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SAUSALITO, CALIF. — The government's hardest challenge isn't combating disinformation spread by Russia or other foreign actors ahead of the 2020 elections. It's the fake news and information generated and spread by Americans.
That's the view from a senior cybersecurity adviser at the Department of Homeland Security, who says domestic disinformation is “the hardest challenge that we have.”
“Amplification of domestic activity is something that’s very hard, if not impossible, for the federal government to respond to, given all of the appropriate First Amendment protections that lie around it,” Matt Masterson said at a conference hosted by the Hewlett Foundation.
The dilemma is especially top of mind after the 2018 midterms, when law enforcement, tech companies and researchers saw that Americans were taking a page out of Russia’s playbook and spreading lies and stoking divisions on social media.
The government wields broader authorities when foreign adversaries are trying to sow discord on social media — it investigated and indicted a Russian group of Internet trolls for information warfare, and even launched an offensive cyberoperation to take down the St. Petersburg troll farm during the midterm elections.
But when Americans are manufacturing the falsehoods, the government has to tread more cautiously. It has to be mindful about how it even flags it to the tech industry.
The government has to be “very careful” as it responds to disinformation that Americans share, former FBI chief James B. Comey said at the same conference. By contrast, Comey said, “if you’re focused on a troll farm in St. Petersburg, there are authorities that can be used there — where you’re not worried about infringing on free speech.”
At home, the FBI can share communications that seem suspicious “in a responsible way” with the technology companies, who he called a “ready partner” to ensure widely-used platforms do not foster disinformation or other harmful content.
“But even when sharing information you have to do in a thoughtful way,” Comey said. “Because if you’re wrong or you overshare, you might step on speech you shouldn’t be going anywhere near.”
DHS also has shared information with the technology companies, Masterson said. “When we would get information from state and local officials, we push it to the platforms with no comment on anything other than this was given to us and then allow them to take the appropriate action,” Masterson said.
That puts the onus on Silicon Valley companies to determine how to crack down on fake news, at a time when they’re already wrestling with pressure to improve their content moderation efforts. Though the tech giants say they are committed to keeping their platforms safe and preserving democratic institutions, they also are struggling to make tough calls that could impact speech online. Facebook recently called for regulations that would set a baseline for what content should be prohibited.
“Lawmakers often tell me we have too much power over speech, and frankly I agree,” Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a recent op-ed. “I’ve come to believe that we shouldn’t make so many important decisions about speech on our own.”
Despite its limitations, the U.S. government is also trying to get creative as it tries to prevent a repeat of the 2016 presidential election. Masterson tells me DHS is expanding its efforts to educate the American public on ways to spot the tactics and techniques of disinformation, whether it's domestic or foreign in origin.
“From a federal government perspective, as we look at disinformation and responding, our approach at DHS is going to be to push out and educate the American public about what disinformation tactics look like,” he said.
DHS already engaged in education and awareness efforts ahead of the 2018 midterms. The agency worked with state and local election officials to ensure that voters knew where they could obtain trusted information about their polling places or whether they’re registered to vote.
But ahead of 2020, the agency is hoping to work with a broader set of partners to help Americans be vigilant for fake news online. Already, DHS is working with the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School on this issue. Masterson told me the efforts are still in early stages, but he would like to do outreach with local libraries and groups representing Americans who are disproportionately targeted with disinformation, like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or AARP.
BITS: Uber filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission to go public -- a watershed moment for the company that has been trying to dominate the global ride-sharing business, my colleague Faiz Siddiqui reports.
The company, which operates in 63 countries, is significantly larger than its rival Lyft, operates only domestically the United States. It also has a broader range of additional businesses, including a food delivery service called Uber Eats and a freight unit.
"Uber has struggled to stem billions of dollars in losses and has been forced to exit some markets, caving to competition from local rivals," Faiz wrote. "In documents released Thursday, Uber said its revenue last year rose 42 percent to reach $11.3 billion, with $1 billion in profit, derived from selling some of its overseas businesses. Its operating losses last year totaled $1.8 billion."
Doubts are growing about the ride-hailing business model as Uber takes this critical step toward its public offering. Lyft’s shares have declined sharply since opening at $72 last month, closing at just over $61 Wednesday.
"In contrast to Lyft, which highlighted self-driving cars as its direct path to profitability -- through the elimination of drivers -- Uber cited the 'long hybrid period of co-existence of Drivers and autonomous vehicles' but laid out situations where autonomy would be of particular use," Faiz wrote. "Drivers, Uber said, are “a critical and differentiating advantage for us and will continue to be our valued partners for the long-term.”
NIBBLES: The Russian effort to target Bernie Sanders during the 2016 election was greater than previously known, my colleague Michael Kranish reports. The operation could be in the spotlight as the Mueller report is released, which is expected within days.
"While much attention has focused on the question of whether the Trump campaign encouraged or conspired with Russia, the effort to target Sanders supporters has been a lesser-noted part of the story," Michael wrote. "Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, in a case filed last year against 13 Russians accused of interfering in the U.S. presidential campaign, said workers at a St. Petersburg facility called the Internet Research Agency were instructed to write social media posts in opposition to Clinton but 'to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump.'”
At the request of the Washington Post, a pair of Clemson University researchers conducted an analysis of Twitter data that revealed the broad scope of the Russian campaign. They studied English-language tweets, coming from Russia, which were designed to influence the election.
"It is impossible to say how many were targeted at Sanders supporters because many don’t include his name," Michael writes. "Some 9,000 of the Russian tweets used the word 'Bernie,' which were “liked” 59,281 times and retweeted 61,804 times."
The researchers also found there were many other tweets, with no direct reference to Sanders, that aimed to prevent his supporters from turning out for Hillary Clinton on Election Day.
“I think there is no question that Sanders was central to their strategy. He was clearly used as a mechanism to decrease voter turnout for Hillary Clinton,” one of the Clemson researchers, Darren Linvill, associate professor of communications, told Michael. The tweets studied they analyzed “give us a much clearer understanding of the tactics they were using. It was certainly a higher volume than people thought.”
BYTES: Amazon chief executive and Washington Post owner Jeffrey P. Bezos yesterday challenged other retailers to match the e-commerce beheometh's $15 minimum wage -- just five months after Amazon bumped its own salaries under public pressure, my colleagues Hamza Shaban and Abha Bhattarai report.
“Today I challenge our top retail competitors (you know who you are!) to match our employee benefits and our $15 minimum wage,” Bezos said in a letter to shareholders filed Thursday with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. “Do it! Better yet, go to $16 and throw the gauntlet back at us. It’s a kind of competition that will benefit everyone.”
Amazon's minimum wage raise also came with a cut to employee bonuses and stock grants. And Amazon's rivals were quick to slam the e-commerce giant. From a Walmart executive on Twitter:
Political pressure on companies to raise their minimum wages only increased since Amazon's wage hike.
"Nineteen states raised their minimum wages at the beginning of the year," my colleagues wrote. "In Washington, House Democrats have unveiled legislation that would lift the federal minimum wage — which has been idled at $7.25 since 2009 — to $15 by 2024. But the measure faces White House opposition and would need to get through the Republican-controlled Senate."
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— The Trump administration is planning to release "the largest-ever swath of radio frequencies in the U.S.," as well as a $20 billion fund to be deployed over the next decade to help wireless companies compete with foreign countries -- especially China, Kim Hart writes in Axios. At a White House event today, the administration will announce an airwaves auction on Dec. 10, where it will sell a chunk of three-milimeter wave airwaves that are critical to 5G deployment. It also will unveil the “Rural Digital Opportunity Fund,” which will be made available as subsidies for companies through an auction to build fiber lines in underserved regions.
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