The Free Internet Project

Project Safeguarding Elections

Mark Zuckerberg: Facebook to suspend political ads week before US election, add a label to premature election claims of victory

On September 3, 2020, Mark Zuckerberg published a lengthy post on his personal Facebook profile, detailing dramatic new measures Facebook is undertaking to safeguard the integrity of the U.S. elections. Zuckerberg wrote [we've added topical descriptions in brackets]:

Today, we're announcing additional steps we're taking at Facebook to encourage voting, connect people with authoritative information, and fight misinformation. These changes reflect what we've learned from our elections work over the past four years and the conversations we've had with voting rights experts and our civil rights auditors:


[Reliable Information at the top of page] We will put authoritative information from our Voting Information Center at the top of Facebook and Instagram almost every day until the election. This will include video tutorials on how to vote by mail, and information on deadlines for registering and voting in your state.

[No political ads starting the week before the election] We're going to block new political and issue ads during the final week of the campaign. It's important that campaigns can run get out the vote campaigns, and I generally believe the best antidote to bad speech is more speech, but in the final days of an election there may not be enough time to contest new claims. So in the week before the election, we won't accept new political or issue ads. Advertisers will be able to continue running ads they started running before the final week and adjust the targeting for those ads, but those ads will already be published transparently in our Ads Library so anyone, including fact-checkers and journalists, can scrutinize them.

[Partnering with state election authorities to identify election misinformation] We're going to extend our work with election officials to remove misinformation about voting. We already committed to partnering with state election authorities to identify and remove false claims about polling conditions in the last 72 hours of the campaign, but given that this election will include large amounts of early voting, we're extending that period to begin now and continue through the election until we have a clear result. We've already consulted with state election officials on whether certain voting claims are accurate.

[Limit the number of chats you can forward on Messenger] We're reducing the risk of misinformation and harmful content going viral by limiting forwarding on Messenger. You'll still be able to share information about the election, but we'll limit the number of chats you can forward a message to at one time. We've already implemented this in WhatsApp during sensitive periods and have found it to be an effective method of preventing misinformation from spreading in many countries.

[Remove both explicit and implicit voting misinformation] No political ads starting the week before the election] We're expanding our voter suppression policies. We already remove explicit misrepresentations about how or when to vote that could cause someone to lose their opportunity to vote -- for example, saying things like "you can send in your mail ballot up to 3 days after election day", which is obviously not true. (In most states, mail-in ballots have to be *received* by election day, not just mailed, in order to be counted.) We're now expanding this policy to include implicit misrepresentations about voting too, like "I hear anybody with a driver's license gets a ballot this year", because it might mislead you about what you need to do to get a ballot, even if that wouldn't necessarily invalidate your vote by itself.

[Remove COVID-misinformation to scare voters from voting] We're putting in place rules against using threats related to Covid-19 to discourage voting. We will remove posts with claims that people will get Covid-19 if they take part in voting. We'll attach a link to authoritative information about Covid-19 to posts that might use the virus to discourage voting, and we're not going to allow this kind of content in ads. Given the unique circumstances of this election, it's especially important that people have accurate information about the many ways to vote safely, and that Covid-19 isn't used to scare people into not exercising their right to vote.

Measure to stop false or premature election results 

Since the pandemic means that many of us will be voting by mail, and since some states may still be counting valid ballots after election day, many experts are predicting that we may not have a final result on election night. It's important that we prepare for this possibility in advance and understand that there could be a period of intense claims and counter-claims as the final results are counted. This could be a very heated period, so we're preparing the following policies to help in the days and weeks after voting ends:

[Facebook Voting Information Center provide information on time it takes to count votes] We'll use the Voting Information Center to prepare people for the possibility that it may take a while to get official results. This information will help people understand that there is nothing illegitimate about not having a result on election night.

[Partner with Reuters and National Election Pool for authoritative information on relection results] We're partnering with Reuters and the National Election Pool to provide authoritative information about election results. We'll show this in the Voting Information Center so it's easily accessible, and we'll notify people proactively as results become available. Importantly, if any candidate or campaign tries to declare victory before the results are in, we'll add a label to their post educating that official results are not yet in and directing people to the official results.

• [Label posts that attempt to deligitimize the election results] We will attach an informational label to content that seeks to delegitimize the outcome of the election or discuss the legitimacy of voting methods, for example, by claiming that lawful methods of voting will lead to fraud. This label will provide basic authoritative information about the integrity of the election and voting methods.

[Expand Facebook policy against content with violence and harm directed at election officials] We'll enforce our violence and harm policies more broadly by expanding our definition of high-risk people to include election officials in order to help prevent any attempts to pressure or harm them, especially while they're fulfilling their critical obligations to oversee the vote counting.

• [Expand Facebook policy against militia and conspiracy groups organizing or supporting violence] We've already strengthened our enforcement against militias, conspiracy networks like QAnon, and other groups that could be used to organize violence or civil unrest in the period after the elections. We have already removed thousands of these groups and removed even more from being included in our recommendations and search results. We will continue to ramp up enforcement against these groups over the coming weeks.

It's important to recognize that there may be legitimate concerns about the electoral process over the coming months. We want to make sure people can speak up if they encounter problems at the polls or have been prevented from voting, but that doesn't extend to spreading misinformation. We'll enforce the policies I outlined above as well as all our existing policies around voter suppression and voting misinformation, but to ensure there are clear and consistent rules, we are not planning to make further changes to our election-related policies between now and the official declaration of the result.

In addition to all of this, four years ago we encountered a new threat: coordinated online efforts by foreign governments and individuals to interfere in our elections. This threat hasn't gone away. Just this week, we took down a network of 13 accounts and 2 pages that were trying to mislead Americans and amplify division. We've invested heavily in our security systems and now have some of the most sophisticated teams and systems in the world to prevent these attacks. We've removed more than 100 networks worldwide engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior over the past couple of years, including ahead of major democratic elections. However, we're increasingly seeing attempts to undermine the legitimacy of our elections from within our own borders.

I believe our democracy is strong enough to withstand this challenge and deliver a free and fair election -- even if it takes time for every vote to be counted. We've voted during global pandemics before. We can do this. But it's going to take a concerted effort by all of us -- political parties and candidates, election authorities, the media and social networks, and ultimately voters as well -- to live up to our responsibilities. We all have a part to play in making sure that the democratic process works, and that every voter can make their voice heard where it matters most -- at the ballot box.

 

Facebook enlists independent researchers and Social Science One to study how Facebook, Instagram affect 2020 US elections

On Aug. 31, 2020, Facebook announced a new research initiative it started with Social Science One committee chairs, Professors Talia Stroud of University of Texas at Austin and Joshua Tucker of New York University. The researchers will examine "examine the impact of how people interact with our products, including content shared in News Feed and across Instagram, and the role of features like content ranking systems." The research projects conducted on Facebook or via data from Facebook will start soon and end in December, after the November 2020 election. Facebook "expect[s] between 200,000 and 400,000 US adults may choose to participate in the study, which could include things like taking part in surveys or agreeing to see a different product experience. We will also study trends across Facebook and Instagram – but only in aggregate."

Interestingly, Facebook believes that the research projects will not affect the outcome of the U.S. elections: "With billions of dollars spent on ads, direct mail, canvassing, organizing and get out the vote efforts, it is statistically implausible that one research initiative could impact the outcome of an election. The research has been carefully designed to not impact the outcome of the election or harm participants. The sample of participants represents approximately 0.1% of the entire US eligible voting population spread across the US. By better understanding how people use our platform during an election, we can continually enhance the integrity of the platform moving forward." 

Facebook seems to gloss over the fact that a few swing voters in key swing states or precincts could ultimately determine the outcome of some of the elections. Without knowing the details of the various research projects, it's hard to evaluate the potential effect they may have on voters. 

The independent researchers are: 

  • Hunt Allcott, New York University 
  • Deen Freelon, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Matthew Gentzkow, Stanford University
  • Sandra Gonzalez-Bailon, University of Pennsylvania
  • Andrew Guess, Princeton University
  • Shanto Iyengar, Stanford University
  • Young Mie Kim, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • David Lazer, Northeastern University 
  • Neil Malhotra, Stanford University
  • Brendan Nyhan, Dartmouth College
  • Jennifer Pan, Stanford University
  • Jaime Settle, William & Mary
  • Talia Stroud, The University of Texas at Austin
  • Emily Thorson, Syracuse University
  • Rebekah Tromble, The George Washington University
  • Joshua A. Tucker, New York University
  • Magdalena Wojcieszak, University of California, Davis; University of Amsterdam

Facebook describes the scope of research projects as follows:

The independent academics are collaborating with Facebook researchers to design a diverse set of studies to analyze the role of Facebook and Instagram in the US 2020 election. To collect the information for the study, we are partnering with NORC at the University of Chicago, an objective, non-partisan research institution that has been studying public opinion since 1941. NORC possesses deep expertise in survey research, policy evaluation, data collection, advanced analytics and data science. The study was approved by NORC’s Institutional Review Board.

For people who have explicitly opted in to the study, we plan to combine multiple research methods, including surveys and behavioral data analysis, along with targeted changes to some participants’ experiences with Facebook and Instagram. For example, participants could see more or fewer ads in specific categories such as retail, entertainment or politics, or see more or fewer posts in News Feed related to specific topics. Other participants may be asked to stop using Facebook or Instagram for a period of time. A subset of participants may be asked to install an app on their devices – with their permission – that will log other digital media that they consume. This will allow researchers to understand more comprehensively the information environment that people experience. 

Key Takeaways from Senate Intelligence Committee Report, Vol. 5: Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election

With the 2020 U.S. presidential election less than 80 days away and the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the country’s daily operations, the political world has been center stage. Last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee released its lengthy, final report, Volume 5, on the Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election. Though the Intelligence Committee was Republican-led, the report is bipartisan, involving both Democrat and Republican input. The report is a three-year culmination of probing countless documents, interviews, and emails. The investigation resulted in what the committee considers, “the most comprehensive description to date of Russia’s activities and the threat they posed.” The report concluded: "The Committee found that the Russian government engaged in an aggressive, multifaceted effort to influence, or attempt to influence, the outcome of the 2016 presidential election." The extensive, nearly 1,000 page report focused on various aspects of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Here are some key issues and takeaways of Volume 5.  (For our prior summaries, visit here for Volume 4 and Volume 1.

Paul Manafort's relationship with Russian individuals was a "grave counterintelligence threat"

Paul Manafort is a political consultant and former lobbyist who is known for having multiple ties to powerful politicians and businesspeople throughout the world, specifically Russia and Ukraine. In March 2016, Manafort was hired by the Trump Campaign as convention manager and by May 2016, he was promoted to chairman and chief strategist. The report stated the Trump campaign conducted “no known vetting of him, including his financial situation or vulnerability to foreign influence” (p. 27). The report further highlights that once Manafort was hired onto the Trump campaign, he quickly sought to use his position to resolve his various multi-million-dollar foreign disputes and acquire other work in Ukraine and other locations. Also, Manafort hired Russian national Konstantin Kilimnik, who served as a close liaison between Manafort and Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and other pro-Russia Ukrainian oligarchs. The committee found that “on numerous occasions, Manafort sought to pass sensitive internal polling data and campaign strategy to Kilimnik.” Though the committee was not able to find what Manafort and Kilimnik did with this information, there was continuous engagement between Manafort, an American campaign official and various Russian intelligence personnel. Moreover, "[a]fter the election, Manafort continued to coordinate with Russian persons, particularly Kilimnik and other individuals close to Deripaska, in an effort to undertake activities on their behalf. Manafort worked with Kilimnik starting in 2016 on narratives that sought to undermine evidence that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election." (p.6)  The bipartisan committee described Manafort's relationship “a grave counterintelligence threat” (p. vii). (As a part of the Mueller investigation, Manafort was convicted by a jury of various charges of tax and bank fraud.)

Michael Cohen negotiated with Russians to help secure approval for Trump Tower Moscow; Trump praised Putin

In September 2015, shortly after Donald Trump announced his candidacy, Trump and the Trump organization pursued a business deal in Russia. Michael Cohen, the Trump organization’s then executive vice president and Trump’s personal attorney, received two offers from Russian businessmen to create a Trump Tower in Moscow. The negotiations for this deal commenced from September 2015 to October 2015 until both parties agreed to a Letter of Intent (LOI) that laid out terms involving millions of dollars paid to the Trump organization. In November 2015, the LOI was signed. Cohen kept Trump informed on the status of the deal and while these negotiations were taking place, Trump made positive public comments throughout his campaign about Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. The report states that Cohen, “at various times understood that both Putin’s and Trump’s comments could be useful in advancing the deal,” (p. 407). Even dating back to 2007, Trump wrote a letter to Putin congratulating him on being named Time's "Man of the Year." However, the deal for Trump Tower Moscow fell through in summer of 2016.

2016 Trump Tower Meeting among Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya

In June 2016, a meeting was held in the Trump Tower in New York City. This meeting involved Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer, and her four associates. The Committee found it very difficult to find evidence of the contents of this meeting and had to rely on conflicting witness testimony. However, the committee found that Donald Trump Jr. was expecting to receive “derogatory information” that would come from persons connected to the Russian government; however this information was never transmitted. Another alarming aspect of this meeting is the presence of Veselnitskaya. She is not only a Russian lawyer, but she has previously worked with and keeps in contact with various senior members of the Russian government. She has worked as defense counsel for the Russian government and a Russian business, Prevezon Holdings, in cases involving millions of dollars of fraud. The committee found her ties with powerful Russians, “extensive and concerning,” (p. ix).

Putin Ordered the Hack of DNC Computers; Wikileaks helped; Roger Stone was a liaison 

"The Committee found that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian effort to hack computer networks and accounts affiliated with the Democratic Party and leak information damaging to Hillary Clinton and her campaign for president. Moscow's intent was to harm the Clinton Campaign, tarnish an expected Clinton presidential administration, help the Trump Campaign after Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee, and undermine the U.S. democratic process." (p. vii) Moreover, "Wikileaks actively sought, and played, a key role in the Russian influence campaign and very likely knew it was assisting Russian intelligence influence effort." (p. vii) In addition, "Trump and senior Campaign offici.als sought to obtain advance information about WikiLeaks's planned releases through Roger Stone." (p. vii)

The FBI’s Response to the DNC Hack

The committee also investigated an aspect of this issue that was not explored in Robert Mueller’s report from 2019. The committee investigated the FBI’s response to the DNC’s computer network hacking issue. From July 2015 to October 2016, the DNC was subject to Russian hacking. This was a novel issue given that a nation-state had never intentionally hacked an American private political party, taken information, and used it against a nation through leaking it publicly. The DNC was hesitant to have the FBI address this issue due to their ongoing investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email servers. What makes this issue even more complicated is during this hacking, the FBI was already looking into the domestic impact of foreign threats during a U.S. presidential election, so why did they not help the DNC sooner? The committee found that both the DNC and the FBI were not as communicative as they needed to be. The FBI also “lacked an appropriate process to escalate their warnings of the DNC hack within the DNC,” (p. 816).

FBI's Reliance on Steele Dossier 

The Committee also found the FBI should have verified the controversial Steele dossier that formed the basis of its investigation of Trump's possible connection with Russia: "Regarding the Steele Dossier, FBI gave Steele's allegations unjustified credence, based on an incomplete understanding of Steele's past reporting record. FBI used the Dossier in a FISA application and renewals and advocated for it to be included in the ICA before taking the necessary steps to validate assumptions about Steele's credibility. Further, FBI did not effectively adjust its approach to Steele's reporting once one of Steele's subsources provided information that raised serious concerns about the source descriptions in the Steele Dossier. The Corhinittee further found that Steele's reporting lacked rigor and transparency about the quality of the sourcing." (p. xix)

Committee Avoids Issue of "Collusion" with Russia

The one major issue that the report avoids specifically addressing is whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia in the interference. Some Senators appended "Additional Views" on that issue. See pp. 941-952. 

--written by Mariam Tabrez

NYT: Facebook developing contingency plans and "kill switch" on political ads if Trump tries to "wrongly claim on the site that he won"

On Aug. 21, 2020, Mike Isaac and Sheera Frankel of the New York Times reported that Facebook is developing contingency plans just in case Donald Trump "wrongly claim[s] on the site that he won" contrary to the actual election results should they be against him. Facebook is also weighing how it should deal with Trump's attempts to delegitimize the actual election results by "by declaring that the Postal Service lost mail-in ballots or that other groups meddled with the vote." The source are "people with knowledge of Facebook's plans. Facebook is even considering creating a "kill switch" to remove political ads that contain false election results.

Google is also discussing contingency plans for the U.S. elections, but didn't reveal further details.

It's not hard to envision another nightmare Bush v. Gore scenario, in which the result of the presidential election is contested. Trump has already attacked mail-in voting.  According to the NYT, in part due to the pandemic, 9 states have mailed ballots to all voters, while 34 other states allow voters to elect mail-in voting for any reason and 7 states allow mail-in voting for certain reasons.  Prof. Ned Foley has highlighted one reason this year's election may result in a contested outcome and litigation: mail-in ballots typically result in a "blue shift" with more ballots for Democrats than Republicans in past elections from mail-in ballots for reasons that are not entirely clear.  Thus, in close races, the "blue shift" might flip a state from Republican to Democrat when the mail-in votes are counted, giving rise to unsubstantiaed claims of foul play. For more about this scenario, read this Atlantic article

How are Twitter, Facebook, other Internet platforms going to stop 2020 election misinformation in U.S.?

With millions of users within the United States on Facebook and Twitter, Internet platforms are becoming a common source of current event news, information, and outlets for socialization for many Americans. These social media platforms have been criticized for allowing the spread of misinformation regarding political issues and the COVID-19 pandemic. These criticisms began after misinformation spread during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Many misinformation sources went unchecked, therefore millions of Americans were convinced they were consuming legitimate news sources when they were actually reading “fake news.” It is safe to say that these platforms do not want to repeat those mistakes. Ahead of the 2020 U.S. elections, both Facebook and Twitter have taken various actions to ensure misinformation is not only identified, but either removed or flagged as untrue with links to easily accessible, credible resources for their users.

Facebook’s Plan to Stop Election Misinformation

Facebook has faced the most criticism regarding the spread of misinformation due. Facebook has created a voting information center, similar to a COVID-19 one, that will appear in the Facebook and Instagram menu.

Facebook's Voting Information Center

This hub will target United States users only and will contain election information based on the user’s geographic location. For example, if you live in Orange County, Florida, information on vote-by-mail options and poll locations in that area will be provided. In addition, Facebook plans on adding notations to some posts containing election misinformation on Facebook with a link to verified information in the voting information center. Facebook will have voting alerts which will “communicate election-related updates to users through the platform.” Only official government accounts will have access to these voting alerts. Yet one sore spot appears to remain for Facebook: Facebook doesn't fact-check the posts or ads of politicians because, as CEO Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly said, Facebook does not want to be the "arbiter of truth." 

Twitter’s Plan to Stop Election Misinformation

Twitter has been in the press recently with their warnings on the bottom of a few of President Trump’s tweets for misinformation and glorification of violence. These warnings are part of Twitter’s community standards and Civic Integrity Policy, which was enacted in May 2020. This policy prohibits the use of “Twitter’s services for the purpose of manipulating or interfering in elections or other civic processes.” Civic processes include “political elections, censuses, and major referenda and ballot initiatives.” Twitter also banned political campaign ads starting in October 2019. Twitter recently released a statement stating its aim is to “empower every eligible person to register to vote,” by providing various resources for them to educate themselves on issues surrounding our society today. Twitter officials stated to Reuters they will be expanding their Civic Integrity Policy to address election misinformation, such as mischaracterizations of mail-in voting. But, as TechCrunch points out, "hyperpartisan content or making broad claims that elections are 'rigged' ... do not currently constitute a civic integrity policy violation, per Twitter’s guidance." Twitter also announce dthat it will identify with a notation state-affiliated media, such as from Russia: 

In addition to these policies, Facebook and Twitter, as well as other information platforms including Microsoft, Pinterest, Verizon Media, LinkedIn, and Wikimedia Foundation have all decided to work closely with U.S. government agencies to make sure the integrity of the election is not jeopardized. These tech companies have specifically discussed how the upcoming political conventions and specific scenarios arising from the election results will be handled. Though no details have been given, this seems to be a promising start to ensuring the internet does more good than bad in relation to politics.

--written by Mariam Tabrez

Belarus shuts down Internet after disputed election of Pres. Lukashenko

 

Protests over a disputed presidential election in Belarus continue. The country's Central Election Commission said President Aleksandr Lukashenko, in power since 1994, had won 80.1% of the vote and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya only 10.12% of the vote. But the election was disputed from the start. On Aug. 9, 2020, Belarusians experienced a massive communications blackout involving disruptions to internet connectivity and cellular devices, as reported by Wired. Belarus’ President Lukashenko claims the blackout resulted from foreign interference; however, experts and human rights organizations allege the Belarusian government imposed the blackout that took place amidst Belarus’ tense presidential election, with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as the opposition candidate. The blackout affected virtual private networks (VPNs), which usually are immune from filtering protocols.

According to Netblocks, a connectivity monitoring group, the first outage in Belarus started right after midnight on Sunday and went unnoticed. As election polls opened later that morning, outages and connectivity disruptions became increasingly severe. Netblocks also said the blocking strategy it observed, and continues to observe, started with a “deep packet inspection,” which allows a censor to filter web traffic and block access to specific sites. Alp Toker, director of Netblocks, told WIRED, “the network layer distributions were introduced after the platform filters were gradually rolled out. So much was filtered by the time the blackouts started that they were difficult to distinguish and report.” Toker further noted a brute-force blocking strategy at the network layer, rather than a more refined filtering system at the application layer, is likely the cause. A refined filtering system can disable applications, such as social media and communication apps, without affecting general internet connectivity. Countries like Iraq, Liberia, and Venezuela have used such filtering techniques to block access to apps like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and WhatsApp, according to Wired.

Belarusian officials claim foreign attacks caused the blackout

On election day morning, the National Center for Response to Computer Incidents of the Republic of Belarus, a task force created by President Lukashenko, stated that the country’s infrastructure was experiencing a “massive wave of DDoS-attacks.” Belarus’ Computer Emergency Response Team supported that declaration. ISP RUE Beltelecom, a government-owned telecommunications company that owns roughly ninety percent of all fixed communication channels in Belarus, released a statement suggesting the outages were due to “multiple cyberattacks of varying intensity.” Similarly, President Lukashenko declared the government didn’t impose the blackout in a recent statement. “Our specialists are now determining where this shutdown is coming from. So, if the Internet is working poorly, that’s not our doing but an initiative from abroad,” the president said.

The Belarus government is suspected of imposing the blackout to control the election information and counter any opposition

Neutral observers remain skeptical. These skeptics offer three reasons to support their claim the blackout was government-imposed.

First, there isn’t evidence for the government’s official narrative. “There’s no indication of a DDoS attack. It can’t be ruled out, but there’s no external sign of it that we see,” Alp Toker told WIRED. Mikhail Kilmarev, the executive director of the Internet Protection Society told Meduza the Belarusian authorities’ explanation for the nationwide blackout doesn’t add up. To completely disrupt Belarus’ internet from the outside "you’d need every country connected to Belarus to come to an agreement and turn it off together. As for DDoS-attacks, there are plenty of anti-DDoS technologies that successfully repel attacks without disabling an entire country’s Internet access. Moreover, ISPs usually counter powerful DDoS-attacks collectively, Kilmarev added.

Second, there are allegations the Belarusian government forewarned some businesses and institutions about the planned connectivity disruptions. On August 4, 2020, an internet post claimed to show an email from a Belarusian bank warning its customers of the impending digital outages. That same day, Nexta Live published an image of a letter where a Belarusian company’s manager informed his staff about the likelihood of an internet shutdown and listed instructions to prepare for it. Reports from other major media outlets corroborate this letter. On August 8, 2020, a Russian newspaper published an interview with a cellphone company employee, who confirmed that Belarus would disconnect all communications.

Third, because Belarus has a largely centralized internet infrastructure, it would be simple for the government to impose connectivity disruptions or blackouts, if the appropriate groundwork was put in place.

Moreover, Pres. Lukashenko reportedly had the Internet shut down yesterday after a video of him getting booed by factory workers at a speech he gave on Monday. 

Belarus’ blackout smacks of digital authoritarianism

Digital authoritarianism – the use of digital information technology by authoritarian regimes to surveil, suppress, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations – has helped repressive regimes enforce extreme limits on the free flow of information and technologies their citizens use. Alarmingly, the blackout seen in Belarus is nothing new – repressive regimes, such as Iran, Egypt, Ethiopia, and India, have used connectivity blackouts as a tool to crush dissent. This past year, governments in Burundi, Guinea, Togo, and Venezuela have imposed social media blackouts during their elections. 

This past Monday, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that the Belarusian election “was not free and fair,” and added, “We strongly condemn ongoing violence against protestors and the detention of opposition supporters, as well as the use of internet shutdowns to hinder the ability of the Belarusian people to share information about the election and the demonstrations.”

Belarus’ nationwide blackout matters because digital authoritarianism is on the rise around the world, which puts democracies at risk. If left unchecked, such regimes will continue to violate the rights of domestic and foreign populations, especially using technology to wield their authoritarian swords. In a world where most things are connected to the internet, a government should never have the power to impose a blackout to centralize its control and deny rights to its citizens.

--written by Allison Hedrick

Facebook removes Romanian troll farm fake accounts posing as Black voters for Trump

In July 2020, Facebook reported that it had removed nine networks of fake accounts, pages, and groups for violating its policies against coordinated inauthentic behavior (CIB). As Facebook’s July 2020 CIB report explains, CIB means coordinated efforts to manipulate public debate for a strategic goal where fake accounts are central to the operation, including both domestically non-government campaigns and activities on behalf of foreign entities. Facebook removed:

  • 798 Facebook accounts
  • 259 Instagram accounts
  • 669 Facebook pages
  • 69 Facebook groups.

Some of the fake accounts targeted U.S. users, ahead of the 2020 U.S. election. Facebook removed 35 Facebook accounts, 3 pages, and 88 Instagram accounts originating from a suspected Romanian troll farm. Facebook explained: “The people behind this network used fake accounts — some of which had already been detected and disabled by our automated systems — to pose as Americans, amplify and comment on their own content, and manage Pages including some posing as President Trump fan Pages. This network posted about US domestic news and events, including the upcoming November election, the Trump campaign and support for the campaign by African Americans, conservative ideology, Christian beliefs, and Qanon. They also frequently reposted stories by American conservative news networks and the Trump campaign.” According to NBC News, "Troll farms — groups of people that work together to manipulate internet discourse with fake accounts — are often outsourced and purchased by foreign governments or businesses to push specific political talking points."

The Romanian troll farm Facebook accounts were following a similar tactic of Russian operatives who posed as Black Lives Matter supporters to undermine Black voter supporter for Hillary Clinton. Similarly, Facebook found that some of the fake Romanian accounts posed as Black Trump supporters. The Romanian troll farm used hashtags like “Blackpeoplevotefortrump” and "We Love Our President" to post pro-Trump comments, spread information supporting the Republican Party and Qanon, and advertise Trump campaign. Altogether, these Romanian accounts allegedly drew around 1600 followers on Facebook and 7200 followers on Instagram. One example Facebook provided is shown below:

 

Fake "blackpeoplevotefortrump" account run by Romanian troll farm on Facebook

These fake accounts were taken down for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior, Facebook explained.

As reported by NBC News, Facebook also removed 303 Facebook accounts, 181 pages, 44 groups, and 31 Instagram accounts that were followed by 2 million people. These accounts were connected to Epoch Media Group, a pro-Trump media outlet. The accounts violated Facebook's policies against coordinated inauthentic behavior and foreign interference. This network operated from many regions around the globe and focused primarily on English and Chinese-speaking audiences globally. These accounts posted about news and comments related to the Chinese government such as the Hong Kong protests, the US administration’s policies towards China, the Falun Gong movement, conspiracy theories behind the US protests and COVID-19 misinformation, according to Facebook.  Additionally, Facebook said it linked this network to Truth Media, which was involved in Facebook’s previous investigation for violating policies against coordinated inauthentic behavior, spam and misrepresentation and which has now been banned on Facebook.

--written by Candice Wang

 

 

 

 

 

Summary: Mounting Allegations Facebook, Zuckerberg Have Political Bias and Favoritism for Trump and conservatives in content moderation

In the past week, more allegations surfaced that Facebook executives have been intervening in questionable ways in the company's content moderation procedure that show favoritism to Donald Trump, Breitbart, and other conservatives. These news reports cut against the narrative that Facebook has an "anti-conservative bias." For example, according to some allegations, Facebook executives didn't want to enforce existing community standards or change the community standards in a way that would flag conservatives for violations, even when the content moderators found violations by conservatives.  Below is a summary of the main allegations that Facebook has been politically biased in favor of Trump and conservatives.  This page will be updated if more allegations are reported.

Ben Smith, How Pro-Trump Forces Work the Refs in Silicon Valley, N.Y. Times (Aug. 9, 2020): "Since then, Facebook has sought to ingratiate itself to the Trump administration, while taking a harder line on Covid-19 misinformation. As the president’s backers post wild claims on the social network, the company offers the equivalent of wrist slaps — a complex fact-checking system that avoids drawing the company directly into the political fray. It hasn’t worked: The fact-checking subcontractors are harried umpires, an easy target for Trump supporters’ ire....In fact, two people close to the Facebook fact-checking process told me, the vast bulk of the posts getting tagged for being fully or partly false come from the right. That’s not bias. It’s because sites like The Gateway Pundit are full of falsehoods, and because the president says false things a lot."

Olivia Solon, Sensitive to claims of bias, Facebook relaxed misinformation rules for conservative pages, NBC News (Aug. 7, 2020, 2:31 PM): "The list and descriptions of the escalations, leaked to NBC News, showed that Facebook employees in the misinformation escalations team, with direct oversight from company leadership, deleted strikes during the review process that were issued to some conservative partners for posting misinformation over the last six months. The discussions of the reviews showed that Facebook employees were worried that complaints about Facebook's fact-checking could go public and fuel allegations that the social network was biased against conservatives. The removal of the strikes has furthered concerns from some current and former employees that the company routinely relaxes its rules for conservative pages over fears about accusations of bias."

Craig Silverman, Facebook Fired an Employee Who Collected Evidence of Right-Wing Page Getting Preferential Treatment, Buzzfeed (Aug. 6, 2020, 4:13 PM): "[S]ome of Facebook’s own employees gathered evidence they say shows Breitbart — along with other right-wing outlets and figures including Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, Trump supporters Diamond and Silk, and conservative video production nonprofit Prager University — has received special treatment that helped it avoid running afoul of company policy. They see it as part of a pattern of preferential treatment for right-wing publishers and pages, many of which have alleged that the social network is biased against conservatives." Further: "Individuals that spoke out about the apparent special treatment of right-wing pages have also faced consequences. In one case, a senior Facebook engineer collected multiple instances of conservative figures receiving unique help from Facebook employees, including those on the policy team, to remove fact-checks on their content. His July post was removed because it violated the company’s 'respectful communication policy.'”

Ryan Mac, Instagram Displayed Negative Related Hashtags for Biden, but Hid them for Trump, Buzzfeed (Aug. 5, 2020, 12:17 PM): "For at least the last two months, a key Instagram feature, which algorithmically pushes users toward supposedly related content, has been treating hashtags associated with President Donald Trump and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in very different ways. Searches for Biden also return a variety of pro-Trump messages, while searches for Trump-related topics only returned the specific hashtags, like #MAGA or #Trump — which means searches for Biden-related hashtags also return counter-messaging, while those for Trump do not."

Ryan Mac & Craig Silverman, "Hurting People at Scale": Facebook's Employees Reckon with the Social Network They've Built, Buzzfeed (July 23, 2020, 12:59 PM): Yaël Eisenstat, Facebook's former election ads integrity lead "said the company’s policy team in Washington, DC, led by Joel Kaplan, sought to unduly influence decisions made by her team, and the company’s recent failure to take appropriate action on posts from President Trump shows employees are right to be upset and concerned."

Elizabeth Dwoskin, Craig Timberg, & Tony Romm, Zuckerberg once wanted to sanction Trump. Then Facebook wrote rules that accommodated him., Wash. Post (June 28, 2020, 6:25 PM): "But that started to change in 2015, as Trump’s candidacy picked up speed. In December of that year, he posted a video in which he said he wanted to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. The video went viral on Facebook and was an early indication of the tone of his candidacy....Ultimately, Zuckerberg was talked out of his desire to remove the post in part by Kaplan, according to the people. Instead, the executives created an allowance that newsworthy political discourse would be taken into account when making decisions about whether posts violated community guidelines....In spring of 2016, Zuckerberg was also talked out of his desire to write a post specifically condemning Trump for his calls to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, after advisers in Washington warned it could look like choosing sides, according to Dex Torricke-Barton, one of Zuckerberg’s former speechwriters."  

Regarding election interference: "Facebook’s security engineers in December 2016 presented findings from a broad internal investigation, known as Project P, to senior leadership on how false and misleading news reports spread so virally during the election. When Facebook’s security team highlighted dozens of pages that had peddled false news reports, senior leaders in Washington, including Kaplan, opposed shutting them down immediately, arguing that doing so would disproportionately impact conservatives, according to people familiar with the company’s thinking. Ultimately, the company shut down far fewer pages than were originally proposed while it began developing a policy to handle these issues."

Craig Timberg, How conservatives learned to wield power inside Facebook, Wash. Post (Feb. 20, 2020, 1:20 PM): "In a world of perfect neutrality, which Facebook espouses as its goal, the political tilt of the pages shouldn’t have mattered. But in a videoconference between Facebook’s Washington office and its Silicon Valley headquarters in December 2016, the company’s most senior Republican, Joel Kaplan, voiced concerns that would become familiar to those within the company. 'We can’t remove all of it because it will disproportionately affect conservatives,; said Kaplan, a former George W. Bush White House official and now the head of Facebook’s Washington office, according to people familiar with the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect professional relationships."

Related articles about Facebook

Ben Smith, What's Facebook's Deal with Donald Trump?NY Times (June 21, 2020): "Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, pulled together the dinner on Oct. 22 on short notice after he learned that Mr. Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, and his wife, Priscilla Chan, would be in Washington for a cryptocurrency hearing on Capitol Hill, a person familiar with the planning said. The dinner, the person said, took place in the Blue Room on the first floor of the White House. The guest list included Mr. Thiel, a Trump supporter, and his husband, Matt Danzeisen; Melania Trump; Mr. Kushner; and Ivanka Trump. The president, a person who has spoken to Mr. Zuckerberg said, did most of the talking. The atmosphere was convivial, another person who got an account of the dinner said. Mr. Trump likes billionaires and likes people who are useful to him, and Mr. Zuckerberg right now is both."

Deepa Seetharaman, How a Facebook Employee Helped Trump Win--But Switched Sides for 2020, Wall St. J (Nov. 24, 2019, 3:18 PM): "One of the first things Mr. Barnes and his team advised campaign officials to do was to start running fundraising ads targeting Facebook users who liked or commented on Mr. Trump’s posts over the past month, using a product now called 'engagement custom audiences.' The product, which Mr. Barnes hand-coded, was available to a small group, including Republican and Democratic political clients. (The ad tool was rolled out widely around Election Day.) Within the first few days, every dollar that the Trump campaign spent on these ads yielded $2 to $3 in contributions, said Mr. Barnes, who added that the campaign raised millions of dollars in those first few days. Mr. Barnes frequently flew to Texas, sometimes staying for four days at a time and logging 12-hour days. By July, he says, he was solely focused on the Trump campaign. When on-site in the building that served as the Trump campaign’s digital headquarters in San Antonio, he sometimes sat a few feet from Mr. Parscale. The intense pace reflected Trump officials’ full embrace of Facebook’s platform, in the absence of a more traditional campaign structure including donor files and massive email databases."

ProPublica, FirstDraft study: Nearly 50% of Top Performing Facebook Posts on Mail-In Ballots Were False or Misleading

ProPublica and FirstDraft conducted a study of "Facebook posts using voting-related keywords — including the terms 'vote by mail,' 'mail-in ballots.' 'voter fraud' and 'stolen elections' — since early April [2020]." According to ProPublica, Donald Trump and conservatives have misprepresented that mail-in voting leads to voter fraud. That assertion has not been substantiated. For example, the Washington Post found states with all-mail elections — Colorado, Oregon and Washington— had only 372 potential irregularities of 14.6 million votes, meaning just or 0.0025%. According to a recent study by Prof. Nicolas Berlibski and others, unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud can negatively affect public confidence in elections. The false claims can significantly undermine the faith of voters, Republican or Democratic, in the electoral process, even when the misinformation is disproved by fact-checks.  

In the study, ProPublica and FirstDraft found numerous posts on Facebook that contained misinformation about mail-in ballots. The study concluded: "Of the top 50 posts, ranked by total interactions, that mentioned voting by mail since April 1, 2020 [to July 2020] contained false or substantially misleading claims about voting, particularly about mail-in ballots." ProPublica identified the popular Facebook posts by using engagement data from CrowdTangle.

Facebook’s community standards state that no one shall post content that contains “[m]isrepresentation of the . . . methods for voting or voter registration or census participation.” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently said on his Facebook page in June 2020 that he stands against “anything that incites violence or suppresses voting,” and that the company is “running the largest voting information campaign in American history . . . to connect people with authoritative information about the elections . . . crack down on voter suppression, and fight hate speech.” Facebook reportedly removed more than 100,000 posts from Facebook and Instagram that violated the company's community standard against voter suppression from March to May 2020. As ProPublica reported, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla stated that "Facebook has removed more than 90% of false posts referred to it by VoteSure, a 2018 initiative by the state of California to educate voters and flag misinformation."

However, according to the joint project by ProPublica and First Draft, Facebook is still falling well short in the efforts to stop election misinformation. Facebook fails to take down posts from individual accounts and group pages that contain false claims about mail-in ballots and voter fraud, including some portraying "people of color as the face of voter fraud." 

Facebook is reported to be considering banning political ads in the days before the election, but that hardly touches the core of the truly rampant fraud— misinformation of the public about mail ballots. False claims are far more widespread in posts than ads, according to the ProPublica and FirstDraft study.

--written by Yucheng “Quentin” Cui

Revisiting Reddit's Attempt to Stop "Secondary Infecktion" Misinformation Campaign from Russia

 

Last year, Reddit announced that it banned 61 accounts in relation to a disinformation campaign dubbed “Secondary Infecktion” led by a Russian group.  The campaign group was exposed by Facebook earlier in June 2019 for creating fake news in multiple languages that involved multiple nations, aiming to “divide, discredit, and distract Western countries” through dissemination of fake information such as assassination plans, attacks on Ukraine and its pro-Western government, and disputes between Germany and US. This time, the operation created fake accounts and uploaded “leaked UK documents” on Reddit. A research firm, Graphika Labs inspected the associated accounts and concluded these were linked to Secondary Infecktion based on same grammatical errors and language patterns.

Reddit’s investigation into suspicious accounts started with its users’ report on questionable posts. It then worked with Graphika and soon found a “pattern of coordination” similar to those reported accounts linked to Secondary Infektion, making it “use these accounts to identify additional suspect accounts that were part of the campaign on Reddit.”

As Reddit’s statement wrote, it “encourage[s] users, moderators, and 3rd parties to report things to us as soon as they see them.” This statement reflects how much Reddit depends on its community to help moderate the site. Reddit is a platform that is heavily community-based. It is a collection of forums where users share content and comments on just about anything. To the left of every post, there are two buttons – the upvote and the downvote, which allow users themselves to rate content. The total score of a post is essentially the number of upvotes minus downvotes, making the content’s position on a page based on its score rank.  Basically, a higher score means more visibility.

The voting system is liked by many users because unlike Facebook or Twitter, Reddit is more like a community curated by its users themselves. However, the voting system has its drawbacks. The system can be gamed and manipulated. First, because everyone has certain moderating power, personal beliefs and agendas may get in the way. For example, a person may create several accounts just to downvote a post with which he does not agree. As a result, information may be downgraded by gaming the systemt. Second, there's a risk of content manipulation by coordinated attacks. As the June security report stated, Reddit has been heavily focused on content manipulation around the 2020 elections and ensure minorities’ voices would be heard. Therefore, Reddit worked much on bot detection and malicious viruses. Admins have vast powers, including flagging fake accounts, and can try to ensure diversity of viewpoints and participation.

Reddit could consider changing some of its platform features. As some redditors pointed out, Reddit's “gilding” feature, which is akin to a “super-upvote,” may enable manipulation. Users can gild posts with their Gold Reddit subscription or just buy Reddit coins.  Together with the voting system, gilding may make content manipulation more easy. A malicious operation can just buy coins to promote content as they wish even without creating fake accounts. Offering subscriptions is apparently Reddit’s way to cover its cost and to profit, and subscriptions do offer other privileges such as having an ad-free experience. Nonetheless, if Reddit wants to stop content manipulation, perhaps the company needs to rethink the gilding power. 

--written by Candice Wang

 

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