Monday, November 26, 2018

Report shows social-media giant has strengthened ties to right-wing goons, including Jeff Sessions, meaning our time in "Facebook Jail" might go beyond trolls

Legal Schnauzer is an unapologetically liberal blog, and we have been in "Facebook Jail" for more than a month, dating back to the weeks leading up to the Nov. 6 midterm elections. This marks roughly a dozen times in 2018 that the world's foremost social network has placed us in jail. We have tended to attribute our ongoing problems with Facebook to right-wing trolls -- pro-Trump, pro-law enforcement types --who file baseless complaints about our content. But a recent New York Times investigation suggests our problems -- and those of other progressive voices -- rest not with trolls, but with Facebook officials themselves.

The Times' report, published Nov. 14 (with a followup on Nov. 17), shows that -- even though tech companies have tended to align with Democrats -- Facebook is much more closely tied to right-wing forces than the public generally knows. That could explain our experiences with "Facebook Jail," along with those of other liberals on the social-media behemoth.

What exactly is "Facebook Jail"? In our case, it takes the form of notices that tell us posts from are "spam" and "violate community standards." That means any link from our blog will be blocked for an indefinite period of time. We can place an item on Facebook, letting followers know that the LS post exists, but we cannot provide a link that allows followers to easily click and go directly to the blog post. They have to do a Google search for "Legal Schnauzer" and take a roundabout trip to the post.

Our assignments to "Facebook Jail" have lasted from a few hours to a month or more. Messages to Facebook, informing them that our blog posts are not spam and do not violate community standards, tend to go unheard. Why is that? Well, let's consider what The New York Times teaches us about the company Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg made famous:

(1) Facebook hires right-wing attack dog to seek dirt on progressives, especially George Soros

Facebook used a Washington-based consulting firm called Definers Public Affairs to attack its perceived enemies. That includes George Soros, a billionaire philanthropist and Democratic Party patron, who has called Facebook a "menace to society." Definers, it turns out, has close ties to conservative entities, including the George W. Bush administration and Breitbart News. From The Times' followup:

Facebook initially hired Definers to monitor news about the social network. It expanded its relationship with the firm in October 2017 when scrutiny of Facebook was increasing over how Russian agents had used the site to sow discord before the 2016 United States election.

Definers began doing some general communications work, such as running conference calls for Facebook. It also undertook more covert efforts to spread the blame for the rise of the Russian disinformation, pointing fingers at other companies like Google.

A key part of Definers’ strategy was NTK Network, a website that appeared to be a run-of-the-mill news aggregator with a right-wing slant. In fact, many of NTK Network’s stories were written by employees at Definers and America Rising, a sister firm, to criticize rivals of their clients, according to one former employee not allowed to speak about it publicly. The three outfits share some staff and offices in Arlington, Va.

(2) Facebook knew about Russia's use of the site to meddle in the 2016 presidential election much longer than it let on

Facebook officials largely have downplayed their knowledge of Russian meddling, but The Times' Nov. 14 report shows company insiders -- such as former security chief Alex Stamos -- were aware of suspicious activity on the platform roughly a year longer than the public generally understood:

In the final months of Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign, Russian agents escalated a yearlong effort to hack and harass his Democratic opponents, culminating in the release of thousands of emails stolen from prominent Democrats and party officials.

Facebook had said nothing publicly about any problems on its own platform. But in the spring of 2016, a company expert on Russian cyberwarfare spotted something worrisome. He reached out to his boss, Mr. Stamos.

Mr. Stamos’s team discovered that Russian hackers appeared to be probing Facebook accounts for people connected to the presidential campaigns, said two employees. Months later, as Mr. Trump battled Hillary Clinton in the general election, the team also found Facebook accounts linked to Russian hackers who were messaging journalists to share information from the stolen emails.

Could Facebook face legal liability for failing to contain the Russian disinformation campaign? The answer appears to be "maybe." Does Facebook have motivation to stifle voices -- such as ours -- that speak out in support of the Robert Mueller investigation? The answer appears to be "yes."

(3) The Social Network, Jeff Sessions, and "Sweet Home Alabama"

Are we stretching to suggest Facebook might have motivations to stifle a blog with roots in Birmingham, AL? The New York Times investigation suggests the answer is "no."

Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg
The Times makes clear that Facebook has worked to forge connections with former Trump attorney general and U.S.  Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) -- and evidence strongly suggests the abuse directed at Mrs. Schnauzer and me (in Alabama and Missouri) has its foundation with Mr. Sessions and his allies. Reports The Times:

Then Donald J. Trump ran for president. He described Muslim immigrants and refugees as a danger to America, and in December 2015 posted a statement on Facebook calling for a “total and complete shutdown” on Muslims entering the United States. Mr. Trump’s call to arms — widely condemned by Democrats and some prominent Republicans — was shared more than 15,000 times on Facebook, an illustration of the site’s power to spread racist sentiment. . . .

In the end, Mr. Trump’s statement and account remained on the site. When Mr. Trump won election the next fall, giving Republicans control of the White House as well as Congress, Mr. [Joel] Kaplan was empowered to plan accordingly. The company hired a former aide to Mr. Trump’s new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, along with lobbying firms linked to Republican lawmakers who had jurisdiction over internet companies.

Who was the former Sessions aide that Facebook went out of its way to hire? It was Sandra Luff, as reported at in May 2017:

A former aide to Alabama Senator turned U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been hired by Facebook.

Axios reported Sandra Luff, who served as Sessions' Legislative Director while he was in the Senate, will be Director of Executive Branch Public Policy at the social media company. She also worked with Trump's transition team.

"Sandy's experience and understanding of the political landscape will make her an invaluable asset to our team. We are excited to have her aboard," Facebook's vice president of U.S. public policy Greg Maurer said in a statement.

The move appears to be the latest efforts by Facebook to reach out to the Trump administration.

So, Facebook has been reaching out to Trump and Sessions flunkies, covering up its knowledge of Russian meddling, and hiring right-wing firms that deal in opposition research?

Is it any wonder Legal Schnauzer has spent much of 2018 in Facebook Jail -- and maybe it has nothing to do with trolls?

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