Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A real-names domain-registration policy would discourage political lying.

I've discussed the role of the Internet in creating and propagating lies in a previous post, noting that Donald Trump lied more frequently than Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders during the campaign.

Now let's look at fake news like the claim that Pope Francis had endorsed Trump. The fake post features the following image and includes a "statement" by the Pope in which he explains his decision.


The post evidently origniated on the Web site of a fake news station, WTOE 5. Avarice, not politics, seems to be the motivation for the site since it is covered with ads and links to other “stories” that attack both Clinton and Trump.

WTOE 5 states that it is a satirical site on their about page, but how many readers see that? Other sites do not claim satire. For example, the Christian Times about page says nothing about satire, but does assert that they are not responsible for any action taken by a reader:
Christian Times Newspaper is your premier online source for news, commentary, opinion, and theories. Christian Times Newspaper does not take responsibility for any of our readers' actions that may result from reading our stories. We do our best to provide accurate, updated news and information
The Christian Times "editorial" policy is similar to that of WTOE 5 -- they published pre-election news stories on thousands of dead people voting in Florida, hacking of voter systems by the Clinton campaign, Black Panthers patrolling election sites, etc. As soon as the election was over, they informed us that Hillary Clinton had filed for divorce. Don't believe it? Here is their evidence:

Given the WTOE 5 claim to be satire or the Christian Times eschewing responsibilty for actions taken by readers, I suspect that unliess Pope Francis or Hillary Clinton sues, there is no legal recourse.

The dirty tricks during this election remind me of the Watergate burglary, but, unlike Watergate, it is not clear that a law has been broken. In the Watergate case, a crime was committed and the burglars were convicted and sent to prison in 1973. In 1974 investigators were able to establish a White House connection to the burglary and, under threat of impeachment, President Nixon resigned.


Would it be possible to establish a connection between a Web site like "WTOE 5 News" and the Trump campaign?

A Whois query shows us that the domain name Wto5news.com was registered by DomainsByProxy.com. We can see the address, contact information and names of people at DomainsByProxy.com, but the identity of the person or organization registering the domain name is private.


I also checked the Whois record for the Christian Times. It turns out that DomainsByProxy.com is also the registrar for Christiantimesnewspaper.com and the registration is also private.

I am not a lawyer, but I suspect that a request for a subpoena to get the contact information of a long list of people registering domain names for misleading Web sites would be seen as a "fishing expedition" by the courts.

I understand the wish to protect the privacy of a person or organization registering a domain name, but there is also a public interest in discouraging sites like Wto5news.com. A verifiable, real-names policy for domain registration would discourage this sort of thing. The WELL, an early community bulletin board system, adopted such a policy years ago. Their slogan is "own your own words" and it serves to keep discussion civil, stop bullying and lying, etc.

Trump supporters seem to worry a lot about voter fraud. They advocate easing mechanisms for challenging a voter's registration and encourage strict requirements for proof of identity and residence. There is more evidence of demonstrably fraudulent political information on the Internet than fraudulent voting. If their concern is genuine, they should support a real-names policy for domain registration.

If warrants will not pass legal muster and a real-names policy is unrealistic, someone might be tempted to follow the example of the Trump supporters who hacked the Democratic National Committee and resort to hacking registrars to get contact information of their private clients. Maybe Julian Assange could distribute what they find on WikiLeaks.


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Update 11/17/2016

I received some comments on this post from an attorney.

For a start, he said labeling something as "satire" was irrelevant because the defense would be 1st amendment free speech. He said there might be a slight chance for the "shouting fire in a crowded theater" argument, but he and this Atlantic Monthly article agree that that is a long shot. He also said there might be a remote chance of a false advertising claim succeeding, especially if it were against a person working on the Turmp campaign like Steve Bannon of Breitbart or Sean Hannity with his popular radio and TV shows. Regardless, it would be necessary to show that their behavior had altered the election result (for president or "down ballot" contests).

I agree that it would be nearly impossible to show that a single site or lie had provided the margin for Trump's victory, but I do believe that rigorous survey research by a reputable organization could demonstrate that the marginal impact of fake sites and posts in the aggregate was sufficient to elect Trump and I hope that such research is conducted.

Regardless, a true-names policy would help investigators looking for possible connections between the Trump campaign and intentional, systematic Internet misinformation. The revelation of the White House role in Nixon's "dirty tricks' was what mattered, not the conviction of the burglars.

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Update 11/18/2016

The attorney who commented on this post (above) suggested that it would be relevant if Breitbart published a lying article.

After Khizr Khan spoke at the Democratic convention, Breitbart published a story saying he had deep ties to the government of Saudi Arabia, international Islamist investors, controversial immigration programs that wealthy foreigners can use to essentially buy their way into the United States and the “Clinton Cash” narrative through the Clinton Foundation.


That is a lot of deep ties, but it turns out the post was false.

The Breitbart story has had 167,000 Facebook engagements and the refutation has been shared 32,600 times on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Reddit, by email and shared links combined.