Russia revelations spark demands for new media regulations - Axios
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Russia revelations spark demands for new media regulations

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

New revelations show hyperawareness of Russian actors, some potentially backed by the Russian government, using mass media to influence American public thought and in some cases imperil the American democratic system.

  • The FBI is investigating whether the Russian government-funded news agency, Sputnik, has been operating as an undisclosed propaganda arm for the Kremlin, which would be in violation of the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), per Yahoo News.
  • A new report from The Daily Beast finds that Russian operatives (using false identities) used Facebook's events tool to organize and promote political protests in the U.S. A Facebook spokesperson confirmed to the Daily Beast that it "shut down several promoted events as part of the takedown we described last week."
  • Both revelations come just days after Facebook told authorities investigating Russia's influence on the 2016 election about thousands of ads that were likely linked to Russia.

Why it matters: These new disclosures from the government probes raise the question: What else happened, or is happening, that we haven't yet uncovered?

To answer that question, lawmakers and watchdogs are calling for changes in media regulation to be able to better survey potential media manipulations of our democracy.

  • In a scrum with reporters last week, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner argued that digital ads need to become more transparent. "If the law needs to be changed to meet 2017, 2016, 21st century standards, let's have at it," Axios' David McCabe reports.
  • The Intercept is calling for Mark Zuckerberg to testify before Congress. Sen. Warner told McCabe he hopes to bring "Facebook, Twitter, and social media firms" in for a public hearing.
  • Lawmakers continue to press the Justice Department to strengthen current FARA laws, especially in light of investigations between collusion between Trump associates and Russian actors.

What's new: Plenty of industry groups and companies have been calling for improved digital media regulation for years, but these findings are finally pushing lawmakers to take a closer look at how we regulate digital media, specifically digital political ads.

Where it gets tricky: Digital regulation of political advertising is pretty far behind TV, radio and print generally. While the FCC requires broadcasters, cable and satellite operators to publicly disclose political ad spending with filings and disclaimers, no such requirement exists for digital ad platforms such as Google or Facebook, which are attracting an increasing amount of political dollars. Advertisers on those platforms are responsible for reporting their own expenditures to the FEC.

Five years ago, Facebook asked the Federal Election Commission for clarification about the rules requiring the disclaimers. The FEC couldn't come to a majority decision, and so Facebook ads today still don't require disclaimers. Even if they did, they would be nearly impossible to regulate given Facebook's scale.

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Some Republicans want to combine tax reform and health care

Sen. Lindsey Graham isn't ready to give up on health care. Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

Graham-Cassidy is almost certainly dead, but some Republicans want to press on with health care — along with tax reform — through the 2018 budget, and momentum for the idea seems to be building. That way, Sept. 30 wouldn’t be their final deadline after all. "There's a pretty vocal do both tax reform and healthcare with FY18 reconciliation camp," one senior GOP Senate aide told me.

Why this matters: Some Senate Republicans don't want to give up on health care, but others worry combining the two difficult topics will sink the tax reform effort. "We don't have the political capital," said the aide, who is in the latter camp. But as we've seen over the last 10 days, it becomes politically difficult for the GOP to ignore a glimmer of hope when it comes to repealing the Affordable Care Act.

Who’s on board: Sens. Ron Johnson, Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul — so far.

Be smart: Writing budget resolutions and reconciliation instructions is complicated, but here's all you need to know: It would be possible to do both tax reform and health care through the same budget vehicle. So the argument isn't about whether this is possible — it's about whether the GOP should do it.

Johnson and Graham might be able to force the party's hand. "If we're not able to pass this this week, both Lindsey Graham and I have said — we're both on the Budget Committee — we'll insist on a budget resolution that'll give us the tools of reconciliation for health care and for tax reform," Johnson told reporters Monday.

  • Paul told reporters on Monday that "there's no reason you couldn't do health care and taxes at the same time."
  • Like health care, passing a budget — and then tax reform later — will only require 50 votes. However, that means Republicans can only lose two votes on a partisan bill to still pass it, with Vice President Mike Pence's tie-breaking vote.
  • "This will be the next problem [because] they won't have 51 votes for the budget," a GOP lobbyist said, adding that as far as tax reform goes, "I think this whole thing is going to get derailed by health care."
Yes, but: There are a lot of Republicans who are sick of dealing with health care. And very importantly, House GOP tax leaders have been clear that they do not want to mix health care with tax reform.
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Puerto Rico in crisis

A man looks at the horizon early in the morning after the passing of Hurricane Maria, in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico. Photo: Carlos Giusti / AP

Puerto Rico remains without power and short on supplies after being slammed by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Officials are having difficulty even communicating with outlying towns that were devastated by the storm, and the humanitarian crisis is growing.

After focusing for days, at least publicly, on NFL protests and other matters, President Trump tweeted about the crisis in Puerto Rico on Monday night — and seemed to blame Puerto Rico in part for its own misfortune.

Trump's tweets: "Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble....It's old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated. Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars....owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with. Food, water and medical are top priorities - and doing well. #FEMA"

What Puerto Rican officials have said

From Governor Ricardo Rosselló: "We are U.S. citizens that just a few weeks ago went to the aid of other U.S. citizens even as we're going through our fiscal downturn and as we were hit by another storm…Now, we've been essentially devastated. Complete destruction of the power infrastructure, severe destruction of the housing infrastructure, food and water are needed. My petition is that we were there once for our brothers and sisters, our other U.S. citizens, now it's time that U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico are taken care of adequately, properly."

From Manati mayor Jose Sanchez Gonzalez: "Hysteria is starting to spread. The hospital is about to collapse. It's at capacity," he said, crying. "We need someone to help us immediately."

The scale of the crisis

  • Government officials said Sunday a dam on the Western part of the island "will collapse at any time." Eastern areas, which were hit by the eye of the storm, could take years to recover.
  • Officials estimate it could take up to 6 months to restore power to the whole island.
  • Federal agencies have cleared the Port of San Juan for daytime operations, but accessing Puerto Rico is pretty difficult right now — airports and harbors are severely damaged and the whole island remains out of power. 11 ships have delivered 1.6 million gallons of water, 23,000 cots, dozens of generators and food, per the AP. Many hospital patients are being flown to the U.S. mainland for treatment.
  • The death toll is at least 10 in Puerto Rico, and 31 if you include other Caribbean islands, per the AP.
  • 1,360 of the island's 1,600 cell towers are down. 85% of phone and internet cables were knocked out.

Personal experiences

  • When locals see outsiders, the first thing they ask is "Are you FEMA?" per The Washington Post.
  • "Nothing's working, we don't hear from anyone…We feel abandoned," Toa Baja resident Johanna Ortega told USAToday.
  • Food at local grocery stores is "VERY LIMITED," San Juan resident Claudia Batista messaged Axios. Batista described the situation in San Juan as "desperate times," saying because of "all the material loss, people are losing control and patience and are stealing in other homes and assaulting people on the streets."
  • Some local responders in Juncos cleared streets with machetes since the town doesn't have enough chain saws. People are riding bikes and walking for miles to get to gas stations

What FEMA is doing

  • FEMA teams were in Puerto Rico earlier this month following Hurricane Irma, and as soon as Hurricane Maria's winds died down they launched search-and-rescue missions, per USAToday.
  • All of the 28 task force teams around the U.S. have been recruited to help, which is rare, per Karl Lee, a FEMA Incident Support Team member.
  • FEMA responders are using a San Juan hotel as a command center.
  • 4,000 U.S. Army Reserve members have also been deployed to the island. The Army Corps of Engineers dispatched the 249th Engineer Battalion, per CNN.

What Trump has said

Trump declared a major disaster in Puerto Rico and said all of the U.S. government is behind the relief efforts. White House adviser Tom Bossert and FEMA's chief are heading to Puerto Rico Monday, although a trip from Trump isn't expected for a while, per CNN.

  • Rosselló thanked Trump on Monday for having federal emergency assistance provided, per the AP, noting FEMA has done a "phenomenal job."

Trump's most recent tweets about Puerto Rico, from last week:

Take a look

How to help

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Trump goes after McCain over health care vote

President Trump tweeted at Senator John McCain, who is currently in treatment for brain cancer, over his decision to oppose the latest Republican health care plan:

The back-and-forth: McCain was more subtle in critiquing Trump during a 60 Minutes interview Sunday. He said the two had very different upbringings, after noting that Trump had not apologized for saying he was not a war hero.

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Entire Cowboys team takes a knee

Photo: Matt York / AP

Prior to the national anthem at their Monday Night Football matchup with the Arizona Cardinals, the entire Dallas Cowboys team, including owner Jerry Jones, took a knee. They then stood for the anthem.

Go deeper: How NFL teams have reacted to Trump's comments.

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Report: Bannon, Priebus, Ivanka used private email in White House

From L-R, Stephen Miller, Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon. Photo: Carolyn Kaster / AP

Several current and former senior Trump administration officials occasionally used private email to conduct government business, the NY Times reports. The officials named: Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, Ivanka Trump, Gary Cohn, Stephen Miller and Jared Kushner (Politico had previously reported Kushner sent or received about 100 emails about White House matters using his private address).

Why it matters: Trump railed against Hillary Clinton incessantly during the campaign for her use of private email as Secretary of State. Government officials are supposed to use their government accounts so their communications will be stored, and failing to do so can cause security risks.
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Trump denies split with Kelly over NFL comments

Trump lashed out at CNN for reporting that John Kelly opposed his NFL remarks. Photo: Evan Vucci / AP

President Trump lashed out at CNN on Twitter Monday evening, calling them "Fake News" for reporting that John Kelly was opposed to his comments at Friday's rally calling for NFL players who protest during the national anthem to be "fired." CNN reported that Kelly "was not pleased" with Trump's remarks, later updating the story to reflect Kelly's conversation with CNN reporter Jeff Zeleny, during which Kelly said he was "appalled" by the lack of respect for the flag.

"I believe every American, when the national anthem is played, should cover their hearts and think about all the men and women who have been maimed and killed," Kelly told Zeleny. "Every American should stand up and think for three lousy minutes." However, Zeleny noted that Kelly declined to say whether he felt Trump should have weighed in.

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Russian Facebook ads aimed to spark divisions over Black Lives Matter

Russian hackers used Facebook ads to pit different social, racial and political groups against one another. Photo: Joerg Koch / AP

Last week, Facebook said it was planning to turn more than 3,000 ads bought by Russian operatives during the 2016 campaign over to congressional investigators. On Monday, the Washington Post reported on details of some of the ads, which pitted different social groups against one another. For example, some of the Russian ads promoted groups like Black Lives Matter, while others warned that those groups pose a dangerous threat to society.

Between the lines: Russian hackers, who worked off of evolving lists of racial, religious, political and economic themes, were able to take advantage of the ability to send targeted messages to different Facebook users based on their political and demographic affiliations. The aim appears to have been to inflate tension between already feuding groups.

Facebook declined to comment, but referred Axios to its earlier update, which noted that "the ads and accounts appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum."

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Collins will oppose Senate health care bill

Sen. Susan Collins said she opposes the Senate's health care plan. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

Sen. Susan Collins officially said she will oppose the Senate's latest bill to repeal parts of the Affordable Care Act — yet another nail in the coffin for a bill that's moving further away from the 50 votes it would need to pass.

Why it matters: It would only take three "no" votes to kill the bill. And Collins' opposition makes it a total of four Republicans who say they won't vote for the bill — two moderates (Collins and Sen. John McCain) and two conservatives (Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz).

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Report: 'Iranian missile test' Trump tweeted about never happened

Missiles are on display in Tehran on Sunday during the country's annual Defense Week. Photo: Vahid Salemi / AP

On Friday, Iran claimed to have tested a new medium-range ballistic missile capable of striking Israel with multiple warheads — but, according to Fox News, that missile launch never actually took place. Video footage purporting to show the launch was actually from a failed test back in January.

Why it matters: The world is waiting to hear President Trump's decision — he claimed to have made up his mind last week — on whether or not to stay in the Iran nuclear deal. It's significant that Trump used the "launch" to again decry the deal, tweeting on Saturday: "Not much of an agreement we have!"

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Irma captured America's attention more than other storms

It's been a busy hurricane season, with three powerful hurricanes hitting and one just missing U.S. territories. Here's when and how often Americans' searched Google each of them.

Data: Google Trends; Chart: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

Why it matters: Irma received the most attention, according to Google, likely due to reports it'd be the most powerful hurricane ever to hit the U.S. Meanwhile, Puerto Rico has been devastated by Hurricane Maria, but interest from the U.S. is substantially less than during both Harvey and Irma.

Note: This search data does not include Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans were highly interested in both Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria, with the least interest in Harvey.