Daily Media Links 8/8: Gatekeepers or Censors? How Tech Manages Online Speech, The Facebook Distraction, and more…

August 8, 2018   •  By Alex Baiocco   •  
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Online Speech Platforms

New York Times: Gatekeepers or Censors? How Tech Manages Online Speech

By The New York Times

Apple, Google and Facebook this week erased from their services many – but not all – videos, podcasts and posts from the right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his Infowars site. And Twitter left Mr. Jones’s posts untouched.

The differing approaches to Mr. Jones exposed how unevenly tech companies enforce their rules on hate speech and offensive content. There are only a few cases in which the companies appear to consistently apply their policies, such as their ban on child pornography and instances in which the law required them to remove content, like Nazi imagery in Germany.

When left to make their own decisions, the tech companies often struggle with their roles as the arbiters of speech and leave false information, upset users and confusing decisions in their wake. Here is a look at what the companies, which control the world’s most popular public forums, allow and ban.

Wall Street Journal: Facebook’s Problem With Veterans

By David Gale

After 18 years as an executive at MTV, I decided to start a media brand for an underserved audience: American military veterans and their families.

We Are the Mighty, which launched in 2014, has intentionally stayed away from hard news, politics or anything that tries to polarize veterans. Because our entire purpose is to engage this audience, we rely heavily on social media, especially our Facebook page…

Then in June, Facebook said it had changed its policies “in response to criticism over how its ad network was able to be manipulated during elections.” These policies require publishers to label anything considered “political” or “issue-based advertising.” Evidently, if anything in our posts uses the word “military,” we are classified as a “political” advertiser-as seen on Facebook’s Advertiser Help Center in its list of “National Issues of Public Importance”-and must be labeled as such. Publishers like We Are the Mighty must register as creators of “political advertising” to target audiences with such content.

Reason: Twitter Defends Decision to Keep Alex Jones. Nobody Is Happy: Reason Roundup

By Elizabeth Nolan Brown

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey pushed back Tuesday against those condemning the site for not jumping on the ban-Infowars bandwagon. Facebook, Apple, and YouTube have all exiled Infowars, run by the infamous cross-aisle conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, from their respective platforms.

“We didn’t suspend Alex Jones or Infowars yesterday,” Dorsey tweeted. “We know that’s hard for many but the reason is simple: he hasn’t violated our rules. We’ll enforce if he does.” For now, said Dorsey, “We’re going to hold Jones to the same standard we hold to every account, not taking one-off actions to make us feel good in the short term, and adding fuel to new conspiracy theories.”

“If we succumb and simply react to outside pressure, rather than straightforward principles we enforce (and evolve) impartially regardless of political viewpoints, we become a service that’s constructed by our personal views that can swing in any direction,” he continued. “That’s not us.”

While Jones may be known for sensationalism and “unsubstantiated rumors,” tweeted Dorsey, it’s the job of journalists to “document, validate, and refute such information directly so people can form their own opinions. This is what serves the public conversation best.” …

Just yesterday, the absurdist account Sweet Meteor of Death was temporarily suspended for sharing what was clearly a joke about killing “everything that’s alive Except for deep-sea sulfur-oxidizing bacteria.” …

Several Antiwar.com writers also had their accounts suspended or banned yesterday. Antiwar.com said they were reported by author Jonathan Katz after criticizing him, though Katz disputed this. Antiwar.com editor Scott Horton and Ron Paul Institute chief Daniel. L. McAdams were temporarily suspended, while author Peter Van Buren had his Twitter account permanently banned.

New York Times: A Better Way to Ban Alex Jones

By David French

The good news is that tech companies don’t have to rely on vague, malleable and hotly contested definitions of hate speech to deal with conspiracy theorists like Mr. Jones. The far better option would be to prohibit libel or slander on their platforms.

To be sure, this would tie their hands more: Unlike “hate speech,” libel and slander have legal meanings. There is a long history of using libel and slander laws to protect especially private figures from false claims. It’s properly more difficult to use those laws to punish allegations directed at public figures, but even then there are limits on intentionally false factual claims.

It’s a high bar. But it’s a bar that respects the marketplace of ideas, avoids the politically charged battle over ever-shifting norms in language and culture and provides protection for aggrieved parties. Nor do tech companies have to wait for sometimes yearslong legal processes to work themselves out. They can use their greater degree of freedom to conduct their own investigations. Those investigations would rightly be based on concrete legal standards, not wholly subjective measures of offensiveness.

Private corporations can ban whoever they like. But if companies like Facebook are eager to navigate speech controversies in good faith, they would do well to learn from the centuries of legal developments in American law. When creating a true marketplace of ideas, why not let the First Amendment be your guide?

Supreme Court

NPR: On Appeals Court, Kavanaugh Helped To Loosen Political Money Laws

By Peter Overby

Kavanaugh has been on the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia, a frequent destination for cases involving the Federal Election Commission. His decisions have effectively pulled the campaign finance system rightward, letting in more money with less regulation. He’s been roughly in sync with Anthony Kennedy, the justice he once clerked for and now might succeed.

That record has drawn relatively little attention in the fight over confirming Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court. It’s a mistake on the part of liberals, said Chiraag Bains, director of legal strategies for the progressive advocacy group Demos.

“I think his record on money and politics should be right up there alongside the likelihood that he’ll overturn Roe or strike down the ACA,” Bains said…

One of Kavanaugh’s decisions has been in the news lately because it deals with foreign money…

Kavanaugh’s opinion, from 2011, spotlights a loophole in the federal prohibition against foreign money in American elections. He laid out the difference between messages to vote for or against a candidate, known legally as express advocacy, and more general messages about issues, called issue advocacy…

The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed Kavanaugh’s opinion.

“He did recognize that people who are not citizens of the United States can engage in issue advocacy,” said James Bopp Jr., a leading conservative lawyer in campaign finance. “I think that was correctly decided.”

The Courts

New York Daily News: Turn on the lights: Getting out of the tunnel of dark money

By Editorial Board

D.C. District Court Judge Beryl Howell gives this shaken nation a fighting chance to safeguard our democracy from a sinkhole that threatens to swallow us all.

On Friday, Howell ordered the Federal Election Commission to scrap a rule that let political donors dodge public exposure, and follow the obvious intent of Congress to inform voters just who is paying for ads of the likes that praised Donald Trump and savaged Hillary Clinton.

Democrats often leverage dark money too, but in 2016, it was Trump and Republicans who went to town…

Hats off to plaintiffs Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington for first blowing the whistle on Republican political strategist Karl Rove and his Crossroads secret-spending operation in 2012, and fighting the FEC ever since to demand daylight.

Under Supreme Court rulings, we can’t stop independent spending on elections – but we can damn well demand to know who’s behind the curtain.

The Media

Wall Street Journal: The Facebook Distraction

By Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.

A study last year of the 2016 election by six scholars affiliated with Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center got virtually zero play, and it’s not hard to understand why.

It found that social media “engagement” that shaped the election outcome overwhelmingly was sparked by the traditional profit-seeking, left-tilting national media, plus new-style, right-wing outlets like Breitbart-and not by fake news sites or Russian bots.

“The ‘fake news’ framing of what happened in the 2016 campaign . . . is a distraction,” says the study. The real difference maker in 2016 was the rise of highly propagandistic, dissenting, right-wing media, but the authors are far from certain that its arrival should be considered an “attack on democracy, rather than its expression.”

What little press coverage the study got focused on its account of Breitbart’s success in “shopping” the Clinton Foundation story to the mainstream media. “If Donald Trump’s support had been limited to readers of Breitbart, he would never have won the electoral college,” the authors say.

But isn’t this virtually the ideal in a test tube? Dissenting new media force mainstream outlets to notice a story, but also to vet it? …

Dartmouth College’s Brendan Nyhan, another debunker of the fake-news hysteria, points out what anybody in charge of spending ad dollars already knows: People just aren’t that influenceable. Even if fake news were as effective as TV advertising, concludes yet another careful study, “the fake news in our database would have changed vote shares by an amount on the order of hundredths of a percentage point.”

Daily Beast: New Poll: 43% of Republicans Want to Give Trump the Power to Shut Down Media

By Sam Stein

All told, 43 percent of self-identified Republicans said that they believed “the president should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior.” Only 36 percent disagreed with that statement. When asked if Trump should close down specific outlets, including CNN, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, nearly a quarter of Republicans (23 percent) agreed and 49 percent disagreed.

Forty-eight percent of [Republicans] said they believed “the news media is the enemy of the American people” (just 28 percent disagreed) while nearly four out of every five (79 percent) said that they believed “the mainstream media treats President Trump unfairly.”

But swaths of self-identified Democrats and Independents supported anti-press positions as well. According to the survey, 12 percent of Democrats and 21 percent of Independents agreed that “the president should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior” (74 percent and 55 percent, respectively, disagreed). Additionally, 12 percent of Democrats and 26 percent of Independents agreed that “the news media is the enemy of the American people” (74 percent and 50 percent, respectively, disagreed)…

57 percent of all respondents said that they believed news and reporters were “necessary to keep the Trump administration honest” including a plurality of Republicans (39 percent agreeing with that statement compared to 35 percent disagreeing). A slightly less robust 46 percent of respondents said they agreed that “most news outlets try their best to produce honest reporting” (compared to 35 percent who disagreed). And virtually everyone (85 percent of respondents) believed that “freedom of the press is essential for American democracy” (compared to 4 percent opposed to that statement)…

72 percent of all respondents agree it should be easier to sue reporters who knowingly publish false information, including 85 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of Democrats.

The States

Portland Press Herald: Candidates to get public campaign funds as LePage releases $1.4 million under court order

By Scott Thistle

Gov. Paul LePage has complied with a court order that he release about $1.4 million in public campaign funding that he had held up by refusing to sign routine financial orders.

The move means about 120 candidates for the Legislature and one for governor will be getting money soon to help run their campaigns under the Maine Clean Election Act… 

LePage’s move doesn’t resolve another dispute over clean election funds at the Legislature. Partisan gridlock over a typographical error in the state’s current two-year budget law has held up an additional $4 million in funds.

Durango Herald: Campaign finance measure supporters turn in record number of signatures

By Marianne Goodland

“Stop Buying Our Elections” is the name attached to ballot Initiative 173. Its financial sponsors are unknown, but its named proponents are former state Rep. B.J. Nikkel of Loveland and former state Sen. Greg Brophy of Wray…

The measure is constitutional because it changes some of the language in the 2002 campaign finance reform measure that became known as Amendment 27.

Amendment 27 came with some of the nation’s lowest contribution caps: $400 per election cycle for the state House and Senate; $1,150 for the other statewide offices.

Initiative 173 attempts to help “regular people” compete against millionaire and billionaires when they run for office, Brophy told Colorado Politics…

The measure works like this, according to Brophy and Nikkel: When a person puts a million dollars or more into a campaign, the campaign limits for everyone else in the same race “go up five times, so you can raise enough money to compete with the millionaire or billionaire trying to buy the election.”

This also would apply to some independent expenditure committees … Brophy said that a committee that backs a specific candidate and spends $1 million or more in support of that candidate would also be covered under 173.

Why not change the contribution limits instead? Brophy said that most people like the low contribution limits for statewide races such as state House or Senate. Most candidates in those races spend $50,000 or less, Brophy explained.

“We sought a five times increase, which puts us in the range with what is normal for big contributions by regular donors to campaigns,” Brophy said.

VT Digger: Hallquist pledges to give back $16K in corporate cash

By Xander Landen

Gubernatorial candidate Christine Hallquist announced Monday she will return approximately $16,000 she has taken from businesses since launching her campaign in March, following criticism from fellow Democrats and political opponents for accepting corporate money.

“After watching Phil Scott take large sums from Monsanto and other out-of-state corporations, it has become clear that my leading on the issue of campaign finance is more important than ever,” Hallquist said in a statement Monday. “I can now proudly says no corporate money will be associated with my campaign.”

Last month, Hallquist said she would no longer be accepting corporate cash, but defended her decision to keep the $16,000 in donations that had already filled her campaign’s coffers.

Hallquist said in July she was relying on the money to pay her unionized campaign staff and said she had personal connections to individuals at all of the companies that had contributed to her election bid.

“This isn’t Monsanto,” she said in July, defending her decision to keep the money. “These are Vermont companies. … I know them personally. I know their character. I know exactly who they are.”

Her campaign manager, Cameron Russell, said her announcement Monday to give back the money wasn’t a political about-face, but a move that the campaign could only make once it had a plan to make up for the lost donations.

“Not really a change of heart, just that we couldn’t afford to do it right away,” he said…

“My campaign is returning these monies because it is the right thing to do,” Hallquist said in her statement. “My taking corporate money, no matter the source, muddied the waters and it is critical that no one question my commitment to clean and fair elections.”

Alex Baiocco

Alex Baiocco