Dec 18, 2018

Axios AM

Good Tuesday morning.

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1 big thing: The social media disease spreads

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The Russian propaganda campaign to disrupt our elections and divide Americans went far beyond Google and Facebook, infiltrating and infecting everything from Pinterest to PayPal, Axios' Sara Fischer writes.

  • New reports out yesterday about Russia’s online disinformation efforts suggest that all of the major social media platforms, from the empires of Facebook and Google to Reddit and Tumblr, were weaponized over the past two years. Facebook-owned Instagram was particularly "underestimated."

Every nook and cranny:

  • The rise of Instagram: A report from the nonprofit think tank New Knowledge found that in 2017, the Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA) moved the bulk of its misinformation efforts to less-policed platforms, primarily Instagram, after more surveillance practices took hold on Facebook and Twitter.
  • Offline manipulation: It also suggests that the Russians used other platforms, like fake websites and PayPal accounts, to manipulate users to participate in hyper-political behavior offline, like protests or marches.
  • Luring "assets": The report details how the IRA tried to lure people into doing tasks for them, like soliciting videos or legal requests, by using information against people with personal struggles around things like their sexuality.
  • Selling merchandise: They also set up accounts to promote socially-divisive merchandise, like "LGBT-positive sex toys" on Instagram and Facebook.

Between the lines: Some of the most eye-opening findings from the new reports are the ones that show how Russians exploited existing divisions around key moments or movements in the U.S. without being fully noticed at the time.

  • Political events: A study from Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project and network analysis firm Graphika shows that Russians targeted Americans at key political moments like political conventions.
  • Disenfranchised voters: The Oxford study also points out that the IRA tried to campaign for African-American voters to boycott elections or follow the wrong voting procedures in 2016.
  • Racial tensions: The New Knowledge report shows that the IRA focused much of its attention on sowing discord amongst black audiences, particularly around the height of Black Lives Matter movement in 2016 and the NFL national anthem controversy in 2017.

The big picture: The studies, commissioned by the Senate, follow other reports about ways repressive regimes, in places like Iran and Myanmar, also use social media to exploit existing divisions within vulnerable populations.

  • Political referendums, in particular, tend to be a hot target. Reports over the past year also suggest that Russian actors sought to rile up citizens around referendums in places like Spain, Britain and Macedonia.

Go deeper.

2. Information World War
Facebook and Instagram ads linked to Russia (Jon Elswick/AP)

"[T]he 2016 election was the Pearl Harbor of the social media age: a singular act of aggression that ushered in an era of extended conflict," N.Y. Times tech columnist Kevin Roose writes:

  • "In an essay last month, Renee DiResta — one of the researchers involved in analyzing the social media data for the Senate committee — used the term 'Information World War' to describe the battles being waged by nations and ideological factions on social media platforms."

"And Russia is just the beginning. Other countries, including Iran and China, have already demonstrated advanced capabilities for cyberwarfare, including influence operations waged over social media platforms."

3. Trump may give Mueller more written answers
MSNBC's "Morning Joe"

President Trump's lawyers are negotiating with Robert Mueller's team over whether to provide additional written answers, Rudy Giuliani tells me.

  • Giuliani said that when Trump lawyers were determining the rules for the first round of written answers that were submitted last month, the prosecutors said: "Suppose we have a few things we want to go over [after receiving the submission]?"
  • So the former New York mayor said that there's an agreement that after reviewing the answers, Mueller's team could "come back and show us what you need."
  • "We might agree," Giuliani said, and then might provide "a few more answers. ... Or we might not."

Giuliani said that's the phase the conversation is in now: "They have the right to submit more questions to us. We have the right to say yes or no."

  • "It's not particularly contentious," Giuliani said. "Other things are contentious."
  • Asked to elaborate, Giuliani said: "I'm very upset with the way they treated [Michael] Flynn" during his FBI interview.
  • "That’s a trap. That’s not a search for the truth. If I’m questioning you and want to know the truth, you make a mistake, I correct you."

Giuliani said that during the campaign, he spent 12 to 18 hours a day with Trump for four to five months: "There's no way he was doing anything with Russians."

  • When Trump delivered his original set of answers just before Thanksgiving, Giuliani told Axios that the Mueller questionnaire "looked like a law school exam ... one big long group of questions, that were multi-part questions."
  • In Sunday interviews, Giuliani seemed to rule out an in-person interview with Mueller. "Over my dead body," Giuliani told Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday." "But, you know, I could be dead."
Bonus: Pic du jour
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

A surfer rides a wave at Mavericks in Half Moon Bay, just outside San Francisco.

  • A giant swell brought waves of up to 50 feet high to Northern California.
4. Four Dem probes
From left, Reps. Jerrold Nadler, Adam Schiff and Elijah Cummings. (Bobby Doherty for The New York Times)

In the forthcoming New York Times Magazine, Jason Zengerle tells how Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), incoming chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, will have investigations ready to roll by Jan. 3:

  • "One letter will have been jointly addressed to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, demanding the age, gender, country of origin and current location of every child who was separated from his or her parents under the Trump administration’s immigration policy."
  • "Another will have gone to Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, asking for the identities of any senior White House officials who have used — as Hillary Clinton once did — nongovernment email accounts to conduct official business."
  • "The White House chief of staff will have received a letter, also addressed to the heads of multiple federal agencies, requesting information and documents about the use of government-owned aircraft for personal travel and private aircraft for official travel."
  • "[T]he Trump Organization will have received one asking for a complete accounting of all the payments it has received from foreign governments or foreign-government-owned entities since Donald Trump’s election."

Worthy of your time.

5. Criminal justice bill passes first test vote in Senate
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

"With long-sought criminal justice bill expected to become law, [Jared] Kushner gets bipartisan credit for his role," the L.A. Times' Jennifer Haberkorn and Noah Bierman write on the front page:

  • "Kushner has been instrumental in helping his father-in-law secure a rare bipartisan victory: a long-sought overhaul of the criminal justice system."
  • "Both Republicans and Democrats who’ve worked on the bill in Congress credit Kushner as a key architect."
  • "He helped convince the two most powerful Republicans in Washington — his father-in-law and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, both of whom embrace the traditionally Republican tough-on-crime stance — to make the criminal justice system less punitive."
6. Amazon stares down grassroots uprising

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Amazon is caught in a surprise grassroots battle with local critics who are furious that it's been promised billions of taxpayer dollars to put jobs in New York, Arlington and Nashville, the winners of its search for a second headquarters, Axios' David McCabe and Erica Pandey write.

  • Why it matters: Amazon won the top-down battle, with support from governors, mayors and economic development organizations. But it’s now confronting bottom-up outrage from activists and local lawmakers who were cut out of the bidding process.
  • The big picture: Jeff Bezos’ empire is no stranger to fights, having taken out retail rivals with brute force and neutralized Washington, D.C., threats with grand gestures like backing a $15 minimum wage for its employees. Still, it has struggled to head off these local fights — all while Google and Apple plan major expansions in crowded cities without the backlash.

How Amazon's HQ2 choices are playing out around the country:

  • In New York, members of the city council took turns brutalizing Amazon executives over the tax incentives that are part of the deal for the company to set up shop in Queens.
  • Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s criticism of the company has been echoed by progressive activist organizations emboldened by her election win.

Amazon has responded to the criticisms by hiring more lobbying firepower in communities where it could face backlash.

  • An Amazon spokesperson said the company is “excited to work with New Yorkers over the coming months and years to bring a new Amazon headquarters to Long Island City and help support the community."
7. Trust in media makes small recovery
Expand chart
Reproduced from a Gallup report; Chart: Axios Visuals

New studies suggest that efforts to bring transparency to media — including attempts by journalists to publicly defend their work, media literacy campaigns, more transparent funding and improved fact-checking partnerships — have helped the media recover a bit of trust with the public after hitting an all-time low in 2016, Axios' Sara Fischer writes.

  • The big picture: Transparency works. Even in areas where journalists and media companies never thought they needed to be so explicit, an effort to more clearly explain how their companies operate is helping.
8. Advice to Fed

Stanley F. Druckenmiller, chairman and CEO of Duquesne Family Office, and Kevin Warsh, a former member of the Federal Reserve Board who is now a distinguished visiting fellow in economics at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, write in The Wall Street Journal that the Fed is poised to make a policy mistake: The governors should not raise rates tomorrow.

We believe the U.S. economy can sustain strong performance next year, but it can ill afford a major policy error, either from the Fed or the rest of the administration. Given recent economic and market developments, the Fed should cease — for now — its double-barreled blitz of higher interest rates and tighter liquidity.

The backdrop, from Bloomberg: "[W]ere policy makers to follow through with their widely expected hike Wednesday, it would be the first time since 1994 they tightened in this brutal a market."

9. Keillor tries comeback

Garrison Keillor, 76, is stepping back into the spotlight a year after Minnesota Public Radio cut ties with the former "A Prairie Home Companion" host over a sexual misconduct allegation, AP's Jeff Baenen reports from Fridley, Minn.

  • "Keillor looked comfortable on the small stage as he sang Christmas lullabies, told off-color limericks and spun a tale about a lutefisk dinner at the fictitious Lake Wobegon."

"Fans laughed ... and sang along throughout Sunday night’s two-hour show — the second of back-to-back, sold-out Keillor performances at Crooners, a jazz nightclub in a northern Minneapolis suburb not far from where Keillor grew up."

  • "Starting off with his familiar opener 'Tishomingo Blues,' Keillor offered up a warm, nostalgic take on his former public radio show, ... minus his hard-boiled Guy Noir, Private Eye and Lives of the Cowboys skits."

"For Keillor, it’s a much smaller audience than the millions of radio listeners he entertained on Saturday evenings during the heyday of 'Prairie Home.'"

10. 1 pup thing

"Two of a kind: China's first pet cloning service duplicates star pooch," Reuters' Joseph Campbell writes from Beijing:

  • "A mongrel stray adopted off the streets, the nine year-old Juice — or 'Guozhi' in Mandarin — is unable to reproduce since he was neutered."
  • "But his master, animal trainer He Jun, wants to continue his star pooch’s image ... 'Juice himself is a piece of intellectual property with social influence.'"
  • "He went to Sinogene, China’s first biotech company to provide pet cloning services."
  • The tab: at least $55,065.