Congress is just using 'Russian bots' as a reason to finally regulate social media

Democrats and Republicans don't agree on much, but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have an interest in controlling social media. On September 5, Attorney General Jeff Session announced plans to meet with state attorneys general to discuss possible regulation of social media over concerns that platforms are stifling conservative speech. On September 13, Senator Mark Warner, the Senate Intelligence Committee's top Democrat, remarked on this heavy bipartisan support for future regulations at a conference hosted by The Atlantic on digital privacy. "Depending on how we framed it, I think we'd have an overwhelming majority," Warner said, noting that he thinks it's likely citizens no longer desire unconstrained liberty in their internet usage. "I think there is a high chance that people realize that the days of the wild, wild west are over—that there needs to be some guardrails."

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Every day, Congress is nearing implementation of these online guardrails. On September 5, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee, explaining how foreign intelligence agencies were able to use their social media platforms to spread disinformation throughout the 2016 election. Indeed, the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Kremlin-linked company specializing in online operations to promote Russian interests, created thousands of political ads and fake pages intended to sow division. Dorsey even described the Russian social media campaign as one comprised of "abuse, harassment, troll armies, propaganda through bots and human coordination, disinformation campaigns and divisive filter bubbles."

All these concerns may have merit, but opening the door for government regulation of social media is a cure far worse than the disease. The federal government, which operates a massive surveillance program through the National Security Agency, isn't exactly the best gatekeeper of user privacy and data. Neither is government the best choice to determine what constitutes "fake news" considering how one of the jobs of the press is to hold government accountable. Allowing the government to decide what is acceptable content is a surefire path to harsher censorship than Jack Dorsey or Mark Zuckerberg could dream of.

Facebook should take steps to prevent fraudulent accounts from spreading disinformation, but it's a task for them, not Congress.

But, in relation to the actual extent of the Russian disinformation campaign, Congress' steps toward interference in social media seem absurd. Facebook revealed in last year's November hearing that the Russian Internet Research Agency spent only $46,000 on pre-election Facebook ads. In terms of funding, that's remarkably minimal. Compared to the $81 million spent by the Trump and Clinton campaigns, that sum likely had little influence in voter decision-making. What the Russians did was fraudulent, but it's important to understand the scale of the Russian operation before making the case that Congress should intervene.

It's true that millions of Americans saw the Russian ads and clicked "like" on fake profile pages created by the IRA, but that illicit content still made up a miniscule fraction of what social media users saw on a daily basis. A Facebook report published on April 27, 2017, stated that the reach of known operations during the 2016 election was less than one-tenth of a percent of the total reach of civic content. Facebook should take steps to prevent fraudulent accounts from spreading disinformation, but it's a task for them, not Congress. Even if Facebook could remove all Russian propaganda from their site, users are still exposed to content created by their friends. Ultimately, ordinary Americans are just as capable of creating and sharing fake news or divisive political memes as Russian intelligence agents.

Before handing the reins over to lawmakers, social media users should make an effort to protect their own data and decide what content they want to see. And it can be done, but, unfortunately, a recent Pew Research poll found that most Facebook users are unaware of how their newsfeed works. Of the 4,594 surveyed U.S. adults, 53 percent said they didn't understand why certain posts appeared on their feed while others didn't. Yet, this isn't Congress's problem to fix.

People have means of controlling for themselves what they read on social media. Facebook allows its users the ability to prioritize the content they want to see and hide the posts they'd rather ignore. Users can even temporarily unfollow a friend if they find their long-winded political rants annoying. Despite having these tools, only 14 percent of those Pew surveyed said they had a lot of control over their Facebook experience. Yet, a majority of users—63 percent— said they haven't once tried to influence the content they see. Aaron Smith, associate director of research at Pew Research Center, described this as a major contributing factor in fake news consumption: "Whether or not someone has made an effort to influence the content of their own news feed is often linked with their sense that users have control over the content that appears there."

People ought to take responsibility for their own news consumption.

Concern over social media is fueled, in part, by a lack of understanding of how these networks actually work. And Congress, ever-anxious to put regulations where they shouldn't be, is generating needless panic to exacerbate the problem. But the truth remains that social media users have, in their own hands, the tools for curating their experience online. A user can fact-check and unfollow fake news—whether from a Russian bot or a friend at work. But it should be up to the user to determine the validity of the content they see, not some bureaucrat in Washington. People ought to take responsibility for their own news consumption. No one else is qualified enough for the job.

Lindsay Marchello is a Young Voices Contributor and an Associate Editor with the Carolina Journal. Follow her on Twitter.@LynnMarch007.

This compromise is an abomination

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Three decades ago, "The Art of the Deal" made Donald Trump a household name. A lot has happened since then. But you can trace many of Trump's actions back to that book.

Art of the Deal:

In the end, you're measured not by how much you undertake but by what you finally accomplish.

People laughed when he announced that he was running for President. And I mean that literally. Remember the 2011 White House Correspondents' Dinner when Obama roasted Trump, viciously, mocking the very idea that Trump could ever be President. Now, he's President.

You can't con people, at least not for long. You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotion and get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole. But if you don't deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.

This empire-building is a mark of Trump.

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The most recent example is the border wall. Yesterday, congress reached a compromise on funding for the border wall. Weeks of tense back-and-forth built up to that moment. At times, it seemed like neither side would budge. Trump stuck to his guns, the government shut down, Trump refused to budge, then, miraculously, the lights came back on again. The result was a compromise. Or at least that's how it appeared.

But really, Trump got what he wanted -- exactly what he wanted. He used the techniques he wrote about in The Art of the Deal:

My style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward. I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I'm after.

From the start, he demanded $5.7 billion for construction of a border wall. It was a months' long tug-of-war that eventually resulted in yesterday's legislation, which would dedicate $1.4 billion. It would appear that that was what he was after all along. Moments before the vote, he did some last-minute pushing. A national emergency declaration, and suddenly the number is $8 billion.

Art of the Deal:

People think I'm a gambler. I've never gambled in my life. To me, a gambler is someone who plays slot machines. I prefer to own slot machines. It's a very good business being the house.

In a rare show of bipartisanship, Senate passed the legislation 83-16, and the House followed with 300-128. Today, Trump will sign the bill.

It's not even fair to call that a deal, really. A deal is what happens when you go to a car dealership, fully ready to buy a car, and the salesman says the right things. What Trump did is more like a car dealer selling an entire row of cars to someone who doesn't even have a licence. When Trump started, Democrats wouldn't even consider a wall, let alone pay for it.

Art of the Deal:

The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people's fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That's why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It's an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.

He started the wall on a chant, "Build the wall!" until he got what he wanted. He maneuvered like Don Draper, selling people something that they didn't even know they wanted, and convincing them that it is exactly what they've always needed.

As the nation soaks in the victory of the recent passing of the historic First Step Act, there are Congressmen who haven't stopped working to solve additional problems with the criminal justice system. Because while the Act was impactful, leading to the well-deserved early release of many incarcerated individuals, it didn't go far enough. That's why four Congressmen have joined forces to reintroduce the Justice Safety Valve Act—legislation that would grant judges judicial discretion when determining appropriate sentencing.

There's a real need for this legislation since it's no secret that lawmakers don't always get it right. They may pass laws with good intentions, but unintended consequences often prevail. For example, there was a time when the nation believed the best way to penalize lawbreakers was to be tough on crime, leading to sweeping mandatory minimum sentencing laws implemented both nationally and statewide.

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Only in recent years have governments learned that these sentences aren't good policy for the defendant or even the public. Mandatory minimum sentences are often overly harsh, don't act as a public deterrent for crime, and are extremely costly to taxpayers. These laws tie judges' hands, preventing them from using their knowledge and understanding of the law to make case relevant decisions.

Because legislation surrounding criminal law is often very touchy and difficult to change (especially on the federal level, where bills can take multiple years to pass) mandatory minimum sentences are far from being done away with—despite the data-driven discoveries of their downfalls. But in order to solve the problems inherent within all of the different laws imposing sentencing lengths, Congress needs to pass the Justice Safety Valve Act now. Ensuring its passing would allow judges to use discretion while sentencing, rather than forcing them to continue issuing indiscriminate sentences no matter the unique facts of the case.

Rather than take years to go back and try to fix every single mandatory minimum law that has been federally passed, moving this single piece of legislation forward is the best way to ensure judges can apply their judgment in every appropriate case.

When someone is facing numerous charges from a single incident, mandatory minimum sentencing laws stack atop one another, resulting in an extremely lengthy sentence that may not be just. Such high sentences may even be violations of an individual's eighth amendment rights, what with the imposition of cruel and unusual punishment. It's exactly what happened with Weldon Angelos.

In Salt Lake City in 2002, Weldon sold half a pound of marijuana to federal agents on two separate occasions. Unbeknownst to Weldon, the police had targeted him because they suspected he was a part of a gang and trafficking operation. They were oh-so-wrong. Weldon had never sold marijuana before and only did this time because he was pressured by the agents to find marijuana for them. He figured a couple lowkey sales could help out his family's financial situation. But Weldon was caught and sentenced to a mandatory 55 years in prison. This massive sentence is clearly unjust for a first time, non-violent crime, and even the Judge, Paul Cassell, agreed. Judge Cassell did everything he could to reduce the sentence, but, due to federal law, it wasn't much.

The nation is facing an over-criminalization problem that costs taxpayers millions and amounts to the foolish eradication of individual liberties.

In cases like Weldon's, a safety valve for discretionary power is much needed. Judges need the ability to issue sentences below the mandatory minimums, depending on mitigating factors such as mental health, provocation, or physical illness. That's what this new bill would allow for. Critics may argue that this gives judges too much power, but under the bill, judges must first make a finding on why it's necessary to sentence below the mandatory minimum. Then, they must write a clear statement explaining their decision.

Judges are unlikely to risk their careers to allow dangerous criminals an early release. If something happens after an offender is released early, the political pressure is back on the judge who issued the shorter sentence—and no one wants that kind of negative attention. In order to avoid risky situations like this, they'd use their discretion very cautiously, upholding the oath they took to promote justice in every case.

The nation is facing an overcriminalization problem that costs taxpayers millions and amounts to the foolish eradication of individual liberties. Mandatory minimums have exacerbated this problem, and it's time for that to stop. Congresswomen and men have the opportunity to help solve this looming problem by passing the Justice Safety Valve Act to untie the hands of judges and restore justice in individual sentences.

Molly Davis is a policy analyst at Libertas Institute, a free market think tank in Utah. She's a writer for Young Voices, and her work has previously appeared in The Hill, TownHall.com, and The Washington Examiner.

New gadget for couples in 'the mood' lets a button do the talking

Photo by Matt Nelson on Unsplash

Just in time for Valentine's Day, there's a new romantic gadget for couples that is sure to make sparks fly. For those with their minds in the gutter, I'm not talking about those kinds of gadgets. I'm talking about a brilliant new device for the home called "LoveSync."

This is real — it's a simple pair of buttons for busy, modern couples who have plenty of time for social media and Netflix, but can't quite squeeze in time to talk about their... uh... special relationship.

Here's how it works. Each partner has their own individual LoveSync button. Whenever the mood strikes one partner, all they have to do is press their own button. That sets their button aglow for a certain period of time. If, during that time window, their partner also presses their own button, then both buttons light up in a swirling green pattern to signal that love has "synced"...and it's go time.

According to the makers of LoveSync, this device will "Take the Luck out of Getting Lucky." It brings a whole new meaning to "pushing each other's buttons." It's an ideal gift to tell your significant other "I care," without actually having to care, or talk about icky things like feelings.

If you find your significant other is already on the couch binge-watching The Bachelor, no problem! You can conveniently slink back to your button and hold it in for four seconds to cancel the desire. No harm, no foul! Live to fight another day.

Have fun explaining those buttons to inquiring children.

No word yet on whether LoveSync can also order wine, light candles or play Barry White. Maybe that's in the works for LoveSync 2.0.

Of course, LoveSync does have some pitfalls. Cats and toddlers love a good button. That'll be a fun conversation — "Honey, who keeps canceling my mood submissions?" And have fun explaining those buttons to inquiring children. "Yeah, kids, that button just controls the lawn sprinklers. No big deal."

If you've been dialing it in for years on Valentine's Day with flowers and those crappy boxes of chocolate, now you can literally dial it in. With a button.

Good luck with that.