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FEC Commissioner Rips Facebook Over Political Ad Policy



Facebook says it will continue to allow political ads to be targeted to only small groups of its users. Here, Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is seen visiting Congress for a hearing last October.


Erin Scott/Reuters

Facebook says it will continue to allow political ads that target the social media platform’s users, sticking to its position despite concerns about the potential impact on the upcoming presidential election. Federal Election Commissioner Ellen Weintraub sharply criticized the policy, saying Facebook’s “weak plan suggests the company has no idea how seriously it is hurting democracy.”

Facebook’s policy falls short of measures recently taken by other tech giants. Google says it will limit the ability of political ads to target an audience, and Twitter has banned political ads entirely.

Taking aim at Facebook’s policy in a series of tweets Thursday morning, Weintraub, a Democrat, said, “I am not willing to bet the 2020 elections on the proposition that Facebook has solved its problems with a solution whose chief feature appears to be that it doesn’t seriously impact the company’s profit margins.”

Facebook also says it’s not changing how it handles the content of ads. While the company says its community standards bar hate speech and harmful content, the policy announced Thursday does not address calls from those who want the company to fact-check ads before it publishes them. (Note: Facebook is among NPR’s financial supporters.)

In announcing the policy Thursday, Facebook’s director of product management, Rob Leathern, wrote that “people should be able to hear from those who wish to lead them, warts and all, and that what they say should be scrutinized and debated in public.”

Facebook says it shouldn’t be in the business of fact-checking, that the U.S. needs new laws to govern political speech on social media — and to a degree, the American Civil Liberties Union agrees.

“This will not be a popular view. But on the whole, we think that Facebook got this right,” says Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.

Describing the gray area that political ads often occupy, Wizner added, “I don’t think Facebook is capable of doing effective fact-checking, and I don’t think as a society we should want Facebook to be the entity that’s making those kinds of distinctions.”

Part of the issue, he says, is the massive scale of political ads — not only at the federal, state and local levels in the U.S., but also in every country in which Facebook operates. Wizner predicts that if Facebook took up fact-checking in earnest, it would be inundated with demands from candidates and political campaigns that want the other side’s ads taken down, rather than responding to them in public.

A different take comes from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the online civil rights group, which accused Facebook of exempting politicians from the rules it applies to everyone else.

In a statement sent to NPR, Gennie Gebhart, the EFF’s associate director of research, said, “Facebook readily and pervasively plays the role of speech referee for the general public, but, concerned about playing politics, applies a more permissive set of rules to powerful political groups complaining about bias.”

Despite backing part of Facebook’s revised policy, the ACLU’s Wizner agrees with critics who say the company should change how it handles targeted political advertising.

“There is something different about online microtargeted advertisements and the kind of political advertisements that we’ve mainly seen in the past, on radio and television,” he says. With targeted ad campaigns, he adds, “it’s possible for candidates to send one advertisement to me and a different one to my neighbor across the street. And so that makes it easier for lies to go uncorrected.”

Among the changes Wizner would like to see: more information from Facebook about which users have been targeted with political ads, so misleading information can be rebutted.

“If a candidate is going to run an ad that goes only to men in one neighborhood, or only to women in another, then we should know who the target audience was,” he says. “So that if the ad contains falsehoods, we know how to better target our responses and corrections. And Facebook should consider raising the minimum number of targeted audience members for ads — so that we’re dealing with a more common political conversation, and not a different one for each household.”

The FEC’s Weintraub has urged tech companies to take an aggressive stand against microtargeting potential voters with ads. In an opinion piece for The Washington Post last November, Weintraub wrote, “Microtargeting by foreign and domestic actors in 2016 proved to be a potent weapon for spreading disinformation and sowing discord.”

Facebook promises that its approach will bring “unprecedented transparency and control for political ads.” The company plans to add a new control in early summer that will let users cut down on the number of political and social issue ads they see, on both Facebook and Instagram. Its users can also search its Ad Library for details such as the size of an ad’s audience, and where those people live.

“The expanded transparency features will roll out in the first quarter of 2020 and will apply in all countries where we facilitate ‘Paid for by’ disclaimers on ads,” Facebook says.

But those solutions don’t satisfy critics who say the platform’s users still won’t be able to opt out completely and block all political ads. Experts also note that the tools Facebook is giving to its users can be complicated to use and can be easily overlooked as just another “terms of service” bulletin.

“More transparency and user control over advertising is an undeniably good thing, but this policy still doesn’t go far enough,” says Nina Jankowicz, who studies technology and politics as the Disinformation Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center.

Jankowicz says that while Facebook is giving people more control of the political ads they see, many users could have trouble navigating its tools.

“How many people understand the way microtargeting works, let alone Facebook’s Custom Audience feature, which allows advertisers to target on an even more precise level?” she asks.

Jankowicz says Facebook should offer the controls in an easy-to-use design and do more to educate its more than 2 billion users about what the changes mean. And she believes people who are on Facebook should regularly review how their profiles handle politics.

“Like democratic discourse, this should be a feature that users are constantly interacting with and adjusting based on their own inclinations and personal experiences on the site,” she says. “Based on Facebook’s track record with features like these, I’m not sure that’s going to happen.”

As Facebook’s Leathern discussed the company’s ad policy, he also acknowledged those who are unhappy with its practices.

“We recognize this is an issue that has provoked much public discussion — including much criticism of Facebook’s position,” Leathern wrote. “We are not deaf to that and will continue to work with regulators and policymakers in our ongoing efforts to help protect elections.”

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ACWS release report on dynamics of violence against women in politics – Sherwood Park News



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The Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters (ACWS) has released a new research report exploring the dynamics of violence against women in politics.

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“On the eve of the Alberta municipal elections, this report about violence against women in politics is timely,” explained Olivia Street, Coordinator of Communications and Social Advocacy for the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters.

The municipal election this week yielded encouraging results for gender parity.

As of Tuesday, Fort Saskatchewan unofficially has a gender-balanced council, with three of the six council seats filled by women.

The recent election saw two women run for the role of mayor, with incumbent Gale Katchur set to add to her ten-year tenure as mayor of Fort Saskatchewan.

For the first time ever, there are more female Edmonton city councillors than male ones, with eight female candidates having been elected in the nearby city.

The ‘Lift Her Up’ initiative, a campaign launched by ACWS in 2016 to counter the negative rhetoric being directed at women in political office, seeks to encourage understanding of the links between violence against women in the public sphere and domestic violence.

Considering the current Alberta municipal elections, ACWS’ members collectively saw an opportunity to encourage a “more welcoming and supportive political discourse.” The second iteration of the #LiftHerUp campaign is in full swing, and many candidates across Alberta committed to participating in non-violent discourse throughout the campaign.

‘Lift Her Up’ has since evolved into a broader initiative to remove gendered violence from political participation, which led to the creation of the new report.

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“Building on what we learned in the 2017 Alberta municipal elections, ACWS examined the research, combed the news, and spoke directly with women who have participated in campaigns or currently hold political office to inform the project,” Jan Reimer, Executive Director of ACWS, said of the research process. “These conversations revealed some troubling data about the violence and abuse experienced by women in politics. The women themselves always knew these things to be true, but we now have a way to visualize that experience and interpret it a part of the larger social issue of violence against women.”

Following the release of these findings, ACWS will embark on another stage of the project––developing an “equity and accountability wheel,” a positive spin, in partnership with organizations committed to supporting diversity in public office. “This balancing wheel will help us understand the key elements in creating and supporting safe(r) spaces for women in politics.”

“The ACWS is driven by the belief that the issues of violence and abuse are the responsibilities of the entire community including, legal, social and political structures, and in seeing violence against women in politics manifest explicitly in Alberta, we felt compelled to act to further our vision of a world free from violence and abuse,” Street wrote.

For more information about the Lift Her Up campaign, visit ACWS’ website at

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Twitter's algorithm favours right-leaning politics, research finds – BBC News



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Twitter amplifies tweets from right-leaning political parties and news outlets more than from the left, its own research suggests.

The social-media giant said it made the discovery while exploring how its algorithm recommends political content to users.

But it admitted it did not know why, saying that was a “more difficult question to answer”.

Twitter’s study examined tweets from political parties and users sharing content from news outlets in seven countries around the world: Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, the UK, and the US.

It analysed millions of tweets sent between 1 April and 15 August 2020.

Researchers then used the data to see which tweets were being amplified more on an algorithmically ordered feed compared with a reverse-chronological feed, both of which users have an option of using.

They found that mainstream parties and outlets on the political right enjoyed higher levels of “algorithmic amplification” compared with their counterparts on the left.

Rumman Chowdhury, director of Twitter’s Meta (machine-learning, ethics, transparency, and accountability) team, said the company’s next step was to find out the reason behind the phenomenon.

“In six out of seven countries, tweets posted by political-right elected officials are algorithmically amplified more than the political left. Right-leaning news outlets… see greater amplification compared to left-leaning,” she said.

“Establishing why these observed patterns occur is a significantly more difficult question to answer and something Meta will examine.”

Researchers noted that the difference in amplification could be due to the “differing strategies” used by political parties to reach audiences on the platform.

They also said the findings did not suggest that its algorithms pushed “extreme ideologies more than mainstream political voices” – another common concern expressed by Twitter’s critics.

This is not the first time Twitter has highlighted apparent bias in its algorithm.

In April, the platform revealed that it was conducting a study to determine whether its algorithms contributed to “unintentional harms”.

In May, the company revealed that its automatic cropping of images had underlying issues that favoured white individuals over black people, and women over men.

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Biden says United States would come to Taiwan’s defense



The United States would come to Taiwan‘s defense and has a commitment to defend the island China claims as its own, U.S. President Joe Biden said on Thursday, though the White House said later there was no change in policy towards the island.

“Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” Biden said at a CNN town hall when asked if the United States would come to the defense of Taiwan, which has complained of mounting military and political pressure from Beijing to accept Chinese sovereignty.

While Washington is required by law to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself, it has long followed a policy of “strategic ambiguity” on whether it would intervene militarily to protect Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack.

In August, a Biden administration official said U.S. policy on Taiwan had not changed after the president appeared to suggest the United States would defend the island if it were attacked.

A White House spokesperson said Biden at his town hall was not announcing any change in U.S. policy and “there is no change in our policy”.

“The U.S. defense relationship with Taiwan is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act. We will uphold our commitment under the Act, we will continue to support Taiwan’s self-defense, and we will continue to oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo,” the spokesperson said.

Biden said people should not worry about Washington’s military strength because “China, Russia and the rest of the world knows we’re the most powerful military in the history of the world,”

“What you do have to worry about is whether or not they’re going to engage in activities that would put them in a position where they may make a serious mistake,” Biden said.

“I don’t want a cold war with China. I just want China to understand that we’re not going to step back, that we’re not going to change any of our views.”

Military tensions between Taiwan and China are at their worst in more than 40 years, Taiwan’s Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said this month, adding that China will be capable of mounting a “full-scale” invasion by 2025.

Taiwan says it is an independent country and will defend its freedoms and democracy.

China says Taiwan is the most sensitive and important issue in its ties with the United States and has denounced what it calls “collusion” between Washington and Taipei.

Speaking to reporters earlier on Thursday, China’s United Nations Ambassador Zhang Jun said they are pursuing “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan and responding to “separatist attempts” by its ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

“We are not the troublemaker. On the contrary, some countries – the U.S. in particular – is taking dangerous actions, leading the situation in Taiwan Strait into a dangerous direction,” he said.

“I think at this moment what we should call is that the United States to stop such practice. Dragging Taiwan into a war definitely is in nobody’s interest. I don’t see that the United States will gain anything from that.”

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington, Michelle Nichols in New York and Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Writing by Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Stephen Coates)

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