Daily Media Links 5/18: When Social Media Debunk Conspiracy Theories, Women have won nearly half of the House Democratic primaries so far, and more…

May 18, 2018   •  By Alex Baiocco   •  
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In the News

Washington Examiner: Maryland lawmakers voted to criminalize online speech in the name of security

By Eric Wang

More than a thousand students gathered at the Maryland state capitol in March as part of the national “March for Our Lives” demonstrations against school shootings. Presumably, these students used the Internet, social media, or mobile device apps to organize their rally.

In so doing, they may have committed a crime under an obscure Maryland law.

Instead of fixing this flawed speech law, the Maryland General Assembly recently passed a bill to reenact and expand it. The legislation purports to counter foreign online political propaganda. But in reality, the new burden it would place on Marylanders’ Internet speech threatens our First Amendment rights. Gov. Larry Hogan, R, should veto the bill.

At issue is HB 981, the so-called “Online Electioneering Transparency and Accountability Act.” If signed into law, the bill would reenact the state’s existing regulation of “campaign material.” The term includes any “material transmitted by or appearing on the Internet or other electronic medium” that “relates to” a candidate, prospective candidate, ballot measure, or prospective ballot measure. If you think about it, that includes just about anything…

It is bad enough that HB 981 would reenact Maryland’s unconstitutional speech law. But the bill would make matters even worse by imposing a whole host of additional reporting and record-keeping requirements. 

New from the Institute for Free Speech

Americans Support Speech Regulation… If They Are Not Told the Facts Surrounding It

By Joe Albanese

In their story, [the Center for Public Integrity] specifically highlighted results showing that a large proportion of respondents support certain regulatory policies, such as a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, greater disclosure requirements for nonprofit advocacy organizations, and tax-financing of political campaigns. By and large, these results hinge on poll questions that are either excessively subjective or dubious.

Polling for campaign finance issues is tricky, and the authors acknowledge this: “For this type of topic, standard polls are inadequate as few citizens have sufficient information about the legislative proposals to provide meaningful input.” To account for this knowledge gap, they provide an assessment of each policy proposal, plus arguments in favor and against. Respondents were then asked their opinions on the overall proposal and each set of arguments.

Throughout, the authors repeatedly use loaded words and phrases that explicitly frame the issues in terms that are most favorable to pro-regulation groups. They state the goals of speech regulation as “reducing or counterbalancing” the influence of all sorts of supposedly unsavory groups: big campaign donors, special interests, corporations, and the wealthy. Left unstated is how political speech regulations burden the rights of other groups – such as advocacy organizations like the ACLU or National Right to Life Committee, or smaller nonprofit corporations. (Indeed, the constant use of “corporation” suggests that large, for-profit businesses are bigger players than they are – most super PAC funds, for example, come from individuals, not businesses.) The word “nonprofit” appears only once in the questions.

Below is an analysis of the poll results from three major issue areas.

Free Speech

The Atlantic: Germany’s Attempt to Fix Facebook Is Backfiring

By Linda Kinstler

Even Germany’s new Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who led the push for the NetzDG during his time as justice minister, ran afoul of the new law when one of his old tweets, in which he called an immigration opponent an “idiot,” resurfaced.

“I’m far from being a fan of the far right, but a lot of them are afraid that their postings are deleted because of their beliefs, not because of what they say,” said Jeorg Heidrich, a German internet lawyer and a longtime opponent of the regulation. He said that the NetzDG incentivizes social-media companies to “delete in doubt”-to remove any content that seems like it might be illegal-and is he is one of many who have observed a general “chilling” of speech online and offline in Germany. “The NetzDG is on people’s minds,” he said. “Generally, people are more careful what to think, what to write. Lots of people are afraid of losing their accounts.” …

Last month, Weidel earned praise for bringing Facebook “to its knees” in Germany after winning a court case against the company… 

Martin Munz, a White & Case attorney representing Facebook, called the offending comment “tasteless” but warned of the repercussions of the ruling: By compelling the social-media company to remove the post, it would, in effect, be enforcing German speech law internationally, even in places where the post’s content would be perfectly legal.

NewCo Shift: A Magic Shield That Lets You Be An Assh*le?

By John Battelle

It’s the first amendment to the US Constitution, but it’s also deeply misunderstood. Free speech seems an inviolate right, but when practiced at public institutions like UC Berkeley, or within private corporations like CloudFlare or Starbucks, the concept of free speech is both tested and proven. Join UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, EFF Executive Director Cindy Cohn, and moderator Nellie Bowles of the New York Times for a challenging and timely conversation on the role of speech in our roiling democracy…

Nellie: There’s a movement within Silicon Valley to get the platforms to self-regulate. You have people like Tristan Harris and a lot of ex-Facebook, ex-Google employees who are saying these platforms need to be regulated.

Cindy: Regulated by who? Remember that if you’re calling for regulation, then you’re asking for (current Attorney General) Jeff Sessions to decide when you’ve violated the law. I think we all might want to stop a little bit and think about whether that’s going to head where we want it to go right now…

Back to your moral question, should we be pushing these companies to engage in more censorship, there’s plenty of things I would like to push the companies to do here. Let me make sure that I put that pin in so we can get back to it.

Companies suck at censorship. There’s a website, onlinecensorship.org, where EFF and another group called Visualizing Impact try to keep track of how well this happens. The through lines are really clear. If you’re a really powerful person, you’ll get other people kicked off the platform. If you’re a person without power, you won’t.

The Courts

The Hill: Arizona men charged with operating scam PACs

By Max Greenwood

Two Arizona men were charged on Thursday for allegedly operating several fraudulent political action committees that prosecutors say defrauded donors out of more than $23 million.

The men, William Tierney, 46, and Robert Tierney, 40, were arrested in Arizona and charged in New York City federal court with wire fraud conspiracy, mail fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy, prosecutors said.

The defendants are expected to appear on Thursday afternoon in federal district court in Arizona.

According to court papers, the Tierneys “defrauded tens of thousands of donors to at least nine political action committees that they controlled, operated, and influenced,” starting in 2014.

Those so-called Scam PACs allegedly solicited money from donors under the pretense that the funds would support voter education and the political campaigns of candidates who supported various causes, such as autism awareness, law enforcement and opposition to abortion.

In reality, prosecutors said, less than 1 percent of the money raised by the PACs went to political contributions. The vast majority of the funds went to the Tierneys directly – totaling more than $3.5 million – or to expenditures for perpetuating the scheme, such as overhead costs and telemarketing.

Boston Globe: Warren challenger ends lawsuit over ‘fake Indian’ sign

By Associated Press

A US Senate candidate in Massachusetts is ending a lawsuit he’d filed against a city that asked him to remove a sign from a campaign bus reading: ”Only a REAL INDIAN Can Defeat the Fake Indian.”

Shiva Ayyadurai was born in India and is running as an independent against Democratic US Senator Elizabeth Warren. The slogan refers to Warren’s claims of Native American ancestry.

In a court filing Thursday, Ayyadurai asked a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit, saying the city of Cambridge has rescinded its enforcement order.

In the original complaint filed last month, Ayyadurai said his First Amendment rights were violated when Cambridge’s building inspector told his campaign it didn’t have permission to display the banner on the bus, which was parked at a building the candidate owns.

Internet Speech Regulation

Forbes: Tech On Capitol Hill

By Jessica Nordlander

Many things have already been said about Mark Zuckerberg’s Capitol Hill hearings — from people that sat through it and from people that didn’t. Here are my main takeaways after spending a total of 10 hours in front of the live broadcast…

Lawmakers are struggling to control advertising in a world where it can be targeted only to a specific audience. This ability to personalize content on platforms like Facebook and Google has caused turmoil in election campaigns and political messages have been able to spread in a very different way than they did in the pre-social media world, for good and bad. The Honest Ads Act is a U.S. bill that would level the rules of advertising online with all other media; political ads in newsprint, on television and on the radio are required to disclose who paid for the ad, but there is no such requirement for online ads. This is one of the ways by which meddling in foreign elections has been made possible. Zuckerberg said during the hearing that he is supportive of the act and also stated that one of the changes that will be made to the Facebook advertising solution is that it will be possible to see all ads that an advertiser is currently running, not just the ones targeted to you. This is a positive development.

Independent Groups 

Wall Street Journal: Hedge Funds’ Favorite Charity Is Funding Their Opponents

By Rob Copeland

For years, Mr. Loeb and other hedge-fund managers have sent millions of dollars to groups participating in anti-hedge-fund activist campaigns such as the Hedge Clippers and Strong Economy For All.

They have done so via a series of transactions involving the Robin Hood Foundation, a nonprofit co-founded by famed investor Paul Tudor Jones…

The money goes to support what Robin Hood describes as “organizations helping New Yorkers in need,” such as community centers, health-care providers and mentorship programs.

A portion of those grants, totaling more than $11 million since 2010, has gone to an arm of Service Employees International Union, Coalition for the Homeless and Make The Road NY. They are among more than 20 labor and advocacy groups that comprise either Strong Economy For All or the Hedge Clippers…

Robin Hood’s chief program officer, Emary Aronson, said the charity became aware of its connection to some protest groups several years ago, and decided to continue funding. “There’s no thermometer that we use to say we are going one way or the other because of something that’s in the news or how it affects the hedge-fund community,” Ms. Aronson said.

She said the charity’s money is earmarked specifically for serving poor communities, not advocacy, though some organizations may do both…

The Hedge Clippers became active roughly three years ago, in response to what the organization viewed as outsize influence of hedge funds and other wealthy financiers on public policy.

Candidates and Campaigns 

Center for Responsive Politics: Women have won nearly half of the House Democratic primaries so far

By Geoff West and Doug Weber

The top female spenders included Nebraska Democratic Senate candidate Jane Raybould, who won having spent nearly half a million dollars…

But other female Democrats won primaries Tuesday having spent little to no money at all.

In Nebraska, for example, Jessica McClure took the First District with roughly $16,000 in outlays.

In Pennsylvania, former Jaguar executive Bibiana Boerio spent about $17,000 for the 14th District nomination, and fellow state Democrat Susan Boser, whose background includes assessing the state’s mental health and addiction services, spent about $3,500.

In Idaho, Boise realtor Christina McNeil won the First District without a dime in reported spending before the primary.

An advantage in spending was no guarantee of success on Tuesday. In his bid for the Democratic nomination for Pennsylvania’s Fifth District, Rich Lazer received over $1 million in outside support. He finished third.

Republican Rick Saccone’s second loss for a congressional seat in less than a year – this time to state senator Guy Reschenthaler for Pennsylvania’s 14th District – was another surprise, if for no other reason than Saccone outspent Reschenthaler by roughly $1.6 million.

Washington Post: Politicians who took NRA money ought to give it back

By Jennifer Rubin

There are numerous questions yet to be answered – the extent of the NRA’s knowledge of Russian meddling, whether the NRA participated in a conspiracy to break campaign finance laws barring foreigners from making campaign donations and where the Russian money funneled through the NRA wound up…

Congressional hearings into the possible use of of right-wing front groups by the Kremlin would certainly be appropriate. Meanwhile, the NRA revelation raises a serious problem for politicians who have received money and/or support from the NRA. No one is suggesting that any candidates who benefited from the NRA’s largesse knew of Russia’s alleged infiltration; however, now that significant questions have been raised about the origin of campaign money, any candidate who received NRA support, I would argue, has at least a moral obligation to give the money back. Those who have gotten the coveted “A” rating from the NRA should think twice about touting the stamp of approval from a group that wittingly or unwittingly allegedly helped in essence launder Russian money. Opponents of the NRA-backed candidates would be foolish not to demand that they give their NRA money back – perhaps in rubles.

The Media

Reason: When Social Media Debunk Conspiracy Theories

By Jesse Walker

A February 20 ThinkProgress article, to pick one representative example, announces in its lede that crisis-actor tales “have spread like wildfire across social media platforms-despite the repeated promises of Big Tech to crack down on fake news.” The author circles back to that idea at the end, arguing that “the viral spread of the ‘crisis actor’ theory, along with other recent examples of highly-shared fake content, shows that [Facebook] is still ripe for misinformation and exploitation.” One Facebook post touting the theory, he notes, has gotten more than 110,000 shares, and some of the videos promoting the idea have been “viewed tens of thousands of times.”

That sounds less impressive when you start thinking about the context. We do not know how many of those 110,000 shares were trolls or bots, those crisis actors of the online world. Nor do we know how many people watch a video because they’re inclined to believe it, how many watch because they’re inclined to laugh at it, and how many just turn it off after 30 seconds…

The idea that the crisis-actor story is replicating unchallenged in some endless cancerous pattern may play to people’s anxieties about social media… But out there in the actual internet, people were knocking these stories down. The criticisms of the conspiracy theory may well have been more viral than the theory itself.

The States

WMUR Manchester: NH Primary Source: Campaign cash at issue in Democratic gubernatorial primary

By John DiStaso

After unveiling a campaign finance reform plan last week, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Marchand on Wednesday issued a request that his primary opponent, Molly Kelly, sign on to the People’s Pledge.

You remember the People’s Pledge, right? The attempt to limit third party spending in campaigns first came up in these parts when it was agreed to in 2012 by Massachusetts U.S. Senate candidates Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown…

Kelly’s gubernatorial campaign responded to Marchand’s challenge by saying that he should follow his own campaign finance reform plan and return $13,000 in corporate contributions he has received since announcing his candidacy.

Marchand’s plan calls for outlawing corporate contributions in top state races, and when we brought to his attention last week that he had received such contributions, he said that he would no longer accept them “going forward.”

Alex Baiocco

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