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News Brief: Presidential Debate, Hackers Indicted, TikTok Fights Disinformation

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Two weeks from today, Americans finish casting votes. We are 14 days from November 3, which is Election Day, though, with so many people voting earlier by mail, it's really the climax of election season.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Yes, it is. But it is not the end of election season because we don't know how long it's going to take to count all the mail-in ballots. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court just upheld a rule in Pennsylvania. That court ruling means it's OK to count ballots that arrive in the mail after Election Day.

INSKEEP: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is here to survey the election two weeks out. Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. So Pennsylvania - obviously a very important swing state. What does the court ruling mean?

LIASSON: The court let stand a Pennsylvania state Supreme Court ruling that as long as the ballot is received within three days of Election Day, it can be counted as long as it's counted by Friday, November 6. This is a win for Democrats. There are a lot of cases like this in the courts because the rules for counting ballots are in large part set by each individual state.

INSKEEP: And of course, Pennsylvania is a vital state. And what this means is if it's really close, we might not know for a couple of days the winner. Although if it's a blowout, we could very well know who wins Pennsylvania on election night. We just don't know.

LIASSON: That's right.

INSKEEP: And anyway, that rule is set for now, and then there are new rules for the last presidential debate coming up on Thursday. What are they?

LIASSON: The Commission on Debates says that each candidate will have two minutes uninterrupted to speak at the start of each segment of the debate. The candidate who isn't speaking is going to have their microphone muted. And this comes...

INSKEEP: Mara, let me just interrupt to say - actually, I'm just interrupting to demonstrate what happened in the first debate. Please proceed. Go on. Go on.

LIASSON: (Laughter) This comes after the last presidential debate in which Donald Trump interrupted repeatedly. It was very chaotic. And then remember, the next debate was canceled after Donald Trump refused to do it virtually. He said at the time that in a virtual debate, they can cut off your mic whenever they want. The Trump campaign released a statement saying it is still committed to debating on Thursday, although the president has complained about the subjects of the debate, which are chosen by the moderator. And he's also attacked the moderator, NBC correspondent Kristen Welker, for being biased.

INSKEEP: Now, everything we've mentioned so far has been touched by the coronavirus. Voting is different. Debates are different than in past years for many reasons, one of them being the pandemic. How are the candidates talking about the pandemic in the final stretch?

LIASSON: Well, it's interesting. The coronavirus cases happen to be spiking. Right now, they're at their highest since the end of July. But President Trump is delivering the same message on the virus as he has for months, even after he himself got COVID. And the message is that the virus is no longer a problem, it's in the rearview mirror. He said yesterday at a rally in Prescott, Ariz., that the only people who still care about the virus are those trying to hurt him and that Americans have just had it with the pandemic. Here he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Pandemic - they're getting tired of the pandemic, aren't they? Getting tired of the pandemic. You turn on CNN, that's all they cover - COVID, COVID, pandemic, COVID, COVID, COVID, (unintelligible). You know why? They're trying to talk everybody out of voting. People aren't buying it, CNN, you dumb bastards. They're not buying it.

(CHEERING)

INSKEEP: I guess we're obliged to note, first, there's no evidence of that conspiracy theory about why there'd be lots of pandemic coverage. It has killed well over 200,000 people - pretty big story. But I want to note also, Mara, the president's opponent is Joe Biden. But here he is attacking CNN and also even his own health experts.

LIASSON: That's right. He is - and according to a New York Times report, he attacked Dr. Fauci, said Dr. Fauci - on a campaign call, he said, quote, "people are tired of hearing from Fauci and these idiots, all these idiots who got it wrong." At the Arizona rally, he said Fauci was a disaster. He attacked Biden for, quote, "listening to Fauci." Biden said later in the statement, that's not an attack. That's a badge of honor.

INSKEEP: One other thing - there was an effort to get coronavirus relief before the election. Is there any chance left of that?

LIASSON: Well, it's unclear. Nancy Pelosi says if you can't get a deal by today, you're not going to get one passed before Election Day. And the two sides are still pretty far apart.

INSKEEP: Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Mara Liasson.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Six Russian intelligence officers have been charged by the U.S. Department of Justice in connection with computer hacks that spread around the world.

KING: They're members of the GRU, which is the Russian military intelligence agency that interfered in the 2016 presidential election. This time around, they're accused of hacking computer systems of the 2018 Winter Olympics, Emmanuel Macron's presidential campaign and a hospital system in western Pennsylvania.

INSKEEP: Wow. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is with us now. Ryan, good morning.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: These sound kind of significant. Were they?

LUCAS: They most definitely were. These cyberattacks that the defendants here are accused of, U.S. officials say, amount to really the single-most disruptive and destructive series of cyberattacks that has ever been attributed to one group. This is a hefty indictment here. It's 50 pages long. There's a lot of detail, and it includes a long list of damaging cyberattacks that the U.S. says these guys were behind. You have cyberattacks that targeted Ukraine's electricity grid back in the winters of 2015 and 2016. The defendants are also accused of a really debilitating cyberattack known as NotPetya in 2017. That one originally targeted Ukraine and then very quickly spread around the world, caused billions of dollars in damages, including here in the U.S. The indictment mentions one U.S. pharmaceutical company that spent half a billion dollars dealing with that attack.

INSKEEP: Who were the people doing this?

LUCAS: Well, they are all current or former members of Russia's main military intelligence agency, the GRU. That may sound familiar because the GRU, as Noel said, was responsible for some of the hacks that we saw targeting the U.S. election back in 2016. Interestingly, one of the defendants here was also charged as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation a couple years ago. But Justice Department officials say with this new indictment, it really makes clear what they say is Russia's reckless use of cyberattacks. Here is John Demers, the head of the department's national security division.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN DEMERS: No country has weaponized its cybercapabilities as maliciously and irresponsibly as Russia, wantonly causing unprecedented collateral damage to pursue small, tactical advantages and fits of spite.

LUCAS: Now, take Ukraine, for example. Ukraine and Russia have been locked in a war for several years now in Ukraine's east. And with the 2018 Olympics, in that instance, Russian athletes were banned from competing under the Russian flag because of a state-sponsored doping scandal there.

INSKEEP: Ryan, does anything in this indictment point toward interference in the 2020 election?

LUCAS: There is nothing related to that in this indictment. And U.S. officials actually said that the timing of this was not tied at all to the political schedule. But nevertheless, this is a good reminder of what Russian state hackers are capable of. It also makes clear that the Russians didn't dial it back after being called out by the U.S. for the interference in 2016. Now, in this case, the defendants are not in U.S. custody. It is unlikely that any of them ever will be. But U.S. officials say it's still worth putting the weight of the U.S. government behind this indictment, behind these allegations and calling Russia out for its actions.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ryan Lucas, thanks very much.

LUCAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: All right. We've heard a lot about Facebook's efforts and Twitter's efforts to keep up with a flood of conspiracy theories and disinformation on their sites.

KING: Yeah. Those two companies are taking their hits. But actually, this is a problem on all social media, including TikTok. That video sharing app is only 2 years old, but it has twice as many users as Twitter. And with all those users come a lot of problems.

INSKEEP: NPR's Bobby Allyn has been looking at TikTok's dark side. Hi there, Bobby.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: What do you see when you look around on TikTok?

ALLYN: Well, name a major news event, and, Steve, you'll probably find lots of misinformation about it on TikTok. So, I mean, we're talking wild ideas about Trump's positive coronavirus test, you know, all sorts of bogus theories about Joe Biden, loads of, you know, unfounded health information about the virus. Like, early on in the pandemic, there was this misinformation push on TikTok where people were taking videos outside of hospitals. It was this kind of absurd attempt to show that the coronavirus was a hoax. Here's a guy under the username @saynotosocialism who took part.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Not much happening. And this is a hospital that serves thousands and thousands of people here in downtown Brooklyn, N.Y. There is no mass chaos out here, contrary to what the mainstream media is telling you.

INSKEEP: I guess we better just pause to note that thousands of people died of coronavirus in New York, and the hospitals were hard pressed, even though they did avoid chaos. What is TikTok doing about this kind of thing?

ALLYN: Yeah. So the hospital video we just heard was taken down. That was a video that was being pushed by the Trump-supporting conspiracy theory QAnon. TikTok says it deletes all accounts and content that QAnon pushes - at least, Steve, that's its policy. When it comes to misinformation, when it comes to other kinds of troubling content like hate speech, you know, enforcement is not easy. And there are tons of examples of really problematic videos sort of sneaking past the moderators, the human moderators and the artificial intelligence. And what does it do then? It catches millions of views. I talked to Dave Sifry. He's with the Anti-Defamation League, and he says sometimes these extremists are using code language on TikTok to try to avoid detection.

DAVE SIFRY: For example, swapping the number four for the letter A and the number one for the letter I or L. And so you might see N4ZL standing for Nazi.

ALLYN: Yeah. So Facebook and Twitter have, you know, been targets of scrutiny for these sorts of posts on their sites. And, you know, on one hand, you have people saying that they are helping to spread harmful content. On the other, when they do act, they're accused of censorship.

INSKEEP: Well, here's this happening on a new platform that didn't even exist in the last presidential election. How is TikTok's approach any different from Facebook's or Twitter's?

ALLYN: I mean, yeah, most of the time when we hear TikTok and the criticism it faces, it's over its Chinese ownership, not about what's actually on the app. I mean, it's lots of goofy and fun videos, you know, a video of a monkey getting a bath in a sink, which I just saw on TikTok recently. Not exactly a threat to democracy, but there is misinformation and extremism that troubles experts. And TikTok is different because its policies are really clear cut, and it tends to take a more aggressive stance towards the misuse of its app. And so there are lessons really learned by looking at what Twitter and Facebook have done, which is this sort of, like, scattershot, let's just whack a piece of troubling content when we see it. Instead of that, TikTok of setting clear-cut policies here.

INSKEEP: NPR's Bobby Allyn, thanks very much.

ALLYN: Hey. Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF B-SIDE'S "JUST DON'T CARE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.