“People are quite literally dying because disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic, the vaccine, and public health leaders is spreading,” they wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. The Daily 202 obtained an advance copy of the letter.
“Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have served as the sites for the spread of hateful speech and dangerous disinformation,” the letter said. “Now, as we are moving forward with reopening our country, it's critical that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter take immediate action to protect platform users by deplatforming the Disinfo Dozen and taking meaningful steps to stop the spread of COVID-19 disinformation.”
Among the better-known signatories were UltraViolet, the Center for Countering Digital Hate, Alianza for Progress, GLAAD, Media Matters for America, NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the Women’s March.
The White House said last week that the 12 individuals cited in the letter spread 65 percent of the anti-vaccine disinformation zipping around social media platforms, even as coronavirus cases have surged and deaths have risen, overwhelming among unvaccinated Americans.
The letter came amid an escalating and increasingly acrimonious pressure campaign on social media titans by President Biden, who bluntly accused the tech firms of “killing people” by doing too little to take down vaccine disinformation.
On Sunday, the White House declined to answer questions from The Daily 202 about what criteria it uses to decide whether a post amounts to disinformation versus overheated rhetoric or exaggeration relatively common to politics.
Asked about the process for reporting suspected disinformation to social media companies, a White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the administration has occasionally asked social media platforms about specific misleading viral posts that it thought might violate the tech firms’ own policies.
At the New York Times, Cecilia Kang took stock Sunday of the back-and-forth between Biden and the tech companies that run the most wide-reaching social media:
“On Sunday, the surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, reiterated warnings that false stories about the vaccines had become a dangerous health hazard. ‘These platforms have to recognize they’ve played a major role in the increase in speed and scale with which misinformation is spreading,’ Mr. Murthy said Sunday on CNN.
In a blog post on Saturday, Facebook called on the administration to stop ‘finger-pointing’ and laid out what it had done to encourage users to get vaccinated. The social network also detailed how it had clamped down on lies about the vaccines, which officials have said led people to refuse to be vaccinated.
‘The Biden administration has chosen to blame a handful of American social media companies,’ Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of integrity, said in the post. ‘The fact is that vaccine acceptance among Facebook users in the U.S. has increased.’
Mr. Rosen added that the company’s data showed that 85 percent of its users in the United States had been or wanted to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. While President Biden had set a goal of getting 70 percent of Americans vaccinated by July 4, which the White House fell short of, ‘Facebook is not the reason this goal was missed,’ Mr. Rosen said.”
My colleagues Amy B. Wang and Christopher Rowland reported yesterday that the Biden administration's warnings about disinformation “prompted Facebook to hit back at the White House and accuse Murthy of praising them privately while publicly using them as a scapegoat for Biden’s missed vaccination goals.
Murthy defended the administration Sunday, saying he had also told Facebook officials they were not doing enough.
‘What I have effectively said is, when we see steps that are good, that are being taken, we should acknowledge those. And there have been some positive steps taken by these technology companies,’ he said on CNN. ‘But what I have also said to them, publicly and privately, is that it’s not enough, that we’re still seeing a proliferation of misinformation online.’ ”
It’s not clear what proportion of Americans still refusing to get the widely available, effective, and overwhelmingly safe vaccine is doing so because of online disinformation campaigns.
But my colleagues Dan Diamond, Hannah Knowles, and Tyler Pager reported last week how parts of right-wing America have made a virtue out of resisting the vaccine — and encouraging supporters of former president Donald Trump to do so.
“What began as ‘vaccine hesitancy’ has morphed into outright vaccine hostility, as conservatives increasingly attack the White House’s coronavirus message, mischaracterize its vaccination campaign and, more and more, vow to skip the shots altogether.
The notion that the vaccine drive is pointless or harmful — or perhaps even a government plot — is increasingly an article of faith among supporters of former president Donald Trump, on a par with assertions that the last election was stolen and the assault on the U.S. Capitol was overblown.”
This is all against the backdrop of a worsening weekly rise in cases.
As the Associated Press’ Jay Reeves noted this weekend:
“U.S. cases of COVID-19 last week increased by 17,000 nationwide over a 14-day period for the first time since late fall, and an increase in death historically follows a spike in illness.”
What’s happening now
The U.S. and some allies accused China of hacking Microsoft and condoning other cyberattacks. “The United States, European Union, NATO and other world powers on Monday accused the Chinese government of a broad array of malicious cyber activities, blaming its Ministry of State Security and affiliated criminals for a sophisticated attack on Microsoft’s widely used email server software earlier this year,” John Hudson and Ellen Nakashima report. “The condemnations represent the first time NATO, a 30-nation alliance, has denounced alleged Chinese cyberattacks following the Biden administration’s pledge in June to rally U.S. allies against Beijing’s malign behavior. The number of nations involved amounts to the largest condemnation of China’s cyber aggressions to date, U.S. officials said. The joint statements stopped short, however, of punishing China for its alleged actions …
“This is the first time Washington and other U.S. allies have assigned blame for the Microsoft Exchange hack, which compromised more than 100,000 servers worldwide. Microsoft alleged in March that its Exchange servers were compromised by a Beijing-backed hacking group that exploited several previously unknown flaws in the software. … Merely affixing blame but failing to impose a consequence will not deter future activity, said some analysts.”
The Biden administration repatriated a detainee from Guantanamo Bay to Morocco, the first transfer of an inmate from the high-security prison since the Trump administration mostly halted the resettlements. “The transfer of detainee Abdul Latif Nasir leaves just 39 inmates at the facility, located on a military base on the eastern tip of Cuba, and provides the first concrete illustration of how the administration may attempt to finally shutter the prison,” Missy Ryan reports.
A U.S. women’s gymnastics alternate tested positive for coronavirus in Tokyo, Emily Giambalvo reports. “Kara Eaker’s coach, Al Fong, told a television station in Des Moines that Eaker was the gymnast who tested positive. Eaker, an 18-year-old from Grain Valley, Mo., said last month that she had been vaccinated. ... The gymnast has moved to a hotel to isolate, the USOPC said in a statement. One additional [alternate] is considered a close contact, and she is quarantining in her room until she tests negative.”
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Lunchtime reads from The Post
- “2020 presidential polls suffered worst performance in decades, report says,” by Dan Balz: “Public opinion polls in the 2020 presidential election suffered from errors of ‘unusual magnitude,’ the highest in 40 years for surveys estimating the national popular vote and in at least 20 years for state-level polls, according to a study conducted by the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR). The AAPOR task force examined 2,858 polls, including 529 national presidential race polls and 1,572 state-level presidential polls. They found that the surveys overstated the margin between President Biden and former president Donald Trump by 3.9 points in the national popular vote and 4.3 percentage points in state polls.”
- “Haiti’s acting prime minister Claude Joseph says he will step down amid leadership dispute,” by Anthony Faiola: “Joseph, who has nominally led Haiti as acting prime minister since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, said in an exclusive interview with The Washington Post on Monday that he had agreed to step down, handing over power to his challenger who has been backed by the international community. The agreement ends a power struggle between two men who had been courting support internationally and domestically for their rival claims as Haiti’s interim leader, and is aimed at defusing a roiling political crisis that has left the troubled Caribbean nation rudderless since the July 7 assassination.”
… and beyond
- “Why Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise cultural changes aren’t just ‘woke’ — they’re necessary,” by Los Angeles Times’s Todd Martens: “Ahead of the July 30 release of a ‘Jungle Cruise’ movie … the ride reopened Friday — a day shy of the park’s 66th anniversary — with updates that remove, in Disney’s words, ‘negative depictions of native people.’ In their place are slapstick-inspired scenes largely involving chimpanzees and monkeys getting the best of a prior Jungle Cruise expedition. If we can agree that Disneyland is, unlike a film or a television series, a living environment — a place born of one era but striving to be welcoming to subsequent generations — then the Jungle Cruise ride may be key to understanding theme parks as works of developing art.”
- “For many of the world's refugees, Mexico is their new home,” by Telemundo’s Albinson Linares: “In recent years, Mexico has ceased to be a transitory country for people heading to the United States, increasingly becoming the final destination of an important migratory flow. Between 2014 and 2019, the number of asylum applications registered in the country increased from 2,137 to 70,418 — an increase of more than 3,000 percent, according to the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance, or COMAR.”
- “What is happening to our apolitical military?” by The Atlantic’s Kori Schake: “Remarks by America’s most senior military officer [Mark Milley] mark the latest step in the continued erosion of relations between the armed forces and their civilian leaders.”
On the Hill
Knock on wood, this could finally be Infrastructure Week.
- “After months of wind up, practice drills and tight votes, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is on the cusp of his most serious high wire act yet. The Democrat from New York returns to Washington on Monday with two goals this week: get consensus within his ranks on a $3.5 trillion budget and see once and for all whether the bipartisan group's effort to secure an infrastructure deal is real or not,” CNN’s Clare Foran and Lauren Fox report.
- “It's notable that most members and the public still have not seen any formal language of either the bipartisan bill or the budget. Democratic rank-and-file have to make up their minds in a matter of days on two proposals they don't have the details about yet."
- “Schumer is expected to file cloture Monday evening on a bipartisan piece of infrastructure legislation that doesn't even exist yet, that will set up a key test vote on the bipartisan deal on Wednesday.”
- “Over the weekend, the bipartisan group tried to tie up their negotiations. Sources told CNN that the group met for hours, trying to break down this proposal into smaller chunks to close it out. Ultimately though, there still isn't a resolution.”
- “The sticking point is what it has been for months. How do you finance $579 billion in new spending over the next five years or more than $900 billion over the next eight?”
- “Senators had hoped to raise about $100 billion by empowering the Internal Revenue Service to pursue unpaid federal taxes, but Republicans balked at the idea out of a concern it would give the tax-collection agency too much power to scrutinize families’ and corporations’ finances,” our colleague Tony Romm reports.
Remote voting in Congress, born of a crisis, has been a useful perk.
- “Fourteen months after it was approved, with the public health threat in retreat and most members of Congress vaccinated, a growing number of lawmakers are using the practice to attend political events, double down on work back home or simply avoid a long commute to Washington," the New York Times’s Nicholas Fandos reports.
- “Perhaps no one has benefited more from the arrangement than Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who recently informed lawmakers that proxy voting would be in effect for the remainder of the summer. It has allowed Ms. Pelosi, whose majority is so slim that she can afford to lose no more than four Democrats if every member is present and voting, to all but ensure that absences alone do not cost her pivotal support.”
At least five Texas House Democrats have tested positive for coronavirus in D.C.
- “Three members previously tested positive for COVID-19, with the first case confirmed Friday evening and two more reported Saturday morning, including Rep. Celia Israel of Austin, who said she is experiencing mild symptoms,” the Austin American-Statesman’s Madlin Mekelburg and Nicole Cobler report. “The Texas House Democratic Caucus is not naming the individuals who have tested positive, but officials with the party said all of the lawmakers in Washington have been vaccinated, including those who are now infected.”
- “Almost all of the House Democrats who left Texas for Washington on Monday to break quorum in the House and block passage of a GOP election bill are staying in the same hotel and have been meeting regularly as a caucus and traveling frequently to the Capitol to meet with federal leaders.”
The Pegasus Project
Spyware leased by an Israeli firm to governments for tracking criminals was used in attempted and successful hacks of 37 smartphones belonging to journalists, human rights activists and business executives.
- The military-grade spyware is licensed by Israeli firm NSO Group and has been used around the world to target individuals, according to an investigation by The Washington Post and 16 media partners led by the Paris-based journalism nonprofit Forbidden Stories.
- “Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, a human rights group, had access to a list of more than 50,000 numbers and shared it with the news organizations, which did further research and analysis.” Here are some of the key stories from this media consortium, titled the Pegasus Project.
Khashoggi’s wife was targeted with the spyware before his death.
- “The Android phone of his wife, Hanan Elatr, was targeted by a Pegasus user six months before his killing, but the analysis could not determine whether the hack was successful. The iPhone of his fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, was penetrated by spyware days after the murder, the forensics showed,” Dana Priest, Souad Mekhennet and Arthur Bouvart report. “Another of Khashoggi’s close associates was successfully hacked after the journalist’s murder.”
- “NSO executives have asserted that its spyware was not used to monitor Khashoggi or his family. But a Pegasus user sent texts to Elatr, an Egyptian flight attendant Khashoggi fell in love with and eventually married, with links that could have implanted spyware; the user twice masqueraded as her sister.”
- “After Khashoggi’s murder, someone using Pegasus targeted Cengiz’s iPhone. She had accompanied him to the gates of the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul as he went to pick up documents in October 2018. Her cellphone was breached just four days after Khashoggi’s murder and then five times in the days following that.”
- “Whether Khashoggi’s cellphone was also hacked is not known. He left his phone with Cengiz when he entered the consulate. She gave it to Turkish authorities. Authorities have kept it and have declined to say whether it had been hacked.”
In India, the spyware was used to hack journalists and others.
- “Hundreds of Indian phone numbers appeared on a list that included some selected for surveillance by clients of NSO Group, an Israeli firm. The list contained numbers for Rahul Gandhi, India’s main opposition leader; Ashok Lavasa, a key election official considered an obstacle to the ruling party; and M. Hari Menon, the local head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,” Joanna Slater and Niha Masih report. “Others included on the list were journalists, activists, opposition politicians, senior officials, business executives, public health experts, Tibetan exiles and foreign diplomats. A group of Modi critics accused of plotting to overthrow the government also appeared on the list.”
- “It is not known how many of the phones on the list were actually targeted for surveillance or how many attempts were successful.”
Despite the hype, your iPhone’s security is no match for NSO spyware.
- “The text delivered last month to the iPhone 11 of Claude Mangin, the French wife of a political activist jailed in Morocco, made no sound. It produced no image. It offered no warning of any kind as an iMessage from somebody she didn’t know delivered malware directly onto her phone — and past Apple’s security systems,” Craig Timberg, Reed Albergotti and Elodie Guéguen report. “Once inside, the spyware, produced by Israel’s NSO Group and licensed to one of its government clients, went to work, according to a forensic examination of her device by Amnesty International’s Security Lab. It found that between October and June, her phone was hacked multiple times with Pegasus/"
- “The examination was unable to reveal what was collected. But the potential was vast: Pegasus can collect emails, call records, social media posts, user passwords, contact lists, pictures, videos, sound recordings and browsing histories, according to security researchers and NSO marketing materials. The spyware can activate cameras or microphones to capture fresh images and recordings. It can listen to calls and voice mails.”
- “And all of this can happen without a user even touching her phone or knowing she has received a mysterious message from an unfamiliar person.”
- “These kinds of ‘zero-click’ attacks, as they are called within the surveillance industry, can work on even the newest generations of iPhones, after years of effort in which Apple attempted to close the door against unauthorized surveillance.”
- How vulnerable are you to such spyware? Are there steps you can take to keep your phone safe? Our colleagues offer some advice here.
Quote of the day
“It was my second shooting, so I was kind of prepared,” said an 8-year-old girl who was at Nationals Park Saturday night when a shooting started. “I always am expecting something to happen.”
Hot on the left
Schumer’s plan for cannabis reform is doomed to languish despite massive public support for legislation, writes the American Prospect’s Gabrielle Gurley. “The tragedy is that the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act draft is as comprehensive a framework for federal marijuana regulation as Americans are likely to get from the legislative mortuary that is the United States Senate. ... The fight under way now on Capitol Hill is an anomaly in one respect: There are clear avenues for certain compromises. ... [Still], one factor working in legalization’s favor is that Big Weed money is now pouring into politics.”
Hot on the right
Citing the Texas State House Democrats’ bid to stop a new round of election laws in their state, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he’d “leave town” to stop Hill Democrats from passing the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package. “Noting that the Senate requires a quorum — the minimum number of senators present to conduct business — Graham said he ‘would leave before I'd let that happen,’” USA Today reports. “Graham's departure from Washington alone would not be enough to suspend business in the evenly divided Senate. All GOP lawmakers would have to join Graham in the bid to stop a vote on the bill over a lack of quorum.”
Big businesses unapproved tax breaks, visualized
Corporations have claimed more ‘uncertain’ tax breaks in recent years, as IRS budget cuts have weakened the government’s ability to challenge them, Douglas MacMillan and Kevin Schaul report.
Today in Washington
Biden will deliver remarks on the economic recovery today at 11:30 a.m. He is expected to promote the bipartisan infrastructure deal and his Build Back Better agenda. At 1:45 p.m., Biden and the first lady will welcome Jordan’s King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein and Queen Rania Al Abdullah, as well as Prince Al Hussein bin Abdullah II. At 2:15, the president and the king will participate in a bilateral meeting.
A massive and mysterious 100-pound fish washed ashore. Scientists hope to learn its secrets. “The fish was 3½-feet long — its huge body a mix of silvery and bright reddish-orange scales, dotted with white spots. Its large eyes feature hints of gold," Paulina Firozi reports.
John Oliver introduced his audience to a very interesting Danish kids' show:
And a few D.C. updates for our D.C. readers (and for anyone who wants to visit us):
- The city’s Metrorail is now running until midnight seven days a week. Starting in the fall, Metrorail will expand service until 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, per DCist.
- And, starting tomorrow, the Smithsonian will no longer require timed-entry passes at most museums. (Exceptions are the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Zoo).