Daily Media Links 1/5

January 5, 2021   •  By Tiffany Donnelly   •  
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In the News

Business Insider: A deputy to Eric Trump helped build a campaign shell company to protect the president from grift. But the secretive operation morphed into a mystery – even for top Trump campaign staffers.

By Tom LoBianco and Dave Levinthal

The federal government could force the Trump campaign – and all political committees – to publicly reveal more about the true recipients of their spending than they do now.

But as is often the case with Congress and the FEC, change happens slowly, if at all.

Current federal law governing political spending disclosure is “broad enough to enable the FEC to enact regulations that would require the disclosure of vendors and subvendors, and ultimate payees,” said former FEC Chair Ann Ravel, a Democrat who served on the commission from 2013 to 2017.

One way or another, disclosure of political subvendors and beyond should be compulsory to both guard against domestic shenanigans and disable a “mechanism to launder foreign contributions and expenditures,” Ravel said.

Bradley Smith, a former Republican FEC chair who served from 2000 to 2005, concurs – to a point. While the FEC itself could more clearly define spending-disclosure requirements without Congress changing the law, it probably couldn’t do so in a “shotgun approach.”

“If the campaign hires a vendor to produce ads, and that vendor pays various subcontractors – writers, cameramen, etc. – I’m not sure you can or would want that reporting,” Smith said. “The big problem is practical – how do you define all the expenditures and purposes?”

While the FEC may be able to require some enhanced spending disclosure, “statues carry more weight,” said Mike Sullivan, a campaign-finance expert who served five terms as the director of the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance. 

Without more legal clarity, “the worst-case scenario is a kickback to someone in a campaign without the public knowing about it,” Sullivan, who urged Congress to address the issue in 2021, said.

FCC

Reuters: FCC action to limit social media protection increasingly unlikely

By David Shepardson

The prospects of Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai taking action on an effort to narrow social media companies’ legal protections under a 1996 law are increasingly unlikely.

Both Pai and U.S. President Donald Trump have only 16 more days in office and it is unclear whether a new third Republican FCC commissioner could participate in any action…

A spokesman for Pai declined to comment on Monday, and the office of new FCC Commissioner Nathan Simington said it is uncertain if he could participate in any Section 230 proceeding.

Simington’s office said FCC ethics counsel advised “as there is no currently-pending Section 230 matter before the commission to be discussed with specificity, it could not comprehensively rule out potential recusal in the future. However, no grounds were identified for recusal on this topic at this time.”

The Media

Techdirt: 60 Minutes Episode Is Pure Misleading Moral Panic About Section 230; Blames Unrelated Issues On It

By Mike Masnick

I have a browser open with about a dozen different bad and wrong takes on Section 230 that one day I may write about, but on Sunday night, 60 Minutes jumped to the head of the line with an utterly ridiculous moral panic filled with false information on Section 230. The only saving grace of the program was that at least they spoke with Jeff Kosseff, author of the book on Section 230 (which is an excellent read)…

It’s almost difficult to describe just how bad the 60 Minutes segment is. It is, quite simply, blatant disinformation. I guess somewhat ironically, much of the attack on 230 talks about how that law is responsible for disinformation. Which is not true. Other than, perhaps, this very report that is itself pure disinformation.

What’s most astounding about the piece is that almost everything it discusses has nothing to do with Section 230. As with so many 230 stories, 60 Minutes producers actually seem upset about the 1st Amendment and various failures by law enforcement. And somehow… that’s the fault of Section 230. It’s somewhat insane to see a news organization like 60 Minutes basically go on an all-out assault on the 1st Amendment.

Online Speech Platforms

Daily Caller: Facebook Shuts Down Ad Account For Republican Fundraising Committee 4 Days Before Georgia Runoffs

By Jordan Lancaster

Facebook temporarily shut down the advertising account for a Republican fundraising group just four days before Election Day in the Georgia Runoffs.

“Big Tech is at it again,” the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) said Friday on Twitter. “Facebook has shut down the ad account for the Georgia Battleground Fund, a joint fundraising committee for NRSC, @Perduesenate, and @kloeffler. This is unacceptable with only 4 days to Election Day.”

A Facebook company spokesperson said that the account was shut down in error and has since been restored.

“An automated error caused this ad account to be disabled,” the company spokesperson said. “The account has since been restored.”

The NRSC’s Twitter post included a screenshot showing that the ad account was “disabled for [a] policy violation.”

“We don’t allow ads that promote products, services, schemes or offers using deceptive or misleading practices, including those meant to mislead or scam people out of money or personal information,” the note said. 

Washington Post: Republican Facebook ads targeting Georgia runoff contain disinformation, researchers find

By Cat Zakrzewski

Republican politicians and super PACs have been spreading disinformation in Facebook ads targeting Georgia voters in the critical final days of the Senate runoff campaign. 

An ad from the Republican Party in late December falsely suggested that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is plotting to help Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris remove President-elect Joe Biden from office, twisting her remarks on another topic entirely. 

Another ad from last month sponsored by the Senate Leadership Fund claims Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff is “threatening to defund the police,” even though Ossoff has repeatedly said he does not support such actions. 

These are just a handful of examples of the nearly 100 Facebook ads related to the Georgia election that contain claims that have been debunked or labeled as distortions by major news organizations – including by some of Facebook’s fact-checking partners – that were flagged in preliminary research by left-leaning global human rights group Avaaz and shared with the Washington Post. 

Facebook has removed some of the ads from super PACs identified in the Avaaz research for violating its policies, but many others were left untouched.

But the research also exposes the limits of the social network’s policies on political misinformation: Nearly half of the ads Avaaz flagged were shared by candidates in the race, and therefore not subjected to fact-checking because of the broad exemptions that Facebook has created for politicians on its platform.

The Atlantic: The 1996 Law That Ruined the Internet

By Steve Randy Waldman

[T]he real problem with Section 230, which I used to strongly support, is the kind of internet it has enabled. The law lets large sites benefit from network effects (I’m on Facebook because my friends are on Facebook) while shifting the costs of scale, like shoddy moderation and homogenized communities, to users and society at large. That’s a bad deal. Congress should revise Section 230-just not for the reasons the president and his supporters have identified…

Fifteen years ago the major social-media platforms barely existed. Was the internet better or worse? The online public square, now dominated by Twitter, was then constituted of independent blogs aggregated by user-curated feeds. Bloggers are publishers, legally responsible for their posts, but the blogosphere was not noted for its blandness. White-hot critique was common, but defamation and abuse were not-except in unmoderated user comments, for which bloggers could disclaim responsibility, thanks to Section 230.

In a democracy, public conversation is a kind of collective cognition. Before the internet, Americans thought together in pamphlets and newspapers. On the early internet, we thought together in blogs and journals. Today we think together on Twitter and Facebook and within the shrinking circle of journalism’s survivors. Which internet did a better job of keeping Americans informed? Which internet was more open, in the sense of permitting unknown voices with valuable insights to gain a hearing?

Candidates and Campaigns

The Atlantic: Georgia’s Billion-Dollar Bonfire

By Emma Green

[D]onors have plowed almost half a billion dollars into the campaigns of four candidates in Georgia’s two U.S. Senate runoff races, in which voters will cast the final ballots today. These millions reflect only part of what’s being spent on these elections-outside groups not legally affiliated with the four candidates have put in nearly half a billion more, according to the Center for Responsive Politics…

There’s something appalling about Americans spending this much on a pair of Senate seats during a pandemic, when so many people desperately need money…

Political donations, especially the $5 or $10 hits on ActBlue or WinRed, make “you feel good about yourself. It takes five seconds. And you feel like your identity is that you’re the good guys, you’re smart, and the other side is evil and stupid,” Eitan Hersh, a political scientist at Tufts University, told me.This is what politics has become in America: not a means to implement policy goals or improve people’s lives, but an expression of hatred for the other side.

It’s certainly true that the Georgia runoffs are among the most consequential federal elections of this cycle…

And yet it’s not clear that all the money pumped into these races will actually make a difference in how people vote. 

Washington Examiner: Jon Ossoff, D-Palo Alto

By Timothy P. Carney

Democrat Jon Ossoff, in his race for a Georgia Senate seat, has raised more money from California than from Georgia. While his Republican opponent’s top two sources of funds are Georgia’s top two private employers, Ossoff’s top sources of money are Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook.

If Ossoff defeats Sen. David Perdue on Tuesday, Silicon Valley will have its own senator, even if he’ll nominally be representing Georgia.

Ossoff is dominating Perdue in terms of campaign cash, having outspent the incumbent $121 million to $73 million according to numbers released in mid-December…

Ossoff, according to my analysis of the latest campaign filing with the Federal Election Commission, raised $4.79 million from individual California donors, compared to only $2.83 million from individual Georgia donors.

The States

Los Angeles Times: Former California campaign watchdog files ‘dark money’ complaint in Newsom recall effort

By Phil Willon

The former chair of the Federal Election Commission on Monday filed a complaint against a major contributor to the campaign to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom, alleging that a “shell company” was being used to hide the identities of its donors.

The complaint by Ann Ravel, which was filed with the state Attorney General’s Office and Fair Political Practices Commission, is focused on a $500,000 contribution to Rescue California, one of the campaign organizations supporting the recall effort…

Ravel said that “dark money” contributions, so called because the identities of the donors are not revealed, are not allowed in California because state law requires the true sources of campaign donations to be publicly disclosed. Ravel urged the state agencies to immediately launch investigations and to use their subpoena power to determine the identities of the donors.

“The entity appears to be nothing more than a shell company being used to evade disclosure of the person or persons funding the recall contribution,” Ravel said in the complaint. “. . . Such a dark money scheme is antithetical to a functioning democracy and in violation of the State’s comprehensive campaign finance laws.”

The City: Three Men Gave $250 Each to a Candidate for City Comptroller – and Say They Never Heard of Him

By Clifford Michel

Ameer Alonzo, Agnissan Achi and Silas Adedokun say they have no idea who State Sen. Brian Benjamin is – but city campaign finance records show them each giving the Harlem politician $250 in November 2019 as he readied a run for city comptroller.

That came as news to the three men.

“I’m struggling to make ends meet. So I never made a penny, a cent of a donation. I saw the letters stating I made a what – a $250 donation?” Achi said when contacted by THE CITY.

Achi was referring to a letter the New York City Campaign Finance Board mailed to his Harlem apartment asking him to confirm whether he made the contribution. The board record of his donation lists the safety officer as “unemployed.”

Adedokun, of Brooklyn, also had no clue how he ended up on the Benjamin donor list.

“I don’t know how they get my address. I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not going to lie to you – if I made a promise or made a pledge, I’m going to say to you I made a pledge. But, I never [did].”

Said Alonzo, of The Bronx: “It sounds like a scam…. This is just so random.”

The three men – and a toddler – are among 23 individuals who were recorded as giving donations to the Benjamin 2021 campaign fund via an intermediary named Michael Murphy. Each name is associated with a $250 money order, Campaign Finance Board records show.

Montana Public Radio: Recreational Marijuana Bill Backer Must Reveal Donors

By Kevin Trevellyan

Montana’s top political cop is ordering a group that backed recreational marijuana leading up to the November election to reveal its donors.

Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan ruled on Monday that North Fund violated campaign finance laws by failing to report where it got $5 million the group spent supporting successful ballot measures to legalize recreational pot in the state.

Mangan disagreed with Washington D.C. based North Fund’s claim that it didn’t have to disclose donors because most of its activities weren’t related to the Montana election. North Fund spent more than $17 million supporting ballot initiatives in five states this year, according to the ruling.

Steve Zabawa with Wrong for Montana, a group that opposes marijuana legalization, filed the complaint that led to Mangan’s ruling.

“This is a huge win for the Montana voter for disclosing dark money from the East Coast,” Zabawa said.

Mangan ordered North Fund to identify its donors within 10 days. He also found enough evidence for civil prosecution, or, more likely, a negotiated fine. 

Tiffany Donnelly

Tiffany Donnelly

https://www.ifs.org/author/tdonnelly/

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