January 19, 2021

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The Technology 202: Trump is turning to traditional media to amplify false claims as Twitter cracks down

Yet through these conventional channels, Trump delivered perhaps the most norm-breaking and dangerous remarks of...

Yet through these conventional channels, Trump delivered perhaps the most norm-breaking and dangerous remarks of his White House tenure. 

Trump’s earlier news release read more like an online rant, especially because it was shared in the all caps text he often employs in rockets on social media. It baselessly asserted that counting of “illegal” and “late” votes would allow Biden to “STEAL THE ELECTION FROM US!” (Trump has presented no evidence that states are counting ineligible ballots.)

The episodes underscored how social media might be winning a front in the disinformation battles — but perhaps losing the larger war.

Disinformation researchers said Trump’s move to blast off claims of illegitimate votes in a news release rather than a tweet is a signal the guardrails introduced by Twitter recently are having an impact. 

Trump’s emailed statement was a spark of hope” that tech companies’ efforts are working, according to Emerson T. Brooking, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

“The content moderation steps are working to an extent in imposing some friction,” Brooking told reporters yesterday. 

Researchers have overall struggled to understand the impact of these labels because they don’t have access to the necessary data. And there’s conflicting research available on their efficacy, and it’s not in the context of the 2020 election, said Kate Starbird, an associate professor at the University of Washington. 

“I don’t think we really know what the impact of those labels are at this time,” she said. 

Trump, who has criticized the companies for labeling his missives and even issued an executive order to address alleged censorship from Silicon Valley, did not specifically address the actions during last night’s remarks. He did, however, suggest without evidence that Big Tech is interfering in the election. 

Trump did call Twitter “out of control” in a tweet early this morning, suggesting a key Internet law was a “gift” to the company. After Twitter began labeling Trump’s tweets earlier this year, Trump began to frequently call to revoke Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230, which shields companies from lawsuits over content moderation decisions, became law about a decade before Twitter launched in 2006. 

Yet last night showed how falsehoods can move from Twitter feeds to the White House briefing room to TVs all over the world. 

Some of Trump’s baseless claims were difficult to follow for the average person, but those following conservative social media were familiar with them. The president elevated many debunked rumors that have gone viral online.

“Many of his falsehoods about election results were based on unverified or false material posted online, taken out of context, and misrepresented as widespread evidence to backup his falsehoods,” said Graham Brookie, the director and managing editor of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. 

Trump suggested there was a broad effort to prevent his supporters from viewing the vote counting process. “They put papers on all the windows so they can’t see in,” Trump said last night. 

Trump referred to misleading posts shared by himself and Kayleigh McEnany, his White House press secretary, shared on Twitter without context. McEnany shared a video of workers at a vote-counting site in Detroit, where they covered the windows. McEnany captioned her post “SHADY” and the included video racked up about 7.5 million views. Trump tweeted an article making similar claims from the conservative news website Breitbart. 

But local election officials told the New York Times that poll workers were trying to prevent people from taking unauthorized photos and videos of their work. 

“Only the media is allowed to take pictures inside the counting place,” Lawrence Garcia, the city of Detroit’s corporation counsel, told the Times, “and people outside the center were not listening to requests to stop filming poll workers and their paperwork.”

In another instance in the speech, Trump suggested “bad things happened” when Georgia stopped counting votes for hours. The claim was similar to misleading rumors online that officials in some counties there paused counting late Tuesday night and then restarted counting on Wednesday morning, as BuzzFeed News first reported. Some of these posts suggested Democrats were using the additional time to generate fake ballots for Biden, but in fact officials were just trying to give poll workers a rest. 

Trump’s speech will complicate the tech companies’ efforts to crack down on disinformation. 

It was already incredibly challenging for companies, reporters and disinformation experts to keep pace with the influx of falsehoods amid uncertainty surrounding the presidential election. But last night’s news conference just blasted the falsehoods to televisions and social media feeds around the world raising the stakes in the companies’ ongoing work. 

Social media companies struggled to address videos of the news conference, which was live-streamed on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube without the real-time fact checking and context presented on major news networks. 

Live remarks and live streams present a much more complicated moderation challenge than some other content,” Brookie, who researches disinformation, said. 

Already, social media companies and fact-checkers were struggling to respond to a torrent of false videos on YouTube, which were boosting voting lies around the Internet, my colleague Drew Harwell reported. 

Twitter did not label the livestream on the White House’s account, but it did subsequently label some video excerpts from the speech Trump shared on his personal Twitter feed.

YouTube applied an information panel to the bottom of news conference videos, saying the “results may not be final,” and directed people to Google’s election results page. The company does have policies that prevent misleading information about the voting process, but not the process of counting votes. 

“Expressing views on the outcome of a current election or process of counting votes is allowed under our policy,” YouTube spokesman Farshad Shadloo said in a statement. 

Facebook labeled some of the Trump speech excerpts with information from the Bipartisan Policy Center, saying the United States has laws, procedures and established institutions to protect the election process. 

Tech companies are now taking extraordinary steps to address the online discord over the election. 

The Twitter labels plastered on Trump’s feed might be one of the most visible signs of their actions.

Facebook is taking some extreme steps. The company is enacting new measures to make it more difficult for election misinformation to go viral on its service, the New York Times reports. The company will add an additional click or two before people can share posts, and it will also demote content in News Feed if it contains election-related misinformation. The company is also limited on the distribution of Facebook Live election streams.

YouTube has said little about specific steps it’s taking in response to the election unrest. The company previously announced it would reduce the spread of videos that come close to breaking its rules, but don’t quite cross the line. 

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Facebook banned a group that Trump allies used to organize protests to challenge the legitimacy of the election. 

Facebook spokesman Andy Stone attributed the removal to “exceptional measures that we are taking during this period of heightened tension.” 

“The group was organized around the delegitimization of the election process, and we saw worrying calls for violence from some members of the group,” Stone said in a statement.

Facebook will be reviewing other groups using “Stop The Steal” for violations, Stone said.

The removal shows the dilemma Facebook faces in moderating its groups and pages, which have become both a powerful organizing tool and meeting ground to organize physical violence.

The protests pushing unfounded allegations of voter fraud have gotten a boost from pro-Trump media and other influencers online. Some websites associated with the movement appeared to be fundraising off the protests.

Facebook has seen a 45 percent increase in potentially dangerous content, according to internal metrics. 

The “probable violence and incitement” metric, which assesses risk of violence based on keyword use, saw a rapid uptick between Oct. 1 and yesterday, according to the post. 

“The ‘probable violence and incitement’ metric for explore has been slowly rising over the last few days,” the post’s author wrote, referring to Facebook’s “Explore” search tool. “The risky hashtags seem conspiracy-theory-esque.”

The employee flagged popular Trump slogans including #DrainTheSwamp, #Trump2020, and #KeepAmericaGreat as well as more coded language used by the conspiracy group QAnon, Ryan and Craig report.

The employee suggested blocking some of these hashtags. The employee suggested that the company already monitoring and suppressing some “explicitly risky” hashtags, including #RiggedElection and #VoterFraud. 

Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois declined to tell BuzzFeed which hashtags the company had suppressed, or how long the “violence and incitement” metric had been in use.

“We’re staying vigilant in detecting content that could incite violence during this time of heightened uncertainty,” she said. “We’ve readied products and policies in advance of this period so we can take action quickly and according to our plans. “

Uber will advocate for more Prop 22-like legislation, chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi told investors. 

Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and other gig companies poured more than $200 million into the ballot measure that exempts them from reclassifying ride-share and delivery workers as employees. Now they’re ready to push the approach nationally, Faiz Siddiqui reports.

“Going forward, you’ll see us more loudly advocating for …. laws like Prop 22,” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said, adding later: “We were the first to come forward with this [independent contractor]-plus model, the idea that drivers deserve flexibility plus benefits. We want to have a dialogue with governments [in] other states.” 

Khosrowshahi didn’t name specific states or cities, but other Prop 22 funders including DoorDash CEO Tony Xu have also expressed interest in recreating the legislation.

Lyft president John Zimmer expressed interest in having drivers and labor unions coming to the table to discuss the idea of portable benefits and union representation, the Los Angeles Times reported

Described as a “third way,” the proposal pushed by the companies has been met with strong skepticism from driver groups seeking to unionize. 

If Democrats take back the White House and Senate, that could pose a hurdle for the companies’ plans.Senate Democrats in September introduced legislation similar to the California labor law that reclassified some gig workers as employees.

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Former Department of Homeland Security chief of staff and “Anonymous” Trump critic Miles Taylor has left his job at Google, BuzzFeed News reports. Taylor worked on the policy team before going on leave to support Biden’s campaign.

Taylor, who has since come out against the administration publicly, caused a splash with the anonymous 2018 op-ed and tell-all book that criticized the president as unstable. His work assisting then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen with talking points about the agencys family separation policy previously sparked a backlash among Google employees.

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