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TikTok Refuses to Testify at Hearing About Chinese Influence Amid National Security Investigation

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  • TikTok denied requests by Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) to testify under oath during a Tuesday Congressional hearing concerning fears that the Chinese-owned social media platform is sharing U.S. user data with the Chinese government.
  • According to reports, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S opened a national security investigation into TikTok’s $1 billion purchase of Musical.ly in 2017.
  • For its part, TikTok has repeatedly said that its servers are all outside of China, and therefore, outside of Chinese law. Because of this, it also says it does not censor content.

Sen. Hawley Invites TikTok to Testify

Executives for the social media platform TikTok refused to testify at a Congressional hearing on Tuesday amid ongoing fears that it may pose a national security risk regarding Chinese counter-intelligence.

On Friday, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States reportedly opened an investigation into TikTok, which was created as an international version of the app Douyin and is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. According to anonymous sources, the investigation involves TikTok’s 2017 $1 billion acquisition of Musical.ly.

Both the hearing and the investigation are the latest in a series of concerns that TikTok is sharing American data with China’s Communist Party, particularly that is sharing the data it collects on users’ locations and censoring content.

Tuesday’s hearing organized by Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) focused on two main concerns. The first was business deals between American tech companies and the Chinese government and the second was rapidly growing Chinese companies in America and how they collect U.S. user data.

“[As] these Big Tech companies try to get into the Chinese market, the compromises that they have to make with the Communist Chinese Party — who, let’s not forget, partner with or control every industry of any size in China — what does that do to American security?” Hawley told Axios ahead of the hearing. 

Also prior to the hearing, Hawley blasted TikTok’s decision to decline appearing in a series of tweets. 

Hawley has also been a vocal critic surrounding China’s influence over Hong Kong, having visited the city last month and co-sponsoring the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.

Is TikTok Sending Americans’ Data to the Chinese Government?

Last month, Senator Marco Rubio actually asked the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to open an investigation into TikTok because of concerns that the platform was censoring content. 

A couple of weeks later, Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) then echoed those concerns by asking U.S. Intelligence officials to open a national security review of the platform.

“With over 110 million downloads in the U.S. alone, TikTok is a potential counterintelligence threat we cannot ignore,” both Schumer and Cotton said in a joint statement. “Given these concerns, we ask that the Intelligence Community conduct an assessment of the national security risks posed by TikTok and other China-based content platforms operating in the U.S. and brief Congress on these findings.”

TikTok representatives responded in a blog post the next day saying, “We store all TikTok US user data in the United States, with backup redundancy in Singapore. Our data centers are located entirely outside of China, and none of our data is subject to Chinese law.

“Let us be very clear: TikTok does not remove content based on sensitivities related to China,” the statement read. “We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked. Period.”

Despite TikTok’s assurance that China does not intercept its data, Schumer and Cotton said they fear that TikTok “is still required to adhere to the laws of China” and that could “compel Chinese companies to support and cooperate with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.”

U.S. Opens Investigation into TikTok

Following reports that the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States had opened a national security investigation, TikTok declined to speak on the confidential matter, but it did issue a statement. 

“While we cannot comment on ongoing regulatory processes,” the statement reads, “TikTok has made clear that we have no higher priority than earning the trust of users and regulators in the U.S. Part of that effort includes working with Congress and we are committed to doing so.”

Schumer then praised the news of the probe, saying it was “validation of our concern that apps like TikTok…may pose serious risks to millions of Americans and deserve greater scrutiny.”

Similar Concerns Over Apple

TikTok isn’t the only social media platform under fire. Hawley also invited Apple to Tuesday’s hearing, but like TikTok, it denied the request.

Regarding Apple, Hawley is particularly interested in the tech giant’s business deals with China and where it stores encryption keys for iCloud data.

“My question is, are they storing encryption keys in China? “ Hawley asked ahead of the hearing. “The answer to that is yes. Then what kind of data are they storing in China? Whose data? Any American data? What about people who have Chinese relatives or business partners or other ventures, so they’re communicating with people in China? Does that expose American users to potential surveillance by the Chinese state?”

Although Apple did not directly respond to Hawley’s question, in the past, it has said that it retains its encryption keys, not its Chinese partner.

See what others are saying: (Axios) (Washington Post) (BBC)

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Mattis and Other Military Leaders Slam Trump Over Threat to Deploy Troops in U.S.

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Photo by Leah Millis for Reuters

  • Former Defense Secretary James Mattis spoke out against President Trump in a cutting op-ed where he criticized the president for his recent actions and accused him of being intentionally divisive.
  • Trump responding in a series of tweets where he attacked Mattis’ character and falsely claimed he fired the former Secretary, who resigned on his own accord in December 2018.
  • Numerous military officials and current Defense Secretary Mark Esper have spoken out against Trump’s threats to send the military to states to address protests over the killing of George Floyd.
  • Others have defended Trump’s remarks, including Sen. Tom Cotton who wrote an op-ed in the New York Times titled “Send in the Troops.” Numerous Times employees slammed the newspaper for publishing the piece.

Mattis Slams Trump

Former Defense Secretary James Mattis criticized President Donald Trump for his recent actions and remarks in a scathing statement published in the Atlantic Wednesday.

Mattis resigned from his post in December 2018 in protest of Trump’s policy on Syria, and until Wednesday, he had remained largely quiet about his opinions of the president.

“I have watched this week’s unfolding events, angry and appalled,” Mattis opened. 

He went on to say that the demonstrators protesting the death of George Floyd were fighting for Equal Justice Under Law, which he called “a wholesome and unifying demand—one that all of us should be able to get behind. We must not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers.”

“Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside,” he added.

The former Defense Secretary also slammed President Trump’s recent threat to deploy the military to states that did not respond to protests in a manner he felt was effective. 

“We must reject any thinking of our cities as a ‘battlespace’ that our uniformed military is called upon to ‘dominate,’” he said. “At home, we should use our military only when requested to do so, on very rare occasions, by state governors.”

“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us,” Mattis stated. “We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.”

“We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square,”  he continued. “We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.”

Trump Responds With Falsehoods

Trump was quick to respond to Mattis’ rebuke, attacking the esteemed general in a series of tweets where he made a least two false claims.

“Probably the only thing Barack Obama & I have in common is that we both had the honor of firing Jim Mattis, the world’s most overrated General,” Trump wrote. “I asked for his letter of resignation, & felt great about it. His nickname was ‘Chaos’, which I didn’t like, & changed to ‘Mad Dog’”

Despite his bold claim, Trump did not fire Mattis. As noted earlier, the former secretary resigned on his own accord in protest after Trump announced that he was withdrawing troops from Syria.

Numerous officials have backed up that account, which Mattis’ letter of resignation also appears to support.

“Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position,” he wrote at the time.

Trump’s assertion that he changed Mattis’ nickname from “Chaos” to “Mad Dog” is also false. Chaos was Mattis’ military call name, not his nickname, and it has been reported by multiple outlets that the nickname “Mad Dog” was given to Mattis years before Trump took office.

Other Military Officials & Esper Respond

However, Mattis is not the only prominent military official who has criticized Trump’s threat to deploy the military to states.

Earlier this week, two former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairmen, Gen. Martin Dempsey and Adm. Mike Mullens spoke out against the president’s warning.

“America is not a battleground. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy,” Dempsey wrote in a tweet on Monday.

Mullens, however, was more direct in his condemnation of the president.

“I have to date been reticent to speak out on issues surrounding President Trump’s leadership, but we are at an inflection point,” he wrote in an op-ed in the Atlantic published on Tuesday.

Mullens went on to say that police brutality and injustices against African Americans must be addressed, and that the right to peaceful assembly must be defended.

“And neither of these pursuits will be made easier or safer by an overly aggressive use of our military, active duty or National Guard,” he wrote. “The issue for us today is not whether this authority exists, but whether it will be wisely administered.”

“Furthermore, I am deeply worried that as they execute their orders, the members of our military will be co-opted for political purposes,” he added.

Gen. John Allen, the former commander of American forces in Afghanistan made a similar argument in an op-ed in Foreign Policy published Wednesday.

“Right now, the last thing the country needs—and, frankly, the U.S. military needs—is the appearance of U.S. soldiers carrying out the president’s intent by descending on American citizens.”

However, the most significant remarks on the matter came from current Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who made the striking decision to disagree with the president on a question of military deployments.

The option to use active duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire of situations,” Esper said during a press conference Wednesday. “We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.” 

Tom Cotton Op-Ed

Despite very notable military officials openly disagreeing with the president, there are plenty of others who support the move to deploy the military.

On Wednesday, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) expressed his desire to send the military to quell the unrest in states in an op-ed for the New York Times titled “Send In the Troops.”

“The rioting has nothing to do with George Floyd, whose bereaved relatives have condemned violence,” he wrote. “On the contrary, nihilist criminals are simply out for loot and the thrill of destruction, with cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa infiltrating protest marches to exploit Floyd’s death for their own anarchic purposes.”

“One thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers,” he continued. “But local law enforcement in some cities desperately needs backup.”

“In normal times, local law enforcement can uphold public order,” Cotton added. “But in rare moments, like ours today, more is needed, even if many politicians prefer to wring their hands while the country burns.”

Both Cotton’s op-ed and the decision to publish it prompted significant backlash from numerous Times employees. Dozens of writers, reporters, editors, and magazine staffers expressed their dissatisfaction with their employer by sharing the same tweet: “Running this puts Black @nytimes staffers in danger”

Others also broadly condemned the op-ed, and one reporter pointed out that Cotton’s claim that “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa [are] infiltrating protest marches” had been debunked as misinformation by the Times itself.

James Bennet, the Editorial Page Editor defended the decision to run.

“We understand that many readers find Senator Cotton’s argument painful, even dangerous,” he wrote on Twitter. “We believe that is one reason it requires public scrutiny and debate.” 

See what others are saying: (NPR) (CNN) (The Washington Post)

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Ella Jones’ Big Win, Steve King’s Loss, and Other Key Takeaways From Tuesday’s Primaries

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Photo by Christian Gooden for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

  • Eight states voted Tuesday in the biggest primary since the pandemic started and what many considered a “dry-run” for November. 
  • Despite issues here and there, election officials said the biggest problems leading up to Election Day were related to the large increase in demand for mail-in ballots, which were requested in record numbers in multiple states.
  • Rep. Steve King (IA), who has a long history of making racist remarks, lost the Congressional seat he has held for nearly 18 years.
  • Ferguson, Missouri, where large protests erupted six years ago that helped propel the Black Lives Movement to national standing, elected its first black mayor.

Cues for November

Eight states and Washington D.C. held primary elections on Tuesday as protests over the killing of George Floyd continued all across the country.

Tuesday’s elections marked the biggest day of voting since the pandemic began, and served as the first large-scale test of what voting might look like in November.

All of the states holding primaries either encouraged or expanded mail-in ballots, and many significantly reduced the number of in-personal polling locations.

But both of those precautions created some major problems.

Numerous polling locations reported long-lines and poor social distancing. In, Washington D.C., where only 20 of the usual 143 polling places were open, people reported wait times of more than an hour at 7:30 p.m in all locations.

Videos posted to social media showed lines that stretched on for blocks, even as the city’s curfew took effect.

There were also reports of confusion in some places over which polling places were open and where mail-in ballots needed to be dropped off.

Deadlines for mail-in ballots also created problems in some states like Indiana, where the clerk of the state’s most populous county said last week that thousands of ballots might not be counted because they would not reach their office by the noon deadline on Election Day.

Issues With Mail-In Ballots

However, in general, election officials have said that most of the major issues were related to a huge increase in demand for mail-in ballots, which was reportedly up by 1,000 in some places.

Tuesday’s elections saw record numbers of mail-in ballots both requested and cast in a lot of the states. Those requests, however, were also accompanied by numerous complaints about delayed ballots.

According to reports, a judge in one Pennsylvania county ordered the mail-in deadline to be extended for as many as 500 people who had requested their ballots but not received them. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf also extended the mail-in ballot deadline by a week in six counties hit hardest by the coronavirus and protests.

People in D.C., Maryland, and Rhode Island also reported that they did not receive their mail-in ballots or had a hard time submitting requests.

In D.C. election officials reportedly resorted to hand-delivering ballots and even accepting emailed ballots. Security experts have warned that emailed ballots are incredibly vulnerable to hacking, because there is no way for voters to verify that they were accurately recorded.

But those problems could just be a small taste of what could happen in November if more states do not prepare for the massive surge in mail-in voting.

Some states are used to only 10% of voters or even less casting mail-in ballots, and experts say it us absolutely essential that they immediately start preparing to receive a lot more.

“These decisions need to be happening now. It’s a June kind of thing, and July is even pushing it,” Amber McReynolds, the chief executive of the National Vote at Home Institute told the Washington Post.

High Costs and Partisan Barriers

Unfortunately, expanding mail-in voting is an incredibly expensive feat, and currently, there are a lot of questions about whether or not states have enough money to do so.

In March, Congress appropriated $400 million for elections in the stimulus bill, but experts have said the cost of operating safe elections during the pandemic could be up to $2 billion. 

While Congressional Democrats have pushed for another $3.6 billion for election funding for the next stimulus bill, it is unclear if Republicans, who have been hesitant to even discuss any new legislation concerning pandemic stimulus, will support the idea.

Leaders in Washington are also facing pressure from President Donald Trump, who has been increasingly vocal about his opposition to mail-in voting.

Trump has repeatedly insisted that expanding mail-in voting will lead to more voter fraud, despite the fact that his claims have been repeatedly debunked and he himself voted by mail in the last two elections.

But Trump’s efforts to undermine expanding vote-by-mail, at least at the national level, are still going strong. Recently, his campaign teamed up with the Republican National Committee to dump millions of dollars into lawsuits against states that are trying to expand mail-in voting.

However, at the state level, the debate is a lot less partisan. In fact, multiple states with Republican governors or top election officials have started the process of expanding mail-in voting.

Steve King Voted Out, Ella Jones Voted In

In addition to serving as a test-run for the general election in November, Tuesday’s primaries also brought about some other newsworthy moments.

Rep. Steve King (R-IA), who has a long history of making racist remarks, was voted out of Congress after nearly 18 years after losing his seat to State Senator Randy Feenstra by nearly 10% of the vote.

While King’s loss is significant, it was not entirely unexpected. After the 2018 midterms, it was clear that King’s seat was in jeopardy when he almost lost his seat to a Democratic challenger in an incredibly conservative district.

While Democrats have long criticized King for openly voicing and promoting racist views, he finally crossed the line with his own Republican party in January 2019, when he told the New York Times in an interview: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”

Those remarks sparked backlash within the party, and King was stripped of all his committee assignments. Even though he decided to run for re-election, he did so without the backing of the mainstream Republican establishment both in DC and Iowa, which chose to throw its support behind Feenstra, his leading opponent.

On a very different note, another major highlight from the night came from Ferguson, Missouri which elected its first black mayor, a City Council member named Ella Jones, who is now also the first woman to lead the city.

Ferguson was thrust into the national spotlight in 2014 when massive protests broke out in the city after a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, a black teenager. Those protests and the activism surrounding them was one of the major catalysts that pushed Black Lives Matter to become the national movement it is today.

And now, nearly six years later, Jones’ election comes as protests over the death of George Floyd, police brutality, and justice for black communities are being held all over the country— many of which are organized and led by BLM.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (Reuters) (NPR)

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Trump Issues Executive Order Against Social Media Platforms After Fact Check War With Twitter

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  • President Donald Trump reportedly plans to announce an executive order aimed at social media companies on Thursday, after Twitter issued its first-ever fact check warning on one of his posts.
  • The order is expected to target a 1996 statute that, among other things, allows Big Tech companies to remove content they find “objectionable,” all without any legal ramifications. 
  • That statute has been widely controversial on both sides of the aisle.
  • Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has also responded to Trump’s criticism against the platform, saying Twitter will continue to issue fact check warnings on misleading posts related to elections around the world.

Trump Announces Executive Order Plans

President Donald Trump took aim at social media companies via an executive order on Thursday as part of an escalating feud with Twitter.

The incident began on Tuesday when Trump posted two tweets regarding mail-in ballots. Shortly afterward, Twitter issued a fact check warning on both tweets. 

In those tweets, the president continued to press the idea that mail-in ballots will lead to massive voter fraud—even though the majority of experts disagree. 

He also made the claim that California Governor Gavin Newsom plans to send mail-in ballots to everyone living in the state, “no matter who they are or how they got there. Notably, that is not true. Newsom plans to send ballots only to registered voters.

After receiving the label, Trump lashed out against Twitter, saying it was stifling free speech and that he would “strongly regulate” or even “close down” social media platforms.

Now, it seems Trump’s executive order, which was announced Wednesday evening from White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, plans to target a 1996 statute that shields Big Tech companies from liability for their users’ content. 

That’s because this statute also contains a section, Section 230, that allows platforms to remove material they find “objectionable,” all without being treated like a publisher or speaker. 

Because of this, Trump and many other Republicans have repeatedly accused social media platforms of having an anti-conservative bias either by getting rid of or invalidating conservative viewpoints.

“These platforms act like they are potted plants when [in reality] they are curators of user experiences, i.e. the man behind the curtain for everything we can see or hear,” a Trump administration official told Politico.

That official went on describe the order as broad and high level, saying it will address claims that Big Tech companies are cherry-picking what content to allow or block instead of acting as politically neutral platforms..

Jack Dorsey Defends Fact Check Labels

Despite this looming order, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey defended the warning over Trump’s tweets, saying those tweets “may mislead people into thinking they don’t need to register to get a ballot (only registered voters receive ballots).”

Dorsey added that Twitter will continue to issue fact check warnings.

“Fact check: there is someone ultimately accountable for our actions as a company, and that’s me,” he said. “Please leave our employees out of this. We’ll continue to point out incorrect or disputed information about elections globally. And we will admit to and own any mistakes we make.”

“This does not make us an ‘arbiter of truth,’” he added. “Our intention is to connect the dots of conflicting statements and show the information in dispute so people can judge for themselves. More transparency from us is critical so folks can clearly see the why behind our actions.” 

Dorsey specifically used the phrase “arbiter of truth” to hit back at Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who told CNBC Wednesday that social media companies should not regulate political speech.

“I don’t think Facebook or internet platforms in general should be arbiters of truth,” Zuckerberg said. “I think that’s kind of a dangerous line to get down to in terms of deciding what is true and what isn’t, and I think political speech is one of the most sensitive parts in a democracy, and people should be able to see what politicians say, and there’s a ton of scrutiny already. Political speech is the most scrutinized speech already by a lot of the media.”

How Much Power Does Trump Have?

Without congressional action, Trump’s power is limited, it’s also not unlikely to think that Congress could act.

That 1996 statute and Section 230 have been widely controversial on both sides of the aisle. While he’s not in Congress, earlier this year, former Vice President Joe Biden said that Section 230 should be revoked.

Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) said on Wednesday that he plans to introduce legislation to “end these special government giveaways” and that Twitter “should be divested of its special status under federal law.”

“Why should @twitter continue to get special treatment from government as a mere distributor of other people’s content if you are going to editorialize and comment like a publisher? Shouldn’t you be treated like publisher?” Hawley said

Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL) also announced plans to propose similar legislation in the House. 

Still, legislation like this will likely face opposition.

In October, we saw Republican Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers said, “I want to be very clear: I’m not for gutting Section 230.”

“It’s essential for consumers and entities in the internet ecosystem,” she added. “Misguided and hasty attempts to amend or even repeal Section 230 for bias or other reasons could have unintended consequences for free speech and the ability for small businesses to provide new and innovative services.”

Additionally, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) has essentially blamed Trump and other Republicans of playing political theater with these fact check labels.

“Whatever the credible criticisms of current law, Trump’s demagogic meat-ax attack is exactly wrong,” he said. “He intimidates free speech & imperils responsible reform. It’s condemnable.”

See what others are saying: (CNBC) (Politico) (The Hill)

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