After threatening for months to disrupt social media with a bespoke platform that would allow him to bypass community guidelines (and the embarrassingly long list of platforms he’s been banned from), our big patriotic boy has finally made good on his promise. Folks, the wait is over — the future is now, and it’s a blog.
On Tuesday, former president Donald Trump launched his long-awaited social media platform, which, if you really squint at it, kind of resembles a rudimentary version of Twitter, if Twitter had been designed by a day-glo boomer hunkered down in Palm Beach, Florida. Titled “From the desk of Donald J. Trump,” the “feed” is tucked inconspicuously into a corner of Trump’s website and features that classic commentary we all know and love — pithy observations from a very old man who always cared more about how his snarky commentary would be received than he did about actual governance or, you know, people.
“Happy Easter to ALL, including the Radical Left CRAZIES who rigged our Presidential Election, and want to destroy our Country!” reads one post.
“So nice to see RINO Mitt Romney booed off the stage at the Utah Republican State Convention,” reads another. “They are among the earliest to have figured this guy out, a stone cold loser!”
Although the platform just launched, there are already posts dating back as early as March, which implies the existence of a universe where developers could have simply “forgotten” to plug this thing into the internet and kept it offline forever, leaving Trump content to shoot his foul musings straight off into the void for the rest of time.
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The platform also features the option to share Trump’s commentary on Twitter and Facebook — two platforms that, as of this writing, the former president is still currently banned from. Significantly, the platform’s launch comes just hours before Facebook’s Oversight Board is expected to hand down a decision on whether or not Trump will be allowed back on Facebook and its subsidiaries, including Instagram.
Trump was famously banned from a host of platforms in January after his rage-stoking rigged-election commentary incited an angry mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol, ultimately leaving five people dead.
According to Fox News, the page is the work of Campaign Nucleus, a “digital ecosystem made for efficiently managing political campaigns and organizations,” helmed by Trump’s former campaign manager, Brad Parscale.
The moral of the story is clear: You can take the Twitter out of the president, but you can’t take the tweet out of the poster. Or something like that.
After working for months to advance the baseless conspiracy theory that the voting machine manufacturer Dominion had worked with Venezuela to rig the 2020 presidential election against Donald Trump, former campaign lawyer Sidney Powell is requesting that the election software company drop its defamation lawsuit against her on the grounds that nobody with half a brain could have taken what she was saying as fact.
In the lawsuit in question, Dominion specifically alleges that Powell, in her role as a Trump campaign attorney, had claimed “during a Washington, D.C. press conference, a Georgia political rally, and a media blitz,” that the company “had rigged the election, that Dominion was created in Venezuela to rig elections for Hugo Chávez, and that Dominion bribed Georgia officials for a no-bid contract.”
In a December letter, Dominion had accused Powell of unleashing a “multi-media disinformation ‘Kraken’” upon the company, and of waging a ruthless campaign of lies that had “endangered Dominion’s business and the lives of its employees.” The election software company is currently seeking $1.3 billion in damages.
But in a Monday court filing, Powell moved to dismiss the complaint against her, arguing through her attorneys that her comments about Dominion were protected under her First Amendment right, and that “no reasonable person would conclude that the statements were truly statements of fact.”
“All the allegedly defamatory statements attributed to Defendants were made as part of the normal process of litigating issues of momentous significance and immense public interest,” the motion reads.
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It would all be a bit easier to stomach, maybe, had Powell’s very specific claims not been the subject of at least four lawsuits she had filed in key battleground states in order to sway the election in Trump’s favor — all of which were summarily struck down. All in all, Powell and Trump’s other legal lackey, attorney and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, helped to file at least 61 lawsuits in various U.S. courts on the former president’s behalf, all of which were ultimately tossed out by judges and all of which trafficked in various forms of conspiracy and misinformation.
The “Stop the Steal” disinformation campaign being waged by Trump and his allies infamously came to a head on January 6, when, outraged by their earnest belief that Trump had been cheated out of a second term, a hoard of angry supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol.
In its initial complaint, Dominion claimed that the lawsuit was being brought in part to ameliorate the harmful effects of those claims of fraud.
“Dominion brings this action to set the record straight, to vindicate the company’s rights under civil law, to recover compensatory and punitive damages, to seek a narrowly tailored injunction, and to stand up for itself and its employees,” the company wrote.
Under the pretext of “newsworthiness,” U.S. tech leaders have, for years, aided political leaders in spreading extremist views underpinned by racial animus and all other forms of prejudice, in turn giving rise to an explosion of violence and persecution targeting vulnerable communities worldwide.
A new report this week by the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism (GPAHE) lays bare the consequences of Silicon Valley’s complicity and neglect. As high-profile executives ignored and frequently profited off the work of prominent extremists—some of whom they also directly collaborated with in shady business arrangements—they helped to arm them with powerful constituencies, often by casting immigrants and minorities as existential threats in their respective countries.
The report comes as the United States is in the midst of grappling with a wave of anti-Asian sentiment online, which preceded thousands of documented accounts of harassment, physical assault, and civil rights violations against Asian Americans. The Pew Research Center last summer reported that 31% of Asian Americans had experienced slurs or jokes about their race or ethnicity, more than any other group since the start of the pandemic.
Many users and news commentators aghast by the uptick in violence against Asians and Asian Americans have rightly drawn a straight line to racist rhetoric depicting the covid-19 outbreak as a “Chinese virus,” sentiments that platforms such as Twitter helped to normalize throughout 2020. A cursory review of the Trump Twitter Archive reveals that former President Donald Trump’s tweets containing the phrase “China virus” or “Chinese virus” received more than 2.1 million retweets before his suspension in January over an unrelated offense.
“For years, Trump violated the community standards of several platforms with relative impunity,” GPAHE’s report notes. “Tech leaders had made the affirmative decision to allow exceptions for the politically powerful, usually with the excuse of ‘newsworthiness’ or under the guise of ‘political commentary’ that the public supposedly needed to see.”
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Only after instigating a mass-violence event at the U.S. Capitol was Trump permanently expelled from Twitter; Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, meanwhile, chose only to “indefinitely suspend” the president while they internally deliberate the decision. Facebook has passed the buck to its newly formed Oversight Board (its so-called “Supreme Court”), which is currently comprised of 20 members hand-picked by the company.
“[T]he fact that it took an actual insurrection, planned and encouraged on the companies’ own services, to get Facebook, Twitter, et al., to move is unbelievably discouraging,” GPAHE says, while noting that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s response was to push the blame onto her competitors. “I think these events were largely organized on platforms that don’t have our abilities to stop hate and don’t have our standards and don’t have our transparency,” Sandberg said during a Jan. 11 interview.
Citing a Media Matters for America (MMFA) investigation last month, GPAHE notes that more than 6,000 of Trump’s Facebook posts in the year preceding the Capitol violence—nearly a quarter of his 2020 posts—contained extremist rhetoric and disinformation about the pandemic and the 2020 election. In the year leading up to Jan. 6, Trump used Facebook to push false or misleading information about the election specifically at least 363 times, MMFA found.
Like Twitter, Facebook openly and intentionally authorized Trump to violate its community standards in exchange for user engagement, influence, and profit.
In one noteworthy incident, amid last summer’s protests and adjacent property destruction incited by police brutality against Black people, Trump declared via Twitter that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”—a remark widely viewed as an endorsement of violence by his own supporters, some of whom traveled in heavily armed caravans to major protest sites.
While Twitter “hid” Trump’s post behind a written warning, likely to be ignored by his own followers, having been conditioned to view social media companies as hostile to their politics, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg decided to do nothing, despite the outcry by thousands of his own employees. Zuckerberg instead sought to frame Facebook’s inaction as a public service, claiming that “accountability for those in positions of power can only happen when their speech is scrutinized out in the open.”
With its CEO having acknowledged the post publicly, Facebook was itself arguably encouraging violence at that stage by way of its decision to continue circulating the message to at least hundreds of thousands of users. “Within days,” GPAHE notes, “it had been shared over 71,000 times and reacted to over 253,000 times. The message was also overlaid onto a photo shared on Trump’s Instagram account, which quickly received over half a million likes.”
“The company insists the use of incendiary populist language predates social media, so its spread is unrelated to Facebook,” the report says. “This position completely ignores how Facebook has manipulated the online space in favor of extremism and how political abuse of social media has altered the American political landscape.”
Facebook’s inaction in the face of warnings by experts about the growing calls for violence by extremists across its platform is well documented.
The group Muslim Advocates, whose leaders have for years sat in meetings with top Facebook officials—including Zuckerberg and Sandberg, personally—published a timeline last year showing its efforts to warn company officials about armed militias and white supremacist groups organizing events that targeted communities based on their race and religion. The group said it was forced to release the timeline after Zuckerberg claimed an “operational mistake” was responsible for Facebook hosting a militia event page telling members to bring weapons to a protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin. (The event page had been flagged by users at least 455 times.)
The GPAHE report further highlights international extremists fueled by far-right ideologies that have risen to power with the help of U.S.-based social media platforms. The Alternative Fur Deutschland (AfD), for instance, which is “rabidly anti-Muslim, anti-refugee, and anti-LGBTQ,” has relied heavily on Facebook to spread messages of hate. As GPAHE notes, in 2017 the AfD rose to become Germany’s third-largest political party, the first to promote far-right views in the country in over a half-century.
AfD’s rise from a fringe party in 2013 to an increasingly formidable extremist force is deeply tied to the party’s harnessing of social media, researchers found. Starting in 2016, the AfD built up a large following on both Facebook and Twitter by sharing a high volume of sensationalist tweets and posts,” GPAHE says, adding that by 2019: “AfD maintained 1,663 Facebook pages, more active pages than all the other German political parties combined.”
The report further highlights the rise of President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, a serial human rights abuser who, upon taking power, oversaw the unlawful killings of thousands of his own citizens and jailed his opponents on baseless charges. Facebook, a platform in use by an estimated 97% of Filipinos, worked closely with the Duterte campaign and even co-sponsored a forum that was broadcast, according to an exhaustive 2017 Bloomberg report, on 200 television and radio stations. Once elected, the company doubled down on the relationship. Facebook celebrated Duterte’s fame, which it helped to create, dubbing him at one point the “undisputed king of Facebook conversations.”
Human Rights Watch last year documented the Duterte government’s extreme punishments for citizens accused of violating the country’s covid-19 restrictions, often broadcast on Facebook, including videos of people placed in “dog cages” where police and other officials “forced them to sit in the midday sun as punishment, among other abuses.” Broadcast on Facebook Live by a police official, three members of the LGBTQ community were forced to kiss each other and “do a sexy dance” in front of onlookers, including a minor.
Similar accounts included in the report detail Facebook’s participation in helping to elect violent, bigoted officials in other nations, including the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, who has sanctioned bloodshed against Muslims by rioters.
“Social media, and Facebook in particular, has had a horrifying damaging effect on democracies, societies and vulnerable populations around the world,” GPAHE says. “Bigoted populist leaders and far-right political parties across the globe have harnessed the power of social media to achieve political heights likely previously unattainable.”
GPAHE has issued specific recommendations in response to its findings, calling on social media companies to end “newsworthiness” exemptions globally, apply fact-checking to political advertisements, and implement “preventative genocidal protocols,” among others.
You can read the full GPAHE report, Democracies Under Threat, by clicking here.
Shocker: Despite conservatives’ endless kvetching about the supposed liberal bias of Silicon Valley technocrats, one of the easiest ways to go viral on Facebook is spouting extreme, far-right rhetoric, according to a new study by New York University’s Cybersecurity for Democracy project.
In results released Wednesday, researchers with the project analyzed various types of posts promoted as news ahead of the 2020 elections and found that “content from sources rated as far-right by independent news rating services consistently received the highest engagement per follower of any partisan group.” Far-right sources that regularly promoted hoax, lies, and other misinformation did even better, outperforming other far-right sources by 65%.
The researchers relied on data for 2,973 news and info sources with more than 100 followers on Facebook provided by Newsguard and Media Bias/Fact Check, two sites that rate the accuracy and partisan leanings of various outlets. (There’s reason to quibblewith the ratingsprovided by these places, but they’re reasonable proxies for categorizing a large number of sources by ideological bent.) The team then downloaded some 8.6 million public posts from those nearly 3,000 sources between Aug. 10, 2020 and Jan. 11, 2021, just shy of a week after a crowd of pro-Trump rioters tried to storm the Capitol to overturn the 2020 election results.
They found that sources categorized as far-right by Newsguard and Media Bias/Fact Check did very well on Facebook, followed by those classified as far-left, other more moderately partisan sources, and finally those that were “center”-oriented. Those far-right sources tended to receive several hundred more interactions (likes, comments, shares, etc.) per 1,000 followers than other outlets. Far-right pages experienced skyrocketing engagement in early January, before the riot at the Capitol.
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Furthermore, those far-right sources classified as regularly spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories actually did better on engagement (426 interactions per 1,000 followers a week on average) than every other type of source (including far-right pages not classified as sources of misinfo, which got 259 interactions per 1,000 followers a week on average).
That’s not even the most egregious part of it. While far-right sources were rewarded with higher engagement on Facebook when they spread misinfo or conspiracy theories, the Cybersecurity for Democracy findings show sources classified as “slightly right,” “center,” “slightly left,” or “far left” appeared to be subject to a “misinformation penalty.” Said penalty appeared to be much heavier for sources classified as centrist or left of center.
“What we find is that among the far right in particular, misinformation is more engaging than non-misinformation,” Laura Edelson, the lead researcher of the study and an NYU doctoral candidate, told Wired. “I think this is something that a lot of people thought might be the case, but now we can really quantify it, we can specifically identify that this is really true on the far right, but not true in the center or on the left.”
Edelson told CNN, “My takeaway is that, one way or another, far-right misinformation sources are able to engage on Facebook with their audiences much, much more than any other category. That’s probably pretty dangerous on a system that uses engagement to determine what content to promote.”
Edelson added that because Facebook is optimized to maximize engagement, it follows that it may be more likely to juice right-wing sources by recommending more users follow them.
The researchers wrote their data aligns with previous research by the German Marshall Fund and the Harvard Misinformation Review that extreme and/or deceptive content tends to perform better on social media; the latter study also found that “that the association between partisanship and misinformation is stronger among conservative users.”
The study didn’t investigate why Facebook seems to favor right-wing sources, and the researchers noted that engagement numbers don’t necessarily reflect how widely content was shared and viewed across the social network. In a statement to Wired, a Facebook spokesperson used a similar line of defense: “This report looks mostly at how people engage with content, which should not be confused with how many people actually see it on Facebook. When you look at the content that gets the most reach across Facebook, it’s not at all as partisan as this study suggests.”
Facebook has floated similar defenses before—that engagement data doesn’t reflect how often a given news outlet’s content is shared sitewide or how many users actually encounter or click on it. As Recode has argued, including other data sources such as engagement on links shared privately on Facebook does indicate the top performers sitewide include more mainstream sources like CNN, the BBC, and papers like the New York Times, but doesn’t change the overall takeaway that “certain kinds of conservative content—mostly emotion-driven, deeply partisan posts” have an inherent advantage on the site.
Facebook has also tried to explain away the issue by suggesting right-wingers are just inherently more engaging, with its algorithms having little to do with it.
One anonymous executive at the company told Politico in September 2020 that “Right-wing populism is always more engaging” because it taps into “incredibly strong, primitive emotion” on topics like “nation, protection, the other, anger, fear.” The executive argued that this phenomenon “wasn’t invented 15 years ago when Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook” and was also “there in the 30s” (not reassuring) and “why tabloids do better than the [Financial Times].”
Priorreportingandresearch has repeatedly shown that while Facebook is great for creating partisan echo chambers, right-wingers are far and away the biggest beneficiary, in some cases by design. For example, Facebook reportedly conducted internal research showing Groups were becoming vehicles for extreme and violent rhetoric, and was made aware from user reports that a feature called In Feed Recommendations that wasn’t supposed to promote political content was boosting right-wing pundits like Ben Shapiro. In these and other cases, a former company core data scientist recently told BuzzFeed, Facebook’s policy team reportedly intervened, citing the possibility of backlash from conservatives if changes were made.
Facebook is, of course, by no means the only way far-right ideas slip into the conservative mainstream—nor is the far right anything new to U.S. politics—but it is an extremely important toolset in an era where movement conservatives are extremely online and constantly searching for the latest viral outrage. While traditional conservative media like Fox News and its mutant stepchildren like Newsmax and One America News Network are powerful in their own right, Facebook offers an easy way for GOP politicians, right-wing propagandists, troll-the-libs pundits, QAnon conspiracists, and the like to repackage extreme viewpoints into memes, owns, and other shareable content for a mass audience.
“We’re looking forward to learning more about the news ecosystem on Facebook so that we can start to better understand the whys, instead of just the whats,” the Cybersecurity for Democracy team wrote in the report.
A small cluster of pro-Huawei Twitter bots reportedly launched a smear campaign attacking the Belgian government’s plan to box out “high-risk” suppliers like Huawei from building the country’s 5G network, according to the latest report from social media research firm Graphika.
Graphika uncovered the plot in December after Twitter accounts that had been used in a pro-China campaign the firm was investigating began retweeting posts about Belgium’s 5G policy. At least 14 Twitter accounts were involved, all of them employing similar tactics to appear legit. The accounts used fake identities, posed as Belgium-based tech experts and journalists, and were several years old but only started posting in late 2020. They also all used seemingly bland profile pictures that, upon further inspection, had several telltale signs of being computer-generated such as asymmetries on both sides of the face and a lack of background detail, Graphika wrote.
The accounts reportedly alternated between trash-talking the Belgian government’s proposed ban, singing Huawei’s praises, and sharing articles sponsored by Huawei itself. Unlike other bot networks, Graphika’s investigators found evidence suggesting that this one was manually operated, meaning it was likely some poor schmuk’s job to type up and push out Huawei’s propaganda tweets. The whole campaign lasted for about three weeks in December, presumably to correspond to the Belgian government’s Dec. 30 deadline for public consultation on the draft law. While Graphika concludes that the operation was a flop and “did not gain substantial traction,” the bots reached millions when their posts were retweeted by Huawei president Kevin Liu and the company’s official Twitter account.
However, Graphika’s report stops short of concluding that Huawei or a related entity had anything to do with it. (Though it certainly looks the case). Huawei said in a statement to the New York Times that it has launched an internal investigation “to try to find out what exactly has happened and if there has been any inappropriate behavior.”
“Huawei has clear social media policies based on international best practice, and we take any suggestion that they have not been followed very seriously,” Huawei told the outlet. “Some social media and online activity has been brought to our attention suggesting we may have fallen short of these policies and of our wider Huawei values of openness, honesty and transparency.”
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The company did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.
Under Belgium’s new restrictions, so-called “high-risk” suppliers, as designated by the European Union, are largely banned from contributing to the country’s 5G network. Huawei and ZTE, another Chinese firm, both fall under this category, which is defined as equipment makers that could potentially be “subject to interference from a non-EU country” through government mandates or a lack of “democratic checks and balances” in their home country.
All Twitter accounts involved in the campaign have now been suspended. Twitter told the Times it took down the 14 fake accounts in December after Graphika notified them of the campaign.
“Platform manipulation is strictly prohibited under the Twitter rules,” the company said in a statement to Times. “If and when we have clear evidence, we will take action on accounts associated with this practice, which may include permanent suspension.”
If the online MAGA army wasn’t nervous before today, the Department of Justice just gave them a good reason to tighten their sphincters. In a surprising announcement, DOJ officials said on Wednesday that they’ve charged a prominent Twitter user with taking part in a conspiracy to trick citizens into not voting during the 2016 presidential election.
According to a press statement from the DOJ, 31-year-old Douglass Mackey was taken into custody in his hometown of West Palm Beach this morning. Mackey is accused of operating an infamous Twitter account that used the handle @Ricky_Vaughn99. The account gathered a sizeable following in the run-up to the 2016 election, and a study by MIT’s Lab for Social Machines found that it was the 107th most powerful influencer during that political cycle. The ranking placed the account ahead of NBC News, Michael Bloomberg, Newt Gingrich, and other surprising names.
Prosecutors say that Mackey used all that power to “to disseminate misinformation designed to deprive individuals of their constitutional right to vote.” Specifically, he’s accused of spending the months of September 2016 to November 2016 working with a group of unnamed co-conspirators to spread deceptive memes and messages with the intent of convincing voters that they could vote for an unnamed presidential candidate via social media or text message. Here’s the DOJ giving an example of a meme that Mackey’s accused of spreading:
On Nov. 1, 2016, Mackey allegedly tweeted an image that featured an African American woman standing in front of an “African Americans for [the Candidate]” sign. The image included the following text: “Avoid the Line. Vote from Home. Text ‘[Candidate’s first name]’ to 59925[.] Vote for [the Candidate] and be a part of history.” The fine print at the bottom of the image stated: “Must be 18 or older to vote. One vote per person. Must be a legal citizen of the United States. Voting by text not available in Guam, Puerto Rico, Alaska or Hawaii. Paid for by [Candidate] for President 2016.”
DOJ doesn’t name which candidate’s voters were allegedly targeted by Mackey, but Bloomberg cites “a source familiar with the matter” who claims it was Hillary Clinton. And the fact is, the @Ricky_Vaughn99 character was a prolific racist and Trump supporter before it was suspended, relaunched as @RapinBill, and proceeded to be named “Trump’s Most Influential White Nationalist Troll” by the Huffington Post.
The criminal complaint describes alleged conversations that Mackey had with various people online in which they strategized to spread false information in order to suppress Black voter turnout. The text code that was used in memes encouraging voters to text their choice for president instead of going to the polls was registered with a company called iVisionMobile. The company told prosecutors that approximately 4,900 unique telephone numbers sent texts to the code that consisted of either the candidate’s first name “or some derivative.”
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This is an unusual case. We’ve seen conservative troll Jacob Wohl get wrapped in similar criminal charges stemming from a voter suppression campaign conducted via robocalls. But it’s a surprise to see meme-makers being taken so seriously. And the crime is prosecuted under a pretty obscure law, the conspiracy against rights statute, which carries a potential sentence of up to 10 years in prison.