Hillicon Valley: Conspiracy theories run rampant online amid Floyd protests | First lawsuit filed against Trump social media order | Snapchat to no longer promote Trump's account

Hillicon Valley: Conspiracy theories run rampant online amid Floyd protests | First lawsuit filed against Trump social media order | Snapchat to no longer promote Trump's account

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Welcome! Follow our cyber reporter, Maggie Miller (@magmill95), and tech reporter, Chris Mills Rodrigo (@chrisismills), for more coverage.

CONSPIRACY THEORIES ON THE RISE: Misinformation about the killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests is spreading rapidly online, adding to the chaos as nationwide demonstrations enter their second week.

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The conspiracy theories range from claims that Floyd’s arrest was staged to others saying he is still alive, despite video evidence that the 46-year-old unarmed black man died in police custody in Minneapolis after a white police officer knelt on his neck for about eight minutes.

Other unfounded claims say Floyd’s death was part of an international conspiracy to destabilize the U.S., while some allege that former officer Derek Chauvin, who has been charged with second-degree murder in the slaying, is an actor.

Twitter has been fertile ground for many of the unfounded claims. A search for the phrase “George Floyd is not dead” brings up dozens of results on the platform.

One account tweeted over the weekend that “George Floyd’s execution is part of a Russian military intelligence operation.” The post has more than 4,400 likes and 1,800 retweets without comment.

Another tweet, which claimed that Chauvin was pictured wearing a “Make Whites Great Again” hat, was retweeted more than 19,000 times despite Twitter warning that the image contained manipulated media.

But much of the misinformation has focused on the subsequent protests and who is organizing them.

“Whenever there is confusion or something people don’t know, there is an opportunity for misinformation to come in,” said Diara Townes, an investigative researcher at First Draft, an organization dedicated to fighting online misinformation. “A lack of reliable information creates a vacuum for bad actors to exploit with mis- and disinformation.”

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One entity that has been painted as orchestrating the protests — or at least the more violent parts of them — is antifa, a term referring to radical activists who say they use direct action to fight against fascism.

Proponents of the theory have pointed to social media accounts purporting to speak for antifa and encouraging violence, but those allegations have not been substantiated.

Twitter took down an account with the handle @antifa_us this week that was tied to white nationalist group Identity Evropa after it posted a tweet inciting violence.

For years “right wing provocateurs have been impersonating antifa, using inflaming rhetoric and doing their best to create a boogeyman on the left,” said Joan Donovan, research director at the Harvard Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

Baseless theories about antifa have also circulated widely on messaging platforms such as Telegram and neighborhood sites like Nextdoor, according to Townes.

Read more about the online misinformation here.

 

TRUMP TECH ORDER IN TROUBLE: A technology policy organization filed the first lawsuit against President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavis: Supreme Court decision is bad news for Trump, good news for Vance Meadows trying to root out suspected White House leakers by feeding them info: Axios Pressley hits DeVos over reopening schools: 'I wouldn't trust you to care for a house plant let alone my child' MORE's executive order targeting social media companies on Tuesday.

The case filed by the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) alleges that the directive violates the First Amendment by curtailing protected speech by platforms and individuals.

The executive order, signed by Trump last week amid his feud with Twitter over it fact-checking some of his posts, seeks among other things to unwind Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives social media companies immunity for content posted on their platforms by third parties and allows them to make "good faith" efforts to moderate content.

The lawsuit — filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia — asks the court to invalidate the executive order, claiming that even though it has not yet fully taken effect it could still chill speech.

“The Executive Order is designed to deter social media services from fighting misinformation, voter suppression, and the stoking of violence on their platforms,” CDT president and CEO Alexandra Givens said in a statement.

“CDT filed suit today because the President’s actions are a direct attack on the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment," she added.

The suit is expected to be the first of many against the order, which experts say is on shaky legal ground to begin with.

Read more about the lawsuit here.

 

SNAPCHAT TAKES ACTION: Snap Inc. announced Wednesday that it will no longer promote President Trump's Snapchat account after concluding that some of his tweets from over the weekend promoted violence.

Trump's account will stay up on the social media platform, but will no longer be promoted on the app's Discover page, according to the company.

“We are not currently promoting the President’s content on Snapchat’s Discover platform," a spokesperson for Snap said in a statement to The Hill. "We will not amplify voices who incite racial violence and injustice by giving them free promotion on Discover. Racial violence and injustice have no place in our society and we stand together with all who seek peace, love, equality, and justice in America.”

The president has more than 1.5 million followers on the platform, which is especially popular among younger audiences, according to Bloomberg.

Snapchat had previously promoted Trump's content on its tab where users can find news publishers, celebrities and other elected officials.

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Snap is the latest social media company to take action on Trump's posts, especially ones about anti-police brutality demonstrations.

Twitter last week placed an interstitial warning about glorifying violence on a post where Trump said "when the looting starts, the shooting starts" in reference to protests in Minnesota over the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police.

Facebook's leadership, on the other hand, has left an identical post untouched, triggering backlash from dozens of employees.

Read more about Snapchat’s decision here.

 

TWITTER (KIND OF) TAKES A STAND: Twitter said Wednesday it will not tackle all the misinformation on its platform but will instead focus on posts with the “highest potential for harm” as it works to curb false or misleading information from spreading.

The social media giant said it is responding to a survey from last year in which respondents said that “Twitter shouldn’t determine the truthfulness of Tweets” and “Twitter should provide context to help people make up their own minds in cases where the substance of a Tweet is disputed.” 

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“Hence, our focus is on providing context, not fact-checking,” the company said. “We are NOT attempting to address all misinformation. Instead, we prioritize based on the highest potential for harm, focusing on manipulated media, civic integrity, and COVID-19. Likelihood, severity and type of potential harm — along with reach and scale — factor into this.”

Twitter’s practice of flagging false or misleading posts was thrust into the spotlight last week after it flagged two tweets from President Trump regarding mail-in voting and later placed a warning on another Trump tweet against demonstrators protesting after George Floyd's death, saying the president violated Twitter’s policy of glorifying violence. 

The labels infuriated Trump, who signed an executive order directing federal agencies to reinterpret Section 230, which provides legal protection to tech companies for what third parties publish on their platforms.

Read more about Twitter’s policies here.

 

ZUCKERBERG IN HOT WATER: Dozens of former Facebook employees sent a letter to Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergWe haven't seen how low it can go Hillicon Valley: Facebook considers political ad ban | Senators raise concerns over civil rights audit | Amazon reverses on telling workers to delete TikTok Facebook considering ban on political ads: reports MORE Wednesday criticizing him over a decision to leave controversial posts by President Trump untouched.

The 34 employees said in the letter published in The New York Times that leaving the posts in which Trump said "when the looting starts, the shooting starts" is a "betrayal" of the social media platform's ideals.

The post was in reference to protests in Minnesota sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

"[Facebook] claims that providing warnings about a politician’s speech is inappropriate, but removing content from citizens is acceptable, even if both are saying the same thing," they wrote.

"That is not a noble stand for freedom. It is incoherent, and worse, it is cowardly. Facebook should be holding politicians to a higher standard than their constituents."

Zuckerberg and Facebook's leadership have been under intense criticism over the decision to leave the post up, including from inside the company.

Several current employees have spoken up about the posts, and on Monday several held a digital protest.

Zuckerberg has defended the decision, saying that Facebook is not an "arbiter of truth." Current and former employees disagree.

Read more about the criticism here.

 

FOREIGN ESPIONAGE CONCERNS: Christopher Krebs, the director of the Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity agency, said this week that he expects to see "every intelligence service" attempt to target and steal COVID-19 research and data.

“We do expect every intelligence service to be in the mix here,” Krebs, who serves as director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), said on an episode of CBS’s “Intelligence Matters” podcast released Wednesday.

"The Chinese have obviously been one of the more brazen in terms of their approach, but others are in the game, too," Krebs said. "This is a very active space, very active space.”

CISA and the FBI issued a joint warning last month that Chinese-backed hackers were targeting U.S. organizations working to develop vaccines and other treatments for COVID-19. The agencies noted that theft of this data and research could "jeopardize the delivery of secure, effective, and efficient treatment options."

Hospitals and major agencies including the World Health Organization and the Department of Health and Human Services have been among the major targets of attackers. CISA joined the United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre last month in issuing a separate alert around hackers targeting healthcare providers. 

Krebs said on the podcast, which was recorded last week, that the attacks were “destructive.”

“You're seeing a situation where a hospital could be impacted and their network's offline, they can't conduct clinical operations,” Krebs said. “It's not as easy as just transferring those patients to another hospital in this environment. You never know what you're transferring and indeed if you have anything you can transfer to. So we're absolutely seeing destructive attacks across the border right now.”

Read more about the concerns here.

 

STAY IN SCHOOL: Democrats in both chambers of Congress on Wednesday sent a letter to leadership urging them to include funding to ensure college students can access the internet during the coronavirus pandemic in future relief packages.

Led by Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Fauci says focus should be on pausing reopenings rather than reverting to shutdowns; WHO director pleads for international unity in pandemic response State election officials warn budget cuts could lead to November chaos Biden strikes populist tone in blistering rebuke of Trump, Wall Street MORE (D-Minn.) and Rep. Anna EshooAnna Georges EshooDemocrats fear US already lost COVID-19 battle Why drug costs for older Americans should be capped in pandemic's wake Senate panel advances bill targeting online child sexual abuse MORE (D-Calif.), the letter highlights the struggle of students to continue their education while at home without proper internet access.

“Even before the pandemic, only 66 percent of black households, 61 percent of Hispanic households, and 63 percent of rural households had access to broadband, and one survey found that about 20 percent of college students did not have consistent access to technology, such as laptops and tablets,” the 18 lawmakers wrote.

“Another survey found that 30 percent of students experienced difficulty connecting to the internet when accessing course material online during the pandemic. Without action from Congress to address these disparities, students are at serious risk of falling behind and missing out on job and academic opportunities provided by the internet," they continued.

Klobuchar and Eshoo introduced legislation last month to create a dedicated $1 billion fund at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for internet connections as well as equipment like hot spots and Wi-Fi enabled devices.

The Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act would specifically target historically black, tribal, Hispanic and other minority-serving colleges and universities as well as rural institutions.

Wednesday's letter comes as schools across the country remain shuttered in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Read more about Democratic efforts here.

 

QUIBI PAY CUTS: Senior Quibi executives were asked to take a 10 percent pay cut as the short video streaming service attempts to reduce its expenses after launching in April, according to a memo the company sent to employees that was obtained by The Hill Wednesday.

"In regard to tightening our belt, our senior leadership team has volunteered to take a 10% pay cut because it’s the right thing to do," the memo read.

People familiar with the matter told The Wall Street Journal that Quibi Chief Executive Meg Whitman will also take a 10 percent cut to her pay. 

The streaming company has also reportedly discussed laying off about 10 percent of its more than 250 employees, mostly of lower and middle positions, one person told the Journal. Quibi has already removed some low-level workers in the past few weeks, sources said. 

But a top Quibi executive told the newspaper there are no current plans to conduct substantial cuts. 

The memo to employees said, "nothing has changed since our last company meeting two weeks ago."

"Quibi is in a good financial position," the memo read. "As we said in that meeting, we will look for ways to tighten our belt. We are not laying off staff as a part of cost saving measures. We’ve recently added a dozen new Quibi employees."

A Quibi spokesperson said the streaming service is renewing shows, has announced two new shows and will announce more in the future. 

Read more about the cuts here.

 

Lighter click: Solidarity

An op-ed to chew on: George Floyd dying, rioters looting: What image will define our future? 

NOTABLE LINKS FROM AROUND THE WEB: 

Microsoft, Amazon, and IBM express ‘solidarity.’ Should they end police contracts? (Protocol / Emily Birnbaum and Issie Lapowsky) 

This matters more: How cyber pros are confronting racism in their own ranks and beyond (CyberScoop / Sean Lyngaas, Greg Otto, and Shannon Vavra) 

E-bikes are having their moment. They deserve it. (The New York Times / Brian Chen)