Author Page | Media Matters for America

Melissa Ryan

Author ››› Melissa Ryan
  • This data conclusively debunks the myth of conservative censorship on Facebook

    We studied Facebook pages that post content about American political news. Conservatives are not being censored -- in fact, right-wing Facebook pages are thriving.

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    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Right-wing politicians, pundits, and campaigns continually claim that Facebook and other tech platforms censor conservative content online. President Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, frequently makes this argument. At every congressional hearing about social media, Republican members reliably make the same accusation. The GOP-controlled House Judiciary Committee has already held one hearing on the supposed censorship, and they’re scheduled to hold a second on July 17. Conservatives believe that attacking tech companies about so-called censorship will rally their base, and they plan to continue the attacks.

    Even though those making these accusations have offered no evidence to support censorship claims, Facebook responded by announcing a conservative bias review -- retaining former Republican Sen. Jon Kyl from Arizona and his lobbying firm to advise the company. (Kyl is now also shepherding Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh through confirmation hearings.)

    It’s not the first time Facebook has reacted to claims of nonexistent right-wing censorship. In May 2016, a flimsy report claimed that conservative outlets and stories were “blacklisted” from Facebook’s Trending Topics section. To great fanfare, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg met with conservatives, including a representative from Trump's campaign, and made promises to be good to them. A subsequent internal investigation revealed “no evidence of systematic political bias” in the Trending Topics section. But Facebook soon gave in anyway and fired the curators of the section, resorting instead to using an algorithm that routinely promoted fabricated stories from bogus sources. Add this cravenness to existing confirmation bias and plenty of dishonest actors willing to take advantage, and Facebook became a cesspool of fake news.

    The algorithm change that was announced in January 2018 was supposed to fix to the fake news problem, which existed only because of previous failures at Facebook. And now with Facebook rolling out the welcome mat for conservatives, we’re about to begin that cycle anew.

    And once again, conservatives are pressuring Facebook with a total myth. Media Matters conducted an extensive six-month study into alleged conservative censorship on Facebook and found no evidence that conservative content is being censored on the platform or that it is not reaching a large audience.

    We identified 463 Facebook pages that had more than 500,000 likes each and regularly posted content dealing with American political news. We analyzed data from these pages, week by week, between January 1, 2018, and July 1, 2018, to observe trends in post interactions (reactions, comments, and shares) and page likes. We found two key things:

    • Partisan pages had roughly equal engagement, and they had more engagement than nonpartisan pages: Right-leaning and left-leaning Facebook pages had virtually identical average interaction rates -- measurements of a page's engagement -- at .18 percent and .17 percent, respectively, and nonaligned pages had the lowest interaction rates at .08 percent.
    • Right-leaning pages in total have a bigger presence on Facebook: In every week but one, right-leaning Facebook pages had a higher total number of interactions than left-leaning Facebook pages. Right-leaning pages had 23 percent more total interactions than nonaligned pages and 51 percent more total interactions than left-leaning pages. Images shared by right-leaning pages -- including memes that frequently include false and bigoted messages -- were by far the highest performing content on the Facebook pages examined.

    The data indicates something I’ve long assumed anecdotally: The right is out-organizing the left on Facebook. Even though the right-leaning pages had fewer page likes than the left-leaning pages, the rates of interaction are virtually identical. And when you look at the individual metrics, especially on image-based posts, the news gets even worse. Despite having a larger base of aligned supporters on Facebook in terms of page likes, left-leaning pages don't have as much impact with their base.

    You can view the full study here. 

    It’s time to end the charade. The Trump campaign and politically aligned groups aren't going to stop advertising on Facebook. They need Facebook to reach their voters. Facebook should disband the conservative bias review and stop enabling political theater. Considering how many problems Facebook as a company is facing, it's long overdue for the company to stop wasting its time and resources on a problem that doesn't exist. Political media also need to stop giving this myth oxygen. Next time Parscale or Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) start whining about bias, reporters need to ask for some actual numbers to back up their claims.

  • The UK’s Information Commissioner's Office just fined Facebook 500,000 pounds

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Big news from across the pond: The U.K. Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has completed an interim investigation report about Facebook’s data-sharing practices and fined the tech company 500,000 pounds for two breaches of the Data Protection Act 1998. Further, the report states that SCL, parent company of Cambridge Analytica, will face criminal prosecution for not complying with an order the office issued the now-defunct company in May.

    The fine is the largest ever given out for a breach under the Data Protection Act. Facebook’s actions came before a new set of European Union data rules -- the General Data Protection Regulation -- went into effect, but had the data breach happened under GDPR, the fine could have been up to 359 million pounds.

    The ICO first began investigating Cambridge Analytica when an American academic, David Carroll, asked Cambridge Analytica to provide all of the data it had about him -- a request U.K. law required the company follow. Note that the data Carroll was requesting was his voter profile, which he was unable to obtain under U.S. law even though the information was used in U.S. elections.

    When Cambridge Analytica failed to supply the data, Carroll asked the ICO to enforce his request, which spurred the office to open an investigation. Just a few weeks later, the news broke that Cambridge Analytica had harvested the Facebook profiles of 50 million users (the reported number has since increased to at least 87 million). Cambridge Analytica executives were also caught on hidden camera bragging to potential customers about the company’s use of “bribes, ex-spies, fake IDs and sex workers” on behalf of its clients. Because Facebook failed to protect its users, the company became part of the ICO investigation.

    Today’s interim report doesn’t mean the investigation is over. According to The Guardian, “More than 20 different organisations, including political parties, data brokers, and social media companies, were approached by the ICO. One of the commissioner’s announcements on Wednesday was that the ICO would audit the data-processing practices of 11 political parties in the UK.” The ICO has also called on the U.K. government to “legislate a statutory code of practice under the new Data Protection Act to govern the use of data in political campaigns.”

    I appreciate the ICO’s suggestion that the U.K. needs additional legislation to protect Facebook’s users, but to be honest, that won’t be enough. Practically speaking, Facebook is too large a company for any one government to oversee. We already know that Cambridge Analytica wasn’t the only firm to exploit Facebook’s user data, and just yesterday news broke that a Russian company with Kremlin links also had access to user data, having developed “hundreds of Facebook apps” to collect data, “some of which were test apps that were not made public.”

    Facebook’s users are spread across the globe, and breaches of their data and other abuses have a global impact. The response to Facebook’s failures must be global as well. The  American professor who is suing in the U.K. came up with a creative approach, and we need more of the same, as Facebook will change only in response to pressure. The more we can organize pressure campaigns with international reach and the more those campaigns utilize institutions in multiple countries, the more successful we’ll be at forcing Facebook’s hand.

  • Jon Kyl’s new side hustle: Working for Trump while he already works for Facebook

    Why Facebook should end its partnership with the White House’s SCOTUS Sherpa

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Former Sen. and lobbyist Jon Kyl (R-AZ) is a busy man. Last month, Facebook hired Kyl and his law firm, Covington and Burling, to lead the social media company’s conservative bias review. Facebook created the review as a response to debunked claims from the right that the platform was censoring conservative content. Though the right has no data to back up these claims, and Facebook almost certainly has data to prove the opposite, the social media giant caved to conservative demands.

    Then, yesterday, the White House announced that Kyl would also act as the “sherpa” for President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.

    Via CNN:

    A GOP official said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had suggested Kyl for the task. The White House had asked for McConnell's advice on the matter, the official said.

    The recommendation continued to underscore McConnell's significant behind-the-scenes role in the process -- one bolstered by months of close coordination with the White House, and with White House counsel Don McGahn specifically, on filling circuit and district judge slots. As CNN previously reported, McConnell has consulted with Trump and his team daily on strategy and Senate math for the possible picks.

    Kyl’s new side hustle is yet another reminder that Facebook’s decision to cave to the right is all political theater. Facebook wants that sweet 2020 digital ad campaign money from the Trump campaign -- not to mention from the GOP’s many allied groups. Given the context, it seems clear the social media company didn’t hire Kyl and his firm because its leaders genuinely believe he’ll help the company fix a problem, but rather because he’s a connected GOP operator and they hope that his involvement will tamper the barrage of whining from the right.

    Given that the GOP plans to scapegoat tech companies as a way of rallying its base, Facebook should scrap both the conservative bias review and Jon Kyl’s lobbying role with the company.

  • On Twitter, Trump's campaign manager plays footsie with Gab, “a haven for white nationalists”

    Brad Parscale uses Gab, which is full of white nationalists and neo-Nazis, to push for favorable conditions from Facebook and Twitter

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Gab, a social media app dubbed “a haven for white nationalists” just wants President Donald Trump to notice it. Recently Gab tweeted at Brad Parscale, Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign manager, about the myth that Facebook is censoring conservative speech.

    Parscale, who was also the digital director of Trump’s 2016 campaign, has taken a combative stance against mainstream social media companies. He trolls about conservatives being mistreated on social media and has publicly called on Facebook and Twitter not to censor conservative content leading up to the 2020 election, even though social media companies aren’t actually doing this. Parscale’s continued calls for tech companies to address a problem that doesn’t exist are disingenuous given that he (working alongside Cambridge Analytica) exploited Facebook’s ad platform all the way to a Trump victory in 2016 -- even former Clinton campaign staffers have acknowledged that Parscale's ad buys were much more efficient than their own -- and that Trump himself is the world’s most notorious Twitter user. Parscale’s efforts have worked. Just a few weeks ago, Facebook executives met with Parscale and other Republican leaders to hear their “concerns.” Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey also recently met with conservatives.

    On Twitter, Parscale gifted Gab with a reply. “I’m not against @getongab,” he wrote, but he said he needs the company to do something for him. Remove white nationalists and neo-Nazis from its platform? Nope. He said he is “all for a @Twitter replacement,” but he’d like Gab to “get me an iPhone app.” Trump’s campaign manager is 100 percent on board with using the social media app that white nationalists favor -- just as long as he can do it from his iPhone!

    Parscale’s interactions with Facebook, Twitter, and Gab are all political theater. Playing footsie with Gab will get the base excited, and as we’ve learned, Trump faces minimal fallout whenever he caters to his white nationalist constituency. The Trump campaign isn’t going to leave mainstream social media platforms anytime soon either. It needs Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to win. The campaign spent millions on digital ads in 2016 and that isn’t going to change. No matter how much Parscale whines about social media companies, the Trump campaign can’t afford to abandon them. It's no surprise Parscale made this complaint on Twitter.

    The tech platforms know this. They also know that the claim of conservative censorship has no basis in reality. But the Trump campaign is still a priority customer. It remains to be seen how much tech companies will cater to the campaign’s demands, and how much that might hurt them with the majority of their other users.

    As I was writing this up, Parscale tweeted another whine about Facebook. He blamed management's inability to control Facebook's supposedly liberal staff but offered no evidence whatsoever to support the claim.

  • Are tech companies finally taking online hoaxes seriously? Here’s what’s changed since Parkland

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN

    Last week’s school shooting in Santa Fe, TX -- the 22nd this year -- reinforced that school shootings in America have become routine and, as a few people pointed out on Twitter, so has the reaction to each incident. You already know what politicians on both sides of the aisle will say, how media will report it, and what narratives will unfold on social media in the days after. It’s a depressing, demoralizing, and all too familiar fact of life in this country.

    Hoaxes and misinformation that spread after a shooting have also become part of the routine.Media Matters collected numerous hoaxes about the Santa Fe shooting just on the day it happened, as did other outlets. It seems reporting on hoaxes is part of the mass shooting beat now. These hoaxes tend to follow the same patterns, the most common being that the shooting is a false flag and that the student survivors are paid crisis actors. They are amplified on social media starting in online forums like 4chan and Gab, spread on mainstream social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and in some cases reported by some radio stations as fact.

    Tech companies have come under increasing criticism for their role in this cycle. They’ve continually failed to protect victims, survivors, and their families from hoaxes and misinformation despite the predictability of it all. The constant attacks on the Parkland student survivors, most of whom are still minors, shed new light on this problem. As the students faced attacks from online trolls and far-right media figures, they fought fire with fire, using the same social media platforms to amplify their own message and calling out the disinformation attacks against them along the way. Thanks to the Parkland survivors, Americans saw just how ugly attacks like this are and how they dehumanize minors. Social media companies were heavily criticized for their role in spreading the hoaxes and they belatedly took concrete steps to protect the Parkland survivors.

    As Media Matters researchers compiled the Santa Fe hoaxes, we noticed a different trend: The hoaxes weren’t spreading as quickly on the big social platforms. 4chan and Gab were still churning them out at the usual frequency, but they were largely limited there. Facebook’s trending topics listed the shooting, but pointed to only mainstream news sources, and Facebook swiftly took down fake profiles of the alleged shooter after trolls created them. Twitter searches of the terms “false flag” and “crisis actor” did not yield results of conspiracy theories, and mostly showed users complaining that people on the far-right were already calling a student survivor a crisis actor. It seems likely that tech companies continued their strategy from the Parkland shooting of suspending accounts that spread hoaxes. Google News and YouTube also kept conspiracy content largely off their front pages. Even on Reddit forum r/The_Donald, usually a hub of conspiracy theories, moderators warned users against spreading false information and posting personal information about others online.

    Did tech companies finally get it right? Maybe. The usual suspects did what they always do after a mass shooting, but as of yet hoaxes haven’t moved beyond unmoderated far-right spaces. It seems that the tech companies might have finally responded to consumer pressure and done the right thing: protect victims, survivors, and their families from online misinformation campaign that can cause real harm. So far, none of the hoaxes have become part of the narrative around the Santa Fe mass shooting. Instead of asking students to confirm that they aren't crisis actors, mainstream outlets are mentioning “crisis actors” mostly in the context of hoaxes.

    We also must give credit to the Parkland student survivors who spoke out against gun violence and stood up for themselves when they were attacked. Their continued activism forced tech companies to do more to protect minors from this kind of abuse.

    We’re not out of the woods yet. The same folks who actively work to spread disinformation will figure out that this tactic no longer works. They’ll seek new ways to spread hoaxes and new ways to weaponize social media for their own purposes. But my takeaway from the Santa Fe shooting is that tech might finally be taking this problem seriously.

    Additional research by Cristina Lopez and Alex Kaplan.

  • Christopher Wylie warns Congress of “resegregation of society that’s catalyzed by algorithms”

    Mr. Wylie goes to Washington to help America better understand what we’re facing from social media

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN

    Christopher Wylie testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 16, warning of “resegregation of society that’s catalyzed by algorithms” and speaking at length about how Cambridge Analytica exploited Americans on Facebook.

    Wylie, the whistleblower who helped expose Cambridge Analytica’s exploitation of 87 million Facebook users’ data, had met privately with House Democrats last month but the Republican majority refused to allow an open hearing. He has testified before Parliament in the U.K., but yesterday’s hearing was Wylie’s first public appearance in the U.S. He spoke about Cambridge Analytica’s U.S. election work, the systemic failures of tech companies that led to the data breach, and what the future holds if said failures remain unaddressed. Wylie emphasized that Americans are simply unable to opt out of using the internet and that regulation is the only protection available. Senators on the committee asked Wylie about some of Cambridge Analytica’s practices that will likely be adopted by other entities, such as voter suppression ads and predictive algorithms.

    If you need a refresher on the Cambridge Analytica story, Wylie’s opening statement is worth a watch:

    Before Wylie’s exposé, Cambridge Analytica was understood as a data company that billed itself as a political consulting firm. The company, founded by right-wing megadonor Robert Mercer, had political clients in the U.S. and around the world; it did work for President Donald Trump’s campaign, Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, current national security adviser John Bolton’s super PAC, and more. Following Wylie’s exposé, more information was revealed about the firm: Its leadership was caught on camera selling services including bribes, ex-spies, fake IDs and sex workers. It gave a sales presentation about disrupting elections to a Russian oligarch in 2014. And the firm reached out to WikiLeaks in 2016 offering to help distribute then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s emails. Following these revelations, Cambridge Analytica shut down (though there are serious questions about that). In short, the data breach didn’t just expose Facebook user data to a political consulting firm; it exposed it to a company whose motivations aren’t clear and whose full operations aren’t yet known. The same goes for Cambridge’s parent company, SCL Group.

    During the hearing, senators asked Wylie about Cambridge Analytica’s work in the U.S. as well as data privacy and social media issues. Many Democratic members tried to get information about Cambridge Analytica and any potential work it did with the Russian government. Republican members attempted to portray Cambridge Analytica as a data firm doing what similar firms in the space do and suggested the concern was perhaps overblown, mirroring right-wing media’s response to the data breach.

    For his part, Wylie called out Cambridge Analytica for contributing to the “resegregation of society that’s catalyzed by algorithms.” He was specifically referring to voter suppression ads, digital ads that attempt to discourage people from voting. The Trump campaign bragged about targeting voter suppression ads to Black voters on Facebook just days before the 2016 election. Wylie confirmed that Cambridge Analytica offered voter suppression ads and that the company’s decision to explore voter suppression ads was part of what led him to leave.

    Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Chris Coons (D-DE), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) all discussed voter suppression ads with Wylie:

    Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) asked Wylie about Immigration and Customs Enforcement now using predictive algorithms such as those Cambridge Analytica used to detect potential criminals. Wylie responded that there’s no algorithm that could predict if someone is a bad person, but that an algorithm could confirm biases built in by programmers.

    Also of note: Two committee members asking questions at the hearing, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), were former clients of Cambridge Analytica. Tillis disclosed this former association. Cruz did not.

    Wylie is an important messenger on both Cambridge Analytica and the societal problems that let such a company operate. The firm is no more, but its tactics could become commonplace in future elections.

    While we can hope America listened to Wylie, it’s highly unlikely that Congress will pass any meaningful legislation or regulation to address the concerns he raised before the midterms. Our best course of action is to continue pressuring the tech giants. After all, it’s Facebook and similar companies that enabled Cambridge Analytica in the first place.

    Additional research by Alex Kaplan

  • Can tech platforms protect election integrity?

    Google and Facebook have rolled out new policies for political ads. Here’s what you need to know.

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN

    Shadowy online ads are a staple of American elections in the digital age. In the last election cycle, voters targeted with digital ads had no way to see who purchased the ad unless they clicked through, and even then, there was sometimes no disclosure. There was no way to learn why you were being targeted or how much money was being spent on your demographic segment. (FEC disclosure requirements for online advertisements are pretty basic. Most of the time you can see only how much was spent -- and not who was targeted, for example -- on a digital buy that might include multiple platforms.) And that lack of transparency is particularly problematic given that thousands of ads on Facebook and Twitter came from Russian trolls and other hostile actors who were targeting American voters, a practice voters were unaware of until nearly a year after the elections.

    In 2016, Facebook’s terms of service did not explicitly prevent foreigners, including Russians, from purchasing political ads on digital platforms. Its ad policy simply stated, “Advertisers are responsible for understanding and complying with all applicable laws and regulations.” But it’s not even clear if it’s against the law for foreign trolls to purchase ads targeting American voters. And it’s highly unlikely that the law will change before the midterm elections, even though lawmakers have introduced The Honest Ads Act, a bipartisan bill to provide more transparency in digital political ads, and it has the support of several government reform organizations and both Facebook and Twitter.

    Facebook and Google have rolled out changes in their ad policies that could start to tame the Wild West atmosphere. Anyone who wants to run election ads will have to verify their identity before they can make the buy. Both platforms have promised to let users examine all political ads as well as their targeted demographics. Additionally, Facebook will indicate when an advertisement is explicitly political.

    Verifying the identity of ad buyers and giving users more information about the ads they’re seeing is a good start, and it puts both Facebook and Google ahead of what the law currently requires. But it’s not enough to stop hostile actors from buying ads. Facebook has also rolled out a policy specific to issue ads -- which requires authorization and labeling, according to Axios -- and Google has indicated it is looking into developing something similar. Facebook’s initial list of topics that would qualify an ad as “issue” is interesting, especially the last one: “Abortion, budget, civil rights, crime, economy, education, energy, environment, foreign policy, government reform, guns, health, immigration, infrastructure, military, poverty, social security, taxes, terrorism, and values.”

    Most of the Russian ads from 2016 would probably fall into Facebook’s values category. Including values on the list gives Facebook the power to scrutinize ads that are more cultural than political at first glance but are in fact meant to pit Americans against one another. And if an ad is rejected, Facebook also offers an appeal process. If hostile actors intend to game Facebook by spreading propaganda in 2018, cutting off their ability to give their content an initial boost by using targeted ad buys would eliminate a tool they used effectively in 2016. Having values on the list of issue topics suggests to me that Facebook understands this reality.

    This will be an ongoing battle. I have no doubt that those behind the last election interference are already hard at work looking for workarounds, and it’s likely that they’ve found at least a few already. But the tech platforms are finally taking election integrity seriously, and unlike in 2016, we now know to be on the lookout for signs of trouble. Systemic change is our best opportunity to protect the integrity of our elections, and since we’re unlikely to see any laws passed soon, ad policy changes from tech platforms are the best form of protection Americans have.

  • The latest news on Russian interference

    Democrats on the House intelligence committee just released all 3,519 Russian propaganda ads placed on Facebook.

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN

    Earlier this week, I wrote about what information related to Russian interference in the U.S. elections Americans need before this year’s midterm elections: the Senate intelligence committee report on the issue, the entire cache of Facebook ads that Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) purchased targeting American voters, and a report from special counsel Robert Mueller’s office about Russian influence on the election and the Trump campaign’s possible collusion. Two of those three are now in motion.

    On Tuesday, the Senate intelligence committee released the first of what will be multiple reports on Russian interference in the 2016 election. The six-page report covers Russian cyberattacks on U.S. voting systems, explains what Russian hackers did and what their motives were, and lays out recommendations for government agencies to prevent foreigners from interfering in future elections. According to Buzzfeed, “The next report will evaluate the Intelligence Community’s January 2017 assessment that found the Russians waged an influence campaign in the 2016 elections and ‘developed a clear preference for’ President Donald Trump.”

    Today, Democrats on the House intelligence committee released the entire cache of Russian Facebook and Instagram ads. It’s quite the document dump -- PDF files of all 3,519 ads including targeting information with each ad. The accompanying analysis makes clear that the same Russians whom Mueller’s office indicted for attempting to aid the Trump campaign are responsible for the ads. Here are a few more facts from the analysis worth noting:

     During the hearing, Committee Members noted the breadth of activity by the IRA on Facebook: 

    • 3,393 advertisements purchased (3,519 advertisements were released today);

    • More than 11.4 million American users exposed to those advertisements;

    • 470 IRA-created Facebook pages;

    • 80,000 pieces of organic content created by those pages; and

    • Exposure of organic content to more than 126 million Americans.

    A few things of note about the ads. The data dump doesn’t include 80,000 pieces of organic content (content without an ad buy behind it) that Russian trolls spread on Facebook. (House Democrats promise they’ll eventually release that content as well.) .

    In the report, House Democrats quote Mueller’s indictment of the 13 Russians that says Russia’s initial goal was to weaken American democracy but ultimately became electing Trump. There are a multitude of possible reasons for this -- all of which the special counsel is charged with investigating -- but it seems fair to say that if your goal is undermining American democracy, Trump is the guy you’d want running the country.

     Russia attacked America with a combination of sophisticated cyber tactics. Russians hacked some of our voting machines and ran a multiyear propaganda operation across multiple platforms. They exploited our political and cultural weaknesses for their own gain. The more Americans understand about their tactics, the better prepared we’ll be to combat their attacks in 2018 and beyond.

  • Fox News tells Seth Rich's family that they should be grateful for how the network slandered him

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Fox News has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit that the family of slain Democratic National Committee (DNC) staffer Seth Rich filed against it, which claims the network published “false and fabricated facts” about Rich’s murder that fanned conspiracy theories circulating about him. In its motion, Fox has included an outlandish claim: The suit should be dismissed because the channel ’s retracted story portrayed Rich as a patriot and a hero.

    Fox News’ attempt to abdicate its responsibility is gross. Seth Rich was a real person whose family members have had to cope with the nightmare of their son’s murder becoming the target of conspiracy theories that he was killed for providing the DNC’s emails to Wikileaks while they mourned his loss. The network, led by host Sean Hannity, was the only cable news outlet to cover the conspiracy theories, presenting them as plausible facts. For weeks, Hannity covered the rumors incessantly on the air -- even after Fox News was forced to retract its initial story claiming that Rich had been in touch with Wikileaks.

    Hannity didn’t declare that he would find the “truth”  out of concern for Rich or his family, but rather to distract his audience from the news about the Trump administration’s dealings with Russia.

    And Rich’s portrayal as a whistleblower out to expose the political establishment wasn’t based in reality; it distorted who he was. By all accounts, Rich enjoyed working at the DNC and, as his his parents wrote, on the day of his murder, he was “excited about a new job he had been offered on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.” Since his death, the far-right has turned Rich into a character his friends and family wouldn’t recognize. His image has been turned into countless memes, his political views and beliefs distorted. And Fox and Hannity have helped fuel the lies. Fox didn’t honor Seth Rich’s life or his memory. It slandered him and his work for its own political gain.

    To this date, Fox has neither explained how it got the story so wrong nor apologized for its actions.

  • As the midterms approach and foreign interference looms, just how screwed is America?

    What reporters and voters need to keep an eye on leading up to November

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN

    Midterm elections are less than 200 days away. We know that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election and weaponized our favorite social media platforms -- Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, Reddit, and even Pinterest -- against us. We know that Russians hacked the Democratic National Committee and released some of its emails via WikiLeaks. We know that despite sanctions from the U.S., Russian trolls continue this activity and will continue their influence operations at least through the 2018 elections.

    America isn’t the only country facing this problem. Earlier this year, Facebook admitted that social media can be bad for democracy. Social media manipulation is a global problem, and Russian trolls aren’t the only hostile actors looking to weaponize the internet to disrupt democracies. Cambridge Analytica openly bragged to potential clients about its ability to disrupt elections, touting online targeting in a laundry list of offerings that included, according to U.K.’s Channel 4 News, “bribes, ex-spies, fake IDs and sex workers.”

    The tech platforms have all promised to do better in 2018. Facebook and Google have both recently announced changes in their ad programs that theoretically will make it more difficult for hostile actors to game their systems. Reddit and Tumblr banned all known Russian trolls on their platform and also listed their handles so that users who had interacted with them online could better understand their own exposure. Nearly two years after the presidential election, the tech platforms finally seem to be taking this problem seriously and cooperating with Congress and the special counsel’s office.

    But we still have a lot more questions than answers. There’s no public map of Russian activity online available to voters. We don’t know what, if anything, our government is doing to protect us from social media manipulation, and while it seems obvious that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, we don’t have a complete picture of what happened or what other political entities might have been involved. We don’t know if tech companies are collaborating to fight back against social media’s weaponization or if they’re focused only on their platforms’ individual issues. This is unsettling.

    Even more unsettling is that campaign staff on both sides of the aisle seem unaware of or unconcerned about foreign meddling in this year’s midterm elections. A survey of campaign staffers from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy found that “two-thirds (65%) reported they are not ‘very concerned’ or ‘not concerned at all’ about foreign threats to campaign cybersecurity.”

    For those observing this issue, whether from the perspective of a voter, campaign staffer, or political reporter, there are some reports/proceedings on the horizon which should give more insight into Russian interference in 2016 elections and hopefully will provide some more answers. Keep an eye out for these:

    • First, House Democrats plan to release all 3,000 Russian-linked Facebook ads as soon as this week. The cache will show “images of the ads, which groups the ads targeted, how much they cost and how many Facebook users viewed them.” Finally having access to targeting data should give us insight into how Russian trolls segmented the population and might also provide clues as to where they got the data to do so.

    • Second, Senate intelligence committee Chairman Richard Burr said in February that he was hopeful the committee would be able to make public parts of its report on Russian influence in 2016 before the 2018 primaries begin. He promised that there would be another open hearing on election security. Assuming that the Senate intelligence committee is still on track, we should see that report soon.

    • Finally, we could see a report or further indictments from special counsel Robert Mueller before the midterm elections. Conventional wisdom suggests that Mueller will either wrap up his investigation shortly or go dark until after the midterms. Should the former happen, the public will likely get more information about the 13 Russians indicted for interference in the 2016 U.S. elections as well as answers about the Trump campaign’s working relationship with Russian operatives.

    What we don’t know about Russian interference is terrifying. Information warfare, including via weaponized social media and cyberattacks, is a threat to democracy both in America and abroad. Leading up to the U.S. midterms, it’s up to news media and pro-democracy activists to sound the alarm. American voters need to understand what happened to them in 2016 and what’s at stake for our democracy this November.