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  • 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.

  • Periscope is still hosting video where Alex Jones pantomimed shooting Robert Mueller

    Jones also said Mueller had let people rape children in front of him

    Blog ››› ››› TIMOTHY JOHNSON

    Periscope, a video streaming service owned by Twitter, continues to host a video in which conspiracy theorist Alex Jones pantomimes shooting special counsel Robert Mueller while alleging Mueller is involved in covering up pedophilia.

    During his July 23 broadcast, Jones held his finger like a pistol while ranting about Mueller, claiming, in part, “That's a demon I will take down, or I'll die trying” and telling the special counsel, “It's not a joke. It's not a game. It's the real world. Politically. You're going to get it, or I'm going to die trying, bitch. Get ready.” Jones also said Mueller had let people rape children in front of him:

    ALEX JONES (HOST): That's the thing, is like, once it's [special counsel Robert] Mueller, everyone's so scared of Mueller, they'd let Mueller rape kids in front of people, which he did. I mean, Mueller covered up for a decade for [Jeffrey] Epstein kidnapping kids, flying them on sex planes, some kids as young as seven years old reportedly, with big perverts raping them to frame people. I mean, Mueller is a monster, man. God, imagine -- he's even above the pedophiles, though. The word is he doesn't have sex with kids, he just controls it all. Can you imagine being a monster like that? God.

    People say, "Well, God, aren't you scared of him?" I'm scared of not manning up. I'm constantly in fear that I'm not being a real man, and I'm not doing what it takes, and I'm not telling the truth. And so, call it whatever you want, I look at that guy, and he's a sack of crap. That's a demon I will take down, or I'll die trying. So that's it. It's going to happen, we're going to walk out in the square, politically, at high noon, and he's going to find out whether he makes a move man, make the move first, and then it's going to happen. It's not a joke. It's not a game. It's the real world. Politically. You're going to get it, or I'm going to die trying, bitch. Get ready. We're going to bang heads. We're going to bang heads.

    In recent days, several broadcasting platforms including YouTube, Apple’s iTunes, and Facebook have banned Jones for violating their content policies. Twitter and Periscope, however, have not taken action against Jones.

    According to Vox, Jones’ Mueller rant “set off a round of debate in recent weeks about whether Infowars should be granted carte blanche on big social media outlets” and Facebook’s statement on its ban of Jones “almost certainly is in response.” The Mueller video was also one of five videos pulled by Apple before the company decided to delete Jones’ entire iTunes library.

    The video is, however, still viewable on Jones’ Periscope page, and Jones' tweet with the video is still live on Twitter as well. Periscope’s community guidelines prohibit content that “directly or indirectly threatens or encourages any form of physical violence against an individual or any group of people.”

  • Conspiracy theorists gamed celebrities’ YouTube search results to accuse them of pedophilia

    For a brief time, searching for Tom Hanks or Steven Spielberg on the video site brought up baseless accusations

    Blog ››› ››› TALIA LAVIN


    Media Matters/Melissa Joskow

    On the morning of July 30, if you were searching YouTube for Tom Hanks or Steven Spielberg -- wanting to learn a little about Hollywood royalty, or just to find that funny clip from Big you loved years ago -- you would have been in for an unpleasant surprise.

    As NBC’s Ben Collins first pointed out on Twitter, the search results for Hanks and Spielberg were dominated by conspiracy theories, alleging that both Spielberg and Hanks -- along with other celebrities including like Seth Green and Macaulay Culkin -- were pedophiles and, a part of a nefarious ring of Hollywood child predators that online conspiracy theorists had dubbedentitled #Pedowood.

    The videos that popped up upon searching for Spielberg and Hanks were low-quality-fi, rambling, close-up shots, several made  by a man named Isaac Kappy, a minor actor who has spent the last week posting video-recorded rants on YouTube with titles like “Famous Actor Exposes Hollywood Pedophiles! Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks And More! #Pizzagate.” Thanks to rapid dissemination on message boards Reddit and 4chan, the videos garnered hundreds of thousands of views and shot up in the YouTube rankings, eclipsing interviews and movie clips featuring the stars.

    The hashtag #Pizzagate included in the title of Kappy’s video is a reference to the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which posits that prominent Democrats are running a child sex-slave ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant. The conspiracy theory culminated in one adherent firing an automatic weapon inside the pizzeria. According to BuzzFeed, the newfound allegations of pedophilia against Hanks can be traced back to Twitter user Sarah Ruth Ashcraft, a prominent member of the QAnon conspiracy theory community, which grew out of Pizzagate and has mushroomed into baroque complexity. The ever-growing QAnon conspiracy theory, which is flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of events, asserts that a broad array of prominent figures with liberal leanings are part of an international child sex-slavery operation. The theory has hundreds of thousands of devotees on Reddit, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter and countless dedicated blogs. (Roseanne Barr is a prominent believer in QAnon.) People are even showing up to Trump rallies dressed in "Q" apparel.

    Ashcraft, who frequently uses the hashtag #QAnon, has over 45,000 Twitter followers and uses her page to decry “Ritual Abuse, Mind Control, Child Porn, and Sex Trafficking,” focusing her ire on the alleged wrongdoings of celebrities like Hanks. (Since Ashcraft’s accusations against Hanks made headlines, and after BuzzFeed pointedly reached out to the social media company, her Twitter page has been restricted.)

    After NBC’s Collins reached out to YouTube for comment, some of the conspiracy-theory videos dropped in search rankings for the celebrities. A spokesperson for YouTube told Buzzfeed, “We’re continuously working to better surface and promote news and authoritative sources to make the best possible information available to YouTube viewers.”

    The hyperconnectivity of social media can make constructive messages spread fast -- and destructive falsehoods spread even faster. This latest incident is another powerful illustration of the ways in which social media can be gamed by conspiracy theorists. It’s an issue social networks have struggled to fully grasp; any suppression of conspiracy theorists’ pages, after all, lends credence to the notion that they are oppressed keepers of vital truths. Infowars’ Alex Jones was recently personally banned from Facebook for 30 days after the platform determined that several videos he shared were determined to have violated community standards; Jones and his fanbase reacted with predictable opprobrium and claims of censorship.  But Facebook did not assert that Jones’ penchant for spreading baseless conspiracy theories was part of the rationale for the ban; instead, it focused on policies regarding hate speech and bullying. That, in turn, raised questions of why Infowars as a whole did not receive a ban.

    Social media platforms that purport to be concerned with the spread of "fake news" must consider -- and contain -- conspiracy theories proactively, not just when journalists point them out. Left unchecked, those conspiracy theories have a direct connection to subsequent harassment and worse.

  • In their own words, the online far-right’s motive to dig up liberal figures' old tweets: revenge

    Far-right trolls claim they are digging up liberals' old tweets out of concern for children, but their prior statements indicate it's an escalation in culture-war tactics

    Blog ››› ››› TALIA LAVIN

    Over the past week, a number of far-right trolls, led by the provocateur and propagandist Mike Cernovich, have been on the warpath against prominent liberal figures in what they see as revenge for the scrutiny instances of explicitly racist, misogynist, and bigoted speech receives on social media.

    Their principal tactic? Digging up tweets from up to 10 years ago and weaponizing them against their authors in efforts to, at best, discredit outspoken liberal actors, directors and comedians, and at worst, get them fired.

    Last week, Cernovich publicized director James Gunn's offensive Twitter jokes about pedophilia and other topics, leading Disney to fire him on Friday from his role as director of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.​ From Cernovich’s perspective, it was a staggering victory -- and one he cast as borne of earnest concern for children in Hollywood.

     

    It’s not the first time Cernovich has made spurious accusations of pedophilia -- he was prominently involved in promoting the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that Democratic politicians were involved in running a child sex slave ring from the basement of a D.C. pizzeria. Pizzagate eventually had chilling real-life consequences -- in December 2016, a man drove to Washington and fired a military-style assault weapon inside the family restaurant. However, unlike Pizzagate, Gunn’s now-deleted tweets were real -- and Cernovich’s resurfacing of them and getting Gunn, an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump, fired as a consequence represented a successful escalation of tactics.

    Other far-right figures like MAGA troll Jack Posobiec eagerly amplified Cernovich’s campaign against Gunn. And after Gunn’s firing, the campaign to resurface offensive tweets by left-leaning public figures only escalated. Comedians including Michael Ian Black, Sarah Silverman and Patton Oswalt have come under fire for previous tweets that contained distasteful jokes trivializing pedophilia. Dan Harmon, co-creator of the hit animated series Rick and Morty, left Twitter after right-wing figures recirculated an offensive 2009 parody he made of the show Dexter. (An investigation by Polygon found that users on the message boards 4chan and Reddit had resurfaced the video before Cernovich began tweeting about it.)

    Throughout the campaign, Cernovich and others -- including Ted Cruz -- have maintained a facade of concern for children in what they claim to perceive as Hollywood’s toxic environment.

    However, previous statements from far-right trolls, including Cernovich himself, poke holes in the fake-concern narrative, making absolutely clear that the primary motive of this new offensive is victory in an ongoing culture war -- and more specifically, taking revenge against the left.

    In 2017, Cernovich stated that his goal was to emulate CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski and the KFILE research team, whose members frequently comb through the social media and work histories of government and political figures and have discovered racist and conspiracy theory-mongering comments that affect these individuals’ ability to provide unbiased public service. Cernovich, by contrast, has targeted figures in the entertainment industry.  

    Moreover, Cernovich also explicitly stated that accusations of enabling or accepting pedophilia were part of his mission to use the “rules and tactics” of the left against liberal figures.

    Other trolls in the MAGA universe have been even more explicit, indicating that the success represented by Gunn’s firing is a signal of a tactical shift, not an authentic moral concern. Posobiec touted the “strategic significance” of the event:

    On 4chan, users in a thread titled “Dan Harmon is a pedophile,” which originally surfaced Harmon’s 2009 parody, were even more explicit about their rationale, repeatedly citing the firing of Roseanne Barr as a motive to vengefully “take scalps”:

    CRTV’s Gavin McInnes, the misogynist founder of the violent, fraternal men-only organization Proud Boys, was even more transparent in his articulation of the bad faith that undergirds this latest salvo in the online culture battle. “There’s a new trend going on where the right is exposing the left’s pedophilia, and what they’re really doing is playing dirty pool,” he said in the July 24 edition of his CRTV show Get Off My Lawn. “Now, I know that these pedophile jokes that Cernovich caught these liberals saying are jokes. But I don't have to -- I can pretend I don't know they're jokes. Because they started this war."
     

    The words of Cernovich and his allies put the lie to any notion that this latest offensive is motivated by concern for children. Their desire to endanger the jobs and reputations of popular liberals is driven by lesser motives: revenge and the weaponization of manufactured outrage.