Category Archives: cheap speech

“EU charges Elon Musk’s X for letting disinfo run wild”

Politico:

The European Union is calling Elon Musk to order over how he turned social media site X into a haven for disinformation and illegal content….

In its preliminary findings, the Commission said X’s platform so-called blue checks had misled users into thinking some content was trustworthy when it wasn’t necessarily.

The EU said X’s blue checks policy was deceiving and had been abused by malicious actors. The checks were initially created as as way to verify users like government officials, public figures and journalists, in efforts to limit misinformation, but Musk changed that policy, allowing users to buy blue check accounts. The new policy has been abused by fraudsters to impersonate U.S. politician Hillary Clinton and author J.K. Rowling, among many other celebrities.

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Fighting Election Misinformation and Disinformation

An eye-opening NYT report on the inherent difficulties, despite the best efforts of the League of Women Voters and other groups:

A critical mass of research now suggests that tools such as fact checks, warning labels, prebunking and media literacy are less effective and expansive than imagined, especially as they move from pristine academic experiments into the messy, fast-changing public sphere….

Interventions like warning labels and digital literacy training improved the ability of participants to judge true or false headlines by only about 5 to 10 percent. Those results are better than nothing, its authors said, but it pales in comparison to the enormous scale of digital misinformation.

“I find it hard to say that these initiatives have had a lot of success,” said Chico Q. Camargo, a senior lecturer in computer science at the University of Exeter who has argued that disinformation research needs reform.

Political experts worry that disinformation peddlers, equipped with increasingly sophisticated schemes, will be able to easily bypass weak defenses to influence election results — an increasingly urgent concern, as voters in countries around the globe head to the polls in hotly contested elections.

For me, the story calls to mind Justice Brandeis’s admonition in Whitney v. California, now almost a century ago: “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” In an age of proliferating political falsehoods, I can’t help but wonder whether “more speech” is really an effective remedy.

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Director of National Intelligence on Iranian Influence Efforts

From yesterday’s statement by Avril Haines:

The Intelligence Community recognizes the importance of informing the public of foreign efforts to influence our democratic processes and, consequently, leading into the Presidential and congressional elections this year, we are launching today the first of what will be regular updates regarding such threats. . . .

As I noted in testimony to the Congress in May, Iran is becoming increasingly aggressive in their foreign influence efforts, seeking to stoke discord and undermine confidence in our democratic institutions, as we have seen them do in the past, including in prior election cycles. They continue to adapt their cyber and influence activities, using social media platforms and issuing threats. It is likely they will continue to rely on their intelligence services in these efforts, as well as Iran-based online influencers, to promote their narratives.

In recent weeks, Iranian government actors have sought to opportunistically take advantage of ongoing protests regarding the war in Gaza, using a playbook we’ve seen other actors use over the years. We have observed actors tied to Iran’s government posing as activists online, seeking to encourage protests, and even providing financial support to protesters.

The AP has this story, which includes White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre’s statement that Iran’s “meddling in our politics and seeking to stoke division is unacceptable.”

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“Trump Threatens Mark Zuckerberg With Prison In Unhinged Truth Social Rant”

Gizmodo: “Donald Trump threatened to put ‘election fraudsters’ in prison, including Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in a new rant on Truth Social Tuesday morning. . . . Trump made the threat against Zuckerberg during a post about the SAVE Act, a piece of legislation being pushed by Republicans that would make it illegal for undocumented immigrants to vote in federal elections. The problem, of course, is that it’s already illegal for non-citizens to vote in federal elections, and study after study shows that there’s no widespread fraud occurring in the U.S. electoral system.”

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“Top Democratic lawyer backs mysterious news site”

Semafor:

A secretive local media network with ties to high-profile national Democratic operatives wants to convince regulators in Arizona that despite the political tilt of its stories, it is not a political entity and should not be subject to campaign finance disclosures.

Star Spangled Media operates a series of left-leaning websites including the Morning Mirror, a difficult-to-find, barebones blog that for the last few months has periodically published a few unbylined stories about seemingly random topics. Its “About Us” page simply reads: “Welcome to the Morning Mirror—where reliability meets fresh insight. Stay informed with us as we deliver on the matters that impact your life.”

Over the last few weeks, Star Spangled Media has started spending a modest amount to boost Morning Mirror stories on Facebook that tout the pro-abortion rights records of local Democratic candidates running for Michigan House seats.

The site is low on content, but it has the backing of the law firm led by Marc Elias, perhaps the Democratic Party’s best known elections litigator and a central player in 2024’s politics. And Elias’ law firm is moving to ensure the odd blog is treated as a journalistic operation, not a political one.

In a letter to the state’s campaign finance regulator, the Arizona Citizens Clean Election Commission, in late May, Jonathan S. Berkon, an attorney at the Elias Group, asked the state finance regulator to opine on whether the state’s campaign finance law applies to Star Spangled Media. The company’s activities, argued Berkon, do not constitute campaign media spending, and it shouldn’t have to report extensive financial info to state or federal campaign finance regulators……

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“The Government Needs to Act Fast to Protect the Election”

Gowri Ramachandran and Lawrence Norden post-Murthy in The Atlantic:

With Murthy now dismissed and limited time before November 5, the federal government can and should immediately resume its regular briefings with social-media companies about foreign interference in our elections. Although there are encouraging signs that the federal government is slowly resuming these efforts, they appear limited compared with what was done in prior elections. The government should also, as it has in the past, help connect state and local election officials with appropriate contacts at social-media companies. That way local officials and social-media companies can keep each other apprised of any changes in disinformation they are seeing regarding how, when, and where to vote. And the federal government should drastically increase efforts to inform the American public about foreign adversaries’ operations intended to decrease confidence in elections. The government must also make clear that threatening election officials—and their families and children—will not be tolerated.

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“A Democratic Super PAC’s New Trump Ad Might Be Borderline Criminal”

I have written this piece for Slate. It begins:


Here’s something to scramble your brain: A progressive super PAC in Pennsylvania put out an advertisement trying to suppress mail-in voting by MAGA Republicans, and the Trump campaign responded by saying that the super PAC was violating the same law that Trump has been charged with violating in his federal election interference case. To boot, Trump’s lawyers said in their letter that the super PAC’s actions were just like those of Douglass Mackey, a Trump supporter that the Department of Justice successfully prosecuted for falsely telling Black supporters of Hillary Clinton in 2016 that they could vote for her by text. In the end, the super PAC’s actions appear despicable, but it is much more questionable whether the advertisement crossed a legal line.

The 30-second advertisement in question opens with words onscreen: “MAGA PATRIOTS: LISTEN TO OUR PRESIDENT.” It then turns to a series of statements in which Donald Trump disparages the safety and security of voting by mail, claiming fraud and corruption. It ends with the words: “Stand strong with PRESIDENT TRUMP AGAINST MAIL-IN VOTING.” A disclaimer on the bottom explains that the ad was paid for by “Pennsylvania Values,” and was not authorized by any candidate or committee…

The advertisement sends a terrible message, and the super PAC’s tactics deserve condemnation. All eligible voters should be encouraged to vote in whatever way is most convenient for them, including mail-in voting. This advertisement is only going to fuel more distrust of voting by mail among Trump supporters by reminding them of his earlier statements, and ramp up further negative polarization between the parties by highlighting the voting wars and engaging in a dirty trick: The message is not coming from “MAGA Patriots,” but from partisans on the left….

Mackey was convicted under Section 241 and his case is currently on appeal to the 2nd Circuit, where he is arguing, among other things, that his conviction violates the First Amendment because it squelches too much free speech. I filed an amicus brief along with the Protect Democracy Project and the Yale Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic arguing that so long as Section 241 is read to apply in speech and voting cases only to lies about when, where, or how people vote, the law does not violate the First Amendment.

If that reading is right, the new super PAC ad may not violate Section 241. The ad never lies to voters about when, where, or how to vote. It instead uses Trump’s own words expressing Trump’s distrust of mail-in voting to imply that Trump still does not want his supporters to vote by mail (this implication may be false, but who knows with Trump, who recently called mail-in voting “treacherous”). It also implies that the speech is coming from MAGA supporters. The ad doesn’t quite say the ad is paid for by Trump forces, though it does refer to Trump as “OUR PRESIDENT.” It includes false statements made by Trump about ballots being found in creeks. Maybe that should count as a super PAC lie about how people vote? Perhaps this ad is artfully crafted to potentially just stay on the line of legality under the test we think works in the Mackey case. The super PAC will need some good lawyers.

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Supreme Court on 6-3 Vote Rejects Social Media Government “Jawboning” Claim on Standing Grounds, But Strongly Suggests Claims of Jawboning were False

You can find the majority opinion in Murthy v. Missouri of Justice Barrett, along with the dissent of Justice Alito (joined by Justices Gorsuch and Thomas) at this link.

The claim was that government agencies pressured or coerced social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter to remove content (related to the election, Covid, etc.). This what the term “jawboning” refers to.

The Court did not opine on what would have to be proven in a jawboning case involving social media companies, because it held that none of the plaintiffs had standing: they did not show enough of a connection between the government‘s actions and plaintiffs’ injuries. As the majority opinion states: “the platforms moderated similar content long before any of the Government defendants engaged in the challenged conduct. In fact, the platforms, acting independently, had strengthened their pre-existing content moderation policies before the Government defendants got involved.”

Given that the majority said it would not reach the merits of the jawboning question, it’s inclusion of footnote 4, casting aspersions on the ridiculous factfinding of the district court, was notable as a slam. This is arguably the most important part of the opinion:

The Fifth Circuit relied on the District Court’s factual findings, many of which unfortunately appear to be clearly erroneous. The District Court found that the defendants and the platforms had an “efficient report-and-censor relationship.” Missouri v. Biden, 680 F. Supp. 3d 630, 715 (WD La. 2023). But much of its evidence is inapposite. For instance, the court says that Twitter set up a “streamlined process for censorship requests” after the White House “bombarded” it with such requests. Ibid., n. 662 (internal quotation marks omitted). The record it cites says nothing about “censorship requests.” See App. 639–642. Rather, in response to a White House official asking Twitter to remove an impersonation account of President Biden’s granddaughter, Twitter told the official about a portal that he could use to flag similar issues. Ibid. This has nothing to do with COVID–19 misinformation. The court also found that “[a] drastic increase in censorship . . . directly coincided with Defendants’ public calls for censorship and private demands for censorship.” 680 F. Supp. 3d, at 715. As to the “calls for censorship,” the court’s
proof included statements from Members of Congress, who are not parties to this suit. Ibid., and n. 658. Some of the evidence of the “increase in censorship” reveals that Facebook worked with the CDC to update its list of removable false claims, but these examples do not suggest that the agency “demand[ed]” that it do so. Ibid. Finally, the court, echoing the plaintiffs’ proposed statement of facts, erroneously stated that Facebook agreed to censor content that did not violate its policies. Id., at 714, n. 655. Instead, on several occasions, Facebook explained that certain content did not qualify for removal under its policies but did qualify for
other forms of moderation.

Justice Alito, in contrast, found enough evidence of jawboning to find standing (and then a likely violation of the law by the government). He relied in part on a report from Jim Jordan’s “weaponization of government” committee in the House, something that itself is quite unreliable.

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“I Study Disinformation. This Election Will Be Grim.”

Renee DiResta NYT oped:

This brings us to the present, when another election looms. The 2024 rerun is already being viciously fought. Since 2020, the technological landscape has shifted. There are new social media platforms in the mix, such as Bluesky, Threads and Truth Social. Election integrity policies and enforcement priorities are in flux at some of the biggest platforms. What used to be Twitter is under new ownership and most of the team that focused on trust and safety was let go.

Fake audio generated by artificial intelligence has already been deployed in a European election, and A.I.-powered chatbots are posting on social-media platforms. Overseas players continue to run influence operations to interfere in American politics; in recent weeks, OpenAI has confirmed that Russia, China and others have begun to use generative text tools to improve the quality and quantity of their efforts.

Offline, trust in institutions, government, media and fellow citizens is at or near record lows and polarization continues to increase. Election officials are concerned about the safety of poll workers and election administrators — perhaps the most terrible illustration of the cost of lies on our politics.

As we enter the final stretch of the 2024 campaign, it will not be other countries that are likely to have the greatest impact. Rather, it will once again be the domestic rumor mill. The networks spreading misleading notions remain stronger than ever, while the networks of researchers and observers who worked to counter them are being dismantled….

osts, both financial and psychological, have mounted. Stanford is refocusing the work of the Observatory and has ended the Election Integrity Partnership’s rapid-response election observation work. Employees including me did not have their contracts renewed.

This is disappointing, though not entirely surprising. The investigations have led to threats and sustained harassment for researchers who find themselves the focus of congressional attention. Misleading media claims have put students in the position of facing retribution for an academic research project. Even technology companies no longer appear to be acting together to disrupt election influence operations by foreign countries on their platforms.

Republican members of the House Judiciary subcommittee reacted to the Stanford news by saying their “robust oversight” over the center had resulted in a “big win” for free speech. This is an alarming statement for government officials to make about a private research institution with First Amendment rights.

The work of studying election delegitimization and supporting election officials is more important than ever. It is crucial that we not only stand resolute but speak out forcefully against intimidation tactics intended to silence us and discredit academic research. We cannot allow fear to undermine our commitment to safeguarding the democratic process.

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“Clippers Cut a Wide Swath Making Political Campaign Videos Go Viral”

NYT:

When Andrew Lawrence begins his night shift, he powers on his monitor to sift through Fox News’ evening programming.

He and his small team at Media Matters for America, the liberal nonprofit media watchdog group, spend hours each day glued to their screens, scanning cable shows, livestreams and congressional hearings for political moments they can clip, post on social media and call out as absurd.

“We watch Fox News so you don’t have to,” Mr. Lawrence said.

The slog seems to be paying off. His video posts are often viewed millions of times.

Clipping political gaffes was once more of a pastime for amateur political obsessives. Now, professionals have stepped in and supercharged the political discourse, flooding platforms like X and TikTok with cuttingly captioned video snippets, often publishing edited clips within minutes or even seconds.

Despite concerns that the most-watched clips often omit crucial context, sometimes by design, clippers have amassed tens of millions of views, forcing candidates to pay attention — and to watch their words.

More so than ever before, clipping has been embraced by both official Democratic and Republican campaign committees that have exploited the reach of real-time clips and even outdone their independent predecessors.

Gone is the heyday of the tracker, a political operative who would tail candidates at stump events big and small, camcorder in hand, hoping to catch gaffes on tape. Today, the ubiquity of livestreaming and video recording has transformed any rallygoer with a smartphone into a wellspring of videos clippers can turn into potential viral sensations. With so much of a campaign being captured on video and then quickly spotlighted in microscopic, mocking detail, the smallest personality foible, momentary lapse or passing awkwardness can spell a public-relations nightmare for a candidate.

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“The Biden admin has no firm plan to call out domestic disinformation in the 2024 election”

NBC News:

The Biden administration has no firm plans to alert the public about deepfakes or other false information during the 2024 election unless it is clearly coming from a foreign actor and poses a sufficiently grave threat, according to current and former officials.

Although cyber experts in and outside of government expect an onslaught of disinformation and deepfakes during this year’s election campaign, officials in the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security remain worried that if they weigh in, they will face accusations that they are attempting to tilt the election in favor of President Joe Biden’s re-election.

Lawmakers from both parties have urged the Biden administration to take a more assertive stance.

“I’m worried that you may be overly concerned with appearing partisan and that that will freeze you in terms of taking the actions that are necessary,” Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with the Democrats, told cybersecurity and intelligence officials at a hearing last month.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., asked how the government would react to a deepfake video. “If this happens, who’s in charge of responding to it? Have we thought through the process of what do we do when one of these scenarios occurs?” he asked. “‘We just want you to know that video is not real.’ Who would be in charge of that?”

A senior U.S. official familiar with government deliberations said federal law enforcement agencies, particularly the FBI, are reluctant to call out disinformation with a domestic origin.

The FBI will investigate possible election law violations, the official said, but does not feel equipped to make public statements about disinformation or deepfakes generated by Americans.

“The FBI is not in the truth detection business,” the official said.

In interagency meetings about the issue, the official said, it’s clear that the Biden administration does not have a specific plan for how to deal with domestic election disinformation, whether it’s a deepfake impersonating a candidate or a false report about violence or voting locations being closed that could dissuade people from going to the polls…

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“The deceptive Biden G7 video was quickly debunked, but it kept going viral anyway”

David Ingram for NBC News:

Misleading videos and false claims that President Joe Biden wandered off aimlessly from the G7 conference last week continued to go viral despite debunkings and fact-checks that tried to correct the record. 

Google recommended false versions of the story as “top stories.” Deceptive video clips continued to accumulate millions of views on X. Copies of the videos were replayed on TikTok and YouTube with little context. Meta, the parent company of Instagram and Facebook, applied fact-checking labels to some posts but not to all. 

The persistent nature of the misleading videos illustrates how major tech platforms and partisan media are playing off each other in the 2024 election cycle, keeping viral stories in people’s feeds after they’ve been proven to be misleading or even false. 

In a familiar playbook, hyperpartisan outlets will continually push a piece of misleading information on their platforms and on social media, causing motivated followers who are primed to believe the outlets to amplify it further. That inundates tech platforms, which are unwilling or unable to correct the record quickly enough. The bad information then continues to outpace efforts to fact-check it. …

Laura Edelson, an assistant professor of computer sciences at Northeastern University, said that the people behind the misleading claims are benefiting from tech companies’ cost-cutting. In the past two years, companies such as Google, Meta and X laid off large numbers of employees who worked on trust and safety teams, the core of the companies’ efforts to limit the spread of misinformation. “They eliminated the staffers who were enforcing those policies,” she said. 

That puts the platforms in a relatively defenseless position against a partisan media outlet that decides to push a misleading claim, Edelson said. In this case, the conservative outlets were savvy about the topic, continuing to hammer the narrative that Biden is too old to be president. 

“The reason this can be so successful is that it’s not trying to create a new narrative. It’s trying to reinforce a narrative that both people in the campaign and disinformation spreaders have been talking about for years,” she said. Biden is 81, and former President Donald Trump is 78. 

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