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News Brief: Tech Shield Hearing, Voting Days Dwindle, Philadelphia Unrest

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It just makes sense - doesn't it? - that in this election season, in these final days, social media companies would be front and center in the conversation.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Indeed. President Trump, of course, governs and campaigns on Twitter. That company has had to add warning labels to some of his tweets, which has in turn infuriated the White House. And there's all the campaign advertising on these platforms. Facebook has banned all new political ads ahead of the election, though old ones can stay. Google and Facebook promised to stop all political ads after the polls close. So a whole lot of questions today as the CEOs of these companies testify in the Senate Commerce Committee.

GREENE: That's right. And NPR's Bobby Allyn is here to preview that for us.

Hi, Bobby.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: All right. So the timing of this - these lawmakers are going to grill these tech executives today with just days to go in this election season. Why now?

ALLYN: Yeah. So I guess it's fitting that we kind of got here because of one of the president's tweets. Back in May, Trump made this false claim about main-in voting on Twitter. And for the first time, Twitter placed a label on it saying people should get their facts elsewhere. And this really irritated Trump, and it fueled his crusade to have the social media platforms reined in. Here's the president after Twitter flagged that tweet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They've had unchecked power to censor, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter virtually any form of communication between private citizens.

ALLYN: Yeah. So Trump, there, was signing an executive order aimed at overhauling this law known as Section 230. And that's why we're here today when Senate Republicans are calling this hearing.

GREENE: OK. So it's all about Section 230. What in the world is Section 230?

(LAUGHTER)

ALLYN: Yeah, great question. So it was passed in the mid-'90s and so the - you know, in the early days of the Internet, when AOL was the platform everyone was talking about. And it basically gives a legal shield to online platforms so they can't be sued for what's posted to their sites. And that legal protection, David, has helped Facebook and Twitter grow into massive social networks without the fear of libel lawsuits over what, you know, you and I post to the sites. But now both Democrats and Republicans are basically tripping over themselves to repeal this law.

GREENE: Oh - so essentially, the two parties agree that there's something wrong with this law. I mean, are they basically in lockstep here then?

ALLYN: I wouldn't say they're in lockstep. I would say they both see problems with Section 230 but for different reasons. I mean, Democrats say - they make the argument that it has let misinformation really fly across the network at warp speed. Republicans, on the other hand, say, you know, Section 230 empowers the platforms to suppress conservative views. You know, NPR got a hold of Mark Zuckerberg's opening remarks. And even he says that, you know, maybe the law should be modernized. He's planning to say, quote, "Platforms would likely censor more content to avoid legal risk and would be less likely to invest in technologies that enable people to express themselves in new ways" if it was scrapped. But he says, yes, we're open to, you know, supporting some amendments to this law that would bring it up to 2020, to modernize it.

GREENE: I mean, just look at the timing here. We have people voting as we speak. Senate Republicans are probably going to be airing their grievances about this perceived bias against conservative views on these platforms. Is there evidence to back that up?

ALLYN: You know, Republicans point to decisions like we saw with the New York Post story about Hunter Biden, that both Facebook and Twitter suppressed links around that story because it was questionably sourced. So there are anecdotal one-offs like this to support the argument, at least in Republican's views, that the social networks are biased against them. But then there is a big sea of data which presents a very different story. In fact, I spoke to a data scientist at the University of Virginia, Steven Johnson. And he has new research that finds that Facebook's algorithms actually prioritize conservative content for most of its conservative users. So, in fact, he says, this researcher, that it is the opposite - that Facebook and Twitter give even larger audiences to conservative views and to conservative stories that they wouldn't find otherwise.

GREENE: Oh, interesting. All right, NPR's Bobby Allyn.

Thanks so much, Bobby. We appreciate it.

ALLYN: Hey, thank you, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Six days - six days to go until the end of this election season. And that is very much what it has been and felt like - an election season.

MARTIN: Yes. And the season ends on Tuesday, November 3, officially known as Election Day, which means candidates don't have a whole lot of time to win over voters who still might be on the fence. Joe Biden was in Georgia yesterday, a state that hasn't gone Democratic in decades.

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JOE BIDEN: We win Georgia, we win everything.

MARTIN: President Trump, meanwhile, was in Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin - all states he won in 2016 and should be able to take for granted.

GREENE: All right. And let's turn to NPR's Scott Detrow, who has been traveling with Joe Biden. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

GREENE: OK. So Biden in Georgia; Trump, Nebraska - what do these itineraries tell us about how this race is shaping up?

DETROW: This shows who's on offense and who's on defense. The president was, yeah, in Nebraska. It's a state that he'll most likely win statewide, but it gives out its electoral votes by congressional district. And Joe Biden has a real chance, according to polls, to win the Omaha area congressional district. The president has been making repeated trips back to Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. He needs to hold onto those states to win a second term.

Meanwhile, yeah, Joe Biden is in Georgia. It's a place a Democrat hasn't won since 1992. But Democrats keep getting closer statewide, and they're really excited by early voting trends that indicate a lot of younger first-time voters are showing up. Later this week, Biden goes to Iowa. His running mate, Kamala Harris, is going to Texas. And these trips just show the various routes to 270 electoral votes that the Biden campaign has right now, even though, of course, they do keep circling back to Pennsylvania and those other two key states.

GREENE: They have to cover a lot of places. OK. So that's where they are. What are they saying in these final days? What are the key messages?

DETROW: Biden is talking a lot about leadership, about using the perch of the White House to be more inclusive than President Trump, but also about setting a national agenda on COVID and other things. One interesting stop yesterday was Warm Springs, Ga. That's where Franklin Roosevelt spent so much time and where he tried to recover from polio. And Biden gave a speech there drawing on Roosevelt and talking about amplifying resilience and hope. He's also repeatedly criticized President Trump's lack of leadership in confronting the pandemic over and over again. And here he was later that day in Atlanta.

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BIDEN: More than 225,000 dead Americans because of COVID-19 - 7,800 right here in Georgia. And millions of people are out of work, on the edge. They can't see the light at the end of the tunnel, and Donald Trump has given up.

DETROW: And as a contrast, here was President Trump in Omaha last night.

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TRUMP: All they talk about is COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID. And we've made such progress, it's incredible. Excuse me. I'm here.

(LAUGHTER, CHEERING)

DETROW: And of course, the president was hospitalized with the virus and recovered. And since then, he's doubled down on this idea it's not so bad. But, you know, he was in Wisconsin yesterday. Cases are surging there. Hospitalizations are, as well.

GREENE: Can I ask you about one other issue that's come up really prominently in Pennsylvania? And that's the issue of fracking that candidates are talking about. What's going on there, Scott?

DETROW: Yeah. President Trump has really been seizing on comments that Biden made at the last debate that he wants to phase out fossil fuels like oil and gas. Biden does want to shift the country to an almost entirely clean energy system in 15 years, and that would be a huge shift. The president keeps coming back to fracking specifically, mostly because it's been a big economic boom in parts of Pennsylvania.

But there are actually a lot of reasons why this might not be the powerful attack that President Trump thinks it is. The industry has slowed down a lot in recent years from its peak in Pennsylvania. There's also a lot of wind and solar and other energy activity already there. Fracking isn't, like, the be-all and end-all in Pennsylvania and its economy. And this is also important - it's always been controversial because of environmental concerns. That's especially the case in the eastern part of the state, where there are so many votes.

GREENE: NPR's Scott Detrow on the campaign trail. Scott, thanks so much.

DETROW: Sure thing.

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GREENE: All right. Another Black man is dead after being shot multiple times by police. This time, it happened in the city of Philadelphia.

MARTIN: Police say Walter Wallace Jr. was waving a knife when officers fired their weapons. There is a video of the incident that shows Wallace moving toward the officers, then falling to the ground when shots are fired. That happened on Monday. By Tuesday, protests had spread throughout the city.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Hands up.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Fight back.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Hands up.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Fight back.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Hands up.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Fight back.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Hands up.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Fight back.

GREENE: All right. Peter Crimmins has been covering this. He reports for member station WHYY in Philadelphia. Peter, thanks for being here.

PETER CRIMMINS, BYLINE: Good to be here, David.

GREENE: So sounds from the city last night - tell us more about what things feel like in Philadelphia right now.

CRIMMINS: Well, the activity is really centered in West Philadelphia. That's where Walter Wallace lived and where he was shot. Within hours of the shooting on Monday, hundreds of people started moving into the streets to vent their anger at the killing of yet another young Black man by police. And that escalated into violence and vandalism. Over 90 people were arrested. Thirty police officers were injured, mostly from rocks and bricks that were thrown at them. So Monday night was a very sort of spontaneous reaction by the neighbors to the killing. And on Tuesday, the actions were more - a little more planned. There were marches with marching routes. There was organized protest. And there was even a community dialogue with the city's chief of police as an attempt for angry residents to come to terms with police or attempt to.

But ultimately, late last night, there were protesters clashing with riot police. In a different neighborhood on the other side of town, there was widespread looting at a shopping center.

GREENE: Well, can you tell us about Walter Wallace Jr., give us a sense of this man?

CRIMMINS: He was 27 years old, married, father of eight children with another on the way. He made his living driving Uber and an aspiring rapper. And he was also diagnosed with a bipolar condition. He was prescribed lithium. And he had been, in the past, sentenced to some court-ordered mental health treatments. But when he was on his meds, apparently he was a really mellow guy. People say he was calm, a nice guy, a family guy.

GREENE: Well, his family is speaking out. They spoke out publicly last night. What are they saying?

CRIMMINS: Well, for starters, they added a little more detail as to what just happened. Wallace was having a psychological episode on Monday. His mother was with him, trying to calm him down. But ultimately, she had to call an ambulance. This is according to the family's lawyer. And what happened was the police arrived first, before the ambulance. And the family said what could have been de-escalated by a paramedic was instead met with lethal force by police. And for the most part, the family was very emotional last night, in particular Wallace's father, Walter Sr. He pleaded with the neighbors to stay calm.

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WALTER WALLACE SR: That's all I'm sending out is an SOS to help, not to hurt and cause no chaos - violence, looting, fire - all this things 'cause I wasn't brought up like that. And I worked 33 years with the city, with the Streets Department picking up trash to try to keep the city clean.

GREENE: So what are police saying about - at this point about why officers responded the way they did? I mean, do we have footage from their body cameras to see what happened?

CRIMMINS: Well, an investigation is underway. That should shed some light on why the officers responded the way they did. At this point, it's too early to say. There was body camera footage. But so far, it has not been released.

GREENE: So what happens next? How are authorities responding to this?

CRIMMINS: Well, the district attorney, Larry Krasner, said he's personally involving himself with the case. But, you know, all summer long, protesters with the Black Lives Matter movement have been demanding to defund the police because they say many situations may be better handled by social service workers or mental health experts rather than officers with guns. And this situation really seems to illustrate that in the most tragic terms.

GREENE: Peter Crimmins reports for WHYY in Philadelphia.

Peter, thank you.

CRIMMINS: Sure thing, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.