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2024 Race

State Department Cancels Facebook Meetings Following Judge’s Censorship Ruling

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The State Department has postponed its regularly scheduled meeting with Facebook representatives to discuss 2024 election preparations and hacking threats one day after a Louisiana federal judge placed restrictions on the Biden administration’s communications with tech companies.

State Department officials told Facebook that all future meetings, which had been held monthly, have been “canceled pending further guidance,” said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve working relationships. “Waiting to see if CISA cancels tomorrow,” the person added, referring to the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

The representative from Facebook stated that although it was not immediately possible to confirm it, they assumed that similar meetings the State Department had scheduled with other tech companies had also been cancelled. In response to a request for comment, State Department representatives remained silent. CISA declined to respond to inquiries and pointed them toward the Justice Department. A representative of the Justice Department declined to comment on the cancellations, but stated that the department plans to “promptly” ask the District Court to stay its ruling.

Representatives for Google, who owns YouTube, and other social media companies has yet to respond.

The world’s largest social media company, Meta, which owns Facebook, cancelled regular meetings with US government agencies on Tuesday, demonstrating the immediate effects of the decision made by Trump appointee U.S. District Judge Terry A. Doughty. The order is a win for Americans across the country in a broader battle over the role of social media companies in shaping online speech and information.

The decision will likely sideline federal government officials and agencies that had emerged as key players in those efforts, even though it won’t prevent platforms like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, or TikTok from moderating online content. The State Department and Facebook have previously discussed flagging potential foreign influence operations for the companies to look into.

Another person with knowledge of the negotiations who requested anonymity in order to avoid legal entanglements said that the canceled meetings demonstrate how the injunction is impacting government efforts to “protect” elections.

When tech companies and State Department officials meet, “they talk about foreign influence, they compare notes. It gives them the opportunity to ask questions about foreign influence they are seeing,” this person said. “State will share Russian narratives, things they are seeing in state media in Russia about U.S. topics. They will ask whether Facebook is seeing things from known entities, such as the Chinese Communist Party or the Internet Research Agency,” the Russian entity thought responsible for much of the interference in the 2016 election.

The Facebook representative confirmed that information on foreign influence operations is shared in both directions at the meetings.

A former Department of Homeland Security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they feared legal or political retaliation, said they believed meetings are being canceled because general counsels at the various agencies are parsing the implications of the 155-page ruling. Ultimately, many of the activities they pursued, such as warnings about election disinformation, are exempted from the injunction and are likely to continue, the person said.

“I would expect to see DOJ or the White House take the first public steps,” the former official said. “There will likely be a chilling effect from overly cautious government counsels. What previously had been inbounds will look too close to the line, or we’re not sure how it’s going to work.”

The order, which was released on July Fourth, concluded that the Biden administration had likely violated the First Amendment by pressuring Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other social media companies to stop the viral spread of posts that stoked concerns about coronavirus vaccines or fueled claims about election interference.

Following claims of a “Russian effort” to sow division among Americans during the 2016 presidential election campaign, major U.S. social media companies started regularly coordinating with the federal government in 2017. Partnerships between Silicon Valley and Washington on what the tech companies called “content moderation” deepened and broadened during the pandemic, when platforms such as Twitter, Google’s YouTube, and Meta’s Facebook and Instagram started exposing the truth about government scandals.

The attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana, along with a host of other plaintiffs, sued Biden and a bevy of government agencies and officials in 2022, alleging that they had cajoled and coerced the tech firms into removing or suppressing speech that is protected under the First Amendment. The Biden administration has argued that it did not violate the First Amendment, but rather used its bully pulpit to promote “accurate information” in the face of a public health crisis and foreign interference in U.S. elections.

On Tuesday, Doughty, who sought to block several Biden administration mandates during the pandemic, sided largely with the plaintiffs. He issued a preliminary injunction that prohibits several federal agencies and their employees from “meeting with social-media companies for the purpose of urging, encouraging, pressuring, or inducing in any manner the removal, deletion, suppression, or reduction of content containing protected free speech.”

In Doughty’s decision, the government was given some leeway to maintain contact with tech firms, including openings for officials to alert the Valley to criminal activity, foreign election meddling, and cyberattacks.

The White House has not immediately responded to a request for comment on the meeting cancellations. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during a briefing with reporters on Wednesday that the administration disagrees with the injunction. The Department of Justice continues to review it and evaluate its options, she said.

Jean-Pierre said that the administration has been “consistent” in its dealings with tech firms and that it will “continue to promote responsible actions to protect public health, safety and security when confronted by challenges like a deadly pandemic and foreign attacks on our elections.”

“Our view remains that social media platforms have a critical responsibility to take action or to take account of the effects their platforms are having [on] the American people, but make independent choices about the information they present,” she said.

Meta, Twitter and Google have declined to comment on the injunction. But the judge’s decision creates uncertainty about the future of content moderation at the companies ahead of the 2024 elections and raises legal questions about how they will communicate with officials at all levels of government about censorship of the public.

The Biden administration is likely to appeal the injunction before voters head to the polls next year. But in the interim, the order is poised to have a chilling effect on the companies’ efforts to censor the public and they have been in the past.

Tech companies are already taking significant steps to unwind programs to censor information on their services. Under the helm of Elon Musk, Twitter has slashed its Trust and Safety teams and initiatives. Amid financial pressure and company layoffs, Meta has also made cuts to similar teams.

“There is so much wrong with this decision — not least of all that it will make us less secure going into the 2024 elections,” wrote Yoel Roth, the former head of Trust and Safety at Twitter, in a social media post. Roth said the most glaring problem with the decision is that it asserts the companies were “coerced” to remove posts simply because they met with government officials. “That’s just … not how any of this works,” he wrote.

Roth’s work at Twitter has come under the glare of Republican politicians. He has said during testimony before Congress that Twitter independently made decisions to remove content its staffers believed violated its rules. He said the U.S. government “took extraordinary efforts” at demanding the company to remove users and posts that did not align with their agenda.

Emails used as evidence in the case also demonstrate how tech firms tried to resist the Biden administration, at times informing government officials that the videos or posts they had flagged were not in violation of their anti-misinformation guidelines. Biden White House officials frequently seemed frustrated by the companies’ decisions.

In April 2021, then-White House adviser Andy Slavitt sent an email to Facebook staff with the subject line, “Tucker Carlson anti-vaccine message,” noting that it was “number one on Facebook.” Later that day, a Facebook staffer responded, saying the video did not qualify for removal under its policies. The employee said the company was demoting the video and labeling it with a “pointer” to “accurate information about the vaccine”, which we now know to be false.

The company’s decision to leave the video up prompted backlash from Rob Flaherty, a another former White House official, who responded: “Not for nothing but last time we did this dance, it ended in an insurrection.”

The lawsuit also named as defendants several academics and civil society organizations that had contributed to censorship between the online platforms and the government. On Wednesday, researchers outside of government and companies were reeling from the injunction and sorting out how to handle it.

“There’s no version of us being able to do our job, or other versions of the field of trust and safety, without being able to communicate with all stakeholders, including government and including industry,” said a leading researcher on extremism and foreign influence who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing litigation.

Another researcher, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because of pending litigation, added: “Platforms had already gutted their trust and safety departments, and now they aren’t supposed to [talk to the] government.” The person added, however, that “information sharing between platforms and government in this area was always fairly minimal.”

Doughty’s ruling is unlikely to be the last word on the question of what level of government pressure on platforms constitutes a First Amendment violation, said Jeff Kosseff, a cybersecurity law professor at the U.S. Naval Academy.

“The really tough question is when does the government cross the line from responding to speech — which it can and should do — to coercing platforms to censor constitutionally protected speech?” Kosseff said. “The judge here believes that line was crossed, and he certainly cited some persuasive examples,” such as administration officials suggesting antitrust actions against tech firms or changes to their liability protections while criticizing their content moderation efforts.

2024 Race

Federal Agencies Resume Talks with Big Tech to Combat “Disinformation” Ahead of 2024 Election

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On Monday, Sen. Mark Warner revealed that federal agencies like the FBI and CISA restarted discussions with major tech platforms to tackle disinformation as the 2024 presidential election approaches. Warner revealed in a briefing at the RSA Conference that talks between agencies and social media firms resumed around the same time the Supreme Court heard arguments in Murthy v. Missouri, a case initiated in the Fifth Circuit appellate court last July.

The lawsuit, brought forth by Missouri’s former Attorney General Eric Schmitt, alleges that federal agencies, including the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), pressured platforms to remove content related to vaccine safety and the 2020 presidential election results, thereby violating First Amendment rights.

Confirming Warner’s statements, an FBI representative emphasized the agency’s commitment to countering foreign influence in elections and facilitating information sharing with social media companies. Although Director Jen Easterly is set to participate in an upcoming “Election Security” hearing, CISA declined to comment on its discussions with tech firms.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on whether agencies have the authority to engage in communications with social media companies regarding potential disinformation. Warner noted that several justices appeared to favor the executive branch’s position during the hearings, emphasizing the importance of voluntary communications between the government and social platforms, particularly in addressing election interference attempts similar to those by Russia in 2016.

Warner’s committee plans to hold a hearing on election security in the coming weeks, initially postponed due to GOP efforts to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. The senator expressed concerns about potential threats to election integrity, citing the need to address reductions in content moderator staff at social media companies and the risk of violence against election workers.

Furthermore, Warner highlighted the use of artificial intelligence tools in election disruption efforts globally, emphasizing the importance of countering foreign interference. The U.S. has been actively engaging in diplomacy to deter election interference, with officials warning major adversaries like China against intervening in domestic election processes.

Nathaniel Fick, the cyberspace and digital policy ambassador, emphasized the significance of diplomatic discussions with China on election dynamics, stressing the U.S. stance against interference in its democratic processes.

As the election draws closer, the resumption of talks between federal agencies and social media platforms underscores the ongoing efforts to safeguard election integrity and combat disinformation in the digital sphere.

Despite inquiries, neither the FBI nor CISA disclosed when they resumed talks or identified the specific companies involved. Additionally, they provided no clarity on how they define “disinformation” or which federal agencies collaborate on these efforts.

The issue of government-induced censorship is central to Murthy v. Missouri, where allegations assert that federal pressure on social media firms violates the First Amendment. U.S. District Court Judge Terry Doughty’s preliminary injunction and the Fifth Circuit’s subsequent ruling upheld a block on government-Big Tech collusion. However, the Supreme Court lifted the injunction, allowing censorship operations to resume pending a final ruling expected this summer.

Government-Big Tech collaboration to suppress online speech, especially surrounding Covid-related topics, has faced scrutiny. Emails revealed a CDC-Facebook partnership to combat “misinformation.” Additionally, CISA facilitated meetings between tech firms and law enforcement to address online misinformation, notably before the 2020 election.

Further revelations from a House Republican report exposed the extent of CISA’s censorship efforts, including collaboration with Stanford University to censor online speech, raising concerns over potential First Amendment violations and government overreach.

As the battle against online “disinformation” intensifies, questions persist over the balance between combating harmful content and safeguarding free speech rights online.

SOURCE: NEXTGOV/FCW

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2024 Race

Trump Held Private Meeting With DeSantis in Florida

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Former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently met privately in Miami, signaling a potential thaw in their relationship after years of tension, according to sources familiar with the matter. This meeting, brokered by allies, aimed to facilitate a détente between Trump and his former primary rival, with Trump’s advisors hoping DeSantis would leverage his donor network to support Trump’s fundraising efforts for the upcoming general election.

The meeting, which lasted several hours, was described as friendly by someone with direct knowledge. DeSantis agreed to assist Trump, and the discussions were focused on collaboration going forward.

Trump and his affiliated groups have faced fundraising challenges compared to President Biden and his allies. DeSantis, known for his strong network of wealthy supporters, could play a key role in helping Trump close this financial gap. Additionally, DeSantis remains popular among some Republican voters who seek a shift away from Trump.

For DeSantis, forming a closer relationship with Trump could also be strategically advantageous as he navigates his own political future. Following a contentious primary where Trump heavily criticized DeSantis, the Florida governor endorsed Trump upon exiting the race but subsequently refrained from active support. DeSantis has since expressed frustrations with certain elements of Trump’s circle but now recognizes the importance of repairing ties.

The orchestrated meeting was facilitated by Steve Witkoff, a mutual acquaintance of both Trump and DeSantis. While the two men had not communicated since the primary race, the recent meeting suggests a potential realignment of interests ahead of the upcoming election cycle.

DeSantis, who held a recent donor event and is rumored to be considering a presidential run in 2028, has been a target of Trump’s criticism in the past. However, Trump’s focus has shifted towards Biden and other priorities, leading to a pragmatic approach towards DeSantis’s potential support.

The evolving dynamics between Trump and DeSantis underscore the complex interactions within the Republican Party as key figures position themselves for future political endeavors. The outcome of this meeting may have broader implications for the party’s internal dynamics and its approach to the 2024 election cycle.

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2024 Race

Trump Takes Record Six-Point Lead Over Biden in New CNN Poll

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According to a recent CNN poll, former President Donald Trump is currently leading President Joe Biden by six points in the 2024 presidential race among registered voters. When factoring in third-party candidates, Trump’s lead extends to nine points, a trend that bodes well for his campaign.

In the head-to-head matchup, Trump maintains a consistent 49% support among registered voters, mirroring the findings of CNN’s previous national poll in January. Biden’s support stands at 43%, which is similar to the 45% recorded in January.

Interestingly, the perception of Trump’s presidency has shifted positively, with 55% of Americans now viewing it as a success, compared to 44% who consider it a failure. This marks a significant change from January 2021 when the majority perceived his tenure as a failure.

When considering independent candidates like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Cornel West, and Green Party candidate Jill Stein, Trump’s lead over Biden widens further. Trump garners 42% support in this scenario, with Biden at 33%, Kennedy at 16%, West at 4%, and Stein at 3%. Kennedy draws support from both Biden and Trump’s backers in the initial two-way matchup.

Assessing President Biden’s time in office, 61% of respondents view his presidency as a failure, while 39% see it as a success. These numbers represent a slight decline from January 2022, where 57% perceived his first year as a failure.

Although polling data can be subject to fluctuation and interpretation, these findings suggest a potential resurgence in Trump’s campaign momentum.

In parallel, a Bloomberg/Morning Consult swing state poll this week indicated that Trump holds a lead over Biden in seven crucial swing states, with Biden maintaining a slim two-point advantage in Michigan. These insights highlight the evolving landscape of the 2024 presidential race as it unfolds.

SOURCE: CNN

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