices and its acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp should be reversed. Competition should be facilitated, for example, by creating a not-for-profit, free to users, Internet platform for responsible information sharing and journalism akin to public radio and TV.

I’m not a heavy FB user so my expertise on its on-the-ground operation is limited. Therefore, I welcome your suggestions on how we can send a message to Facebook and Zuckerberg that will be heard loudly and clearly on the issue of the quality of content in its News Feed as well as other issues such as its repeated violations of users’ privacy. Would a one-day boycott where we don’t log into FB be effective? Or would a week where we never click on a FB ad be more meaningful? What else can we do? In addition, of course, to lobbying our elected officials to rein in Facebook and Zuckerberg with regulations and anti-trust laws.

[1]      Alba, D., 10/13/20, “False info thriving on social media,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[2]      Bauerlein, M., & Jeffrey, C., 10/21/20, “Facebook manipulated the news you see to appease Republicans, insiders say,” Mother Jones (https://www.motherjones.com/media/2020/10/facebook-mother-jones/)

[3]      Bauerlein, M., & Jeffrey, C., 10/21/20, see above

FACEBOOK’S DISSEMINATION OF DISINFORMATION ACCELERATES

 Facebook’s (FB) spreading of disinformation is accelerating, despite any claims to the contrary. Its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, repeatedly says that he does not want FB to be an arbiter of free speech, but it is the arbiter of what information or speech FB users see.

Zuckerberg also asserts that the best way to fight offensive bad speech is with good speech. [1] However, this is a false equivalency as good speech that tries to counter bad speech has to mention the bad speech which furthers its presence in our public discourse. This has been shown by research to further embed the bad or false speech in people’s minds. For example, reporting on Trump’s tweets and stating they are false or misleading, still puts Trump’s tweets in front of the viewing or reading audience.

Facebook’s current stated standard is that posts that are not calling for harm or violence, however offensive, should be protected as free speech. Its new policy announced in October will finally ban posts that deny or distort the Holocaust. This is a very small and belated step forward against some of the worst and most obviously harmful disinformation that FB has spread. Almost a quarter of Americans between ages 18 and 39 say they believe the Holocaust either didn’t happen or was exaggerated. It may be difficult to link this directly to FB or to harm or violence but it’s hard to believe there is no linkage. [2]

Facebook allows toxic speech and dangerous misinformation to spread largely unchecked on its monopolistic platform. Engagement with FB posts (i.e., liking, sharing, or commenting on them) that are from sources that routinely publish misleading or false content tripled from 2016 to 2020, exceeding the rate of increase for outlets that uphold traditional journalistic standards.

This affects and infects our public discourse and knowledge base, undermining the health of our democracy. However, stopping it runs counter to Facebook’s economic interests because increased activity, regardless of its content, is what increases FB’s revenue. [3]

Over the summer and early fall of 2020, the Digital New Deal (DND) project examined engagement with posts on FB and analyzed the reliability of the posts’ sources. It partnered with NewsGuard, a non-partisan service that rates news and information sources for their accuracy. (See note on its methodology at the end of this post.) The DND project focused on 721 deceptive information sources and compared them with a selected group of non-deceptive sources. It categorized the sources into three types:

  1. False Content Producers: repeatedly publish verifiably false content (396 sources)
  2. Manipulators: fail to gather and present information responsibly (325 sources)
  3. Trustworthy Outlets (46 selected sources for comparison)

Engagement with posts from type 1 and 2 sources (referred to as deceptive sources) has grown 242% since 2016. Engagement with posts from Manipulators (type 2 sources) represents 84% of all deceptive source engagement and has grown from 390 million engagement actions in the 3rd quarter of 2016 to 1,520 million in the 3rd quarter of 2020 (almost fourfold). The deceptive sources with the most engagement on FB, including the top five in each of types 1 and 2, promote right-wing or “conservative” politics.

These deceptive sources, masquerading as news outlets, are spreading false information, manipulative messaging, and concocted conspiracies that degrade democratic discourse. This harms the health of our democracy because it undermines informed participation by citizens and voters. [4]

The top ten deceptive sources are all of the Manipulator type and account for 62% of FB engagement interactions with deceptive sources, while the other 711 deceptive sites are responsible for 38% of these interactions. Fox was the most frequent source in the Manipulator category. It is rated more positively by NewsGuard than many other deceptive sources because it sometimes does correct errors, avoids deceptive headlines, labels advertising, and discloses its ownership and financing. Other examples of Manipulators are the Daily Wire, Breitbart, and The Blaze.

My next post will provide even more damning evidence that FB’s goal is not to bring people together, to provide accurate information, or to fight sensationalism, misinformation, and polarization as Zuckerberg has said, but rather to maximize user engagement and profits, and perhaps to promote right-wing politics and curry favor with those in power in Washington, D.C. The post will highlight FB’s 2018 changes to its News Feed algorithm that determines what information or disinformation is presented to FB users. It will also present some ways to address FB’s monopolistic power and its dissemination of false and harmful content.

Note on the methodology for rating information sources used in the DND study summarized above: NewsGuard rates online news outlets based on nine criteria of responsible journalism including:

  • Does not repeatedly publish false content (22 points)
  • Gathers and presents information responsibly (18 points)
  • Regularly corrects or clarifies errors (12.5 points)
  • Handles the difference between news and opinion responsibly (12.5 points)
  • Avoids deceptive headlines (10 points)
  • Website discloses ownership and financing (7.5 points)
  • Clearly labels advertising (7.5 points)
  • Reveals who is in charge, including any possible conflicts of interest (5 points)
  • The site provides the names of content creators, along with either contact or biographical information (5 points)

Outlets receive points for passing a given criteria or they receive zero for failing. A total score of less than 60 merits a Red rating, meaning the site fails to adhere to basic journalistic standards.

[1]      The Associated Press, 10/12/20, “Facebook bans Holocaust denial, distortion posts”

[2]      Frenkel, S., 10/13/20, “Facebook bans Holocaust denial content,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[3]      Alba, D., 10/13/20, “False info thriving on social media,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[4]      Kornbluh, K., Goldstein, A., & Weiner, E., 10/12/20, “New study by Digital New Deal finds engagement with deceptive outlets higher on Facebook today than run-up to 2016 election,” Digital New Deal, German Marshall Fund of the United States (https://www.gmfus.org/blog/2020/10/12/new-study-digital-new-deal-finds-engagement-deceptive-outlets-higher-facebook-today)

HOW THE RICH GET RICHER Part 1

I’m planning on doing a series of, hopefully, short posts (although this one’s on the long side) with anecdotes on how the rich get richer, often at the expense of the rest of us. Here’s the first installment with three examples.

Example #1: At least 18 large companies have given executives large payouts just before filing for bankruptcy. These companies have laid off tens of thousands of workers but gave a collective $135 million to executives just before filing for bankruptcy. Bankruptcy attorneys note that the payouts were timed to skirt a 2005 law intended to prevent executives from prospering as their companies failed. The intent was to ban payouts that unfairly enrich the executives who drove their companies into bankruptcy. Such huge payouts are particularly egregious during an economic crisis when employees of the companies are suffering severe hardships. [1]

Example #2: Some members of Congress and some Trump administration supporters, who were privy to private early briefings on the seriousness of the coronavirus, made investment decisions that appear to have  been based on this non-public, inside information. Under the Stock Act of 2012, members of Congress are barred from using non-public information they get as a member of Congress to buy or sell personal stock holdings. However, at least four members of Congress made significant stock transactions in late February just before the stock market crashed. The private briefings they received on the potential seriousness of a pandemic would be considered insider information because this information was not available to the public. Moreover, at that time, the public information from the Trump administration and from an Op-Ed written by Senator Burr was reassuring the public that the U.S. was well prepared for a pandemic and had the coronavirus under control.

Senator Burr of North Carolina, as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had received multiple briefings on the seriousness of the coronavirus. On February 13, 2020, less than a week after publishing his upbeat Op-Ed, he sold 33 stocks worth over $600 thousand (and perhaps as much as $1.7 million) in several industries likely to be hard hit by a pandemic. Senator Kelly Loeffler of Georgia made 29 stock transactions in late February, including buying over $100,000 worth of a company providing software tools for working remotely. Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma sold up to $750,000 worth of stock and Senator Dianne Feinstein of California sold millions of dollars of stocks. All four Senators have denied doing anything illegal. Senator Burr’s brother-in-law also sold significant stock holdings on the same day as the Senator. Providing investment tips to others based on inside information is illegal. [2]

On February 24 and 25, at a private meeting of the conservative Hoover Institution’s board, senior members of Trump’s economic team expressed uncertainty about how the coronavirus would affect the economy. However, on these same days, President Trump and the same economic advisers were saying publicly that the coronavirus was under control and that the economy and the stock market looked good. The president’s advisers appear to have been giving an early warning to wealthy party donors that contradicted their public statements. A hedge fund consultant, William Callanan, who is a Hoover board member and attended the meeting, circulated a memo about this to a hedge fund founder and others that gave them the ability to make investment decisions based on this non-public information. [3] This would appear to be illegal insider trading facilitated by the Trump administration’s private briefings.

Example #3: Insiders at companies developing COVID vaccines and treatments have been selling their companies’ stock and making millions of dollars. Insiders, including executives and board members, at a dozen of these companies have sold more than $1.3 billion in company stock since March 2020 when the seriousness of COVID became evident. In the same period last year, insiders at these companies sold just $74 million of stock, less than 6% of 2020 sales. Over $1.1 billion of these stock sales occurred at just three companies – Moderna, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, and Vaxart. In particular, the chief medical officer (CMO) at Moderna is systematically liquidating all his stock, including stock obtained by exercising stock options granted to him, through planned weekly trades that are making him $1 million a week. Moderna’s chief executive officer (CEO) has sold nearly $58 million in stock, although he still retains substantial company stock.

Insiders are not allowed to sell company stock based on insider information, but can legally sell company stock under plans that schedule the stock sales in advance. However, these plans are relatively easy to change on short notice, which can make them at least appear to be an end run around illegal insider trading. Moderna’s CMO modified his plan on March 13 and its CEO did so on May 21 shortly after the company announced positive preliminary results from its vaccine development. Insiders have an incentive to exaggerate and hype good news while downplaying possible challenges or uncertainties in order to inflate their company’s stock price and increase their personal profit from sales of company stock. Vaxart is being sued by shareholders for misleading them while a hedge fund with ties to a board member was selling hundreds of millions of dollars of company stock.

This insider stock selling at companies working on COVID responses is particularly concerning because many of these companies have received substantial funding from the federal government under Operation Warp Speed, the government’s initiative to accelerate development of a COVID vaccine. Moderna is receiving $1 billion to support the clinical trial of a possible vaccine and has been promised another $1.5 billion to manufacture and distribute a successful vaccine. Taxpayers are paying for the risky up-front investments while executives and shareholders are (already) reaping the financial benefits even though no vaccine has yet completed testing. [4]

These last two examples indicate that selling (and buying) stocks based on non-public information is not uncommon. Some of it is clearly illegal but enforcement is sometimes difficult or lax and some of it either isn’t illegal or has been given a gloss of legality by allowing company insiders to engaged in scheduled stock sales.

In any case, it appears that the Trump Administration and federal government regulations have effectively institutionalized insider trading. Those investing in the stock market without insider connections should stand forewarned.

[1]      Washington Post, 10/28/20, “Failing firms’ executives got millions,” The Boston Globe

[2]      Burns, K., & Millhiser, I., 5/14/20, “Sen. Richard Burr and the coronavirus insider trading scandal, explained,” Vox (https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/5/14/21258560/senator-richard-burr-coronavirus-insider-trading-scandal-explained)

[3]      Kelly, K., & Mazzetti, M., 10/15/20, “As virus spread early on, briefings from Trump administration fueled sell-off,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[4]      Wallack, T., 10/24/20, “Drug company insiders are profiting handsomely from the world’s desperate hope for a COVID-19 vaccine,” The Boston Globe