U.S. Justice Department Russia probe review now criminal investigation: source

U.S. Justice Department Russia probe review now criminal investigation: source
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. Justice Department review of the origins of the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election is now a criminal investigation, a person familiar with the matter said on Thursday.

The person, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, declined to say whether a grand jury had been convened in the investigation, which was first reported by the New York Times.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr launched a review earlier this year to investigate President Donald Trump’s complaints that his campaign was improperly targeted by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies during the 2016 election.

Democrats and some former law enforcement officials say Barr is using the Justice Department to chase unsubstantiated conspiracy theories that could benefit the Republican president politically and undermine former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

The Democratic chairmen of the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees blasted the reported move, saying it raised “profound new concerns” that Barr had turned the department into “a vehicle for President Trump’s political revenge.”

“If the Department of Justice may be used as a tool of political retribution or to help the President with a political narrative for the next election, the rule of law will suffer new and irreparable damage,” Representatives Jerrold Nadler and Adam Schiff said in a statement late Thursday night.

As part of his inquiry, Barr has asked Australian and British justice officials for assistance and visited Italy twice, meeting intelligence agents in Rome in August and September to learn more about people mentioned in Mueller’s report. Trump has also contacted foreign officials over the review, the department has said.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte this week said that the meetings established that Italy had no information in the matter and was not involved. A letter reviewed by Reuters showed Australia offered to assist in May.

Mueller’s investigation found that Moscow interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump, and led to criminal convictions of several former campaign aides. But Mueller concluded that he did not have enough evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy with Russia.

Barr appointed Connecticut State Attorney John Durham to lead the review of whether U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies acted properly when they examined possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, which ultimately led to the Mueller investigation.

Trump, who calls the Russia investigation a witch hunt and a hoax, says U.S. officials launched the probe to undermine his chances of winning the White House, although he and his supporters have provided no evidence.

Trump is also grappling with a Democratic-led impeachment inquiry focused on his request in a July telephone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, who is a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination to face Trump in the 2020 election.

Schiff is leading the impeachment inquiry being conducted along with the House foreign Affairs and Oversight panels.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Writing by Mohammad Zargham and Susan Heavey; Editing by Eric Beech, Peter Cooney and Giles Elgood)

Facebook tightens rules for U.S. political advertisers ahead of 2020 election

FILE PHOTO: A 3D-printed Facebook Like symbol is displayed in front of a U.S. flag in this illustration taken, March 18, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

By Elizabeth Culliford

(Reuters) – Facebook Inc is tightening its political ad rules in the United States, it said on Wednesday, requiring new disclosures for its site and photo-sharing platform Instagram ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November 2020.

The social media giant is introducing a “confirmed organization” label for U.S. political advertisers who show government-issued credentials to demonstrate their legitimacy.

All advertisers running ads on politics or social issues will also have to post their contact information, even if they are not seeking the official label.

Advertisers must comply by mid-October or risk having their ads cut off.

Under scrutiny from regulators since Russia used social media platforms to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Facebook has been rolling out ad transparency tools country by country since last year.

Since May 2018, Facebook has required political advertisers in the United States to put a “paid for by” disclaimer on their ads. But the company said some had used misleading disclaimers or tried to register as organizations that did not exist.

“In 2018 we did see evidence of misuse in these disclaimers and so this is our effort to strengthen the process,” said Sarah Schiff, product manager at Facebook.

Last year, Vice News journalists managed to place ads on behalf of figures and groups including U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and “Islamic State.” Just last week, Facebook banned conservative news outlet the Epoch Times from advertising on the platform after it used different pages to push ads in support of President Donald Trump.

Paid Facebook ads have become a major tool for political campaigns and other organizations to target voters.

The re-election campaign for Trump, a Republican, has spent about $9.6 million this year on ads on the site, making him the top spender among 2020 candidates, according to Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic firm that tracks digital ad spending.

After the announcement, the Trump campaign told Reuters it thought there was a “glaring omission” in Facebook’s political ads policy because news media were not held to the same standards as campaigns for buying ads.

Facebook does not apply its ad authorization policies to certain news sources that it determines to have a good track record for avoiding misinformation, have a minimum number of visitors and have ads with the primary purpose of reporting on news and current events.

Last year, Facebook began requiring political advertisers to submit a U.S. mailing address and identity document. Under the new rules, they will also have to supply a phone number, business email and website.

To get a “confirmed organization” label, advertisers must submit a Federal Election Commission ID number, tax-registered organization ID number, or government website domain matching an official email.

Facebook has continuously revamped its policies around political advertising, which differ by country.

In 2018, it launched an online library of political ads, although the database has been criticized by researchers for being poorly maintained and failing to provide useful ad targeting information.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Culliford in San Francisco; Additional reporting from Ginger Gibson in Washington; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Matthew Lewis)

Top House Intelligence lawmaker: 2020 election ‘enormously vulnerable’

FILE PHOTO: House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) speaks to reporters as he departs after hearing testimony from Michael Cohen, the former personal attorney of U.S. President Donald Trump, at a closed House Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Jim Young

By Ginger Gibson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. presidential election in 2020 is “enormously vulnerable” to hacking and foreign influence, Representative Adam Schiff, the chairman of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, said on Tuesday.

Schiff, responding to a reporter’s question at The Christian Science Monitor breakfast, warned that “the potential for mischief now is extreme” and said he is concerned about efforts to undermine U.S. democracy.

Schiff’s committee has been actively investigating the 2016 presidential campaign and allegations that the Russian government actively sought to meddle in the election to help elect U.S. President Donald Trump. Both Trump and the Kremlin have denied any meddling or collusion.

Schiff said during the midterm congressional elections in 2018, there was only a handful of incidents of so-called “spearfishing,” a form of hacking that involves trying to get someone to unknowingly hand over their passwords.

But he now thinks the efforts could be more aggressive.

He also said that he thinks Russia and other countries are capable of using “deep fake” technology.

He said outside actors could use the technology “to forge audio tapes, to forge video tapes, to make a far more disruptive impact.”

Conversely, he said he is also concerned that the possible proliferation of fake video or audio could make the public unwilling to believe real images or sounds.

“Even if you can disprove a fake video. If you can show it’s a forgery. The negative impression watching it … you can never erase.”

He said the concern is compounded by what he called Trump’s willingness to deny facts.

“An electorate that is being acclimated to the idea that we’re all entitled to different truths, that makes our democracy very vulnerable,” Schiff said.

(Reporting by Ginger Gibson; Editing by Susan Thomas)

Facebook, Google to tackle spread of fake news, advisors want more

FILE PHOTO - Commuters walk past an advertisement discouraging the dissemination of fake news at a train station in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

By Foo Yun Chee

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Facebook, Google, and other tech firms have agreed on a code of conduct to do more to tackle the spread of fake news, due to concerns it can influence elections, the European Commission said on Wednesday.

Intended to stave off more heavy-handed legislation, the voluntary code covers closer scrutiny of advertising on accounts and websites where fake news appears, and working with fact checkers to filter it out, the Commission said.

But a group of media advisors criticized the companies, also including Twitter and lobby groups for the advertising industry, for failing to present more concrete measures.

With EU parliamentary elections scheduled for May, Brussels is anxious to address the threat of foreign interference during campaigning. Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Poland, Portugal, and Ukraine are also all due to hold national elections next year.

Russia has faced allegations – which it denies – of disseminating false information to influence the U.S. presidential election and Britain’s referendum on European Union membership in 2016, as well as Germany’s national election last year.

The Commission told the firms in April to draft a code of practice or face regulatory action over what it said was their failure to do enough to remove misleading or illegal content.

European Digital Commissioner Mariya Gabriel said on Wednesday that Facebook, Google, Twitter, Mozilla, and advertising groups – which she did not name – had responded with several measures.

“The industry is committing to a wide range of actions, from transparency in political advertising to the closure of fake accounts and …we welcome this,” she said in a statement.

The steps also include rejecting payment from sites that spread fake news, helping users understand why they have been targeted by specific ads, and distinguishing ads from editorial content.

But the advisory group criticized the code, saying the companies had not offered measurable objectives to monitor its implementation.

“The platforms, despite their best efforts, have not been able to deliver a code of practice within the accepted meaning of effective and accountable self-regulation,” the group said, giving no further details.

Its members include the Association of Commercial Television in Europe, the European Broadcasting Union, the European Federation of Journalists and International Fact-Checking Network, and several academics.

(Reporting by Foo Yun Chee; editing by Philip Blenkinsop and John Stonestreet)

Flynn to decline U.S. Senate subpoena in Russia probe

National security adviser General Michael Flynn arrives to deliver a statement during the daily briefing at the White House

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Former White House National Security Adviser Michael Flynn will decline to comply with a subpoena from the Senate Intelligence Committee investigating possible Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, according to media reports on Monday.

Flynn will invoke his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination, the Associated Press, Wall Street Journal and Fox News reported, citing sources close to Flynn.

The retired lieutenant general, a key witness in the Russia probe, planned to inform the panel of his decision later on Monday, the reports said.

The Senate Intelligence Committee is conducting one of the main congressional probes of alleged Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election and whether there was any collusion between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia.

The committee first requested documents from Flynn in an April 28 letter, but he declined to cooperate with the request.

The U.S. intelligence community concluded in January that Moscow tried to sway the November vote in Trump’s favor. Russia has denied involvement and Trump insists he won fair and square.

Flynn was forced to resign in February, after less than a month on the job, for failing to disclose the content of his talks with Sergei Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, and then misleading Vice President Mike Pence about the conversations.

Reuters reported on Thursday that Flynn and other advisers to Trump’s campaign were in contact with Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties in at least 18 calls and emails during the last seven months of the U.S. presidential race. Flynn has acknowledged being a paid consultant to the Turkish government during the campaign.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu Editing by W Simon and Dan Grebler)

Facebook warns of fake news danger ahead of British election

A woman looks out of a window at the Big Ben clock tower in London, Britain,

LONDON (Reuters) – Facebook has launched a British newspaper advertising campaign to warn users of the dangers of fake news, in the latest drive by the social media giant to tackle malicious information ahead of a national election.

Facebook has come under intense pressure to tackle the spread of false stories, which came to prominence during the U.S. presidential election last year when many inaccurate posts were widely shared on it and other social media services.

Ahead of the June 8 parliamentary election in Britain, it urged its users in the country to be skeptical of headlines that look unbelievable and to check other sources before sharing news that may not be credible. It said it would also delete bogus profiles and stop promoting posts that show signs of being implausible.

“We have developed new ways to identify and remove fake accounts that might be spreading false news so that we get to the root of the problem,” said Simon Milner, Facebook’s director of policy for the UK.

The effort builds on the company’s recently expanded campaigns to identify fake news and crack down on automated profile pages that post commercial or political spam.

Facebook suspended 30,000 accounts in France ahead of the first round of its presidential election last month and uses outside fact-checkers in the country. It has also previously taken out full-page ads in German newspapers to educate readers on how to spot fake news.

With the headline “Tips for spotting false news”, the adverts in Britain listed 10 ways to identify whether a story was genuine or not, including looking closely at a URL, investigating the source, looking for unusual formatting and considering the authenticity of the photo.

Facebook said it had taken action against tens of thousands of fake accounts in Britain after identifying patterns of activity such as whether the same content is being repeatedly posted.

“With these changes, we expect we will also reduce the spread of material generated through inauthentic activity, including spam, misinformation, or other deceptive content that is often shared by creators of fake accounts,” Facebook said.

Social media sites including Twitter and YouTube are also facing pressure in Europe where governments are threatening new laws and fines unless the companies move more quickly to remove extremist content.

Facebook has hired more staff to speed up the removal of videos showing murder, suicide and other violent acts.

(Reporting by Kate Holton; Editing by Janet Lawrence)