The Stew Reporting on government and politics

Facebook filters can trip up candidates

Politics | Social media struggles to find a balance after the last election’s online debacles
by Laura Finch
Posted 8/09/18, 03:55 pm

Elizabeth Heng, the Republican nominee for 12th Congressional District in California, is sure that Facebook rejected her advertising dollars last week in an attempt to censor her political views. The social media company said it was just following policy with the decision, which it later reversed. But the controversy that erupted demonstrated the public’s increasing concern over the power Facebook has to affect politics and public discourse.

Heng, 33, hopes to defeat incumbent Democratic Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno, who has served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2005. Heng is a former congressional staffer who helped coordinate President Donald Trump’s inauguration. The Powerline blog called her “a sort of un–Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” referencing the 28-year-old socialist candidate who defeated incumbent Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley in a New York primary this summer.

Heng’s Facebook campaign video includes a tribute to her parents, who came to the United States as Cambodian refugees. Without a content warning, the first few seconds of the video slam the viewer with photos of dead, emaciated Cambodian children. Heng’s Facebook page was never shut down and the video itself was never banned, but when the Heng campaign tried to “boost” the video as a paid advertisement Friday, Facebook wouldn’t allow it, citing rules against shocking or sensational content in advertising. (Facebook uses a combination of human and machine screening to review ads.)

“Upon further review, it is clear the video contains historical imagery relevant to the candidate’s story,” a representative from Facebook told me on Tuesday. “We have since approved the ad and it is now running on Facebook.”

That wasn’t enough for the Heng campaign.

“It only took them 5 days to ‘review’ the content and facing national outrage before they took action,” a campaign spokesman tweeted. “Hard to deny that they didn’t target [Heng].”

It also didn’t help that the debacle came the same week as several social media giants, including Facebook, removed accounts, videos, and podcasts by Infowars’ Alex Jones, fueling theories of a coordinated attack on speech liberals disagree with.

Facebook is struggling to recover from what may be its worst public relations crisis to date: days of testimony by founder Mark Zuckerberg in April on Capitol Hill about Russians purchasing ads on the platform in an attempt to sway the 2016 election. (Shortly after the hearings concluded, Facebook and other platforms released a set of tighter rules for political campaign ads.)

Accusations of bias against conservative content on the platform also came out of the congressional hearings. One instance involved Michigan state Senate candidate Aric Nesbitt, whose political ad apparently prompted the same automated message that Heng’s did. It was banned for “shocking, disrespectful or sensational content, including ads that depict violence or threats of violence.” Zuckerberg told a House committee the message may have been a mistake.

The banning of Heng’s video, whether intentional or a mistake, could help her campaign in the long run. Fox & Friends, Glenn Beck, and Laura Ingraham all immediately scheduled her for interviews.

Associated Press/Photo by John Minchillo Associated Press/Photo by John Minchillo Supporters of Danny O’Connor cheer at an election night watch party Tuesday in Westerville, Ohio.

Seeing (less) red

Ohio Republican congressional candidate Troy Balderson leads by a hair in Tuesday’s special election for the 12th District, but improved Democratic performance may signal trouble for the GOP in November. In the battle to fill out the term of retired Republican Rep. Pat Tiberi, Balderson holds an edge of fewer than 2,000 votes over Democrat Danny O’Connor, with thousands of provisional and absentee ballots still to be counted.

President Donald Trump flew to Ohio and held a rally for Balderson just days before the election. Despite the unfinished ballot counting, Trump declared victory Tuesday, tweeting, “After my speech on Saturday night, there was a big turn for the better. Now Troy wins a great victory during a very tough time of the year for voting.”

The 12th District, though, has been represented by a Republican for all but two of the last 80 years. In 2016, Trump won the district by 11 percentage points and Tiberi captured two-thirds of the vote. The fact that O’Connor still has an outside chance to win the race has worried the GOP and energized Democrats.

“This gives me optimism, not only about this seat but about other House seats, the U.S. Senate and governor's races,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez told CNN.

Turnout has become a major problem for Republicans. In 2016, Tiberi received more than 250,000 votes, while in the special election, Balderson received only a little more than 100,000 votes. Such a drop could prove disastrous for the GOP in the midterm elections if the entire country follows that pattern. Even if Balderson wins this special election to finish the current term, he still has to face O’Connor again in the November general election for the next term.

“There is no doubt Democrats are as energized and as enthusiastic as I have seen them,” said Steve Mitchell, a Republican pollster in Michigan, according to the Detroit Free Press. “That's because of the strong anti-Trump dislike in the Democratic Party.”

Republicans will have to consider ways to drum up turnout, or else the “blue wave” Democrats have predicted may sweep them out of office. —Kyle Ziemnick

Associated Press/Photo by Pavel Golovkin Associated Press/Photo by Pavel Golovkin Sen. Rand Paul (left) and Chairman of the Russian Federation Council Committee on International Affairs Konstantin Kosachev meet Monday in Moscow.

To Russia, with love

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., while visiting Russia Monday, invited a key Russian lawmaker to Washington, D.C., amid ongoing divisions within the Republican Party about relations with Moscow.

Paul has been among the most vocal defenders of President Donald Trump’s outreach to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Other prominent Republicans have denounced the president’s summit with Putin in Helsinki earlier this summer and said he should have aggressively confronted the Russian leader about intelligence reports that Moscow attempted to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Paul met with Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Russian Federation Council Committee on Foreign Affairs, in Moscow, and the lawmakers agreed that a delegation of Russian lawmakers should travel to Washington in what would be the first such visit in nearly three years, according to Paul’s office. Paul also delivered a letter from Trump to Putin encouraging better relations between the countries.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., referred questions about a possible Russian lawmaker visit to Paul’s office. McConnell after the Helsinki summit declared that “the Russians are not our friends.”

GOP voters’ views on Russia have shifted dramatically in recent years, with 40 percent of Republicans now calling Russia a friend or ally, up from a low of 22 percent just four years ago, according to Gallup. —Anne K. Walters

Under arrest

Federal authorities arrested a sitting U.S. congressman Wednesday, charging him with insider trading and lying to the FBI. U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said Rep. Christopher Collins, R-N.Y., gleaned privileged information from sitting on the board of a biotech company. Berman said Collins shared the confidential information with his son, Cameron Collins, who also faces charges along with Stephen Zarsky, the father of Cameron Collins’ fiancée. The congressman has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Collins was first elected to represent the upstate New York district in 2012 and said after his arrest he still plans to run for reelection. —Kent Covington

Laura Finch

Laura is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute's mid-career course.

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