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The US 2020 Briefings


First Draft’s briefings on US election disinformation. Search here for the topic you’re interested in, and subscribe to our Daily and Weekly Briefings to get these insights in your inbox every day or week.

New Twitter retweet policy to curb misinformation attacked for alleged partisan bias


Twitter’s latest policy change — which it says aims to curb the spread of misleading information — is again drawing accusations of partisan bias. The platform activated a policy yesterday that prompts users looking to retweet a post to comment on it instead. The policy, first announced on October 9, will last at least through the November 3 US election, Twitter said. In response, Sean Davis, founder of the conservative magazine The Federalistsaid Twitter is “knee-capping their own business to stick it to Republicans and prevent any pro-Trump narratives from taking hold.” Davis’s post has been retweeted (without comment) 7,500 times. Amy Mek, who has been described as an “anti-Muslim troll” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, called the move election interference in a post retweeted more than 300 times. A Donald Trump supporter expressed the same sentiment in this post, retweeted more than 2,700 times. Republican Senator Devin Nunes also waded into the matter when he posted a link to a story about the policy change with the comment, “Parler awaits you…” — a reference to the platform popular with conservatives. Although what impact the new Twitter measure will have remains to be seen, there’s at least one reason to believe it will be modest: Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has already shared one tip on how to circumvent the policy.

Misleading claims about US presidential debates being ‘rigged’


Supporters of President Donald Trump are making unfounded claims that debate officials are preparing to rig Thursday’s debate in favor of Democratic candidate Joe Biden. After the Commission on Presidential Debates on October 16 announced the topics the debate would cover, Jason Miller, an adviser to Trump’s campaign, suggested the commission had changed the debate’s focus “away from foreign policy so Joe Biden wouldn’t have to answer to being compromised by the Chinese Communist Party, supporting endless wars and sending pallets of cash to Iran,” in a tweet with more than 10,000 reshares. Several Trump surrogates, including the president’s sons Eric and Donald Jr., followed suit, the latter sharing on Twitter a link to an article (retweeted almost 16,000 times) from conservative website The National Pulse that suggests the topic was chosen to shield Biden from questions about the recent New York Post article on his son Hunter. That article was also publicly shared more than 10,000 times on Facebook, and received more than 25,000 interactions. Trump’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, tweeted a letter to the commission requesting the topic be changed to “foreign policy,” claiming the campaigns had agreed to the topic in advance and that a foreign policy debate was customary.

The claims by Miller and Stepien that the announced topics amount to a departure from the norm — or the agreement between the campaigns — are misleading. In a September announcement on the debate plan, the commission said the first debate’s topics would be selected by the monitor, and that the third debate’s format would be “identical” to the first’s. Regardless, Biden is unlikely to be shielded from questions about his son or his own record on foreign policy based on the announced topics, which include “national security” and “leadership.”

Bannon’s dubious claims about Biden’s son reach big audience via Sky News Australia clip


An interview given by Steve Bannon on Sky News Australia has helped the former Breitbart chief and Trump adviser’s dubious claims about Joe Biden’s son Hunter break through to a wider audience. Bannon has been closely involved in pushing the story published by the New York Post, which has faced a number of criticisms and had its reach restricted by Twitter and Facebook. He has previously given interviews on a number of YouTube channels, but while these have attracted significant numbers of views online, their reach pales in comparison to the more than 1.8 million views racked up since Sunday’s publication of a clip of the interview on YouTube. Groups and Pages sharing the video include Trump supporters locally and internationallyBrexit groups, Fox News commentators and conspiracy groups. According to CrowdTangle, the YouTube video has been posted more than 4,000 times on Facebook Pages and public Groups, and attracted more than 63,000 interactions. The video interview was also syndicated across various News Corp. mastheads. The original New York Post article that first surfaced the influence-peddling allegations has come under heavy criticism since it was published Wednesday. One journalist who worked on the story, Bruce Golding, refused to allow his byline to appear on it amid concerns that the tabloid had not gone to sufficient lengths to verify the authenticity of the hard drive in question. At least one other journalist also refused to use their byline. Disinformation researcher Thomas Rid has also sketched out several concerns about the purported documents.

Conspiracy theories continue around Twitter shutdown and Biden and Trump town halls in wake of New York Post article


Critics of Joe Biden have shared conspiracy theories claiming both social and legacy media companies are intervening on the Democratic presidential candidate’s behalf. Twitter, alongside Facebook, continues to face criticism for its handling of the New York Post’s articles on Biden’s son Hunter, prompting a public statement of regret from CEO Jack Dorsey and a reversal of its policy on hacked materials, which it had cited in blocking shares of the Post’s article. But when Twitter experienced a temporary outage yesterday, there was continued speculation of a conspiracy to aid the Bidens by blocking the spread of the story. An article by The Gateway Pundit headlined, “HUGE! TWITTER SHUTS DOWN After Tucker Carlson Announces He Will Release NEW HUNTER BIDEN EMAILS on His Show Tonight” was shared over 2,000 times on Facebook, although there was no evidence of a connection between Carlson’s announcement and Twitter’s outage.

Meanwhile, Friday morning, President Donald Trump tweeted a link to a piece from the satirical website The Babylon Bee, titled, “Twitter Shuts Down Entire Network To Slow Spread Of Negative Biden News,” adding a comment that read in part, “Wow, this has never been done in history. This includes his really bad interview last night. Why is Twitter doing this.” The “interview” reference was to Biden’s town hall appearance on ABC, which took place after Twitter’s outage had been resolved. The moderation of Biden’s town hall by George Stephanopoulos was also the subject of conspiracy theories, including the narrative that ABC and Stephanopoulos “colluded” to shield Biden from questions about the newspaper’s articles. At the simultaneous town hall event hosted by NBC, the confrontational moderating style of anchor Savannah Guthrie toward Trump prompted claims, including one from conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, that Guthrie was working on Biden’s behalf.

NY Post article pushed hard by pro-Trump sources, criticized elsewhere


The New York Post article making a range of allegations against Joe and Hunter Biden is being pushed heavily by sources supportive of President Donald Trump, while attracting extensive criticism for apparent inconsistencies and questions over the source and authenticity of the underlying documents. The article, published Wednesday morning, alleged that leaked emails showed Hunter Biden engaged in influence peddling around Ukraine in which he involved his father, the Democratic presidential candidate. The newspaper said it obtained the emails from a hard drive copied by a repair store owner from a water-damaged laptop bearing a Beau Biden Foundation sticker that was dropped off by an unidentified customer. The data was obtained via Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani after it was allegedly provided to Giuliani’s lawyer by the store owner. The report also claimed the FBI was investigating the emails’ contents. Disinformation researcher Thomas Rid identified several red flags: Most of the emails used as source material were published as images, making them harder to verify; two published in .pdf format had been created months after the laptop was first dropped off; and that the person who dropped off the laptop couldn’t be positively identified as Hunter Biden. Joe Biden’s campaign specifically denied a meeting detailed in the article ever took place. A group of journalists identified and interviewed the owner of the computer repair store, who gave several contradictory answers about how he obtained the hardware, how the FBI got involved, and the specific role of Giuliani. The owner also told reporters that he feared for his life, citing the previously debunked Seth Rich conspiracy.

Facebook and Twitter both said they were limiting the article’s spread, prompting allegations of censorship and even election interference from prominent conservative politicians and commentators. To evade the bans, a member of the Trump campaign tweeted the article’s text, while a group of Republican members of Congress uploaded the story to their website and encouraged followers to share that link around Twitter. The action taken by the platforms didn’t prevent the article from being publicly shared over 300,000 times on Facebook, and Trump’s campaign was publishing videos and ads referencing its contents, while Trump tweeted about it and spoke about it at a rally in Iowa.

Virginia voter registration system shutdown prompts speculation about voter suppression


The shutdown of Virginia’s state voter registration system for much of its final day of operation pre-election, reportedly because of the severing of a fiber-optic cable by a construction crew, has prompted a wave of unevidenced speculation about a conspiracy to suppress votes. Twitter users such as CNN commentator Keith Boykin cast doubt on reports that the incident was an accident. “What are the chances an important cable was cut accidentally on the last day to register to vote in Virginia?” he asked in a tweet that was shared more than 3,700 times. Another user compared the incident to the death of Jeffrey Epstein in prison, in a post retweeted over 13,700 times. Other posts drew connections with registration issues in other states, such as Florida, including one tweet with over 3,000 retweets that suggested issues in both states amount to coordinated voter suppression efforts by Republicans. Though the ability of Americans to vote has been a hugely contentious issue during the election, there are factors that suggest suspicions around the incident are misplaced. Virginia’s attorney general, a Democrat, requested an extension to the application period, which was granted. And as one user pointed out, numerous construction projects were underway in the area where the wire was reportedly cut. Virginia has also already seen record turnout since early voting began September 18, and voters were still able to register despite the outage, either in person or by printing out applications and mailing them before the end of the day. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam — a Democrat who appointed the commissioner of the state elections department — was among those calling for the extension to the registration deadline.

Former reality TV contestant pushes conspiracy theory about Obama admin and Bin Laden


Anna Khait, a former “Survivor” contestant who contributes to The Epoch Times, on October 11 posted a video excerpt of an event at the American Priority Festival, where speakers shared a conspiracy theory that the Obama administration killed US Navy SEALs to cover up a secret about the assassination of Osama bin Laden. One speaker claimed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sold Stinger anti-aircraft missiles through the US consulate in Benghazi and that one was later used in the August 2011 downing of a US Army helicopter that killed 38 service members. In a video screened later in the speech, another man said the Obama administration paid $152 billion to Iran to conceal the fact that US troops had in fact killed bin Laden’s body double, and that former Vice President Joe Biden orchestrated the subsequent downing of the Army helicopter as part of the cover-up. The central thesis of the allegations has been previously debunked. Claims of a US cash transfer to Iran of around $150 billion are familiar, but as the Associated Press noted, that number refers to the value of Iranian assets unfrozen in 2015 as part of the Iran nuclear deal. Both the US military and the Taliban have said the helicopter was downed in August 2011 with rocket-propelled grenades, not with a Stinger missile. Despite the outlandish nature of the claims — many of them sourced to a man who identified himself as a former “falconer for Arab political leaders” — they are spreading widely. Khait’s tweet has received more than 27,000 shares and the embedded video has been viewed more than 800,000 times. The YouTube channel “The Next News Network,” which has over 1.7 million subscribers, recently hosted Khait, who repeated the claims in a video with more than 400,000 views.

Unfounded claims of antifa shooter continue despite police and media clarifications


Unfounded claims that a man who shot dead a right-wing protester in Denver this weekend was a member of “antifa” continue to circulate, despite police statements confirming the shooter was a private security guard and that there was no evidence he was a member of any political organization. Matthew Dolloff was arrested October 10, shortly after fatally shooting a man identified as Lee Keltner, amid competing left- and right-wing protests in downtown Denver. In a photo published by The Denver Post of the moment before the shooting, Dolloff can be seen brandishing a handgun as Keltner sprays mace in Dolloff’s direction. Several commentators jumped to characterize the suspect as a member of “antifa.” A tweet by The Gateway Pundit’s founder, Jim Hoft, linking to the outlet’s initial article on the incident and shared over 1,300 times, attributed the shooting to an “Antifa terrorist.” In its initial account of the shooting, the Post, which had a photographer at the scene, identified the victim as a participant in the right-wing “Patriot Rally,” and the alleged shooter as a “left-wing demonstrator.”

Hours after the shooting, police released a statement saying the shooter was not a member of antifa. Local television station 9News said it had contracted Dolloff through the private security firm Pinkerton to guard staff. The Post later updated its reporting to correctly characterize Dolloff, and police provided an update saying that he was “not a protest participant” and investigators were ”unaware of whether the suspect is personally affiliated with any political organization,” but the narrative that an antifa member had fatally shot a right-wing protester continued to spread. The Gateway Pundit’s updated article on the shooting cites past social media posts by Dolloff, critical of President Donald Trump, as evidence that Dolloff may in fact be an antifa member, despite the Denver police’s assurances. Similar insinuations continue to circulate widely on Twitter, such as those voiced by right-wing media personality Ashley St. Clair, whose tweet the morning after the shooting characterizing Dolloff as “ANTIFA affiliated” has been shared over 4,000 times.

False claims that arrests over kidnapping plot are staged as pretext for militia crackdown


False claims have circulated that the arrests of 13 people for allegedly plotting to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and attack the state capital in Lansing were manufactured to justify cracking down on the militia movement. One tweet with 2,400 shares read: “The Whitmer kidnapping plot allegedly centered around right-wing militia members communicating online. My opinion: False flag designed to ban/censor/remove digital warriors.” Another tweet with hundreds of shares pointed out an anarchist flag in a video of one of the alleged plotters, suggesting this meant the suspect could not be a militia member and that the plot was cooked up to “justify confiscating guns and arresting militias.” Conservative group the Reagan Battalion took it further, suggesting the flag pointed to the involvement of antifa. None of the evidence released by authorities suggested any of the suspects were involved with antifa. Charging documents for one group of suspects link them to the anti-government “boogaloo” movement.

Vice presidential debate sparks misinformation about Supreme Court, Pence’s health and alleged pre-briefing


The vice presidential debate between Kamala Harris and incumbent Mike Pence prompted a range of misinformation narratives centered on Democrats’ plans for the Supreme Court, Pence’s health and the familiar unfounded claim that the Democratic participant had been pre-briefed on the questions. A falsified screenshot of a tweet from Pence, accusing Harris of receiving the debate’s questions beforehand, was making the rounds, with one post on Facebook shared over 2,900 times. Likewise, a meme was spreading in small numbers on Facebook that falsely attributed to Harris the quotation that “Republicans will never win an election again after we pack the courts & the Senate.” While Harris and Biden have not said they will pack the courts, Harris said in March that she was “open to it,” leaving room for speculation and misinformation about the ticket’s plan. And as the White House’s misleading and contradictory messaging on President Donald Trump’s condition continues to feed conspiracy theories, the visible redness in Pence’s eye during the debate prompted widespread speculation (including on a broadcast by ABC News) that he has Covid-19, as well as conspiracy theories that he wanted to infect Harris. Pence and Harris both tested negative for the virus before the debate.