But many of the Mahogany cards did indeed stand out from the rest. They addressed their intended recipients as “Mama” and “Auntie,” and their covers said things like, “Baby, your love game is tight.” I found that if the inside of a card mentioned “strength” or “dignity” in the face of obstacles, it was often a Mahogany product. One Mother’s Day offering read, “There is something deep within black women that allows them to stand strong, carry on, and make it over — with their dignity, class, and courage intact — no matter what challenges they have to face in life.”
Mrs. Zollar nevertheless balks at the notion that Mahogany cards touch on perseverance and fortitude more so than any other Hallmark brand.
“I do not think that embedded in Mahogany is the expectation or idea that, for whatever reason, African-Americans have this need to focus in on drama,” she said. “I think that what our Mahogany consumer wants to acknowledge is that, within the wide spectrum of experiences that African-Americans have, there is some of that. But that’s in all cultures, I would say, and we also have many cards that don’t speak to that.”
Still, in an America where the mothers of murdered black children lead protest rallies around the country, it’s hard to miss the poignancy of a Mahogany Mother’s Day card that reads, “I know it must have been tough raising a son in this world.”
Several years ago, Mahogany did dip a toe into social issues — however unintentionally — with the Father’s Day card “For Mom on Father’s Day.” Many customers thought the gesture to single mothers was in poor taste, exaggerating a stereotype that has dogged African-Americans for generations.
Mrs. Zollar points out that other, race-neutral Hallmark imprints were offering similar cards at the time, as well as cards for single fathers. “There was not an intention to pigeonhole this caption to speak to a particular situation that was unique to African-American family dynamics,” she said. Despite Hallmark’s intentions, Mahogany has stopped printing the cards.
The goal now, one would think, is to ensure Hallmark’s enduring relevance under the cultural dominance of computers and other digital devices. Can snail mail compete with the speedy romantic overtures of swapping suggestive photos, sliding into DMs and faithfully liking your crush’s SpongeBob anxiety memes on Instagram (even the ones you’ve seen posted elsewhere)?
Mrs. Zollar said Mahogany keeps up with the trends through constant market research, some of which involves watching online communities like Black Twitter. It’s the reason Mahogany cards currently implore recipients to “slay,” “grind” and wield their “black girl magic.” The illustrations have changed as well. “For example, a few years back, as we noticed more and more blogs and websites devoted to natural hairstyles, we knew the aesthetic on our cards needed to reflect that,” Mrs. Zollar said.
That may explain why even white people periodically find themselves drawn to Mahogany cards. Increasingly, the lexicon of the internet is actually the lexicon of black teenagers, which is then co-opted by the white majority. That’s how you end up with the official Hamburger Helper Twitter account releasing a SoundCloud mixtape. It’s also probably why some nonblack Hallmark customers have told Mrs. Zollar, “‘Oh, we love to buy Mahogany cards. They’re so rich and the language is so expressive.’”
A quick Google search turned up such a customer, who in 2013 wrote a blog post about being a white woman who preferred to give Mahogany cards. “The messages were WAY less cheesy, and just more genuine,” she wrote. She also wondered if it was odd to buy a card for her grandfather illustrated with black people instead of white people, before adding, “This leads me to think about how black people (and other minorities) have felt since forever about not being represented on consumer products.”
On Wednesday, Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, will face a second day of testimony on Capitol Hill regarding how his company conducts its business and how it has failed to protect the privacy of its users.
The hearings were spurred by revelations that Cambridge Analytica, a voter-profiling company, had inappropriately harvested the detailed personal information of up to 87 million Facebook users and that foreign agents have repeatedly used the social media platform to spread misinformation. Facebook executives have promised that the company is working to prevent similar missteps from happening again.
Consumer data mining is the engine that fuels advertising-supported free online services. If Facebook is being singled out for the practice, it is partly because it is the market leader and trendsetter.
“There are common parts of people’s experience on the internet,” Matt Steinfeld, a Facebook spokesman, said in a statement. “But of course we can do more to help people understand how Facebook works and the choices they have.”
Still, privacy advocates want lawmakers and regulators in the United States to have a more pointed discussion about the stockpiling of personal data that remains the core of Facebook’s $40.6 billion annual business.
While a series of actions by European judges and regulators are trying to limit some of the powerful targeting mechanisms that Facebook employs, federal officials in the United States have done little to constrain them, to the consternation of American privacy advocates.
Many other companies, including news organizations like The New York Times, mine information about users for marketing purposes. But privacy advocates say Facebook continues to test the boundaries of what is permissible. Some fault the Federal Trade Commission for failing to enforce a 2011 agreement that barred Facebook from deceptive privacy practices.
“Congress needs to begin to ask questions like, ‘Why did the F.T.C. allow this to happen?’” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit group in Washington. “We most certainly have to take a different approach if we don’t want it to happen again.”
An F.T.C. spokeswoman said the agency could not comment on the case and referred to an agency statement in which it said it was committed to “using all of its tools to protect” consumer privacy and had opened a nonpublic investigation into Facebook’s privacy practices.
Facebook requires outside sites that use its tracking technologies to clearly notify users, and it allows Facebook users to opt out of seeing ads based on their use of those apps and websites.
That has not stopped angry users from airing their grievances over Facebook’s practices.
In 2016, for example, a Missouri man with metastatic cancer filed a class-action suit against Facebook. The suit accused the tech giant of violating the man’s privacy by tracking his activities on cancer center websites outside the social network — and collecting details about his possible treatment options — without his permission.
Facebook persuaded a federal judge to dismiss the case. The company successfully argued that tracking users for ad-targeting purposes was a standard business practice, and one that its users agreed to when signing up for the service. The Missouri man and two other plaintiffs have appealed the judge’s decision.
Facebook is quick to note that when users sign up for an account, they must agree to the company’s data policy. It plainly states that its data collection “includes information about the websites and apps you visit, your use of our services on those websites and apps, your use of our services, as well as information the developer or publisher of the app or website provides to you or us.”
In Europe, however, some regulators contend that Facebook has not obtained users’ active and informed consent to track them on other sites and apps. Their general concern, they said, is that many of Facebook’s 2.1 billion users have no idea how much data Facebook could collect about them and how Facebook could use it to influence their behavior. And there is a growing unease that tech giants are unfairly manipulating users.
“Facebook provides a network where the users, while getting free services most of them consider useful, are subject to a multitude of nontransparent analyses, profiling, and other mostly obscure algorithmical processing,” said Johannes Caspar, the data protection commissioner for Hamburg, Germany.
Outside of the European Union, Facebook employs face recognition technology for a name-tagging feature that can automatically suggest names for the people in users’ photos.
With facial recognition, brick-and-mortar stores can scan shoppers’ faces looking for known shoplifters. But civil liberties experts warn that the technology could threaten the ability of Americans to remain anonymous online, on the street and at political protests.
Now a dozen consumer and privacy groups in the United States have accused Facebook of deceptively rolling out expanded uses of the technology without clearly explaining it to users or obtaining their explicit “opt-in” consent. Last Friday, the groups filed a complaint with the F.T.C. saying that the expansion violated the terms of the 2011 agreement. Facebook sent notices alerting users of its new face recognition uses and said it provides a page where they can turn the feature off.
Facebook has other powerful techniques with implications users may not fully understand.
One is a marketing service called “Look-alike Audiences” which goes beyond the familiar Facebook programs allowing advertisers to directly target people by their ages or likes. The look-alike audience feature allows marketers to examine their existing customers or voters for certain propensities — like big spenders — and have Facebook find other users with similar tendencies.
Murka, a social casino game developer, used Facebook’s look-alike audience feature to target “high-value players” who were “most likely to make in-app purchases,” according to Facebook marketing material.
There is concern among some marketers that political campaigns or unscrupulous companies could potentially use the same technique to identify the characteristics of, for instance, people who make rash decisions and find a bigger and bigger pool of the same sort of people.
Facebook’s ad policies prohibit potentially predatory ad-targeting practices. Advertisers are able to target ads to users using the look-alike service, but they do not receive personal data about those Facebook users.
But Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a nonprofit group in Washington, warned that this “look-alike” marketing was a hidden, manipulative practice — on par with subliminal advertising — and said that should be prohibited.
The next part is a little tricky: Freedom cards are technically cash back cards that earn points redeemable at a penny each. But those points become much more powerful when you transfer them to a Sapphire or Business Preferred card (which is done easily on the Chase website), as you can then redeem them for a bonus in the travel portal and transfer them to travel partners.
This quarter (April through June), for example, those categories include grocery stores. That means $100 worth of groceries earns you 500 points, or five percent back on your spending. But those points can be transferred to your Sapphire Reserve and redeemed for travel at a 50 percent bonus, meaning it’s an effective return rate of 7.5 percent. The Freedom Unlimited, which is uncapped and gives you a 1.5 percent return on all categories, can also transfer points to the Sapphire Reserve, earning that 50 percent bonus. This equates to a 2.25 percent return on all spending when you redeem for travel.
Citi ThankYou Rewards
The Citi Prestige is the centerpiece of the ThankYou Rewards suite of cards, and it has some fantastic perks: It has trip delay insurance benefits that are significantly better than those of its competitors, and offers a unique free fourth night hotel benefit that can pay for the card’s annual fee by itself. That means your fourth night of a consecutive four-night stay is completely free, from fleabag motels to the Four Seasons, provided you book through Citi. That’s the good news.
Now, the not-so-good: Citi isn’t quite on the level of American Express and Chase when it comes to its transfer partners which, as we know, offer the best points redemption value. Whereas Chase has United and Southwest Airlines as points transfer partners, and American Express can claim Delta, Citi doesn’t claim a major American legacy carrier. Partners Avianca (Star Alliance) and Asia Miles (Cathay Pacific) can still offer good redemption values, but cardholders may find less value in partners like Garuda Indonesia and Malaysia Airlines, which don’t fly to North America. Finally, while Chase has four hotel transfer partners, including IHG and Hyatt, Citi has zero.
As with American Express and Chase, I’d generally recommend forgoing the use of points to pay for purchases, merchandise and gift cards.
Unless you’re putting tons of spend on your credit cards every month, the most efficient way to get points quickly is through sign-up bonuses — the Chase Sapphire Reserve, for example, currently offers a 50,000 point bonus (possibly higher if you apply in-branch) when you spend $4,000 in the first three months of having the account open. I monitor forums and travel blogs (Doctor of Credit is good) to see what offers are out there.
A couple of things to keep in mind: Some cards have high annual fees — Chase Sapphire Reserve is $450, American Express Platinum is $550 — that only are offset if you manage to collect the bonus. Always make sure you can hit the target spend amount before signing up. Most importantly, I don’t recommend juggling a bunch of new credit cards to anyone who can’t pay their balance in full every month. The point is to make money, not give it back to the banks.
I’m fastidious about avoiding interest and late fees, and don’t feel guilty canceling high annual fee cards once I’ve collected my bonus, thus I rarely hesitate to jump on a good sign-up offer. If the banks want to help pay for my next trip, at little or no cost to me, I’m all for it.
“Content had appeared that did not accord with core socialist values and was not a good guide for public opinion,” Mr. Zhang wrote. “Over the past few years, we put more effort and resources toward expanding the business, and did not take enough measures to supervise our platform.”
He added that Bytedance would expand its team for monitoring content to 10,000 people from 6,000 presently.
The company’s travails show how the government in Beijing has broadened its restrictions on what people see and say on the internet. Regulators are increasingly suppressing content that they deem pornographic or in poor taste, and not merely material that touches on politically sensitive topics such as regime change or personal freedoms.
The authorities are also scrambling to keep up as a new wave of Chinese apps, many of them built around short, spontaneously recorded video clips or live streams, helps people communicate and express themselves in new and hard-to-supervise ways.
Bytedance — which investors valued at more than $30 billion recently, putting it more in the financial league of Airbnb or SpaceX than of Buzzfeed or Vice — has assembled a confederation of these buzzy new apps. And it has made no secret of its desire to dominate phone screens across the rest of the world, too.
The company says it uses artificial intelligence technology to figure out what users like, then makes sure they are fed more and more of it. Read a few articles on the trade spat between the United States and China, and soon your Toutiao feed will be populated with news on international relations. Watch a bunch of stand-up comedy shows, and before long, the app will suggest new comics who might appeal.
Bytedance has spent top dollar hiring engineers and software experts to fine-tune its recommendation technology.
“It’s like having a chef in your house who knows what kind of food you like,” said Xu Qinglu, a 22-year-old student and Toutiao user in Beijing.
“I think the app is not harmful,” she added. “The people who use it should be responsible for their own behavior.”
At an event in Beijing last month, Mr. Zhang said he hoped that more than half of the company’s users would come from outside China within the next three years. At the moment, he said, one in 10 of its users were overseas.
First, though, the company needs to continue thriving in China. Bytedance’s detractors say that salty, unwholesome material — the sort that has the Chinese government on edge these days — is exactly what the company’s apps have specialized in, and is a major reason for its popularity.
“Will a cleaned-up Toutiao still have an edge?” said Neil Arora, an American investor who previously worked in venture capital in Beijing.
“Toutiao’s strong team, refined algorithms and locked-in users may help it adapt,” said Mr. Arora, who is not a Bytedance shareholder. “However, the bigger danger is that all news apps may lose out, with users pulling away from sanitized news feeds for entertainment elsewhere.”
Hans Tung of GGV Capital, a venture firm that operates in both China and the United States and is a Bytedance shareholder, said he is confident the company will continue to add more types of material — not just the lowbrow kind — to its platforms. “The Toutiao we see today is not the Toutiao it will be five years from now,” he said.
“It’s better to go through this rodeo a few times,” Mr. Tung said of the latest rebuke from regulators. This way, he said, the company will be motivated to move more quickly in courting users who want higher-minded stuff.
Toutiao aside, three other popular news apps — including one run by Tencent, the giant Chinese conglomerate — were also taken down from stores this week.
Another fast-growing video app, Kuaishou, was removed last week alongside Huoshan, and also for featuring videos made by teenage mothers. In response, Kuaishou’s parent company said it would increase the size of its content-monitoring team to 5,000 from 2,000.
A posting from Kuaishou on one hiring website last week says the company is looking for people with bachelor’s degrees or higher. Candidates with “good political awareness” and “strong political sensitivity and discernment” are preferred. Being a member of the Communist Party or Communist Youth League is also a plus, the listing says.
Duanzi, Bytedance’s now-shuttered humor app, trafficked in dirty jokes, goofy comedy sketches and well-worn but persistent gender stereotypes. One post that appeared on the app before it was closed down declared that the way to know that a man won’t cheat on his wife is to place a beautiful woman before him — but the way to test a woman’s fidelity is to try seducing her with a lot of money.
Another post, unprintable in a family newspaper, was a ribald joke involving a seller of fried dough sticks, his wife and an irate customer.
Even Bytedance’s news app, Toutiao, featured plenty of edgy material that kept users coming back, sometimes reluctantly, for more. Xiao Lin, a 29-year-old programmer in Beijing, called the app “spiritual opium.”
“On a typical night, I would keep clicking on news items the app recommended to me while telling myself, ‘After this, I will sleep,’” Mr. Xiao said. “But I ended up reading more and more, for hours. I couldn’t stop.”
“I think it’s pretty much impossible, I believe, to start a company in your dorm room and then grow it to be at the scale that we’re at now without making some mistakes,” Mr. Zuckerberg said.
Senator Richard Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, zeroed in on the central issue of the hearing, asking Mr. Zuckerberg whether he would be comfortable sharing aloud the name of the hotel where he stayed on Monday night, or whether he would be comfortable sharing the names of the people he has messaged this week.
“No. I would probably not choose to do that publicly here,” Mr. Zuckerberg said.
“I think that may be what this is all about,” Mr. Durbin said. “Your right to privacy. The limits of your right to privacy. And how much you give away in modern America in the name of, quote, connecting people around the world.”
Mr. Zuckerberg was the only technology chief in the room, but he was often treated as a stand-in for the whole industry. Facebook has come under intense criticism for the Cambridge Analytica leak and for its initial response, which set off a #DeleteFacebook campaign online and sent the stock plunging more than 15 percent.
But the hearing was about more than Facebook; it exposed a critical turning point as the power, sophistication and potential exploitation of technology outpaces what users, regulators or even its creators expected or seem prepared to handle.
The moment is creating a showdown between two national power centers — Washington and Silicon Valley — as they jockey in a technology-centric world. Although Washington has long served as a check on the power of Wall Street and other profitable industries, lawmakers have tended to act as cheerleaders for technology companies rather than watchdogs. Light regulation enabled a culture of freewheeling innovation, and the beloved products that Silicon Valley companies created made them politically convenient allies.
Today, five of the eight largest companies in the world are West Coast technology companies. Only a single East Coast institution, JPMorgan Chase, cracks the top 10. And lawmakers on both sides of the aisle suggested that Facebook and other companies may not be able to police themselves.
“Have you gotten too big?” Senator Dan Sullivan, Republican of Alaska, asked Mr. Zuckerberg, before suggesting that Facebook might need to be reined in to protect it from itself.
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, pressed Mr. Zuckerberg on whether Facebook had become a monopoly, asking why Congress “should let you self-regulate?”
Mr. Zuckerberg said he welcomed some form of regulation, as long as it was the “right regulation.” He also expressed support for the Honest Ads Act, a bill in Congress that would require more disclosures from online political advertisers.
His answers did not mollify lawmakers, including Mr. Graham, who said in a statement after the hearing that “continued self-regulation is not the right answer when it comes to dealing with the abuses we have seen on Facebook.”
Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, said in an interview that he was “unsatisfied” and that it was clear Facebook could not and would not fully regulate itself and that Congress needed to provide a solution.
“The old saying: There ought to be a law,” he said. “There has to be a law. Unless there’s a law, their business model is going to continue to maximize profit over privacy.”
Mr. Zuckerberg’s appearance before more than 40 senators came after weeks of preparation, and it appeared to pay off, as he seemed calm, deferential and prepared. Mr. Zuckerberg offered humor about the company’s onetime mantra: “move fast and break things.” (It has since been edited to “move fast with stable infrastructure.”) He insisted on continuing questions when offered a break, eliciting smiles and laughter from staff sitting behind him. However, when Mr. Zuckerberg did take a break, he left behind his notes, which were quickly photographed and contained talking points for various topics including “Defend Facebook,” “Disturbing Content” and “Election integrity (Russia).”
His performance won accolades on Wall Street. “This is a different Mark Zuckerberg than the Street was fearing,” said Daniel Ives, chief strategy officer and head of technology research for GBH Insights in New York. “It’s a defining 48 hours that will determine the future of Facebook, and so far he has passed with flying colors, and the Street is relieved.”
But Mr. Zuckerberg acknowledged that his idealistic view of humanity, and those of his fellow executives, had exposed Facebook’s roughly 2.2 billion users to danger. Among them: Facebook failed to detect and stop Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, an oversight that Mr. Zuckerberg called “one of my greatest regrets.”
Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota and chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, called Facebook and its role in society “extraordinary” and began the hearing by explaining that Facebook and Mr. Zuckerberg were being singled out because of the company’s power.
Mr. Thune said the Cambridge Analytica situation underscored how Facebook could be used for nefarious reasons, saying it appeared “to be the result of people exploiting the tools you created to manipulate users’ information.”
In an indication that he may support legislation for internet companies, Mr. Thune said, “In the past, many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle have been willing to defer to tech companies’ efforts to regulate themselves. But this may be changing.”
Mr. Zuckerberg was careful when pressed on how he defined the company, wary of opening it up to new legal liability. He said that Facebook was responsible for the content on the social network, but he argued that it was a technology company, rather than a publisher.
“I agree that we’re responsible for the content,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. “But we don’t produce the content.”
The primary thing that Facebook does, he added, is employ engineers and build products.
Some of the hardest questions came from Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat of California, whose name is being floated for a presidential bid. Ms. Harris pressed Mr. Zuckerberg on whether Facebook executives made a decision not to inform users about the Cambridge Analytica data leak when they learned in 2015 that data was sold by a researcher to the political consulting firm. The question was crucial to the Federal Trade Commission’s investigation of Facebook’s violation of a 2011 agreement to protect users’ privacy. If the company withheld information, which violates its agreement, the company could face record fines.
Mr. Zuckerberg did not admit that the company explicitly decided to withhold that information from consumers, but he said the company had made a mistake in not informing users.
There were glimmers of a partisan divide during the hearing. Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, asked about Facebook’s handling of conservative media, including content related to Glenn Beck and a Fox News personality; Democrats questioned Mr. Zuckerberg on how quickly Facebook responded to Russian meddling in the election.
But the dominant theme of the day was uncertainty about how to deal with Facebook, a complex, multifaceted giant that even technologists have struggled to define. Lawmakers — many of whom grew up in an era without social media — labored at times to understand the fine-grain nuances of Facebook’s business model, such as the difference between selling user data to advertisers and allowing advertisers to target ads to an aggregated slice of Facebook users. At one point, Mr. Zuckerberg was forced to shoot down a conspiracy theory floated by Gary Peters, Democrat of Michigan, that Facebook listens to users through their microphones in order to serve them ads.
Mr. Zuckerberg, who spent weeks being coached for the hearing by a team of outside experts, remained cool and collected while fielding question after question.
But the lawmakers’ technical sophistication was mostly irrelevant — by the end of the session, the warning had been sent: In order to avoid a much harsher regulatory glare that could include major punitive measures, Facebook needs to stop apologizing, get its act together, and show that it is capable of changing.
“This episode has clearly hurt us,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. “We have to do a lot of work about building trust back.”
Correction: April 10, 2018
An earlier version of this article misstated the message written on cardboard cutouts of Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, outside the Capital Building on Tuesday. The message was “Fix Fakebook,” not “Fix Facebook.”
“They’re selling magic in a bottle,” said Matt Braynard, who worked alongside Cambridge on the Trump campaign, for which he served as the director of data and strategy, and now runs Look Ahead America, a group seeking to turn out disaffected rural and blue-collar voters. “And they’re becoming toxic.”
The Mercers have made no public statements about Cambridge Analytica’s troubles. Through a spokeswoman, Ms. Mercer declined to answer questions about her role in Mr. Trump’s circle or the Facebook meeting about Cambridge Analytica.
But the effort by Ms. Mercer’s friend to help mend fences with Facebook hints at both Cambridge’s importance to her family’s political ambitions and the perils posed by Facebook’s ban.
Although a Cambridge spokesman last month downplayed Ms. Mercer’s role at the company — saying she had a “broad business oversight” role and no involvement in its daily operations — she serves on the company’s board and in the past has worked to drum up campaign business for Cambridge, according to Republicans who have worked with or competed against the firm. Former Cambridge employees said she was close to Alexander Nix, the company’s chief executive, who was suspended last month after reports on Cambridge’s harvesting of Facebook data.
Ms. Mercer’s intermediary with Facebook was Matthew Michelsen, a tech entrepreneur and investor based in San Diego, who lists his employer as GothamAlpha, a consulting firm. According to his LinkedIn profile, he has also advised major Silicon Valley companies, including Facebook and Palantir, a data-mining firm and intelligence contractor.
Mr. Michelsen’s meeting came on March 20, the day after Facebook announced that Cambridge had agreed to let it audit the firm’s computer servers. Mr. Michelsen met informally with a Facebook acquaintance who was accompanied by a Facebook lawyer, according to a person briefed on the meeting, and both Cambridge Analytica and the Mercers were discussed. The person discussed the meeting on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about it publicly. No immediate actions were taken as a result of Mr. Michelsen’s outreach.
Mr. Michelsen acknowledged in an interview on Thursday that he visited the company but he would not discuss the purpose of the trip, citing nondisclosure agreements Facebook required him to sign. Ms. Mercer declined to say whether she and Mr. Michelsen had discussed the purpose of the meeting or whether he had briefed her on it afterward.
Cambridge also mounted a more formal effort to assuage Facebook, the person said, sending its own lawyers to meet with Facebook on the same day Mr. Michelsen was there. The Cambridge lawyers asked Facebook officials whether the firm could be reinstated on the platform. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, acknowledged that meeting in an interview with The Times last month, saying that his company had not decided whether to lift the ban.
A Cambridge spokesman did not respond to requests for comment. In a lengthy public statement on Monday, the company stated that “the vast majority of our business is commercial rather than political, contrary to the way some of the media has portrayed us.”
In recent years, the Mercers have become among the most prominent and highly scrutinized political donors in the United States. In the early years of the Obama administration, they began doling out tens of millions of dollars to an eclectic array of conservative groups — many of them outside Washington’s mainline Republican establishment. Mr. Mercer invested $10 million in Breitbart News, the nationalist website, bringing on Mr. Bannon as chairman, while Ms. Mercer joined the boards of leading conservative think tanks.
The Mercers were critical of the Republican Party’s existing data apparatus, which was controlled by the party officials and consultants they hoped to disempower. Mr. Mercer bankrolled Cambridge Analytica in 2014, and Ms. Mercer encouraged candidates and PACs that took the family’s money to also hire the family’s data firm. Early in the 2016 presidential campaign, the Mercers backed Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, putting millions of dollars — and Cambridge Analytica — behind him.
But after Mr. Trump prevailed in the primaries, the Mercers switched candidates. In summer 2016, Ms. Mercer helped orchestrate a shake-up that put Mr. Bannon at the head of the Trump campaign. After Mr. Trump won the presidential election, he attended a costume ball at the Mercer estate on Long Island.
But her insistence on using Cambridge to provide the Trump group with voter data, and other clashes over strategy, alienated other donors and Trump allies, according to other Republicans. Ms. Mercer formed her own group, Making America Great, and hired Emily Cornell, a Cambridge executive, to run it.
Yet after an initial splash of spending in 2017 to promote Mr. Trump’s policies on environmental deregulation and other issues, Making America Great appears to have gone quiet. Ms. Cornell said she was no longer affiliated with Making America Great and could not comment on the group.
In November, Mr. Mercer stepped down from the helm of Renaissance Technologies, one of the world’s most successful hedge funds, as some investors began expressing dismay over his alliance with Mr. Trump.
The family is likely to retain significant influence in broader conservative circles thanks to its vast fortune, which finances donations that many political organizations and candidates are eager to accept. The family foundation handed out about $20 million to more than two dozen conservative think tanks, charter school groups, watchdog outfits and other nonprofit organizations in 2016, according to its most recent tax return.
Ms. Mercer remains a trustee of the Heritage Foundation, a prominent Washington think tank that has provided the Trump administration with grist for a range of initiatives. The foreign policy hawk John R. Bolton, whose super PAC the Mercers lavished with cash and whom Ms. Mercer once lobbied the White House to make secretary of state, was recently tapped to become Mr. Trump’s national security adviser.
The family has also donated $4.5 million to Republican candidates and super PACs during the 2018 election cycle, putting the Mercers among the top 20 donors in the country. And the father-daughter duo still inspire fear: Virtually no Republicans were willing to speak on the record about the family’s troubles.
“I would not confuse silence with them being out,” said Dan K. Eberhart, a Colorado drilling-services executive who is active in America First Policies, now the lead pro-Trump political advocacy group. “I think they’re very strategic, and I think they’re quiet folks.”
Any contributions the family gives directly to candidates and super PACs will be disclosed to the Federal Election Commission. But their contributions to ideological nonprofit groups like the Heartland Institute, which disputes the scientific consensus on climate change, may become less visible in the future. In 2016, when the Mercers’ backing of Mr. Trump subjected the family to intense public scrutiny, the Mercer foundation’s largest contribution was to DonorsTrust, an advisory group for conservative givers.
That grant, the Mercer foundation’s first recorded contribution to DonorsTrust, could herald a shift in the family’s philanthropic strategy. DonorsTrust helps wealthy conservatives obtain charitable tax benefits while — if so desired — shielding their giving from public view. The donor records a contribution to DonorsTrust and recommends potential recipients, while grantees receive a donation from DonorsTrust charitable vehicles. In 2016, DonorsTrust disbursed more than $66 million worth of such grants.
“Donor-advised funds offer you any level of privacy you’d like from the receiving organization,” states a promotional pamphlet available from the DonorsTrust website. “A donor can ask the fund provider to share their full name with one favored grantee and keep their identity private from other.” Such privacy can be useful to donors who “may be supporting a sensitive or personal cause that could endanger familial or professional harmony,” according to the pamphlet.
Such mechanisms, which are legal, are used by many donors on the right and the left. Ms. Mercer declined to answer questions about whether she intended to shift more of her family’s future political philanthropy into intermediaries like DonorsTrust. A 2017 tax return for the Mercer foundation is not yet publicly available.
“Ms. Mercer is a private person,” her spokeswoman said in a statement. “And she does not intend to discuss with the media either the conversations she has with her close friends or her philanthropic and charitable giving.”
Lawson Bader, the president of DonorsTrust, referred questions to the Mercers. “I do not discuss DonorsTrust accounts real or imagined,” he said in an email.
The Facebook scandal has hit just as the Mercers appear to be expanding their business in the world of big data. Public records show that Ms. Mercer, her sister Jennifer and Mr. Nix serve as directors of Emerdata, a British data company formed in August by top executives at Cambridge Analytica and its affiliate, SCL Group, according to British corporate records.
Incorporation documents state that Emerdata specializes in “data processing, hosting and related activities.” An SCL official told Channel 4, a British television station, that Emerdata was established last year to combine SCL and Cambridge under one corporate entity.
Exactly what ambitions the Mercers, who joined the Emerdata board last month, have for the company is unclear. Another Emerdata director, Johnson Ko Chun Shun, is a Hong Kong financier and business partner of Erik Prince — the brother of the education secretary, Betsy DeVos, and founder of the private security firm formerly known as Blackwater. Mr. Ko, who declined to comment, is a substantial shareholder and deputy chairman in Mr. Prince’s Africa-focused logistics company, Frontier Services Group.
Mr. Ko and Mr. Prince have links to the Chinese government: Another major Frontier investor is Citic, a state-owned Chinese financial conglomerate that for decades has employed the sons and daughters of the Communist Party’s elite families.
Emerdata has a second Hong Kong-based director, Peng Cheng. Little public information about Ms. Peng, a British citizen, is available. But a woman with the same name is the chief executive of a publishing and online game company located in the same Hong Kong office tower as Frontier Services. In 2016, Mr. Ko’s brokerage company said it would buy a stake in Ms. Peng’s company, Culturecom.
While in Hong Kong in September to speak at a conference, Mr. Nix told Bloomberg that Cambridge Analytica was looking into China for commercial ventures. “We’ve been scoping this market for about a year,” he said. “We see huge opportunity to bring some of these technologies to advertising and marketing space brands.”
An individual involved in writing the memo, Mario Caraballo, has been removed from his job as deputy associate administrator of the homeland security office, although an E.P.A. official said the dismissal was unrelated to the memo.
The senators also said the social media activity — described in their letter as “open-source review of social media” — had uncovered “no evidence of a direct threat” to Mr. Pruitt.
Mr. Pruitt is being protected round the clock by a team of about 20 people — three times as many as on his predecessor‘s security detail — at an estimated cost of $3 million a year, according to E.P.A. officials as first reported by The Associated Press. Mr. Pruitt’s calendar, recently made public, shows that the security detail accompanies him even on days when he has no scheduled work events. Mr. Whitehouse said his office had documents showing that members of Mr. Pruitt’s security detail were present during a trip to California when the administrator visited Disneyland and the Rose Bowl.
The review of social media postings turned up commentary related to the E.P.A. and its management under Mr. Pruitt, including one “social media post in which an individual ‘stated he is not happy with some of the Administrator’s policies and wanted to express his displeasure,’” according to the letter on Tuesday from the two Democratic senators.
Mr. Carper and Mr. Whitehouse declined to release copies of the materials quoted in the letter, saying they included sensitive details about security arrangements.
Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, who is chairman of the Senate committee that oversees the E.P.A., said that the Democrats had inappropriately released selected parts of an internal agency security memo.
“Any reasonable reading of these documents supports the Office of the Inspector General’s statements that Administrator Pruitt faces a ‘variety of direct death threats,’” Mr. Barrasso said in a statement. “This is exactly why members should not publicly disclose information that relates to the safety of a cabinet member. It is also why this committee will not hold a hearing on this issue.”
Briefings on threats to Mr. Pruitt, which included posts on social media, were delivered by E.P.A. security personnel to top agency officials, including Mr. Pruitt’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, according to an employee who participated in a briefing. The employee said the briefing highlighted mostly criticisms of Mr. Pruitt’s policies as having a deleterious effect on the environment, rather than instances of threats to his personal safety.
The employee said that the agency’s social media reviews had been the subject of a recent meeting that included representatives from the agency’s inspector general’s office and its homeland security office, which had produced the internal memo that was critical of the threat assessments.
Mr. Wilcox, the E.P.A. spokesman, said threat assessments were conducted within the agency’s office of compliance, using information collected from Mr. Pruitt’s security detail, the E.P.A.’s homeland security office and its inspector general’s office.
“Americans should all agree that members of the president’s cabinet should be kept safe from these violent threats,” Mr. Wilcox said.
Other government agencies and companies have used social media to monitor protesters or to look for information on emerging incidents. It is unclear whether the E.P.A. has looked to social media in the past to determine threats to an administrator.
Faiza Patel of the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, said she had seen a rise in social media monitoring within law enforcement agencies, and cautioned that what people say in an Instagram post or a tweet can be open to interpretation.
“The fact that 10,000 people say, ‘I hate Scott Pruitt’ on Twitter doesn’t suggest to me there is a threat against Scott Pruitt,” said Ms. Patel, who is co-director of the center’s liberty and national security program. “It suggests there are a lot of people who dislike Scott Pruitt.”
If the E.P.A.’s review of social media was aggressively monitoring critics of Mr. Pruitt, Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based nonprofit group, said that it might violate federal law. He cited a 2011 case that successfully challenged the Department of Homeland Security when it moved from searching for potential terror threats to tracking individuals in the United States who had been critical of the agency and its senior officials.
“The collection of data on individuals, based solely on their criticism of public officials, raises both First Amendment and federal Privacy Act questions that need to be answered,” Mr. Rotenberg said.
Jeffrey A. Lagda, a spokesman for the E.P.A.’s office of the inspector general, said the office is not broadly searching social media, but instead focusing on individual statements considered potentially threatening. “The O.I.G. has examined social media posts in the course of investigating alleged threats made by individuals on social media sites directed against the EPA Administrator, and that have been referred to the O.I.G.,” he said.
Various documents released in response to open records requests filed over the last year by E&E News, a trade publication, and other organizations generally revealed threats that were deemed not worthy of prosecution by the authorities, or could not be substantiated.
The records show that the agency’s investigators reached out to the United States Postal Service, the Secret Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, after Mr. Pruitt received a postcard that included the phrases “Get out while you still can, Scott,” and “you are evil incarnite.” Another offending postcard sent to Mr. Pruitt, said: “CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL!!! We are watching you. For the sake of our planet, our children & our grandchildren, will you be a reasonable man? I repeat, we are watching you!”
The agency’s inspector general initiated a criminal investigation after protesters crashed a speech Mr. Pruitt was giving at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington last spring, but the Justice Department has repeatedly declined to prosecute cases, at times citing freedom of speech provisions of the United States Constitution, agency records show.
In one instance, the Justice Department declined to prosecute an Arkansas man who said on Twitter last April that he wanted to kill Mr. Pruitt. After being interviewed by investigators, the man revealed he had been drinking and had meant the tweet as a “flippant comment” in response a Rachel Maddow report on MSNBC, according to public records.
According to one internal agency memo, there have been at least 16 “threats” against Mr. Pruitt. The agency has said that amounted to a 400 percent increase from his predecessor, Gina McCarthy, who served at the end of the Obama administration, according to data provided by Senate Democrats.
Still, the lack of substantiated threats has led the E.P.A.’s homeland security division to second-guess the work by Mr. Pruitt’s security detail and the agency’s inspector general.
“The ‘threat’ to the Administrator was being inappropriately mischaracterized by the Protective Service Detail (PSD) and the OIG,” an internal E.P.A. memo obtained by Mr. Carper and Mr. Whitehouse said, referring to the Office of Inspector General by its initials.
The E.P.A.’s homeland security office, in the internal agency memo in February, also questioned Mr. Pruitt’s need to travel in business or first class. The memo said that the office had “not seen any analysis to indicate why the Administrator would be at any greater risk on a commercial airline than any other passenger, or why a trained EPA PSD member could not protect the Administrator in a different location on the aircraft.”
European authorities raided the London offices of a unit of 21st Century Fox on Tuesday as part of an antitrust investigation into the distribution of sports programming.
The search at Fox Networks Group was one of several the European Commission said it had conducted across Europe as part of an investigation into potential violations of rules prohibiting price-fixing cartels. The investigation adds to the regulatory challenges that 21st Century Fox, Rupert Murdoch’s media giant, is facing in Europe, where officials have held up its bid to take full control of the British satellite broadcaster Sky.
In a statement, Fox Networks Group said it was “cooperating fully with the E.C. inspection.” The raid was first reported by The Daily Telegraph in London, which said the authorities had seized documents and computer files. The European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, declined to comment on what companies were involved in the searches.
Sports programming has played a key role in Mr. Murdoch’s ability to gain a foothold in the European pay-TV market. Through 21st Century Fox, he owns a 39 percent stake in Sky, which has 23 million customers and owns rights to show the English Premier League and other professional soccer leagues.
Mr. Murdoch has sought to buy the remaining 61 percent of Sky, but the British authorities have not given their final approval. Sky is an important part of the Walt Disney Company’s proposed $52 billion deal to buy much of 21st Century Fox.
There are few investor-owned gun makers in the United States. One of them, American Outdoor Brands Corporation, which owns the Smith & Wesson brand, has seen its stock shed half its value in the past year. Another, Sturm, Ruger & Company, has fared much better, dipping only slightly. Both companies make AR-15-style rifles.
For now, Bank of America will continue to offer banking services to firearms retailers. Asking gun shops to stop selling certain types of handguns or long guns “gets into civil liberties” and is “a ways off,” Ms. Finucane said.
Corporations piled into the gun-control debate after a shooting at a school in Parkland, Fla., in February left 17 people dead and fueled a nationwide boycott effort against companies that had become partners with the powerful National Rifle Association trade group. Businesses including car rental companies, airlines, dating apps and Walmart scaled back their exposure to guns.
In March, Citigroup was the first big bank to issue a new firearms policy, requiring clients in the gun industry to stop selling to customers who have not passed a background check or are younger than 21.
Citigroup also bars clients who use its lending, banking or capital-raising services from selling bump stocks and high-capacity magazines.
EAST SMITHFIELD, Pa. — Huge retailers like Walmart, Amazon and Peapod are fighting for a piece of the online food delivery business.
So is David Nowacoski, a chicken and pig farmer here in East Smithfield.
Last month, Mr. Nowacoski started a service that delivers locally produced meats, cheeses and vegetables across three counties in northern Pennsylvania.His start-up collects food from far-flung farms and transports it weekly to residents who place their orders online.
We recently spent the day with Mr. Nowacoski and his wife, Marla, traveling about 92 miles in the family minivan, picking up and dropping off food from three farms, one cheese room, one tavern and a bakery.
Even in this rural patch of natural gas fields and deer hunting grounds, where the closest Whole Foods is more than 100 miles away, Amazon’s influence is deeply felt. Mr. Nowacoski says Amazon and other big retailers have conditioned consumers to expect a higher level of convenience.
“This is where society is going, and we have to figure out how the small farm plays a role in it,” he says.
A day on the road with the Nowacoskis shows how exhausting and costly e-commerce can be.
The couple rise at dawn to feed the chickens, then battle icy roads, burning through gasoline — all to “build baskets” of items like cheese curds, lettuce and sourdough loaves for a relatively small number of families who are willing to pay for the service.
Dressed in overalls and a purple sweatshirt, Mr. Nowacoski walks over to a shed that smells like diesel fuel, dirt and garlic. He mixes garlic powder into the chicken feed as a natural antibiotic.
Mr. Nowacoski raises about 4,000 chickens a year for meat and an additional 600 hens for eggs. In warmer months, the birds live in fields, eating grass, herbs and insects. But on a morning like this — with the temperature around 18 degrees and a snowy mist making it feel even colder — the chickens are kept in a coop with a vaulted ceiling and walls made of clear plastic.
Mr. Nowacoski walks among the birds, carrying a blue feed bucket in each hand. The hens flock to him, while the rooster hangs back, crowing with jealousy and alarm.
“That bird hates me,” Mr. Nowacoski says.
With the chickens fed, we walk down a winding dirt road to the pig pen. The sky has gone from light purple to blue-gray, and the snow has stopped.
The pigs are still sleeping when we poke our heads into their hut, carpeted with hay. They lie side by side like a band of brothers — warm, plump and blissfully unaware that they have about three weeks left on earth.
“Yeah, boys. Yeah, boys,” Mr. Nowacoski calls to them.
Most of the 300-pound pigs are opting to sleep in, but a few amble out onto the snowy ground, grunting, snorting and looking for breakfast.
Mr. Nowacoski rubs and scratches their haunches vigorously, sizing up their meat.
Confirmed. Three weeks left.
A pot of coffee brews in the kitchen, and bacon sizzles on the stove. Ms. Nowacoski stands at the counter organizing online orders on her tablet.
There are two dozen orders this week, up from just two during their first week in business.
The Nowacoskis grew up in East Smithfield, a town of about 200 residents 75 miles west of Scranton.
Friends since high school, they got married and moved to Princeton, N.J., where Mr. Nowacoski worked for an employee benefits firm.
In 1993, they returned to East Smithfield and bought 80 acres of rolling fields, maple groves and a swamp that they dug out into a lake stocked with catfish and largemouth bass.
Like many farms in the area, the Nowacoskis’ land sits above the Marcellus Shale formation, a huge natural gas deposit. The couple lease some of their land to gas companies for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
When gas prices were high, the Nowacoskis received enough money to send two of their three children to college without amassing debt. But as prices slumped, the infusion of wealth from the fracking boom all but evaporated.
“Everyone thought they would be millionaires,” Mr. Nowacoski says. “Then it just stopped.”
The gas money is vanishing while milk prices are also low, putting pressure on farms and the broader economy.
The Nowacoskis hope their e-commerce business, Delivered Fresh, can help farmers find new markets for their milk, meat and produce.
Every week, shoppers can log into the Delivered Fresh website and pick from a range of locally produced foods. The offerings will grow more bountiful as the weather turns warmer — carrots, beets, kale and potatoes.
The Nowacoskis spend Wednesdays picking up food from as many as 20 farms — a loop that sometimes totals 300 miles. They make deliveries on Thursdays and Fridays.
For now, most orders are dropped off at central locales like farm stands or church parking lots. Eventually, Mr. Nowacoski hopes to expand delivery directly to the homes of as many customers as he can.
He buys the items from the farmers at a discount and charges a premium to customers, generating a 25 percent margin that pays for gas, the software he uses to process the orders and advertising.
It’s not clear how many shoppers can afford “pasture raised” chicken breasts that cost $7.95 a pound in an area where household incomes are far below the national median.
“People ask, ‘Why do you cost so much?’” Mr. Nowacoski says. “The better question is how are others like Walmart able to sell it so cheaply?”
With the minivan loaded with three large coolers, the Nowacoskis pull out of their driveway and head west.
The first stop is a small dairy farm about 35 minutes away in Roseville, to pick up cheese. To reach the farm, we climb a long, lonely hill that cuts through a snow-encrusted field.
Near the top of the hill, we turn right and glide down a paved road that resembles a bobsled run. The cheese shop is at the bottom of the driveway, next to a barn.
Amanda Kennedy is in her “cheese room,” wearing a white smock. She got up at 1:30 in the morning to start making the cheese. She milked the cows at 3 and helped her three children onto the bus at around 7.
Ms. Kennedy, who was raised on a farm down the road,hopes that she can weather the turmoil in the dairy industry — which has been roiled by years of low milk prices — by finding a market for her specialty Cheddar and dill cheese curds.
Most people are not going to make regular trips to a local farm for a block of cheese, Ms. Kennedy says. “The biggest thing I struggle with is getting the cheese into the customer’s hands,” she says.
Ms. Nowacoski packs the curds into a cooler and leaves Ms. Kennedy a check for $24, and we are back on the road.
After dropping off chicken thighs at a tavern along the way, the Nowacoskis drive to Milky Way Farms in Troy, Pa., to pick up bottles of milk for the week’s online orders.
The lunch menu at the Milky Way restaurant features broccoli salad, vegetable beef soup, lemon pineapple cake and gluten-free bread. The hamburgers are made from beef raised at a farm next door.
We arrive at the restaurant, two weeks before it closes for good. The couple who own it, Ann and Kim Seeley, decided to shut down the family business after 55 years.
“It is the middle of lunch time,” Ms. Seeley says, taking our order. “And there is nobody here.”
Tourist traffic to the area has dropped, her husband says, and most people no longer take time to sit down for lunch.
Even as the restaurant fades, Mr. Seeley will keep running a store at the farm that sells his chocolate milk, ice cream and egg nog. He’s counting on online deliveries to extend his reach farther.
“We have high hopes,” he says.
Fred McNeal, another farmer,joins us for lunch. He runs a farm market in Towanda, Pa., called Farmer Fred’s that sells everything from lawn furniture to turkey bone broth and garden seeds.
Mr. McNeal says he never worried about competition from Amazon until the company bought Whole Foods last June. He is convinced that Amazon will find a way to deliver fresh food locally, eating into the market for local goods.
“We see this coming,” Mr. McNeal says. “We have to figure out how to give customers what they want or we are going to be another story about a business that didn’t adapt.”
After lunch, the Nowacoskis return to their farm to pick up heads of lettuce and then drive to a bakery, minutes before it closes at 4:30 p.m.The couple have been on the road for more than six hours.