with Aaron Schaffer

Conservatives' false claims that frozen wind turbines caused mass power outages in Texas started with a photo taken out of context on Twitter.  

New research from the German Marshall Fund uncovers how an image shared on social media of a helicopter de-icing wind turbines helped spark a misleading narrative – which ricocheted around the Internet in just a few days from tweets, to posts widely shared by conservative influencers to the mouths of Republican politicians.

The helicopter photo – which was retweeted more than 30,000 times before the account that shared it went private -- turned out to be from a 2014 test in Sweden, not from the cold snap in present-day Texas. 

Yet the narrative gained traction even as energy experts told The Washington Post the real culprit of the outages was a Texas power grid poorly prepared to deal with severe weather conditions. Some wind turbines did freeze, but the shutdowns of thermal power plants, especially those relying on natural gas, greatly outweighed the dent caused by frozen wind turbines.

By Friday, posts promoting the false wind turbine claims had garnered at least 1.8 million views on YouTube and more than 1 million likes, comments and shares on Facebook. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) even blamed wind power for the situation in an interview on Fox News. Abbott ultimately walked back those comments, but the original interview with Sean Hannity has more than 100,000 YouTube views and counting and was parroted throughout social media. 

Climate science is an emerging disinformation battleground for social media services. 

Much of the focus on disinformation is often on elections or health issues, including the coronavirus. But the recent explosion of falsehoods related to the Texas power outages highlights how climate science and related topics like renewable energy are a ripe target for online propaganda. 

Tech companies have not been as aggressive in stepping up their defenses against climate disinformation, despite increasing public pressure from environmental activists to do more. Some Democratic lawmakers – including Big Tech critic Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) – have called on Facebook to increase its action to address climate change. 

"The future of our planet is at stake, and there should be no company too big, too powerful, and too opaque to be held accountable for its role in the climate crisis. Facebook is no exception,” Warren and other senators said last year.

Facebook, particularly, has come under fire for not being aggressive enough in policing false claims about climate science, especially after researchers found Facebook ads denying climate change were viewed in the U.S. more than 8 million times during the first half of 2020. And the company caught major flak after last year reversing a fact check of a post making false claims about climate change because it argued it was opinion content

The recent flaps have put pressure on Facebook to do more. The company has responded by launching a new Climate Science Information Center – similar to one  in place to connect people with authoritative information about the pandemic.  The center yesterday was promoting an Associated Press story pushing back on claims the wind turbines caused the Texas outages.

Multiple Facebook fact-checking partners, including Reuters, Lead Stories and factcheck.org have also rated the claims identified in the Marshall Fund research as false. 

YouTube said none of the videos flagged in the Marshall Fund research violated its policies. Spokesman Farshad Shadloo said YouTube generally does “reduce recommendations of borderline content or videos that could misinform users in harmful ways,” including about climate science. But he declined to say whether YouTube was reducing views of the specific videos flagged by researchers. 

Twitter spokeswoman Elizabeth Busby said the company is “committed to supporting those affected by the winter storms in Texas, and we’re working with our trusted partners to elevate critical health and safety resources.” 

The situation highlights how crises can put the disinformation supply chain into overdrive. 

Adrienne Goldstein, a Marshall Fund digital research assistant, said in an interview the viral spread of the misleading claims underscores how the incentives in social media are broken, with algorithms far too often rewarding sensationalist or misleading content over authoritative sources. 

Researchers are especially concerned about the wind turbine claims because they weren't completely fabricated. Instead, they were manipulated to serve the political goal of undermining Democrats' efforts to fund renewable energy resources.

“This kind of manipulative content can be even more pernicious because it maintains an element of truth,” wrote Goldstein and Eli Weiner, another research assistant at GMF. 

The Marshall Fund previously covered how a debunked conspiracy theory linking the Oregon wildfires to Antifa began circulating online.

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Facebook struck a deal to bring back news in Australia. 

Facebook will again allow people in the country to post and view links to news articles, after the Australian government granted some concessions in negotiations over a proposed law requiring tech companies to pay news publishers for their content, Mike Isaac and Damien Cave report for the New York Times. Facebook had blocked  all news links in the country last week in protest of the law. 

Several amendments were made to the proposal to bring Facebook back to the negotiating table:

  • Facebook would have more time to reach deals with publishers, so it would not be immediately forced into making payments. 
  • If digital platforms significantly contributed to the Australian news industry, the companies may be able to avoid the proposal entirely – at least for the time being. 

Campbell Brown, Facebook’s vice president of global news partnerships, told the Times in a statement news was returning in Australia as “the government has clarified we will retain the ability to decide if news appears on Facebook so that we won’t automatically be subject to a forced negotiation.”

Merrick Garland indicated that he would be receptive to changing Section 230.

Joe Biden's nominee for attorney general said he is “very eager to study” the law, which gives tech companies legal liability for content on their platforms. He was pressed on its future by Democratic and Republican senators who support its overhaul, with Garland concluding “there’s no doubt the Internet has changed from when 230 was originally adopted.”

Republican senators asked Garland about an Justice Department antitrust lawsuit against Google, which Garland suggested he would continue to pursue. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) referenced a recent Wall Street Journal report, which found large tech companies were the Biden campaign’s five largest sources of funding. Garland indicated he’d be willing to stand up to the companies and shot down a report he's interested in bringing in Susan Davies, who previously represented Facebook, to lead the department’s antitrust bureau. “I don’t think either she or I have aspirations for her to be in the antitrust division,” Garland said.

Whistleblowers says hundreds of inmates eligible for release are still in prison because of a software problem.

Arizona’s Department of Corrections whistleblowers said that state officials had been aware of the problem since 2019, and the issue was raised internally for more than a year, KJZZ’s Jimmy Jenkins reports. They say software calculating release dates for inmates can’t account for a 2019 amendment to state law that allows nonviolent offenders to receive credits for completing programming. 

The company that built the software that Arizona customized, Business & Decision North America, did not respond to a request for comment from Gizmodo, which reported that its corporate website lists Maryland and Indiana state prisons as clients.

In the wake of the report, Arizona’s Department of Corrections blocked employees from looking at KJZZ’s website, Jenkins reports: 

In a statement, the Arizona corrections department called the report “false” but noted that the computer system is not able to process release dates in accordance with the law. “The department has not allowed this to delay any release dates,” it said.

Google will resume accepting political ads on Wednesday.

Advertisers will be allowed to reference candidates and the 2020 election, Axios’ Sara Fischer reports. Tech companies instituted off-and-on bans of political ads in the run-up to the 2020 election and in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, disrupting political advertisers and campaigns.

The move leaves Facebook as the highest-profile website still banning political ads. The CEOs of both companies plan to testify before Congress next month, where they will probably face scrutiny for the roles of their platforms in the lead-up to the riot.

Rant and rave

Google's move is getting mixed reactions. Caitlin Mitchell, a senior digital adviser for the Biden campaign:

Daniel Kreiss, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:

Competition watch

Tim Wu, a prominent antitrust expert and critic of tech giants, is expected to join the White House National Economic Council, Politico Playbook reports. Wu's return to the White House could signal that the Biden administration will take a tough line on tech, after liberal Democrats have raised concerns that Biden would hire industry-friendly officials. 

Wu, a professor at Columbia University who coined the term “net neutrality,” is popular among activists who want to break up the tech giants. He authored The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age,” and testified during a House Judiciary Committee hearing as part of its investigation into tech giants. 

He previously served on the NEC at the end of the Obama administration, and Politico reports he has been discussed as a potential pick to fill one of the vacancies on the FTC. 

Inside the industry

Microsoft is allying itself with European publishers.

The tech giant will work with four news lobbyists to develop a way to “mandate payments” for the use of content by “gatekeepers that have dominant market power,” the Financial Times’ Alex Barker reports. The move is a clear rebuke to Google and Facebook, which opposed a similar system in Australia. Canada is preparing a similar law to that which is being proposed in Australia, and European and British lawmakers want to use parts of the Australian proposal in their laws.

Trending

Daybook

  • The Senate Judiciary Committee holds its second day of hearings on President Biden’s nomination of judge Merrick Garland to be his attorney general today at 10 a.m.
  • Microsoft President Brad Smith and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt testify at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on emerging technology today at 9:30 a.m.
  • Ranking Digital Rights launches its 2020 Corporate Accountability Index at a New America event on Wednesday at 11 a.m.
  • Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.) and Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) speak at an event on augmented and virtual reality hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center on Wednesday at 2 p.m.
  • FCC commissioner Nathan Simington speaks at an event hosted by the Lincoln Network on Thursday at 11 a.m.

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