Congress and the platforms: The circus is back in town

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

While the president continues to rant and rave about conspiracies he believes have denied him the election, the Senate Judiciary Committee decided to spend its valuable time holding yet another hearing into the alleged misbehavior of Facebook and Twitter. This comes less than a month after the Senate Commerce Committee held a very similar hearing into the two social platforms, a hearing that consisted mostly of members like Senator Ted Cruz making a show of badgering Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. The main topic of conversation was why Twitter chose to block users from posting links to a New York Post story that contained unsubstantiated claims about a secret laptop that may or may not have belonged to Hunter Biden (Twitter changed its policy before the hearing, allowing users to link to the story with a warning about its unverified status). This week’s hearing was equally shallow, and equally frustrating.

In part, that could be because the topic of the Senate Judiciary hearing was exactly the same as the Senate Commerce hearing—namely, the blocking and down-ranking of the New York Post story by Twitter and Facebook, and the fact that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects the platforms from liability for those kinds of decisions. So a lot of the same arguments were trotted out by many of the same people, including Senator Cruz, who again made a show of badgering Jack Dorsey about whether he would put a warning on a tweet the senator planned to post about alleged election fraud. “I don’t think it’s useful to get into hypotheticals,” Dorsey said, before adding that a warning probably wouldn’t be applied. “Well I’m going to test that, because I’m going to tweet that and see what you put on it,” Cruz blustered.

The fact that Twitter changed its policy not long after it blocked the Post story seemed to take at least some of the wind out of the Judiciary Committee’s sails. It’s a lot easier to get worked up about censorship if you’re talking about actually blocking a link or deactivating someone’s account, as opposed to just adding a small warning. That’s not to say Cruz didn’t try: after asking the question about whether his tweet on alleged election fraud would get a warning, the senator tried to argue that adding a warning makes Twitter into a publisher rather than a platform, and thus renders it ineligible to be protected by Section 230. “You’re a publisher when you’re doing that,” he said. “You’re entitled to take a policy position, but you don’t get to pretend you’re not a publisher and get a special benefit under Section 230 as a result.”

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Is Donald Trump planning his own Fox-style news channel?

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

As Trump and his supporters in the White House pursue a series of increasingly desperate rear-guard maneuvers aimed at overturning the election results, there are reports that the soon-to-be former president is planning to launch his own media venture. Mike Allen of Axios wrote in his newsletter on Thursday that Trump “has told friends he wants to start a digital media company to clobber Fox News and undermine the conservative-friendly network.” According to Allen, a source with detailed knowledge of Trump’s plans said that he “plans to wreck Fox, no doubt about it.” Trump was apparently livid that Fox News was the first major network to call the state of Arizona for Joe Biden on election night, and has been berating the network both privately and publicly ever since. Vanity Fair reported that Trump called News Corp. founder Rupert Murdoch to scream at him after the network said Biden won Arizona, and demanded the network retract its prediction, but Murdoch refused.

In a recent piece for the Los Angeles Times, writer Stephen Battaglio argued that the odds of Trump launching and being successful with a competitor for Fox News are extremely slim. Even with Trump behind it, introducing a new cable network right now “would be a difficult climb in the current TV landscape, where consumers have shifted away from pay TV subscriptions,” Battaglio wrote. “As the universe of traditional pay TV customers slowly but steadily diminishes, getting operators to pay a license fee to carry a new channel would be a major challenge.” However, Allen said that his sources say Trump is planning a digital-only channel that would stream online rather than being carried on cable networks. Trump would likely charge a monthly fee to his fans, those sources said, and would aim to either take away viewers from or replace Fox Nation, the $5.99-a-month streaming digital offering owned by Fox News.

Among the other details that Allen’s sources shared with the Axios writer were that Trump is planning to use the mailing and cellphone lists that he has accumulated (and paid for) during his election campaigns, which would theoretically provide a rich source of potential leads for marketing messages for this new digital offering. However, at least one legal expert says that doing this could actually be illegal, since it’s against campaign finance laws to take data that was originally generated and owned by a campaign and use it for personal purposes. “This is one of the few portions of the campaign finance laws that are routinely prosecuted criminally,” lawyer Marc Elias said. Of course, as more than one person noted in their responses to this observation, Trump has repeatedly breached these kinds of ethical rules already, both before and during his presidency, so it’s difficult to see why he would stop now.

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16th century badass Julie D’Aubigny, also known as Le Maupin

Legendary swordswoman, opera singer, bisexual icon — Julie D’Aubigny was all of these things, in 17th century France. She was born in 1673 to Gaston d’Aubigny, the secretary to Louis de Lorraine-Guise, the Comte d’Armagnac, the Master of the Horse for King Louis XIV. Because of her father’s position, she was taught to read, draw, and use a rapier. At the age of 14 she began an affair with her father’s employer Count d’Armagnac (or he began one with her) but in order to protect her reputation, she was married to Sieur de Maupin and thereafter was known as Le Maupin. She soon tired of the Count and ran off with one of her fencing teachers — they fled to Marseille, where they entertained crowds by fencing and singing. D’Aubigny performed while dressed as a man but was billed as a woman, and more than once when a heckler yelled that women couldn’t be that good with a sword, she tore open her blouse to shut him up.

Julie d'Aubgny | © Jean Béraud / WikiCommons

After falling in love with a woman, the girl’s parents sent her off to a convent so that D’Aubigny couldn’t pursue her, but Le Maupin followed her to the convent in Avignon. She said she wanted to become a nun, and after taking her holy vows and being admitted to the nunnery, she found her lover and they two plotted their escape — when an elderly nun died, they took her body and put it in the girl’s bed and then set the convent on fire. D’Aubigny was sentenced to death in absentia, but after making her way to Paris, she approached the Count d’Armagnac and he agreed to ask King Louis XIV for a pardon, which was granted because the king was amused by her exploits.

D’Aubigny joined the Paris Opera, and took many lovers, both male and female. According to one story, she challenged a fellow actor to a duel after she rejected his advances and he called her a whore. Later that night she beat him senseless with a cane and took his watch and snuffbox — when he told the story about being mugged by thieves the next day, D’Aubigny produced the watch and snuffbox and he was humiliated. Later, she fell in love with the Marquise de Florensac, widely known as the most beautiful woman in France. They lived together for several years, until Florensac died from a fever. D’Aubigny was reportedly devastated — she retired from the opera, joined a convent and died at the age of 33.