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News Brief: Russian Interference, Right-Wing Extremism, CDC Bans Evictions

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russia is at it again trying to influence the 2020 election this time.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Facebook and Twitter provide this information. They announced a crackdown on an online operation tied to the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency, a name we recall from the 2016 election. The IRA was targeting Democratic voters, spreading news from a fake left-leaning news site. For months, officials have warned about Russian attempts to interfere. But now we have some of the first publicly documented accounts of this happening.

MARTIN: We've got NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn with us this morning. Bobby, good morning. What exactly did Facebook and Twitter uncover here?

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Yeah. So it all started with a tip from the FBI. So federal authorities reached out to Facebook and said, hey, there's this site, peacedata.net, and it's calling itself an international news site, but it sure does look like a Russian propaganda tool. So Facebook looked into it and indeed discovered that it was pumping out hundreds of these bogus news articles about foreign affairs, racial injustice, about the Democratic campaign of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. And I talked to research firm Graphika. Facebook brought them in to help investigate this phony news site. And they told me that the Russian operatives behind this site would be pumping out stories to Facebook groups that are geared toward progressive causes. And those articles would say Biden and Harris are too far to the right.

MARTIN: So the idea, though, is to specifically target potential Democratic voters with information, when it comes to progressives at least, that would turn them off from their party's presidential ticket. How does this compare, Bobby, to what happened in 2016?

ALLYN: Yeah. So researchers say, you know, this operation both echoes the 2016 playbook and introduces some new elements here. So four years ago, Russian troll farms pushed, you know, false stories to suppress the progressive and minority vote to hurt Hillary Clinton. So that's a consistent theme. We're seeing that kind of attack happening here. What's new is they duped Americans into helping them. This Russian website posted writing gigs on hiring boards in the U.S. telling, you know, young and very novice journalists that they could make some bucks by writing for peacedata.net. Here's Nathaniel Gleicher. He heads cybersecurity policy at Facebook.

NATHANIEL GLEICHER: And they used that to reach out to unwitting freelancers to essentially trick them into writing for this fake organization and writing on topics that the Russian actors wanted them to write on.

ALLYN: The thing is it didn't work. So both Facebook and Twitter caught this before it could really take off. So the tech companies are saying, look, it's a success story.

MARTIN: Is it, though? I mean, presumably, these attacks are going to just keep happening from different accounts. I mean, how are they going to stop this kind of thing going forward?

ALLYN: Yeah. That's a really good question. You know, we know that Facebook and Twitter have trouble controlling their platforms. You know, on Facebook, whether it's, you know, violent militias who go there to organize, whether it's QAnon that uses Facebook to really spread its conspiracy theories far and wide, there's loads of troubling stuff on Facebook. And you could bet, you know, they're facing enormous pressure to self police ahead of the November election. But, look, it's always a game of cat and mouse. And, you know, while Facebook has new defenses to detect this stuff early, the Russian trolls are adapting, too. Here's Facebook's Gleicher again.

GLEICHER: Russian actors trying harder and harder to hide who they are and being more and more deceptive to conceal their operations.

ALLYN: And so one thing to keep in mind, this stuff lived on Facebook for three months. Some would say that's actually a very long time.

MARTIN: Right. Exactly. A lot of eyeballs saw that stuff over three months. Bobby, we appreciate your reporting on this. Thank you.

ALLYN: Hey, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right. We have an inside story this morning of the Trump administration and right-wing extremism. A former senior official at the Department of Homeland Security says the president's rhetoric encouraged it. Elizabeth Neumann served in two DHS positions across more than three years during the administration. She says the actions of the White House staff gave her a definite impression of the president.

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ELIZABETH NEUMANN: He does not like talking about white supremacy.

MARTIN: Neumann resigned in April and has now done several interviews, including one with Steve. So tell us more about why Elizabeth Neumann is speaking out right now, Steve.

INSKEEP: Because she's lost confidence in the president, she says. Now, I want to emphasize Neumann says she voted for Trump in 2016, did this because she says she's conservative, she's Christian, her view of her faith leads her to agree with the president about abortion and about Israel, says she just never voted for a Democrat and thought Trump would grow into the job. But she now feels the president's dangerous tendencies - and those are her words - would get worse in a second term, and that includes his attitude about extremism.

MARTIN: So how does she describe that, his attitude towards extremism?

INSKEEP: Well, she describes a president who keeps speaking sympathetically about white supremacists. You think about his remarks after the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., you think about him retweeting white supremacist accounts, the way he talks about immigrants. She describes a reluctance at the White House also to face a rising problem with extremist violence out in the country, which she saw throughout her time in the administration. She had some dealings with the White House staff. She says that she and other officials did try to focus attention on this and discovered - well, let's listen.

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NEUMANN: They seem to understand that for whatever reason if we use the term domestic terrorism or we talk about the white supremacist language, that seems to derail things that the White House.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Neumann says the White House finally did support some funding to fight extremism as long as it wasn't called money for domestic terrorism. It had to be called something else. And she believes that officials did that because they were trying to avoid irritating the president.

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NEUMANN: And the irony is that when he finally was comfortable with using the word domestic terrorism, it was in the context of antifa and trying to exploit or sell a story that the looting and the violence that we have seen somewhat associated with peaceful protests is antifa. And yet if you look at the arrests that have occurred in the protests of the summer, it's the boogaloo movement or it's an association with QAnon. It's the right side of the spectrum. It is not antifa.

INSKEEP: Now, we should mention, Rachel, we put some questions to the White House about Elizabeth Neumann's story. We have not yet heard back.

MARTIN: So here we are in the middle of an election season where the president talks constantly about left-wing violence. It's a central part of his reelection message. So what is - what Neumann is saying, what does that suggest about the fall?

INSKEEP: Elizabeth Neumann, this former DHS official in the Trump administration, doesn't have very much reassuring to say. Let's listen.

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NEUMANN: As a security professional, you look at the environment that we're currently operating in and knowing that in the lead up to the election the rhetoric is just going to get more intense. So you worry that we're sitting on a tinderbox about to explode because more fuel keeps being added to the fire.

INSKEEP: She is now watching this election from the outside, having resigned in April, and she says one reason she is concerned is that a lot of officials who used to have the stature to say no to the president are gone.

MARTIN: Wow. Thanks so much, Steve. We appreciate that.

INSKEEP: Sure.

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MARTIN: All right. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is making a dramatic move that's intended to help millions of people who are at risk of eviction during the pandemic.

INSKEEP: Yeah. They're ordering a halt on evictions nationwide through December to curb the spread of COVID-19. Under this moratorium, renters would be able to stay in their apartments if they can prove they're unable to pay their rent because of the pandemic.

MARTIN: We've got NPR's Chris Arnold with us this morning. Good morning, Chris. So the first thing I thought when I read this headline was does the CDC have the power to do this? I mean, it seems sort of out of their lane.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel. Well, you know, you might think that, especially given that so far the CDC has been criticized for offering sort of voluntary guidance. You know, you can do this, you might want to do that, and that's been sort of mushy and left states and businesses doing whatever they want, but not this time. I mean, if that was the CDC and its soft kitty cat feet, this is the CDC stopping like Paul Bunyan. And the CDC says, look, you know, the coronavirus presents a historic threat to the public health. Under the Public Health Service Act of 1944, they are citing, the government as the power to do this. And the basic idea is that, look, forcing people out into homeless shelters that are crammed together, living with relatives, that's very likely to get a lot more people sick. And we are talking about a lot of people. One estimate from the National Low Income Housing Coalition is that 30 to 40 million people in 17 million households or families were at risk of losing their home by the end of the year if something like this didn't happen. Diane Yentel is the CEO of the group, and I spoke to her last night.

DIANE YENTEL: Well, my reaction is a feeling of tremendous relief. I mean, it's a pretty extraordinary and bold and unprecedented measure that the White House is taking that will save lives and prevent tens of millions of people from losing their homes in the middle of a pandemic.

ARNOLD: She also says, though, that Congress or the White House should have done this months ago. And instead, we've had this crazy patchwork of federal, state and local moratoriums, and lots of people were not covered, and thousands of people have already been evicted.

MARTIN: What does this mean, though, for the landlords who can't collect rent, right?

ARNOLD: Well, you know, the headline from them is like, OK, who's supposed to pay for this? You know, Congress had a plan to do something similar in the House, but there was $100 billion that was going to be spent on assistance to renters and landlords to pay for all of this rent that wasn't getting paid. That is not a part of this order. I spoke to Greg Brown with the National Apartment Association.

GREG BROWN: We're really concerned about this because the piece that's missing is the most important piece in this whole process, which is rental assistance because if the moratorium is put in place, rents are not paid, but the owners continue to have to meet their financial obligations. And how are they supposed to do that? Who's going to help them pay their bills?

ARNOLD: And we should say, Diane Yentel, who we heard from, she says much the same thing. Look, if you don't give the money, renters at the end of this thing are going to owe this huge pile of money that they can't pay, and they'll fall off a cliff, so both sides asking for the same thing here.

MARTIN: OK. So, Chris, what are some of the details on the rules here? Because I'm guessing, you know, everyone in America can't just stop paying rent immediately.

ARNOLD: Right. Right. People should not just stop paying rent. So what has to happen is if you've been affected by the pandemic and had a big loss of income, you have to sign a declaration that goes to your landlord and you have to say, look, I've tried to get unemployment benefits and other types of support. I've been trying and will continue to make partial payments as much as circumstances permit and that, you know, I can afford. And you also can't make more than about $100,000 a year or twice that for a joint tax return for, like, a married couple. And that you have to say, look, if I get evicted, I have no other option than being homeless or living with more people in close proximity, which would be more dangerous for the spread of the virus. And evictions for reasons other than non-payment of rent, we should say, are allowed. So if somebody is, like, creating a disturbance or lighting the dining room table on fire downstairs, like, a landlord can evict them for that. The government also says, though, that it will impose criminal penalties on landlords who violate the ban.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Chris Arnold with that news, the CDC saying that they are putting a halt - recommending a halt on all evictions during the pandemic to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Chris, thank you. We appreciate it.

ARNOLD: Yep. You're welcome.

MARTIN: And before we leave you today, a little news about an election. Last night, a member of the Kennedy family lost a congressional election in Massachusetts for the first time ever. In a high-profile Senate primary, incumbent Democrat Ed Markey held off a challenge from Congressman Joe Kennedy III. Kennedy had the backing of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Markey was backed by the progressive wing of the party. You can learn more about this race at npr.org and by tuning in to your local NPR member station. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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