Facebook’s ad scandal isn’t a ‘fail,’ it’s a feature

Zeynep Tufekci writes: What does it take to advertise on Facebook to people who openly call themselves “Jew haters” and want to know “how to burn Jews”? About $10 and 15 minutes, according to what the investigative nonprofit ProPublica recently uncovered.

After much outcry over this revelation, Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, called the anti-Semitic ad targeting “a fail on our part,” promised to put more human reviewers in place, and said the company “never intended or anticipated this functionality being used this way — and that is on us.”

Some of Facebook’s users may find it even harder to accept what happened. How could the site that we use to keep in touch with friends and family, share baby pictures, and keep up with politics and volunteer work be made so easily to cater to the interests of Nazis?

But anyone who understands how Facebook works shouldn’t have been surprised. That’s because the same digital platform that offers us social interaction, news, entertainment and shopping all in one place makes its money by making it cheap and easy to send us commercial or political messages, often guided by algorithms. The recent scandal is just a reminder. [Continue reading…]

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Facebook’s Frankenstein moment

Kevin Roose writes: On Wednesday, in response to a ProPublica report that Facebook enabled advertisers to target users with offensive terms like “Jew hater,” Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer, apologized and vowed that the company would adjust its ad-buying tools to prevent similar problems in the future.

As I read her statement, my eyes lingered over one line in particular:

“We never intended or anticipated this functionality being used this way — and that is on us,” Ms. Sandberg wrote.

It was a candid admission that reminded me of a moment in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” after the scientist Victor Frankenstein realizes that his cobbled-together creature has gone rogue.

“I had been the author of unalterable evils,” he says, “and I lived in daily fear lest the monster whom I had created should perpetrate some new wickedness.”

If I were a Facebook executive, I might feel a Frankensteinian sense of unease these days. The company has been hit with a series of scandals that have bruised its image, enraged its critics and opened up the possibility that in its quest for global dominance, Facebook may have created something it can’t fully control.

Facebook is fighting through a tangled morass of privacy, free-speech and moderation issues with governments all over the world. Congress is investigating reports that Russian operatives used targeted Facebook ads to influence the 2016 presidential election. In Myanmar, activists are accusing Facebook of censoring Rohingya Muslims, who are under attack from the country’s military. In Africa, the social network faces accusations that it helped human traffickers extort victims’ families by leaving up abusive videos. [Continue reading…]

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A short history of ‘dotard,’ the arcane insult Kim Jong Un used in his threat against Trump

Rachel Chason and J. Freedom du Lac report: In the latest war of words between the United States and North Korea, Kim Jong Un did not pull any punches.

But he may have pulled out an old dictionary.

“I will surely and definitely tame the deranged U.S. dotard with fire,” Kim declared in an unusually direct and angry statement published Thursday by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency.

The North Korean leader’s warning about “fire,” which echoed President Trump’s August statement threatening “fire and fury,” was par for the course in the increasingly tense relationship. On Thursday, Trump announced new financial sanctions to further isolate the country as its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities rapidly escalate.

But Kim’s use of “dotard” was what raised eyebrows, prompting people around the world to Google the old-time insult.

Merriam-Webster defines the noun as “a person in his or her dotage,” which is “a state or period of senile decay marked by decline of mental poise and alertness.”

Urban dictionary, meanwhile, defines dotage as “a female’s adams apple.”

The word trended on Twitter, and searches for the term were “high as a kite” following the release of Kim’s statement, Merriam-Webster noted. [Continue reading…]

Journalists might react to Kim’s use of dotard by thinking, how quaint, but given the infrequent usage of the term, this may well be an indication that North Korea’s social media strategists are quite sophisticated. What better way of amplifying social media activity than by using a rarely used phrase that through searches, tweets, and posts has thereby now become firmly anchored to Trump.

Trump, on the other hand, has had the dubious success of loosely creating a link between Kim Jong Un and Elton John which will probably have no adverse consequences for either of them.

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Why foreign propaganda is more dangerous than it used to be

Samantha Power writes: In the Cold War era, Soviet attempts to meddle in American democracy were largely unsuccessful. In 1982 Yuri Andropov, then the K.G.B. chairman, told Soviet foreign intelligence officers to incorporate disinformation operations — the so-called active measures meant to discredit adversaries and influence public opinion — into their standard work. They had an ambitious aim: preventing Ronald Reagan’s re-election.

Soviet agents were instructed to infiltrate party and campaign staffs in the United States in search of embarrassing information to leak to the press, while Soviet propagandists pushed a set of anti-Reagan story lines to the Western media. Ultimately, they failed to influence the election. President Reagan defeated Walter F. Mondale, winning 49 states. Margaret Thatcher, who was similarly targeted, also won re-election in a landslide.

What exactly has changed since then to make foreign propaganda far more dangerous today?

During the Cold War, most Americans received their news and information via mediated platforms. Reporters and editors serving in the role of professional gatekeepers had almost full control over what appeared in the media. A foreign adversary seeking to reach American audiences did not have great options for bypassing these umpires, and Russian dezinformatsia rarely penetrated.

While television remains the main source of news for most Americans, viewers today tend to select a network in line with their political preferences. Even more significantly, The Pew Research Center has found that two-thirds of Americans are getting at least some of their news through social media.

After the election, around 84 percent of Americans polled by Pew described themselves as at least somewhat confident in their ability to discern real news from fake. This confidence may be misplaced. [Continue reading…]

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RT, Sputnik and Russia’s new theory of war

Jim Rutenberg reports: One morning in January 2016, Martin Steltner showed up at his office in the state courthouse building in western Berlin. Steltner, who has served for more than a dozen years as the spokesman for the Berlin state prosecutor, resembles a detective out of classic crime fiction: crisp suit, wavy gray hair and a gallows humor that comes with having seen it all. There was the 2009 case of the therapist who mistakenly killed two patients in an Ecstasy-infused session gone wrong. The Great Poker Heist of 2010, in which masked men stormed a celebrity-studded poker tournament with machetes and made off with a quarter-million dollars. The 2012 episode involving the Canadian porn star who killed and ate his boyfriend and then sent the leftovers home in the mail. Steltner embraced the oddball aspect of his job; he kept a picture of Elvis Presley on the wall of his office.

But even Steltner found the phone calls he received that morning confounding. They came from police officers from towns far outside Berlin, who reported that protests were erupting, seemingly out of nowhere, on their streets. “They are demonstrating — ‘Save our children,’ ‘No attacks from immigrants on our children’ and some things like that,” Steltner told me when I met him in Berlin recently.

The police were calling Steltner because this was ostensibly his office’s fault. The protesters were angry over the Berlin prosecutor’s supposed refusal to indict three Arab migrants who, they said, raped a 13-year-old girl from Berlin’s tight-knit Russian-German community.

Steltner, who would certainly have been informed if such a case had come up for prosecution, had heard nothing of it. He called the Berlin Police Department, which informed him that a 13-year-old Russian-German girl had indeed gone missing a week before. When she resurfaced a day later, she told her parents that three “Southern-looking men” — by which she meant Arab migrants — had yanked her off the street and taken her to a rundown apartment, where they beat and raped her.

But when the police interviewed the girl, whose name was Lisa, she changed her story. She had left home, it turned out, because she had gotten in trouble at school. Afraid of how her parents would react, she went to stay with a 19-year-old male friend. The kidnapping and gang rape, she admitted, never happened.

By then, however, the girl’s initial story was taking on a life of its own within the Russian-German community through word of mouth and Facebook — enough so that the police felt compelled to put out a statement debunking it. Then, over the weekend, Channel One, a Russian state-controlled news station with a large following among Russian-Germans, who watch it on YouTube and its website, ran a report presenting Lisa’s story as an example of the unchecked dangers Middle Eastern refugees posed to German citizens. Angela Merkel, it strongly implied, was refusing to address these threats, even as she opened German borders to hundreds of thousands of migrants. “According to Lisa’s parents,” the Channel One reporter said, “the police simply refuse to look for criminals.”

The following day in Berlin, Germany’s far-right National Democratic Party held a protest at a plaza in Marzahn, a heavily Russian neighborhood. The featured speaker was an adult cousin of Lisa’s, who repeated the original allegations while standing in front of signs reading “Stop Foreign Infiltration!” and “Secure Borders!” The crowd was tiny, not much more than a dozen people. But it was big enough to attract the attention of RT, Russia’s state-financed international cable network, which presents local-language newscasts in numerous countries, including Germany and the United States. A crew from the network’s video service, Ruptly, arrived with a camera. The footage was on YouTube that afternoon.

That same day, Sputnik, a brash Russian-government-run news and commentary site that models itself on BuzzFeed, ran a story raising allegations of a police cover-up. Lisa’s case was not isolated, Sputnik argued; other refugee rapists, it warned, might be running free. By the start of the following week, protests were breaking out in neighborhoods with large Russian-German populations, which is why the local police were calling Steltner. In multiple interviews, including with RT and Sputnik, Steltner reiterated that the girl had recanted the original story about the kidnapping and the gang rape. In one interview with the German media, he said that in the course of the investigation, authorities had found evidence that the girl had sex with a 23-year-old man months earlier, which would later lead to a sexual-abuse conviction for the man, whose sentence was suspended. But the original, unrelated and debunked story continued circulating, drawing the interest of the German mainstream media, which pointed out inconsistencies in the Russian reports. None of that stopped the protests, which culminated in a demonstration the following Saturday, Jan. 23, by 700 people outside the Chancellery, Merkel’s office. Ruptly covered that, too.

An official in the Merkel government told me that the administration was completely perplexed, at first. Then, a few days later, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, held a news conference in Moscow. Bringing up Lisa’s story, he cast doubt on the official version of events. There was no way, he argued, that Lisa left home voluntarily. Germany, he suggested, was “covering up reality in a politically correct manner for the sake of domestic politics.” Two days later, RT ran a segment reporting that despite all the official denials, the case was “not so simple.” The Russian Embassy called Steltner and asked to meet, he told me. The German foreign ministry informed him that this was now a diplomatic issue.

The whole affair suddenly appeared a lot less mystifying. A realization took hold in the foreign ministry, the intelligence services and the Chancellery: Germany had been hit. [Continue reading…]

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Sputnik, the Russian news agency, is under investigation by the FBI

Yahoo News reports: The FBI recently questioned a former White House correspondent for Sputnik, the Russian-government-funded news agency, as part of an investigation into whether it is acting as an undeclared propaganda arm of the Kremlin in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

As part of the probe, Yahoo News has learned, the bureau has obtained a thumb drive containing thousands of internal Sputnik emails and documents — material that could potentially help prosecutors build a case that the news agency played a role in the Russian government “influence campaign” that was waged during last year’s presidential election and, in the view of U.S. intelligence officials, is still ongoing.

The emails were turned over by Andrew Feinberg, the news agency’s former White House correspondent, who had downloaded the material onto his laptop before he was fired in May. He confirmed to Yahoo News that he was questioned for more than two hours on Sept. 1 by an FBI agent and a Justice Department national security lawyer at the bureau’s Washington field office.

Feinberg said the interview was focused on Sputnik’s “internal structure, editorial processes and funding.” [Continue reading…]

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How Facebook changed the spy game

Asha Rangappa writes: Any doubt that Russia has been running a strategically targeted disinformation campaign in the United States was erased on Wednesday, when Facebook revealed that it had deleted 470 “inauthentic” accounts that were based in Russia and had paid $100,000 to promote divisive ads during the 2016 presidential election.

Senator Mark Warner of Virginia called Facebook’s report the “tip of the iceberg,” and he’s right. As a former FBI counterintelligence agent who investigated foreign propaganda cases, I’ve seen firsthand how foreign intelligence services leverage American freedoms—and the constitutional limitations on the FBI’s investigative power—to their advantage. The rise of social media platforms makes the pervasiveness and impact of these operations today exponentially greater. And it leaves the FBI without the legal tools to stop it.

The vast majority of counterintelligence cases I worked in the FBI involved a foreign intelligence service (FIS) conducting what we called “perception management campaigns.” Perception management, broadly defined, includes any activity that is designed to shape American opinion and policy in ways favorable to the FIS home country. Some perception management operations can involve aggressive tactics like infiltrating and spying on dissident groups (and even intimidating them), or trying to directly influence U.S. policy by targeting politicians under the guise of a legitimate lobbying group. But perception management operations also include more passive tactics like using media to spread government propaganda—and these are the most difficult for the FBI to investigate. [Continue reading…]

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Facebook’s role in Trump’s win is clear. No matter what Mark Zuckerberg says

Margaret Sullivan writes: What a ridiculous notion, Mark Zuckerberg scoffed shortly after the election, that his social-media company — innocent, well-intentioned Facebook — could have helped Donald Trump’s win.

“Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook . . . influenced the election in any way — I think is a pretty crazy idea,” he said. “Voters make decisions based on their lived experience.”

In fact, voters make their decisions based on many factors, not just their “lived experience.”

Disinformation spread on Facebook clearly was one — a big one. That was obvious in November. It was obvious in April when Facebook, to its credit, announced some moves to combat the spread of lies in the form of news stories.

It’s even more obvious now after Wednesday’s news that Facebook sold ads during the campaign to a Russian “troll farm,” targeting American voters with “divisive social and political messages” that fit right in with Donald Trump’s campaign strategy.

The news, reported Wednesday by The Washington Post, fits right in with the findings of a fascinating recent study by Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. Analyzing reams of data, it documented the huge role that propaganda, in various forms, played in the 2016 campaign. [Continue reading…]

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Facebook’s Russian ads disclosure is putting the company under intense new scrutiny

BuzzFeed reports: Facebook is facing a new push to reveal how its vast power is being used after it disclosed that roughly $100,000 worth of political ads were purchased on its platform by fake accounts and pages connected to a Russian troll operation. Open government advocates and researchers who study political ads told BuzzFeed News that Facebook’s massive reach and lack of transparency about ads on its platform represent a risk to the democratic process.

Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for government transparency, said highly targeted online ads can be “weaponized against liberal democracies” because they do not meet the same levels of disclosure and visibility as traditional radio, TV, and print ads.

“It removes our ability to have transparency into who is trying to influence our politics, and any accountability for that influence,” Howard said. “And it takes away from the capacity of the traditional organs of democracy — that being the press and regulators and other institutions — to figure out who is behind political messaging, particularly at crucial times.”

Facebook and other tech giants have largely steered clear of major regulation in the United States despite their huge role in society. But concerns about the manipulation of political advertising by foreign entities and other parties is likely to increase government and regulatory scrutiny. [Continue reading…]

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The fake Americans Russia created to influence the election

The New York Times reports: Sometimes an international offensive begins with a few shots that draw little notice. So it was last year when Melvin Redick of Harrisburg, Pa., a friendly-looking American with a backward baseball cap and a young daughter, posted on Facebook a link to a brand-new website.

“These guys show hidden truth about Hillary Clinton, George Soros and other leaders of the US,” he wrote on June 8, 2016. “Visit #DCLeaks website. It’s really interesting!”

Mr. Redick turned out to be a remarkably elusive character. No Melvin Redick appears in Pennsylvania records, and his photos seem to be borrowed from an unsuspecting Brazilian. But this fictional concoction has earned a small spot in history: The Redick posts that morning were among the first public signs of an unprecedented foreign intervention in American democracy.

The DCLeaks site had gone live a few days earlier, posting the first samples of material, stolen from prominent Americans by Russian hackers, that would reverberate through the presidential election campaign and into the Trump presidency. The site’s phony promoters were in the vanguard of a cyberarmy of counterfeit Facebook and Twitter accounts, a legion of Russian-controlled impostors whose operations are still being unraveled. [Continue reading…]

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Facebook won’t allow its claims about the effectiveness of its fact-checking systems to be fact-checked

Politico reports: The fact-checkers enlisted by Facebook to help clear the site of “fake news” say the social media giant’s refusal to share information is hurting their efforts.

In December, Facebook promised to address the spread of misinformation on its platform, in part by working with outside fact-checking groups. But because the company has declined to share any internal data from the project, the fact-checkers say they have no way of determining whether the “disputed” tags they’re affixing to “fake news” articles slow — or perhaps even accelerate — the stories’ spread. They also say they’re lacking information that would allow them to prioritize the most important stories out of the hundreds possible to fact-check at any given moment.

Some fact-checkers are growing frustrated, saying the lack of information is undermining Facebook’s efforts to combat false news reports.

“I would say that the general lack of information — not only data — given by Facebook is a concern for a majority of publishers,” Adrien Sénécat, a journalist at Le Monde, one of the news organizations that has partnered with Facebook to fact-check stories, said in an emailed response.

Representatives from Facebook say that privacy concerns prevent them from sharing raw data with outsiders.

In the wake of November’s election, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg downplayed the amount of fake news on his platform and called it “a pretty crazy idea” that it could have influenced the election. But a month later, under pressure, the company announced a slew of efforts designed to combat the problem, including the arrangement with fact-checkers. “We’re committed to doing our part,” Facebook’s vice president for News Feed, Adam Mosseri, wrote. “We believe in giving people a voice and that we cannot become arbiters of truth ourselves, so we’re approaching this problem carefully.”

Mosseri has publicly characterized those efforts as effective. In April, he said in an address, “We’ve seen overall that false news has decreased on Facebook,” but the company did not provide proof of the claim. “It’s hard for us to measure,” Mosseri had added, “because we can’t read everything that gets posted.”

Sara Su, a product manager on Facebook’s News Feed team, told POLITICO that she believes the fact-check program is working: “We have seen data that, when a story is flagged by a third party fact-checker, it reduces the likelihood that somebody will share that story.” She declined, though, to provide any specific numbers.

Facebook does plan on eventually sharing more information with the fact-checking groups it works with, according to Su, though exactly how much and when is undetermined. “I wish I could give you dates, but we are committed to working with our fact-checking partners to continue to refine the tools to be more efficient,” she said.

For now, many fact-checkers are taking Facebook’s claims of success with the proverbial grain of salt. [Continue reading…]

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Pro-Russian bots take up the right-wing cause after Charlottesville

ProPublica reports: Angee Dixson joined Twitter on Aug. 8 and immediately began posting furiously — about 90 times a day. A self-described American Christian conservative, Dixson defended President Donald Trump’s response to the unrest in Charlottesville, criticized the removal of Confederate monuments and posted pictures purporting to show violence by left-wing counterprotesters.

“Dems and Media Continue to IGNORE BLM and Antifa Violence in Charlottesville,” she wrote above a picture of masked demonstrators labeled “DEMOCRAT TERROR.”

But Dixson appears to have been a fake, according to an analysis by Ben Nimmo, a fellow with the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council think tank. The account has been shut down. Dixson’s profile picture was stolen from a young Instagram celebrity (a German model rumored to have dated Leonardo DiCaprio). Dixson used a URL shortener that is a tell for the sort of computer program that automatically churns out high volumes of social media posts whose authorship is frequently disguised. And one of her tweets attacked Sen. John McCain for his alleged support of Ukrainian neo-Nazis, echoing language in tweets from Russian outlets RT and Sputnik.

The same social media networks that spread Russian propaganda during the 2016 election have been busily amplifying right-wing extremism surrounding the recent violence in Charlottesville, according to researchers who monitor the activity. It’s impossible to tell how much of the traffic originates from Russia or from mercenary sources. But there were hordes of automated bots generating Twitter posts and much more last week to help make right-wing conspiracy theories and rallying cries about Charlottesville go viral. [Continue reading…]

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The curious case of ‘Nicole Mincey,’ the Trump fan who may actually be a Russian bot

The Washington Post reports: Early Saturday morning, President Trump tweeted his gratitude to a social-media super-fan, ­Nicole Mincey, magnifying her praise of him to his 35 million followers.

Here’s the problem: There is no evidence the Twitter feed belongs to someone named Nicole Mincey. And the account, according to experts, bears a lot of signs of a Russia-backed disinformation campaign.

On Sunday, Twitter suspended the Mincey account, known as @ProTrump45, after several other users revealed that it was probably a fake, created to amplify pro-Trump content.
The incident highlights Trump’s penchant for off-the-cuff tweeting — and the potential consequences for doing so now that he holds the nation’s highest office. Even as the president has railed against multiple investigations into Russia’s meddling in U.S. politics, he may have become Exhibit A of the foreign government’s influence by elevating a suspected Russia-connected ­social-media user — part a sophisticated campaign to exacerbate disputes in U.S. politics and gain the attention of the most powerful tweeter in the world.

“The president doesn’t know whether it’s a Russian bot or not,” said Clint Watt, a former FBI agent and fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, using the term for a fake Twitter account pretending to represent a real person and created to influence public opinion or promote a particular agenda. “He’s just pushing a narrative, whether it’s true or false. This provides a window not just for Russia but for any adversary to both influence the president or discredit him.” [Continue reading…]

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FBI tracked ‘fake news’ believed to be from Russia on Election Day

CNN reports: The FBI monitored social media on Election Day last year in an effort to track a suspected Russian disinformation campaign utilizing “fake news,” CNN has learned.

In the months leading up to Election Day, Twitter and Facebook were the feeding grounds for viral “news” stories floating conspiracies and hoaxes, many aimed at spreading negative false claims about Hillary Clinton.

On Election Day, dozens of agents and analysts huddled at a command center arrayed with large monitoring screens at the FBI headquarters in Washington watching for security threats, according to multiple sources.

That included analysts monitoring cyber threats, after months of mounting Russian intrusions targeting every part of the US political system, from political parties to policy think-tanks to state election systems.

On this day, there was also a group of FBI cyber and counterintelligence analysts and investigators watching social media.
FBI analysts had identified social media user accounts behind stories, some based overseas, and the suspicion was that at least some were part of a Russian disinformation campaign, according to two sources familiar with the investigation.

The FBI declined to comment for this story.

For the FBI, this was uncomfortable territory, given the First Amendment’s free speech protections even for fake news stories.
“We were right on the edge of Constitutional legality,” a person briefed on the investigation said. “We were monitoring news.” [Continue reading…]

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Reporter says Putin’s Sputnik pushed him to cover Seth Rich conspiracy theory

Yahoo News reports: Reporter Andrew Feinberg says a Russian state-owned news site he once worked for pressured him to advance a conspiracy theory about the fatal shooting of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich.

Feinberg, who was the White House correspondent for Sputnik, first made the allegations when he left the Russian outlet in May. However, his story is newly relevant in light of a lawsuit filed this week that accused President Trump and the White House of playing a role in a “fake news” story designed to advance the same conspiracy theory.

Feinberg started at Sputnik in January, just as Trump took office. He was the outlet’s first reporter to work inside the West Wing. In a conversation with Yahoo News on Wednesday, Feinberg alleged that Sputnik wanted him to bring up a news article that’s at the center of the lawsuit in the White House press briefing room. [Continue reading…]

CNN reports: It has been more than two months since Fox News retracted its story about the death of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, and the network still claims to be investigating what happened, leaving its employees perplexed and wondering why there has been no explanation and no action taken to put the issue to rest.

“People are talking about it,” a Fox News employee told CNN. “Frankly, there’s confusion over it.” [Continue reading…]

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Lawsuit: Fox News concocted Seth Rich story with oversight from White House

CNN reports: The White House worked with Fox News and a wealthy Republican donor to concoct a story about the murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, according to an explosive lawsuit filed Tuesday.

The story, the lawsuit said, was part of an attempt to discredit the US intelligence community’s determination that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee and obtained a trove of emails released by Wikileaks.

For months, right-wing conspiracy theorists had floated unproven theories that Rich was the person who provided Wikileaks with the DNC emails, and suggested his death was retribution for his supposed leak. No real evidence was ever provided to support such claims.

The theory, however, resurfaced in May when Fox News published a story that quoted Rod Wheeler, a Fox News contributor and former homicide detective hired on the Rich family’s behalf by wealthy Republican businessman Ed Butowsky to investigate Rich’s death. According to the story, Wheeler said there was in fact evidence showing Rich had been in contact with Wikileaks. The story quickly fell apart when Wheeler contradicted aspects of it in an interview with CNN. Fox News eventually deleted it from its website, saying in a note left in its place that it failed to meet the network’s editorial standards.

Now Wheeler, in his lawsuit, which was first reported by NPR, is coming forward with what he claims is the backstory: Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman, with the “knowledge and support” of Butowsky, fabricated a pair of quotes attributed to Wheeler. It was all part of an effort to distract from the Russia narrative, the lawsuit said. [Continue reading…]

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No one cares about Russia in the world Breitbart made

Joshua Green writes: The revelation that Donald Trump’s son, son-in-law and campaign manager met with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer promising information that would “incriminate” Hillary Clinton was a true bombshell in an era when we have become almost inured to them. Here was proof that members of Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign had, at the very least, been eager to collude with Russia to influence the 2016 election.

No one could gainsay the facts: Mr. Trump’s own son published them on Twitter.

As recently as five or 10 years ago, every major news outlet would have treated this set of facts as front-page news and a dire threat to Mr. Trump’s presidency. The conservative press and Republican voters might disagree on certain particulars or points of emphasis. But their view of reality — of what happened and its significance — would have largely comported with that of the mainstream. You’d have had to travel to the political fringe of right-wing talk radio, the Drudge Report and dissident publications like Breitbart News to find an alternative viewpoint that rejected this basic story line.

Not anymore. Look to the right now and you’re apt to find an alternative reality in which the same set of facts is rearranged to compose an entirely different narrative. On Fox News, host Lou Dobbs offered a representative example on Thursday night, when he described the Donald Trump Jr. email story, with wild-eyed fervor, like this: “This is about a full-on assault by the left, the Democratic Party, to absolutely carry out a coup d’état against President Trump aided by the left-wing media.”

Mr. Dobbs isn’t some wacky outlier, but rather an example of how over the last several years the conservative underworld has swallowed up and subsumed more established right-leaning outlets such as Fox News. The Breitbart mind-set — pugnacious, besieged, paranoid and determined to impose its own framework on current events regardless of facts — has moved from the right-wing fringe to the center of Republican politics. [Continue reading…]

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Trump is ushering in a dark new conservatism

Timothy Snyder writes: In his committed mendacity, his nostalgia for the 1930s, and his acceptance of support from a foreign enemy of the United States, a Republican president has closed the door on conservatism and opened the way to a darker form of politics: a new right to replace an old one.

Conservatives were skeptical guardians of truth. The conservatism of the 18th century was a thoughtful response to revolutionaries who believed that human nature was a scientific problem. Edmund Burke answered that life is not only a matter of adaptations to the environment, but also of the knowledge we inherit from culture. Politics must respect what was and is as well as what might be.

The conservative idea of truth was a rich one.

Conservatives did not usually deny the world of science, but doubted that its findings exhausted all that could be known about humanity. During the terrible ideological battles of the 20th century, American conservatives urged common sense upon liberals and socialists tempted by revolution.

The contest between conservatives and the radical right has a history that is worth remembering. Conservatives qualified the Enlightenment of the 18th century by characterizing traditions as the deepest kind of fact. Fascists, by contrast, renounced the Enlightenment and offered willful fictions as the basis for a new form of politics. The mendacity-industrial complex of the Trump administration makes conservatism impossible, and opens the floodgates to the sort of drastic change that conservatives opposed. [Continue reading…]

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How a false conspiracy theory about the Russian lawyer who met with Don Jr. spread to Trump

BuzzFeed reports: Right-wing outlets, pro-Trump media personalities, and conspiracy theorists are falsely claiming that the attorney who met with Donald Trump Jr. during the 2016 campaign was a left-wing operative trying to torpedo a future Trump administration.

The claim, which was first published Tuesday evening on a website that often circulates inaccurate information, gained significant traction and pickup the following day from more mainstream right-wing outlets. By Thursday, President Trump himself had parroted parts of the conspiracy theory at a news conference in Paris.

The conspiracy theory is an apparent attempt to upend the latest political firestorm facing the Trump administration — a frequent tactic used by the pro-Trump media to try to discredit reporting from credible news outlets that is critical of the president and push the claim that the media is suppressing the real story. [Continue reading…]

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