Mother Jones Magazine

Trump’s Social Media Order Can’t Even Solve the Made Up Problem It Was Designed to Stop

In 2016, Gizmodo published a story with a bold title: “Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News.” The article itself was more measured than the headline, but the piece set off a firestorm on the right that has spun wildly out of control.

Ever since, Republican lawmakers have pointed to the story when probing and calling out technology companies for anti-conservative bias. The article, based on the uncorroborated recollections of two anonymous employees, was never backed up subsequent reporting, and never suggested any institutional effort to kneecap conservative speech. Ultimately, the ensuing controversy has culminated in Donald Trump’s new executive order, issued late Thursday.

The order is aimed at stopping supposed bias against conservatives on social media platforms, but it almost certainly can’t do what it sets out. That’s because the order, intentionally or not, sits on top of layers of misunderstandings.

The primary misunderstanding stems from a misreading of what the 2016 Gizmodo post set into motion: that there is bias at all.

If conservatives are being censored on social media, they haven’t really figured how to prove it. No quantitative analysis has found evidence of bias against conservatives on platforms.

apropos anti-conservative bias on Twitter. @wrahool, @feedkoko and i identified the top most followed accounts on Twitter, classified their ideologies (using @p_barbera's methods) and their occupations. long story short, there is no bias against conservatives on Twitter.

— Yphtach Lelkes (@ylelkes) May 28, 2020

Facebook even hired a former Republican senator to lead an internal investigation on conservative bias and he couldn’t find anything. Anecdotal evidence doesn’t suggest there’s conservative bias either. Liberals, leftists, and activists who aren’t conservative have endured bans and censorship on the platforms, while Trump, Fox News and other right-wing sites have built massive, uninhibited followings. YouTube’s political sphere is dominated by right-wingers with massive followings with no real counterweight on the left. 

Assuming that there actually was verifiable anti-conservative bias for a moment, the order wouldn’t even fix it. Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act, the provision Trump targets, gives technology platforms legal immunity from liability for harmful user-generated content on their platforms, and allows them to engage in “good samaritan” moderation of “objectionable” content without losing that immunity. How much and what type of content (including political content) their algorithms surface and show their users—the ground on which most conservatives have claimed they are discriminated against—isn’t related to this.

Assuming that the order could actually stop bias (again, also assuming that the nonexistent bias exists), many lawyers think its legally dubious. Some have been spurred to call it political theater.

Certain parts are unequivocally theater. Trump’s threat to shut Twitter down is so far beyond the scope of a president’s powers that it can’t be read any other way. Trump himself has even acknowledged that order would be taken to court, but justified it by saying “What isn’t?”

In the end, the only thing Trump’s order may actually do is create a legal headache for the technology companies—which could be the entire point.

The Police Killing You Probably Didn’t Hear About This Week

On Wednesday evening, while Minneapolis burned, several dozen mourners held a candlelight vigil in Tallahassee, Florida for Tony McDade. McDade, a Black trans-masculine person, was shot and killed by police on Wednesday morning.

The circumstances surrounding McDade’s death are still murky. Tallahassee police say McDade was a suspect in a fatal stabbing that occurred shortly before his death. Police say he was armed with a handgun, and he “made a move consistent with using the firearm against the officer.” An eyewitness told local media that police never tried to deescalate the situation:

“I walked down this way, as soon as I get around this curve, I just hear shots,” [Clifford] Butler told WFSU. “I see [McDade] right behind the tree, but I see for him (the officer) just jump out the car, swing the door open and just start shooting.”

Butler says he never heard the officer who fired shots give any warning beforehand.

“I never heard ‘Get down, freeze, I’m an officer’—nothing. I just heard gun shots,” Butler said.

The police have not released the name of the officer involved—thanks to a Florida law which allows officers involved in shootings to be classified as victims in order to protect their privacy—but witnesses said that he was white.

“Tony was a queer Black American who was gunned down by law enforcement,” says Gina Duncan, the Director of Transgender Equality for Equality Florida, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization. “Nothing can erase that. Talking about Tony’s earlier brushes with the law should not diminish the humanity of this being a person who is now dead and certainly shouldn’t diminish the fact that society failed Tony. Tony was calling out for help and society failed Tony in so many ways.”

McDade’s death comes on the heels of the high profile deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd—who were killed in police encounters in Louisville and Minneapolis, respectivelyas well as multiple local officer-involved shootings that have received less national media attention. Since March, Tallahassee Police officers have fatally shot three people—all of whom were Black. The most recent shooting, of a 69-year-old man named Wilbon Woodard, occurred just a week prior to McDade’s death. On March 20, 31-year-old Mychael Johnson was shot to death by officer Zackri Jones, who was also involved in the shooting death of a white man in 2015 (Jones was later cleared of wrongdoing by a grand jury).

“Today’s tragic loss of lives affects our entire community. This comes on the heels of disturbing events around our nation that we will not ignore,” Tallahassee Mayor John Dailey tweeted on Wednesday in response to McDade’s death. “The Tallahassee Police Department has committed to a thorough investigation of the events surrounding today’s murder and officer-involved shooting, and we are asking the public to share any information they have about the incidents with TPD.”

Florida is also the “epicenter of anti-transgender violence over the past two years,” Duncan says. Last year, the American Medical Association deemed a surge in the murder of transgender people an “epidemic.” The vast majority of victims are transgender women of color. Of the 52 reported murders of transgender or gender non-conforming people in the past two years, about 1 in 7 were in Florida.

“What brings Tony McDade’s murder so close to home is that this is a national pandemic,” Duncan says. “We have not only COVID-19 impacting our nation, but also the the virus of institutional racism. No matter what your gender, no matter how you identify, we still have this pervasive culture of Black Americans suffering under overt discrimination by law enforcement. And when you look at the big picture, Tony McDade’s shooting is a symptom of that national virus that we’re dealing with as a country.”

Why Trump’s “Looting” Tweet Was Even Worse Than You Thought

For Donald Trump, Friday began as many days do: with an eruption of controversy on Twitter. In a tweet, the president referred to Minneapolis protesters as “THUGS” and added, “Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Twitter promptly flagged Trump’s tweet with a disclaimer—for the second time this week—saying it violated the social media site’s rules about glorifying violence. 

Trump’s words of choice, as activists pointed out, also have a racist history. The phrase “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” originated from Miami police chief Walter Headley in the 1960s. The Washington Post‘s Michael S. Rosenwald explains:

In late 1967, as armed robberies and unrest gripped black neighborhoods in Miami, the city’s white police chief — a tough-talking former U.S. Army Cavalry officer who parted his hair straight down the middle — held a news conference “declaring war” on criminals.

The police, Chief Walter Headley warned, would use shotguns and dogs at his command. And then he uttered the phrase that President Trump drew from Friday morning on Twitter to denounce the unrest in Minnesota and elsewhere fueled by deadly police brutality.

“I’ve let the word filter down that when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” Headley said.

Headley reportedly uttered the phrase again in 1968, amid three days of violence in Miami during the Republican National Convention. Headley was out of town when the violence occurred, but he told the New York Times his officers “know what to do”: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” (As Rosenwald writes, Headley referred to white officers under his command as “policemen,” while Black officers were to be called “patrolmen.”)

Hours after tweeting his initial remarks Friday, the president tried to walk them back, referring to his critics as “haters” and insisting that he simply meant that looting could escalate into violence—not that looters should be shot.

“It’s very simple, nobody should have any problem with this other than the haters, and those looking to cause trouble on social media,” he tweeted.

Trump Rails Against China at Press Conference, Ignores Death of George Floyd

After arriving 45 minutes late to a planned press conference on the White House lawn, President Donald Trump spoke for nine minutes about his antipathy toward China—without sparing a single word to address the killing of George Floyd or the ensuing chaos in Minneapolis,

While reporters in Washington, DC, waited for the president to take the podium, he sat somewhere out of sight and tweeted feeble justifications for a prior tweet in which he had said that “THUGS” were “dishonoring the memory of George Floyd” and had added, “Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

In his afternoon tweets, Trump insisted that he simply meant that “looting leads to shooting,” not that looters should be shot.

….It was spoken as a fact, not as a statement. It’s very simple, nobody should have any problem with this other than the haters, and those looking to cause trouble on social media. Honor the memory of George Floyd!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 29, 2020

Trump’s Friday afternoon tweets may have given the impression that he would address Floyd’s death in his remarks; instead, he railed against China’s actions in Hong Kong, promised to revoke Hong Kong’s special trade status as a way to punish Beijing, and vowed that the US would immediately end its relationship with the World Health Organization.

“China raided our factories, offshored our jobs, gutted our industries, stole our intellectual property, and violated their commitments under the World Trade Organization,” he said. Never passing up an opportunity for a dig at former President Barack Obama, he added, “They were able to get away with a theft like no one was able to get away with before, because of past politicians and, frankly, past presidents.”

When Trump finished speaking, he turned on his heel and left as reporters yelled questions about Floyd and Minneapolis in his wake.

Trump’s Campaign Was Always Going to Be About Racism. Minnesota Just Became the Epicenter.

When President Donald Trump first weighed in on Wednesday on the caught-on-camera killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, he was uncharacteristically subdued. Floyd’s death was “sad and tragic,” he tweeted. “Justice will be served!” By the early morning hours on Friday, this moment of compassion was at an end. Rioters in the city were “THUGS,” he wrote, and he proposed sending in the National Guard to “get the job done right.” In a tweet so depraved that Twitter appended a disclaimer, he quoted an infamous 1960s Miami cop: “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Trump’s comments weren’t just those of a head of state addressing unrest in a major city. They were also the words of a candidate for reelection who believes that what happens in Minnesota could make or break his chances this fall. The president has made repeated campaign stops in the state over the last four years; in threatening violence against protesters, he was sticking to a longstanding strategy. Trump believes that by attacking the state’s largest city and casting its residents as radical refugees and “thugs”—by driving a huge racist wedge between the Twin Cities and all the rest—he can flip the state he lost by the smallest of margins in 2016.

This isn’t the first time Trump has weighed in on a law enforcement issue in Minneapolis. He previously positioned himself as the defender of the city’s police against overly PC libs—wrapping himself in the flag of “law and order” politics. Last fall, ahead of a Trump campaign rally in Minneapolis, Mayor Jacob Frey informed police officers they could not appear at the rally in uniform. In response, the city’s police union began selling special red “Cops for Trump” t-shirts, with an American flag overlaid on the outline of the state. Trump weighed in:

Someone please tell the Radical Left Mayor of Minneapolis that he can’t price out Free Speech. Probably illegal! I stand strongly & proudly with the great Police Officers and Law Enforcement of Minneapolis and the Great State of Minnesota! See you Thursday Night!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 8, 2019

Get your great T-Shirts, “Cops for Trump,” at REALLY NICE! Thank you to Minneapolis Police Officers & Union! @foxandfriends

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 8, 2019

At the rally, Trump was joined on stage by Lt. Bob Kroll, head of the Minneapolis police union, who used his time on stage to attack former President Barack Obama for his “oppression” of law enforcement. Kroll wore the “Cops for Trump” t-shirt. Following Kroll, a procession of police officers, all wearing the “Cops of Trump” shirt, walked across the stage to shake the president’s hand. Trump even saluted one of them.

While Trump heralded the police as the most hallowed of institutions, he whipped the crowd into a frenzy against what he considered their antithesis—the city’s “America-hating” Democratic congresswoman, Ilhan Omar. 

In 2016 I almost won Minnesota. In 2020, because of America hating anti-Semite Rep. Omar, & the fact that Minnesota is having its best economic year ever, I will win the State! “We are going to be a nightmare to the President,” she say. No, AOC Plus 3 are a Nightmare for America!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 23, 2019

Just a few months after telling Omar, a Somali refugee and one of the first two Muslim women to serve in the House, to go back to the country she came from, Trump devoted six minutes of his address to tearing into the congresswoman. Images of the hijab-wearing Omar flashed across the jumbotron as he spoke, just in case the crowd didn’t know what she looked like. She was an “America-hating socialist,” he said. 

Trump segued from an attack on Omar into an attack on the community she comes from and represents—the tens of thousands of Somalis living in the Twin Cities. Refugees from Somalia were a threat to the American way of life, he warned. (His son, Donald Trump Jr., has even claimed that Democrats want to “repopulate” Maine with Somali refugees.)

Trump has not just sought to rhetorically bludgeon people of color in Minnesota, though. He’s governed that way too. In the closing stretch of the 2016 campaign, he told Minnesota voters the state had “suffered” because of the “large numbers of Somali refugees coming into your state.” He promised to ban Muslims, and though he didn’t quite do that, he did effectively ban Somali refugees from coming to the United States. 

In targeting a specific minority community, Trump was tapping into a very real animosity among certain white voters in Minnesota. In a memorable 2019 New York Times story, one conservative activist put it bluntly: “These aren’t people coming from Norway.” When activists in St. Cloud tried to shut down the city’s resettlement program, they made red hats, modeled off the president’s. They said “Make St. Cloud Great Again.” MSCGA.

Trump’s campaign in Minnesota, now as ever, is rooted in white grievance and fear and what he calls “law and order,” by which he means targeting immigrants and people of color for abuse—by pinning all that’s gone wrong on blue cities and the people who live there. He wants to pit the people he thinks he can get votes from against the people he can’t, and now that he sits behind the Resolute Desk, he doesn’t really act as if he works for the latter group too. They serve no purpose for him, except as punching bags.

So it’s all going to be like this, from now until November. Trump is going with this again, because he thinks it works and also because he can’t help it. He craves power but not the responsibility that comes with it. It’s not clear, however, that it’s any sort of political masterstroke—that “what Trump wants” or what “plays into his hands” correlates at all to what is actually good for him. He would have lost the 2016 election but for an unprecedented series of events, and even as it was, his much-hyped attempts to reconstitute Richard Nixon’s winning coalition half a century later by relentlessly hammering immigrants and “lawless” cities netted him a smaller percentage of the popular vote than Mitt Romney. The president is a bully, after all, but he is also an idiot.

From Fake Vitamins to Kratom, Coronavirus Fraud Is Flourishing. The Feds Are Struggling to Stop It.

As quickly as scientists are working to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, there’s a plethora of companies working just as fast trying to illegally profit from the novel coronavirus, mostly through fraudulent treatments, bogus tests, and various other scams. Though there isn’t currently a vaccine or a largely effective treatment for COVID-19 , as the Centers for Disease Control has repeatedly emphasized, that has not stopped a growing number of companies from fraudulently claiming that the products they sell contain certain substances—like colloquial silver, kratom, CBD oil, and even bovine colostrum— that can treat or prevent the virus. And while the Food & Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission have focused their efforts on cracking down on COVID-19-related fraud, the scams continue to flourish. 

According to the FTC’s own data, as of May 27 there’s been more than 55,000 consumer complaints related to COVID-19, with 31,000 of those complaints specifically related to fraud. In all, the FTC has reported that people who fell victim to a coronavirus-related scams have lost at least $40.39 million. Though the agency has reported thousands of instances of fraud in the form of identity theft and robocall scams, most of the COVID-19-related complaints that the agency has received have been related to travel scams, text message scams, and online shopping—particularly as it relates to products sold online that make false claims about its effectiveness in treating or testing for COVID-19.

“People are cooped up at home, scared about their finances and their health. And scammers are taking advantage of that.”

In one recent case, a California-based company called The Golden Road Kratom claimed that capsules of kratom—a controversial though currently legal drug that advocates say can treat a laundry list of ailments, including opioid withdrawal—were effective for both treating and preventing COVID-19. According to a warning letter sent by the FDA,  the company had falsely stated on its website that kratom “contains a special compound known as chloroquine…that research shows is powerfully combative against the coronavirus,” and that Wuhan-based researchers said that “chloroquine can be used for the treatment of patients with Covid 19.” The company no longer has these claims on its website. 

In a press release sent last week after the FTC reported receiving 50,000 COVID-19 fraud complaints, public interest advocacy group US PIRG called it a “dubious milestone.” “We see this sort of thing after natural disasters and economic crisis, and you kind of have both happening right now,” says Mike Litt, who directs PIRG’s campaign to defend the FTC. “COVID-19 has changed every aspect of our lives, so there are countless ways for people to be scammed. People are cooped up at home, scared about their finances and their health. And scammers are taking advantage of that.”

Since COVID-19 evolved into a full-blown pandemic, PIRG has been tracking the federal response to coronavirus fraud. Thus far, the FTC has sent out more than 150 warning letters to companies, suspended the stock trading for 30 companies, and has shuttered thousands of web domains and email addresses. The Department of Justice, meanwhile, has taken legal action in nearly 20 instances of coronavirus-related fraud. And US Immigration and Customs Enforcement launched an operation in mid-April, which the agency says has led to 458 coronavirus-related seizures, totaling more than $3.2 million in illicit proceeds seized. Most recently, the agency seized nearly 6,000 fraudulent COVID-19 test kits and thousands of pills purported to treat the coronavirus, including pills claiming to be Hydroxycloroquine Sulfate, in Buffalo. 

Still, even with a number of federal agencies diverting their resources specifically to combat COVID-19-related fraud, Litt says it’s hard to assess how effective their efforts are. In the case of the FTC, Litt says the agency should publicly report the responses it receives to warning letters, similar to what the FDA is doing. In the FDA’s database of warning letters, it includes a column for the response from each individual company, to indicate if that company responded to the FDA’s letter and if it actually led to a cessation of sale of the fraudulent product.

Despite that, the sheer quantity of products flooding the market has allowed some to fly under the agency’s radar. While analyzing the myriad fake COVID-19 products online, PIRG found several examples of products claiming to treat COVID-19 that the FDA had not warned. One brand that PIRG flagged, 78Minerals, sells nutrients and minerals that it claims will “[help] fight coronavirus and strengthen your immune system.” The FDA has not issued the company a letter warning them to stop marketing their product as a COVID-19 treatment, according to a search of the agency’s warning letter database. 

And some lawmakers think there’s more that can be done than just sending out warning letters to address COVID-19 fraud. Earlier this month, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called on the FTC to crack down harder on coronavirus scammers, asking the agency to issue heavy fines rather than just sending out warning letters. “Let’s face it, there are a lot of older people, there are a lot of just average folks who are desperate,” Schumer said. “These scammers prey on people in their weakest moments.”