December 17, 2018

Instagram, not Facebook, may be Russia's most effective tool for spreading propaganda.

A new report prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee shows that posts from the Russian Internet Research Agency, a troll farm, received 187 million interactions on Instagram from 2015 through 2018, and only 77 million interactions on Facebook and 73 million on Twitter, reports Bloomberg.

This suggests Instagram has been a much more significant factor in Russia's attempt to manipulate American politics through social media than previously thought, and the report notes that this is "something that Facebook executives appear to have avoided mentioning in congressional testimony." The researchers also say that Instagram could be "more ideal" for spreading propaganda through memes than other platforms and that it is "likely to be a key battleground on an ongoing basis."

Additionally, the report says that not only did Russian trolls seek to promote President Trump's campaign and damage Hillary Clinton's, but the "most prolific IRA efforts on Facebook and Instagram specifically targeted black American communities," The New York Times reports. While the Russian troll farm targeted some other specific groups with a handful of accounts and pages, "the black community was targeted extensively with dozens," researchers conclude. On Facebook, for instance, among 81 Facebook pages the IRA created, 30 targeted black Americans. Efforts to encourage people to skip voting or vote against Clinton targeted both black Americans and supporters of Clinton's primary opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Read more at The New York Times. Brendan Morrow

7:47 a.m.

The House Ethics Committee disclosed Thursday that two Florida congressmen, Rep. Alcee Hastings (D) and Rep. Ross Spano (R), are under investigation. Hastings, who has been in the House for 26 years, is being investigated by the Ethics Committee for his long-term relationship with a member of his staff, Patricia Williams. Former Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.) resigned last month after denying she had an intimate relationship with a member of her staff while admitting she had such a relationship with a campaign staffer.

Williams has been on Hastings' staff since 2000, and they bought a house together in 2017, the Palm Beach Post reports. He downplayed any impropriety this fall, telling the Post, "However it looks, it's been looking like that for 25 years."

With Spano, the House Ethics Committee announced it is deferring its investigation at the request of the Justice Department, which, the committee revealed, has opened a criminal investigation into possible campaign finance violations. Spano, 53, claimed last year that he loaned his campaign $175,000 from personal funds when in fact he had received $180,000 in loans from personal friends, Politico reports. Spano's lawyer informed the Federal Election Commission of the erroneous campaign finance report soon after Spano won the race.

"Today, the House Committee on Ethics deferred their review of my self-reported filings with the FEC," Spano said in a statement. "We plan to cooperate fully with the Justice Department on this matter." Peter Weber

6:41 a.m.

Two U.S. diplomats will testify Friday in the House impeachment inquiry of President Trump, one publicly and one behind closed doors. House impeachment investigators will depose David Holmes, an aide to acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor, about his assertion he overheard Trump ask U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland about the status of proposed Ukrainian "investigations" into former Vice President Joe Biden.

Taylor's predecessor, career diplomat Marie Yovanovitch, will testify in public before the House Intelligence Committee about the shadow campaign, apparently led by Trump lawyer and fixer Rudy Giuliani, that led to her dramatic late-night recall from the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv. Yovanovitch testified in October that Ukrainian officials had warned her to "watch my back" and she felt personally targeted by Trump. Months after her ouster, Trump told Ukraine's president that "the woman" Yovanovitch "was bad news" and "she's going to go through some things," according to the White House partial transcript of that July 25 call.

On Friday, Yovanovitch will face "Trump's fiercest congressional defenders, nearly all men, about a campaign by other male allies of the president to force her from her post," The Washington Post notes. "The symbolism of that conflict underscores the significance of the historic probe, which was initiated by the female speaker of the House — Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — and made possible by female voters who helped deliver the House to Democrats in the last election."

"Seeing someone like Masha Yovanovitch come forward is going to be an extremely difficult moment for Trump," Nancy McEldowney, a former ambassador to Bulgaria who now teaches at Georgetown University, tells the Post. "What I suspect the world will see when she walks into that hearing room is an individual who is not tall physically but really is a towering figure of integrity, inner strength, and unswerving devotion to public service and telling the truth." Peter Weber

5:01 a.m.

The Indiana Supreme Court suspended three judges this week over an incident in May that involved a night of drinking, an unsuccessful attempt to visit an Indianapolis strip club, and a 3 a.m. altercation outside a White Castle that left two of the judges with gunshot wounds, NPR News reports. The unanimous eight-page opinion from the Supreme Court "lays out the events as soberly as possible, but the details remain spicy," NPR notes, singling out this part of the document:

While in town to attend a statewide educational conference for judicial officers, 10 hours before the program convened, respondents walked the streets of downtown Indianapolis in a heavily intoxicated state. When Judge Bell extended her middle finger to a passing vehicle, neither Judge Adams nor Judge Jacobs discouraged the provocation or removed themselves from the situation. [Indiana Supreme Court]

Judge Sabrina Bell flipped off two men in a truck, Alfredo Vazquez and Brandon Kaiser, after she and three other judges arrived at the White Castle. While the fourth judge was inside the White Castle, Vazquez and Kaiser parked and confronted Bell and Judges Andrew Adams and Bradley Jacobs. The men started fighting, then Kaiser allegedly pulled out a gun and shot Adams in the stomach and Jacobs twice in the chest. Both underwent emergency surgeries.

Jacobs, who was in the hospital for two weeks, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery and served two days of his 365-day jail sentence. Kaiser has been charged with 14 crimes in connection with the incident, NPR reports.

Adams, Jacobs, and Bell "engaged in judicial misconduct by appearing in public in an intoxicated state and behaving in an injudicious manner and by becoming involved in a verbal altercation," the high court said, and their actions "gravely undermined public trust in the dignity and decency of Indiana's judiciary." Jacobs and Bell were suspended for 30 days without pay, while Adams was suspended for 60 days without pay. Peter Weber

4:20 a.m.

An average of 13.1 million people tuned in to the six major networks during Wednesday's live coverage of the first public hearings in the House impeachment inquiry, according to preliminary numbers Nielsen released Thursday. If you add PBS, Telemundo, CNN, and HLN to the numbers for Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, NBC, ABC, and CBS, the average viewership rises to 13.8 million from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Wednesday.

To put those numbers in perspective, nearly 13 million people watched former Special Counsel Robert Mueller's testimony in July, while about 20 million people tuned in for former FBI Director James Comey's post-firing hearing in 2017 and 2018's confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Wednesday night's CMA Awards drew 11.1 million viewers to ABC.

Fox News, somewhat ironically, drew the highest viewership numbers, with an average of 2.89 million people tuning in, followed by MSNBC's 2.7 million. Next came ABC (2 million viewers), CBS (1.97 million), CNN (1.9 million), and NBC (1.7 million). ABC won the coveted 25-54 demographic, with an average of 496,000 viewers, followed by Fox News and NBC. The numbers don't include C-SPAN or most streaming viewers.

These numbers fall "far short of blockbuster level," Vulture notes, but given the obscurity of the two witnesses — U.S. Ambassador William Taylor and State Department official George Kent — and today's "era of audience fragmentation and streaming services," Wednesday's hearings actually "drew a big audience by 2019 standards." Peter Weber

2:53 a.m.

Acting U.S. Ambassador William Taylor tied President Trump directly to the campaign to bribe Ukraine into investigating Joe Biden in Wednesday's public impeachment hearings, and that testimony led to a second "bombshell" Thursday, news of a second witness to Trump's overheard phone call, Stephen Colbert said on Thursday's Late Show. "So Taylor's testimony was historic — unless you ask Kellyanne Conway, who was not entertained," telling Fox News the hearings were a snoozefest starring "a bunch of gossip girls." Colbert was confused: "Well, is it boring or is it Gossip Girl? Because it can't be both! Gossip Girl was a very successful show."

"But it wasn't just Kellyanne," Colbert said. "Even NBC News tweeted the testimony 'lacked the pizzazz necessary to capture public attention.'"

"What do you mean, it lacked pizzazz?" asked Seth Meyers on Late Night. "The only politicians who have ever been entertaining were the ones in Hamilton. What do you want them to do, show up with their own backup dancers?" Ironically, he added, "Trump's defenders in the Republican Party and on Fox News" were the most invested in working "to dismiss the entire thing as a fake scandal invented by Democrats for TV."

"There are a lot of hot takes out there right now — one of the dumbest is that these impeachment hearings aren't interesting enough," Jimmy Kimmel said on Kimmel Live. "These were two career civil servants giving sworn testimony about a potential attempt to undermine our democracy — they're also supposed to have 'pizzazz'?" Amazingly, he said, that actually "seems to be an emerging line of defense for Republicans," who very clearly "don't want to talk about the facts."

"Even though millions of people have been talking about these hearings," Fox News seems determined to get people to tune out, Trevor Noah said at The Daily Show. Their main argument is that "Americans are too dumb to follow these impeachment proceedings," but "sometimes if you watch Fox, it looks like they're straight-up trying to hypnotize their viewers into not caring," he added. If those fail, "Fox has come up with another reason to ignore the impeachment hearings": They're "boring and unsexy."

"These hearings are investigating whether the president of the United States committed high crimes or misdemeanors," Noah said. "They're supposed to be serious, not about excitement. Impeachment is like a family reunion: If it's sexy, something has gone horribly wrong." Peter Weber

2:04 a.m.

It was a milestone decades in the making.

On Friday, a Qantas airplane loaded with 100 metric tons of jet fuel flew 11,060 miles from London to Sydney, nonstop. The journey lasted 19 hours and 19 minutes, and shattered two records, becoming the longest commercial airline passenger flight for both distance and duration, CNN reports.

The new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner departed from Heathrow Airport at 6 a.m. Thursday morning, and flew over Germany, Russia, Poland, Belarus, Kazakhstan, China, the Philippines, and Indonesia. This was a test flight, and while the plane can hold up to 256 people, there were just 50 on board. All passengers were outfitted with monitors, and researchers from Australia's Charles Perkins Centre will study how sleep patterns, movement, and food consumption on an extremely long flight affect a person's health.

The last time Qantas attempted to fly this route without stopping, it was 1989. The airline used a Boeing 747, ripping out most of the seats and loading the plane with as much fuel as possible, even towing it to the runway in order to conserve gas, CNN reports. "Flying nonstop from the east coast of Australia to London and New York is truly the final frontier in aviation, so we're determined to do all the groundwork to get this right," Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said. Qantas is hopeful it can start offering nonstop flights from London to Sydney and vice versa in 2022. Catherine Garcia

1:16 a.m.

Federal prosecutors are now looking into whether Rudy Giuliani, President Trump's personal lawyer, failed to register as a foreign agent and violated campaign finance laws, three U.S. officials told Bloomberg News.

The U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan reportedly began investigating Giuliani and his dealings in Ukraine after they launched a probe into two of his business associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. Last month, Parnas and Fruman were arrested and charged with illegally funneling foreign money into U.S. campaigns. Parnas and Fruman worked with Giuliani in Ukraine, attempting to dig up dirt on Democrats.

Several top State Department officials have testified during the House impeachment inquiry that earlier this year, Giuliani was running a shadow campaign when it came to Ukraine. They said he spread rumors to force out then-Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, and was searching for any information that could damage Trump's potential political rivals.

Based on what they know about the matter, one U.S. official told Bloomberg News it is possible prosecutors could charge Giuliani with violating laws against bribing foreign officials or conspiracy. "I would not be surprised if he gets indicted," former federal prosecutor Mimi Rocah told Bloomberg News. "It's clear Giuliani is up to his ears in shady stuff and there's tons of smoke." Catherine Garcia

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