WASHINGTON, July 8, 2019 — The guest list for Thursday’s White House Social Media Summit includes a cartoonist known for anti-Semitic images and a pro-Trump activist whose claim that Sen. Kamala Harris is not an “American Black” was retweeted by President Trump’s son, but no representatives from the world’s largest social media platforms.
Last week, the White House confirmed that it would host the event, which an administration official said is being organized by the White House Office of Digital Strategy. That office is headed by Daniel Scavino, a Trump confidante who manages the President’s social media presence.
In an emailed statement, Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere said the July 11 event would “bring together digital leaders for a robust conversation on the opportunities and challenges of today’s online environment.”
Representatives from two of the world’s largest social media companies — Facebook and Twitter — would not confirm whether anyone from their companies had been invited, and the White House would not provide any information on who would be attending the event.
But two of the “digital leaders” who Trump administration officials have invited to the White House have garnered notoriety for social media postings which critics have characterized as racist or anti-Semetic.
One such invitee, political cartoonist Ben Garrison, tweeted out a photo of his invitation to the event on Friday.
Garrison, whose cartoons are popular in right-leaning circles, is perhaps best known for a 2017 cartoon which attacked Trump’s then-National Security Adviser, Army General H.R. McMaster.
The cartoon in question, which was widely condemned as anti-Semitic, depicted McMaster and former CIA Director (and retired Army General) David Petraeus as puppets being controlled by a looming George Soros, who was in turn being manipulated by a hand labeled “Rothschilds,” a reference to the prominent family of Jewish financiers.
Another invited attendee is Ali Alexander, a Texas-based GOP activist and operative who is close to a number of pro-Trump social media personalities who’ve been banned from Twitter, including hoaxer Jacob Wohl anti-Muslim activist Laura Loomer, and former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos.
While the White House would not say whether he — or anyone else — is on the guest list for Thursday’s event, Alexander confirmed to BeltwayBreakfast that he’d been invited.
Alexander, who previously went by the name Ali Akbar, garnered some media attention during last month’s Democratic primary debates after a tweet he posted — questioning whether Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. is an “American Black” — was retweeted by Donald Trump Jr.
While Trump Jr. promptly deleted the tweet, the suggestion that Harris was not authentically African-American was condemned by many of her fellow primary candidates, many of whom said the attack was reminiscent of the “birther” movement which questioned whether former President Barack Obama was an American citizen.
But when reached via Twitter direct message on Monday, Alexander took pains to stress that his invitation to the White House was not a reward for his attack on Harris.
“I was invited to the White House prior to my tweet about Kamala Harris,” said Alexander, who attributed the claim made in his tweet about Harris to a statement previously made by CNN host Don Lemon.
He added that the Trump administration is just one of a number of prominent organizations that “seek [his] counsel on the Internet and speech related issues,” and said he’d had ongoing discussions with White House officials since April or May of this year.
But Ian Sams, the National Press Secretary for Harris’ 2020 campaign, suggested that the White House had a different motive for inviting Alexander.
“Trump wallows in misinformation and traffics in lies every day, so it’s no surprise he’s elevating the voice of a rightwing conspiracy theorist and fraudster who floats anti-Semitism, sexism, and racist identity smears online to get attention and divide Americans,” he said.
Senators Cruz and Hawley Demand Federal Trade Commission Investigation of Big Tech’s Content Moderation
WASHINGTON, July 15, 2019 — Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley want the Federal Trade Commission to use its investigatory authority to demand internal documents and information pertaining to content moderation policies at major technology companies like Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, and to release those documents to the public.
In a Monday letter to all five members of the FTC, Cruz, R-Texas, and Hawley, R-Mo., ask that the commission use its authority to compel production of documents related to “conduct” and “practices” concerning “how major tech companies curate content.”
“We write to encourage the FTC to exercise its section 6(b) authority to investigate how major tech companies curate content. As you know, you do not need a law-enforcement purpose to investigate these companies. The law provides the tools needed to force companies to give you the information necessary to investigate their ‘conduct” and “practices,'” Cruz and Hawley wrote.
In their letter, Cruz and Hawley repeat a number of false and claims and conspiracy theories centered around the idea that tech companies are actively working to suppress speech by conservative.
“[T]hey actively censor some content and amplify other content based on algorithms and intentional decisions that are completely nontransparent,” they wrote, adding that “possibilities for abuse in this area are alarming and endless.”
Cruz and Hawley describe the routine process of content moderation and search result curation that search engines and social media platforms need to engage in to have a usable website as “censorship” that is “impossible to detect,” and repeat a claim made by President Trump that major technology companies are working to prevent his reelection by suppressing speech by his supporters. No evidence has been provided to justify this claim.
“By controlling the content we see, these companies are powerful enough to—at the very least—sway elections,” read the Cruz-Hawley statement. “And we’re told we have to be satisfied simply with trusting them not to abuse this immense power…. Companies that are this big and that have the potential to threaten democracy this much should not be allowed to curate content entirely without any transparency.”
“These companies can greatly influence democratic outcomes, yet they have no accountability to voters. They are not even accountable to their own customers because nobody knows how these companies curate content.”
Cruz and Hawley have repeatedly argued that tech companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter deliberately censor conservatives. They evidence in support of support statements appears to be limited to the fact that some users who identify as conservatives have been banned from these platform because of the platforms’ enforcement of terms of service against hate speech and harassment.
Hawley has routinely decried technology companies’ immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — which prevents them from being sued for statements made by a user of their platforms – as “a special giveaway from government.” Hawley incorrectly argues that Section 230 was conditioned upon a grant of political neutrality.
The freshman senator, who previously served as Missouri’s Attorney General, recently introduced legislation that would eliminate technology companies’ immunity under Section 230 unless they can prove to four of five FTC commissioners that their content moderation policies do not disproportionally impact conservatives.
Berin Szoka, president of free-market think tank TechFreedom, said Cruz and Hawley’s demand for an FTC probe raised them to “new heights in hypocrisy.”
“It is, once again, utterly nauseating to see two Harvard educated [Federalist Society] members pervert the First Amendment into a sword by which to promote the agenda of their political tribe, rather than a shield against government meddling,” said Szoka, who previously testified at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the subject.
Twitter Will Flag and Display Abusive and Controversial Tweets by Public Officials, Including Trump
WASHINGTON , June 27, 2019 — Twitter’s trust and safety team on Thursday announced on that the company will “flag” tweets by public officeholders and candidates for public office when they violate the site’s terms of service but will allow them to remain visible on the platform because they contribute to “public conversation.”
The move appeared to address years of complaints from those who felt prominent users, including President Donald Trump, were permitted to violate Twitter’s terms of service and yet still remain on the platform.
“In the past, we’ve allowed certain Tweets that violated our rules to remain on Twitter because they were in the public’s interest, but it wasn’t clear when and how we made those determinations,” a company spokesperson said in a blog post. “To fix that, we’re introducing a new notice that will provide additional clarity in these situations, and sharing more on when and why we’ll use it.”
The spokesperson said the new policy will only come into play when dealing with complaints about users who are government officials, political candidates or spokespersons, and only if the user in question has a “verified” Twitter account that is followed by more than 100,000 people.
When a user whose account meets Twitter’s criteria tweets something that Twitter finds in violation of its rules, other users will only be allowed to view the tweet after clicking through a warning. The warning will read: “The Twitter Rules about abusive behavior apply to this Tweet. However, Twitter has determined it may be in the public’s interest for the Tweet to remain available.”
Whether or not a tweet gets flagged will be up to “a cross-functional team including Trust and Safety, Legal, Public Policy and regional teams,” the spokesperson blogged, before adding that tweets containing threats of or calls to violence would simply be removed as any other users’ tweets would be.
Users of the platform have long complained that these standards are not being upheld, as Twitter has allowed tweets from Trump and other political leaders to remain on the site even if they clearly violate the content policies.
In the past, Twitter executives have emphasized the importance of not blocking controversial statements from world leaders, saying that this could “hamper necessary discussion around their words and actions.”
The new policy announcement comes only a day after Trump, without any evidence, said that Twitter had made it more difficult for users to follow him.
Bipartisan Group of Senators Stoke Fears About Google’s Neutrality and Influence in 2020 Election
WASHINGTON, June 25, 2019 — Fears about Google’s potential ability to influence the upcoming 2020 election ran rampant at a Senate hearing on Tuesday.
That, coupled with allegations that the search engine giant inappropriately benefits from federal protections against liability, created a pressure cooker environment for Google’s witness before the Commerce Communications, Technology, Innovation and the Internet Subcommittee.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, aggressively grilled Google UX Director Maggie Stanphill over the company’s politics. He repeatedly asked her if she knew of any senior executives who voted for Trump in 2016, and claimed that public records demonstrated that Google employees donated significant funds to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and none to Donald Trump’s campaign.
Several other senators also raised concerns about Google’s potential election influence.
Sen. Jon Tester from Montana, a Democrat, said that he believes Google executives could “literally sit down at a board meeting and determine the next president.”
Cruz raised the issue of an undercover video released on Monday by Project Veritas, a controversial conservative group frequently criticized for publishing false or misleading information.
The excerpts of the video from Monday appeared to showed Google official Jen Gennai, the head of responsible innovation, making statements that antitrust action against Google was a bad idea because smaller companies would be unable to prevent “the next Trump situation.”
Cruz discussed the “Trump situation” statement as if it referred to the election of Trump. But, in a Monday evening commentary about the secret recording, Gennai said that her comment was actually referring to Google’s ability to take action against online foreign interference and misinformation.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wi., joined Cruz in doubting the objectivity of major platforms, claiming that Instagram prompted new accounts to follow a list of exclusively liberal publications and commentators without any interest from the user.
Subcommittee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., said that if results were truly unbiased, a Google search for his own name should return results from Fox News rather than from The New York Times.
Several Democratic senators, including Tester, expressed concern about whether YouTube’s recommendation algorithm could radicalize users by recommending increasingly extreme content, citing as an example the presence of white nationalist and white supremacist videos in the site’s recommended video queue.
Stanphill, whose work at Google is focused on the platform’s Digital Wellbeing Initiative, was unable to give a specific reason for these results.
She said that Google builds products for everyone and has systems in place to prevent bias.
AI Now Institute Director Rashida Richardson pointed out research showing that there are no partisan disparities in search results. Results are affected by the veracity and timeliness of the content, which can sometimes have partisan implications.
Top search results and suggestions can also stem from which accounts have the most content and popularity, said Stephen Wolfram, CEO of Wolfram Research.
YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other major social media platform operators have taken steps in recent years to crack down on harassment, hate speech, extremist content and other violations of their platforms’ terms of service.
Because that enforcement has often ensnared conservative activists, some prominent Republicans—including President Trump—allege that social media platforms’ enforcement of their terms of service is biased against conservatives.
Many conservatives, including Cruz in his remarks on Tuesday, said that the immunity provided to Google and others under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was conditioned on the entity serving as some kind of a neutral public forum.
Responding to Cruz’s question, Stanphill seemed to confirm that Google sees itself as fulfilling this role.
But Section 230 includes not requirement of political or other neutrality in exchange for protection from liability for users’ speech. Online platforms are legally permitted to regulate content at their discretion.
Section 230, which was passed with almost unanimous bipartisan support, was designed to ensure that online services would be safeguarded from liability for taking steps to moderate content on their systems.
This would likely be changed were the “Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act,” introduced last week by Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., to take effect. That bill would condition platforms’ Section 230 protections on whether the Federal Trade Commission certifies that their terms of service enforcement is “politically neutral.”(