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Democratic senators on Thursday announced legislation co-sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) that would require major social media platforms to label political ads in much the same way they’re disclosed on television and radio.

The bill, The Honest Ads Act, comes in response to growing evidence that Russia exploited a number of social media platforms to interfere with the 2016 election and exacerbate divisions in U.S. political discourse. A companion bill, sponsored by Reps. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) and Mike Coffman (R-CO), is being introduced in the House.

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White nationalist Richard Spencer is slated to give his first speech since the fatal rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on Thursday at the University of Florida, and with tensions running high, the Gainesville community is grappling with conflicting approaches on how to respond.

The university administration and a coalition of student groups are encouraging people to steer clear of an event they say is intended to provoke, while many other students and Florida residents plan to publicly rally against Spencer’s message, insisting it can’t go unchallenged.

“Our sole focus is to help divert attention from his assembly tomorrow,” said Bijal Desai, a University of Florida student and member of #TogetherUF, a coalition of student groups organized in the wake of Charlottesville to fight racism and hate on campus.

To draw eyes away from a man seen making Nazi salutes at a karaoke bar in a recently surfaced video, #TogetherUF organized counter-programming that includes a “virtual assembly” with cameos from celebrities like actor Kal Penn and WWE fighter Titus O’Neil, as well as a fundraiser to boost donations for the school’s student affairs crisis fund.

School officials including university president Ken Fuchs have pushed that approach, which allows people to address Spencer’s message while avoiding his physical event. After initially refusing Spencer’s request to rent space at UF for September, citing the violence in Charlottesville and the white nationalist’s “repugnant” rhetoric, Fuchs agreed to let Spencer hold the event at a later date under threat of legal action.

First Amendment experts have told TPM that Spencer would likely have prevailed if he took legal action against the university, due to a combination of court precedent, the difficulty of preemptively proving that a speaker will provoke violence, and strong free speech protections on state school campuses.

Now that the speech is happening, Gov. Rick Scott (R) has declared a state of emergency in the county where UF is located, while the school itself is shelling out some $500,000 in security costs. University officials and police have released a flood of information on the rules for the hundreds of counter-protesters who are expected to mobilize outside the school’s Philips Center during Spencer’s talk. Adding to that already chaotic atmosphere, university officials say over 200 journalists have requested credentials to cover the speech.

Spencer’s appearance was orchestrated by Cameron Padgett, a grad student at Georgia State University who says he has taken it upon himself both to organize Spencer’s speaking appearances at major public universities across the country and to help take those schools who refuse to host the white nationalist to court.

Padgett is also expected to assume an on-the-ground role helping distribute the 700 tickets that have been issued for Spencer’s UF speech. Spencer’s nonprofit organization, the National Policy Institute, elected not to use the Phillips Center box office after a local brewery offered to provide students with free beer in exchange for their tickets.

A coalition of protesters that includes both UF students and outside groups plans to hold a “No Nazis at UF” rally outside the facility, in the protest zone cordoned off by police. Black Lives Matter Tampa, Atlanta Antifascists, UF pro-immigrant group Chispas and the Young Democratic Socialists of America’s UF chapter are expected to be out in force at the event, which one organizer said he believes will draw “thousands.”

“We hope we can follow the example of Boston and San Francisco where when they came out and spoke, the protesters showed up en masse and everyone went home safe and was aware that there were more of us than there were of them,” Mitch Emerson, an Orlando organizer working on UF’s protest, told TPM, referring to other recent “free speech” and far-right events.

Emerson said that simply ignoring the event is not an option for him and for many of his fellow protesters, as he says the media would have covered the speech regardless and they “don’t want people to think Gainesville doesn’t have a problem” with Spencer.

The university couldn’t provide an estimate of how many counter-protesters it expects on Thursday. UF spokeswoman Janine Sikes told TPM the school is “prepared for many and we’re hopeful for few.”

Spencer, for his part, is characteristically thrilled by the attention, firing off tweets comparing his arrival to that of a hurricane and noting with relish where the news of his speech stacks up with other stories.

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Three Democratic senators wrote to the U.S. Government Accountability Office Wednesday requesting  an investigation into President Trump’s much-criticized, sketchy voter fraud commission.

The senators, Michael Bennet (D-CO), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Cory Booker (D-NJ), say that the commission has not responded to any of their requests for more information about its operations. They pointed to disclosures that came through open records requests, litigation and investigative reporting that “raise questions about the partisan motives and actions of the Commission.”

“Without any [commission] response to Congressional inquiries, we fear that the manner in which [the commission] is conducting its work will prevent the public from a full and transparent understanding of the Commission’s conclusions and unnecessarily diminish confidence in our democratic process,” the senators said.

They go onto request that the GAO look at the commission’s funding, the information it bases its conclusions on, its methodology and the steps it took to protect voter information and follow regulations related to its work.

Read the full letter below:

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Criticisms that President Trump’s voter fraud commission is not operating transparently are now coming from within the hen house.

A Democratic member of the commission sent a letter to its executive director seeking more information about the communications among commissioner members, with federal agencies, with commission staff on its work “and/or policy proposals that may be offered to policymakers as either a component of any report or under separate cover of which this Commissioner may be unaware.”

“There’s been a lot of frustration with the lack of information that people are able to get out of the commission,” Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap told TPM.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Dunlap said he had not received a response to his letter from Andrew Kossack, the commission’s executive director.

Dunlap, in the letter, cites the Federal Advisory Committee Act in requesting “copies of any and all correspondence between Commission members in the possession of the Commission.” He also recounts his frustration when he first heard about developments and details about the commission’s work through inquiries from the media.

The straw that broke the camel’s back, Dunlap told TPM, was when a reporter texted him about a Washington Post report Saturday that a researcher for the commission had been arrested on child porn charges.

“Four days have gone by. We’ve heard nothing from the leadership of the commission or staff about the situation,” Dunlap said. Dunlap said he may have met the researcher, Ronald Williams, at a commission meeting, but was otherwise unaware of his role and what sort of research he was doing.

But it’s not just that. Dunlap told TPM he was surprised when he was asked by reporters about communications between the commission’s vice chair Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Republican commissioners J. Christian Adams and Hans von Spakovsky about a controversial request for state voter roll information. The communications that happened before Adams and von Spakovsky were formally named to the commission, and they were only revealed as part of a lawsuit against the commission.

“You have a situation where you have the names J. Christian Adams, Hans von Spakovsky and Kris Kobach keep coming up as being the architects of the work of the commission. But what about the rest of us?” Dunlap told TPM. “There are other members of the commission and nobody is consulting with me about what I think the issues are that we should be looking at.”

Despite his concerns, Dunlap said he does not have any intentions of quitting commission.

“I think that would be a one day story [if I resigned],” Dunlap said. “I think I am a lot more effective at the front lines than I am in retreat.”

Read his letter to the executive director below:

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions would not give a straight answer to Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s (D-MN) request to confirm that he will not put reporters in jail “for doing their jobs.”

“I don’t know if I can make a blanket commitment to that effect,” Sessions said during his hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“But I would say this, we have not taken any aggressive action against the media at this point,” he continued. “We have matters that involve the most serious national security issues that put our country at risk, and we will utilize the authorities that we have legally and constitutionally if we have to.”

“We always try to find an alternative way, as you probably know, Senator Klobuchar, to directly confronting media persons,” he added. “But that is not a total blanket protection.”

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions said during a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday he did not “believe” he had any conversations “directly” with members or staff of President Trump’s voter fraud commission.

Documents surfaced in a legal case against the commission revealed some level of communication between the commission members and DOJ, though it is unclear from the documents who exactly commission members spoke to and what they discussed.

“I do not believe I’ve ever had a single conversation with any member or staff of the commission directly,” Sessions said in response to a question from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN).

She followed up by asking if there’s been any coordination between the commission and Sessions’ staff.

“I don’t know that coordinating is the correct — we’ve been asked for assistance on several issues,” Sessions said.  “I think it’s quite appropriate for the President to have a commission to review possible irregularities in elections. But you can be sure that Department of Justice will fairly and objectively enforce the law.”

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wouldn’t say whether it would be appropriate for a President to preemptively pardon people who are of interest to a federal investigation.

That scenario is a hot topic in light of Special Counsel Bob Mueller’s Russia probe, as President Trump has reportedly asked advisers about his abilities to pardon himself and those close to him, and Mueller’s team has appeared to take measures to circumvent that possibility, by working with the New York state attorney general’s office. (Presidents can only pardon federal crimes, not state crimes.)

After bringing up that Sessions had previously refused to say whether he had discussed potential pardons for people implicated by the Russia investigation, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) posed the question to Sessions as a hypothetical.

“Broadly speaking, do you believe that it would be problematic for an ongoing investigation if a president were to preemptively issue a pardon for someone who we have reason to believe is of interest to that investigation before the special counsel had a chance to finish his work?” Klobuchar asked.

Well, the pardon power is quite broad. I’m not studied it. I do not know if that would be appropriate or not, frankly,” Sessions said. He later added that he would look into it and follow up with a written response to the committee.

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Updated at 1:36 p.m. ET

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Wednesday that he had not been interviewed or contacted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller as part of his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The revelation came after some squirming by Sessions as Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) grilled him during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about his interactions with the Mueller probe thus far.

“I’d be pleased to answer that. I am not sure I should without clearing with the special counsel. What do you think?” Sessions said.

Leahy repeated his question: whether Sessions had been interviewed by Mueller’s team, prompting Sessions to say “no.”

Leahy had also asked whether Mueller had requested an interview with Sessions. That question went unanswered until later in the day, when Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) pressed Sessions further.

With questions that seemed to suggest Blumenthal knew something, he asked Sessions if he had been contacted by Mueller’s probe. Sessions said he didn’t know, but picked up on the implication of Blumenthal’s questions. “Do you have a source?” he asked Blumenthal at one point. Sessions promised to check with his staff.

A short time later, Sessions said his staff had subsequently assured him Mueller’s probe had not reached out for an interview.

“My staff handed me a note that I have not been asked for an interview at this point. My office certainly hasn’t been contacted with regard to that,” Sessions said.

“Maybe you better check your source.”

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions refused to confirm or deny whether President Trump brought up the federal Russia investigation as a reason to fire FBI Director James Comey.

“That calls for a communication that I have had with the president, and I believe it remains confidential,” Sessions said, in response to questioning from top Judiciary Committee Democrat Dianne Feinstein (CA) at committee hearing Wednesday.

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Alan Yuhas contributed English-language translation

As many as 100 unwitting activists were recruited to help organize events in the United States both before and after the election by the same St. Petersburg-based Russian troll farm behind scores of fake social media accounts that purchased ads to sow discord during the 2016 campaign.

The revelation comes from a report in the Russian business magazine RBC published on Tuesday morning.

The events included an October 2016 rally in Charlotte, North Carolina to protest police violence mere weeks after a protester was fatally shot at a Black Lives Matter protest there. The organizers of the October protest were not with BLM, though, according to RBC’s report. They were with BlackMattersUS, the organization outed as a Russian front last week by Casey Michel at ThinkProgress.

The Charlotte rally was one of ten BlackMattersUS events catalogued by RBC journalists Polina Rusyaeva and Andrey Zakharov. The two reporters interviewed numerous former employees at the Federal News Agency (FAN), the troll farm formerly known as the Internet Research Agency, and reviewed chats on encrypted messaging app Telegram from senior personnel.

The report also found that from January-May 2017, the troll farm contacted martial arts instructors through a puppet group called BlackFist. In places as disparate as New York City, Los Angeles, Lansing, Michigan and Tampa, Florida, BlackFist offered to pay the instructors to provide free self-defense course for “anyone who wanted them.” Those instructors told RBC that they had indeed received sponsorship for free classes, although it was abruptly withdrawn.

“Up to 100 American citizens helped to organize the events for the ‘Trolls factory,’ not knowing who’s really behind all these groups,” Zakharov told TPM.

A source familiar with the troll farm’s activities told RBC that it spent about $80,000 total—just $20,000 less than Facebook said was spent promoting divisive ads on its platform—on “paying for these local organizers’ work (flights, printing costs, technical equipment),” according to a translation of the report commissioned by TPM.

RBC found that the troll farm was carrying out dry runs for political protests in the U.S. as early as 2015. That spring, the organization used publicly accessible webcams in Times Square to see if people would follow instructions on Facebook to show up at a designated place and time for a free hot dog. They did, and didn’t even get a promised hot dog for their trouble.

FAN considered that show of hungry Facebook users a huge success, according to the translation of RBC’s report:

The action was meant to test the effectiveness of a hypothesis: can you remotely organize measures in American cities. “Simply a test of possibilities, an experiment. And it succeeded,” remembered one of the “factory” workers, not concealing their pleasure. From this day forward, almost a year and a half before the US presidential election, began the full work of the “trolls” in American communities.

In March 2015, on the web portal SuperJob, there appeared vacancies for “internet operators (night),” with a salary of 40-50 thousand roubles and a work schedule of 21pm to 9am, in the office on Primorsky district; job duties included writing materials “on designated themes” and “news information and analysis.” On the list of requirements for the position, “natural English,” “confident ownership” of written language, and creativity.

Russian reporter Alexey Kovalev told TPM last month that a troll he took to task for praising Putin in the comments of one of his articles made him a similar offer for work.

The RBC report also identified the head of FAN’s American division, Jayhoon (also spelled Dzheikhun) Aslanov, 27, who studied abroad in the U.S. in 2009 and graduated with a degree in economics from Russian State Hydrometeorological University in 2012. Three sources confirmed Aslanov’s role at the troll farm to RBC, including one who showed the reporters messages from Aslanov on Telegram; Aslanov himself denied it to the news outlet.

FAN’s American unit spent $2.3 million between June 2015 and August 2017 and employed 90 people at its peak, according to the report; it is still active and today employs 50 people. During the period RBC studied, the troll farm’s budget for promotion on social media was $5,000 a month, fully half of which was devoted to “posts touching on race issues.”

But Trump himself factored into that material far less than his opponent, Hillary Clinton, RBC found. From the translated report:

A RBC analysis of hundreds of posts showed that Clinton figured in troll posts far more frequently than Trump.
“Share if you believe that Muslims did not do 9/11,” (United Muslims of America, 11 September 2016), “Clinton insists ‘We have not lost a single American in Libya’ Four coffins, covered in flags, were not empty, Hillary.” (Being Patriotic, in a post about Clinton’s relation to the tragedy, from 8 September 2016). In a statement, Facebook said that for the most part the blocked ads “range across the ideological spectrum,” touching on issues like LGBT rights, race, immigrants and firearms.

RBC’s investigation uncovered more than 100 community pages and associated accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other platforms active through August 2017 that it believes were run by the troll farm. It confirmed those accounts’ authenticity using screenshots of posts and by consulting “a source close to the factory’s leadership.” The report estimates about 70 million people a week saw something posted by those accounts.

Zakharov told TPM that he believes there are accounts run by FAN with a total following around 1 million that remain active to this day.

This post has been updated.

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