The Sift: Trump campaign v. NYT | COVID-19 misinformation | Fake candidate on Twitter

  News Literacy Project
President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign sued The New York Times for libel last week, asserting that the Times “knowingly published false and defamatory statements” about the campaign because of its “extreme bias and animosity” toward the operation.

The Times has engaged in a systematic pattern of bias against the Campaign, designed to maliciously interfere with and damage its reputation and seek to cause the organization to fail,” the Trump campaign stated in its complaint, filed in the Supreme Court of New York (the state’s trial court) on Feb. 26.

The suit focuses on a March 27, 2019, opinion essay by Max Frankel, a former executive editor of the Times. In “The Real Trump-Russia Quid Pro Quo,” Frankel examined what he called “an overarching deal” between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s oligarchy — “the quid of help in the campaign against Hillary Clinton for the quo of a new pro-Russian foreign policy.”

In its complaint, the campaign contends that the column — described as “the Defamatory Article” — “does not allege or refer to any proof of its claims of a ‘quid pro quo’ or ‘deal’ between the Campaign and Russia.”

The Times published these statements anyway, knowing them to be false, and knowing it would misinform and mislead its own readers, because of The Times’ extreme bias against and animosity toward the Campaign, and The Times’ exuberance to improperly influence the presidential election in November 2020,” the complaint said.

The Times will fight the lawsuit, according to spokesperson Eileen Murphy. "The Trump campaign has turned to the courts to try to punish an opinion writer for having an opinion they find unacceptable,” she said in a statement. “Fortunately, the law protects the right of Americans to express their judgments and conclusions, especially about events of public importance. We look forward to vindicating that right in this case.”

Murphy noted in an email to Erik Wemple, a media critic at The Washington Post, that “we never saw any demand for a correction or retraction” at the time Frankel’s piece was published.

A landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in another libel case against the Times (New York Times Company v. Sullivan, in 1964) found that public figures must prove that false statements were made with “actual malice” — with knowledge that the statements were false or were made “in reckless disregard of the truth” — to qualify as defamation.

Lawyers experienced in First Amendment issues were quick to criticize the campaign’s action. Brian Hauss, a staff attorney with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, called the suit “completely meritless,” and Theodore Boutrous Jr. (who has represented reporters whose White House press credentials were revoked) said it was "yet another egregious example of Trump abusing the judicial process to chill freedom of speech and of the press."
Note: The Times’ Opinion section and its newsroom are separate operations.
Discuss:  “The First Amendment” in NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom (Premium teacher account required).
Discuss: What is the difference between a news organization’s opinion section and its newsroom? Do you think that Max Frankel’s opinion piece meets the criteria for defamation? Why or why not? What could happen if public figures could successfully sue news organizations for defamation for inadvertent errors of fact?
NO: More than a third of Americans are not avoiding Corona beer because of the current outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by a newly identified strain of coronavirus. YES: A telephone survey of 737 American beer drinkers conducted on Feb. 25 and 26 by 5W Public Relations, a New York City agency, found that 38% of those surveyed (or 280 respondents) “would not buy Corona under any circumstances now.” NO: A Feb. 27 press release publicizing the survey contains no evidence that the COVID-19 outbreak is the reason that any of those 280 people would not buy Corona beer right now. YES: The press release also cites an “uptick in searches for ‘corona beer virus’ and ‘beer coronavirus’ over the past few weeks.” YES: There is a genre of humorous memes (warning: adult themes) that make puns about the virus and beer, some of which joke that the beer is an antidote to the virus.

NO: The image in this Facebook post does not show a mass burial site for people who died from COVID-19. YES: This is a scene from a trailer for the 2011 movie Contagion (the image can be seen at the 2:17 mark of the video). YES: This image and this claim were shared in other posts on Facebook and Twitter.

NO: Methamphetamine sold in some parts of the United States has not been contaminated with the new strain of coronavirus. YES: Local law enforcement agencies — for example, the St. Francis County Sheriff’s Office in Arkansas — have published posts like the one from the Merrill, Wisconsin, Police Department pictured above. YES: Some agencies later removed the posts, apologized for publishing false information, or clarified that the posts were intended as a joke or satire and were a way of getting meth off the street (and making arrests).
NO: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will not be at every voting site on Election Day this year. The agency “does not patrol or conduct enforcement actions at polling locations,” an ICE spokeswoman told Check Your Fact. YES: This rumor previously arose in connection with the 2018 elections and was debunked.
CORRECTIONS: A Viral Rumor Rundown item in the Feb. 24 issue of The Sift misidentified a photo tweeted by Brad Parscale, President Trump’s re-election campaign manager, as showing Trump’s arrival at the Daytona 500 on Feb. 16. The item incorrectly states that the photo actually is of President George W. Bush arriving at the race in 2004; in fact, it shows Air Force One leaving Daytona Beach, Florida, after Bush attended the race.

Also in the Feb. 24 issue, a Five to Teach item that discussed China’s expulsion of three journalists from The Wall Street Journal said that the U.S. State Department had called five state-run media companies in China “arms of the government’s ‘propaganda apparatus.’” The quoted words were not from a formal department statement; they were from an unnamed State Department official speaking with reporters on condition of anonymity.
A high school student exposed flaws in Twitter’s process for verifying political candidates when the platform gave its blue check mark — indicating that an account has been verified as legitimate — to a fake “congressional candidate” he invented over winter break. The student, who is 17, told CNN Business that he decided to create the fake candidate to test Twitter’s verification process, not to deceive anyone. (He is not named in the Feb. 28 report, by Donie O’Sullivan, because he is a minor.)

Using a digital image of an algorithmically generated fake face from the website, the student said he spent about 20 minutes building a website and five minutes creating a Twitter account for his fictional candidate — “Andrew Walz,” a Rhode Island Republican running in the state’s 1st Congressional District. He then successfully applied to have Walz listed on Ballotpedia, which describes itself as “the digital encyclopedia of American politics and elections”; Twitter has partnered with Ballotpedia to help identify candidates’ official campaign accounts.

After the CNN Business article was published, Ballotpedia removed Walz’s page from its site and said it was implementing a new policy for verifying candidate submissions. Twitter suspended @WalzRI, the fake account the student created, and the website Andrew Walz for Congress was updated to state that it was created as “an experiment” to test the verification procedures of both Twitter and Ballotpedia.
Note: Twitter has struggled to develop a fair and consistent verification policy for political candidates (especially for challengers to incumbents in primary elections) that also includes appropriate safeguards against manipulation by bad actors.
Related: “Twitter falling short on pledge to verify primary candidates” (Emily Birnbaum and Chris Mills Rodrigo, The Hill).
Discuss: What does it mean when an account is “verified” on Twitter? Is verification a signal of credibility? Do political candidates have an advantage if their opponents do not have verified accounts? Were this student’s actions — creating a fake candidate, complete with a Twitter account, to test the verification process — ethical or unethical? Is it unfair for Twitter and other social media platforms to verify one candidate in a political race but not others?
ABC News suspended correspondent David Wright on Feb. 25 after he was secretly recorded on video criticizing his network’s political coverage, describing himself as “a socialist,” and using crude language to describe President Donald Trump. The choppily edited video, captured by what appears to be a hidden camera, also showed an ABC producer, Andy Fies, critiquing how the 2020 presidential candidates are being covered.

The video was recorded in a hotel bar in Manchester, New Hampshire, last month by an operative for Project Veritas, a right-wing group that uses sting tactics to discredit mainstream news outlets and liberal-leaning organizations; previous media targets have included NPR, CNN and The Washington Post. Wright and Fies were in New Hampshire for the state’s Feb. 11 primary.

“Any action that damages our reputation for fairness and impartiality or gives the appearance of compromising it harms ABC News and the individuals involved,” a network representative said in a statement, adding that Wright, who joined ABC in late 2000, would no longer cover politics when he returns to work. The network did not say how long the suspension would last. No action against Fies was announced.

A number of journalists have criticized ABC for suspending Wright, saying that expressing his personal opinions in an informal conversation is not something that warrants such a response.
Discuss: Do you think ABC was justified in suspending Wright? Should he no longer be permitted to report on politics? Why or why not? Is it unethical for journalists to express their personal opinions in public? Is it possible for them to limit or minimize the influence of their personal opinions? Is it OK for journalists to express their opinions in private settings? Why or why not?
A new study (PDF) shows that YouTube’s efforts to limit the reach of harmful conspiracy theory videos via its algorithmic recommendations have produced positive, but inconsistent, results. From October 2018 to February 2020, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley recorded more than 8 million “Up next” video recommendations made by the YouTube algorithm in a set of more than a thousand “of the most popular news and informational channels in the U.S.”

The data showed a significant and steady decrease in recommendations of conspiracy videos from January 2019 — when YouTube announced that it was taking steps to reduce recommendations of “content that could misinform users in harmful ways” — to June 2019, when the platform touted a 50% reduction in such recommendations. After that, though, the rate of recommendations of conspiracy theory videos increased — possibly, the study noted, because YouTube may have relaxed its efforts or because content creators may have figured out how to avoid being flagged.

The study also found evidence that YouTube’s reduction efforts yielded significantly stronger results on specific subjects, suggesting that the platform can minimize the spread of specific kinds of harmful misinformation when it chooses to.
Note:  Because researchers have been unable to track personalized recommendations at scale, this study and others like it have relied on analyses of algorithmic recommendations made to “logged-out” accounts, meaning that researchers could not access and analyze data from accounts whose individual “watch histories” factor into algorithmic recommendations. The study’s authors pointed out that users “with a history of watching conspiratorial content will see higher proportions of recommended conspiracies.” A YouTube spokesperson, Farshad Shadloo, told The New York Times that the study’s focus on nonpersonalized (“logged-out”) recommendations means that its results don’t represent actual users’ experience of the platform.
Discuss:  Is YouTube the primary source of information for young people? Has YouTube replaced television for them? What are the advantages of watching videos on YouTube as opposed to programs on television? What are some of the disadvantages? Why don’t major television networks struggle with the proliferation of conspiracy theories on their channels? Does YouTube’s recommendation algorithm — which makes suggestions for the platform’s 2 billion monthly users — have too much power? Should YouTube be regulated by an outside agency, or not? Why?
Idea:  Have students select 10 popular YouTube channels that they consider to be credible sources of news and other information, then document the “Up next” algorithm’s recommendations on those channels’ videos for a period of time. Compile the data and share the findings, including with the study’s authors.
Young people are using the video-sharing platform TikTok to express political opinions, The New York Times reported on Feb. 27. Much of the conversation, which spans the political spectrum, is taking place in “hype houses” — group accounts that include posts from a number of individual contributors.

In essence, according to the Times’ Taylor Lorenz, teens are “building short-form TV networks” — or, as Sterling Cade Lewis, a 19-year-old TikTok user, put it, “cable news for young people” (because, he said, CNN, Fox News and other “big-name news media” are “geared toward people who have honestly grown up with a longer attention span”). The hype houses often include debates on issues and critiques of positions from people using TikTok’s duet feature, which allows them to respond to a video with one of their own, posted on a split screen.
Discuss: TikTok used to be known as a social media platform with little political content, but this is changing. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Why? In October, TikTok banned political advertising from its platform. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Why?
Idea: Ask students whether they think that TikTok is a suitable and beneficial platform for teens to discuss political issues. Use their opinions to divide students into two groups; then have the groups debate, illustrating their points with examples.
Another idea: Ask students to rank the major social media platforms in terms of their value in political discourse. Which features of the platforms promote the best aspects of productive dialogue, and which tend to result in low-quality discussion?
Your weekly issue of The Sift is put together by Peter Adams (@PeterD_Adams) and Suzannah Gonzales of the News Literacy Project.
You’ll find teachable moments from our previous issues in the archives. Send your suggestions and success stories to [email protected].
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