Category Archives: social media and social protests

Political Conduct and the First Amendment

Now that I have finished a draft of a new Article, Political Conduct and the First Amendment, I am eager to join the conversation on the ELB. I couldn’t be more thankful to Rick for including me as part of the team. I am a devout reader of the blog and look forward to broadening the ongoing discussion in the election law community about how to improve both democratic governance and faith in democratic institutions.

In the meanwhile, like many of us, I have been wrestling with how to make sense of the Roberts Court’s indifference to voters and democracy. Political Conduct and the First Amendment is my take on the bigger picture:

Preview: The First Amendment’s primary constitutional role is to defend our nation’s commitment to the collective project of self-governance. Its provisions protect both speech and political conduct toward the end of securing vital channels for influencing public policymaking, demanding responsiveness, and ensuring accountability. Over time, however, the Supreme Court and scholars alike have gravitated to the speech clause, driven by the misconception that democracy is a product of political discussion, rather than political participation. The Court has thus reduced a multifaceted amendment protecting the political process writ large into a singular protection for free expression. The Article explains not only why this is a mistake, but how it negatively impacts our democracy. It proceeds to offer a more nuanced account of the First Amendment’s relationship to self-governance—one that vindicates a construction of the amendment that actually protects democracy in all its facets. The three main pillars of this new account are: protection for political conduct; recognition of a strong anti-entrenchment norm; and a better appreciation of the significance of drawing a distinction between the domain of governance and the domain of politics in First Amendment jurisprudence.

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“Justice Department asks Congress to weaken social media companies’ liability protection”

WaPo:

The Department of Justice asked Congress on Wednesday to adopt a new law that would hold Facebook, Google and Twitter legally accountable for the way they moderate content on the Web, as the Trump administration ratchets up its attacks on social-media sites as the 2020 election approaches.

The new request from the Justice Department came in the form of a rare, legislative proposal that specifically seeks to whittle down Section 230, a decades-old provision of federal law that spares websites from being held liable for content posted by their users — and immunizes some of their own decisions about what posts, photos and videos to leave up or take down.

“For too long Section 230 has provided a shield for online platforms to operate with impunity,” said Attorney General William P. Barr in a statement. “Ensuring that the internet is a safe, but also vibrant, open and competitive environment is vitally important to America.”

The proposal also seeks to ensure social-media companies moderate their sites and services in a clear and consistent way. For years, President Trump and other top Republicans have attacked tech giants including Facebook, Google and Twitter for censoring conservatives online, something the U.S. government now may have the ability to police if the Justice Department’s proposal were to become law.

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September Symposium on Excellent New Book, “Social Media and Democracy” (Edited by Persily and Tucker)

As part of my own book project, I read the edited volume “Social Media and Democracy” the day it came out. This is a must-read for researchers who care about the extent to which social media has changed and may further change campaigns and elections. It’s really three books in one: the first six chapters are reviews of the literature on various topics (like misinformation and echo chambers); the next six chapters discuss potential reforms: and the final chapter by Persily and Tucker explains how much more there is to learn about how social media is changing democracy if researchers could get fuller access to social media platforms. Highly recommended.

In conjunction with the book release, Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center is putting together this event on Sept. 8 with a terrific lineup. Registration required.

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“Facebook’s fact checkers have ruled claims in Trump ads are false — but no one is telling Facebook’s users”

WaPo:

Fact checkers were unanimous in their assessments when President Trump began claiming in June that Democrat Joe Biden wanted to “defund” police forces. Politifact called the allegations “false,” as did CheckYourFact. The Associated Press detailed “distortions” in Trump’s claims. FactCheck.org called an ad airing them “deceptive.” Another site, The Dispatch, said there is “nothing currently to support” Trump’s claims.

But these judgments, made by five fact-checking organizations that are part of Facebook’s independent network for policing falsehoods on the platform, were not shared with Facebook’s users. That’s because the company specifically exempts politicians from its rules against deception. Ads containing the falsehoods continue to run freely on the platform, without any kind of warning or label.

Enabled by Facebook’s rules, Trump’s reelection campaign has shown versions of the false claim on Facebook at least 22.5 million times, in more than 1,400 ads costing between $350,000 and $553,000, a Washington Post analysis found based on data from Facebook’s Ad Library. The ads, bought by the campaign directly or in a partnership with the Republican National Committee, were targeted at Facebook users mainly in swing states such as Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, and Pennsylvania.

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“‘Outright Lies’: Voting Misinformation Flourishes on Facebook”

ProPublica:

On April 3, Terrence K. Williams, a politically conservative actor and comedian who’s been praised by President Donald Trump, assured his nearly 3 million followers on Facebook that Democrats would light ballots on fire or throw them away. Wearing a red “Keep America Great” hat, Williams declared, “If you mail in your vote, your vote will be in Barack Obama’s fireplace.” The video has been viewed more than 350,000 times.

On May 8, Peggy Hubbard, a Navy veteran and police officer who this year sought the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois, warned on Facebook that the country was heading toward civil war. “Your democracy, your freedom is being stripped away from you, and if you allow that then everything this country stood for, fought for, bled for is all in vain.” The cause? California’s recent expansion of voting by mail: “The only way you will be able to vote in the upcoming election in November is by mail only,” Hubbard said. The video has attracted more than 209,000 views.

On June 27, Pamela Geller, an anti-Muslim activist with nearly 1.3 million followers, weighed in. “Mail-in ballots guarantee that the Democrats will commit voter fraud,” she said on Facebook.

There’s no evidence for any of these statements. While California will mail absentee ballots to all registered voters, polling places will also be available. Voter fraud is exceedingly rare, including with mail-in ballots. A recent Washington Post analysis analyzed three states with all-mail elections — Colorado, Oregon and Washington — and found just 372 potential irregularities among 14.6 million votes, or 0.0025%.

Facebook’s community standards ban “misrepresentation of who can vote, qualifications for voting, whether a vote will be counted, and what information and/or materials must be provided in order to vote.” But an analysis by ProPublica and First Draft, a global nonprofit that researches misinformation, shows that Facebook is rife with false or misleading claims about voting, particularly regarding voting by mail, which is the safest way of casting a ballot during the pandemic. Many of these falsehoods appear to violate Facebook’s standards yet have not been taken down or labeled as inaccurate. Some of them, generalizing from one or two cases, portrayed people of color as the face of voter fraud.

The false claims, including conspiracy theories about stolen elections or outright misrepresentations about voting by mail by Trump and prominent conservative outlets, are often among the most popular posts about voting on Facebook, according to a review of engagement data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned analytics tool.

On Facebook, interactions — the number of comments, likes, reactions and shares that a post attracts — are a proxy for popularity. Of the top 50 posts, ranked by total interactions, that mentioned voting by mail since April 1, 22 contained false or substantially misleading claims about voting, particularly about mail-in ballots.

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“Silicon Valley is losing the battle against election misinformation”

Politico:

Videos peddling false claims about voter fraud and Covid-19 cures draw millions of views on YouTube. Partisan activist groups pretending to be online news sites set up shop on Facebook. Foreign trolls masquerade as U.S. activists on Instagram to sow divisions around the Black Lives Matter protests.

Four years after an election in which Russia and some far-right groups unleashed a wave of false, misleading and divisive online messages, Silicon Valley is losing the battle to eliminate online misinformation that could sway the vote in November.

Social media companies are struggling with an onslaught of deceptive and divisive messaging from political parties, foreign governments and hate groups as the months tick down to this year’s presidential election, according to more than two dozen national security policymakers, misinformation experts, hate speech researchers, fact-checking groups and tech executives, as well as a review of thousands of social media posts by POLITICO.

The tactics, many aimed at deepening divisions among Americans already traumatized by a deadly pandemic and record job losses, echo the Russian government’s years-long efforts to stoke confusion before the U.S. 2016 presidential election, according to experts who study the spread of harmful content. But the attacks this time around are far more insidious and sophisticated — with harder-to-detect fakes, more countries pushing covert agendas and a flood American groups copying their methods….

At the same time, social media companies are being squeezed by partisan scrutiny in Washington that makes their judgment calls about what to leave up or remove even more politically fraught: Trump and other Republicans accuse the companies of systematically censoring conservatives, while Democrats lambast them for allowing too many falsehoods to circulate.

Researchers say it’s impossible to know how comprehensive the companies have been in removing bogus content because the platforms often put conditions on access to their data. Academics have had to sign non-disclosure agreements promising not to criticize the companies to gain access to that information, according to people who signed the documents and others who refused to do so.

Experts and policymakers warn the tactics will likely become even more advanced over the next few months, including the possible use of so-called deepfakes, or false videos created through artificial intelligence, to create realistic-looking footage that undermines the opposing side.

“As more data is accumulated, people are going to get better at manipulating communication to voters,” said Robby Mook, campaign manager for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid and now a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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“Another fake Pelosi video goes viral on Facebook”

CNN:

Facebook’s fact-checkers on Sunday labeled as “partly false” a video that it said was manipulated to make it appear as if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was drunk or drugged. The video had been circulating on Facebook since Thursday and by Sunday night had been viewed more than 2 million times.

A similarly false video of Pelosi went viral on Facebook in May 2019. At the time, Pelosi blasted Facebook for not removing the video. Facebook had instead applied a fact-check label to it.Facebook did not remove the new video on Sunday either, meaning it can still be viewed on the platform but a warning label has been placed on it. Videos marked false are also promoted less by Facebook’s algorithms, the company says. Facebook said it will also send a notification to people who shared the video to flag the fact check.

That the video was viewed so many times will likely prompt renewed scrutiny of policies on misinformation. The earlier manipulated Pelosi video prompted similar scrutiny.

More from the “Reliable Sources” newsletter:

It’s worth noting that, once again, Facebook did not take action to even apply a label to the doctored video until it had gone viral on the platform. As Donie O’Sullivan noted in his story, the video had been circulating since Thursday, but Facebook took action Sunday night when it had been already viewed more than 2 million times. Stone reiterated to me that fact-checked content has its distribution reduced and that people who shared it are notified a fact-check was applied.

But O’Sullivan also noted the video is still continuing to rack up hundreds of thousands of views. My two cents: The fact that Facebook is so often acting only after disinfo has gone viral on its platform indicates that the company’s current approach to stemming bad content from being widely shared isn’t very effective.

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Important New Project: The Election Integrity Partnership

Announcement:

Misinformation and disinformation can be used to disenfranchise voters and erode public confidence in the legitimacy of our elections. As we observed in the United States in 2016, and in numerous other countries since, the spread of viral misleading content can diminish trust in the results of electoral contests, and in the integrity of democratic processes and leadership transitions overall. An increasing percentage of voters this November will look for real-time election information on social media, and election misinformation and disinformation on social media is a significant threat to ensuring the integrity of the upcoming presidential election. In the United States, over 10,000 individual jurisdictions are responsible for election administration: presently, there is no centralized support to aid this front line in identifying and responding to emerging election-related disinformation.

The Election Integrity Partnership is a coalition of research entities focused on supporting real-time information exchange between the research community, election officials, government agencies, civil society organizations, and social media platforms. Our objective is to detect and mitigate the impact of attempts to prevent or deter people from voting or to delegitimize election results. This is not a fact-checking partnership to debunk misinformation more generally: our objective explicitly excludes addressing comments that may be made about candidates’ character or actions and is focused narrowly on content intended to suppress voting, reduce participation, confuse voters as to election processes, or delegitimize election results without evidence. 

The foundational Partnership consists of four of the nation’s leading institutions focused on analysis of mis- and disinformation in the social media landscape: the Stanford Internet Observatory and Program on Democracy and the Internet, Graphika, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, and the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public. We will be working with stakeholders in civil society as well as election officials to find instances of election-related misinformation, analyze reports from public sector and NGO partners, and route our findings to the appropriate parties to mitigate the impact. Tips on potential disinformation will come from multiple sources, including from local election officials via existing coordination channels. We will do so transparently and in a nonpartisan manner, sharing up-to-the-minute findings and rapid analysis through a web portal and official social media channels.

Our hope is that this Partnership will provide actionable support for election officials and other partners who are on the front lines of providing accurate information to the electorate, as well as increased transparency for the general public into real threats of election-related misinformation and disinformation this election. 

We would like to thank the Knight Foundation and Craig Newmark Philanthropies for their support of this effort.

Public officials and voter-protection organizations can reach the Partnership at info@eipartnership.net

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“Twitter Takedown Targets QAnon Accounts”

NYT:

Twitter said Tuesday evening that it had removed thousands of accounts that spread messages about the conspiracy theories known as QAnon, saying their messages could lead to harm and violated Twitter policy.

Twitter said it would also block trends related to the loose network of QAnon conspiracy theories from appearing in its trending topics and search, and would not allow users to post links affiliated with the theories on its platform.

It was the first time that a social media service took sweeping action to remove content affiliated with QAnon, which has become increasingly popular on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

The theories stem from an anonymous person or group of people who use the name “Q” and claim to have access to government secrets that reveal a plot against President Trump and his supporters. That supposedly classified information was initially posted on message boards before spreading to mainstream internet platforms and has led to significant online harassment as well as physical violence.

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“Facebook begins labeling, but not fact-checking, posts from Trump and Biden”

CNN:

After President Donald Trump posted an unfounded claim to Facebook (FB) on Tuesday that mail-in voting could lead to a “corrupt election,” the social network slapped a label on it. But the label did not attempt to fact-check the post as true or false. Instead, it directed users to a government website to learn more about how to vote.

The response is part of Facebook’s new policy, announced by CEO Mark Zuckerberg last month, to label posts about the November election. In recent days, Facebook has placed the same label beneath a mix of posts from Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, including one from the former vice president calling to “vote Donald Trump out this November” that does not make any factual assertions about voting.

This new approach has already been criticized by some industry watchers who worry the labels are confusing or could even be viewed as tacit endorsements of the President’s controversial posts.

“This warning seems pretty useless — it might even seem that Facebook is endorsing what Trump is saying and providing a path for more information,” Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, wrote on Twitter.

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“What the Twitter Hack Revealed: An Election System Teeming With Risks”

NYT:

Over the past year government officials have raced to help states replace voting machines that leave no paper trail, and to harden vulnerable online voter registration systems that many fear Russia, or others, could hijack to trigger chaos on Election Day.

But this week, the country got a startling vision of other perils in political disinformation — and how many other ways there may be to manipulate turnout, if not votes.

The breach by a hacker or hackers who bored into the command center of Twitter on Wednesday — seizing control of Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s and Barack Obama’s blue-checked accounts, among many others — served as a warning that some of the most critical infrastructure that could influence the election is not in the hands of government experts, and is far less protected than anyone assumed even a day ago.

The hackers probably did the nation a favor. With a crude scheme to deceive users into thinking that Mr. Biden and Mr. Obama were asking them for donations in Bitcoin — which sent more than $120,000 flowing into their cryptocurrency wallets — they revealed how simple it may be to imitate the powerful and the trusted.

Had saboteurs infiltrated Twitter on Nov. 3 instead of in the middle of July, with the goal of upending the election, the political fallout could have been quite different. False warnings of a coronavirus outbreak in key precincts in Wisconsin or Pennsylvania could have untold impact on a close vote in a battleground state. Deceptive tweets from political party accounts saying polling places were closed could sow confusion.

Or imagine a fake declaration, under Mr. Biden’s account, that he was dropping out of the race — a nightmare scenario for Democrats that some federal officials said they were talking about hypothetically among themselves on Wednesday night as the scope of Twitter’s failure became clear.

Similar war gaming about social media and election interference has played out in classified simulations conducted by the Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for securing the 2020 election, and at Fort Meade, Md., home of the National Security Agency and United States Cyber Command. The results have never fully been made public.

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“‘Outright Lies’: Voting Misinformation Flourishes on Facebook”

ProPublica:

On April 3, Terrence K. Williams, a politically conservative actor and comedian who’s been praised by President Donald Trump, assured his nearly 3 million followers on Facebook that Democrats would light ballots on fire or throw them away. Wearing a red “Keep America Great” hat, Williams declared, “If you mail in your vote, your vote will be in Barack Obama’s fireplace.” The video has been viewed more than 350,000 times.

On May 8, Peggy Hubbard, a Navy veteran and police officer who this year sought the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois, warned on Facebook that the country was heading toward civil war. “Your democracy, your freedom is being stripped away from you, and if you allow that then everything this country stood for, fought for, bled for is all in vain.” The cause? California’s recent expansion of voting by mail: “The only way you will be able to vote in the upcoming election in November is by mail only,” Hubbard said. The video has attracted more than 209,000 views.

On June 27, Pamela Geller, an anti-Muslim activist with nearly 1.3 million followers, weighed in. “Mail-in ballots guarantee that the Democrats will commit voter fraud,” she said on Facebook.

There’s no evidence for any of these statements. While California will mail absentee ballots to all registered voters, polling places will also be available. Voter fraud is exceedingly rare, including with mail-in ballots. A recent Washington Post analysis analyzed three states with all-mail elections — Colorado, Oregon and Washington — and found just 372 potential irregularities among 14.6 million votes, or 0.0025%.

Facebook’s community standards ban “misrepresentation of who can vote, qualifications for voting, whether a vote will be counted, and what information and/or materials must be provided in order to vote.” But an analysis by ProPublica and First Draft, a global nonprofit that researches misinformation, shows that Facebook is rife with false or misleading claims about voting, particularly regarding voting by mail, which is the safest way of casting a ballot during the pandemic. Many of these falsehoods appear to violate Facebook’s standards yet have not been taken down or labeled as inaccurate. Some of them, generalizing from one or two cases, portrayed people of color as the face of voter fraud.

The false claims, including conspiracy theories about stolen elections or outright misrepresentations about voting by mail by Trump and prominent conservative outlets, are often among the most popular posts about voting on Facebook, according to a review of engagement data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned analytics tool….

Breitbart, a conservative website that has long championed Trump, has had more engagement on its voting-related stories than any other publisher from April until July 1, according to our analysis. In fact, voting-related stories on Breitbart have garnered more interactions since April than equivalent articles by The Washington Post, The New York Times and NBC News combined. Many of the Breitbart posts are misleading at best. “Obama ratchets up Democrats’ Cheat-by-Mail scheme!” read one post, linking to a story that misleadingly framed how often voter fraud occurs. Another post declared: “Flooding the nation with ballots that can be stolen, sold, discarded, and forged—THAT’s the path to Leftist victory in November.”

In a video by Fox Nation, Fox News’ streaming service, that has been viewed nearly 500,000 times, host Tomi Lahren said, “I firmly believe the only way Donald Trump loses in November is because of voter fraud.” In the video, Lahren falsely claims that voter fraud is rampant in California. “You think coronavirus is a crisis, wait till you see the voter fraud epidemic we have here in California. And mark my words it’s heading to your state like a diseased bat out of hell.” (There’s no evidence that voter fraud is rampant in California, or in any other state.)

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Hackers Take Over Biden Twitter Account Among Many Others in Bitcoin Scam; Next Time Things Could Be More Dangerous

NYT:

It was about 4 in the afternoon on Wednesday on the East Coast when chaos struck online. Dozens of the biggest names in America — including Joseph R. Biden Jr., Barack Obama, Kanye West, Bill Gates and Elon Musk — posted similar messages on Twitter: Send Bitcoin and the famous people would send back double your money.

It was all a scam, of course, the result of one of the most brazen online attacks in memory.

A first wave of attacks hit the Twitter accounts of prominent cryptocurrency leaders and companies. But soon after, the list of victims broadened to include a Who’s Who of Americans in politics, entertainment and tech, in a major show of force by the hackers.

Twitter quickly removed many of the messages, but in some cases similar tweets were sent again from the same accounts, suggesting that Twitter was powerless to regain control.

The company eventually disabled broad swaths of its service, including the ability of verified users to tweet, for a couple of hours as it scrambled to prevent the scam from spreading further. The company sent a tweet saying that it was investigating the problem and looking for a fix. “You may be unable to Tweet or reset your password while we review and address this incident,” the company said in a second tweet. Service was restored around 8:30 Wednesday night.

As awful as this scam is, I worry more about political disinformation that could be spread though a hack like this, especially last minute false information about a candidate’s health or their position on controversial issues.

We need to treat candidates’ social media accounts as part of our critical election infrastructure.

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