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Russian web trolls boo Biden, often boost Gabbard, report finds

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WASHINGTON — Among Democrats running for president, Tulsi Gabbard is popular with Russian propagandists, while Joe Biden draws the most criticism, according to a new analysis.

Mentions of Gabbard, a Hawaii congresswoman, by English-language Russian propaganda outlets were 46 percent favorable and 44 percent unfavorable, a research team from the Foreign Policy Research Institute found after analyzing more than 1,700 news stories put out by Sputnik and RT. She was the only Democratic candidate with more favorable than unfavorable mentions.

References to Biden, by contrast, were 3 percent favorable and 53 percent unfavorable. The rest were neutral.

For Russia thus far, Biden is to 2020 what Hilary Clinton was to 2016, the researchers found.

“When I watched Russian state-sponsored content and social media trolling headed into election 2016, it was overwhelmingly negative toward Hillary Clinton. The same could be said today of former Vice President Biden,” said Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and NBC News contributor who led the effort.

U.S. Democratic Presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard greets supporters after filing her declaration of candidacy papers to appear on the 2020 New Hampshire primary election ballot at the State House in Concord, N.H. on Nov. 5, 2019.Mike Segar / Reuters

“RT and Sputnik content in total volume is exceptionally higher for Vice President Biden, more so than normal U.S. election coverage. …Russia often amplifies President Trump’s disparagement of Biden, and this adds to the negative coverage overall.”

For its report, the non-partisan Foreign Policy Research Institute’s (FPRI) Foreign Influence Election 2020 Project assembled a research team to analyze what Kremlin state-sponsored news outlets say about the 2020 U.S. election and the presidential candidates.

The team analyzed 1,711 Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik News articles from January 1 to November 10, 2019 that pertained to the 2020 presidential election, including 705 RT stories and 1,006 Sputnik News stories.

Those 1,711 stories hosted 2,772 mentions of either the president, Republican candidates or Democratic candidates for president in 2020.

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More than half of those mentions referenced President Donald Trump, which the team said will be analyzed in a separate upcoming release. Mentions were evaluated as “neutral,” “favorable” of the candidate or “unfavorable” of the candidate.

The team also logged an additional 319 mentions of former presidents and presidential candidates, which will be analyzed later, they said.

Why Gabbard?

There are a number of reasons many Russian propagandists express support for Gabbard, Watts said.

“Gabbard is saying everything Russia wants Americans to hear,” he said. “She’s a U.S. Army officer, and combat veteran claiming — incorrectly — that the U.S. backs al Qaeda. She calls the U.S. an imperialist power that should withdraw from the world. Her anti-war stance as a military member and shaming of U.S. establishment leaders is a wonderful vehicle for the Kremlin to divide the political left and pit populists against the establishment.”

Gabbard spokesman Mark Bergman responded in a statement to NBC News: “The warmongering foreign policy establishment in the media has been using this same smear since the day Congresswoman Gabbard announced her candidacy. This is nothing new. As the first female combat veteran ever to run for the presidency, the American people know that Tulsi has always and will always fight for the interests of the American people.”

NBC News reported in February that Gabbard was a favorite among English language Russian propaganda sites. On Twitter, Gabbard accused NBC of seeking to “to smear any adversary of the establishment wing of the Democratic Party — whether on the left or the right — as a stooge or asset of the Kremlin.'”

In another tweet, Gabbard added, “As commander-in-chief, I will work to end the new cold war, nuclear arms race and slide into nuclear war. That is why the neocon/neolib warmongers will do anything to stop me.”

Mike Carpenter, a former Pentagon official and Russia expert who advises the Biden campaign informally, told NBC News the Russians “clearly see Biden as a voice that has stood up to Russian aggression. Clearly they want to take Biden down. I think their preferred candidate is Donald Trump but they are willing to support especially candidates on the far left.”

Carpenter said Russian propagandists have helped fuel two of the conspiracy theories behind the current impeachment investigation, namely that Ukraine had a role in hacking the Democrats in 2016 and that Biden acted improperly when he carried out U.S. policy in helping secure the removal of a prosecutor the State Department believed was corrupt.

“I see Russia as at a minimum playing an important role to propagate these conspiracies,” he said.

Russian propaganda mentions of the other Democratic candidates have been mostly neutral, the study found, although the sites have begun to criticize Elizabeth Warren as she has risen in the polls.

After the breadth of Russian influence operations during the 2016 election became clear, researchers began to try to track Russian bots and trolls on Twitter and other social media platforms.

In response, experts say, Russian and other foreign actors have taken steps to further obscure and disguise their activity, making it extremely difficult to track foreign bots and trolls. One measurement tool, a web site known as Hamilton 68 hosted by the German Marshall Fund, changed its focus to monitor overt Russian state-funded media, just as the Foreign Policy Research Institute is doing.

“Much of the bot and troll activity out there is unattributed,” Watts said. “We don’t know what is Russian or not Russian, and when researchers mistakenly attribute the free speech of Americans as a secret Russian bot, it degrades electorate confidence in researchers’ ability to detect Russian influence or that it even exists. Improper attribution also makes Russia seem more powerful than they really are.”

Therefore, Watts said, it makes sense to pay close attention to what the Russians and other foreign governments are saying in the open, in state-funded media.

“If you read Russia, Iran and China’s propaganda, they’ll tell you where to start digging,” he said.



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Trump has decided to select Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court

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President Donald Trump has decided to select Judge Amy Coney Barrett to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, according to two sources familiar with the process.

A formal announcement is slated for Saturday at the White House.

If confirmed, Barrett, 48, a federal appeals court judge who has been reliably conservative on issues like abortion, would be the youngest justice on the high court. Her presence would also cement a conservative majority, as she replaces one of the court’s most outspoken liberals.

Before joining the appeals court, Barrett worked briefly in private practice then taught for 15 years at Notre Dame law school, where she earned her law degree.

A devout Catholic, she has the backing of evangelicals who consider her a likely vote to overturn the Roe v. Wade abortion decision.

Although she was not on the original list of potential Supreme Court nominees released during the Trump campaign, she was added shortly after taking a place on the appeals court bench. Trump considered her to succeed Anthony Kennedy two years ago before settling on Brett Kavanaugh.

Barrett had clerked for the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

Trump was asked by reporters on Friday night if he had made a choice.

“I’ll be announcing it tomorrow, my decision,” he said. “In my own mind, I have, and I’ll be announcing the decision tomorrow. It’s very exciting.”

He was then asked about Barrett and said, “Well, she’s outstanding.”

Barrett was seen entering her South Bend, Indiana, home Friday evening, while Trump told a rally audience in Virginia a short time later that the nominee “hopefully will be on that court for 50 years.”

The president had pledged to nominate a woman to fill the vacancy created by the death last week of Ginsburg, and in recent days has said he was considering five finalists from a broader list his campaign released earlier month. However, sources have told NBC News that Trump had focused his attention on two possibilities: Barrett and Judge Barbara Lagoa.

Lagoa, 52, was appointed by Trump to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year. A Miami native, Lagoa was the first Latina and first Cuban American to serve as a justice on the Florida Supreme Court.

Trump said he wants the GOP-controlled Senate to hold a confirmation vote for the nominee before the Nov. 3 election, but it is unclear if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will follow that timeline because some senators facing tough re-election bids could benefit from a vote after the election, sources told NBC News.

The Senate would have less than 40 days before the election to confirm Trump’s nominee — a speedy schedule by recent standards, although not unprecedented.

McConnell, for his part, has vowed to hold a vote but he has not specified whether he would try to have it before the election or after during a lame-duck Senate session.

McConnell said earlier this week he’d proceed with a vote when the nominee emerges from the Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. The Judiciary Committee is aiming to hold hearings to advance a nominee the week of Oct. 12.

That has angered Democrats, who accused Republicans of hypocrisy, citing their decision in 2016 to not give Merrick Garland, then-President Barack Obama’s choice for the high court vacancy created by Scalia’s death, a confirmation hearing because they said it was an election year.

Top Senate Democrats have said a new justice should not be confirmed until after the next president is sworn in — but there’s not much they can do to stop Trump’s nomination from moving forward.



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SNP in crisis? Ian Blackford faces calls to RESIGN amid growing backlash against Sturgeon

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IAN BLACKFORD sparked a backlash among Sky News viewers, with several urging him and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon to resign, after the party’s Westminster leader requested more economic powers for Scotland.

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President would concede election ‘if he got blown out of the water’ by Biden

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Eric Trump told a crowd of his father’s supporters at an event in Las Vegas that President Donald Trump would concede the election “if he got blown out of the water” by Democratic nominee Joe Biden after the president had cast doubts on a peaceful transfer of power once the race is decided.

“I think my father’s just saying listen, if he got blown out of the water, of course, he’d concede,” Eric Trump said at the Thursday event, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “If he thought there was massive fraud, then he’d go and try and address that.”

There is no evidence of massive voter fraud and election experts have repeatedly noted that if fraud happens, such as a recent case in New Jersey in which a new election was called after allegations of mail-in ballot fraud, it is easily found. But the president’s comments still caused consternation among constitutional and election experts.

Nine states and the District of Columbia plan to send ballots in the mail to all registered voters. Of those states, only Nevada is considered a swing state where Biden holds a six-point lead. In other states, such as Michigan and Florida, voters have to request an absentee ballot in order to vote by mail.

Eric Trump told supporters at the event, which was outdoors with a limited crowd due to COVID-19 restrictions in the state, that Democrats “are going to cheat” in the election and pressed supporters to be poll watchers.

At a campaign rally in Virginia on Friday, the president told supporters he wanted a “beautiful transition.”

“And I want a smooth beautiful transition, but they don’t add the other part,” he said, pointing toward journalists at the event. “But it’s got to be an honest vote.”

Earlier this week, the president declined to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose this fall to Biden.

“Well, we’re going to have to see what happens,” Trump told reporters at a White House briefing. “You know that I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster.”

Pressed further, Trump said: “We’ll want to have — get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very — we’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation.” Trump also wavered in June when asked by Fox News’ Chris Wallace whether he would accept the election results.

Top Republican lawmakers were quick to dismiss Trump’s refusal to commit and Democrats pounced on the president’s comments, describing his words as frightening and fascist.

“The winner of the November 3rd election will be inaugurated on January 20th. There will be an orderly transition just as there has been every four years since 1792,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., tweeted following Trump’s remarks.

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