Daily Media Links 6/24

June 24, 2020   •  By Tiffany Donnelly   •  
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In the News

Washington Examiner: The harm of blocking political Facebook ads

By Luke Wachob

It’s true in life and politics: You don’t know what you don’t know. After Facebook’s decision to allow users to block ads about social and political issues, maybe you never will.

Digital ads help new voices reach large audiences. Far cheaper than TV ads, they are one of the best ways for first-time candidates to get their message out and build that all-important list of supporters.

Consider star House freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She scored the biggest upset of the 2018 primaries after spending half of her campaign’s funds on Facebook ads. The Intercept’s Ryan Grim noted last November that Ocasio-Cortez “was able to reach new voters by using Facebook to build and complement her field operations.”

If many of the site’s users choose to block political ads, it will cut off a lifeline for newcomers hoping to follow in Ocasio-Cortez’s footsteps. By weakening its advertising tools to appease political pressure, Facebook is pulling up the ladder on candidates just starting their climb.

The new feature also reinforces the power of party leaders and major media outlets. With less ability to speak directly to the people, a close relationship with party organizations will become even more valuable. Other candidates may find they need ridiculous stunts or outlandish statements to grab a piece of the news cycle.

DOJ

Politico: New FARA opinions show Justice Department’s broad interpretation of law

By Theodoric Meyer

The Justice Department made public more than a dozen recent Foreign Agents Registration Act advisory opinions on Monday, shedding a little more light on the criteria it uses to determine who must register as a foreign agent under the law. Two opinions stood out, according to Matthew Sanderson of Caplin & Drysdale, who advises clients on foreign lobbying law.

In one of them, lawyers representing a foreign government attended “regular meetings between Embassy officials and [foreign country]’s U.S. lobbyists where proposed legislation and legislative strategy are discussed,” among other things. Brandon Van Grack, the head of the Justice Department’s FARA unit, advised the firm in April that it couldn’t take advantage of FARA’s exemption for legal work and needed to register. The Justice Department “took an exceedingly broad view of FARA’s scope” in the opinion, wrote Sanderson in an email to PI. “This could cause more law firms, particularly in Washington, to reexamine whether their work could trigger FARA registration,” he added.

In another opinion, the Justice Department advised an environmental nonprofit that had received a grant from a foreign government agency that it needed to register under the law, even though the nonprofit claimed that its interactions with U.S. government officials had “nothing to do with formulating, adopting, or changing the domestic or foreign policies of the United States.” This could cause more nonprofits that receive grants from foreign sources to reexamine their FARA obligations, particularly given what DOJ found to constitute ‘political activities’ in this context,” Sanderson wrote.

The Courts

St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Reed, Blunt violated users’ free speech on Facebook and Twitter, lawsuits claim

By Joel Currier

Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt are violating the First Amendment rights of constituents through their official social media accounts, according to two federal lawsuits filed Tuesday.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Washington University law school’s First Amendment clinic filed the suits on behalf of Sarah Felts of St. Louis and Dennis Enloe of Union, Missouri.

“The fact that a public official disagrees with you on an issue doesn’t mean they can silence you,” Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri, said in a news release Tuesday. “That holds true whether you’re speaking out in a public park, at a town hall meeting, or on social media.”

Felts’ suit filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District alleged that Reed’s Twitter account, @PresReed, blocked Felts’ account from his page “because she made a post that was critical of President Reed’s actions and policies.” As a result, Felts’ suit claimed, “Reed has prevented Ms. Felts from participating in public discourse in a government-controlled public forum.”

Florida Phoenix: Federal appeals court OKs removal of Confederate monument in Lakeland’s Munn Park

By Michael Moline

A federal appeals court has rejected a challenge to the transfer of a Confederate monument from Lakeland’s Munn Park to another public park, ruling that nothing about the move violated the constitutional rights of “Lost Cause” nostaligists.

Those fans – including individuals affiliated with the Sons of the Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy – argued the city’s 2018 move of the Munn Park Cenotaph violated their rights to free speech and due process.

They argued the transfer to Veterans Park, outside Lakeland’s historic district, disadvantaged minority speech in favor of the Confederacy in a public forum, and that city officials failed to subject the move to debate before a neutral arbiter.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit unanimously rejected both claims Monday as too “abstract.”

“[T]he plaintiffs assert that the monument’s relocation infringes their interests in ‘preserv[ing] the history of the South,’ ‘expressing their free speech[] from a southern perspective,’ ‘vindicat[ing] the cause’ for which the Confederate Veteran fought,’ and ‘protect[ing] and preserv[ing] Memorials to American veterans,'” Judge Kevin Newsom wrote.

“But those injuries, too, are pretty amorphous. What exactly is the (or a) ‘southern perspective? What exactly was ‘the cause for which the Confederate veteran fought,’ and what exactly does it mean to ‘vindicate’ it?,” he continued.

Free Speech

The Hill: The First Amendment may be safe, but free expression is not

By Margaret White

Free speech is under attack today, but more in spirit than in law-and that’s the problem. The First Amendment, which precludes the government from abridging a citizens’ right to speak their mind, doesn’t apply to the reactions citizens have when others offer unsavory opinions. That means the core sensibility the Founders wanted to protect-the culture of free expression-is vulnerable not only to unconstitutional attacks from the state, but from what are perfectly permissible attacks from citizens and employers.

That problem can’t be solved in the courts-it needs to be addressed in the public square. And at the moment, the spirit of free speech has too few champions…

At what point does the social or economic cost of expressing an idea others find unsavory become so high that democratic discourse is fundamentally undermined? At what point does fear of being a social outcast suffocate the democratic discourse that is the lifeblood of democracy? …

There’s too often no recourse for those who have expressed ideas at odds with the prevailing culture, and no tolerance for mistakes…

The spirit of democracy depends on providing citizens the opportunity to talk through their differences. It cannot survive if citizens are too fearful to divulge what they really think.

Media

New York Times: A Reckoning Over Objectivity, Led by Black Journalists

By Wesley Lowery

Black journalists are publicly airing years of accumulated grievances, demanding an overdue reckoning for a profession whose mainstream repeatedly brushes off their concerns; in many newsrooms, writers and editors are now also openly pushing for a paradigm shift in how outlets define their operations and ideals…

Since American journalism’s pivot many decades ago from an openly partisan press to a model of professed objectivity, the mainstream has allowed what it considers objective truth to be decided almost exclusively by white reporters and their mostly white bosses…On opinion pages, the contours of acceptable public debate have largely been determined through the gaze of white editors…

Instead of telling hard truths in this polarized environment, America’s newsrooms too often deprive their readers of plainly stated facts that could expose reporters to accusations of partiality or imbalance.

For years, I’ve been among a chorus of mainstream journalists who have called for our industry to abandon the appearance of objectivity as the aspirational journalistic standard, and for reporters instead to focus on being fair and telling the truth, as best as one can, based on the given context and available facts…

Neutral objectivity trips over itself to find ways to avoid telling the truth. Neutral objectivity insists we use clunky euphemisms like “officer-involved shooting.”  …

Moral clarity would insist that politicians who traffic in racist stereotypes and tropes – however cleverly – be labeled such with clear language and unburied evidence. Racism, as we know, is not about what lies in the depths of a human’s heart. It is about word and deed. And a more aggressive commitment to truth from the press would empower our industry to finally admit that.

Online Speech Platforms

The Hill: Twitter flags Trump tweet on protesters for including ‘threat of harm’

By Brett Samuels

Twitter on Tuesday added an advisory to one of President Trump’s tweets that threatened protesters seeking to establish an “autonomous zone” in Washington, D.C., saying it violated the platform’s rules against abusive behavior.

“This Tweet violated the Twitter Rules about abusive behavior. However, Twitter has determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the Tweet to remain accessible,” reads the advisory added to Trump’s tweet.

The president had tweeted Tuesday morning that any attempt to establish an “autonomous zone” in the nation’s capital “will be met with serious force.” Twitter added a notice roughly six hours later stating the tweet violated its policies.

“We’ve placed a public interest notice on this Tweet for violating our policy against abusive behavior, specifically, the presence of a threat of harm against an identifiable group,” the platform said.

“Per our policies, this Tweet will remain on the service given its relevance to ongoing public conversation,” Twitter added.

Users can no longer like or reply to Trump’s tweet, but they can retweet it with comment, according to the platform.

Fox News: Twitter permanently bans pro-Trump meme creator Carpe Donktum for copyright infringement

By Joseph A. Wulfsohn

Twitter has permanently suspended user Carpe Donktum, who made pro-Trump memes, due to repeated copyright violations.

Carpe Donktum has risen to viral fame among conservatives after several of his videos have been shared by President Trump, most recently a satirical video mocking CNN, which was later disabled because of copyright complaints made by the content owner…

Carpe Donktum received support among conservatives on Twitter, including Donald Trump Jr.

“It’s clear @twitter & @jack are engaging in a dedicated campaign to shutdown conservative voices as we get closer to the election,” Trump Jr. tweeted. “Twitter claiming he violated ‘copyright infringement’ on videos that are public domain or clearly parodies covered by fair use is beyond fraudulent.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential: Facebook Moderator Boasts Deleting Users For MAGA Hat

By Tom Gantert

Project Veritas released parts of its investigation of Facebook and claims that content moderators for the social media company removed posts supportive of President Donald Trump, in violation of Facebook’s own policies.

Project Veritas is a conservative nonprofit that is controversial for embedding undercover operatives to investigate organizations. Its recordings show Facebook moderators bragged about removing conservative content that did not violate the company’s policies, while leaving in place liberal comments that did violate them.

Project Veritas’ press release stated, in part:

“One of the content moderators was asked if she deleted every Republican item that came up on her queue, she said: ‘Yes! I don’t give no ****s, I’ll delete it.’

The same moderator said she does not take down anti-Trump content, even if it did not [sic] violate company policy.

‘You gotta take it down but I leave it up,’ she said. ‘If you see something that’s not supposed to be up, it’s probably me.’

Another content moderator, Lara Kontakos, was asked what she did when she saw a posts supporting the president: ‘If someone is wearing a MAGA hat, I am going to delete them for terrorism.’

Then, Kontakos looked around at her colleagues: ‘I think we are all doing that.'”

Techdirt: Hello! You’ve Been Referred Here Because You’re Wrong About Section 230 Of The Communications Decency Act

By Mike Masnick

If you said “Once a company like that starts moderating content, it’s no longer a platform, but a publisher”

I regret to inform you that you are wrong. I know that you’ve likely heard this from someone else — perhaps even someone respected — but it’s just not true. The law says no such thing. Again, I encourage you to read it. The law does distinguish between “interactive computer services” and “information content providers,” but that is not, as some imply, a fancy legalistic ways of saying “platform” or “publisher.” There is no “certification” or “decision” that a website needs to make to get 230 protections. It protects all websites and all users of websites when there is content posted on the sites by someone else…

If you said “A site that has political bias is not neutral, and thus loses its Section 230 protections”

I’m sorry, but you are very, very, very wrong. Perhaps more wrong than anyone saying any of the other things above. First off, there is no “neutrality” requirement at all in Section 230. Seriously. Read it. If anything, it says the opposite. It says that sites can moderate as they see fit and face no liability. This myth is out there and persists because some politicians keep repeating it, but it’s wrong and the opposite of truth. Indeed, any requirement of neutrality would likely raise significant 1st Amendment questions, as it would be involving the law in editorial decision making.

Wired: Facebook Groups Are Destroying America

By Nina Jankowicz and Cindy Otis

For the past several years, Facebook users have been seeing more content from “friends and family” and less from brands and media outlets. As part of the platform’s “pivot to privacy” after the 2016 election, groups have been promoted as trusted spaces that create communities around shared interests…

But as our research shows, those same features-privacy and community-are often exploited by bad actors, foreign and domestic, to spread false information and conspiracies. Dynamics in groups often mirror those of peer-to-peer messaging apps: People share, spread, and receive information directly to and from their closest contacts, whom they typically see as reliable sources. To make things easier for those looking to stoke political division, groups provide a menu of potential targets organized by issue and even location; bad actors can create fake profiles or personas tailored to the interests of the audiences they intend to infiltrate. This allows them to seed their own content in a group and also to repurpose its content for use on other platforms…

Groups continue to be used for political disinformation…

To mitigate these problems, Facebook should radically increase transparency around the ownership, management, and membership of groups. Yes, privacy was the point, but users need the tools to understand the provenance of the information they consume. First, Facebook needs to vet more carefully how groups and pages are categorized on the site, ensuring that their labels accurately reflect the content shared in that community…

Such descriptors should be more specific and be applied more consistently. 

Candidates and Campaigns

Business Insider: ‘Their money couldn’t buy a movement’: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez taunts Wall Street after triumphing over her billionaire-backed primary opponent

By Theron Mohamed

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez taunted Wall Street on Wednesday after comfortably winning the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th Congressional district…

“Wall Street CEOs, from Goldman Sachs to Blackstone, poured in millions to defeat our grassroots campaign tonight,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “But their money couldn’t buy a movement.”

The first-term Congresswoman, who goes by the nickname “AOC,” also attached a video in which she rebuked financiers for trying to buy the election and praised her supporters for overcoming the threat.

“There is no price tag for having people who are animated by the courage of their convictions and by a desire for a better world,” she said. “You cannot purchase that.” …

While [challenger Michelle] Caruso-Cabrera had the backing of many Wall Street icons, she raised only around 20% of the money raised by Ocasio-Cortez. FEC data shows she raised just over $2 million, while AOC secured over $10.5 million in donations during the campaign.

Wall Street Journal: Political Donors Linked to China Won Access to Trump, GOP

By Brian Spegele

Soon after Donald Trump took office, people with ties to the Chinese state poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into his re-election bid to get close to and potentially influence the new president.

The effort had early success in gaining access for those involved, helping them meet the president or top Republicans at fundraisers or at an internal GOP leadership meeting. It reveals how China seeks to build inroads into U.S. politics, gather information on U.S. leaders and if possible affect policy-making.

Several of those involved worked closely with China’s national-security apparatus, including organizations linked to its military, and briefed prominent Chinese political figures about their efforts.

As guests of a Republican official named Shawn Steel, Chinese nationals, including a man working for China’s central government, attended an invitation-only gathering in May 2017 where GOP leaders discussed campaign strategies and other issues.

In response to inquiries, the Republican National Committee said it had instructed Mr. Steel to break ties with several people identified in Wall Street Journal reporting.

“It’s important to do all we can to safeguard our politics from illegal foreign meddling,” the RNC said in response to questions. It said it wouldn’t return donations identified by the Journal that facilitated access to the president and other officials because it didn’t believe campaign-finance laws were broken…

There is no indication Mr. Trump was aware of the political contributions. 

The States

Bangor Daily News: Group opposing CMP corridor files lawsuit to shield donors from public view

By Jessica Piper

A group opposing the proposed Central Maine Power corridor is suing Maine’s campaign finance regulator in an attempt to stop an investigation that could reveal its secret funding sources ahead of the November referendum on the hydropower corridor.

The Maine Ethics Commission voted last month to require Stop the Corridor to disclose its financial information to the commission so it can determine whether the group should have been required to register as a political committee. If it makes that decision, the nonprofit’s donors would have to be disclosed under state campaign finance laws.

The lawsuit, filed in Cumberland County Superior Court on June 19, argues that the commission does not have the jurisdiction to investigate the anti-corridor group’s finances…

The ethics investigation into Stop the Corridor stems from a complaint filed by Clean Energy Matters, a CMP-affiliated political committee supportive of the corridor project. The lawsuit alleges that the ethics commission does not have the grounds to investigate because Clean Energy Matters did not show “sufficient grounds for believing that a violation may have occurred” as required by state law.

The suit argues that the commission cannot investigate whether Stop the Corridor should be required to register as a ballot question committee because Clean Energy Matters only alleged that the group should be required to register as a political action committee, a distinct entity with different registration requirements.

Tiffany Donnelly

Tiffany Donnelly