Facebook’s info war

Welcome to Popular Information, a political newsletter for people who give a damn — written by me, Judd Legum. Send your feedback to judd@popular.info or tweet your thoughts using #popularinfo.

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Facebook’s info war

Facebook is the most powerful source of information in the world. It reaches two billion people worldwide. A stunning 45 percent of American get news from Facebook, according to a study by Pew Research Center in 2017.

Facebook played a critical role in Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election. It was also a key tool for the Trump campaign itself, which remains its top political advertiser.

What Facebook allows on its platform matters whether you use the service or not. Its decisions could ultimately impact the direction of American democracy.

Facebook is a great place to connect with friends or accuse Robert Mueller of child rape

On Monday, Alex Jones, who operates the conspiracy website InfoWars, broadcast a live Facebook video in which he falsely accused special counsel Robert Mueller of raping children. He also suggested the Mueller controlled an extensive child sex trafficking ring.

The broadcast reached 45,000 people.

“That's a demon I will take down or I will die trying,” Jones said, pointing his finger like a gun. “It's not a game. It's the real world. Politically. You are going to get it or I'm going to die trying, bitch. Get ready.”

I’m not going to link to the video, but here is a rough transcript.

They'd let Mueller rape kids in front of people, which he did... Mueller is a monster, man... The word is, he doesn't have sex with the kids, he just controls it all... Can you imagine being a monster like that? God... That's a demon I will take down or I will die trying... So that's it! It's going to happen. We are going to walk out on the square. Politically. High noon and he's going to find out when he makes a move man. Make the move first and... [Points finger like a gun]... It's going to happen. It's not a joke. [Pantomimes shooting a gun repeatedly] It's not a game. It's the real world. Politically. You are going to get it or I'm going to die trying, bitch. Get ready. We are going to bang heads. We're going to bang heads.

What Zuckerberg says

In an interview last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stated his principles for removing content from the site.

The principles that we have on what we remove from the service are: If it’s going to result in real harm, real physical harm, or if you’re attacking individuals, then that content shouldn’t be on the platform.

So this seems like a clear violation. Alex Jones is attacking Mueller and doing so in a way that could result in “real physical harm.” Regardless of whether Jones intends to assault Mueller, he’s communicating to his audience that there is a moral imperative to do so.

But the video remains on Facebook? What gives?

Facebook says falsely accusing Mueller of child rape and threatening violence does not violate its “community standards”

I contacted Facebook and asked them why Jones’ video was not removed in light of Zuckerberg’s comments last week. The company sent me the following statement:

We evaluated this video and didn't find it to violate our Community Standards. The content in this video makes it clear that it’s not a statement of intent to commit violence, and therefore doesn’t violate our credible violence policy. 

Facebook’s “community standards” state: “We understand that people commonly express disdain or disagreement by threatening or calling for violence in facetious and non-serious ways.”

So Facebook determined that when Jones says on the video, addressing Mueller, “You are going to get it or I'm going to die trying, bitch. Get ready,” he was being “facetious” or “non-serious.”

Its hard to square this interpretation with Jones own words: “It's going to happen. It's not a joke. It's not a game.”

How Alex Jones plays Facebook

Jones sprinkled the word “politically,” seemingly at random, in his diatribe about Mueller. This seems to have convinced Facebook that his threat was metaphorical rather than explicit.

But Jones is a sophisticated operator who has been in the conspiracy business a long time. He knew exactly what he was doing and how his audience would interpret it. The word “politically” was included precisely because he knew it would likely allow him to violate Facebook’s rules without any repercussions.

It worked.

Facebook’s video loophole

Setting aside whether Jones advocated violence against Mueller, his claim that Mueller raped children and facilitated a child sex ring is a lie. In his interview last week, Zuckerberg claimed that false information would be demoted in the Facebook Newsfeed to reach less people.

So how did Jones’ video reach 45,000 people?

A Facebook spokesperson told me that the suppression of fake news doesn’t apply to video. The “fact-checkers check article links but not photos or videos quite yet… so this video wouldn’t be eligible for a fact-check at this time,” she said.

This seems like a pretty big loophole.

Past is Pizzagate

Jones’ claim that Mueller was involved in a child sex trafficking ring has much in common with another conspiracy theory, Pizzagate. Beginning in 2016, Jones pushed the theory that top Democratic operatives were operating a child sex ring in the basement of a DC pizza shop.

Ultimately, a man came into the shop with a loaded weapon and opened fire. (Jones later apologized for his role in promoting Pizzagate.)

Beyond InfoWars

InfoWars exists to misinform people. But it’s not an anomaly on Facebook.

The site YourNewsWire also peddles in conspiracy theories like Pizzagate and has published, according to Poynter, “posts fact-checked as false through Facebook’s fact-checking partnership at least 45 times.” Still, the site is able to collect hundreds of thousands of engagements on Facebook each month.

YourNewsWire is a big deal on Facebook. Its top story in 2018, a dangerously false article about the flu shot, has more engagements than all but one story by the New York Times.

YourNewsWire’s top story so far in 2018 had received a little more than 865,000 engagements as of publication. For comparison, The New York Times’ second most-engaging story from the same period got about 7,000 less engagements, according to BuzzSumo. YourNewsWire’s article, published in January, cites a fake quote from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official claiming that the flu shot is causing an outbreak of the disease.

Postscript

Jones’ video disappeared from Facebook at approximately 5PM Eastern on Monday. A Facebook spokesperson said Facebook did not remove the video.


UPDATE: Family separation

The good news is, as of Tuesday afternoon, 1012 parents who were separation from their children at the border were reunited. The government says that it expects 1,637 parents to be reunited with their children by Thursday, which is the deadline set by a federal judge for all children to be reunited with their parents.

The bad news is that over 900 parents have been deemed “ineligible” for reunification.

Among that group, over 400 parents may have been deported without their children. Around 37 children have not been matched with any parent. About 260 of “ineligible” parents, according to the government, require further evaluation. They may have been released to the interior of the United States and the government doesn’t appear to know their whereabouts. 127 parents are ineligible because they “voluntarily” waived reunification. The ACLU is especially interested in learning the circumstances of these waivers and whether they were given voluntarily.

Around 37 children have not been matched with any parent.

One thing all these numbers make clear: The Trump administration separated thousands of children from their parents without any clear plan to reunite them.

The ACLU plans to submit to the court a number of declarations establishing that the parents were not sufficiently informed of their legal rights. “I think you will be shocked when you read these affidavits,” the ACLU lawyer told a federal judge.


Listen: The secret Trump tape

A tape obtained last night by CNN, recorded in 2016, documents a conversation between Trump and Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime personal attorney.

Cohen and Trump discuss purchasing the story of Karen McDougal, who alleged she had an affair with Trump, from the National Enquirer. Trump appears to suggest paying the National Enquirer in cash, although the conversation is somewhat ambiguous.

The White House released a transcript of the tape in which Trump says, “Don’t pay with cash.” But on the actual audio, Trump can only be heard saying “pay with cash.”

The broader significance of the tape is that it suggests that Trump and Cohen coordinated with David Pecker, the publisher of the National Enquirer, to purchase McDougal’s silence. If that’s the case, the National Enquirer’s contract with McDougal could constitute an illegal, undisclosed corporate contribution to Trump’s campaign.

The tape also directly contradicts Trump’s claim at the time that he knew nothing about McDougal. “We have no knowledge of any of this,” Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks said days before the election.

You can read more about the danger McDougal poses to Trump here.


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