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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

No matter where the U.S. economy goes this year, it seems to have had a running start.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The economy appeared strong at the end of the year. And data out this morning will measure growth in the fourth quarter. The larger question is where the economy heads next.

INSKEEP: So NPR's Scott Horsley is here. Hey there, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What's the full picture of 2022?

HORSLEY: The economy shrank in the first six months of last year. But by late summer and early fall, it had begun to rebound. GDP actually grew at an annual rate above 3% in July, August and September. And we'll get that fourth quarter reading this morning. All in all, it looks as if the economy managed to stay on its feet last year, despite all the challenges posed by the war in Ukraine and the lingering effects of the pandemic. You know, consumers managed to keep spending money even if they had to dip into savings or use credit cards to keep up with rising prices. But forecasters don't expect that to continue indefinitely. People like Nikki Moore (ph), a married mother of two in Florida, are starting to get a little more cautious in their spending as money gets tight.

NIKKI MOORE: Everyday stuff is just costing more. We enjoy going to the movies. But, like, the four of us going to the movies - we're just talking nothing super, not 3-D, just the four of us for tickets and concessions - that's, like, $100 just for a movie night.

HORSLEY: Last year, Moore and her husband splurged on a 10th anniversary trip to Canada. But looking ahead to her son's upcoming spring break, she's planning to stay close to home. Maybe, she says, she'll just take a trip to the local zoo. Now, that will mean a smaller credit card bill. But you multiply that by families across the country and it also puts a dent in economic growth, because, of course, consumer spending is such a big driver of the economy.

INSKEEP: Well, is there already widespread evidence of that kind of cautious spending?

HORSLEY: It is starting to show up in some of the data. Retail sales, for example, were down in November and December during the typically busy holiday season. We'll get a more complete picture of consumer spending tomorrow. But there are definitely signs that high prices are starting to have an effect on people's shopping habits. Dan Usher (ph) works for a company in Iowa that makes discount cereal. And his overall cereal prices surged almost 16% last year. Usher says that business was pretty good.

DAN USHER: Last year was very wild. Because of inflation, a lot of consumers decided to switch to private label, which is the store brand, which is what we make. In times of economic hardship, we see pretty significant booms in business. So I'm kind of lucky in that regard.

HORSLEY: Usher is hoping to get a pay raise later this year. But in the meantime, he's also feeling the weight of rising prices. He had some unexpected expenses last year when both his water heater and his dishwasher conked out. So he's also pinching pennies. He says he plans to cut back on restaurant meals and maybe travel a little bit less.

INSKEEP: Scott, I know a lot of people are talking about a recession. But Leila spoke with the economist Mark Zandi on NPR the other day. And he said he thought a recession was not very likely anymore this year because inflation is easing - maybe a rough year, but not a recession. What do other experts think?

HORSLEY: Yeah, a recent survey found a majority of business forecasters think a recession is likely this year. But some analysts, like Zandi, think we'll limp along, that the economy will slow but not actually go into reverse. We are definitely seeing a slowdown in some parts of the economy, notably manufacturing and housing. Doug Duncan is chief economist for the mortgage giant Fannie Mae. He says the housing market is already in a recession as a result of rising mortgage rates.

DOUG DUNCAN: It will be a difficult year. Sometime in '24 would be our anticipation that you'd start to see the pickup.

HORSLEY: Of course, the Federal Reserve has been raising rates aggressively in an effort to cut inflation. And we expect another rate hike next week.

INSKEEP: NPR's Scott Horsley. Thanks so much.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

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INSKEEP: OK. The next time Donald Trump takes a selfie, he may, if he chooses, post it on Instagram.

FADEL: Yeah, he can also use Facebook if he likes to, you know, comment on your mother-in-law's family news. Meta, the company that owns both platforms, says he may come back. They lifted the suspension imposed two years ago when Trump tried to overturn a democratic election.

INSKEEP: We do not know if the former president will come back to those platforms. But NPR's Shannon Bond has been asking why he is allowed. Shannon, good morning.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What is Meta's reasoning?

BOND: Well, essentially, it says time has passed. Things are different. Immediately after the Capitol insurrection, Meta thought the risk that Trump would incite more violence was just too high to let him keep posting. And remember, this wasn't just a move from Facebook and Instagram. He was also kicked off of Twitter and YouTube and Snapchat. It was really this unprecedented and controversial wave.

But then Facebook said it would reconsider its ban after two years. And that time is up. The company says it's gone through this process, reviewing its own policies and the larger environment, including how the midterm elections went. And it says it thinks the risk to public safety has, quote, sufficiently receded. Facebook says it believes people should be able to hear what politicians have to say. But it also says Trump does have to follow its rules. And so it's going to put guardrails in place.

INSKEEP: What kind of guardrails do they mean?

BOND: Well, because of what happened in large part on January 6, Facebook has created a new set of policies specifically for public figures in times of civil unrest and violence. And that means if Trump continues to break the rules, he could face up to another two-year suspension. And given just how high-profile he is, these previous violations, Meta says they're going to watch very closely what he posts, even content that might be, you know, borderline.

INSKEEP: There might be a lot of people posting opinions about this decision regarding Donald Trump.

BOND: Yes. I mean, this is a decision that, like the decision to suspend him in the first place, is very controversial. He has been - since being kicked off of mainstream social media, he's been posting on his own website, Truth Social - posts false claims of election fraud, Qanon conspiracy theories. And so Democratic politicians and civil rights organizations and advocacy groups are pointing to that and saying it shows he is still a big risk to public safety.

Some also say this sets a dangerous precedent around the world. You know, there are far-right, authoritarian leaders who look to Trump and how he uses social media as a model. Trump, meanwhile, is taking a victory lap on Truth Social. He says this should never happen again to a sitting president. But the next question is, will he actually use Facebook again once he gets his account back in the coming weeks, you know? He was allowed back on Twitter back in November. But he has not been posting there. He's stuck to Truth Social.

INSKEEP: Well, help me understand - in this changing social media landscape, is it a powerful tool for a politician to be on Facebook at this point or to be denied it, for that matter?

BOND: Yeah, I mean, Facebook does not probably have the clout it did when Trump was banned. You know, things have changed. But what it's very important for is fundraising. And - right? - Trump is running for president again in 2024. That is going to be a really critical channel. In fact, his campaign formally petitioned Facebook to let him back on. You know, and I think, no matter how much he talks up Truth Social, which he helped create and financially back, there, he has just a fraction of the reach he has on Facebook and Twitter. So it's hard to imagine there wouldn't be a very strong pull for him to return to these bigger platforms.

INSKEEP: NPR's Shannon Bond has enormous reach here on this platform. Shannon, thank you so much.

BOND: Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Fentanyl deaths are rising fast among children and teens in the United States.

FADEL: And a big part of the problem is social media. Drug dealers are using platforms like Snapchat to sell fentanyl-laced pills to young people. And now a growing number of lawmakers want tech companies held liable.

INSKEEP: NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann joins us. Brian, good morning.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How do dealers use social media?

MANN: You know, there was a hearing about this before a House panel yesterday in Washington. And Amy Neville told lawmakers about the experience of her 14-year-old son, Alex.

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AMY NEVILLE: It was on Snapchat that Alex was able to visit with dealers and other users. It was on Snapchat that he set up a deal to get pills. It was on Snapchat that he made plans to have the dealer drive up to our house so Alex could sneak out for a couple of minutes one night and get anything he wanted.

MANN: And in 2020, Steve, an online drug dealer sold Alex fentanyl-laced pill. And he died. That dealer was never caught or prosecuted. And one recent study found that fentanyl deaths among kids age 14 and younger have skyrocketed. So this is a big problem.

INSKEEP: Wow. What are social media companies doing?

MANN: Well, critics yesterday said they're not doing nearly enough. Witnesses testified that companies aren't working fast enough to identify social media accounts opened by drug dealers. They say they're not working with parents who see problems. Laura Marquez-Garrett is an attorney with a group called the Social Media Victims Law Center that's suing Snapchat.

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LAURA MARQUEZ-GARRETT: We have a client who literally drove to Snap's physical address because she was trying to report a dealer who killed her son. She could not get through to anyone. She could not find a 1-800 number.

MANN: And witnesses have also testified that tech companies have been slow to cooperate with law enforcement.

INSKEEP: Well, what does Snapchat say about all this?

MANN: Yeah. I spoke yesterday with Jennifer Stout. She's Snapchat's vice president for global policy. And she acknowledged drug dealers are targeting kids on their platform. She says it's happening for one reason.

JENNIFER STOUT: This is where young people are, right? This is where teens come to communicate and to connect with their friends.

MANN: So Stout told me that Snapchat is working to develop better technology to identify drug dealers and shut down their accounts, also getting better cooperating with law enforcement.

STOUT: In recent months, we have only increased our investments here to help us strengthen our ability to fulfill law enforcement requests for information. We respond to emergency disclosure requests, often in less than 30 minutes.

MANN: And other social media companies, I should say, that try to attract kids to their platforms, they are also scrambling now to improve safety.

INSKEEP: Well, Brian, help me understand something here. If social media platforms are being used in this way and people feel that the companies themselves are in some way responsible, can't they just sue those companies and demand that they be held accountable?

MANN: People have tried to bring these lawsuits, but it's really difficult. And that's because of one provision of federal law known as Section 230 that basically shelters social media companies from most civil lawsuits linked to activity posted by users. Free speech advocates say that's an important provision because it protects conversations online. Critics, though, say Section 230 is allowing many of these drug dealers to operate. And it protects companies that allow that to happen. So what we heard Wednesday is this growing pressure on tech companies to make children safer when they do go online.

INSKEEP: NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann. Thanks so much.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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