Coronavirus protests test Facebook's free speech pledges

Mark Zuckerberg says his company is combating "harmful misinformation" by taking down posts promoting defiance of social-distancing rules. But conservatives like Donald Trump Jr. call its actions "chilling & disturbing."

Coronavirus protests test Facebook's free speech pledges

The right-wing anti-lockdown protests breaking out around the U.S. are presenting the latest no-win quandary for Facebook, as the world's largest social network tries to fulfill its pledge to remain politically impartial amid a pandemic that has killed more than 42,000 Americans.

The company has taken tentative steps so far — blocking protesters from using Facebook to organize in-person rallies in California, New Jersey and Nebraska — but not in other places, such as Michigan, Texas and Virginia, where people have rallied together outside state capitols in defiance of orders to self-isolate at home.

But Facebook’s partial takedowns were still enough to bring a political brushback from some Republicans in Washington, where GOP lawmakers have repeatedly threatened to enact legal consequences for internet companies over what they consider to be a pattern of anti-conservative bias in Silicon Valley.

President Donald Trump's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., accused Facebook of "colluding with state governments to quash peoples free speech," calling its actions "chilling & disturbing." Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) asked rhetorically of the company's decision: "Because free speech is now illegal America?"

"Given Big Tech’s history of bias and censorship, I’m deeply concerned that they and government officials are partnering not to protect public health, but to shut down views with which they disagree," Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said in a statement Monday evening. "Now, more than ever, companies like Facebook should focus on connecting people, not shutting down communities because they hold different views.”

But Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal praised the company’s move Monday night, tweeting: “Powerful special interests are using astroturfing & dangerous tactics to undermine the fight against COVID-19. Facebook is right to take a stand against harmful misinformation.”

Facebook initially indicated that it had removed the protest information at the request of states whose authorities said they violated restrictions on large public gatherings. The company later clarified that it sought guidance from states but ultimately made its own decision to take the posts down.

"We reached out to state officials to understand the scope of their orders, not about removing specific protests on Facebook," the spokesperson said. "We remove the posts when gatherings do not follow the health parameters established by the government and are therefore unlawful."

CEO Mark Zuckerberg offered a slightly different explanation in an interview with ABC News on Monday morning, suggesting that Facebook removes content that disputes social distancing practices and therefore poses a “risk of imminent physical harm.”

“Certainly, someone saying that social distancing is not effective to help limit the spread of coronavirus, we do classify that as harmful misinformation and we take that down,” Zuckerberg said after George Stephanopoulos asked him about Facebook’s role in facilitating the protests. “At the same time, it's important that people can debate policies.”

This is just the latest free-speech flap to hit Facebook, which has also faced blowback for its policies on removing content ranging from misleading political ads to vaccine misinformation. And once again, the company faced criticism that it offers few clear yardsticks for what speech it allows on a platform that reaches more than 2 billion people worldwide.

“Facebook, which controls a platform for the speech of billions, should not be censoring political speech online,” said Vera Eidelman, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, despite the public-health stakes at play on mass gatherings held during a pandemic. “This is especially true now, when questions of when and how to reopen the country are among the central political questions, and online platforms are the main vehicle for expression."

David Greene, civil liberties director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, argued that Facebook seemingly deciding to remove protests based on whether they violate state law provides an objective yardstick. Still, he said that without further clarity, "it can be very difficult to judge the fairness of something and to make sure that it actually is being implemented in a way that doesn’t disadvantage certain groups or certain types of protests.”

But preventing deaths during a pandemic offers Facebook a defensible rationale, contends Matthew Feeney, the director of the libertarian Cato Institute's project on emerging technologies.

Feeney said that while Facebook and other social networks aren't bound by the First Amendment, they face a "legitimacy issue" when they decide to block or moderate certain types of content. That often causes them to "punt" by looking to state laws or non-government groups for rules they can enforce.

“Content can be removed from these platforms for all sorts of reasons, and here we have a private company making a decision that they don't want information that could potentially lead to the death and illness of more people to spread," Feeney said. "I think that's an understandable position."

Facebook, Google, Twitter and other social media companies have long denied that politics is a factor in their complex, and sometimes opaque, decisions about what content they will and will not allow. The companies have sought to make their process more transparent, with Facebook in particular announcing the creation of an independent board to review content moderation judgments.

But when it comes to content or advertising that is explicitly political, Facebook has at times concluded that inaction is the best action. When Twitter and Google imposed new restrictions on political advertising last year, for example, Facebook stuck to its policy of not fact-checking political ads or limiting their reach — in effect, allowing politicians to lie with impunity.

Zuckerberg laid out an aggressive approach to “freedom of expression” in a speech at Georgetown University last fall, though he acknowledged that "free expression has never been absolute."

Zuckerberg cited social and civil rights activists over the centuries, from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr. to the Iraq War opponents of the early 2000s, as examples that inspired his stance — saying free speech and protests have enabled progress no matter how disquieting they felt at the time. But in recent years, Zuckerberg said, people have expanded what they consider to be dangerous speech.

"Some hold the view that since the stakes are so high, they can no longer trust their fellow citizens with the power to communicate and decide what to believe for themselves," Zuckerberg said in October. "I personally believe this is more dangerous for democracy over the long term than almost any speech."

Still, he said the company would make exceptions when speech can cause adverse effects such as discrimination, harassment and — a standard that is relevant today — physical harm.

To be fair, the anti-lockdown protests became political before Facebook took action. For days, rallies across state capitals have brought together self-proclaimed dissidents — many carrying pro-Trump signs and forgoing protective equipment like masks — calling for an end to the health restrictions.

Many of the protesters, who have numbered from handfuls to thousands depending on the location, say closing non-essential businesses, and pushing people out of jobs and onto government assistance, harms the economy and undermines their liberties.

Those views have been fueled in part by the president, who has at times wavered between urging governors to reopen their economies and deferring to state leaders to make such calls. But in a series of tweets last week, Trump encouraged the protests with calls to “liberate” Michigan, Virginia and Minnesota, all states with Democratic governors.

The anti-quarantine sentiment has also been brewing online. In at least six invite-only Facebook groups dedicated to spreading information about Covid-19, such as CoronaVirus Warning Watch — USA and Coronavirus USA, some users have been calling for widespread protests against statewide lockdowns for at least a week, according to a review of these messages by POLITICO.

In most of the social media posts, which often garner large amounts of engagement by either supporters or opponents, people claim that their constitutional rights are being threatened and that local authorities are overplaying the concern. Many reference Trump’s desire to reopen the economy, saying the lockdowns are creating more harm than if people were able to move around freely.

In one group focused on Facebook users in Wisconsin, for instance, several Facebook posts also linked to right-wing talk show hosts who said people should take to the streets to protect their Second Amendment rights.

In recent weeks, these private Facebook groups have become filled with conspiracy theories, half-truths and lies as people search for ways to protect themselves against the global pandemic. Some far-right users also have linked the spread of coronavirus to existing anti-elite and anti-migrant themes, such as accusing billionaires like Bill Gates and George Soros of promoting the virus for financial gain.

Protests opposing lockdowns and quarantines have also broken out across the globe, including in Brazil, Zimbabwe and France.

Mark Scott and Ryan Heath contributed to this report.

Source : Politico USA More   

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Democrats say Michelle Obama would be Biden’s perfect running mate

The former first lady has made clear she’s not interested in running for office. That isn’t stopping her admirers from trying to convince her otherwise.

Democrats say Michelle Obama would be Biden’s perfect running mate

With the Democratic primary settled, the Rev. Al Sharpton says he now includes a political consideration in his daily prayers: God, please let Michelle Obama be Joe Biden’s running mate.

Sharpton’s decision to implore a higher power is perhaps unique among Democrats, but the strong sentiment is commonplace among party leaders, operatives, rank-and-file voters — and it’s led many to hold out hope she’ll be Biden’s vice presidential pick.

“When former Vice President Biden said he would choose a woman, she’s considered by most Americans of all races and all economic backgrounds to be the ultimate woman,” Sharpton told POLITICO. “Look at her book sales. It’s the first time I’ve seen someone write a book that can fill arenas. She has packed more arenas than Donald Trump.”

Of the roughly dozen or so names Biden is seriously considering, Mrs. Obama isn’t one of them. She has made clear that she would rather focus on her work to register and turn out voters through her new organization “When We All Vote.”

““I’ll say it here directly: I have no intention of running for office, ever,” in her best-selling memoir, "Becoming," released in 2018.

Her refusals haven’t stopped Democrats from asking her to reconsider.

“I asked her when I last saw her and she seemed emphatic that she was not going to do it. I doubt if she does it,” Sharpton said, adding that he began praying she would change her mind after the recent encounter.

Still, none of that hasn’t gotten in the way of Democrats dreaming of a restoration of sorts. While discussing Biden’s potential veep picks, Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes recently told a reporter she didn’t want to name a preference. But when asked about Michelle Obama, she stopped for a beat.

“Oh my God,” she said, almost gasping. “That would be amazing.”

The idea of an Biden-Obama ticket is as much rooted in warm fuzzy nostalgia for the last Democratic administration as it is a product of the cold, hard data of polling.

In terms of popularity, no one else in the party is in the league of Michelle Obama, who last year overtook actress and philanthropist Angelina Jolie for the mantle of “most admired woman” in a global survey conducted by. Barack Obama was the world’s second-most admired man behind Bill Gates.

With so much star power and party goodwill behind the Obama brand, it’s little wonder there’s so much longing for the return of an Obama in a Democratic Party still reeling from Donald Trump’s 2016 victory and searching for the perfect candidate.

Valerie Jarrett, a friend and adviser to both Obamas, acknowledged the buzz around the former first lady but said running for and holding political office — whether it’s for vice president of president — isn’t her style.

“She really kind of transcends politics,” Jarrett said. “Obviously, she supports Vice President Biden but doesn’t see herself as a political figure.”

Her aversion to politicking and office-seeking are so strong, Jarrett said, that she might not even formally endorse Biden, though she will support him and campaign to defeat Trump.

“It’s about more than winning the election. You have to govern. And if your heart isn’t in what it takes to do the work of being the vice president, then you shouldn’t do it. You shouldn’t do it just to win,” Jarrett said. “She could potentially help a lot more people using her current platform rather than joining a political office.”

Jarrett, who has privately let the Biden campaign know whom she favors to be his running mate, said Biden has “an embarrassment of riches from which to choose.” Many of the dozen or so people he’s considering, she said, have their own “star power” for his ticket.

Biden made clear his high regard for Michelle Obama on Feb. 27 during a rally in Conway, South Carolina, where a voter asked him if he would consider her for a running mate. Before Biden could answer, actress Vivica Fox, who was onstage with Biden, quickly chimed in.

“I’m here for that!” Fox said.

“I’d do that in a heartbeat if I thought there was any chance,” Biden said.

Biden used similar language Monday in an interview with KDKA, a Pittsburgh television station.

“I’d take her in a heartbeat,” Biden said. “She’s brilliant. She knows the way around. She is a really fine woman. The Obamas are great friends.”

Former Barack Obama adviser Jim Messina said he knows Michelle Obama won’t take the job, but he’s publicly musing about it anyway.

“Remember, she’s the one who’s popular with swing women,” Messina told POLITICO earlier this month. “If I was [Biden], I’d offer her the VP.”

Another former Obama adviser, David Axelrod, said he “would be beyond shocked” if Michelle Obama decided to run, saying she was “a conscript to politics and while she appreciated the chance to do things of value and importance to people, she has no patience for the artifice, nastiness and lust for power that too often consumes the players and the process.”

In her memoir “Becoming,” she talks about the dreadfulness of politics in recalling the painful challenges of getting tagged with the toxic political stereotype of being called an “angry black woman.”

She got the last laugh, however, because “her book is one of the bestselling memoirs ever. And her book events weren’t a signing in a packed local Barnes and Noble, she filled stadiums and arenas,” said Robert Gibbs, a former White House press secretary and Obama adviser.

“The Obamas occupy the most admired woman and the second most admired man in the world. It speaks to not just what they accomplished in the White House years but also to who they are as people and how they did it,” Gibbs said.

Former Virginia Gov. and Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said he witnessed firsthand how popular Michelle Obama is.

“When I ran for governor in 2013, I had everyone helping me, but I put a picture of myself and Michelle Obama in every one of my general election flyers. And I didn’t just use it in African-American communities. I used it in every part of the state because she’s so popular,” he said, specifying that rural white women as well as black women in cities alike adore the former first lady.

Biden campaign advisers, basking in President Obama’s endorsement of Biden last week, are making sure to give the former first lady space to decide how involved she’ll be with the campaign.

“We know what pretty much everyone else in America does, which is that Michelle Obama is probably the most-beloved member of the Democratic Party and her support is a big deal,” said an adviser who wanted to remain anonymous. “Any future announcement would reflect the incredible impact that her voice has. She has a voice that can cross the aisle in a way that very few people can.”

But until then, the Biden campaign is left in the same position as Sharpton, who said he first prays for his family, then the health of aging Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and then Michelle Obama.

“God, if you could change her mind, it would help us a lot,” Sharpton says in his prayers.

Source : Politico USA More   

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