The Free Internet Project

Project Safeguarding Elections

Meeting Between Facebook, Zuckerberg and Stop Hate for Profit Boycott Group Turns into a Big Fail

Facebook has come under scrutiny due to its handling of hate speech and disinformation posted on the platform. With the Stop Hate for Profit movement, corporations have begun to take steps to hold Facebook accountable for the disinformation that is spread on the platform. So far, more than 400 advertisers, from Coca-Cola to Ford and Lego, have made the pledge to stop advertising on the social media platform, according to NPR. Facebook has faced intense backlash, particularly since the 2016 election, for allowing disinformation and propaganda to be posted freely. The disinformation and hate, or “Fake News” as many may call it, is aimed at misinforming the voters and spreading hateful propaganda, potentially dampening voter participation.

A broad coalition of groups including Color for Change, the Anti-defamation league, and the NAACP, started the campaign Stop Hate for Profit. (For more on the origin, read Politico.) The goal of the campaign is to push Facebook to make much needed changes in its policy guidelines as well as change within the company executive employees. The boycott targets the advertising dollars for which the social media juggernaut relies upon. The campaign has begun to pick up steam with new companies announcing an end to Facebook Ads every day. With this momentum, the group behind the boycott have released a list 10 first steps Facebook can take.   

Stop Hate for Profit is asking that Facebook take accountability, have decency, and provide support to groups most affected by the hate that is spread on the platform. The civil rights leaders behind this movement are focused on making changes at the executive level as well as holding Facebook more accountable for their lackluster terms of service. The top execs currently at Facebook may have a conflict of interests. People contend that Facebook has a duty to make sure misinformation and hate is not spread, but Facebook does not exercise that to the fullest capacity because of their relationships with politicians. Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, contends that there needs to be a separation between the people in charge of the content allowed on Facebook and those who are aligned with political figures. The group is asking Facebook to hire an executive with a civil rights background, who can evaluate discriminatory policies and products. Additionally, the group is asking Facebook to expand on what they consider hate speech. The current terms of service that Facebook currently employs are criticized for being ineffective and problematic.   

Facebooks policies and algorithms are among the things the group asks to be changed. Current Facebook policies allow public and private hate groups to exist and also recommend them to many users.  The campaign asks that Facebook remove far-right groups that spread conspiracies, such as QAnon, from the platform. The labeling of inauthentic information that will cause hate and disinformation is also requested. In contrast, Twitter has taken small steps to label hateful content themselves. While many criticize Twitters actions not being far enough, they have taken steps Facebook has yet to take. Through this entire process, Facebook should make transparent to the public all the steps--in the number of ads rejected for hate or disinformation and in the third-party audit of hate spread on the site.  

The group also made a connection between the hate on the Facebook platform and race issues within the company. Stop Hate for Profit, provided a staggering statistic that 42% of Facebook users experience harassment on the platform. This along with the former black employee and two job candidates who filed EEOC complaints points to a culture at Facebook that goes far beyond allowing far-right propaganda and misinformation on the site but highlights a lack of support for users and employees of color. All of this is used to backup why it is essential that Facebook goes beyond making simple statements and actually make steps to create change.

Facebook CEO and cofounder Mark Zuckerberg agreed to meet with the civil rights groups behind the boycott amid the growing number of companies getting behind Stop Profit for Hate. Many have voiced their concerns that Facebook and CEO Zuckerberg are more concerned about messaging that legitimately fixing the underlying problems.  Upon meeting with Mark Zuckerberg on July 7, Stop Hate for Profit released a statement about what they felt was a disappointing and uneventful meeting. The group asserted that Facebook did what they previously feared, only providing surface level rhetoric with no real interest in committing to any real change. Of the ten recommendations, Zuckerberg was only open to addressing hiring a person with a civil rights background. Although he declined to fully commit to that position, if it is created, being a C-suite executive level position. Rashad Robinson tweeted a direct statement, saying that Facebook was not ready to make any changes despite knowing the demands of the group. That view appears to be consistent with a July 2, 2020 report of a remark by Zuckerberg to employees at a virtual town hall: "We're not gonna change our policies or approach on anything because of a threat to a small percent of our revenue, or to any percent of our revenue."

For now, it remains to be seen if the increased pressure from companies pulling advertisements will eventually cause Facebook and Zuckerberg to institute changes that progressive groups have been pushing for years. So far, it appears not.   

--written by Bisola Oni

Can 2020 US Presidential Election Be Canceled: COVID-19, Voting-by-Mail and Other Safeguards During a Pandemic

 

The United States is experiencing another wave in coronavirus infections, with twenty-one states seeing an increase in their daily infection rates. With alarm bells ringing, many have expressed logistical concerns about the upcoming presidential election. There are two main concerns about Election Day 2020, which is November 3, 2020:

  1. Postponement or cancellation of the election; and
  2. Mitigation of the increasing coronavirus infection rate at polling locations.

Canceling or postponing Election Day 2020 is highly unlikely.

The president does not have the legal authority to cancel the November 3rd election. First, federal statute specifes "the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November" shall be federal Election Day. Moreover, the states are the ones who conduct the operations of elections in each state. And only states have the power to change their election laws, according to Jason Harrow, executive director and chief counsel of Equal Citizens.

Rest assured, overstaying one’s welcome at the White House is not possible. The Constitution prevents presidents from remaining in office past their elected term. Under the 20th Amendment, the president’s term automatically ends on January 20th at noon after a four-year term.  If a candidate hasn’t been elected by then, Congress decided long ago the Speaker of the House will become acting president. 

Congress can’t cancel the election either. But Congress can postpone the election by passing a new federal law. Under Article II, § 1 of the Constitution, Congress has the power to determine the date the election takes place. Thus, Congress could pass a bill before November – but it’s unlikely. As Jerry Goldfeder explains, American presidents and legislators have never canceled or postponed any of the fifty-eight previous presidential elections – not for wars, not for terrorist attacks, and not for the Spanish flu. There is little doubt the presidential election will take place. Nonetheless, the logistics are unclear.

How can Americans stay safe and exercise their constitutional right to vote?

It’s reasonable to say Election Day this year will not be postponed or canceled. So, what other options do Americans have? Currently, four ideas are being pushed forward:

  1. Expanding the number of polling places;
  2. Encouraging early voting;
  3. Developing a time span (e.g., two weeks) within which people can vote; and
  4. Expanding voting-by-mail and absentee voting.

After conducting the research, voting-by-mail is the most tenable path forward to mitigate risks of exposure to the coronavirus.

Reports by the Brennan Center for Justice and Leadership Conference on Civil Rights show polling place expansion is unlikely. Since 2012, states around the country have closed nearly two thousand polling places. The pandemic has fanned the flames of this trend. For this to work, states need to open more locations where voters can cast their votes and train a horde of new polling volunteers before November – both of which are not likely.

Early voting would help with social distancing measures by reducing crowd sizes. But some states, like Utah, have canceled their early voting options. As more Americans contract the coronavirus, it is unclear whether this is will be an option for voters in November. Legislators have not yet jumped on the “time-frame” option for in-person voting. The fourth option, voting-by-mail, is the most controversial.

Fact Check: Cases of Voter Fraud in the Voting-by-Mail Context Is Rare.

Twitter sparked controversy when it added a “fact check” label to President Trump’s tweet about California’s expansion of voting-by-mail procedures for the presidential election. In the tweet, President Trump claimed voting-by-mail expansions would lead to “rigged elections.” But Trump himself voted by mail in 2018, and, in the past, Mike Pence, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Kayleigh McEnany, Bill Barr, Besty DeVos, Larry Kudlow, Wilbur Ross, Kellyanne Conway, and Alex Azar [source]. 

But should Americans be concerned about voter fraud in the context of voting-by-mail?

According to surveys and polls, 72-78% of American voters want the option to vote-by-mail in the upcoming presidential election. At this time, 33 states allow voting-by-mail without an excuse. 5 states conduct all elections by mail.  In response to the pandemic, many states have changed their voting procedures – forty-six states, both Democratic and Republican controlled, now allow voting-by-mail in some form.

According to MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab, voting-by-mail began during the Civil War, where soldiers on both sides cast their ballots from the battlefield. Since then, instances of voter fraud have been rare. Two most infamous cases occurred in Florida (acts of false witnessing) and Georgia (selling votes). More recently, a Republican campaign representative in Maryland got caught collecting blank ballots and filling the ballots out in favor of a former congressional candidate, Mike Harris.

Experts reject the recent hype about voter fraud in the voting-by-mail context. Over the past two decades, 250,000 votes were submitted via mail-in ballots. Based on the Heritage Foundation’s database on voter fraud, only 1,285 instances of voter fraud were found, yielding 1,110 criminal convictions. From the 1,110 convictions, only 204 cases concerned alleged fraudulent use of absentee ballots. You can find a detailed record of every voter fraud case here. This means over twenty years, there have been about ten cases of voter fraud per year.

The risk of voter fraud in this context is only a fraction of a percent, 0.0816%. Context: You are more likely to be struck by lightning in your lifetime, with a 0.033% chance, than to witness “widespread” voter fraud taking place during the 2020 presidential election. Perspective: The chances of dying from coronavirus in the United States is 4.795%.  Of course, with any voting procedure, safeguards need to be implemented. Professor Ned Foley, an election law expert, has identified a need for states to clarify their procedures should a candidate contest the results of mail-in ballots, in a much discussed article "Why Vote-by-Mail Could be a Legal Nightmare in November." Foley recommends: "But states — especially battlegrounds in the presidential election — should clarify as soon as possible the rules that their own courts are supposed to use in litigation that might arise over counting absentee ballots. It is not enough that state law has rules for casting ballots. There needs to be clarity on whether ballots can still count if something has gone wrong in the process of casting of them, especially if the problem is not the voter’s fault."

Standing in long lines, for countless hours, is not a reasonable option this election season because it will certainly increase the spread of the deadly virus. Foley warns: "There’s no question that, for public health reasons, expanding vote-by-mail is a wise decision for states to be making right now."

It’s clear:  Voting-by-mail is not perfect or full-proof. There are rare instances that justify some degree of concern. However, states should allow voting-by-mail due to the higher risk of contracting the coronavirus.​

-written by Allison Hedrick

 

US Senate Intelligence Committee Issues 4th Report on Russian Interference Based on 2017 Intelligence Committee Assessment

 

On April 21, 2020, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee published the fourth and penultimate volume of an extensive report on Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election. Volume 4 is titled “Review of the Intelligence Community Assessment.” It examines the 2017 Intelligence Committee Assessment (ICA) that determined that Russia interfered with the 2016 U.S. election. The Committee examined the sources and work behind creating the ICA, amidst the controversy over the U.S. intelligence investigation raised by the Trump Administration, which claimed it was politically motivated against him. The Senate Intelligence Committee report repudiates that notioin. In accordance with protecting the identities of the sources behind the ICA, much of the 157-page report has been redacted. The report unanimously concludes that the findings in the 2017 ICA back up the suspected aggressive propaganda campaign and interference conducted by Russia in the 2016 U.S. election.

Volume 4's unredacted factual background and the key findings of the examination of the ICA provide a clear view of the Committee's finding. The Committee's examination of the ICA was conducted by reviewing source documents along with interviews with officials involved in preparing the assessment. In reviewing the ICA, the Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) stated the committee looked at two key issues: (1) whether the final product of the ICA met the task assigned by the President; and (2) if the analysis was backed by the intelligence provided in the ICA. Burr concluded that the analysis and conclusion in the ICA were strong. No reason could be found to dispute the findings by the Intelligence Community. In a statement, Chairman Burr concluded: "The I.C.A. reflects strong tradecraft, sound analytical reasoning and proper justification of disagreement in the one analytical line where it occurred. The committee found no reason to dispute the intelligence community’s conclusions.”

The warnings of continued Russian interference and also the vigilance needed due to continued interference for the 2020 election were reaffirmed in the ICA. Russia sought to interfere with the 2016 election to harm the candidacy of Secretary HIllary Clinton and to help elect then-candidate Donald Trump. The Russian interference did not stop after the 2016 election. Russia has continued to interfere with American democracy and the extent of the aggressive attacks as noted in ICA is not exaggerated, the Senate report determined. Both Chairman Burr and Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-VA) concluded there is no doubt that Russia will once again interfere in the 2020 election as they did in 2016.

While much of the report is redacted, the key findings validate the 2017 ICA:

  1. The ICA met the task assigned by the President; providing a bipartisan analysis of the Russian interference. None of the individuals involved in the drafting of the ICA were biased to reach specified conclusions by a particular political party, because of this the ICA provided an accurate reporting of the Russian interference during the 2016 election.
  2. The aggressive and unprecedented nature of Russia’s interference on the 2016 election is well documented in the ICA. The reporting does not far exceed its reach, with regards to warning policy makers of Russia’s role.
  3. It is important to note that within the ICA no policy recommendation was made in regard to combatting future Russian interference. While it is all but assured that Russia will again interfere in 2020, no recommendations are given. The lack of policy suggestion is intentional. The intelligence committee themselves do not make any policy, they are simply set aside to provide detailed analysis and warnings to those in place to lawfully create policy.
  4. It is noteworthy that the ICA does not include much information about any attempt that Russia made to interfere with the election in 2008 and 2012. Instead making it clear the actions in 2016 were unprecedented.

The Committee did find that the ICA fell short in certain areas. While the ICA provided a comprehensive insight about 2016 and warnings about Russia’s continued interference, they did not delve into Russian propaganda through state-owned media platforms. The lack of insight into media networks such of RT’s coverage on the leaks from Wikileaks’ containing information about the Democratic National Committee would have aided in further substantiating the full brevity of the Russian propaganda.  

Volume 4 further substantiates the need for greater steps to stop Russian interference in the U.S. election. A fifth and final volume is expected by the Committee as part of its report on the Russian interference on the election.

-written by Bisola Oni

Why Voters Should Beware: Lessons from Russian Interference in 2016 Election, Political and Racial Polarization on Social Media

Overview of the Russian Interference Issue

The United States prides itself on having an open democracy, with free and fair elections decided by American voters. If Americans want a policy change, then the remedy most commonly called upon is political participation--and the vote. If Americans want change, then they should vote out the problematic politicians and choose public officials to carry out the right policies. However, what if the U.S. voting system is skewed by foreign interference? 

American officials are nearly unanimous in concluding, based on U.S. intelligence, that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential elections [see, e.g., here; here; and Senate Intelligence Report].  “[U]ndermining confidence in America’s democratic institutions” is what Russia seeks. In 2016, few in the U.S. were even thinking about this type of interference. The US’s guard was down. Russia interfered with the election in various ways including fake campaign advertisements, bots on Twitter and Facebook that pumped out emotionally and politically charged content, and through spread of disinformation or “fake news.” Social media hacking, as opposed to physical-polling-center hacking, is at the forefront of discussion because it can not only change who is in office, but it also can shift American voters’ political beliefs and understanding of political topics or depress voters from voting. 

And, if you think Russia is taking a break this election cycle, you'd be wrong. According to a March 10, 2020 New York Times article, David Porter of the FBI Foreign Influence Task Force says: "We see Russia is willing to conduct more brazen and disruptive influence operations because of how it perceives its conflict with the West."

What Inteference Has to Do with Political Polarization

Facebook and Twitter have been criticized countless times by various organizations, politicians, and the media for facilitating political polarization. The U.S. political system of mainly two dominamnt parties is especially susceptible to political polarization. Individuals belonging to either party become so invested in those party’s beliefs that they do not just see the other party’s members as different but also wrong and detrimental to the future of the country. In the past twenty years, the amount of people who consistently hold conservative views or liberal views went from 10% to 20%, thus showing the increasing division, according to an article in Greater Good Magazine.

Political polarization is facilitated by platforms like Facebook and Twitter because of their content algorithms, which are designed to make the website experience more enjoyable. The Facebook News Feed “ranks stories based on a variety of factors including their history of clicking on links for particular websites,” as described by a Brookings article. Under the algorithm, if a liberal user frequently clicks on liberally skewed content, that is what they are going to see the most. Research shows this algorithm reduced the cross-cutting of political “content by 5 percent for conservatives and 8 percent for liberals.” Thus, the algorithm limits your view of other opinions.

So, you might ask, “Why is that bad? I want to see content more aligned with my beliefs.” Democracy is built on the exchange of varying political views and dissenting opinions. The US has long stood by the reputation of freedom of speech and encouraging a free flow of ideas. This algorithmic grouping of like-minded people can be useful when it comes to hobbies and interests, however when it comes to consistently grouping individuals based on political beliefs, it can have a negative impact on democracy. This grouping causes American users to live in “filter bubbles” that only expose them to content that aligns with their viewpoints. Users tend to find this grouping enjoyable due to the psychological theory of confirmation bias, which means that individuals are more likely to consume content that aligns with their pre-existing beliefs. So, all the articles about Trump successfully leading the country will be the first ranked on a conservative user’s Facebook newsfeed and will also be the most enjoyable for them. This filter bubble is dangerous to a democratic system because the lack of diverse perspectives when consuming news content encourages close-mindedness and increases distrust in anyone who disagrees.

During the 2016 presidential election, the Russian hackers put out various types of fake articles, campaign advertisements, and social media posts that were politically charged on either the liberal or conservative side. Because the Facebook algorithm shows more conservative content to conservatives and same for liberals, hackers had no problem reaching their desired audience quickly and effectively. On Facebook they created thousands of robot computer programs that would enter various interest groups and engage with their target audience. For example, in 2016, a Russian soldier successfully entered a U.S. Facebook group pretending to be a 42-year-old housewife, as reported by Time. He responded to political issues discussed on that group and he used emotional and political buzz words when bringing up political issues and stories. On Twitter, thousands of fake accounts run by Russians and computer robots were used to spread disinformation about Hillary Clinton by continuously mentioning her email scandal from when she was Secretary of State and a fake Democratic pedophilic ring called “Pizzagate.” These robots would spew hashtags like “#MAGA” and “#CrookedHillary” that took up more than a quarter of the content within these hashtags.

Facebook and Twitter’s Response to the 2016 Russian Interference

According to a Wall Street Journal article on May 26, 2020 and a Washington Post article on June 28, 2020, Facebook had an internal review of how Facebook could reduce polarization on its platform following the 2016 election, but CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other executives decided against the recommended changes because it was seen as "paternalistic" and would potentially affect conservatives on Facebook more. 

After becoming under increasing fire from critics for allowing misinformation and hate speech to go unchecked on Facebook, the company announced some changes to "fight polarization" on May 27, 2020. This initiative included a recalibration of each user’s Facebook News Feed which would prioritize their family and friends’ content over divisive news content. Their reasoning was that data shows people are more likely to have meaningful discourse with people they know, and this would foster healthy debate rather than ineffective, one-off conversations. They also mentioned a policy directly targeting the spread of disinformation on the platform. They say they have implemented an independent-fact-checking program that will automatically check content in over 50 languages around the world for false information.  Disinformation that will potentially contribute to “imminent violence, physical harm, and voter suppression,” will be removed. 

But those modest changes weren't enough to mollify Facebook's critics. Amidst the mass nationwide protests of the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin's brutal killing of George Floyd, nonprofit organizations including Color for Change organized an ad boycott against Facebook. Over 130 companies agreed to remove their ads from Facebook during July or longer. That led Zuckerberg to change his position on exempting politicians from fact checking or the company's general policy on misinformation. Zuckerberg said that politicians would now be subject to the same policy as every other Facebook user and would be flagged if they disseminated misinformation (or hate speech) that violates Facebook's general policy. 

Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey not only implemented a fact-checking policy similar to Facebook, but also admitted that the company needed to be more transparent in their policy making. The fact checking policy “attached fact-checking notices” at the bottom of various tweets alerting users that there could be fake claims in those tweets.  Twitter also decided to forbig all political advertising on its platform. In response to Twitter's flagging of his content, President Trump issued an executive order to increase social media platform regulation and stop them from deleting users’ content and censoring their speech.

With the 2020 U.S. election only four months away, Internet companies are still figuring out how to stop Russian interference and the spread of misinformation, hate speech, and political polarization intended to interfere with the election. Whether Internet companies succeed remains to be seen.  But there's been more policy changes and decisions by Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Snapchat, Twitch, and other platforms in the last month than all of last year. 

-by Mariam Tabrez

Over 130 Companies Remove Ads from Facebook in #StopHateforProfit Boycott, forcing Mark Zuckerberg to change lax Facebook policy on misinformation and hate content

In the aftermath of Cambridge Analytica scandal in which the company exploited Facebook to target and manipulate swing voters in the 2016 U.S. election, Facebook did an internal review to examine the company's role in spreading misinformation and fake news that may have affected the election, as CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced. In 2018, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook was making changes to be better prepared to stop misinformation in the 2020 election. Critics criticized the changes as modest, however. As WSJ reporters Jeff Horwitz and Deepa Seetharaman detailed, Facebook executives largely rejected the internal study's recommendations to reduce polarization on Facebook. Doing so might be "paternalistic" and might open Facebook up to criticisms of being biased against conservatives.

Despite the concerns about fake news and misinformation affecting the 2020 election, Facebook took the position that fact checking for misinformation did not apply to the posts and ads by politicians in the same way as they applied to everyone else. Facebook's policy was even more permissive to political ads and politicians. As shown below, Facebook justified this hands-off position as advancing political speech: "Our approach is grounded in Facebook's fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, especially in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is the most scrutinized speech there is. Just as critically, by limiting political speech we would leave people less informed about what their elected officials are saying and leave politicians less accountable for their words."

Facebook's Fact-Checking Exception for Politicians and Political Ads

By contrast, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey decided to ban political ads in 2019 and to monitor the content politicians just as Twitter does with all other users for misinformation and other violations of Twitter's policy.  Yet Zuckerberg persisted in his "hands off" approach: "“I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online." Zuckerberg even said Twitter was wrong to add warnings to two of President Trump's tweets as misleading (regarding mail-in ballots) and glorifying violence (Trump said, "When the looting starts, the shooting starts" regarding the protests of the Minneapolis police Derek Chauvin killing of George Floyd)  Back in October 2019, Zuckerberg defended his approach in the face of withering questioning by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

 

In May and June 2020, Zuckerberg persisted in his "hands off" approach. Some Facebook employees quit in protest, while others staged a walkout.  Yet Zuckerberg still persisted. 

On June 17, 2020, Color of Change, which is "the nation’s largest online racial justice organization," organized with NAACP, Anti-Defamation League, Sleeping Giants, Free Press, and Common Sense Media a boycott of advertising on Facebook for the month of July. The boycott was labeled #StopHateforProfit. Within just 10 days, over 130 companies joined the ad boycott of Facebook.  It included many large companies, such as Ben and Jerry's, Coca-Cola, Dockers, Eddie Bauer, Levi's, The North Face, REI, Unilver, and Verizon. 

On June 26, 2020, Zuckerberg finally announced some changes to Facebook's policy.  The biggest changes:

(1) Moderating hateful content in ads. As Zuckerberg explained on his Facebook page, "We already restrict certain types of content in ads that we allow in regular posts, but we want to do more to prohibit the kind of divisive and inflammatory language that has been used to sow discord. So today we're prohibiting a wider category of hateful content in ads. Specifically, we're expanding our ads policy to prohibit claims that people from a specific race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, caste, sexual orientation, gender identity or immigration status are a threat to the physical safety, health or survival of others. We're also expanding our policies to better protect immigrants, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from ads suggesting these groups are inferior or expressing contempt, dismissal or disgust directed at them."

(2) Adding labels to posts, including from candidates, that may violate Facebook's policy. As Zuckerberg explained, "Often, seeing speech from politicians is in the public interest, and in the same way that news outlets will report what a politician says, we think people should generally be able to see it for themselves on our platforms.

"We will soon start labeling some of the content we leave up because it is deemed newsworthy, so people can know when this is the case. We'll allow people to share this content to condemn it, just like we do with other problematic content, because this is an important part of how we discuss what's acceptable in our society -- but we'll add a prompt to tell people that the content they're sharing may violate our policies.

"To clarify one point: there is no newsworthiness exemption to content that incites violence or suppresses voting. Even if a politician or government official says it, if we determine that content may lead to violence or deprive people of their right to vote, we will take that content down. Similarly, there are no exceptions for politicians in any of the policies I'm announcing here today." 

Facebook's new labeling of content of candidates sounds very similar to what Zuckerberg criticized Twitter as being wrong. And Facebook's new policy on moderating hateful content in ads that "are a threat to the physical safety, health or survival of others," including "people from a specific race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, caste, sexual orientation, gender identity or immigration status," seems a positive step to prevent Facebook being a platform to sow racial discord, which is a goal of Russian operatives according to U.S. intelligence. 

Facebook new policy on moderation of political ads and posts by politicians and others

The organizers of the boycott, however, were not impressed with Facebook's changes. They issued a statement quoted by NPR: "None of this will be vetted or verified — or make a dent in the problem on the largest social media platform on the planet. We have been down this road before with Facebook. They have made apologies in the past. They have taken meager steps after each catastrophe where their platform played a part. But this has to end now."

 

Trump Campaign Snaps at Being Removed from Snapchat's Discover Page

On June 3, 2020, Snapchat decided to stop promoting the Snapchat account of Donald Trump on its Discover page, which provides a feed of stories from celebrities and other popular profiles that are curated by Snapchat for its users.

How Russian Interference May Target Black Voters and Foment Racial Discord in U.S.

Russia is reportedly continuing its U.S. election interference tactics that it deployed in 2016, in particular targeting race as a method to depress minority voters and turnout. Russia stoked anger and fear through the spread of disinformation in the U.S. to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election, as a bipartisan report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found [Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3, and Volume 4]. Russia's primary method of disinformation used social media, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. A March 10, 2020 article in the New York Times reports that, in the 2016 election, Russian "operatives tried to stoke racial animosity by creating fake Black Lives Matter groups and spreading disinformation to depress black voter turnout." Russia is now expanding its efforts to interfere with the 2020 U.S. elections. Russia’s current goal, according to multiple intelligence officials, is to create chaos within the United States by using racial discord as a wedge. American officials have noted several ways that Russia has tried to spread disinformation, create fear, and stoke anger. According to the NYT article, the two primary methods are (1) incentivizing white nationalist groups to spread more hate and (2) manipulating black groups by infiltrating them to create more divisions and fear. Race is being weaponized by Russia in its efforts to interfere with the 2020 U.S. election. 

In the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, black voter turnout was down. It is clear from Russia's 2016 disinformation campaign targeting minority voters, particularly black voters, that Russian interference is highly sophisticated and advanced. As noted in the New York Times article, many of the accounts on Instagram targeting a black audience dated back to January 2015. The Russian interference on the African American community goes beyond Facebook and Twitter voter disinformation. It is on Instagram and other platforms.  

With regards to the 2020 election, direct action is being taken now in contrast to 2016. The FBI has a Foreign Influence Task Force to investigate election interference. According to the NYT, "[t]he F.B.I. is scrutinizing any ties between Russian intelligence or its proxies and Rinaldo Nazzaro, an American citizen who founded a neo-Nazi group, the Base." A VOA article dives into efforts being made to decipher false information on social media.  Being aware of the role of Russia in the suppressing of minority and particularly black votes changes things. Various advocacy groups are taking actions to combat the disinformation and hold both social media platforms and government official accountable. "Social media companies pledged new security measures aimed at finding and removing coordinated manipulation campaigns before they spread fake content," VOA reported.

Many African American voters get their political news through the use of social media (50% in 2014). That is why it is imperative that they be made aware of Russia’s role in disinformation and also the ways in which they are being targeted. In an interview with NPR, Charlene Oliver of the Equity Alliance talks about how groups like hers plan to get out the black vote and the impact that knowing Russia’s role in 2016 has on their work. For many people, the effectiveness of Russia’s interference in 2015 came as a surprise. Now groups like the Equity Alliance are using the lessons from 2016 to drive their voter protection efforts for this year’s election. Oliver mentions that voter information is essential to combat online disinformation meant to suppress the vote. With advocacy groups working for direct voter education, others are working to hold government officials accountable.

In a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, asked to be informed about the steps the United States Justice Department is taking or has taken to address the ongoing Russian interference on the election. In the letter they note how Russia has evolved in their spread of disinformation. The attacks have moved to areas of the web that are less monitored such as private groups on social media platforms and also private chat groups. In these groups Russia attempts to stoke racial tensions in America and evoke fears in an effort to keep voters away from the polls. The NAACP is asking Attorney General Barr to prohibit voter suppression efforts through the use of the Voting Rights Act and also through executive action to promote election security. They also note that African American voters must both contend with domestic and international voter suppression efforts, so it is imperative that policy action be taken. 

According to some legal experts, however, Barr seems to be protecting President Donald Trump, whose campaign benefited from the 2016 Russian interference. Barr is investigating the origin of the federal investigation into Russian interference, in an apparent attempt to discredit the Mueller Report and the entire U.S. investigation into Russian interference. In an op-ed, Emily Bazelon and Eric Posner list the questionable actions of Barr, "an attorney general whose loyalty to a president stands ahead of his fidelity to the rule of law."

With the awareness of the role of Russia in 2016, the spread of information in the 2020 election is being watched closely. As noted in the NAACP letter to Barr, Russia will not use all of the same election interference methods they used in 2016. New methods will be created. That is why greater safeguards should be adopted by both the U.S. government and by social media companies. It is unclear how the nationwide and international protests of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin's brutal killing of George Floyd, along with the separate killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor in Georgia and Kentucky, will change the dynamics of the 2020 elections. It is possible that, instead of depressing voter turnout, the protests will lead to greater voter turnout, with more people civically engaged and demanding accountability.

-written by Bisola Oni

U.S. Federal Election Commission's Proposed Rule to Require Campaign Reporting of Receipt of "Valuable Information" and "Compromising Information"

In response to findings that President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign received election assistance from foreign entities, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has proposed new rules to limit foreign election contributions.  [More from NPR] . Earlier this year, two entities—Sai, Fiat Fiendum, Inc. and Make Your Laws PAC, Inc.—petitioned the FEC to amend the definition of “valuable information” under 11 CFR part 100. 

Specifically, the proposed changes would narrow the commission’s legal definition of a contribution by defining “valuable information” as information that:

  1. Is not freely available to the public;
  2. Is provided to a person regulated by the Federal Elections Campaign Act . . . at a cost less than the market rate or by a person not hired by the recipient to generate such information;
  3. Would cost a non-trivial amount for the recipient to obtain at their own expense; and
  4. Is information that would likely have the effect of influencing any election for federal office or that parties or candidate committees have traditionally expended money to obtain.

If accepted, the following definition will be codified at 11 CFR 100.57.

The proposed regulation outlines two types of “valuable information”: “foreign information” and “compromising information.”

  • Foreign information” would include any information that comes from a source that is prohibited from making contributions under the Federal Elections Campaign Act.
  • Compromising information” would include information that could be used to blackmail or otherwise compromise any candidate for Federal office (including indirect coercion, such as of a candidate’s family), regardless of the source.

If any campaign official was offered or received either of types of information, the regulation mandates that they report this contact to the FEC within three days. Upon learning of a campaign receiving such information, the regulation requires the FEC to initiate investigations, provide a report to the FBI, and, in the case of “compromising information,” provide a report to every reasonably identifiable person against whom such information could be used. Once the FEC has learned of this information, the regulation requires the agency to provide a report to any other law enforcement entity with likely jurisdiction over the matter. Fourteen days later, the FEC must also publish a report on the matter.

Ellen L. Weintraub, the chair of the FEC, signed a notice about the potential new restrictions, further emphasizing the importance of curbing foreign interference in elections. Previously, on June 13, 2019, Weintraub published a statement regarding illegal contributions from foreign governments. “It is illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election,” she reiterated. “Any political campaign that receives an offer of a prohibited donation from a foreign source should report that offer to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

Currently, the FEC is seeking public comment on this proposed rule. This comment period ends on September 30, 2019. After this phase, the rule will be voted on by the FEC commissioners. In accordance with FEC agency policy, four votes are needed for any official action to proceed. Considering the agency currently has four confirmed commissioners out of six possible, this rule would need a unanimous vote in order to become law.

This administrative action echoes similar efforts in the House and Senate to pass increased election security protections in response to Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Federal Judge Orders Georgia Election Officials to Upgrade Voting System Before 2020

On Thursday, August 15th, Federal District Court Judge Amy Totenberg ordered the state of Georgia to upgrade its election systems before the state holds its presidential primary election in March of 2020. The 151-page ruling describes Georgia’s election system as “antiquated, seriously flawed, and vulnerable to failure, breach, contamination, and attack.” Although she has previously ordered Georgia to upgrade its election systems, Thursday’s order marks the first time Judge Totenberg has set a specific deadline that Georgia officials must meet.

Georgia is one of a handful of states that relies exclusively on electronic voting systems that do not provide a paper record. Election security experts have roundly criticized such systems, noting that they are vulnerable to hackers and susceptible to logistical problems. Indeed, election security experts have identified a number of significant security breaches that occurred during the 2018 election.

Due to these concerns and previous orders from Judge Totenberg, Georgia had announced plans to upgrade its voting systems prior to Thursday’s ruling. In July, Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger publicly announced that the state would purchase new electronic voting machines from Dominion Voting Systems. The machines will print out a paper ballot and a QR code that  both voters and election officials can use to verify vote tallies. The Associated Press notes that while Judge Totenberg has praised the new machines as “an essential step forward out of the quagmire, even if just to terminate use of antiquated voting  system,” plaintiffs remain skeptical of the new machines, specifically questioning the extent to which voters will be allowed to verify their selections rather than relying on a printed QR code. Because of these concerns, plaintiffs have publicly announced their intention to bring separate litigation over the newly proposed machines.

Judge Totenberg’s ruling was prompted by a motion from plaintiff voters and election security advocates asking the court to force Georgia officials to use paper ballots during upcoming 2019 municipal elections. Citing logistical concerns, Judge Totenberg held that the state would not have enough time to implement a paper ballot system in time. However, she notes that use of the current system “past this 2019 cycle of elections is indefensible given the operational and constitutional issues at stake.”

The ultimate effect of Thursday’s ruling is to prevent Georgia from reverting to current election systems if newly proposed voting machines are not rolled out in time for 2020 elections. As a result, Georgia will have to resort to a paper balloting system in 2020 if new systems are not in place. In preparation for this contingency,  Judge Totenberg’s order requires the Secretary of State to “address errors and discrepancies in the voter registration database” and test the use of a paper balloting system in a handful of jurisdictions during the state’s upcoming municipal elections.

Summary of Senate Intelligence Committee Report: “Russian Efforts Against Election Infrastructure”

On July 25, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence published Volume I of a report on Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference.  The report stems from the committee’s bipartisan investigation into a wide range of Russian activities relating to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Volume I reaffirmed the Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA)  that  Russian intelligence accessed elements of multiple state or local electoral boards prior to the 2016 presidential election. According to the Report, DHS concluded that the Russian government likely researched the electoral system in place in all 50 states. In fact, by September 2017, DHS concluded that 21 states were explicitly targeted by Russian government cyber actors.

The Committee determined that “scanning” of election-related state infrastructure was the most widespread activity conducted by the Russian government prior to the election. Scanning is a form of reconnaissance where an adversary searches for weaknesses, access points, and vulnerabilities. Dr. Samuel Liles, Acting Director of Cyber Division for the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, characterized these activities as “analogous to somebody walking down the street and looking to see if you are home. A small number of systems were unsuccessfully exploited, as though somebody had rattled the doorknob but was unable to get in . . . [however] a small number of the networks were successfully exploited. They made it through the door."

It should be noted that the Report provides no evidence that votes were changed, vote tallying systems were manipulated, or that any voter registration data was altered or deleted during the 2016 election cycle. Despite this, there is reason to believe that Russia will continue to escalate its interference in future elections. When testifying before the Committee, Michael Daniel, former Assistant and Cybersecurity Coordinator for President Obama, warned that mapping is done “so that [Russia] could actually understand the network [and] establish a presence so [they] could come back later and actually execute an operation.” Moreover, in an addendum providing the additional views of Senators Harris (D-CA), Bennet (D-CO), and Heinrich (D-NM), the Report states that “Russian operatives undoubtedly gained familiarity with our election systems and voter registration infrastructure—valuable intelligence that it may seek to exploit in the future.”

At the end of the Report, the Committee provided a comprehensive list of recommendations aimed at preventing Russia from interfering in future elections.

1.  Reinforce States' Primacy in Running Elections

The Committee recommends reinforcing the role of each state in administering elections while the federal government should ensure they receive the necessary resources and information. This recommendation received pushback from Senator Wyden (D-OR) who calls for mandatory, nation-wide cybersecurity requirements. Wyden argues that Congress's constitutional role in regulating federal elections is well-established and that the Russian attacks are too complex and too serious to be left solely to state and local officials. Wyden went so far as to say that “[w]e would not ask a local sheriff to go to war against the missiles, planes and tanks of the Russian Army. We shouldn't ask a county election IT employee to fight a war against the full capabilities and vast resources of Russia's cyber army.”

2.  Create Effective Deterrence

The Committee recommends that the U.S. establish an international cyber doctrine to limit certain cyber activity. This doctrine would be similar to the existing international norms and treaties about the use of technologies and weapons systems. The government should treat a violation of this doctrine would be viewed as a hostile act and will be responded to appropriately. The Committee made it clear that the U.S. “should not limit its response to cyber activity; rather, it should create a menu of potential responses that will send a clear message and create significant costs for the perpetrator.”

3.  Improve Information Gathering and Sharing on Threats

The Committee recommends that the federal government, state governments, and local governments should establish clear channels of communication between one another. While this may seem rather rudimentary on its face, one of the key components of information sharing about elections is security clearances for appropriate officials at the state and local level. Since the 2016 election, DHS has compiled a list of officials to contact in every state if there is a threat. In addition, DHS is seeking to obtain security clearances for up to three election officials per state. Lastly, federal officials are working to declassify information in order to provide the greatest possible warning to state and local officials without compromising our own national intelligence.

4.  Secure Election-Related Cyber Systems

Despite the expense, the Committee recommends that cybersecurity needs to become a higher priority for election-related infrastructure. To do this, election officials should work with DHS to evaluate the security of their election systems, voter registration systems, state records, and other pre-election activities. The Report stated that in 2016, “cybersecurity for electoral infrastructure at the state and local level was sorely lacking.” The Committee additionally recommends that DHS creates an advisory panel to give expert-level advice on how states and localities run elections. Using this advice, DHS should develop procedures and processes to evaluate and routinely provide guidance on relevant vulnerabilities associated with voting systems.

5.  Take Steps to Secure the Vote Itself

The Committee recommends that states act with urgency to replace outdated and vulnerable voting systems. At a minimum, any machine purchased going forward should have a voter-verified paper trail and remove (or render inert) any wireless networking capability. This is because paper ballots and optical scanners are the least vulnerable to cyber-attack. However, in order for paper ballots to be a legitimate means of tallying votes, there must be a secure chain of custody for those ballots. For this reason, the Committee recommends that states reexamine their safeguards against insertion of fraudulent paper ballots at the local level. Lastly, the Committee recommended that vendors of election equipment be briefed about the vulnerabilities in both the machines and the supply chains for the components of their machines.

6.  Assistance for the States

Finally, the Committee outlined its assessment of how the federal government can assist state and local governments in ensuring free and fair elections. State officials told the Committee the main obstacle to improving cybersecurity and purchasing more secure voting machines is cost. In March 2018, Congress appropriated $280 million in grants aimed at improving election security. Among other things, these funds will go toward replacing voting machines, hiring additional IT staff, updating software, and contracting with vendors to provide cybersecurity services. The Committee recommends that the Election Assistance Commission—the entity responsible for administering the grants—regularly report to Congress on how the states are using those funds, whether more funds are needed, and whether states have both replaced outdated voting equipment and improved cybersecurity.

Above all, this Report serves as a reminder that since 2014, Russia has been exploiting weaknesses in the American electoral system in order to sow discord and distrust among the American public. As former Deputy Director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, told the Committee, the Russians “might not be effective the first time or the fifth time, but they are going to keep at it until they can come back and do it in an effective way." The committee plans to release several more installments of its report in the fall, focusing on the "Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) of Russian interference, the Obama Administration’s response to Russian interference, the role of social media disinformation campaigns, and remaining counterintelligence questions."

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