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After author and advice columnist E. Jean Carroll reported that President Donald Trump sexually assaulted her in the 1990s, the president's son, Donald Trump Jr., pushed a conspiracy theory that the claim was "ripped-off a plot" from a 2012 episode of NBC procedural Law & Order. Before being amplified by Trump Jr., the conspiracy theory was spread by a Twitter account associated with the QAnon conspiracy theory and another account whose content has regularly been shared by “seemingly-automated accounts.” It has also been pushed by the Daily Mail's political editor.
On June 21, Carroll wrote in New York magazine’s The Cut that 23 years ago, Trump assaulted her in a department store dressing room. According to Carroll, Trump “lunge[d] at me, pushe[d] me against the wall, hitting my head quite badly, and [put] his mouth against my lips.” She wrote that he then pulled down her tights and assaulted her. Carroll told two close friends at the time, both of whom “confirmed the allegations to New York and to [The New York] Times.”
Even though her friends confirmed that Carroll told them about the incident at the time, social media accounts and message boards have claimed that Carroll “ripped-off a plot” from an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit that dealt with a similar sexual assault against an actor. However, the episode aired in 2012, well over a decade after the incident allegedly occurred.
Here’s how the smear spread from social media to message boards to some right-wing sites and to Donald Trump Jr.:
Twitter user @RickMcCargar:
Twitter user @tksusie:
Twitter user @thebradfordfile (real name John Bradford Williams) also tweeted about the Law & Order episode. The Outline reported last year that Williams’ account has “more than 100,000 followers, a penchant for spreading far-right propaganda, and a curious network of seemingly-automated accounts regularly amplifying the reach of its tweets.” One of Williams’ former coworkers told The Outline that Williams “farms a significant portion of his engagement from direct-message based group chats on Twitter”:
8chan’s "/pol/" amplified @thebradfordfile’s tweet:
Twitter account @Trump454545 posted a clip of the episode in a tweet calling for Carroll to be prosecuted. The account's profile contains a hashtag of the abbreviated slogan for the QAnon conspiracy theory -- “where we go one, we go all” or “WWG1WGA”:
Twitchy cited @thebradfordfile to push the claim:
Twitter user @thebradfordfile then dug up this clip from “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” The detectives are interviewing a man who’s hired to play out women’s rape fantasies, and he mentions one in particular that took place … in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room.
No, for real.
A user on 4chan’s “/pol/” cited the same link that @thebradfordfile tweeted earlier.
Model and reality television star Mindy Robinson later tweeted the same video as the account @Trump454545 did:
The Gateway Pundit published a piece headlined “Fraud Gets Caught! Crackpot Trump Accuser’s Story Likely Stolen from Law and Order Episode of Rape Fantasy in Bergdorf Dressing Room (VIDEO).” The article cited both @thebradfordfile and @Trump454545 to push the claim:
Boston Herald columnist Adriana Cohen quoted tweeted Robinson's post of the video.
Donald Trump Jr. also quote tweeted Robinson’s post of the video to push the smear, writing, “As long as the media gives these nut jobs unfettered air time they will keep coming”:
Multiple other conservative figures also pushed Robinson’s tweet, including right-wing commentator David Wohl, the Daily Mail’s David Martosko, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush Ned Ryun, and RedState:
Additionally, when searching for Carroll’s name on Google (via incognito search), the phrase “e jean carroll law and order” now appears as an automatic search suggestion:
On YouTube, a user pushing the conspiracy theory made money off of the outrageous accusation
A conspiracy theory accusing actor Tom Hanks of being involved in the death of a known conspiracy theorist has spread on social media platforms, affecting search suggestions about Hanks on Twitter and Google.
On May 13, Isaac Kappy, an actor known for pushing conspiracy theories such as QAnon and “Doughnutgate,” reportedly died by suicide in Arizona. Kappy had previously helped manipulate search results for Hanks when he baselessly accused him of pedophila. The day after Kappy's death, an anonymous user on 8chan’s QAnon-themed message board “/qresearch/” accused Hanks of being involved in Kappy’s death because Hanks had posted a photo on social media in April showing a glove on the ground with the caption “Historic Route 66. Roadkill? I hope not! Hanx.” The user claimed that Hanks posted the picture from New Mexico, that Kappy was "based" there as well, and that Kappy died near Route 66.
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Allegations that social media companies are biased against conservatives and censoring right-wing content have become a common narrative on right-wing media and, ironically, recurrent content on the same social media platforms the narrative targets. These claims are just another iteration of the long-term right-wing effort to brand most of the mainstream press as biased against conservatives in an attempt to “work the refs” and get favorable treatment, this time applied to tech giants.
But many of the episodes used to push allegations of censorship or bias can actually be explained through technical arguments in which political motivations play no role. And that showcases, at best, a preoccupying level of digital illiteracy among those making the allegations and, at worst, the inherent bad faith of these claims.
As explained previously by Media Matters’ Parker Molloy, this playbook has been working for conservatives for over half a century, at least since “Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater gave reporters covering his campaign pins that read ‘Eastern Liberal Press.’” The strategy of putting the onus of proving neutrality on the mainstream press worked -- media have since over-represented conservatives, engaged in false equivalences, offered platforms to far-right hacks in the name of balance, and prioritized negative coverage of Democratic politicians -- and the same playbook is now being applied to tech giants.
This, too, seems to be working: These platforms have groveled in response to accusations of bias by tapping extremist figures and far-right grifters as advisers or by having their leadership appear on right-wing propaganda shows to appease right-wing audiences.
Moreover, in what seem like efforts to avoid accusations of right-wing content censorship, tech platforms have let racism proliferate undeterred, making social media both an unsafe space for members of vulnerable communities and a valuable tool for dangerous far-right radicalization and recruitment.
But many of the episodes that have been used to help right-wing media built a useful narrative can actually be explained by technical reasons unrelated to bias or censorship, including anti-spam policies used on tech platforms to combat inauthentic behavior or digital illiteracy on the part of users. What follows is a noncomprehensive list of examples:
A conservative site complained of bias because autocomplete search results on Google didn’t show the lack of new indictments stemming from the Trump-Russia investigation, ignoring the platform’s autocomplete policies against character denigration.As Media Matters’ Parker Molloy pointed out on Twitter, right-wing site Washington Free Beacon accused Google of bias against President Donald Trump because its search bar autocomplete results didn’t point users to the news that there had been no new indictments related to the special counsel investigation on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Google search liaison Danny Sullivan directly addressed the complaint, explaining that to avoid character denigration, the platform’s autocomplete policies specifically avoid offering predictions that contain “indictment” next to a person’s name. Sullivan had to reiterate his explanation after Washington Free Beacon promoted its article again without clarifying political bias was not playing a role in the autocomplete results.
Those alleging that a temporary loss of Twitter followers was indicative of the platform’s bias against anti-abortion movie Unplanned failed to understand Twitter’s “ban evasion” mechanisms. On April 1, a number of right-wing media figures and politicians accused Twitter of deliberately censoring anti-abortion movie Unplanned after the Twitter account for the movie lost followers temporarily. As explained by NBC’s Ben Collins, Twitter responded that the temporary loss of followers wasn’t about the Unplanned account itself, but came because an account linked to the Unplanned account had violated Twitter rules, triggering the platform’s automated “ban evasion” mechanisms, which aim to limit users banned from the platform from coming back by using alternative accounts. As Collins pointed out, Twitter’s ban evasion systems identify accounts that could be linked in different ways, including by shared IP or email addresses. Shortly after, Twitter manually overturned the automated system and restored the Unplanned movie account, noting that follower counts can take time to replenish.
Here's my stab at a Human English version of what happened with the abortion movie conservative censorship campaign on Twitter.
Somebody involved with the movie's account tripped a ban evasion sensor, and there's a reason for it. pic.twitter.com/92rAK0pGp5
— Ben Collins (@oneunderscore__) April 1, 2019
Conservatives incorrectly interpreted temporary account activity limitations meant to stave off inauthentic, spammy activity as censorship. Platforms are known to limit the number of comments or likes single accounts can make in a determined period of time to stave off spam, automated behavior, and inauthentic activity; authentic accounts managed by real people can be affected by these limitations whenever their behavior matches automation patterns. Reportedly, different limits apply to different accounts depending on how old they are. Yet Donald Trump Jr. and White House social media director Dan Scavino have claimed they’re being censored when this has allegedly happened to them.
There have been accusations of “#censorship” based on “a crazy drop in new followers,” but there are unrelated reasons for altered follower counts. Trump Jr. has also claimed that drops in followers or stagnant follower counts amount to “#censorship.” However, Instagram has experienced glitches that have affected follower counts for many accounts, and the platform’s policies that aim to reduce inauthentic activity have in the past caused account purges that result in diminished follower counts for users displaying automated behavior. President Donald Trump made a similar accusation against Twitter, claiming to have lost followers. As Mashable pointed out, users across the political spectrum lose followers as a result of purges, or removals of “inactive accounts and fake profiles.” In fact, a Twitter purge in the summer of 2018 cost former President Barack Obama more followers than Fox’s Sean Hannity.
A Republican lawmaker complained that a Google search mainly returned negative results about unpopular Republican legislation, saying it was evidence of bias, but in fact it was likely reflective of an overwhelming amount of criticism. During a December 11 hearing before Congress, Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) cited “a firsthand experience” to ask Google CEO Sundar Pichai why the first few pages of results he found on Google about the Republican bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act showed so much negative criticism. Chabot also questioned why the majority of results of Google searches for the Republican tax cuts criticized them as favoring the rich. As Pichai explained, search results are not based on political ideology. What Chabot seemed to not understand was that Google search returns are actually based on rankings (a site that is ranked high appears higher on search results) that depend on factors like domain authority, which is calculated by the number and reliability of sites that link to it, among other things. Which is to say, negative results are evidence that sites with high domain authority are referring to the search term in negative ways -- something that has more to do with the substance of the search term than the search engine itself.
Another legislator complained to Google that an iPhone displayed negative language about him, implying it was evidence of Google’s bias, but the phone was manufactured by Apple. During the same December hearing in which Google’s Pichai testified, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) -- whose extremist record includes explicit endorsements of white supremacists -- complained that his 7-year-old granddaughter had been exposed to negative language about him on her iPhone. King said, "And I’m not going to say into the record what kind of language was used around that picture of her grandfather, but I’d ask you: How does that show up on a 7-year-old’s iPhone, who’s playing a kids game?” As Pichar said, Google does not manufacture iPhones; Apple does. Moreover, even if the hardware in question had been a Google-manufactured Android, King’s complaint displayed his own digital illiteracy more than any possible tech platform bias directed against him.
A congressman alleged that Google is biased because it showed negative information from his Wikipedia page in its search results, while his own staff’s edits to his page were not approved by Wikipedia editors. While questioning Google’s Pichai during the December hearing, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) took issue with Google’s search results displaying details from his Wikipedia page when his name is searched, because the “liberal editors around the world” of the free encyclopedia “put up a bunch of garbage” about him, while the “proper, honest” edits his own chief of staff made to Gohmert’s page were not approved. As Motherboard’s reporting on this matter has explained, what’s displayed on Google’s knowledge panels isn’t evidence of bias, but of the tech giant’s “cynical, damaging, and unfair over-reliance on Wikipedia’s volunteer editors.”
PragerU alleged that removal of far-right content on platforms was based on “deliberate censorship of conservative ideas,” but an expert found “plausible, non-ideologically motivated explanations” for the removal. After online propaganda machine PragerU accused platforms of “deliberate censorship of conservative ideas” for removing PragerU videos (and then reinstating them after admitting a mistake), an expert “reviewed several of the videos” and found explanations for their removal that had little to do with political bias. As Data & Society’s Francesca Tripodi explained, some videos contained language that could have been picked up by platforms’ automated systems and then -- when reviewed by third-party moderators that are sometimes outsourced to the Philippines -- the reviewers placed more importance on the specific language than on the political substance of the video. Tripodi also pointed out that the platforms’ lack of process transparency could have contributed to right-wing cries of censorship and bias.
Right-wing outlets affected by a Facebook purge claimed it was evidence of anti-right-wing bias. In fact, it was evidence of spammy behavior. Right-wing outlets claimed that the removal of right-wing content pages showed Facebook was biased against the right. Yet Facebook explained in an October 11 blog post that the reasoning behind the removal of over 800 pages and accounts was based on user violations of the platform’s rules against spam and “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” According to Gizmodo’s report at the time, Facebook pointed out that while the spammy behavior the platform targeted for removal seemed financially motivated, the pages were “at least using political content to drive traffic to their ad-supported websites.” Prominent amplification networks of right-wing content were affected by the purge -- but it was because the pages were in violation of the platform’s guidelines regarding “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” which had nothing to do with the pages’ political alignment.
An allegation that Facebook “deboosts” right-wing content was not supported by hard evidence. A Media Matters study found right-wing political pages and left-wing political pages on Facebook have about the same amount of interactions. Donald Trump Jr. has devoted media appearances and columns to pushing generalized claims of censorship from Big Tech. In a March 17 column published by The Hill, Trump Jr. pointed to Facebook documents published by serial bullshitter James O’Keefe to allege that the site targeted conservative posts for “deboost”-ing. A new Media Matters study of content from 395 Facebook pages that regularly post about American political news between July 2, 2018, and March 17, 2019, shows that not only did left-leaning and right-leaning pages have roughly the same engagement numbers, but -- between January 14 and March 17, the weeks leading up to this new wave of conservative censorship claims -- right-leaning pages on average actually received more interactions than left-leaning pages.
Alex Kaplan and Natalie Martinez contributed research for this piece.
The hoax has spread enough to reach Google's search suggestions, and people are falling for it
Far-right trolls are attacking the Green New Deal by sharing a fake version of the proposal that includes a suggestion to use recycled urine.
When your #GreenNewDeal legislation is so strong that the GOP has to resort to circulating false versions, but the real one nets 70 House cosponsors on Day 1 and all Dem presidential candidates sign on anyway https://t.co/BbHIn8cu0f
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) February 8, 2019
The Green New Deal is a comprehensive plan to fight climate change that has been championed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). She and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced a nonbinding resolution on February 7 that outlines policies for the U.S. to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions within 10 years, including transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy and revamping transportation, agriculture, buildings, and other infrastructure.
As the Twitter account Unfakery pointed out, right-wing trolls are parodying the contents of the Green New Deal in an attempt to fool people into believing it actually includes a proposal to recycle urine.
The #GreenNewDeal is going around, but few people who aren't policy wonks actually read the details of documents like that. That makes it easy to parody, and also easy to fool people that the parodies are real.
So about that 'recycling urine'.... pic.twitter.com/Oz4pzbvCR9
— Unfakery (@Unfakery) February 8, 2019
Google’s search engine also picked up the disinformation: The hoax currently comes up as a suggestion when one types in “recycling urine.” (Media Matters searched for the term via an incognito browser.)
Here’s how far-right trolls spread the hoax:
YouTube conspiracy theorist Mark Dice posted the hoax on both Twitter and Facebook and admitted that he made up the language, urging his followers to “spread it around,” make it “go viral,” and “don’t give away the joke.”
A YouTube user posted a video about the Green New Deal that mentioned Dice’s hoax as if it were a real point in the proposal. Dice wrote a comment under the video saying that he created the hoax as “satire,” again urging people to spread it:
4chan’s “politically incorrect” message board known as “/pol/” (an earlier 4chan thread also pushed the hoax, but it has since been deleted):
Even though Posobiec noted that it wasn’t real, other far-right trolls continued to spread the hoax, including on /pol/:
Our lawmakers are so hung up on the idea that companies are instituting politically biased policies into their products that they’re ignoring real threats.
On Tuesday, at the request of congressional Republicans, Google CEO Sundar Pichai testified before the House Judiciary Committee. The goal of the hearing was to better Congress’ understanding of the search giant’s practices around data collection and use -- or at least it was supposed to be. Unfortunately, like in past hearings with tech executives, much of the questioning focused on the idea that the company has some sort of deep-seated anti-conservative bias that needs to be examined and eradicated.
There’s nothing new about the false allegations that social media and tech companies are biased against conservatives. In fact, these claims are just the latest incarnation of a long-term effort to brand the mainstream American press as “liberal,” which dates back to at least a half-century ago, when Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater gave reporters covering his campaign pins that read “Eastern Liberal Press.”
The claim of bias is little more than an attempt to “work the refs” or to get favorable treatment by calling foul. And given that House Republicans are just weeks from losing their power to call these sorts of hearings (as they will when the new Democratic-controlled House takes over), it made sense for them to hold one final show designed to make the McCarthy hearings look like a low-budget community theater production of The Crucible.
In 2016, Gizmodo published a story titled “Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News.” It was an explosive if not particularly well-sourced story, based on the opinion of two of the site’s trending-section curators, one of whom openly identified as conservative. Other curators interviewed for that story couldn’t corroborate those claims. The argument seemed to be that sites like Drudge Report, Breitbart, Washington Examiner, and Newsmax weren’t treated with the same level of authority as The New York Times, BBC, and CNN. The practice isn’t censorship or anti-conservative bias, but rather just a decision to favor trusted, mainstream sources over aggregators and partisan outlets. In any case, the article handed the Republican Party a talking point, and that same day, the GOP published a blog post demanding that Facebook address the issue of censorship against conservatives:
With 167 million US Facebook users reading stories highlighted in the trending section, Facebook has the power to greatly influence the presidential election.
It is beyond disturbing to learn that this power is being used to silence view points (sic) and stories that don't fit someone else's agenda.
Censorship in any form should give Americans who value their fundamental freedoms great pause.
Now, most people likely understand that there are good reasons to trust newspapers and media organizations that do original reporting over aggregators like Drudge. But the narrative had been created, and the GOP jumped on it. Panicked, Facebook officials met with a slew of conservative media commentators and other right-wing leaders to try to put out the public relations fire. The goal was to force Facebook to institute a pro-conservative bias, and it worked. Facebook fired its human curators, replacing them with an algorithm that heavily promoted hoax news stories before eliminating the section altogether. Additionally, Facebook created a task force to root out liberal bias (which, again, doesn’t actually exist).
Conservatives worked the refs, and Facebook caved. But by taking steps to appease the insatiable beast that is the conservative victimhood complex, Facebook sent a clear message: The tech industry fears conservatives, and that fear can be leveraged. Since then, Congress has held show trials masked as hearings about anti-conservative bias, leading social platforms and tech companies to take proactive steps to express pro-conservative views.
Earlier this week, Wired published a story about leaked audio from a Google meeting in which executives at the company expressed their desire to build inroads with conservative organizations.
“I think one of the directives we've gotten very clearly from Sundar [Pichai, Google’s CEO], his leadership is to build deeper relationships with conservatives. I think we've recognized that the company is generally seen as liberal by policymakers,” said Google’s U.S. head of public policy, Adam Kovacevich, according to Wired.
The hearings may be getting results for conservatives, but they are one big swing and a miss in addressing the many actual issues with tech companies. There’s reason to be wary of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and others in the tech space. Legislatively, the U.S. hasn’t kept up with other countries. For instance, the European Union recently implemented the General Data Protection Regulation, a set of rules outlining the steps companies must take before gathering and storing user information. Though some states have taken steps to enact their own data policies, there aren’t any major consumer protections at the federal level to speak of.
Now is the time for lawmakers to be having discussions with executives at these companies, but the topic needs to change from an overwhelming focus on the idea of political bias to questions of how our data is being collected and used. Frankly, it’s embarrassing that so many of our lawmakers are complete technological neophytes, with some still barely able to get beyond the basic misunderstanding of the internet then-Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) demonstrated in 2006 with his “series of tubes” comment. For example, on Tuesday, Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) wanted to know why his staff’s edits to his Wikipedia page kept getting removed, claiming that Google should be liable for the online encyclopedia’s content because the search engine has given it a “trusted spot.” (Google pulls some data from Wikipedia entries, but it’s worth noting that it’s actually against Wikipedia’s guidelines to edit your own page.) Rep. Steve King (R-IA) needed to be reminded that Google doesn’t make iPhones. Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) repeatedly asked -- while, like King, holding up an iPhone, which doesn’t come with Google software installed -- whether Google could track his movement within a room via the device.
“I now know how it feels to work at the Genius Bar in Arlington,” tweeted New York Times tech writer Kevin Roose.
Had these lawmakers been even slightly more tech adept (or at least willing to brush up on some of the current controversies facing companies like Google), there’s a lot they could have actually accomplished. Vox reporter Emily Stewart published a list of topics committee members could have more thoroughly addressed had they not been so laser-focused on bias. For instance, how does Google use our data for mobile advertising? Does the company plan to make changes following a $5 billion judgment in an EU antitrust case? Or why didn’t Google self-report on the massive Google+ data breach the company discovered earlier this year?
Moments before the start of Pichai’s opening remarks, CNN’s Poppy Harlow hyped the event as “what could be a very tense hearing on Capitol Hill,” noting that “Google's CEO will testify publicly for the first time, facing allegations of political bias against conservatives.” That evening, CNN International’s Quest Means Business host Richard Quest interviewed media correspondent Brian Stelter, again discussing the question of bias.
On Fox News, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) joined Tucker Carlson to talk about … bias. Jordan went on a short rant about Google and Twitter -- repeating a debunked claim that Twitter had “shadowbanned” conservatives -- and at Carlson’s suggestion, threatened to punish the companies with regulation and legislation that would scare them into making gestures to placate the political right.
How tech companies handle our data and the effects of that data being handled poorly are not sexy topics. Certainly, the thought that there are politically motivated people putting their thumbs on the search engine scale to disadvantage one political party or another is a more exciting angle. While it’s not clear whether it’s lawmakers taking their cue from media or the other way around, news media do a major disservice to their audiences when they put so much emphasis on factually dubious claims of bias. Instead, they should be helping readers and viewers better understand why policymaking around data collection matters and what the real-world consequences of inaction by our legislators could be. As always, covering politics as though it’s some sort of sport makes the world a more divided and less understanding place. If media organizations feel compelled to cover claims of bias, they owe it to the public to plainly say that these allegations are simply not backed up by the facts.
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Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg testified before the Senate intelligence committee this morning. Here’s what you need to know.
This morning, the Senate intelligence committee questioned Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on Russian interference in the 2016 election. The hearing was the culmination of a two-year investigation into Russian election interference by the committee and Congress’ best opportunity to publicly hold Facebook and Twitter accountable for their role in allowing Russian operatives to game their platforms to target Americans with propaganda. As Angelo Carusone said earlier: “The tech industry’s failure to grapple with its roles in allowing -- and sometimes even enabling -- the fake news crisis and foreign interference in American elections is a national security crisis.” Today Americans had the opportunity to hear from Sandberg and Dorsey directly what Facebook and Twitter have done to protect them since 2016.
The first time tech executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google testified before the Senate intelligence committee last year, committee members took a hostile posture. Committee chair Richard Burr (R-NC) and vice chair Mark Warner (D-VA) both scolded Facebook, Twitter, and Google for not taking election interference or the fact that their platforms were weaponized by foreign propagandists, seriously. At one point, Warner, frustrated by how little the tech companies claimed to know about what was happening on their own platforms said, “Candidly, your companies know more about Americans, in many ways, than the United States government does. The idea that you had no idea any of this was happening strains my credibility.”
Ten months later, as I watched Dorsey and Sandberg testify before the committee, it felt like relations had thawed -- perhaps not with Google, who refused to send its CEO and instead was represented by an empty chair, but certainly with Facebook and Twitter. Members of the committee continued to ask tough questions and press Dorsey and Sandberg when they weren’t forthcoming, but the atmosphere had changed. I get the sense that after nearly a year of conversations and hearings, the working relationship is perhaps in a better place.
Of course the tech companies have taken a beating in the press since that first hearing. We’ve since learned that Russian trolls got tens of thousands of Americans to RSVP for actual local events via Facebook. Americans have now seen the thousands of ads and organic content that Russian propagandists deployed on Facebook. Conspiracy theories about the Parkland shooting survivors, most of whom were still minors, spread like wildfire on social media. News broke that Cambridge Analytica had breached data of at least 50 million Facebook users. Russia is still interfering in our political conversation, and, Iran is now gaming the platforms as well.
This morning’s hearing was probably the last time we’ll hear from the tech companies or the committee before the midterm election. Here’s what we’ve learned (and what we still don’t know):
Facebook and Twitter made a lot of promises to the committee in the 2017 hearing. Facebook and Twitter both promised to change their ad policies, enhance user safety, build better teams and tools to curb malicious activity, better collaborate with law enforcement and one another, and communicate more transparently with the public.
How’d they do?
Updated ads policy. Both Facebook and Twitter have announced new political and issue ad policies. Both companies have also announced their support for the Honest Ads Act. During the hearing, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) asked Facebook specifically about voter suppression ads which both Russia and the Trump campaign used in 2016. Sandberg said that in the future, this kind of targeting would not be allowed, though she didn’t specify if she was talking about just foreign actors or American political campaigns as well.
User safety. Perhaps the most telling moment of the hearing was Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) asked Sandberg about the real harm done when real people (not just fake accounts) intentionally spread conspiracy theories. Sandberg’s solution, rather than removing the incendiary content, was to have third-party fact-checkers look at potentially incorrect content because, according to her, Facebook isn’t the arbiter of truth, mark the content as false, warn users before they share the content and present users with “alternative facts.”
Build better teams and tools to curb malicious activity. In her opening statement, Sandberg said: “We’re investing heavily in people and technology to keep our community safe and keep our service secure. This includes using artificial intelligence to help find bad content and locate bad actors. We’re shutting down fake accounts and reducing the spread of false news. We’ve put in place new ad transparency policies, ad content restrictions, and documentation requirements for political ad buyers. We’re getting better at anticipating risks and taking a broader view of our responsibilities. And we’re working closely with law enforcement and our industry peers to share information and make progress together.” Dorsey also highlighted Twitter’s progress in his opening statement, saying: “We‘ve made significant progress recently on tactical solutions like identification of many forms of manipulation intending to artificially amplify information, more transparency around who buys ads and how they are targeted, and challenging suspicious logins and account creation.”
Better collaboration with law enforcement and with one another. Committee members asked Dorsey and Sandberg about this multiple times during the hearing. Both agreed that when it came to American security, Twitter and Facebook weren’t in competition and collaborated frequently. They also expressed a good relationship with law enforcement agencies, though Dorsey complained more than once about having too many points of contact.
Communicate more transparently to the public. Committee members pressed both Dorsey and Sandberg to be more transparent. Warner asked Dorsey if Twitter users have a right to know if the account they’re interacting with is a bot. Dorsey agreed to this, adding the caveat that “as far as we can detect them.” Warner suggested to Sandberg that most of Facebook’s users don’t know what data Facebook has on them or how that data is used. Further, Warner pressed Sandberg, asking if users had a right to know how much their data was worth to Facebook. Wyden pointed out that data privacy is a national security issue as Russians used our own data to target us, saying, “Personal data is now the weapon of choice for political influence campaigns.” Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) asked Dorsey if Twitter had done enough to disclose to users that they were exposed to IRA propaganda, which Dorsey admitted the platform had not yet done enough.
For every question Sandberg and Dorsey answered during the hearing, there were plenty that they couldn’t or wouldn’t answer. Most of the time, they promised to follow-up with the committee but here’s what we still don’t know and won’t likely get an answer to before the 2018 elections:
What are the tech companies doing to prepare for “deepfake” video and audio? Sen. Angus King (I-ME) asked if the companies were prepared to combat “deepfake” videos and audios, content that is digitally manipulated to look and sound extremely real. Neither Sandberg nor Dorsey had a good answer, which is worrisome given that “deepfake” audio and video are just around the corner.
Are the tech companies keeping an archive of suspended and removed accounts and will make this archive available to researchers and/or the general public? Both Sens. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and James Lankford (R-OK) asked about this. which is an important question, especially for academic researchers. Neither Sandberg nor Dorsey had a clear answer.
Anything to be done with the selling of opioids online? This question came from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) who also asked Sandberg and Dorsey if their companies bore and moral responsibility for deaths caused by opioid sales on social media.
How much did tech companies profit from Russian propaganda? Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) has asked Facebook this question repeatedly both during intelligence and judiciary committee hearings. The most follow-up she’s received from Facebook is that the number is “immaterial.”
Burr and Warner generally close these hearings by previewing what happens next. This time there was no such preview. Given that the election is almost two months away, that’s a bit unsettling. But the reality is that with the current makeup in Congress (and the executive branch), the government isn’t going to do anything else to protect Americans. No legislation will be passed, and if social media companies are called to testify before the House again anytime soon, it will likely be another circus hearing devoted to the right’s pet issue of social media censorship. On the Senate’s part, however, holding tech companies accountable and producing reports is about as much as the intelligence committee can do right now.
Facebook, Twitter, and the absentee Google left today's hearing with questions unresolved and problems nowhere near fixed. Beyond the Senate Intelligence Committee asking pertinent questions, Congress has shown no interest in holding social media companies to account for those issues that remain outstanding.
This morning, the Senate Intelligence Committee questioned Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on Russian interference in the 2016 election. The House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee are scheduled to question Dorsey about anti-conservative bias on Twitter.
On the Senate intelligence committee hearing, Media Matters’ President Angelo Carusone explained:
The tech industry’s failure to grapple with its roles in allowing -- and sometimes even enabling -- the fake news crisis and foreign interference in American elections is a national security crisis. The Senate intelligence committee is currently our best hope for getting some insight into the steps that tech companies have taken to address known problems. The committee is at least trying.
On balance, committee members have treated this issue with the gravity it warrants and have worked to give the public actionable information about election interference and manipulation of the information ecosystem.
It’s been two years though since the fake news crisis of 2016 -- and for the committee to keep its passing grade, it’s going to need to put more pressure on these platforms to not only address the problems we know about, but to start focusing on preventing the next fake news crisis that will be fueled by synthetic video and synthetic audio.
On the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, Carusone added:
In contrast to their Senate colleagues, who are at least trying to stay focused on this national security crisis, House Energy and Commerce Committee has turned its inquiry into an embarrassing partisan mess steeped in conspiracy theories and right-wing chicanery. House Republicans don’t seem at all concerned with understanding and preventing foreign interference and instead are more concerned with helping Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale, work the refs so that they can cheat the system like they did in 2016.
These hearings should be focused on things that we know are real, like foreign intervention, bots, algorithmic manipulations and other cheating -- where a lot more needs to be done in order to neutralize those threats.
In 2016, right-wing efforts to game the refs led Facebook to make significant changes its trending topics section that ended up greatly contributing to amplification of fake news as well as changes to its ad approval rules that helped the Trump campaign execute an aggressive voter suppression campaign. And baseless cries of bias no doubt contributed to Twitter’s inconsistent policy enforcement and inadequate response to its climate of harassment. So, Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee working hand-in-hand with right-wing political activities to help work the refs is alarming and worthy of scorn.
Functioning democracy is actually at stake. Neither Twitter nor Congress should be wasting its time with this baseless and partisan bullshit.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey are scheduled to testify on September 5 before the Senate intelligence committee to discuss how foreign actors have used their platforms for information warfare operations (Google has been invited but refused to send its CEO). Dorsey will also testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee later that day to address Twitter’s algorithms and content monitoring.
It is likely that the hearings will feature a number of censorship-related conspiracy theories since members of Congress have drawn on debunked right-wing media narratives during previous committee hearings. Such theories are not only baseless, but also distract the platforms from dealing with the actual problems they face, such as disinformation, data privacy, and user safety from hate speech and targeted harassment. President Donald Trump has already invoked some of the false narratives to threaten the tech platforms with possible anti-trust action. Here are some of those conspiracy theories.
For months, right-wing media figures have pushed the baseless claim that Facebook is systematically targeting and suppressing conservative content. Fox News has also hosted multiple Republican officials to push the claim. Most prominently, conservative media have promoted the censorship claims from YouTube personalities Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, who are known as Diamond and Silk. Even though CrowdTangle data showed interactions on Diamond and Silk’s page were steady or on the rise at the time of the claim, the House judiciary committee had a hearing giving credence to the duo’s unsubstantiated claim. Facebook has also caved to conservative pressure and launched a review headed by former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) -- since slated to replace the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) -- to look into the allegations.
Gateway Pundit claims to have made a graphic proving Facebook discriminated against conservative websites, but it's actually just an old graphic from somewhere else with little explosions added by Gateway Pundit. pic.twitter.com/h4iM3lK2Uz
— Will Sommer (@willsommer) September 4, 2018
The claim is false: A Media Matters review of hundreds of major political pages found that left-leaning and right-leaning pages have roughly equal engagements and that right-leaning pages received more engagement than other political pages. Conservative meme pages are also some of the best performing pages on the platform.
Conservative media figures have claimed that Twitter has “shadowbanned” right-wing figures on its platform, by which they mean that Twitter is limiting the visibility of their tweets on the basis of their ideology (some outlets have also featured Diamond and Silk claiming Twitter also targeted them). Trump has echoed the claim, tweeting that the site is “‘SHADOW BANNING’ prominent Republicans” and threatening the platform with government action.
Twitter denied “shadowbanning” people and explained some issues had to do with auto suggestions in its search results, which it fixed. The site has also launched an initiative to down-rank content that “detracts from healthy public conversation” and does not determine that based on ideology. Dorsey also plans to tell Congress that Twitter analyzed House and Senate accounts over a month-long span and found “no statistically significant difference between the number of times a Tweet by a Democrat is viewed versus a Tweet by a Republican.”
Right-wing media figures have repeatedly claimed that Google has targeted conservative and pro-Trump content, using as evidence instances in which the platform accidentally used inaccurate information about Republicans in its knowledge panels (a section on the top of the search page that quickly summarizes basic information on search queries). In late August, Trump joined the fray by promoting an extremely dubious PJ Media study pushed by Fox Business host Lou Dobbs claiming that Google News was promoting “left-wing” outlets when users searched for news about Trump. (Dobbs also hosted Diamond and Silk, who attacked Google in reaction to the study.)
Dobbs' take was that Google is "banning" and "suppressing" conservative news sites from appearing in their results. His source is a piece from PJ Media that sorted results based on "Sharyl Attkisson's media bias chart," which lists the Washington Post & the NY Times as far left. pic.twitter.com/c9WTCbj5QQ
— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) August 28, 2018
As Media Matters’ Matt Gertz pointed out, the PJ Media study is based on an absurd methodology and, by its author’s own admission, is not a “scientific study” but a compilation of “anecdotal results.”
On August 29, Trump tweeted a video that falsely claimed that while Google had linked to livestreams of former President Barack Obama’s State of the Union addresses the day they happened, the tech giant had failed to feature Trump’s addresses.
The claim didn’t stand up to scrutiny: Some pages on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine showed that Trump’s State of the Union speech had been linked to on Google. The search engine also rebutted the claim in a statement. Nonetheless, multiple pro-Trump media figures ran with the false claim.
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William Gheen, the head of an anti-immigrant political action committee, controls multiple Facebook pages that have repeatedly linked to hyperpartisan and fake news content from a handful of sites. Those sites feature nearly exclusively plagiarized content, which Google AdSense is monetizing.
The pages No Welfare For illegals and Prosecute Obama, which have more than 450,000 followers combined, are run by Gheen, the president of the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, or ALIPAC. Both pages ask people to sign up for email alerts from ALIPAC. Gheen has used staunchly anti-immigrant rhetoric in the past, and the Southern Poverty Law Center listed him as one of “20 nativist leaders” in 2008. Gheen has also been an opinion contributor for The Hill.
From January through late May, both Facebook pages repeatedly linked to stories -- often not related to immigration -- from the sites proconservativesnews.com, thedeplorablesociety.com, thedeplorablegroup.com, and unite4america.com, all of which were registered this year. The pages followed a pattern, linking to one domain for a while before seemingly abandoning it and moving on to the next. The two pages have also intermittently posted content about ALIPAC during this time, making it unlikely that the pages may have been hacked.
While the domain registration information for these four sites is masked, making it harder to definitively connect them, the pages Gheen runs have regularly and nearly exclusively posted content from those sites. Alongside those two pages, the pages Impeach Dianne Feinstein, Unite For Trump, Stop Corrupt Politicians (which has also promoted ALIPAC’s work), and God, Gold, & Guns - An American Tradition have often posted the same stories from those sites, many times at almost the exact same time and with the same accompanying language, suggesting that a same entity has been administering all of these pages and that the sites are also connected to that entity.
The false claims that these pages have pushed from these sites include:
A fake story that WikiLeaks revealed that former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton tried to bribe Republican presidential candidates in 2016 to oppose then-candidate Donald Trump. Three of the pages posted a link to the piece on February 5 at the exact same time, with the message, “Should Trump be allowed to Prosecute Hillary? Comment YES or NO.”
A misleading article suggesting that the House ethics committee recently charged Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) “on 3 counts.” In reality, the incident had happened in 2010 and the charges were eventually dropped. Three of the pages posted a link to the piece on February 7 at the exact same time.
A false story with a clickbait headline that Trump made Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) “the most powerful man in Capitol Hill.” Three of the pages posted a link to the piece on February 4 at the exact same time, with the message, “It’s time the swamp gets drained. Now Gowdy can do just that.”
A misleading article suggesting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen “confirm[ed] they are preparing to arrest sanctuary city leaders,” when in reality she said only that she asked the Justice Department to look into possible charges against certain officials. Three of the pages posted a link to the piece on February 4 at the exact same time, with the message, “Do it. Can't wait to see Schemer (sic) and Cuomo in cuffs.”
A false story originating from dubious site True Pundit (which former national security adviser Michael Flynn has also pushed on Twitter) that claimed the New York Police Department found emails on former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D-NY) server that would “put Hillary … away for life.” Four of the pages posted a link to the piece on May 27 at nearly the exact same time.
Additionally, many of these pages have also:
linked to a piece claiming The Economist, which it called the Rothschild family’s “global media mouthpiece,” said Trump was “threatening to destroy the New World Order,” with the text, “What's Your Response?”; and
At least two of the sites that the pages have previously linked to, thedeplorablesociety.com and unite4america.com, are not only still being updated with plagiarized content, but are also now being spammed into Facebook groups by accounts whose activity suggests they are run from South Asia.
In addition to the fact that many of the pieces are false and misleading, almost every piece from these sites is plagiarized. The content is often taken from other hyperpartisan and conservative sites without attribution, and it is usually uploaded with a byline of “admin” or only a first name. Every article on these four sites carries advertisements provided by AdSense (whose ads include the tag “AdChoices” at the top right), even though the service’s policies prohibit its ads from being placed on pages that feature copyright infringement and/or “entic[e] users to engage with content under false or unclear pretenses.”
The two latest conservative “scandals” about Google actually have innocuous explanations, but that’s never stopped right-wing media from making dishonest “censorship” claims before, and it won’t now either
Conservatives are using a pair of stories about Google search results to pile onto their claims that the tech company is intrinsically biased against conservatives. This claim is farcical nonsense, and it fits perfectly into a right-wing pattern of playing technology companies for fools with misleading or completely false accusations.
On May 31, Vice reported that Google search results for the California Republican Party listed “Nazism” as the party’s ideology in the knowledge panel, a section on the right side of the search page that quickly summarizes basic information on search queries. Then, on June 1, Vice also reported that the knowledge panel for North Carolina State Sen. Trudy Wade, a Republican, featured an image of her with “BIGOT” written at the bottom in red letters. Google has corrected both of these issues with its knowledge panels, which are automatically populated with information from a number of sources, some of which, like Wikipedia, anybody can edit any time.
Conservative media are using these stories to smear Google as a left-wing operative determined to take down Republicans. Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade repurposed an argument from the Hoover Institute’s Niall Ferguson to suggest that Silicon Valley was upset at the Trump campaign’s prolific use of social media during the 2016 election and was trying to tilt the midterm elections for the Democrats. Fox’s Stuart Varney lied about the Trudy Wade image, falsely claiming that “a Google staffer put a ‘bigot’ sign” on Wade’s photo. Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel said the California Republican Party search result showed that “evidence is mounting that conservative voices are either being suppressed” or “being falsely depicted as hateful extremists” on Google. And Breitbart News scandalized Wikipedia’s relationship with the knowledge panel, claiming that Wikipedia allegedly has a pro-CNN bias.
Members of Congress even got involved in the reactionary pile-on. House intelligence committee chairman and all-around embarrassment Devin Nunes (R-CA) told Fox Business that “we [would] have to move obviously to hearings on these issues” if Google continued to “get involved in politics” and “censor conservatives and Republicans.” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) suggested to MSNBC’s Hugh Hewitt that Google lied when it blamed the “Nazism” search result on Wikipedia, because he had “looked at Wikipedia” earlier “and it didn’t say ‘Nazism’” anywhere.
As Google explained at the time, Nazism appeared in the California Republican Party knowledge panel because Google pulled the information from the party’s Wikipedia page, which had been “vandalized,” meaning it was deliberately incorrectly updated. Wired magazine reported that Wikipedia edit logs confirm that a user falsely edited the page to show “Nazism” as a core belief for the state party and that the note went undetected on the site for a week. It appeared on the Google knowledge panel because the search engine automatically “scrapes” Wikipedia to populate the feature. The edit logs might explain why McCarthy didn’t see “Nazism” on the page when he looked: The story broke on May 31 and he tweeted about it the same day, but Wikipedia had removed the “Nazism” claim from the California Republican Party page the day before.
Similarly, with Trudy Wade, Google removed the “bigot” image from her knowledge panel as soon as the issue was brought to its attention, but the search engine told her that she needed to ask the owner of the image to “take down or update the content” in order to completely remove it from search results. Wade complained during an appearance on the Sunday, June 3, edition of Fox & Friends Weekend that the image was still up, Matt Comer -- a North Carolina LGBTQ activist who first posted the image -- tweeted that Wade never contacted him, suggesting she is more interested in media hits than in actually getting the image removed.
Furthermore, Paul Blest at Splinter News followed the money and found -- shockingly! -- that Google actually likes Republicans, especially Rep. McCarthy. For the 2016 and 2018 election cycles, political donations to Google’s PAC were split roughly evenly between Republicans and Democrats; in fact, Republicans got a bit more in 2016 than Democrats did. Additionally, McCarthy was one of the Google PAC’s “biggest recipients” in 2016 and got $10,000 in 2016 and another $5,000 in 2018 so far.
As Media Matters has documented for over a decade, right-wing media outlets are expert traders in bullshit, and that trend has not slowed in the age of social media. Most recently, this trend has manifested itself with pro-Trump websites claiming the algorithmic changes at Facebook are censoring their content -- a charge pro-Trump social media figures Lynette “Diamond” Hardaway and Rochelle “Silk” Richardson are leading, while occasionally betraying their profound ignorance.
However, users across the political spectrum have seen their Facebook page views decline since the platform rolled out new rules against fake news and hate speech. In Diamond and Silk’s specific case, the drop in their video views was not even as significant as that of the left-leaning MSNBC prime-time program The Rachel Maddow Show, which “has a much larger [Facebook] page and is the most popular cable news program in the country.”
None of these facts have remotely slowed down Diamond and Silk’s quest to gain attention for their invented grievance. They push their deceit on Fox News and the network actively helps them spread lies about so-called “censorship.” They even brought their perjurious carnival show to the U.S. Congress. Republicans repeatedly asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about this alleged “censorship,” and the focus on the two vloggers took time and attention away from more serious issues Zuckerberg perhaps should have discussed with elected leaders.
Compounding this problem is Google’s reliance on unaccountable third parties for its knowledge panels and search results, including, when it comes to Wikipedia, volunteer labor. While most Wikipedia users likely engage with the site in good faith, vandalism clearly remains a problem and those problems can sometimes trickle out into the larger world. Among conservative circles, there have been and continue to be active movements around astroturfing -- or falsifying the origins of -- online debate. In 2014, BuzzFeed News uncovered “Operation Lollipop,” an organized effort by users of far-right image boards and men’s rights websites to impersonate feminists and start fights among real activists. Then, on June 4, BuzzFeed News also reported on a far-reaching effort from similar extremist websites to flood comment sections on Disqus with hate speech in order to dominate the conversation and recruit new bigots. There is too much bad faith online for Google to be so reliant on the honor system.
The simple truth about right-wing media and alleged censorship on social media is that fake news, conspiracy theories, and online harassment are all more prevalent in conservative circles than in others. So if conservative media spaces are feeling the impact of policy changes meant to combat such misinformation more harshly than others (if they are indeed feeling such an impact), then perhaps it’s right-wing audiences and content creators who are abusing the platforms, not the other way around.