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Note to readers: Happy Thanksgiving! The Technology 202 will not publish on Thursday and Friday due to the holiday. We'll return to our regular schedule on Monday, Dec. 2. Enjoy your turkey and Black Friday shopping.
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and former National Security Council Russia expert Fiona Hill were key witnesses in the impeachment inquiry into whether President Trump misused his office for personal political gain.
And some Internet users believed they had more to say on Twitter when accounts with handles matching their names popped up in the aftermath of their publicly televised testimony. The only problem: the accounts were fakes.
Twitter moved Monday night to suspend the accounts named @FionaHillPhd and @LtColVindman, the social media service confirmed to The Technology 202, but only after they had amassed thousands of followers in the wake of the real witnesses blockbuster Capitol Hill testimony. Users were widely retweeting those handles, seemingly under the impression the real Hill and Vindman were authoring the missives.
Hill and Vindman don't actually have Twitter accounts — and their legal teams raced to set the record straight and ensure that Twitter took swift action against the false accounts.
The accounts were of particular concern because some of the tweets appeared credible in light of the witnesses real testimony. Both accounts included photos of the officials.
“The tweets were not entirely outrageous,” Lee Wolosky, an attorney representing Hill, told me in an interview. “Anyone who knows Dr. Hill would know that wasn’t what she would tweet. But to other observers, it was not patently implausible.”
This is the first impeachment process in which social media is playing a key role. That's worrying researchers after the U.S. intelligence community identified Russian trolls and bots as spreading disinformation designed to divide the American electorate and help Trump win the 2016 election. Twitter's quick action to take down the accounts suggests social media companies may be approaching impeachment and the 2020 election differently and more aggressively.
The existence of the fake accounts "proves the basic fact that social media is easily manipulated, and we have to be really careful in analyzing what we're seeing on social media,” Wolosky said.
There was at least one previous Twitter account purporting to belong to Hill, but it did not gain as many followers as quickly as @FionaHillPhd, Wolosky said. Vindman's legal representatives sent a letter two weeks ago to Twitter's general counsel warning the company about misinformation related to their client, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment. There have been several other accounts impersonating the Purple Heart recipient, the person said.
Such fake social media accounts could threaten the credibility of Vindman and Hill. Both have been careful not to elaborate further publicly on the impeachment proceedings and limited their comments to their Capitol Hill testimony, which the House Intelligence Committee compelled.
It wasn't immediately clear who was behind the accounts or what their motivations were for creating them. The Hill impersonator added a note to the Twitter biography denying the account actually belonged to Hill as Wolosky and other Twitter users noted its existence. But the tweets appeared credible to some who watched Hill last week debunk claims by Trump and Republicans that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election.
“I find it deeply concerning that members of Congress continue to propagate a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine was involved in the interference of our elections,” the Hill impostor account said in a tweet, which has been removed from Twitter. “That is resoundingly false. The entire U.S. Intelligence community agrees that it was Russia——not Ukraine.”
The Vindman account also added that it was a parody to its biography once Twitter users raised questions about its validity. Susan Hennessey, the executive editor at Lawfare, noted that many of the Vindman impersonator's tweets were mocking Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. From her Twitter feed:
Is there any indication or verification that this account, which a whole lot of people are retweeting, is genuine? From the tweets, which mostly mock Devin Nunes, it would seem likely to be an imposter. https://t.co/eTWpwv4yGD— Susan Hennessey (@Susan_Hennessey) November 26, 2019
Her tweet referenced a fake Vindman missive that said: "I am not angry with House Republicans or @DevinNunes. I harbor no hatred for our President nor am I a 'Never Trumper'. I simply love our country and believed it was my patriotic calling to tell the truth." It was deleted after Twitter suspended the @LtColVindman account.
Wolosky said Twitter responded to his report of the fake account in about an hour and should be commended for quickly suspending it. But the incident highlights how the impeachment witnesses's lawyers have to constantly monitor for other impostors or misinformation related to their clients.
“We are carefully watching and going to respond quickly,” Wolosky said.
Here are a few screengrabs from the fake accounts:
You used his name and credentials for a few cheap follows then changed your bio once you started getting mass reported. Grow up. pic.twitter.com/55Cwsqz28y— K.Johnston (@rkoaej5) November 26, 2019
Probably not a good idea for anyone, especially journalists to RT this without realizing its not a real account. pic.twitter.com/laPei27YbS— Dylan Els (@dylanels_) November 26, 2019
This is likely a fake, similar to that LTC Vindman account.— Commo Dude (@txcommodude) November 26, 2019
Based on her testimony, I highly doubt Dr. Hill would be tweeting about Trump’s tax returns. pic.twitter.com/Z8oFGTeg5R
BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES
BITS: The Democrat leading the House antitrust investigation into Silicon Valley is concerned that Apple's strengthened privacy protections could be a guise for anti-competitive behavior, my colleague Reed Albergotti reports.
“There is a growing risk that without a strong privacy law in the United States, platforms will exploit their role as de facto private regulators by placing a thumb on the scale in their own favor,” House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee chairman David N. Cicilline (R.I.) told Reed in his first comments on the matter.
House lawmakers have also met with Apple's partners over concerns that its App Store policies disadvantage rivals as a part of its ongoing antitrust probe, Reed reports. Apple changed its iPhone settings in June to make turning on permanent location tracking a multistep process for non-Apple apps. Turning location services off is extremely difficult for Apple services, however, potentially giving the company an advantage over competitors as it turns to data and location-driven services for profit
Justice Department Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim also hinted that privacy could become a factor in the agency's antitrust probe in a speech last week.
“We continually work with developers and take their feedback on how to help protect user privacy while also providing the tools developers need to make the best app experiences,” Apple spokeswoman Trudy Muller told Reed.
TikTok suspended the profile of a 17-year-old whose lesson on China's treatment of its Muslim minority disguised as a makeup tutorial went viral yesterday. The removal adds to growing suspicions that the Chinese-owned company moderates content abroad to meet Beijing's strict censorship rules, my colleagues Drew Harwell and Tony Romm report.
TikTok says the account's owner, Feroza Aziz, had her account suspended because her previous account using the same phone number had violated the platform's rules about posting terrorist content.
“TikTok does not moderate content due to political sensitivities and did not do so in this case,” Eric Han, head of the company’s U.S. trust and safety team, said in a statement to The Post.
Aziz says she never got an explanation from TikTok about her suspension, and the video that violated the policies for terrorist content had only briefly mentioned Osama bin Laden — as a joke.
The incident highlights the struggle of social media companies to draw a line between content moderation and censorship. TikTok's lack of transparency into its content moderation guidelines has made it difficult for the company to dispute claims of censorship influenced by the Chinese government.
“It's completely at the whim of these giant tech companies [as to] what they decide to tell us, and we have no way to fact-check their account of things,” said Kate Klonick, an assistant professor at St. John’s University School of Law who studies social media and free speech. “There's no outside mechanism of enforcement.”
NIBBLES: Voters may not share Elizabeth Warren's focus on breaking up Big Tech, Recode's Theodore Schliefer reports. In interviews with 50 voters across five events for the 2020 Democratic candidate, not one person brought up tech companies' growing reach as a top concern, he reports.
The gap between the senator from Massachusetts and her potential supporters highlights the difficulty in getting voters to rally against the abuses of Silicon Valley when its impact can feel removed and impersonal.
“Facebook one way or the other doesn’t affect my life. I still have to cook dinner and go to work every day. I have all this other stuff,” said Sarah Oliver, who struggles with $8,000 in medical debt, at one rally. “It’s not life and death for us. Whereas we’re actually in debt for health care.”
Warren says voters do care, even if they don't frame it the same way.
“What they see is power. That these big guys determine whether or not their data gets stolen. Determine what kind of stuff comes into their news feed,” Warren told Theodore. “People get this. They may not use the same frame in terms of the words they use — but they get the power dynamic in terms of what’s happening in America, and they’re sick of it.”
Voters who are energized by Warren's crusade against tech titans feel uncertain of how to tackle the issue, however. “You know what to fight against if you get a horrible medical bill,” rally attendee Mary Erickson told Theodore. “People don’t know how to fight this.”
RANT AND RAVE
The holidays came early for Twitter users who have been coveting handles of other users. The company announced yesterday it would start purging accounts inactive six months or more starting sometime after Dec. 12.
Finally everyone can stop complaining about the person with their full name who tweeted once in 2009 https://t.co/v7i95htVCO— Amanda Mull (@amandamull) November 26, 2019
Many users celebrated the news, like the Los Angeles Times's Johana Bhuiyan:
Other users decidedly did not want to represent their namesake. BuzzFeed's Julia Reinstein:
Many questioned what the policy would mean for deceased users and how old tweets would be archived. The Verge's Chris Welch says the company is still working on an answer.
I asked Twitter if accounts of deceased people will be removed for inactivity:— Chris Welch (@chriswelch) November 26, 2019
"We do not currently have a way to memorialize someone’s Twitter account once they have passed on, but the team is thinking about ways to do this.”https://t.co/A8sKD7eaIo
— News from the private sector:
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The Massachusetts State Police has become the first law enforcement agency in the nation to put the robotic dog to work, according to records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and shared with The Washington Post. The 70-pound robot with a top speed of three miles per hour was “leased" to the law enforcement agency’s bomb squad for a 90-day period beginning in August and ending in early November, my colleague Peter Holley reports.
- The Open Technology Institute will host a panel on transparency reporting practices by technology companies on December 4 at 12pm.
- The Senate Commerce Committee will host a hearing titled "Examining Legislative Proposals to Protect Consumer Data Privacy," on December 4 at 10 am.
- The House Energy and Commerce Committee will host an Federal Communications Commission oversight hearing on December 5.