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How The Epoch Times Created a Giant Influence Machine

For years, The Epoch Times was a small, low-budget newspaper with an anti-China slant that was handed out free on New York street corners. But in 2016 and 2017, the paper made two changes that transformed it into one of the country’s most powerful digital publishers.

The changes also paved the way for the publication, which is affiliated with the secretive and relatively obscure Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong, to become a leading purveyor of right-wing misinformation.

First, it embraced President Trump, treating him as an ally in Falun Gong’s scorched-earth fight against China’s ruling Communist Party, which banned the group two decades ago and has persecuted its members ever since. Its relatively staid coverage of U.S. politics became more partisan, with more articles explicitly supporting Mr. Trump and criticizing his opponents.

Around the same time, The Epoch Times bet big on another powerful American institution: Facebook. The publication and its affiliates employed a novel strategy that involved creating dozens of Facebook pages, filling them with feel-good videos and viral clickbait, and using them to sell subscriptions and drive traffic back to its partisan news coverage.

In an April 2017 email to the staff obtained by The New York Times, the paper’s leadership envisioned that the Facebook strategy could help turn The Epoch Times into “the world’s largest and most authoritative media.” It could also introduce millions of people to the teachings of Falun Gong, fulfilling the group’s mission of “saving sentient beings.”

Today, The Epoch Times and its affiliates are a force in right-wing media, with tens of millions of social media followers spread across dozens of pages and an online audience that rivals those of The Daily Caller and Breitbart News, and with a similar willingness to feed the online fever swamps of the far right.

It also has growing influence in Mr. Trump’s inner circle. The president and his family have shared articles from the paper on social media, and Trump administration officials have sat for interviews with its reporters. In August, a reporter from The Epoch Times asked a question at a White House press briefing.

It is a remarkable success story for Falun Gong, which has long struggled to establish its bona fides against Beijing’s efforts to demonize it as an “evil cult,” partly because its strident accounts of persecution in China can sometimes be difficult to substantiate or veer into exaggeration. In 2006, an Epoch Times reporter disrupted a White House visit by the Chinese president by shouting, “Evil people will die early.”

Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former chief strategist and a former chairman of Breitbart, said in an interview in July that The Epoch Times’s fast growth had impressed him.

“They’ll be the top conservative news site in two years,” said Mr. Bannon, who was arrested on fraud charges in August. “They punch way above their weight, they have the readers, and they’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.”

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Credit…David Chang/EPA, via Shutterstock

But the organization and its affiliates have grown, in part, by relying on sketchy social media tactics, pushing dangerous conspiracy theories and downplaying their connection to Falun Gong, an investigation by The Times has found. The investigation included interviews with more than a dozen former Epoch Times employees, as well as internal documents and tax filings. Many of these people spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation, or still had family in Falun Gong.

Embracing Mr. Trump and Facebook has made The Epoch Times a partisan powerhouse. But it has also created a global-scale misinformation machine that has repeatedly pushed fringe narratives into the mainstream.

The publication has been one of the most prominent promoters of “Spygate,” a baseless conspiracy theory involving claims that Obama administration officials illegally spied on Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign. Publications and shows linked to The Epoch Times have promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory and spread distorted claims about voter fraud and the Black Lives Matter movement. More recently, they have promoted the unfounded theory that the coronavirus — which the publication calls the “CCP Virus,” in an attempt to link it to the Chinese Communist Party — was created as a bioweapon in a Chinese military lab.

The Epoch Times says it is independent and nonpartisan, and it rejects the suggestion that it is officially affiliated with Falun Gong.

Like Falun Gong itself, the newspaper — which publishes in dozens of countries — is decentralized and operates as a cluster of regional chapters, each organized as a separate nonprofit. It is also extraordinarily secretive. Editors at The Epoch Times turned down multiple requests for interviews, and a reporter’s unannounced visit to the outlet’s Manhattan headquarters this year was met with a threat from a lawyer.

Representatives for Li Hongzhi, the leader of Falun Gong, did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did other residents of Dragon Springs, the compound in upstate New York that serves as Falun Gong’s spiritual headquarters.

Many employees and Falun Gong practitioners contacted by The Times said they were instructed not to divulge details of the outlet’s inner workings. They said they had been told that speaking negatively about The Epoch Times would be tantamount to disobeying Mr. Li, who is known by his disciples as “Master.”

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Credit…Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

The Epoch Times provided only partial answers to a long list of questions sent to its media office, and declined to answer questions about its finances and editorial strategy. In an email, which was not signed, the outlet accused The Times of “defaming and diminishing a competitor” and displaying “a subtle form of religious intimidation if not bigotry” by linking the publication to Falun Gong.

“The Epoch Times will not be intimidated and will not be silenced,” the outlet added, “and based on the number of falsehoods and inaccuracies included in the New York Times questions we will consider all legal options in response.”

Falun Gong, which Mr. Li introduced in China in 1992, revolves around a series of five meditation exercises and a process of moral self-improvement that is meant to lead to spiritual enlightenment. Today, the group is known for the demonstrations it holds around the world to “clarify the truth” about the Chinese Communist Party, which it accuses of torturing Falun Gong practitioners and harvesting the organs of those executed. (Tens of thousands across China were sent to labor camps in the early years of the crackdown, and the group’s presence there is now much diminished.)

More recently, Falun Gong has come under scrutiny for what some former practitioners have characterized as an extreme belief system that forbids interracial marriage, condemns homosexuality and discourages the use of modern medicine, all allegations the group denies.

When The Epoch Times got its start in 2000, the goal was to counter Chinese propaganda and cover Falun Gong’s persecution by the Chinese government. It began as a Chinese-language newspaper run out of the Georgia basement of John Tang, a graduate student and Falun Gong practitioner.

By 2004, The Epoch Times had expanded into English. One of the paper’s early hires was Genevieve Belmaker, then a 27-year-old Falun Gong practitioner with little journalism experience. Ms. Belmaker, now 43, described the early Epoch Times as a cross between a scrappy media start-up and a zealous church bulletin, with a staff composed mostly of unpaid volunteers drawn from the local Falun Gong chapters.

“The mission-driven part of it was, let’s have a media outlet that not only tells the truth about Falun Gong but about everything,” Ms. Belmaker said.

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Credit…Henry Abrams/Agence France-Presse, via Getty Images

Mr. Li, Falun Gong’s founder, also saw it that way. In speeches, he referred to The Epoch Times and other Falun Gong-linked outlets — including the New Tang Dynasty TV station, or NTD — as “our media,” and said they could help publicize Falun Gong’s story and values around the world.

Two former employees recalled that the paper’s top editors had traveled to Dragon Springs to meet with Mr. Li. One employee who attended a meeting said Mr. Li had weighed in on editorial and strategic decisions, acting as a kind of shadow publisher. The Epoch Times denied these accounts, saying in a statement, “There has been no such meeting.”

The line between The Epoch Times and Falun Gong is blurry at times. Two former Epoch Times reporters said they had been asked to write flattering profiles of foreign performers being recruited into Shen Yun, the heavily advertised dance performance series that Falun Gong backs, because it would strengthen those performers’ visa applications. Another former Epoch Times reporter recalled being assigned to write critical articles about politicians including John Liu, a Taiwanese-American former New York City councilman whom the group viewed as soft on China and hostile to Falun Gong.

These articles helped Falun Gong advance its goals, but they lured few subscribers.

Matthew K. Tullar, a former sales director for The Epoch Times’s Orange County edition in New York, wrote on his LinkedIn page that his team initially “printed 800 papers each week, had no subscribers, and utilized a ‘throw it in their driveway for free’ marketing strategy.” Mr. Tullar did not respond to requests for comment.

Ms. Belmaker, who left the paper in 2017, described it as a bare-bones operation that was always searching for new moneymaking ventures.

“It was very short-term thinking,” she said. “We weren’t looking more than three weeks down the road.”

By 2014, The Epoch Times was edging closer to Mr. Li’s vision of a respectable news outlet. Subscriptions were growing, the paper’s reporting was winning journalism awards, and its finances were stabilizing.

“There was all this optimism that things were going to level up,” Ms. Belmaker said.

But at a staff meeting in 2015, leadership announced that the publication was in trouble again, Ms. Belmaker recalled. Facebook had changed its algorithm for determining which articles appeared in users’ newsfeeds, and The Epoch Times’s traffic and ad revenue were suffering.

In response, the publication assigned reporters to churn out as many as five posts a day in a search for viral hits, often lowbrow fare with titles like “Grizzly Bear Does Belly Flop Into a Swimming Pool.”

“It was a competition for traffic,” Ms. Belmaker said.

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Credit…Kyle Johnson for The New York Times

As the 2016 election neared, reporters noticed that the paper’s political coverage took on a more partisan tone.

Steve Klett, who covered the 2016 campaign for the paper, said his editors had encouraged favorable coverage about Mr. Trump after he won the Republican nomination.

“They seemed to have this almost messianic way of viewing Trump as the anti-Communist leader who would bring about the end of the Chinese Communist Party,” Mr. Klett said.

After Mr. Trump’s victory, The Epoch Times hired Brendan Steinhauser, a well-connected Tea Party strategist, to help make inroads with conservatives. Mr. Steinhauser said the organization’s goal, beyond raising its profile in Washington, had been to make Falun Gong’s persecution a Trump administration priority.

“They wanted more people in Washington to be aware of how the Chinese Communist Party operates, and what it has done to spiritual and ethnic minorities,” Mr. Steinhauser said.

Behind the scenes, The Epoch Times was also developing a secret weapon: a Facebook growth strategy that would ultimately help take its message to millions.

According to emails reviewed by The Times, the Facebook plan was developed by Trung Vu, the former head of The Epoch Times’s Vietnamese edition, known as Dai Ky Nguyen, or DKN.

In Vietnam, Mr. Trung’s strategy involved filling a network of Facebook pages with viral videos and pro-Trump propaganda, some of it lifted word for word from other sites, and using automated software, or bots, to generate fake likes and shares, a former DKN employee said. Employees used fake accounts to run the pages, a practice that violated Facebook’s rules but that Mr. Trung said was necessary to protect employees from Chinese surveillance, the former employee said.

Mr. Trung did not respond to requests for comment.

According to the 2017 email sent to Epoch Times workers in America, the Vietnamese experiment was a “remarkable success” that made DKN one of the largest publishers in Vietnam.

The outlet, the email claimed, was “having a profound impact on saving sentient beings in that country.”

The Vietnamese team was asked to help Epoch Media Group — the umbrella organization for Falun Gong’s biggest U.S. media properties — set up its own Facebook empire, according to that email. That year, dozens of new Facebook pages appeared, all linked to The Epoch Times and its affiliates. Some were explicitly partisan, others positioned themselves as sources of real and unbiased news, and a few, like a humor page called “Funniest Family Moments,” were disconnected from news entirely.

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Perhaps the most audacious experiment was a new right-wing politics site called America Daily.

Today, the site, which has more than a million Facebook followers, peddles far-right misinformation. It has posted anti-vaccine screeds, an article falsely claiming that Bill Gates and other elites are “directing” the Covid-19 pandemic and allegations about a “Jewish mob” that controls the world.

Emails obtained by The Times show that John Nania, a longtime Epoch Times editor, was involved in starting America Daily, along with executives from Sound of Hope, a Falun Gong-affiliated radio network. Records on Facebook show that the page is operated by the Sound of Hope Network, and a pinned post on its Facebook page contains a promotional video for Falun Gong.

In a statement, The Epoch Times said it had “no business relationship” with America Daily.

Many of the Facebook pages operated by The Epoch Times and its affiliates followed a similar trajectory. They began by posting viral videos and uplifting news articles aggregated from other sites. They grew quickly, sometimes adding hundreds of thousands of followers a week. Then, they were used to steer people to buy Epoch Times subscriptions and promote more partisan content.

Several of the pages gained significant followings “seemingly overnight,” said Renee DiResta, a disinformation researcher with the Stanford Internet Observatory. Many posts were shared thousands of times but received almost no comments — a ratio, Ms. DiResta said, that is typical of pages that have been boosted by “click farms,” firms that generate fake traffic by paying people to click on certain links over and over again.

The Epoch Times denies using click farms or other illicit tactics to expand its pages. “The Epoch Times’s social media strategies were different from DKN, and used Facebook’s own promotional tools to gain an increased organic following,” the outlet said, adding that The Epoch Times cut ties with Mr. Trung in 2018.

But last year, The Epoch Times was barred from advertising on Facebook — where it had spent more than $1.5 million over seven months — after the social network announced that the outlet’s pages had evaded its transparency requirements by disguising its ad purchases.

This year, Facebook took down more than 500 pages and accounts linked to Truth Media, a network of anti-China pages that had been using fake accounts to amplify their messages. The Epoch Times denied any involvement, but Facebook’s investigators said Truth Media “showed some links to on-platform activity by Epoch Media Group and NTD.”

“We’ve taken enforcement actions against Epoch Media and related groups several times,” said a Facebook spokeswoman, who added that the social network would punish the outlet if it violated more rules in the future.

Since being barred from advertising on Facebook, The Epoch Times has moved much of its operation to YouTube, where it has spent more than $1.8 million on ads since May 2018, according to Google’s public database of political advertising.

Where the paper’s money comes from is something of a mystery. Former employees said they had been told that The Epoch Times was financed by a combination of subscriptions, ads and donations from wealthy Falun Gong practitioners. In 2018, the most recent year for which the organization’s tax returns are publicly available, The Epoch Times Association received several sizable donations, but none big enough to pay for a multimillion-dollar ad blitz.

Mr. Bannon is among those who have noticed The Epoch Times’s deep pockets. Last year, he produced a documentary about China with NTD. When he talked with the outlet about other projects, he said, money never seemed to be an issue.

“I’d give them a number,” Mr. Bannon said. “And they’d come back and say, ‘We’re good for that number.’”

The Epoch Times’s pro-Trump turn has upset some former employees, like Ms. Belmaker.

Ms. Belmaker, now a freelance writer and editor, still believes in many of Falun Gong’s teachings, she said. But she has grown disenchanted with The Epoch Times, which she sees as running contrary to Falun Gong’s core principles of truth, compassion and tolerance.

“The moral objective is gone,” she said. “They’re on the wrong side of history, and I don’t think they care.”

Recently, The Epoch Times has shifted its focus to the coronavirus. It pounced on China’s missteps in the early days of the pandemic, and its reporters wrote about misreported virus statistics and Chinese influence in the World Health Organization.

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Some of these articles were true. But others pushed exaggerated or false claims, like the unproven theory that the virus was engineered in a lab as part of a Chinese biological warfare strategy.

Some of the claims were repeated in a documentary that both NTD and The Epoch Times posted on YouTube, where it has been viewed more than five million times. The documentary features the discredited virologist Judy Mikovits, who also starred in the viral “Plandemic” video, which Facebook, YouTube and other social platforms pulled this year for spreading false claims.

The Epoch Times said, “In our documentary we offered a range of evidence and viewpoints without drawing any conclusions.”

Ms. Belmaker, who still keeps a photo of Master Li on a shelf in her house, said she recoiled whenever an ad for The Epoch Times popped up on YouTube promoting some new partisan talking point.

One recent video, “Digging Beneath Narratives,” is a two-minute infomercial about China’s mishandling of the coronavirus. The ad’s host says The Epoch Times has an “underground network of sources” in China providing information about the government’s response to the virus.

It’s a plausible claim, but the video’s host makes no mention of The Epoch Times’s ties to Falun Gong, or its two-decade-long campaign against Chinese communism, saying only that the paper is “giving you an accurate picture of what’s happening in this world.”

“We tell it like it is,” he says.

Ben Smith contributed reporting. Jack Begg contributed research.

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F.T.C. Decision on Pursuing Facebook Antitrust Case Is Said to Be Near

WASHINGTON — The Federal Trade Commission is moving closer to a decision about filing an antitrust lawsuit against Facebook for its market power in social networking, according to two people with knowledge of the agency’s talks.

The five members of the F.T.C. met on Thursday to discuss its investigation into Facebook and whether the company had bought smaller rivals to maintain a monopoly, the people said. They said three documents about Facebook had been prepared by the agency and circulated among its leaders: One addresses the company’s potential antitrust violations, another analyzes its economics, and a third assesses the risks of litigation.

No decision on a case has been made, the people said. The commissioners must vote before any case is pursued.

Facebook and the F.T.C. declined to comment. The Washington Post reported earlier that the commission met about the Facebook investigation on Thursday.

Lawmakers and policymakers in Washington have ramped up antitrust actions against the largest technology companies, often in a bipartisan effort. On Tuesday, the Justice Department sued Google, accusing it of illegally maintaining its monopoly power in search and search advertising — the first such government action against a tech company in two decades. Two weeks ago, the House Judiciary Committee recommended taking action to break up the big tech platforms, including Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google.

The actions reflect growing frustration toward the companies, which total around $5 trillion in value and have transformed commerce, speech, media and advertising globally. That power has drawn the scrutiny of conservatives like President Trump and liberals like Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

The U.S. investigations began last year when the Justice Department started examining Google and other tech companies. Joseph Simons, the chairman of the F.T.C. and a Trump appointee, also opened an investigation into Facebook in June 2019. Around the same time, four dozen state attorneys general began a parallel investigation into the social network.

Facebook has tangled with the F.T.C. before, but mainly over privacy issues. The company reached a privacy settlement in 2011 with the agency. In 2018, the F.T.C. opened an investigation into Facebook for violating that settlement, prompted by a report from The New York Times and The Observer of London on how the company allowed Cambridge Analytica, a British consulting firm to the Trump campaign, to harvest the personal information of its users. As a result, Facebook last year agreed to a record $5 billion settlement with the F.T.C. on data privacy violations.

The antitrust investigation by the F.T.C. has been far-reaching. The agency has collected thousands of internal documents from Facebook’s leaders. It has also interviewed people from the company’s rivals, such as Snap, which owns the Snapchat app, about Facebook’s dominant position in social networking and its business practices.

In August, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, answered questions under oath as part of the inquiry.

The company has denied violations of antitrust laws. It points to competition in online social networks, including the fast rise of the Chinese-owned viral video app TikTok, as proof that it does not have a lock on the market.

But with nearly three billion users across its apps and a market value of $792 billion, Facebook is unrivaled in size among social networking apps. Part of its dominance has been due to acquisitions of smaller rivals. Facebook bought the photo-sharing app Instagram for $1 billion in 2012. It bought WhatsApp, the messaging app, for $19 billion in 2014. Both mergers were approved by the F.T.C.

The commission’s investigation has largely focused on Facebook’s mergers with companies like Instagram and WhatsApp, people with knowledge of the inquiry said. The deals remove competition from the market and have bolstered Facebook’s reach and clout, its critics have said.

In a July antitrust hearing with House lawmakers, Mr. Zuckerberg was confronted with emails showing that a Facebook executive had referred to Instagram during the acquisition process as a “competitive threat.” Mr. Zuckerberg said Instagram’s success was due to Facebook.

But his answer did not appear to satisfy House lawmakers.

In an antitrust report this month, staff of the House Judiciary Committee said Facebook’s power in social networking was so immense that the company “has tipped the market toward monopoly such that Facebook competes more vigorously among its own products — Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger — than with actual competitors.”

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Forget Antitrust Laws. To Limit Tech, Some Say a New Regulator Is Needed.

For decades, America’s antitrust laws — originally designed to curb the power of 19th-century corporate giants in railroads, oil and steel — have been hailed as “the Magna Carta of free enterprise” and have proved remarkably durable and adaptable.

But even as the Justice Department filed an antitrust suit against Google on Tuesday for unlawfully maintaining a monopoly in search and search advertising, a growing number of legal experts and economists have started questioning whether traditional antitrust is up to the task of addressing the competitive concerns raised by today’s digital behemoths. Further help, they said, is needed.

Antitrust cases typically proceed at the stately pace of the courts, with trials and appeals that can drag on for years. Those delays, the legal experts and economists said, would give Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple a free hand to become even more entrenched in the markets they dominate.

A more rapid-response approach is required, they said. One solution: a specialist regulator that would focus on the major tech companies. It would establish and enforce a set of basic rules of conduct, which would include not allowing the companies to favor their own services, exclude competitors or acquire emerging rivals and require them to permit competitors access to their platforms and data on reasonable terms.

The British government has already said it would create a digital markets unit, with calls for a Big Tech regulator to also be introduced in the European Union and in Australia. In the United States, recommendations for a digital markets regulator have also been made in expert reports and in congressional testimony. It could be a separate agency or perhaps a digital division inside the Federal Trade Commission.

Significantly, the leading proponents of this path in the United States are mainstream antitrust experts and economists rather than break-’em-up firebrands. Jason Furman, a professor at Harvard University and chair of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama administration, led an advisory group to the British government that recommended the creation of a digital markets unit in 2019.

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Credit…Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Breaking up the big tech companies, Mr. Furman said, is a bad idea because that would risk losing some of the consumer benefits these digital utilities undeniably deliver. A regulator is necessary to police digital markets and the behavior of the tech giants, he said.

“I’m a small ‘c’ conservative, and I’m not a fan of regulation generally,” Mr. Furman said. “But it’s needed in this space.”

Regulators that focus on specific sectors of the economy are common in the United States. For financial markets, there is the Securities and Exchange Commission; for airlines, the Federal Aviation Administration; for pharmaceuticals, the Food and Drug Administration; for telecommunications, the Federal Communications Commission; and so on.

There is also precedent for picking out a handful of big companies for special treatment. In banking, the biggest banks with the most customers and loans are classified as “systemically important financial institutions” and subject to more stringent scrutiny.

Several supporters of a new tech regulator were officials in the Obama administration, which was known for being friendly to Silicon Valley. But the advocates said that experience — as well as the conservative, pro-big business drift of court rulings in recent years — left them frustrated with antitrust law as the only way to restrain the growing market power and conduct of the big tech companies.

“The mechanism of antitrust is not working to protect competition,” said Fiona Scott Morton, an official in the Justice Department’s antitrust division in the Obama administration, who is an economist at the Yale University School of Management. “So let’s do something else — use a different tool.”

Ms. Scott Morton led an expert panel on antitrust in a report last year on digital platforms by the Stigler Center at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. The report recommended the creation of a regulatory authority. (Ms. Scott Morton has been a forceful critic of Google, but also a consultant to Apple and Amazon.)

Such a regulatory approach carries the risk of government’s meddling in a fast-moving industry that could hobble innovation, some antitrust experts warned. While antitrust law reacts to alleged anticompetitive behavior and can thus be slow, that shortcoming is preferable to prescriptive government rules and regulations, they said.

“I’m very uncomfortable with the regulatory path, especially if it means things like getting government approval for product changes,” said Herbert Hovenkamp, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. “The history of regulation shows that it is an innovation killer.”

A. Douglas Melamed, a former general counsel of Intel and a former antitrust official in the Justice Department, shared that concern. But Mr. Melamed, a member of the expert panel for the Stigler Center report, said the tech giants did pose a competition problem.

“I think regulation might make sense if it is narrowly focused, not running the industry,” said Mr. Melamed, who is a professor at Stanford Law School.

The last major antitrust action against a big technology company was the landmark Microsoft case in the 1990s. The case began with a suit filed in 1994 by the Federal Trade Commission and a simultaneous consent decree.

The Justice Department and several states later picked up the pursuit, investigated anew, filed suit and conducted an exhaustive trial. Microsoft was found to have repeatedly violated the nation’s antitrust laws, and the company then reached a settlement with the government, which a federal court approved in 2002.

In the Microsoft case, the antitrust legal process worked, in its way. Yet its impact is still debated. Without the suit and years of scrutiny, some observers said, Microsoft could have throttled the rise of Google.

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Credit…Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

But others said the technological shift toward the internet and away from the personal computer meant that Microsoft had lost the gatekeeper power it once held. Technology, not antitrust, they insisted, opened the door to competition.

Triumph or not, the Microsoft case was two decades ago. Proponents of a new regulator said antitrust law was ill suited by itself to restraining today’s faster-moving digital giants. In the internet economy, they said, the forces that reinforce and expand the power of a market leader — called network effects — are stronger and more rapid than in the personal computer era.

“Antitrust is not a fully adequate tool to deal with the companies that dominate these markets,” said Gene Kimmelman, who was on the Stigler Center panel and a co-author of a recent report by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard that called for the creation of a “digital platform agency” in America.

Another argument for the regulatory option is that competition concerns now span four companies, not just one. Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google are in different markets, including search, online advertising, e-commerce and social networks. Bringing separate antitrust cases against them would most likely be beyond the resources of the government.

“When the competition issues are larger than a single firm, regulation might be the better tool to use,” said Andrew I. Gavil, a law professor at Howard University.

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As Local News Dies, a Pay-for-Play Network Rises in Its Place

The instructions were clear: Write an article calling out Sara Gideon, a Democrat running for a hotly contested U.S. Senate seat in Maine, as a hypocrite.

Angela Underwood, a freelance reporter in upstate New York, took the $22 assignment over email. She contacted the spokesman for Senator Susan Collins, the Republican opponent, and wrote an article on his accusations that Ms. Gideon was two-faced for criticizing shadowy political groups and then accepting their help.

The short article was published on Maine Business Daily, a seemingly run-of-the-mill news website, under the headline “Sen. Collins camp says House Speaker Gideon’s actions are hypocritical.” It extensively quoted Ms. Collins’s spokesman but had no comment from Ms. Gideon’s campaign.

Then Ms. Underwood received another email: The “client” who had ordered up the article, her editor said, wanted it to add more detail.

The client, according to emails and the editing history reviewed by The New York Times, was a Republican operative.

Maine Business Daily is part of a fast-growing network of nearly 1,300 websites that aim to fill a void left by vanishing local newspapers across the country. Yet the network, now in all 50 states, is built not on traditional journalism but on propaganda ordered up by dozens of conservative think tanks, political operatives, corporate executives and public-relations professionals, a Times investigation found.

The sites appear as ordinary local-news outlets, with names like Des Moines Sun, Ann Arbor Times and Empire State Today. They employ simple layouts and articles about local politics, community happenings and sometimes national issues, much like any local newspaper.

But behind the scenes, many of the stories are directed by political groups and corporate P.R. firms to promote a Republican candidate or a company, or to smear their rivals.



One of the websites in the network is Illinois Valley Times.

Nearly every story at the top of the homepage in early September was about Sue Rezin, a Republican state senator. Ms. Rezin said in an interview that she didn’t know why the outlet focused on her so much, but that she didn’t mind all the positive coverage.

As of Oct. 14, one reporter had written 34 of his last 40 stories on the site about Ms. Rezin. When contacted, he said the company would not let him speak to reporters.


The network is largely overseen by Brian Timpone, a TV reporter turned internet entrepreneur who has sought to capitalize on the decline of local news organizations for nearly two decades. He has built the network with the help of several others, including a Texas brand-management consultant and a conservative Chicago radio personality.

The Times uncovered details about the operation through interviews with more than 30 current and former employees and clients, as well as thousands of internal emails between reporters and editors spanning several years. Employees of the network shared emails and the editing history in the site’s publishing software that revealed who requested dozens of articles and how.

Mr. Timpone did not respond to repeated attempts to contact him by email and phone, or through a note left at his home in the Chicago suburbs. Many of his executives did not respond to or declined requests for comment.

The network is one of a proliferation of partisan local-news sites funded by political groups associated with both parties. Liberal donors have poured millions of dollars into operations like Courier, a network of eight sites that began covering local news in swing states last year. Conservative activists are running similar sites, like the Star News group in Tennessee, Virginia and Minnesota.

But those operations run just several sites each, while Mr. Timpone’s network has more than twice as many sites as the nation’s largest newspaper chain, Gannett. And while political groups have helped finance networks like Courier, investors in news operations typically don’t weigh in on specific articles.

While Mr. Timpone’s sites generally do not post information that is outright false, the operation is rooted in deception, eschewing hallmarks of news reporting like fairness and transparency. Only a few dozen of the sites disclose funding from advocacy groups. Traditional news organizations do not accept payment for articles; the Federal Trade Commission requires that advertising that looks like articles be clearly labeled as ads.

Most of the sites declare in their “About” pages that they to aim “to provide objective, data-driven information without political bias.” But in April, an editor for the network reminded freelancers that “clients want a politically conservative focus on their stories, so avoid writing stories that only focus on a Democrat lawmaker, bill, etc.,” according to an email viewed by The Times.

Other news organizations have raised concerns about the political bent of some of the sites. But the extent of the deceit has been concealed for years with confidentiality contracts for writers and a confusing web of companies that run the papers. Those companies have received at least $1.7 million from Republican political campaigns and conservative groups, according to tax records and campaign-finance reports, the only payments that could be traced in public records.

Editors for Mr. Timpone’s network assign work to freelancers dotted around the United States and abroad, often paying $3 to $36 per job. The assignments typically come with precise instructions on whom to interview and what to write, according to the internal correspondence. In some cases, those instructions are written by the network’s clients, who are sometimes the subjects of the articles.

The emails showed a salesman for Mr. Timpone’s sites offering a potential client a $2,000 package that included running five articles and unlimited news releases. The salesman stressed that reporters would call the shots on some articles, while the client would have a say on others.

Ian Prior, a Republican operative, was behind the articles about Ms. Gideon, the Senate candidate in Maine, as well as articles promoting Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Roy Blunt of Missouri, according to the internal records. Mr. Prior previously worked for the Senate Leadership Fund, a political action committee that has spent $9.7 million against Ms. Gideon.

Juan David Leal, who has worked in the Mexico office of the Berkeley Research Group, a consulting firm, ordered up articles criticizing the Mexican government’s response to the coronavirus.

And employees at the Illinois Opportunity Project, a conservative advocacy group, requested dozens of articles about specific Republican politicians in Illinois. The group has paid $441,000 to Mr. Timpone’s companies, according to the nonprofit’s tax records.

A spokeswoman for Ms. Collins, the Maine senator, said the campaign answers questions “from media outlets of all stripes and persuasions,” including the Maine Beacon, a local-news outlet funded by a liberal group.

Mr. Prior leads a P.R. firm that markets its ability to get coverage in local-news outlets. He said in an email that he pitches stories to a variety of outlets, including Mr. Timpone’s network because it “actually covers local issues.” He did not respond to questions about whether he had paid for the coverage.

The Illinois Opportunity Project did not respond to requests for comment. Mr. Leal did not comment for this article.

Image
Credit…Matthew Gilson

Some of the most popular articles on Mr. Timpone’s sites get tens of thousands of shares on social media. That is a modest reach in the national conversation. But with the focus on small towns, less readership is needed to make an impact. In some of those towns, Mr. Timpone’s outlets also publish newspapers and deliver them, unsolicited, to doorsteps.

Ben Ashkar, the chief operating officer of Locality Labs, one of the companies connected to the sites, was the sole executive at the network who spoke on the record for this article. He said he didn’t think people could pay for coverage.

“I hope not,” he said. “How would I know? Honestly I don’t think people are paying.”

Mr. Timpone, who turns 48 this month, got his start in politics by covering it. In the 1990s, he was a news anchor and reporter at Illinois TV stations. Eventually he became the spokesman for the State House’s Republican minority leader.

A personable guy and persuasive salesman, according to people who know him, Mr. Timpone then became focused on replacing the old print guard as a digital-news mogul.

“Big metro papers are like the fly in your house that gets slow and you just catch it with your hand,” he said in a 2015 interview with Dan Proft, a conservative radio talk show host in Chicago.

About a decade ago, Mr. Timpone started Journatic, a service that aimed to automate and outsource reporters’ jobs, selling it to two of the nation’s largest chains, Hearst and Tribune Publishing. He used rudimentary software to turn public data into snippets of news. That content still fills most of his sites. And for the articles written by humans, he simply paid reporters less, even using workers in the Philippines who wrote under fake bylines.

When the radio show “This American Life” revealed his strategy in 2012, Mr. Timpone defended his approach as a way to save local news. “No one covers all these small towns,” he said. “I’m not saying we’re the solution, but we’re certainly on the road to the solution.”

Around 2015, he teamed up with Mr. Proft and started a chain of websites and free newspapers focused on suburban and rural areas of Illinois.

The publications looked like typical news outlets that covered their communities. But a political action committee controlled by Mr. Proft paid Mr. Timpone’s companies at least $646,000 from 2016 to 2018, according to state campaign finance records, money that largely came from Dick Uihlein, a conservative megadonor and the head of the shipping-supply giant Uline.

After complaints, the Illinois Board of Elections ordered the newspapers to say Mr. Proft’s committee funded them. A small disclaimer in their “About” pages now says the sites are funded, “in part, by advocacy groups who share our beliefs in limited government.” The Illinois sites are virtually the only ones in Mr. Timpone’s network with such a disclosure.

The regulators’ questions didn’t slow Mr. Timpone down. He doubled the size of the Illinois network to 34 sites, and by 2017 was expanding to other states. He also added dozens of sites with focuses beyond politics, including 11 that look like traditional legal-news publications but are funded by a U.S. Chamber of Commerce group.

Then, from June through October last year, the network ballooned further, from roughly 300 sites to nearly 1,300, according to a Times analysis of data collected by the Global Disinformation Index, an internet research group. (The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University tallied a similar number of sites in the network.)

Timpone network websites

Watch the number of sites in the network grow over time.

2020

By Ella Koeze·Websites that look like local news are placed on the map by county. Websites that look like state and intra-state regional news are placed by state. Dots are sized by the number of sites related to each county or state.·Data via Global Disinformation Index and Ben Decker. Sites were discovered using reverse lookups of Google Analytics and Google Adsense.

“It’s astounding to see how quickly the sites have popped up across the country in an attempt to fill the news void,” said Penelope Muse Abernathy, a University of North Carolina journalism professor who has calculated that about 2,100 newspapers have folded across the country since 2004, a 25 percent decline.

Some of the new sites have only the automated content, but they have quickly sprung to life when local news has arisen. That happened in August when protests erupted in Kenosha, Wis., after the police shot an unarmed Black man. One of the sites, Kenosha Reporter, published multiple articles about the criminal backgrounds of the man and protesters. One of those articles was shared 22,000 times on Facebook, reaching 2.6 million people, according to CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned data tool.

Mr. Timpone’s role in the network is supported by public and internal documents. In emails viewed by The Times, he assigned stories, and editors called him the network’s top executive.

He has also said publicly, and in a filing with the Federal Election Commission, that he runs some of the sites.

But the web of companies behind the network make it more difficult to track the money behind the sites, and even Mr. Timpone’s oversight of them. It is unclear whether that is intentional. Those companies include Metric Media, Locality Labs, Newsinator, Franklin Archer and Interactive Content Services. The exact ownership of the companies is also unclear.

Most of the network’s new sites say they are part of Metric Media. A Texas P.R. consultant named Bradley Cameron says in his online résumé that he is the general manager of Metric Media and is “currently retained by private investors to develop a national media enterprise.” Internal records show that the same editors run Metric Media’s news operations and Mr. Timpone’s other sites.

In August, two local newspapers, a combined 142 years old, in Mount Vernon, Ohio, and Lake Isabella, Calif, announced to their readers that they had been purchased by Metric Media LLC.

Tanner Salyers, a city councilman in Mount Vernon, population 17,000, said that when he emailed Metric Media to ask what its plans were for the town’s only newspaper, Mr. Timpone called back to say that he now owned the Mount Vernon News and that he would rebuild it. Yet since the change in ownership, Mr. Salyers said, the newspaper has cut much of its staff and reduced print circulation to two days a week from six.

“I’m the first person to admit that the Mount Vernon News was not Pulitzer material,” Mr. Salyers said. “But nevertheless, it was local and independent. You could go to the grocery store and bump into the writers.” Now, a reporter based in Atlanta has covered local happenings, he said, and not well. When a water line broke last week, forcing the town’s residents to boil their water, the Mount Vernon News didn’t mention it.

The Times spoke with 16 reporters who have worked for Mr. Timpone. Many said they overlooked their doubts about the job because the pay was steady and journalism gigs were scarce.

Pat Morris said she had begun writing for the network after being laid off from The Florham Park Eagle in northern New Jersey.

“I wanted to make a living,” she said. “I was tired of banging on doors.” She thought the sites were a “content mill” to sell ads, but she eventually figured out the mission. She quit in July.

Ms. Underwood, who wrote the Maine Business Daily article, said she, too, had felt duped once the political agenda had become clear.

“You say you’re never going to dance with the devil like that; you just judge people for doing it,” Ms. Underwood said. “And then you’re just in the exact same position.”

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Credit…Shane Lavalette for The New York Times

In the publishing tool used by reporters and editors at Mr. Timpone’s websites is a list of names with a peculiar title: “Story watchers.” These are Mr. Timpone’s clients.

The Times reviewed the history behind dozens of articles in the publishing tool, revealing more than 80 story watchers. Many have pitched stories with instructions on what reporters should write, whom they should talk to and what they should ask. Over 17 days in July, these clients ordered up around 200 articles, company records show.

Internal documents show how much influence the clients have. “The clients pay us to produce a certain amount of copy each day for their websites,” said one “tool kit” for new writers. “In some cases, the clients will provide their own copy.”

John Tillman, an activist who once led the Illinois Opportunity Project and whose other groups have paid Mr. Timpone’s companies hundreds of thousands of dollars, said in an email that some of the payments to Mr. Timpone were to underwrite his news operation. Mr. Timpone, he said, allows “community leaders and influencers” to “pitch (not ‘order’) story ideas.”

Mr. Ashkar, the Locality Labs executive, said the sites wrote more about Republicans because they, unlike Democrats, talked to the reporters. “It’s like covering a beat, right? You’re a journalist,” he said. “They make relationships with people, and then they’re trusted and then they write stories about them.”

He said he didn’t find the sites’ focus on certain politicians unusual.

“Go look at The New York Times. It’s all about Trump,” Mr. Ashkar said. “How’s that any different?”

Jeanne Ives, a Republican candidate for the U.S. House in Illinois, has had a direct financial relationship with the operation.

Ms. Ives has paid Mr. Timpone’s companies $55,000 over the past three years, according to state and federal records. During that time, the Illinois sites have published overwhelmingly positive coverage of her, including running some of her news releases verbatim.

Image

Credit…Rich Hein/Chicago Sun-Times, via Associated Press

In an interview, she said her payments were to create her website and monitor her Wikipedia page. One $14,342 payment included the note “Advertising-newspaper.” Ms. Ives initially could not explain why. She later called back to say Mr. Timpone had bought Facebook ads for her.

Asked if she was paying for positive coverage, she replied: “Oh, no, there’s none of that going on. I assure you. Oh, my gosh, no. Oh, no, not at all.”

Ms. Ives is listed as a “story watcher.” She said she did not know why.

In March, Monty Bennett, the hotel magnate, faced a crisis. The coronavirus had halted travel, and his company, Ashford, which oversees more than 100 hotels, was facing big losses. So he ordered up a news article.

“I want to push our government to go after China. Why should this murderous regime be let off the hook while we suffer,” said a story pitch attributed to Mr. Bennett on the publishing tool behind Mr. Timpone’s sites.

The pitch resulted in an article that repeated his claims on DC Business Daily, which appears to be a straightforward business and politics news outlet in Washington.

“A national hotel chain executive said he is fed up with the way the United States is dealing with China in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic,” the article began. There was no disclosure that Mr. Bennett had ordered it.

Mr. Bennett, a major donor to President Trump, also used the sites to lobby for a stimulus bill to help his company, according to documents. Mr. Bennett posted a link to one of the articles on Twitter.

Ashford received around $70 million in federal loans intended for small businesses, making the publicly traded company the single largest recipient of such loans — and Mr. Bennett the subject of national anger.

In response, P.R. professionals began ordering positive articles about him on Mr. Timpone’s sites, according to records in the publishing system. Eventually, Mr. Bennett returned the federal money.

But he was not done using Mr. Timpone’s sites. Now Mr. Bennett owed money to creditors. One pitch attributed to him in the publishing system instructed a reporter to call one of his creditors and ask, “Why did you say you were going to help, but then don’t help?”

Image

Credit…Milken Institute, via Youtube

A site called New York Business Daily ran the article, saying the creditor was squeezing the finances of a struggling Manhattan hotel.

What the article didn’t mention: Mr. Bennett owned the hotel and dictated the article.

His spokeswoman said in a statement that Mr. Bennett “has no relationship with the websites.” She added that he had spoken to numerous news outlets “to obtain economic aid for the hotel industry.”

After The Times presented evidence that he directly ordered articles, lawyers representing Mr. Timpone sent The Times a cease and desist letter, demanding that it not publish the information.

Ben Decker, Jacob Meschke and Jacob Silver contributed reporting. Data analysis was contributed by Kellen Browning, Mariel Wamsley, Emile Robert, Elaine Chen, Ellie Zhu and Lindsey Cook. Susan Beachy, Kitty Bennett and Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

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In Reversal, Twitter Is No Longer Blocking New York Post Article

SAN FRANCISCO — It is the 11th hour before the presidential election. But Facebook and Twitter are still changing their minds.

With just a few weeks to go before the Nov. 3 vote, the social media companies are continuing to shift their policies and, in some cases, are entirely reversing what they will and won’t allow on their sites. On Friday, Twitter underlined just how fluid its policies were when it began letting users share links to an unsubstantiated New York Post article about Hunter Biden that it had previously blocked from its service.

The change was a 180-degree turn from Wednesday, when Twitter had banned the links to the article because the emails on which it was based may have been hacked and contained private information, both of which violated its policies. (Many questions remain about how the New York Post obtained the emails.)

Late Thursday, under pressure from Republicans who said Twitter was censoring them, the company began backtracking by revising one of its policies. It completed its about-face on Friday by lifting the ban on the New York Post story altogether, as the article has spread widely across the internet.

Twitter’s flip-flop followed a spate of changes from Facebook, which over the past few weeks has said it would ban Holocaust denial content, ban more QAnon conspiracy pages and groups, ban anti-vaccination ads and suspend political advertising for an unspecified length of time after the election. All of those things had previously been allowed — until they weren’t.

The rapid-fire changes have made Twitter and Facebook the butt of jokes and invigorated efforts to regulate them. On Friday, Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, said he wanted to subpoena Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, to testify over the “censorship” of the New York Post article since the social network had also reduced the visibility of the piece. Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, said that Twitter was “against us.” And President Trump shared a satirical article on Twitter that mocked the company’s policies.

“Policies are a guide for action, but the platforms are not standing behind their policies,” said Joan Donovan, research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “They are merely reacting to public pressure and therefore will be susceptible to politician influence for some time to come.”

Keep up with Election 2020

A Twitter spokesman confirmed that the company would now allow the link to the New York Post article to be shared because the information had spread across the internet and could no longer be considered private. He declined further comment.

A Facebook spokesman, Andy Stone, said: “Meaningful events in the world have led us to change some of our policies, but not our principles.”

For nearly four years, the social media companies have had time to develop content policies to be ready for the 2020 election, especially after Russian operatives were found to have used the sites to sow discord in the 2016 election. But even with all the preparations, the volume of last-minute changes by Twitter and Facebook suggests that they still do not have a handle on the content flowing on their networks.

That raises questions, election experts said, about how Twitter and Facebook would deal with any interference on Election Day and in the days after. The race between Mr. Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joseph R. Biden Jr., has been unusually bitter, and the social media sites are set to play a significant role on Nov. 3 as distributors of information. Some people are already using the sites to call for election violence.

The chaotic environment could challenge the companies’ policies, said Graham Brookie, director of the Digital Forensic Research Lab, a center for the study of social media, disinformation and national security. “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face,” he said.

Other misinformation experts said Twitter and Facebook have had little choice but to make changes on the fly because of the often norm-breaking behavior of Mr. Trump, who uses social media as a megaphone.

Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and a former Facebook executive, noted that after Mr. Trump recently made comments to his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully,” some companies — like Facebook — created new policies that forbid a political candidate to use their platforms to call for that action. The companies also prohibited candidates from claiming an election victory early, he said.

“These potential abuses were always covered by very broad policies, but I think it’s smart to commit themselves to specific actions,” Mr. Stamos said.

So on Wednesday, Twitter blocked links to the article hours after it had been published. The company said sharing the article violated its policy that prohibits users from spreading hacked information. It also said the emails in the story contained private information, so sharing the piece would violate its privacy policies.

But after blocking the article, Twitter was blasted by Republicans for censorship. Many conservatives — including Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio and Ms. McEnany — reposted the piece to bait the company into taking down their tweets or locking their accounts.

Twitter soon said it could have done more to explain its decision. Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, said late Wednesday that the company had not provided enough context to users when they were prevented from posting the links.

His reaction set off a scramble at Twitter. By late Thursday, Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s top legal and policy official, said that the policy against sharing hacked materials would change and that the content would no longer be blocked unless it was clearly shared by the hackers or individuals working in concert with them. Instead, information gleaned from hacks would be marked with a warning label about its provenance, Ms. Gadde said.

The internal discussions continued. On Friday, Twitter users could freely post links to the New York Post article. The company had not added labels to tweets with the article as it said it would.

At Facebook, the recent policy changes have grabbed attention partly because the company said on Sept. 3 that it did not plan to make changes to its site until after the election. “To ensure there are clear and consistent rules, we are not planning to make further changes to our election-related policies between now and the official declaration of the result,” Mr. Zuckerberg wrote in a blog post at the time.

Yet just a few weeks later, the changes started coming rapidly. On Oct. 6, Facebook expanded its takedown of the QAnon conspiracy group. A day later, it said it would ban political advertising after the polls closed on Election Day, with the ban lasting an undetermined length of time.

Days later, Mr. Zuckerberg also said Facebook would no longer allow Holocaust deniers to post their views to the site. And less than 24 hours after that, the company said it would disallow advertising related to anti-vaccination theories.

Facebook’s Mr. Stone positioned the changes as a natural response to what it called “a historic election,” as well as the coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests.

“We remain committed to free expression while also recognizing the current environment requires clearer guardrails to minimize harm,” he said.

But there is one change Facebook hasn’t made. After reducing visibility of the New York Post article on its site on Wednesday and saying the article needed to be fact checked, the social network has continued to stick by that decision.

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Twitter Changes Course After Republicans Claim ‘Election Interference’

SAN FRANCISCO — President Trump called Facebook and Twitter “terrible” and “a monster” and said he would go after them. Senators Ted Cruz and Marsha Blackburn said they would subpoena the chief executives of the companies for their actions. And on Fox News, prominent conservative hosts blasted the social media platforms as “monopolies” and accused them of “censorship” and election interference.

On Thursday, simmering discontent among Republicans over the power that Facebook and Twitter wield over public discourse erupted into open acrimony. Republicans slammed the companies and baited them a day after the sites limited or blocked the distribution of an unsubstantiated New York Post article about Hunter Biden, the son of the Democratic presidential nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr.

For a while, Twitter doubled down. It locked the personal account of Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, late Wednesday after she posted the article, and on Thursday it briefly blocked a link to a House Judiciary Committee webpage. The Trump campaign said Twitter had also locked its official account after it tried promoting the article. Twitter then prohibited the spread of a different New York Post article about the Bidens.

But late Thursday, under pressure, Twitter said it was changing the policy that it had used to block the New York Post article and would now allow similar content to be shared, along with a label to provide context about the source of the information. Twitter said it was concerned that the earlier policy was leading to unintended consequences.

Even so, the actions brought the already frosty relationship between conservatives and the companies to a new low point, less than three weeks before the Nov. 3 presidential election, in which the social networks are expected to play a significant role. It offered a glimpse at how online conversations could go awry on Election Day. And Twitter’s bob-and-weave in particular underlined how the companies have little handle on how to consistently enforce what they will allow on their sites.

“There will be battles for control of the narrative again and again over coming weeks,” said Evelyn Douek, a lecturer at Harvard Law School who studies social media companies. “The way the platforms handled it is not a good harbinger of what’s to come.”

Facebook declined to comment on Thursday and pointed to its comments on Wednesday when it said the New York Post article, which made unverified claims about Hunter Biden’s business in Ukraine, was eligible for third-party fact-checking. Among the concerns was that the article cited purported emails from Hunter Biden that may have been obtained in a hack, though it is unclear how the paper obtained the messages and whether they were authentic.

Twitter had said it was blocking the New York Post article partly because it had a policy of not sharing what might be hacked material. But late Thursday, Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s head of legal, said the policy was too sweeping and could end up blocking content from journalists and whistle-blowers. As a result, she said, Twitter was changing course.

Ms. Gadde added that Twitter would continue blocking links to or images from the article if they contained email addresses and other private information, which violated the company’s privacy policy.

Mr. Trump said on Twitter on Wednesday that “it is only the beginning” for the social media companies. He followed up on Thursday by saying he wanted to “strip them” of some of their liability protections.

For years, Mr. Trump and other Republicans have accused Facebook and Twitter, which have headquarters in liberal Silicon Valley, of anti-conservative bias. In 2018, Mr. Trump said the companies, along with Google, “have to be careful” and claimed, without evidence, that they were intentionally suppressing conservative news outlets supportive of his administration.

That issue has since come up repeatedly at Capitol Hill hearings, including in July when the chief executives of Facebook and Google, Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai, testified on antitrust issues.

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Tensions have also been running high for Twitter and Facebook as they aim to avoid a replay of the 2016 election, when Russians used their sites to spread inflammatory messages to divide Americans. In recent weeks, the companies have said they will clamp down on misinformation before and after Election Day, such as by banning content related to the pro-Trump conspiracy theory QAnon and slowing down the way information flows on their networks.

But with Mr. Trump trailing Mr. Biden in the polls, the companies’ handling of the New York Post article has ruptured any truce they had managed to strike with conservatives.

Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, asked the Federal Election Commission in a letter on Wednesday to investigate whether the companies’ actions could be considered an in-kind contribution to Mr. Biden’s campaign.

“I think it really is a new frontier,” Mr. Hawley said in an interview. “It will also lead to a new openness on the Republican side to think about what we are going to do about their monopoly power.”

Mr. Cruz, of Texas, and Ms. Blackburn, of Tennessee, said on Thursday that they would subpoena Mr. Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, for a hearing on what they deemed “election interference.”

“I’m looking forward to asking Jack and Mark about silencing media that go against their political beliefs,” Ms. Blackburn said in a tweet.

Representative Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican and the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, sent Mr. Dorsey a letter excoriating Twitter for blocking the article and asking for a detailed summary of the process behind the decision.

Mr. Pichai, Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Dorsey have already agreed to testify before the Senate Commerce Committee on Oct. 28 about the federal law that shields their platforms from lawsuits. Conservatives have called for changes to the law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which makes it impossible to sue web platforms over much of the content posted by their users or how they choose to moderate it.

“Social media companies have a First Amendment right to free speech,” Mr. Pai said in a statement. “But they do not have a First Amendment right to a special immunity denied to other media outlets, such as newspapers and broadcasters.”

Mr. Trump was even more pointed, saying in a tweet on Thursday that the companies needed to be deprived of their Section 230 protections “immediately.”

Others applauded the aggressiveness of the social media companies.

“The actions taken by Facebook, Twitter and Google show that these platform companies are indeed willing to enforce their existing policies, in particular around ‘hack and leak’ material,” said Shannon McGregor, senior researcher with the Center for Information, Technology and Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Unlike previous criticism of Facebook and Twitter for acting too slowly in taking down content, the uproar this time has centered on how they may have acted too hastily. (The exception was Google’s YouTube, which said after about 36 hours that it would allow a New York Post video about the article to remain up without restrictions.)

The speed with which Facebook moved was uncharacteristic, fueled by how quickly the article took off online and the sensitivity of the material, according to two Facebook employees, who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Within three hours after The New York Post published its article on Wednesday, Facebook said it would reduce the distribution of the piece across the network so that it would appear less frequently in users’ individual News Feeds, one of the most highly viewed sections of the app.

The company billed it as part of its “standard process to reduce the spread of misinformation,” said Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman. That process included spotting some “signals” that a piece of content might be false, according to Facebook’s guidelines for content moderation. The company has not clarified what those signals were.

Twitter then went further by blocking people from linking to the article altogether. That meant the article could not circulate at all on Twitter, even in private messages between users.

The backlash was instant. Republicans immediately tested the limits of Twitter’s rules, with some tweeting screenshots of the article. Francis Brennan, the director of strategic response for the Trump campaign, posted the entire article in a string of 44 tweets. The article was also copied and published on the webpage of the House Judiciary Committee’s Republican minority.

Twitter scrambled to keep up. If tweets with the screenshots showed the emails, the company removed them. Mr. Brennan’s tweets were allowed to remain because they did not include the emails.

Late Wednesday, as the furor grew, Twitter tried to address it. “We know we have more work to do to provide clarity in our product when we enforce our rules in this manner,” a spokesman tweeted.

Twitter also said people whose accounts were locked could easily change that by simply deleting the offending tweet.

Also late Wednesday, Mr. Dorsey criticized his company’s communication about the decision, saying it was “unacceptable” to give “zero context” about the action.

Internally, Mr. Dorsey griped to employees that users weren’t given a sufficient explanation when prevented from sharing the New York Post article, a person with knowledge of the comments said.

Twitter’s hacked-material policy was written in 2018, with blocking links the main course of action. The company has since increasingly opted to label tweets, adding context or saying if they glorified violence.

But Twitter had not updated the hacked-material policy. So when the New York Post article appeared, and questions about the emails’ origin were raised, the only system it had was to block the content.

“We are no longer limited to tweet removal as an enforcement action,” Ms. Gadde said late Thursday.

Mike Isaac reported from San Francisco and Kate Conger from Oakland, Calif. Daisuke Wakabayashi contributed reporting from Oakland, David McCabe from Washington, and Tiffany Hsu from Hoboken, N.J.

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Facebook and Twitter Dodge a 2016 Repeat, and Ignite a 2020 Firestorm

Since 2016, when Russian hackers and WikiLeaks injected stolen emails from the Hillary Clinton campaign into the closing weeks of the presidential race, politicians and pundits have called on tech companies to do more to fight the threat of foreign interference.

On Wednesday, less than a month from another election, we saw what “doing more” looks like.

Early Wednesday morning, the New York Post published a splashy front-page article about supposedly incriminating photos and emails found on a laptop belonging to Hunter Biden, the son of Joseph R. Biden Jr. To many Democrats, the unsubstantiated article — which included a bizarre set of details involving a Delaware computer repair shop, the F.B.I. and Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer — smelled suspiciously like the result of a hack-and-leak operation.

To be clear, there is no evidence tying the Post’s report to a foreign disinformation campaign. Many questions remain about how the paper obtained the emails and whether they were authentic. Even so, the social media companies were taking no chances.

Within hours, Twitter banned all links to the Post’s article, and locked the accounts of people, including some journalists and the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, who tweeted it. The company said it made the move because the article contained images showing private personal information, and because it viewed the article as a violation of its rules against distributing hacked material.

On Thursday, the company partly backtracked, saying it would no longer remove hacked content unless it was shared directly by hackers or their accomplices.

Facebook took a less nuclear approach. It said that it would reduce the visibility of the article on its service until it could be fact-checked by a third party, a policy it has applied to other sensitive posts. (The move did not seem to damage the article’s prospects; by Wednesday night, stories about Hunter Biden’s emails were among the most-engaged posts on Facebook.)

Both decisions angered a chorus of Republicans, who called for Facebook and Twitter to be sued, stripped of their legal protections, or forced to account for their choices. Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, called in a tweet for Twitter and Facebook to be subpoenaed by Congress to testify about censorship, accusing them of trying to “hijack American democracy by censoring the news & controlling the expression of Americans.”

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A few caveats: There is still a lot we still don’t know about the Post article. We don’t know if the emails it describes are authentic, fake or some combination of both, or if the events they purport to describe actually happened. Mr. Biden’s campaign denied the central claims in the article, and a Biden campaign surrogate lashed out against the Post on Wednesday, calling the article “Russian disinformation.”

Even if the emails are authentic, we don’t know how they were obtained, or how they ended up in the possession of Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lawyer, who has been spearheading efforts to paint Mr. Biden and his family as corrupt. The owner of the Delaware computer shop who reportedly turned over the laptop to investigators gave several conflicting accounts to reporters about the laptop’s chain of custody on Wednesday.

Critics on all sides can quibble with the decisions these companies made, or how they communicated them. Even Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, said the company had mishandled the original explanation for the ban.

But the truth is less salacious than a Silicon Valley election-rigging attempt. Since 2016, lawmakers, researchers and journalists have pressured these companies to take more and faster action to prevent false or misleading information from spreading on their services. The companies have also created new policies governing the distribution of hacked material, in order to prevent a repeat of 2016’s debacle.

It’s true that banning links to a story published by a 200-year-old American newspaper — albeit one that is now a Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid — is a more dramatic step than cutting off WikiLeaks or some lesser-known misinformation purveyor. Still, it’s clear that what Facebook and Twitter were actually trying to prevent was not free expression, but a bad actor using their services as a conduit for a damaging cyberattack or misinformation.

These decisions get made quickly, in the heat of the moment, and it’s possible that more contemplation and debate would produce more satisfying choices. But time is a luxury these platforms don’t always have. In the past, they have been slow to label or remove dangerous misinformation about Covid-19, mail-in voting and more, and have only taken action after the bad posts have gone viral, defeating the purpose.

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Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

Since the companies made those decisions, Republican officials began using the actions as an example of Silicon Valley censorship run amok. On Wednesday, several prominent Republicans, including Mr. Trump, repeated their calls for Congress to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law that shields tech platforms from many lawsuits over user-generated content.

That leaves the companies in a precarious spot. They are criticized when they allow misinformation to spread. They are also criticized when they try to prevent it.

Perhaps the strangest idea to emerge in the past couple of days, though, is that these services are only now beginning to exert control over what we see. Representative Doug Collins, Republican of Georgia, made this point in a letter to Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, in which he derided the social network for using “its monopoly to control what news Americans have access to.”

The truth, of course, is that tech platforms have been controlling our information diets for years, whether we realized it or not. Their decisions were often buried in obscure “community standards” updates, or hidden in tweaks to the black-box algorithms that govern which posts users see. But make no mistake: These apps have never been neutral, hands-off conduits for news and information. Their leaders have always been editors masquerading as engineers.

What’s happening now is simply that, as these companies move to rid their platforms of bad behavior, their influence is being made more visible. Rather than letting their algorithms run amok (which is an editorial choice in itself), they’re making high-stakes decisions about flammable political misinformation in full public view, with human decision makers who can be debated and held accountable for their choices. That’s a positive step for transparency and accountability, even if it feels like censorship to those who are used to getting their way.

After years of inaction, Facebook and Twitter are finally starting to clean up their messes. And in the process, they’re enraging the powerful people who have thrived under the old system.

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How to Deal With a Crisis of Misinformation

There’s a disease that has been spreading for years now. Like any resilient virus, it evolves to find new ways to attack us. It’s not in our bodies, but on the web.

It has different names: misinformation, disinformation or distortions. Whatever the label, it can be harmful, especially now that it is being produced through the lens of several emotionally charged events: the coronavirus pandemic, a presidential election and protests against law enforcement.

The swarm of bad information circulating on the web has been intense enough to overwhelm Alan Duke, the editor of Lead Stories, a fact-checking website. For years, he said, false news mostly consisted of phony web articles that revolved around silly themes, like myths about putting onions in your socks to cure a cold. But misinformation has now crept into much darker, sinister corners and taken on forms like the internet meme, which is often a screenshot overlaid with sensational text or manipulated with doctored images.

He named a harmful example of memes: Those attacking Breonna Taylor, the Black medical worker in Louisville, Ky., who was killed by the police when they entered her home in March. Misinformation spreaders generated memes suggesting that Ms. Taylor shot at police officers first, which was not true.

“The meme is probably the most dangerous,” Mr. Duke said. “In seven or 20 words, somebody can say something that’s not true, and people will believe it and share it. It takes two minutes to create.”

It’s impossible to quantify how much bad information is out there now because the spread of it online has been relentless. Katy Byron, who leads a media literacy program at the Poynter Institute, a journalism nonprofit, and who works with a group of teenagers who regularly track false information, said it was on the rise. Before the pandemic, the group would present a few examples of misinformation every few days. Now each student is reporting multiple examples a day.

“With the pandemic, people are increasingly online doomscrolling and looking for information,” Ms. Byron said. “It’s getting harder and harder to find it and feel confident you’re consuming facts.”

The misinformation, she said, is also creeping into videos. With modern editing tools, it has become too easy for people with little technical know-how and minimal equipment to produce videos that appear to have high production value. Often, real video clips are stripped of context and spliced together to tell a different story.

The rise of false news is bad news for all of us. Misinformation can be a detriment to our well-being in a time when people are desperately seeking information such as health guidelines to share with their loved ones about the coronavirus. It can also stoke anger and cause us to commit violence. Also important: It could mislead us about voting in a pandemic that has turned our world upside down.

How do we adapt to avoid being manipulated and spreading false information to the people we care about? Past methods of spotting untruthful news, like checking articles for typos and phony web addresses that resemble those of trusted publications, are now less relevant. We have to employ more sophisticated methods of consuming information, like doing our own fact-checking and choosing reliable news sources.

Here’s what we can do.

Get used to this keyboard shortcut: Ctrl+T (or Command+T on a Mac). That creates a new browser tab in Chrome and Firefox. You’re going to be using it a lot. The reason: It enables you to ask questions and hopefully get some answers with a quick web search.

It’s all part of an exercise that Ms. Byron calls lateral reading. While reading an article, Step 1 is to open a browser tab. Step 2 is to ask yourself these questions:

  • Who is behind the information?

  • What is the evidence?

  • What do other sources say?

From there, with that new browser tab open, you could start answering those questions. You could do a web search on the author of the content when possible. You could do another search to see what other publications are saying about the same topic. If the claim isn’t being repeated elsewhere, it may be false.

You could also open another browser tab to look at the evidence. With a meme, for example, you could do a reverse image search on the photo that was used in the meme. On Google.com, click Images and upload the photo or paste the web address of the photo into the search bar. That will show where else the image has shown up on the web to verify whether the one you have seen has been manipulated.

With videos, it’s trickier. A browser plug-in called InVID can be installed on Firefox and Chrome. When watching a video, you can click on the tool, click on the Keyframes button and paste in a video link (a YouTube clip, for example) and click Submit. From there, the tool will pull up important frames of the video, and you can reverse image search on those frames to see if they are legitimate or fake.

Some of the tech steps above may not be for the faint of heart. But most important is the broader lesson: Take a moment to think.

“The No. 1 rule is to slow down, pause and ask yourself, ‘Am I sure enough about this that I should share it?’” said Peter Adams, a senior vice president of the News Literacy Project, a media education nonprofit. “If everybody did that, we’d see a dramatic reduction of misinformation online.”

While social media sites like Facebook and Twitter help us stay connected with the people we care about, there’s a downside: Even the people we trust may be unknowingly spreading false information, so we can be caught off guard. And with everything mashed together into a single social media feed, it gets tougher to distinguish good information from bad information, and fact from opinion.

What we can do is another exercise in mindfulness: Be deliberate about where you get your information, Mr. Adams said. Instead of relying solely on the information showing up in your social media feeds, choose a set of publications that you trust, like a newspaper, a magazine or a broadcast news program, and turn to those regularly.

Mainstream media is far from perfect, but it’s subjected to a standards process that is usually not seen in user-generated content, including memes.

“A lot of people fall into the trap of thinking no source of information is perfect,” Mr. Adams said. “That’s when people really start to feel lost and overwhelmed and open themselves up to sources they really should stay away from.”

The most frightening part about misinformation is when it transcends digital media and finds its way into the real world.

Mr. Duke of Lead Stories said he and his wife had recently witnessed protesters holding signs with the message “#SavetheChildren.” The signs alluded to a false rumor spread by supporters of the QAnon conspiracy about a child-trafficking network led by top Democrats and Hollywood elites. The pro-Trump conspiracy movement had effectively hijacked the child-trafficking issue, mixing facts with its own fictions to suit its narrative.

Conspiracy theories have fueled some QAnon believers to be arrested in cases of serious crimes, including a murder in New York and a conspiracy to kidnap a child.

“QAnon has gone from misinformation online to being out on the street corner,” he said. “That’s why I think it’s dangerous.”

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Riled Up: Misinformation Stokes Calls for Violence on Election Day

In a video posted to Facebook on Sept. 14, Dan Bongino, a popular right-wing commentator and radio host, declared that Democrats were planning a coup against President Trump on Election Day.

For just over 11 minutes, Mr. Bongino talked about how bipartisan election experts who had met in June to plan for what might happen after people vote were actually holding exercises for such a coup. To support his baseless claim, he twisted the group’s words to fit his meaning.

“I want to warn you that this stuff is intense,” Mr. Bongino said, speaking into the camera to his 3.6 million Facebook followers. “Really intense, and you need to be ready to digest it all.”

His video, which has been viewed 2.9 million times, provoked strong reactions. One commenter wrote that people should be prepared for when Democrats “cross the line” so they could “show them what true freedom is.” Another posted a meme of a Rottweiler about to pounce, with the caption, “Veterans be like … Say when Americans.”

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The coup falsehood was just one piece of misinformation that has gone viral in right-wing circles ahead of Election Day on Nov. 3. In another unsubstantiated rumor that is circulating on Facebook and Twitter, a secret network of elites was planning to destroy the ballots of those who voted for President Trump. And in yet another fabrication, supporters of Mr. Trump said that an elite cabal planned to block them from entering polling locations on Election Day.

All of the rumors appeared to be having the same effect: Of riling up Mr. Trump’s restive base, just as the president has publicly stoked the idea of election chaos. In comment after comment about the falsehoods, respondents said the only way to stop violence from the left was to respond in kind with force.

“Liberals and their propaganda,” one commenter wrote. “Bring that nonsense to country folks who literally sit in wait for days to pull a trigger.”

The misinformation, which has been amplified by right-wing media such as the Fox News host Mark Levin and outlets like Breitbart and The Daily Wire, adds contentiousness to an already powder-keg campaign season. Mr. Trump has repeatedly declined to say whether he would accept a peaceful transfer of power if he lost to his Democratic challenger, Joseph R. Biden Jr., and has urged his supporters “to go into the polls and watch very carefully.”

The falsehoods on social media are building support for the idea of disrupting the election. Election officials have said they fear voter harassment and intimidation on Election Day.

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“This is extremely concerning,” said Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University in Elon, N.C., who tracks extremists online. Combined with Mr. Trump’s comments, the false rumors are “giving violent vigilantes an excuse” that acting out in real life would be “in defense of democracy,” she said.

Tim Murtaugh, a Trump campaign spokesman, said Mr. Trump would “accept the results of an election that is free, fair and without fraud” and added that the question of violence was “better put to Democrats.”

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In a text message, Mr. Bongino said the idea of a Democratic coup was “not a rumor” and that he was busy “exposing LIBERAL violence.”

Distorted information about the election is also flowing in left-wing circles online, though to a lesser degree, according to a New York Times analysis. Such misinformation includes a viral falsehood that mailboxes were being blocked by unknown actors to effectively discourage people from voting.

Other popular leftist sites, like Liberal Blogger and The Other 98%, have also twisted facts to push a critical narrative about Republicans, according to PolitiFact, a fact-checking website. In one inflammatory claim last week, for instance, the left-wing Facebook page Occupy Democrats asserted that President Trump had directly inspired a plot by a right-wing group to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan.

Social media companies appear increasingly alarmed by how their platforms may be manipulated to stoke election chaos. Facebook and Twitter took steps last week to clamp down on false information before and after the vote. Facebook banned groups and posts related to the pro-Trump conspiracy movement QAnon and said it would suspend political advertising postelection. Twitter said it was changing some basic features to slow the way information flows on its network.

On Friday, Twitter executives urged people “to recognize our collective responsibility to the electorate to guarantee a safe, fair and legitimate democratic process this November.”

Trey Grayson, a Republican former secretary of state of Kentucky and a member of the Transition Integrity Project, said the idea that the group was preparing a left-wing coup was “crazy.” He said the group had explored many election scenarios, including a victory by Mr. Trump.

Michael Anton, a former national security adviser to President Trump, also published an essay on Sept. 4 in the conservative publication The American Mind, claiming, “Democrats are laying the groundwork for revolution right in front of our eyes.”

His article was the tipping point for the coup claim. It was posted more than 500 times on Facebook and reached 4.9 million people, according to CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned analytics tool. Right-wing news sites such as The Federalist and DJHJ Media ramped up coverage of the idea, as did Mr. Bongino.

Mr. Anton did not respond to a call for comment.

The lie also began metastasizing. In one version, right-wing commentators claimed, without proof, that Mr. Biden would not concede if he lost the election. They also said his supporters would riot.

“If a defeated Biden does not concede and his party’s rioters take to the streets in a coup attempt against President Trump, will the military be needed to stop them?” tweeted Mr. Levin, the Fox News host, on Sept. 18. His message was shared nearly 16,000 times.

After The Times contacted him, Mr. Levin published a note on Facebook saying his tweet had been a “sarcastic response to the Democrats.”

Bill Russo, a spokesman for the Biden campaign, said in a statement that Mr. Biden would accept how the people voted. “Donald Trump and Mike Pence are the ones who refuse to commit to a peaceful transfer of power,” he said.

On YouTube, dozens of videos pushing the false coup narrative have collectively gathered more than 1.2 million views since Sept. 7, according to a tally by The Times. One video was titled, “RED ALERT: Are the President’s Enemies Preparing a COUP?”

The risk of misinformation translating to real-world action is growing, said Mike Caulfield, a digital literacy expert at Washington State University Vancouver.

“What we’ve seen over the past four years is an increasing capability” from believers to turn these conspiracy narratives “into direct physical actions,” he said.

Ben Decker contributed research.

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Twitter Will Turn Off Some Features to Fight Election Misinformation

OAKLAND, Calif. — Twitter, risking the ire of its best-known user, President Trump, said on Friday that it would turn off several of its routine features in an attempt to control the spread of misinformation in the final weeks before the presidential election.

The first notable change, Twitter said, will essentially give users a timeout before they can hit the button to retweet a post from another account. A prompt will nudge them to add their own comment or context before sharing the original post.

Twitter will also disable the system that suggests posts on the basis of someone’s interests and the activity of accounts they follow. In their timelines, users will see only content from accounts they follow and ads.

And if users try to share content that Twitter has flagged as false, a notice will warn them that they are about to share inaccurate information.

Most of changes will happen on Oct. 20 and will be temporary, Twitter said. Labels warning users against sharing false information will begin to appear next week. The company plans to wait until the result of the presidential election is clear before turning the features back on.

“Twitter has a critical role to play in protecting the integrity of the election conversation, and we encourage candidates, campaigns, news outlets and voters to use Twitter respectfully and to recognize our collective responsibility to the electorate to guarantee a safe, fair and legitimate democratic process this November,” the Twitter executives Vijaya Gadde and Kayvon Beykpour said in a statement.

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Credit…Twitter

They said the “extra friction” on retweets was designed to “encourage everyone to not only consider why they are amplifying a tweet, but also increase the likelihood that people add their own thoughts, reactions and perspectives to the conversation.”

If users decide they don’t have anything to add, they will be able to retweet after the prompt.

The change is likely to have a direct impact on Mr. Trump’s online activity. Since returning to the White House on Monday after a hospital stay to treat the coronavirus, he has been on a Twitter tear. On Tuesday evening, for example, he tweeted or retweeted posts from other accounts about 40 times.

Twitter stopped short of shutting down its Trending Topics feature, a change that many critics say would do the most to fight misinformation because people can game the feature to promote false or misleading information. Instead, Twitter will expand its effort to fact-check and provide context to items that trend in the United States.

Social media companies have moved in recent months to fight the spread of misinformation around the presidential election. Facebook and Google have committed to banning political ads for an undetermined period after polls close on Nov. 3. Facebook also said a banner at the top of its news feed would caution users that no winner had been declared until news outlets called the presidential race.

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People who go to retweet will be brought to the quote tweet composer where they’ll be encouraged to comment before sending their tweet.

The companies are trying to avoid a repeat of the 2016 election, when Russian operatives used them to spread falsehoods and hyperpartisan content in an attempt to destabilize the American electorate.

Over the last year, Twitter has slowly been stripping away parts of its service that have been used to spread false and misleading information. Jack Dorsey, the chief executive, announced last year that the company would no longer allow political advertising. Twitter has more aggressively fact-checked misinformation on the service — including misleading tweets from Mr. Trump.

That has led to a backlash from the Trump administration. Mr. Trump, who has 87 million followers on Twitter, has called for a repeal of legal protections Twitter and other social media companies rely on.

But Twitter’s fact-checking has continued. It recently began adding context to its trending topics, giving viewers more information about why a topic has become a subject of widespread conversation on Twitter. This month, Twitter plans to add context to all trending topics presented on the For You page for users in the United States.

“This will help people more quickly gain an informed understanding of the high-volume public conversation in the U.S. and also help reduce the potential for misleading information to spread,” Ms. Gadde and Mr. Beykpour said.

Twitter’s trends illustrate which topics are most popular on the service by highlighting content that is widely discussed. The trends often serve as an on-ramp for new users who are discovering how to find information on Twitter, but internet trolls and bots have often exploited the system to spread false, hateful or misleading information.

As recently as July, trending topics have been hijacked by white nationalists who pushed the anti-Semitic hashtag #JewishPrivilege and by QAnon, a conspiracy group that made the furniture company Wayfair trend on Twitter with false claims that the company engaged in child trafficking. The embarrassing episodes led critics to call on Twitter to shut down trends altogether.