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Memes are transforming conservative politics — and posing new challenges to social media companies grappling with their policies for political content.
The latest example of boundary pushing is a violent parody depicting President Trump shooting journalists and attacking political opponents (both Democrats and Republicans). The video — which had been available on YouTube for more than a year — saw a spike in traffic yesterday after it aired over the weekend during a conference hosted by the pro-Trump group American Priority at the president's Miami-area golf resort.
Critics warned the video could incite real-world violence, but YouTube said the video does not violate its policies because it is "clearly fictional." The company yesterday added an age restriction to the video requiring viewers to confirm they are adults before they can watch it.
“For content containing violence that is clearly fictional, we age-restrict and display a warning interstitial. We applied these protections to this video,” Ivy Choi, a spokeswoman for YouTube, told my colleagues Drew Harwell and Tony Romm.
The violent video also remains available on Facebook. “Because this video was disturbing, we put it behind a warning screen and people under 18 will be blocked from seeing it," Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said.
The responses by social media companies highlight the constant balancing act of the tech companies. Silicon Valley giants are promising to do more to ensure their platforms do not incite real-world violence or amplify disinformation amid pressure from politicians around the globe. But they’re also trying not to go too far in policing content, especially as officials — including Trump — accuse the companies of political bias against conservatives.
The companies’ dilemma is only intensifying as Election Day 2020 gets closer, and the Democrats’ impeachment proceedings against the president result in an even more politically inflammatory environment.
The controversy also brought greater scrutiny to the Twitter account Carpe Donktum, who runs the pro-Trump meme site MemeWorld. The YouTube account that posted the parody video showing Trump engaged in a massacre inside a church, TheGeekzTeam, is a regular contributor to the site. Carpe Donktum posted memes making fun of the criticism that the spoof video could incite real-world violence.
In a statement to my colleagues, Carpe Donktum, who attended a social media conference at White House, said the video was “CLEARLY satirical” and that “no reasonable person would believe that this video was a call to action, or an endorsement of violence towards the media."
On Monday afternoon, Carpe Donktum’s Twitter account was briefly banned for, he said, breaking the social media site’s copyright rules with another video. But he was swiftly back on the platform. Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment from my colleagues.
The video is also sparking more intense backlash against the president's ties to far-right meme makers. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.), who leads the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told my colleagues the video was “abhorrent,” and criticized Trump for having “promoted extremist voices” for political gain. Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), meanwhile, told Drew and Tony the incident was “disturbing, but frankly not surprising."
“From the beginning, Mr. Trump has cultivated support from some of the worst corners of the internet. He’s used his office to elevate this toxic internet culture while ignoring the real challenges we face on social media,” Warner said in a statement.
The president's ties to such meme makers were highlighted earlier this year, when he hosted many far-right provocateurs at the White House for a "Social Media Summit." Stephanie Grisham, the president’s press secretary, said yesterday that Trump “has not yet seen the video,” and would watch later, “but based upon everything he has heard, he strongly condemns this video."
BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES
BITS: Colleges are turning to increasingly sophisticated web-browsing tracking software and consulting companies that can buy and analyze students' online data history in evaluating student applications, my colleagues Douglas MacMillan and Nick Anderson report. The practice not only allows schools to seek out and give preferential treatment to high-income students, but could also be violating federal law, according to some experts.
At least 44 public and private universities in the United States work with outside consulting companies to collect and analyze data on prospective students. Of the 33 schools using web-tracking software from the consulting firm Capture Higher Ed, only three fully disclosed the purpose of the tracking software, The Post found. Many did not give students the options to opt out of cookie collection or had policies on their websites that seemed to conflict with actual practices.
Experts say the data collection practices could violate federal law protecting the privacy of student education records at schools that receive federal education funds. Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, schools must generally ask for students’ permission before sharing their personal data with outside parties.
Zachary Greenberg, a program officer at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a student advocacy group, said colleges who work in secret with data consultants undermine this right. “Students deserve to know where their information is going,” Greenberg told my colleagues.
Angela Morabito, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, declined to say whether colleges may be violating the law by sharing data with consulting companies.
The practices could also lead to discrimination against lower-income students who may not have as large of a digital footprint, says Bradley Shear, a Maryland lawyer who has pushed for better regulation of students’ online privacy.
“I don’t think the algorithm should run the admissions department,” Shear said.
NIBBLES: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been meeting with conservative journalists and commentators at his home in an effort to address concerns from the right over alleged bias against conservatives on the platform, Natasha Bertrand and Daniel Lippman at Politico report. The closed-door meetings are likely to fuel more suspicion from Democrats, who have accused the platform of altering its policies to favor conservative voices
“The discussion in Silicon Valley is that Zuckerberg is very concerned about the Justice Department, under Bill Barr, bringing an enforcement action to break up the company,” a former government official based in Silicon Valley told Politico. The dinners, which have included Ben Shapiro, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), are geared toward discussing issues including free speech and potential partnerships. An independent audit into potential bias against conservatives at Facebook released this summer revealed various concerns, but did not point to any concrete evidence of the problem.
But the White House is looking for more than just “nominal outreach,” a senior Trump administration official told Politico. The official said the White House is looking for Facebook to take “meaningful steps” on “competition, free speech for everybody including conservatives, and privacy.”
Zuckerberg's alleged attempts to gain favorability with Trump may cast increased scrutiny on the company from Democratic lawmakers. Presidential candidates Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former vice president Joe Biden have recently ramped up attacks on the company over its decision not to send misleading political ads to fact-checkers. Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees technology communications issues, have also written to Facebook with concerns it doesn’t take disinformation seriously enough.
Zuckerberg defended the meetings in a Facebook post, adding that he has "dinners with lots of people across the spectrum on lots of different issues all the time."
BYTES: The Democratic National Committee is warning presidential campaigns to be on the lookout for a surge in disinformation operations in advance of tonight’s debate, Ryan Lizza writes for Politico.
The alert is part of a series of security missives from the DNC and warns of “heightened disinformation and discourse manipulation activity leading up to, during, and after the debates with the goal of polarizing opposing Democratic supporters.”
Ryan describes a massive Democratic operation to track and combat disinformation – both from foreign adversaries and Republican and Democratic adversaries. It includes a DNC software tool called Trendolizer that tracks trending disinformation, a disinformation war room inside Twitter headquarters and a fast track communication operation with the third-party fact checkers Facebook relies on to correct false narratives.
But correcting disinformation can be tricky. “When contemplating a response to disinformation narratives, campaigns should consider whether misinformation has reached a tipping point where the costs of ignoring the issue are higher than the costs of the amplification that a response might generate,” the DNC privately instructed presidential campaigns.
-- Uber told a Georgia court it employs “zero” drivers and was not “in the business of providing transportation” in 2017, according to documents from a civil suit against the company alleging it was responsible for the actions of a driver who struck the plaintiff, my colleague Greg Bensinger reports. The newly reported documents highlight a long-standing strategy by Uber lawyers to avoid liability for the actions of its millions of contractors. A new California law that could compel the company to reclassify its contractors as employees could put the company’s essential legal strategy at risk, Greg reports.
“Liability is one of the big unspoken-about issues here,” Lorena Gonzalez (D), a California state assemblywoman who crafted the new law, told Greg. “We want to ensure there’s responsibility at the end of the day and that they are not just passing that along to someone else.”
Uber faces lawsuits each year, including ones seeking to make the company liable for driver behavior. Courts have often sided with Uber, however. But if the new law forces Uber to reclassify its employees, courts may be more likely to find Uber responsible for driver activity. That could mean potentially millions in new liabilities for the company, Greg writes.
— News from the private sector:
— News from the public sector:
— Tech news generating buzz around the Web:
- Gordon Bitko will join the Information Technology Industry Council as Senior Vice President of Policy. Bitko previously served as Chief Information Officer at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
- Google will host a hardware media event today in New York.
— Coming up:
The House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology and Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittees will hold a joint hearing titled “Fostering a Healthier Internet to Protect Consumer" on Wednesday at 10 a.m.
The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructures will host a hearing to examine the future of transportation network companies on Wednesday at 10 am.
Mark Zuckerberg will testify in front of the House Financial Services Committee on Oct. 23 in a hearing called “An Examination of Facebook and Its Impact on the Financial Services and Housing Sectors.”
The Verge breaks down everything you need to know about electric bikes.