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  • Here is the right-wing misinformation going around on Election Day

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    As Election Day gets underway in the 2018 midterm elections, right-wing misinformation and hoaxes are targeting voters on social media platforms -- including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube -- and via text messages. The right-wing misinformation campaigns include hoaxes about Democrats burning flags, lies about a gubernatorial candidate buying votes, and followers of the conspiracy theory QAnon fearmongering about violent anti-fascist groups targeting voters.

    Here are some examples:

    Alex Jones promoted conspiracy theories about noncitizen and dead Democratic voters on Bitchute. During a broadcast published November 6 on Bitchute, a YouTube alternative, Jones said that polling indicates a “major red wave” and claimed without evidence that “they have caught people from Texas to Maryland, Democrats organizing illegal aliens to have mailed to their address absentee ballots in the name of dead people still on the rolls,” asking, “Will the Democrats be able to steal another election?”

    In Florida, some voters got a text from someone impersonating a campaign staffer for Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum. The text made misleading and false claims about Gillum’s campaign promises, including that he will "raise taxes on anyone making over $25,000 a year." As the Tampa Bay Times reported, Democrats have not proposed adding a state income tax (Florida does not current have one), and Gillum particularly has “repeatedly said that he wouldn’t propose” one. The text also mischaracterized Gillum’s position that “there is a racial element to the application” of Florida’s “stand your ground” law, falsely claiming he called it “a racist ideology.”

    A member of Facebook group Drain The Swamp claimed that a report showed 1.7 million California voters were not registered.

    A Twitter account posted a hoax video showing Democrats burning flags to celebrate a “blue wave.” From The Daily Beast:

    One fake video that’s getting circulation on both Facebook and Twitter today purports to show CNN anchor Don Lemon laughing as Democrats burn flags in a celebration of the “blue wave.”

    Twitter pulled the video from its site around 11:00 a.m. on Tuesday, although it’s still on Facebook.

    The video, which claims to be a scene from CNN’s “Reliable Sources” comes complete with a CNN-style chyron: "Dems celebrate 'Blue Wave' Burning Flags on Election Day." The original version of the video has was viewed nearly 55,000 views on Twitter since being posted Monday, with the tweet promoting it retweeted nearly 5,000 times.

    The video appears to have been first posted by Twitter user “@RealDanJordan,” who said it was a reason to vote for Republican candidates.

    The same Twitter account pushed memes telling men to skip voting in order to help Democrats.

    A user of the neighborhood social network Nextdoor posted false voter information.

    Trolls claiming to be from the Russian Internet Research Agency have been spamming reporters offering to give an inside scoop on their operations.​

    Users of different social media platforms are attempting to revive a false claim from 2016 that billionaire philanthropist George Soros owns a specific brand of voting machines.

    A member of Facebook group Brian Kemp For Georgia Governor claimed without any proof that Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams is “buying votes.”​

    A 4chan account encouraged fellow users to post on Twitter a meme falsely claiming people can vote by text.​

    Conspiracy theorist “Q” encouraged supporters to be vigilant about voter fraud at the polls. On the anonymous message board 8chan, the anonymous poster known as “Q” encouraged supporters of the absurd “deep state” conspiracy theory to be vigilant about voter fraud at the polls. The conspiracy theorist pushed vague allegations of widespread voter fraud across the U.S. and stated that during the election, “uniformed and non-uniformed personnel will be stationed across the country in an effort to safeguard the public.”

    A QAnon-themed YouTube channel posted a video echoing Q’s voter fraud conspiracy theories. As of this writing, the video had more than 43,300 views.

    A pro-Trump Facebook page spread similar claims that fearmongered about election fraud. The page posted a screenshot from the original 8chan post that had been taken from that YouTube video:

    In a QAnon Facebook group, one user claimed that voting machines in Pennsylvania were switching votes for non-Democratic candidates into votes for Democratic candidates.

    Natalie Martinez, Timothy Johnson, and Melissa Ryan contributed research to this piece.​

  • Conservative media baselessly tie Stacey Abrams to the fringe New Black Panther Party

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams is being attacked by conservative media and her opponent, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, because a group of people affiliated with the New Black Panther Party (NBPP) marched in support of Abrams while openly carrying rifles. The conservative figures promoting the story have shown no tie between the New Black Panther Party and Abrams -- the story is just yet another conservative media smear that falsely connects the fringe hate group to mainstream Democratic figures.

    Timeline

    Photos of NBPP members with campaign signs supporting Abrams were first posted to Facebook on the evening of November 3, by two pages seemingly affiliated with the fringe organization. A few hours later, users began sharing these posts to right-wing Facebook groups, including one group dedicated to Kemp’s gubernatorial bid that says it’s not affiliated with the campaign. While the NBPP photos were being spread, a video posted by a Kemp supporter on Facebook showing the NBPP members was also making rounds on right-wing groups.

    The next morning, Kemp shared one of the photos posted by the NBPP on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. In all three posts, Kemp called Abrams “radical” and “TOO EXTREME” for Georgia. Other right-wing Facebook pages shared Kemp’s post while the far-right news site The Western Journal ran an ad promoting a write-up of the story. Conservative media figures Erick Erickson and NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch also shared the images. 

    Prominent conservative media run with NBPP story

    Since Kemp posted the photo, far-right and fake news sites have attacked Abrams while falsely claiming her campaign was affiliated with these NBPP members.

    Fox News contributor Newt Gingrich said that if Abrams is elected, “she’ll be the most radical governor in the country.”

    From the November 5 edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom:

    GINGRICH: You just had Black Panthers in Atlanta, for example, carrying what looked like semi-automatic weapons, for Stacey Abrams. You want a really radical America? You can get one, and she'd be -- if she wins, she'll be the most radical governor in the country, with the possible exception of [San Francisco’s] Gavin Newsom.

    Breitbart News posted an article whose headline states that “armed Black Panthers lobby for” Abrams. The article earned just over 71,000 engagements on social media and was posted by a pro-gun Georgia Facebook page.  

    The Daily Caller criticized Abrams for attacking Kemp instead of addressing the NBPP march. In a Daily Calles write-up of the NBPP’s march, Jason Hopkins wrote that an Abrams campaign statement he received in response to questions “did not specifically address the Panthers’ march, but instead attacked Kemp.” The article amplified Kemp’s calls on Abrams to denounce the NBPP and earned over 38,000 engagements on social media. Reprints of the article by The Western Journal, BizPac Review, and The Tennessee Star earned an additional 41,000 interactions.

    On the far-right news site Big League Politics, Laura Loomer falsely stated that “armed Black Panthers” were “campaigning with Stacey Abrams.” Loomer also claimed that the NBPP’s march for Stacey Abrams was “an act of racially motivated anti-white voter intimidation.”

    Conservative media often use NBPP to smear mainstream Democratic candidates

    NBPP, which was founded in 1989, is an “anti-white and antisemitic” group, according to a report on the group’s activities published by Southern Poverty Law Center. The original Black Panther Party has condemned NBPP as a “black racist hate group,” and it has also been denounced by the NAACP.

    The group rose to national prominence in 2008 after a video went viral that showed two NBPP members at a polling site in Philadelphia, PA, one of whom was carrying a nightstick. The Department of Justice launched an investigation into the incident that ended with a default civil judgement against the armed NBPP member after the Bush administration decided to pursue civil, rather than criminal, charges against the men. Conservative media endlessly scandalized the outcome of the DOJ investigation, although a 2011 report issued by the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility found “that politics played no role in the handling of the New Black Panther Party case, which sparked a racially charged political fight,” according to The Washington Post.

    Right-wing media still often cite the 2008 incident before Election Day. In 2016, conservative media supporters of then-candidate Donald Trump raised concerns about the NBPP to defend Trump from criticism after he suggested the 2016 election would be “rigged” by voter fraud. Conservative media frequently used extraordinarily tenuous or entirely nonexistent evidence in attempts to tie NBPP to President Barack Obama -- a similar tactic to what right-wing media figures are now trying to accomplish in the Georgia gubernatorial race.

  • Right-wing media's message to survivors: It's better if you keep quiet

    Blog ››› ››› MADELINE PELTZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Ever since the first of three women reported sexual misconduct by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, right-wing media’s message to victims of sexual violence has rung painfully clear -- if you come forward and tell your story, you’re putting yourself at risk and the establishment will circle the wagons to protect your abuser.

    Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, and Julie Swetnick have faced unending smear campaigns while also being summarily dismissed by those seeking to ram Kavanaugh onto the court. Conservative media have systematically overlooked the fact that Kavanaugh lied and perjured himself during Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, instead propagating outlandish conspiracy theories about his accusers and questioning whether they have political motivations. Their smear campaign coalesces around one simple message of intimidation: If you tell your truth about sexual violence, it won’t disqualify your assailant from moving up in his career; instead, you’ll ruin the reputation of a good man, and a right-wing attack mob will set its sight on ruining yours as well.

    Conservative media message: Sexual assault allegations do not disqualify Brett Kavanaugh from a promotion

    Right-wing media’s radical and insulting insistence that a history of sexual assault doesn’t disqualify a man from sitting on the Supreme Court is perhaps the most honest confession in their coverage of allegations made against Brett Kavanaugh. They are telling survivors that coming forward is, as Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) put it, but a “hiccup” on the way to their assailant getting a promotion.

    Perhaps the most shameless example of conservatives telling on themselves is an article published in The Federalist titled, “Why Brett Kavanaugh Should Be Confirmed To The Supreme Court Even If He’s Guilty.” An anonymous author argues “the actual impact” of Kavanaugh’s alleged history of sexual violence would likely be irrelevant to his “behavior as a Supreme Court justice.” The article goes on to say that “the stakes” of confirming Kavanaugh “are even higher” now than they were before, noting that if he fails to get on the court, “every Supreme Court nomination henceforth will be derailed by mere allegation.”

    For its part, Fox News has also made clear that Ford’s report should not get in the way of Kavanaugh’s promotion. This is not a surprise, considering that the network functions as a mouthpiece for the White House communications team led by disgraced former Fox executive Bill Shine, who was forced out due to his role in the culture of sexual harassment that prevailed under Roger Ailes. Here are some of the most offensive takes from the network’s Kavanaugh coverage:

    • Fox & Friends co-host Ainsley Earhardt insisted that “there has to be a vote” on Kavanaugh despite reports of sexual assault.
    • Fox contributor and former Bush administration flack Ari Fleischer asked if the “bigger ethical issue” of stopping alleged sexual predators from getting a lifetime judicial appointment is that it sets a precedent that they should be held “accountable” for “a disputable high school action.”
    • Fox contributor Mollie Hemingway questioned “whether it’s even appropriate that you can bring forth an allegation” from “35 years after the fact.”
    • On The Ingraham Angle, guest Wendy Long admitted, “I don’t think [Dr. Ford] deserves to be heard” and “we just can’t just cave into it.”

    Conservative media message: Sexual violence allegations against Brett Kavanaugh have made an innocent man into the victim of a smear

    In the effort to rehabilitate Brett Kavanaugh’s image, right-wing media have characterized the reports as nothing more than smears of a good and innocent man. Some have bizarrely admitted they believe Christine Ford but they don’t believe what she says Kavanaugh did to her. They’ve also deflected from the women’s stories by mentioning that Kavanaugh goes to church and volunteers and coaches his daughters’ basketball team:

    • Stuart Varney of Fox Business said reporting sexual assault “is how you slime a good man.”
    • Regular Fox News guest and American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp labeled Kavanaugh “the victim here.”
    • Fox contributor Tammy Bruce characterized Ford’s story as “an attempted political assassination of a character” and somehow managed to make the argument that coming forward with sexual assault reports actually negatively impacts the gains feminists have made in recent decades.
    • On Twitter, Fox’s Gina Loudon echoed Bruce’s sentiment that survivors coming forward sets back women because men will hesitate to hire women to avoid facing sexual violence allegations.
    • Laura Ingraham, who has had some of the most disgusting takes on Kavanaugh among her right-wing peers, said Ford’s report has “the whiff of a political smear masquerading as a sexual assault allegation.”
    • Judicial Crisis Network’s Carrie Severino, whom NPR identifies as chief counsel of the organization that is “responsible for the Federalist Society’s public support” of Kavanaugh, lamented,  “We’re smearing a poor man’s reputation.”
    • Fox’s Jason Chaffetz implied Ford’s story was not important because “there’s not a pattern” like there was with Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, called it “unfair,” and said Kavanaugh is a “good, decent person.”
    • On MSNBC, The New York Times’ Bari Weiss said, “Other than this instance, Brett Kavanaugh has a reputation as being a prince of a man.” (Chaffetz and Weiss made their comments before both Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick came forward -- not that a “pattern” of personal violence should be required to disqualify a person from serving on the Supreme Court.)
    • On Fox & Friends, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich raised the stakes, saying Kavanaugh is “fighting for more than” his reputation; “he’s fighting for the United States.”

    According to some right-wing pundits, even listening to victims is a wholesale attack on men. During her daily radio show, Laura Ingraham said she wanted to “focus on men for a moment” because “this could happen to any of you.” Not to be outdone by his peers, Tucker Carlson used the stories of sexual assault survivors to continues his ongoing white nationalist campaign, categorizing allegations against Kavanaugh as an attack on all white people and men and arguing that Democrats’ willingness to listen to Ford demonstrates a sexism that’s similar to racism. He also called Kavanaugh a “folk hero” to the “unfairly maligned.”

    When conservative media figures portray a sexual assault report as a politically motivated smear of a decent family man, they are telling victims the damage wrought by the violence they experienced is unimportant and that speaking about it is wrong.

    Right-wing media message: If you come forward, our machine will ruin your life

    The conservative victim-blaming campaign discourages survivors from speaking up through the direct threat of a never-ending character assassination and harassment campaign. The results of this tactic have been illustrated by the fact that Ford has had to go into hiding, separately from her children, for her family’s safety. Here are some examples of right-wing media attacking Ford’s character:

    • Frequent Fox guest Joe diGenova called Ford a “loon” because “one of the signs of lunacy” is “believing something that isn’t real.”
    • Later diGenova doubled down, saying Ford is “a deeply troubled person” with “a history of psychological discord,” and called her “a very sad woman.”
    • Laura Ingraham mocked protesters who disclosed their sexual assaults to Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) on a Senate elevator, and her guest suggested Flake staged the scene to cover for a vote against Kavanaugh.
    • On Twitter, then-Fox contributor Kevin Jackson called Ford a “lying skank,” adding, “Dang girl stop opening your legs and OPEN A BOOK!” (Jackson was quickly fired.)
    • CRTV’s Steven Crowder simply called Ford a “lying whore.”
    • Fox’s Andrew Napolitano fantasized that a Republican senator would “demolish” Ford like “Arlen Specter did to Anita Hill,” to which host Stuart Varney replied, “That would be a sight for sore eyes.”
    • Tucker Carlson got creative (and incredibly insulting) when he compared sexual assault survivors speaking up to the mob engaged in a witch hunt in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

    And while Twitter is a general cesspool of conspiracy theories and smears against sexual assault survivors, no individual has put more into this effort than conservative commentator Erick Erickson, who called the confirmation process “the Left’s PizzaGate” and said that the Democrats were “willing to destroy an innocent man so they can keep killing kids.”

    Reality check: Right-wing media will not succeed in silencing survivors

    Right-wing media and Republicans in Congress have been working overtime to send a clear message to survivors of sexual violence: It’s better for us if you stay quiet. The campaign against Kavanaugh’s accusers reinforces what women already know -- that sexual violence is about power, and that when backed into a corner, power brokers will regroup and lash out at its challengers.

    Millions of people watch Fox News every day. Many of them are undoubtedly survivors of sexual violence themselves. While Fox News personalities get rich smearing victims in an effort to install Kavanaugh into power no matter his past behavior or the fact that he repeatedly lied to Congress, they’re saying to their viewers, “We don’t care about you, we don’t believe you, and you should shut up and keep your experiences to yourself.” Right-wing media outlets are sustained by their commitment to punching down, even if that means launching an attack on half of the world’s population to save the career of one man. Only through the power of testimony and solidarity can survivors overcome the system that seeks to silence us.

  • A pro-Trump troll started a viral hoax about Christine Blasey Ford and Neil Gorsuch, and Rush Limbaugh ran with it

    Josh Cornett's Twitter feed is full of fake stories

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN

    A pro-President Donald Trump troll with a large Twitter following who has repeatedly tweeted fake “breaking” news stories smearing public figures has now tried to smear professor Christine Blasey Ford, who said Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were in high school. Some of the account’s false stories, including the tweet about Ford, have gone viral and spread throughout right-wing media.

    On September 18, Josh Cornett tweeted: “BREAKING: According to sources Diane Feinstein's reluctance to mention the Kavanaugh accuser's letter during confirmation session is because the accuser sent a similiar (sic) letter directed at Judge Gorsuch last year. The whereabouts of the earlier letter remain a mystery.developing.”

    The smear received thousands of retweets and likes, was pushed by Jim Hoft of far-right conspiracy blog The Gateway Pundit; Fox News contributor Kevin Jackson; former Infowars reporter Joe Biggs; columnist Matt Barber, a former attorney for the extreme anti-LGBTQ group Liberty Counsel; and former professional boxer-turned-lawyer Joey Gilbert. It was also shared on multiple subreddits. Radio host Rush Limbaugh also shared it on the air, saying it came from a “Twitter thread” and that he had "no idea of the veracity.”

    The smear was also shared by hosts on Texas talk radio station WBAP-AM, Pennsylvania’s WILK-AM, and Florida’s WFTL-AM. Cornett later tweeted that the claim was “forwarded” to him and he had “no idea” if it was true.

    Cornett has described himself to the conservative American Thinker as “an average hard working American” in his 30s, and his Twitter profile says he is “proudly blocked” by Fox News hosts Dana Perino, Bret Baier, Greg Gutfeld, and others. In 2017, The New York Times noted that Cornett, a “37-year-old Trump supporter in Cleveland,” urged his followers to boycott Nordstrom after the department store decided it would not sell the fashion line of the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump. The paper quoted Cornett as saying, “Anything that helps [Trump], I try to promote,” and that whenever Trump gets attacked, "I try to defend.”

    Cornett has followed through on that promise, using his Twitter account to support the president by smearing people he sees as Trump’s enemies and making up fake stories about them -- usually by tweeting without any evidence that he has “BREAKING” stories which are “developing.” Here are some of his fake stories that have gained traction:

    • In May, when ABC canceled pro-Trump comedian Roseanne Barr’s show after Barr made racist remarks, Cornett tweeted: “BREAKING: According to sources ABC President Channing Dungey had a long conversation via phone with former First Lady Michelle Obama before deciding to cancel the Roseanne show. Michelle Obama was reportedly enraged and insisted an apology was inadequate......developing.” Barr retweeted the post and asked Cornett, “Is this true?” Fox News mentioned the tweet in a story, calling Cornett a “right-wing activist.” YourNewsWire, one of the most popular fake news purveyors in the United States, pushed Cornett’s tweet in an article, and Cornett later tweeted the article to Barr as supposed proof of his claim. Cornett subsequently told American Thinker that he could not reveal his source, “but I stand by it and put my name on it.”

    • Earlier that month, Cornett tweeted without evidence: “BREAKING: Sources are confirming that former President Barack Obama has called Jay-Z several times over the past month pleading with Jay-Z to discourage fellow Hip Hop artists from meeting with President Trump.....developing.” The president’s son Donald Trump Jr. liked the tweet, and conspiracy theory outlet Infowars and The Drudge Report picked it up. Several radio hosts also shared it on air, including Boston radio host Jeff Kuhner, Tennessee host Dan Mandis, and a host on an Ohio talk station. The blog Gossip Cop fact-checked the story, reporting, “A source close to Jay-Z tells Gossip Cop on the condition of anonymity that Obama never asked him to tell other hip-hop artists not to support or meet with Trump.”

    • In June, Cornett also tweeted without evidence: “BREAKING: Senator Schumer has instructed fellow Democrats not to pass any legislation that could possibly help the children at the border, stating that ‘It will help voter turnout in the midterms’ and that CNN had agreed to help the Democrats with the storyline’... Developing.” The fake quote spread on social media, with some also adding MSNBC to the fake story, and multiple Facebook pages sharing a meme with Cornett’s false claim.

    • In July, after Fox News host Jeanine Pirro went on ABC’s The View, Cornett tweeted, “BREAKING: According to sources at ABC, after the taping of #TheView Thursday Whoopi Goldberg made the racist comment ‘I won't sit there and be lectured by Trump's Sand Nig*er’ the comment was made to Co-host Ana Navarro and overheard by several staff members......developing.” While ABC’s publicity director said the tweet “absolutely is false,” the hoax spread on social media. Some major followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory picked it up, a radio host pushed it on air, and a petition was launched calling for Goldberg’s firing.

    • In August, Cornett tweeted without evidence: “BREAKING: Prosecutors in the Southern District of New York have been briefing Governor Andrew Cuomo on a near daily basis about the investigation into the Trump Organization. Governor Cuomo has then been illegally feeding the info to his brother Chris Cuomo and CNN..developing.” That, too, was shared as a screenshot on social media.

    In addition to his numerous other baseless claims, Cornett has also tweeted fake claims to exploit the murder of Mollie Tibbetts (who was allegedly killed by an undocumented immigrant), smear football player Colin Kaepernick, and declare CNN was ordered by its president to ignore violence in Chicago (which was also picked up by YourNewsWire). So far, Twitter has taken no action as Cornett continues to tweet these fake stories.

  • While Twitter's taking action on Alex Jones is good, the process raises serious questions

    Angelo Carusone: "It wasn’t until Jones came face-to-face with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey that Jones was permanently banned from the platform"

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    Moments ago, Twitter permanently banned Alex Jones and Infowars from its platform. Earlier this summer, Jones and Infowars were removed by other major tech companies like Apple, Facebook and YouTube. According to Twitter, the ban comes after Alex Jones and Infowars repeatedly violated the company’s abusive behavior policies. Shortly after being banned today, Jones appeared on an Infowars show on Twitter’s Periscope.

    In reaction to the announcement, Media Matters President Angelo Carusone issued the following statement:

    Media Matters has monitored Alex Jones longer than anyone and has dozens of documented incidents of him violating the rules on with impunity, so the most important thing to be said about his removal from Twitter is: Good. It’s about time.

    But, Alex Jones has pushed dangerous conspiracy theories with real life consequences for years and in recent weeks Twitter took measly half measures to limit his actions platform. Twitter was the last major tech platform to see what is obvious -- Jones used Twitter in clear violation of the rules to perpetuate hate speech and harassment.

    Alex Jones’ harrassment of CNN’s Oliver Darcy was par for the course for Jones’ behavior -- Twitter is using it to save face and ban him now. It wasn’t until Jones came face-to-face with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey that Jones was permanently banned from the platform, raising serious questions about when and how Twitter is willing to enforce its terms of service.

    There are already troubling signs that Twitter does not understand the full scope of Infowars’ accounts on it’s platforms.

    Previously:

    Twitter and Periscope finally ban Alex Jones and Infowars

    Twitter’s half measures against Alex Jones don’t make much sense unless he’s getting special treatment

    Despite bans, Alex Jones appears on Facebook and Periscope broadcasts to rant about “false flag” attacks

  • Twitter and Periscope finally ban Alex Jones and Infowars

    A day after Jones harassed Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and numerous others on Capitol Hill, the social media platform finally enforces its policies against the conspiracy theorist and his outlet

    Blog ››› ››› JOHN WHITEHOUSE


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Twitter finally did what it should have done a month ago. The platform announced that it was removing Alex Jones and Infowars, citing a video posted to Twitter attacking CNN reporter Oliver Darcy.

    This permanent suspension comes weeks after Twitter had failed to enforce its standards after Darcy previously identified more than a dozen examples of Infowars content on the platform that appeared to violate the rules. Twitter told Darcy at the time that the content did in fact violate the rules -- but that because the tweets were deleted by Infowars, no action would be taken.

    During the evening of August 14, Twitter took action against Jones’ primary account after it sent a tweet that linked to a video on Periscope in which Jones called on his supporters to get their “battle rifles” ready:

    Twitter limited Jones' primary accounts for one week following that incident. Under the terms of the action, Jones was forced to delete the tweet linking to the Periscope video in order to start the countdown on a seven-day period in which the account was prohibited from tweeting. Jones found ways around that limitation and he was active on his @Infowars and @RealAlexJones accounts following their suspension until they were banned today.

    There are already troubling signs that Twitter does not understand the full scope of Infowars’ accounts on the platform. An account associated with Paul Joseph Watson, Infowars' editor-at-large, tweeted the same video about Darcy that Twitter cited in banning Jones, but it remains active and is currently tweeting about Jones' and Infowars' supposed ban from the platform. Since the ban was announced, Jones has already shown up on the Periscope for Infowars' show War Room, which was not banned either.

    Update: Via Jared Holt, War Room's Periscope page is no longer active.

  • At hearing with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, House Republicans asked a lot of questions about conspiracy theories

    In addition to right-wing conspiracy theories, no one on either side of the aisle asked Dorsey about reportedly personally intervening to keep Alex Jones on the platform

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    On September 5, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee to address Twitter’s content moderation. While some of the hearing focused on other issues, such as harassment on the platform, the better part of it was devoted to the baseless and debunked claims of bias against conservatives.

    Compared to the Senate intelligence committee hearing earlier in the day with Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg about foreign actors using tech platforms for information warfare operations, the House committee hearing did little to inform Americans of the ways Twitter is building a healthier public space.

    Here are some of the worst moments from the hearing.

    When Rep. Joe Barton refused to accept Dorsey’s explanation that Twitter algorithms don’t consider account ideology

    Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) asked Dorsey about certain congressional members’ names not showing up as auto-suggestions in the search bar, a bug that Twitter has claimed to have fixed. Dorsey noted it impacted more than 600,000 accounts, and Barton suggested more Republicans were targeted than Democrats. When Dorsey said the platform’s algorithms do not take “any affiliation, philosophy, or viewpoint” into account, Barton said, “That’s hard to stomach. We wouldn’t be having this discussion if there wasn’t a general agreement that your company has discriminated against conservatives, most of whom happen to be Republican.”

    When Rep. Steve Scalise cited a widely criticized article as evidence of conservatives being “shadow banned”

    Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) directly cited a widely criticized July Vice article that had claimed Twitter had “shadow banned” prominent Republicans in search results, a piece that other Republicans (such as Barton) also alluded to in the hearing. Many in the tech world criticized the Vice article at the time for being “based on a misunderstanding of the concept of shadow banning,” and Vice later reported that the issue -- a bug rather than a “shadow ban” -- was fixed. Dorsey also noted in his opening statement that Twitter in its own study found “no statistically significant difference between the number of times a Tweet by a Democrat is viewed versus a Tweet by a Republican.”

    Nonetheless, Scalise, the House majority whip, used the Vice report to claim only Republicans had been targeted, saying it was “a concern that a lot of us have if there is a real bias in the algorithm as it was developed” and suggesting Twitter employees purposely targeted conservatives when creating the platform’s algorithms.

    When Rep. Billy Long shared Twitter’s “daily highlights” emails of recommended content to suggest bias

    Rep. Billy Long (R-MO) cited “daily highlights” emails Twitter sends its users containing current noteworthy tweets to suggest Twitter was biased against conservatives. He then named some of the accounts whose tweets were recommended to him -- the majority of them were media figures covering politics -- and complained that almost all of the recommended tweets came from “Trump-bashing” people and urged Dorsey to “take that into consideration.”

    When Rep. Markwayne Mullin invoked a bad faith campaign targeting The New York Times’ Sarah Jeong to suggest a double standard

    After pressing Dorsey on his personal political affiliation, Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) criticized Twitter for briefly suspending Candace Owens, the communications director of the pro-Trump group Turning Point USA and who has ties to the far-right, for mocking tweets from Sarah Jeong, a tech journalist whom The New York Times had just hired as an editorial board member. After her hiring was announced, far-right trolls targeted Jeong for her old sarcastic tweets (tactics similar to those used during the far-right misogynistic online movement known as Gamergate). Mullin then read some of Jeong’s tweets aloud to suggest a double standard because Twitter had not suspended her.

    When Rep. Jeff Duncan complained a dummy Twitter account that his staffer created was being recommended to follow left-wing political figures and not celebrities or athletes

    Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), suggesting anti-conservative Twitter bias, said that his “20-something female staffer” had created a dummy Twitter account and only entered her email and Washington, D.C., phone number. Duncan claimed that the accounts Twitter suggested following were only “left-wing political types.” He then said no celebrities or athletes were recommended to her, saying she “didn’t even get Taylor Swift, Chris Pratt, Cristiano Ronaldo, or Kim Kardashian.” Dorsey explained that given the Washington, D.C., area code she had provided as information, Twitter likely recommended to her the most followed and engaged with accounts in the capital area, to which Duncan responded by complaining that D.C. athletes were not listed in the recommendations either.

    Alex Jones and Richard Spencer were not brought up at all

    It has been clear in recent weeks that conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was getting special treatment from Twitter. Somehow, just days after The Wall Street Journal reported that Dorsey had personally intervened to keep the accounts of Jones and “alt-right” leader Richard Spencer on the platform, neither figure was brought up during the entire hearing.

  • At Senate hearing about election interference, tech companies prove they won't do a damn thing unless they are forced

    Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg testified before the Senate intelligence committee this morning. Here’s what you need to know.

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN

    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):

    Promises made, promises kept?

    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.

    Questions still outstanding

    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.”

    What happens next?

    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.

  • Angelo Carusone: The tech industry’s failure with the fake news crisis and foreign interference in American elections is a national security crisis

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    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.

    Previously:

    Executives from Twitter and Facebook are testifying before Congress. Here’s what you need to know.

    Facebook is fueling far-right extremism -- and profiting off of it

    Tech leaders are appearing before Congress. Here are the conspiracy theories that might come up.

  • Tech leaders are appearing before Congress. Here are the conspiracy theories that might come up.

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    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.

    The claim that Facebook is censoring conservatives such as Diamond and Silk

    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.

    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.

    The allegation that Twitter is “shadowbanning” conservatives

    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.”

    The claim that Google is biased against pro-Trump news and conservative content

    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.)

    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.”

    The allegation that Google refused to promote Trump’s State of the Union addresses

    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.

  • Executives from Twitter and Facebook are testifying before Congress. Here’s what you need to know.

    The six questions that tech executives need to answer before Congress

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Silicon Valley hikes back up to Capitol Hill this week. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg will testify before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in an open hearing on “foreign influence operations and their use of social media platforms.” Larry Page, CEO of Google parent company Alphabet, was invited to testify as well but has so far refused the invitation. The committee plans to have an empty chair at the hearing to illustrate Google’s absence.

    This will be the highest profile hearing on Russian interference on social media to date. Thus it’s 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.

    I’ve been following this committee’s investigation from its first open hearing last year. I’ve watched (and often rewatched) every public hearing the committee has held and read every statement and report it’s issued. Here’s what you need to know.

    Senate intelligence: The adults in the room

    The Senate intelligence committee is tasked with overseeing the 19 entities that make up America’s intelligence community. The committee began investigating possible Russian interference in 2016 elections and collusion with the Trump campaign in January of last year, months before the special counsel’s investigation began. Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) and Vice Chairman Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) pledged from the start to conduct the investigation in a bipartisan manner, working together to uncover the truth and produce “both classified and unclassified reports.”

    So far, Burr and Warner have stayed true to those principles, in stark contrast to their counterparts on the House committee, whose own investigation has become a dumpster fire. Whereas Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) and his Republican colleagues in the House seem mostly interested in giving the Trump administration cover, Burr actually seems to understand the gravity of the situation and works alongside Warner accordingly. The committee has produced two unclassified reports so far, the first intended to show election officials, political campaigns, and the general public what Russian attacks looked like in 2016, where government agencies failed in protecting us, and what actionable recommendations federal and state governments could take moving forward. The second report backed the assessment of intelligence agencies that the “Russian effort was extensive and sophisticated, and its goals were to undermine public faith in the democratic process, to hurt Secretary Clinton (Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton) and to help Donald Trump.” The committee has also produced classified reports available to federal agencies and state election officials.

    To put it another way, for the most part, the committee is acting in good faith and acknowledging reality. Members have gone out of their way to avoid political theater, give the public actionable information about election interference from Russia, and demonstrate what the future could look like. Their open hearings on election interference are the most useful source of information currently available from the U.S. government.

    Speaking of political theater, let’s talk about that other tech hearing on the same day

    In an impressive feat of counterprogramming, the Republican-led Energy and Commerce Committee is holding a hearing on “Twitter’s algorithms and content monitoring,” also with Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey, on the same day!

    Google, Facebook, and Twitter executives are staple witnesses at congressional hearings, but most of the time we don’t learn all that much from them. This is partly because Congress overall has a severe knowledge gap when it comes to technology issues, but mostly because these hearings often become moments of political theater for members of Congress looking to create a viral moment on YouTube or a fundraising hook.

    President Donald Trump and most other elected Republicans seem wholly uninterested in holding the tech companies accountable for election interference by foreign actors, opting instead to complain about censorship of conservatives on social media that doesn’t actually exist. (Trump tweeted last week that Google is “rigged” against him after Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs reported on a sketchy study about the search engine by PJ Media.)

    There’s no data to back up the GOP’s claims of censorship. Media Matters studied six months of data from political Facebook pages and found that right-leaning Facebook pages had virtually identical engagement to left-leaning pages and received more engagement than other political pages. The methodology of the PJ Media Google study that Trump mentioned on Twitter makes no sense. And reporters were able to debunk Trump’s most recent claim that Google gave former President Barack Obama’s State of the Union special treatment on the homepage that it did not give to President Trump in a matter of minutes using a screenshot from the pro-Trump subreddit “r/The_Donald.”

    Look for Republicans outside of the intelligence committee to try to derail the Senate hearing and focus instead on riling up their base around the mythical censorship issue. The right has been fairly open about the fact that this “major line of escalated attack” is its plan. Hopefully, Republicans on the committee won’t contribute to this line of attack, wasting valuable hearing minutes that should be devoted to election and national security.

    Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s visit to Congress earlier this year is a prime example of how easy it is to derail a hearing. Zuckerberg testified over two days before House and Senate committees. The Senate hearing, held jointly by the judiciary and commerce committees, devolved into Zuckerberg explaining how the internet works to the poorly informed senators. House commerce committee members were more up to speed, but Republican members -- following Ted Cruz’s lead from the day before -- spent most of their time grilling Zuckerberg about nonexistent censorship of social media personalities Diamond and Silk.

    What tech companies will need to answer

    One thing that always comes across when you watch these hearings is the frustration that members of the committee feel toward the tech industry. Facebook has taken the most heat, but the frustration extends to Twitter and Google too. There’s a lot of blame to go around (Congress hasn’t passed one piece of legislation to protect American voters before the midterm elections), but tech companies allowed their platforms to be weaponized, missed what was happening until it was too late, and remain on the front lines of protecting Americans from attacks that game social media platforms.

    Both Facebook and Twitter made a lot of promises to the committee in a 2017 hearing. Tomorrow’s hearing will give committee members an opportunity to report back on promises kept and hold Facebook’s and Twitter’s leadership accountable for promises broken.

    In his opening statement at that 2017 hearing, Sean Edgett, Twitter’s general counsel, assured the committee, “We are making meaningful improvements based on our findings. Last week, we announced industry-leading changes to our advertising policies that will help protect our platform from unwanted content. We are also enhancing our safety systems, sharpening our tools for stopping malicious activity, and increasing transparency to promote public understanding of all of these areas. Our work on these challenges will continue for as long as malicious actors seek to abuse our system and will need to evolve to stay ahead of new tactics.”

    Facebook vice president and general counsel Colin Stretch promised that “going forward, we are making significant investments. We're hiring more ad reviewers, doubling or more our security engineering efforts, putting in place tighter ad content restrictions, launching new tools to improve ad transparency, and requiring documentation from political ad buyers. We're building artificial intelligence to help locate more banned content and bad actors. We're working more closely with industry to share information on how to identify and prevent threats, so that we can all respond faster and more effectively. And we're expanding our efforts to work more closely with law enforcement.”

    Members of the committee also pressed the tech companies to continue to share documents and relevant information with them, cross-check Russian-related accounts that the companies took down during the 2017 French election to see if they also participated in American influence operations, improve algorithms, report back on how much money they made from legitimate ads that ran alongside Russian propaganda, and confirm to the committee the total amount of financial resources they devoted to protecting Americans from future foreign influence attacks.

    Beyond what’s been promised, these companies need to answer:

    • What’s their plan to protect Americans in 2018 (and beyond)? By now, Americans know what Russian interference in 2016 looked like. We also know that Russian meddling hasn’t stopped and that other hostile foreign actors (Iran) are waging their own campaigns against us. The committee should ask Dorsey and Sandberg to walk Americans through their plan to protect their American users from foreign interference and to pledge accountability.

    • How are they combating algorithmic manipulation on your platforms? Algorithmic manipulation is at the heart of Russian interference operations. Russia weaponized social media platforms to amplify content, spread disinformation, harass targets, and fan the flames of discord. This manipulation warps our social media experience, most of the time without our knowledge. Americans need to know what the tech companies are doing to fight algorithmic manipulation and what new policies have been put in place.

    • Are their new ad policies effective? Facebook, Google, and Twitter have all rolled out changes in their advertising policies meant to curb the ability of foreign entities to illegally buy ads. It’s time for a report back on how those policies are working and whether any more changes are necessary for the midterm elections.

    • What support and resources do they need from government? As Facebook’s former chief security officer recently pointed out, “In some ways, the United States has broadcast to the world that it doesn’t take these issues seriously and that any perpetrators of information warfare against the West will get, at most, a slap on the wrist.” As hard as I’ve been on the tech companies, government’s failures to protect us and the current administration’s complete indifference to the issue are just as abysmal. Americans should know where tech executives believe government is failing and what resources they need to better fight back against foreign interference.

    • Do they have the right people in the room? Russia used America’s issues with racial resentment in its influence operations. Members of Congress have made the point in past hearings that tech companies’ lack of diversity in their staffs likely contributed to their inability to recognize inauthentic content from Russians posing as, say, #BlackLivesMatter activists online. In fact, #BlackLivesMatters activists attempted to alert Facebook about potentially inauthentic content and were ignored. Americans need to know if Facebook and Twitter have the right team of people in place to fight foreign interference and if those teams include diverse voices.

    • How are they protecting Americans’ data? Facebook’s record is particularly abysmal here. The company failed to protect user data from being exploited by Cambridge Analytica and still can’t tell us in full what data the company had or what other entities had access to it. Given how common data breaches are and that Russia used data to target Americans, we need to know what steps tech companies are taking to protect us from data theft and the resulting harm.

    Twitter and Facebook are American-born companies that make a lot of money from their American users. Having top executives testify on election interference, in an open hearing, is long overdue. As Burr and Warner warned us just a few weeks ago, time is running out. Burr invoked the famous “this is fine” meme to illustrate his point, saying that Congress is “sitting in a burning room calmly with a cup of coffee, telling ourselves ‘this is fine.’”

    As any American who uses the internet can tell you, it isn’t.

  • A New Mexico judge received multiple death threats. Earlier, right-wing social media accounts had spread her contact information.

    After a controversial bail decision, Judge Sarah Backus' contact information was spread on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and 4chan.

    Blog ››› ››› NATALIE MARTINEZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    A New Mexico courthouse was evacuated following a slew of death threats against District Court Judge Sarah Backus via social media, phone calls, and emails. Prior to the evacuation, conservative accounts had spread her contact information across social media platforms after she granted bail to five suspects allegedly involved with training children to perform school shootings in a remote compound in New Mexico stating that prosecutors had not shown “clear and convincing evidence” of the alleged planned attack.

    On August 13, Backus presided over the bail hearing for suspects of the compound case and set bail at $20,000 each, ordering that the suspects remain under house arrest and wear GPS ankle monitors. In reaction to her ruling, right-wing Facebook pages posted links and memes referring to Backus’ role in the trial and put her phone number and email in the status. The far-right page The Red Elephants posted her contact information suggesting that followers should call and complain about her decision to grant bail to the accused; the post was shared 10 thousand times. Three other conservative Facebook pages posted a meme calling for Backus’ removal and gave her office number as well as numbers to the New Mexico Judicial Standards Commision, the White House, and the U.S. Capitol switchboard. The top post among these was shared 27 thousand times. One other popular post from a grey-badge verified page also included Backus’ office number, as well as the email of Chief Judge Jeff McElroy of New Mexico. The content from conservative Facebook pages also spread through Pro-Trump Facebook groups. Posts on major groups encouraged people to call and email Backus.  

    Backus’ contact information also spread on other platforms, including Twitter, Reddit, and message board 4chan. A few popular tweets from pro-Trump accounts mimicked the language in the Facebook posts while spreading Backus’ office number, fax number, email and even court address. In a top Reddit thread on “r/the_donald,” one top-voted comment included Backus’ contact information, as well as numbers of the office of New Mexico’s attorney general, and a court number which the poster said could be used to reach Backus’ clerk. On 4chan, a couple of threads shared Backus’ office number. One post shared a screenshot of Backus’ supposed Twitter page and implicitly called for others to find and doxx the boy who is featured in the profile picture.

  • Seeking revenge for Alex Jones, far-right trolls unleash harassment on verified Twitter users

    A harassment campaign organized on far-right sites targeted journalists and activists with malicious abuse

    Blog ››› ››› TALIA LAVIN


    Sarah Wasko/Media Matters

    On Wednesday, Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey reiterated the importance of journalists’ presence on the platform when he tweeted, “We can’t be a useful service without the integrity journalists bring.” Some journalists, many of whom have faced relentless harassment on the platform, met Dorsey’s proclamation with jaded skepticism, and for good reason. Following President Donald Trump’s frequent attacks against the press, journalists have become a target for online harassment by the far-right favorites, egged on by prominent figures like Fox’s Sean Hannity, whom Dorsey gave a rare interview to this week. And when the consequences of the anti-press sentiment on the right have turned deadly, far-right message boards users have reacted in celebration.

    In fact, at the time Dorsey was underscoring the vital role of the press on Twitter, a coordinated harassment campaign -- seemingly originating from the anonymous message board 4chan and the white supremacist-friendly  Twitter alternative Gab.ai -- was targeting users, including dozens of journalists, who have been verified by Twitter.

    The campaign, organized under the hashtag #VerifiedHate, can be traced back to multiple internet spats that have unfolded in recent days. The first was a determined, bad-faith campaign to force The New York Times to fire newly hired editorial board member Sarah Jeong who had written a number of tweets appearing to denigrate white people. The manufactured outrage over Jeong was dominated by right-wing figures and championed by Fox’s Tucker Carlson, who insisted on taking her flippant tweets as deadly earnest “reverse racism.” However, the campaign culminated in frustration as the Times retained Jeong, despite issuing a somewhat equivocal statement. The second episode was Alex Jones getting banned from several tech platforms including Apple, YouTube, Facebook, Stitcher, and MailChimp, which was viewed by right-wing media as evidence of double standards and anti-conservative bias among tech companies.

    Faced with the combination of their failure to get a woman of color fired and their ire at tech companies, anonymous social-media users started a campaign to harass verified Twitter users who have in the past sent tweets containing jokes about white people.

    The campaign -- targeting particularly those of Jewish descent -- can be traced back to Gab, which harbors infamous white supremacist trolls like Daily Stormer founder Andrew Anglin. Four days ago, a Gab user posted a collage of verified Twitter users who the person claimed were showing their “white hatred”:

    The #VerifiedHate hashtag was also promoted by Gab founder and CEO Andrew Torba, a defender of white supremacist rhetoric who has appeared on Infowars to attack tech platforms:

    The idea spread to 4chan, where users called the push to harass journalists and activists “Twittercaust” or the “Night of the Blue Checkmarks,” saying it was an effort “to prove … once and for all that the Journalists, media personalities and celebrities are all a part of a massive anti white (sic) conspiracy!!!”

    The trolls also revealed it was a coordinated action, with some 4chan members claiming they were using multiple accounts to push the hashtag:
     

     

    4chan users posted examples of their coordinated Twitter harassment on the message board, demonstrating ways in which individual tweets could circumvent the platform’s hateful conduct policy that prohibits the usage of slurs:

    The trolls particularly singled out individuals of Ashkenazi Jewish descent who had referenced their own whiteness and Jewishness on Twitter:

    One locus of the #VerifiedHate campaign was BuzzFeed journalist Joe Bernstein, who received significant volumes of harassment, including one user who sent him an image of a gun:

    On Twitter, the account @meme_america began to promote lists of users  whom trolls could harass in the #VerifiedHate campaign and focused on specific journalists like VICE’s Justin Ling, who was subjected to vile comments:

    Multiple 4chan users expressed affinity for Alex Jones, and one claimed that, though Twitter hasn't banned Jones yet, the platform has removed other conservative voices and “probably will remove more”:

     


     

    #VerifiedHate is an example of an open campaign cooked up by right-wing trolls to harass and intimidate verified Twitter users, specifically journalists. If Dorsey really needs journalists to maintain the integrity of his platform, perhaps he should work to suppress campaigns that subject them to threats, intimidation, and harassment and make the social media platform safer to use for everyone.