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Monday, December 14, 2020

Dear <<First Name>>,

Welcome to today’s briefing. Coming up we look at the misleading narratives following the Supreme Court’s rejection of Texas’s election-related lawsuit. And, as always, we bring you our digest of top articles, media investigations and scientific research centered around the theme of information disorder.

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Misleading narratives after Trump’s Texas lawsuit defeat

After the US Supreme Court on December 11 shot down Texas’s audacious effort to challenge election results in four key states, commentators and politicians advanced several misleading narratives about the judicial system and mused about extraordinary steps that President Donald Trump and his supporters could take in response. 

Online users speculated that the court had been compromised, such as in one tweet by the account @3days3nights that read, “How many of our Supreme Court Justices have a [higher] allegiance to the Vatican or Israel or China?” Another tweet from an unverified account with over 117,000 followers read in part, “Trump only has one option left and the question is will he be willing to go that route ? I think he is !” in an apparent reference to invoking the Insurrection Act — a call for domestic military intervention later echoed on Twitter by several verified users, such as Mike Coudrey and Scott Fishman. Similar measures were suggested by Texas’s Republican Party chair, Allen West, who responded to the Supreme Court’s order with a suggestion that Texas and like-minded states secede from the US. 

The order dismissing the suit — which rejected Texas’s claim that changes to election rules in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Georgia had harmed the state — was a major blow to Trump. The president had called the case “the big one,” and 19 other state attorneys general had joined the effort led by Texas’s top lawyer, Ken Paxton. Several high-profile Trump supporters have since downplayed the order’s significance, including film actor Terence K. Williams, who insisted, “it’s not over.” Trump later echoed that line, despite the overwhelming skepticism the judicial system has shown to date toward lawsuits challenging the election result. In what might be a final setback for Trump, electors in all 50 states and the District of Columbia meet today to cast votes that will confirm Joe Biden as the next president. — Chris Looft

Welcome to our series of articles that each share an important lesson learned about the challenges of disrupting misinformation in 2020. Last week, we looked at: 

Stay tuned this week for more end-of-year stories. 

Swift backlash for Brazil students targeting misinformation (Associated Press)

One way to combat perpetrators of misinformation is to hit them where it hurts: their wallets. But doing so can put investigators at risk, as two Brazilian law students recently found out. Leonardo de Carvalho Leal and Mayara Stelle are the pair behind Sleeping Giants Brazil, a Twitter account that is part of a larger global initiative fighting hate speech, misinformation and propaganda by targeting ad revenue streams, the Associated Press reports. The account has focused much of its efforts on conservative outlets such as Jornal da Cidade Online that spread falsehoods — often emanating from Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro. While Leal and Stelle's efforts succeeded in drawing many advertisers — including Dell, McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza — away from sites disseminating false news, the pair have come under attack. “Demonetization of fake news means dealing with the worst of the internet: racists, xenophobes, and so on. From the moment you take the money away from these people, they never forget,” Leal told the outlet.

Outsourcing Disinformation (Lawfare)

As social media companies grow more alert to targeted disinformation campaigns and begin to take down related networks and accounts, state-linked disinformation agents have increasingly turned to outsourcing. Private digital marketing agencies are often cheaper, more nimble and offer these agents much-needed plausible deniability. That’s true whether it’s Russian troll farms targeting elections in Ghana and Nigeria; PR firm Smaat promoting Saudi Arabia’s interests through an 88,000-strong bot network or US-based CLS Strategies working on behalf of Bolivia’s government. But these activities might pose a threat to US foreign policy: “As long as a public relations firm discloses that it is working for a foreign government [...] the U.S. government is not able to limit the firm’s role in pursuing these sorts of online disinformation campaigns,” argues Shelby Grossman and Khadeja Ramali. That increasingly leaves it down to journalists and investigative reporters to detect and expose such “public-private” disinformation campaigns.

In India, Facebook Fears Crackdown on Hate Groups Could Backfire on Its Staff (The Wall Street Journal — paywall)

Facebook classifies India as a country with the highest risk of experiencing communal violence, alongside places such as Myanmar and Sri Lanka. But the fact that Facebook has a large office in India — also its biggest market — has put the social media platform in a difficult spot. As the The Wall Street Journal reports, Facebook’s safety team concluded that the Hindu nationalist Bajrang Dal — some members of which have been convicted of hate crimes — should be banned from the platform. Yet the company is reportedly worried that doing so could be a security risk. As the Journal previously reported, Facebook employees criticized that approach in an internal letter back in August, saying it casts doubt on the company’s commitment to fighting hate speech. 


Catnapping in broad daylight

Be well,
The First Draft Team
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