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Fifth Circuit upholds Texas’ ridiculous social media censorship law

Back to you, SCOTUS.

A Texas law prohibiting large social media companies from banning users’ posts based on their political viewpoints will go into effect after a federal appeals court on Friday lifted a block placed on the statute.

NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association sued Texas after the law, known as House Bill 20, was passed last year, arguing that internet companies have a First Amendment right to curate content posted on their platforms and decide which types of speech they saw fit to be there.

In its ruling, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that the law was unconstitutional, saying they were seeking protection to “muzzle free speech.”

“Today we reject the idea that corporations have a freewheeling First Amendment right to censor what people say,” the ruling says.

The CCIA said the ruling forced tech companies to give equal treatment to all manners of speech, including extremist views.

“We strongly disagree with the court’s decision. Forcing private companies to give equal treatment to all viewpoints on their platforms places foreign propaganda and extremism on equal footing with decent Internet users, and places Americans at risk,” the group said. “‘God Bless America’ and ‘Death to America’ are both viewpoints, and it is unwise and unconstitutional for the State of Texas to compel a private business to treat those the same.”

See here for the previous update, in which SCOTUS blocked the law pending the Fifth Circuit’s ruling on the appeal, and here for a copy of the opinion. I think this sums it all up:

You and me both. We’ve now reached that point, and as everyone expects this to be appealed it will be back to SCOTUS for the final word. I have no idea what to expect. The Chron has more.

Social media monitoring is not a solution to school shootings

While current Republican “solutions” for gun violence include door control and arming teachers, one “solution” that has been in place for the past few years has been monitoring social media for signs of gun-related threats. That was in place in Uvalde, and it was not effective.

After a shooter killed 21 people, including 19 children, in the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, last week, the United States is yet again confronting the devastating impact of gun violence. While lawmakers have so far failed to pass meaningful reform, schools are searching for ways to prevent a similar tragedy on their own campuses. Recent history, as well as government spending records, indicate that one of the most common responses from education officials is to invest in more surveillance technology.

In recent years, schools have installed everything from facial recognition software to AI-based tech, including programs that purportedly detect signs of brandished weapons and online screening tools that scan students’ communications for mentions of potential violence. The startups selling this tech have claimed that these systems can help school officials intervene before a crisis happens or respond more quickly when one is occurring. Pro-gun politicians have also advocated for this kind of technology, and argued that if schools implement enough monitoring, they can prevent mass shootings.

The problem is that there’s very little evidence that surveillance technology effectively stops these kinds of tragedies. Experts even warn that these systems can create a culture of surveillance at schools that harms students. At many schools, networks of cameras running AI-based software would join other forms of surveillance that schools already have, like metal detectors and on-campus police officers.

“In an attempt to stop, let’s say, a shooter like what happened at Uvalde, those schools have actually extended a cost to the students that attend them,” Odis Johnson Jr, the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, told Recode. “There are other things we now have to consider when we seek to fortify our schools, which makes them feel like prisons and the students themselves feel like suspects.”

[…]

Even before the mass shooting in Uvalde, many schools in Texas had already installed some form of surveillance tech. In 2019, the state passed a law to “harden” schools, and within the US, Texas has the most contracts with digital surveillance companies, according to an analysis of government spending data conducted by the Dallas Morning News. The state’s investment in “security and monitoring” services has grown from $68 per student to $113 per student over the past decade, according to Chelsea Barabas, an MIT researcher studying the security systems deployed at Texas schools. Spending on social work services, however, grew from $25 per student to just $32 per student during the same time period. The gap between these two areas of spending is widest in the state’s most racially diverse school districts.

The Uvalde school district had already acquired various forms of security tech. One of those surveillance tools is a visitor management service sold by a company called Raptor Technologies. Another is a social media monitoring tool called Social Sentinel, which is supposed to “identify any possible threats that might be made against students and or staff within the school district,” according to a document from the 2019-2020 school year.

It’s so far unclear exactly which surveillance tools may have been in use at Robb Elementary School during the mass shooting. JP Guilbault, the CEO of Social Sentinel’s parent company, Navigate360, told Recode that the tool plays “an important role as an early warning system beyond shootings.” He claimed that Social Sentinel can detect “suicidal, homicidal, bullying, and other harmful language that is public and connected to district-, school-, or staff-identified names as well as social media handles and hashtags associated with school-identified pages.”

“We are not currently aware of any specific links connecting the gunman to the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District or Robb Elementary on any public social media sites,” Guilbault added. The Uvalde gunman did post ominous photos of two rifles on his Instagram account before the shooting, but there’s no evidence that he publicly threatened any of the schools in the district. He privately messaged a girl he did not know that he planned to shoot an elementary school.

Any kind of surveillance involves a tradeoff between privacy and security. So far, the security gains from software like this are small, while the loss of privacy – which to be clear here is the privacy of children – is significant.

For privacy advocates, the lack of evidence for the technology’s effectiveness means that there are no sufficient grounds for the potential violations of privacy that come with its use. Hye Jung Han, a researcher at Human Rights Watch specializing in child rights, told The Verge that using surveillance technology on children could cause unwarranted harm:

“Could you imagine schools using toxic materials to build classrooms, even if it hadn’t met any safety standards? No,” said Han. “Similarly, to use unproven, untested surveillance technologies on children, without first checking whether they are safe to use, exposes children to an unacceptable risk of harm.”

Multiple requests for comment sent to Navigate360 — which acquired Social Sentinel in 2020 — did not receive a response.

The Uvalde school district was confirmed to have purchased monitoring capability from Social Sentinel in 2019–2020, though it is unclear whether the subscription was still active at the time of the shooting. However, even if it had been, the technology would have been unlikely to flag any of the shooter’s posts. There are now numerous reports of concerning activity surrounding the shooter’s online activity: he allegedly made frequent threats to young women and girls via chat apps, sent images of guns to acquaintances, and reportedly discussed carrying out the school shooting in an Instagram chat. But Social Sentinel is only able to monitor public posts and would not have had access to any content shared in private messages.

At the same time, there are significant privacy concerns with the software. In 2019, the Brennan Center for Justice outlined a range of civil and human rights concerns stemming from expanded social media monitoring in K-12 schools, among them the questionable effectiveness of the technology in combination with a tendency to disproportionately impact students from minority communities. In the same year, reporting by Education Week also covered the dramatic expansion of digital surveillance in schools, highlighting the large number of false positives generated by Social Sentinel’s technology. (Alerts were reportedly triggered by tweets about the Mark Wahlberg movie, Shooter and from a student pleased their credit score was “shooting up,” among other things.)

Of all US states, Texas has been the most enthusiastic about the use of digital surveillance for school children. A 2021 investigation by The Dallas Morning News found that no state has more school districts contracting with digital surveillance companies than Texas. But of the Texas districts that did take out these contracts, results were apparently mixed: a number of school districts that had paid for Social Sentinel told the Morning News that they had declined to renew contracts, describing a service that provided few actionable alerts or flagged mostly irrelevant information.

But while Social Sentinel advertises an ability to monitor a broad range of platforms, there’s some suggestion that its surveillance capabilities are dictated more by the accessibility of data sources than by their importance. A client presentation from the company shared by the EFF lists a range of social media sources for monitoring, including Instagram, YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr, Tumblr, WordPress, and even Meetup.

Data obtained by BuzzFeed News confirmed this through data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, which showed the company skewed heavily towards Twitter monitoring. Of the 1,206 Social Sentinel alerts provided to BuzzFeed, 98 percent (1,180) related to tweets — even though Instagram, YouTube, and even Facebook are more widely used by younger demographics. But the conventions of Twitter — where the vast majority of posts are publicly visible, even unintentionally — mean that it is comparatively easier to monitor, providing a wealth of social media data on tap that can be assimilated by companies looking to boost their surveillance credentials.

The DMN reports that some of the school districts that kicked the tires on Social Sentinel later decided it wasn’t worth it.

Uvalde is among at least 52 school districts and three colleges in Texas that have used the Social Sentinel service, according to records from GovSpend, an organization that tracks state and local government spending. It has also been used by dozens of colleges and hundreds of school districts nationwide.

Uvalde purchased Social Sentinel in August 2019, according to GovSpend. A document from the 2019-2020 school year lists the service as one of the district’s “preventative security measures.”

“UCISD utilizes Social Sentinel to monitor all social media with a connection to Uvalde as a measure to identify any possible threats that might be made against students and or staff within the school district,” the document reads.

The district made two payments to the company totaling more than $9,900, the data show.

Several Texas districts that have used Social Sentinel complained the service was mostly ineffective. The News reached out to every school district that used Social Sentinel, including Uvalde, for comment last year. Clear Creek ISD, a district outside of Houston, used the service in the 2018-19 school year but soon canceled.

“The Clear Creek Independent School District discontinued the use of Social Sentinel in its first year,” Elaina Polsen, Clear Creek’s chief communications officer, told The News last year. “The District determined the service just did not meet our needs, and we were receiving far stronger information through our anonymous tip line.”

Representatives from Keller, Lewisville, Mineral Wells and Schertz-Cibolo school districts also said the service provided them with few alerts or alerts that contained mostly irrelevant information.

HISD does not appear to have been a user of Social Sentinel, so we’ve got that going for us. There are other companies with similar products out there, so be on the lookout for that kind of pitch. It’s not out of the question to me that a tool like this could be effective at some point (we would still have to debate the privacy impact, and I can just about guarantee that it won’t be good), but we’re not there yet and it may be awhile before we can reasonably broach the subject. In the meantime, I dunno, maybe ban assault weapons again like we did in the 90s? Worked pretty well back then, and it didn’t involve snooping on things kids were saying among themselves. Just a thought.

(FYI, I first heard about Social Sentinel and its connection to Uvalde on the What Next podcast. I went looking for the DMN story from there, and found the others in the same search.)

SCOTUS puts Texas’ stupid social media censorship law back on hold

Good.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday blocked a Texas law that prohibits large social media companies, such as Facebook or Twitter, from banning or removing users’ posts based on political viewpoints.

The justices, in a 5-4 vote, granted NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association’s request to reinstate a block imposed by a federal district judge as the lawsuit makes its way through the courts. The justices who voted to reverse the lower court’s ruling didn’t give a reason for their decision — a standard practice when the court is ruling on emergency applications.

Matt Schruers, president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, one of the two groups that sued to block the law on claims that it violates companies’ First Amendment rights, celebrated the court’s decision.

“No online platform, website, or newspaper should be directed by government officials to carry certain speech,” he said in a statement. “This has been a key tenet of our democracy for more than 200 years and the Supreme Court has upheld that.”

[…]

The two industry trade groups that represent companies such as Google and Twitter sued to block the law last fall. In December, a federal district court judge ruled in favor of the groups and prevented the law from going into effect, reasoning that the First Amendment protects a company’s right to moderate content and calling parts of the law “prohibitively vague.”

As a result, Paxton appealed the district judge’s decision to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which reinstated the law.

Three conservative justices, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch, said in a dissent that they would have let Texas’ law stand for now. Justice Elena Kagan, a liberal, said she would have also let the order stand but didn’t provide a reason.

Alito wrote in the dissent that it is “not at all obvious how our existing precedents, which predate the age of the internet, should apply to large social media companies.” Still, he wrote, the case is “of great importance” and the Supreme Court would have to review the arguments at some point.

“Social media platforms have transformed the way people communicate with each other and obtain news,” he wrote. “At issue is a ground-breaking Texas law that addresses the power of dominant social media corporations to shape public discussion of the important issues of the day.”

See here for the previous update and here for a copy of the order. With the Florida law being knocked down by the 11th Court of Appeals, there’s a circuit split, which means that Alito is correct and SCOTUS is going to have to deal with this sooner or later. At least it will be on hold until then. The Chron has more.

Florida’s stupid social media censorship law knocked down by appeals court

With an opinion from a Trump judge, no less.

A Florida law intended to punish social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter is an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment, a federal appeals court ruled Monday, dealing a major victory to companies who had been accused by GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis of discriminating against conservative thought.

A three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously concluded that it was overreach for DeSantis and the Republican-led Florida Legislature to tell the social media companies how to conduct their work under the Constitution’s free speech guarantee.

“Put simply, with minor exceptions, the government can’t tell a private person or entity what to say or how to say it,” said Circuit Judge Kevin Newsom, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, in the opinion. “We hold that it is substantially likely that social media companies — even the biggest ones — are private actors whose rights the First Amendment protects.”

The ruling upholds a similar decision by a Florida federal district judge on the law, which was signed by DeSantis in 2021. It was part of an overall conservative effort to portray social media companies as generally liberal in outlook and hostile to ideas outside of that viewpoint, especially from the political right.

[…]

As enacted, the law would give Florida’s attorney general authority to sue companies under the state’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. It would also allow individual Floridians to sue social media companies for up to $100,000 if they feel they’ve been treated unfairly.

The bill targeted social media platforms that have more than 100 million monthly users, which include online giants as Twitter and Facebook. But lawmakers carved out an exception for the Walt Disney Co. and their apps by including that theme park owners wouldn’t be subject to the law.

The law would require large social media companies to publish standards on how it decides to “censor, deplatform, and shadow ban.”

But the appeals court rejected nearly all of the law’s mandates, save for a few lesser provisions in the law.

“Social media platforms exercise editorial judgment that is inherently expressive. When platforms choose to remove users or posts, deprioritize content in viewers’ feeds or search results, or sanction breaches of their community standards, they engage in First-Amendment-protected activity,” Newsom wrote for the court.

You can see a copy of the ruling here, and contrast it to the wordless garbage the Fifth Circuit spewed out to allow Texas’ law to stand. This means that SCOTUS will have to get involved to resolve the dispute. It’s going to get ugly in here. Reuters, CNET, and Techdirt, which shows the parts of the lower court’s ruling that were upheld and the parts that were vacated, have more.

Texas asks SCOTUS to not block its stupid social media law

As you’d expect.

The Supreme Court should allow a sweeping Texas law to remain in effect that restricts the ability of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to moderate their platforms, according to the state’s attorney general.

In a filing to the Court on Wednesday, Texas argued that its law, HB 20, which prohibits large social media firms from blocking, banning or demoting posts or accounts, does not violate the First Amendment.

It contrasts with claims by opponents, including the tech industry, that the legislation infringes on the constitutional rights of tech platforms to make editorial decisions and to be free from government-compelled speech.

[…]

A group of states led by Florida has also submitted a Court filing defending Texas’s law. The friend-of-the-court brief, which was authored by a dozen states including Alabama, Arizona, Kentucky and South Carolina, among others, reflects how the legal battle over HB 20 has nationwide ramifications.

Justice Samuel Alito is currently considering whether to grant an emergency stay of a lower court decision that had allowed the law to take effect last week. The law is being challenged by advocacy groups representing the tech industry.

[…]

The case has already drawn “friend of the court” briefs from interested third parties including groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Texas State Conference of the NAACP, who urged the court to block the law, arguing it will “transform social media platforms into online repositories of vile, graphic, harmful, hateful, and fraudulent content, of no utility to the individuals who currently engage in those communities.”

Also seeking to file a third-party brief was former Rep. Chris Cox, co-author of the tech platform liability shield known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a federal law that explicitly permits websites to moderate content and which has become a lightning rod in the wider battle over digital speech.

Social media operators have repeatedly cited Section 230 to successfully nip many suits in the bud concerning user-generated content. But HB 20 conflicts with Section 230 by saying platforms can be sued in Texas for moderating their online communities, raising questions about the future of the federal law that’s been described as “the 26 words that created the internet.”

See here and here for some background. Alito will either issue a decision on his own or refer the matter to the full court. Insert shrug emoji here.

SCOTUS asked to again block that stupid social media censorship law

Please save us from the lawless Fifth Circuit. Having to make such an ask of this SCOTUS sure is a jaw-grinding experience.

Lobbying groups representing Facebook, Twitter, Google and other tech companies filed an emergency request with the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday, seeking to block a Texas law that prohibits large social media platforms from banning users based on their political views.

The Texas law went into effect on Wednesday when the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted the state’s request for a stay of a district judge’s injunction blocking the law.

The law forbids social media companies with more than 50 million active users per month from banning members based on their political views and requires them to publicly disclose how they moderate content.

[…]

Internet lobbying groups NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association filed a lawsuit against the measure, and U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman in Austin, Texas, issued a preliminary injunction in December.

Pitman had found that the law would harm social media companies’ free speech rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The tech groups, in their emergency request, asked the Supreme Court to “allow the District Court’s careful reasoning to remain in effect while an orderly appellate process plays out.”

See here for the previous update, and here for a more detailed analysis of why the Fifth Circuit’s no-words ruling was so bad. You know how much faith I have in this court to ever do the right thing, but maybe this was a bridge too far. Maybe. Ars Technica and The Verge have more.

That stupid social media censorship law has been unblocked

The Fifth Circuit continues to debase itself.

A federal appeals court on Wednesday reinstated a Republican-backed Texas law that prohibits large social media companies from banning users over their political viewpoints.

The decision hands a win to Republicans who have long criticized social media platforms such as Twitter for what they call anti-conservative bias — disapproval that was amplified when President Donald Trump was banned from Twitter for violating the platform’s rules on inciting violence during the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

The order did not evaluate the law on its constitutionality but instead allows the law to go back into effect while the case proceeds in district court, according to a statement from one of the plaintiff groups. The ruling came from a three-judge panel on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — which is often considered the most conservative appeals court in the country — and was not accompanied by a written opinion explaining the decision at the time of publication.

Two large industry trade groups that represent companies such as Google and Twitter sued to block the law last fall.

In December, a federal district court judge ruled in favor of the groups and blocked the law while the lawsuit continues, reasoning that the First Amendment protects a company’s right to moderate content and called parts of the law “prohibitively vague.” As a result, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed the district judge’s decision to the circuit court.

Passed during a special session last year, House Bill 20 also requires social media platforms with more than 50 million monthly users to publicly disclose information about content removal and account suspensions.

“HB 20 is an assault on the First Amendment, and it’s constitutionally rotten from top to bottom,” Chris Marchese, counsel for the NetChoice industry trade group, tweeted after the ruling. “So of course we’re going to appeal today’s unprecedented, unexplained, and unfortunate order by a split 2-1 panel.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I’ve been beaten down by the constant flow of atrocities from this outlaw court, so I’m going to hand it off to one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys:

Which means we have to hope there are still a few people on that bench who understand what the First Amendment says. I don’t have any faith, but what are you gonna do? Slate and Reform Austin have more.

Social media censorship law blocked

For now. As long as the outlaw Fifth Circuit exists, we can’t say more than that.

A federal judge on Wednesday blocked a Texas law that seeks to restrict how social media companies moderate their content and was championed by Republicans who say the platforms are biased against conservatives.

The law, signed by Gov. Greg Abbott on Sept. 9, would ban platforms with more than 50 million monthly users in the U.S. from removing a user over a “viewpoint” and require them to publicly report information about content removal and account suspensions. It was set to take effect Dec. 2.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman wrote that the First Amendment protects social media platforms’ right to moderate content and rejected the defendants’ argument that such companies are “common carriers.” Pitman also ruled that some aspects of the law were “prohibitively vague.”

“This Court is convinced that social media platforms, or at least those covered by [House Bill] 20, curate both users and content to convey a message about the type of community the platform seeks to foster and, as such, exercise editorial discretion over their platform’s content,” Pitman wrote.

[…]

Supporters of the law say it ensures that users’ political views go uncensored. State Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park — who authored the bill, known as House Bill 20 — compared tech companies to “common carriers” like phone companies or cable providers, which are barred from customer discrimination.

But a federal judge who blocked a similar Florida law in June said such comparisons aren’t accurate. Thomas Leatherbury, the director of the First Amendment Clinic at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law, told The Texas Tribune in September that the Texas law is “clearly unconstitutional,” with the same flaws as the Florida law “and then some.”

By targeting only the largest social media platforms, Leatherbury said the law violates the equal protection clause. The law largely prohibits electronic mail service providers from blocking messages based on their content, which Leatherbury said restricts email services’ First Amendment rights.

See here and here for the background. You can see the court order here, some commentary on it here, and NetChoice’s press release here. As with all things, Texas is sure to go running to the Fifth Circuit to get them to ratify their lawlessness, and the usual bet is that the Fifth Circuit will provide room service for them. Maybe this time it will be different since the law attacks businesses instead of just people, but conservatives have decided those particular businesses are Bad for them, so the usual bet is still probably the correct one. But for now, at least this is one terrible new law that won’t get a chance to be enforced. For now.

Social media censorship lawsuit has its day in court

It’s a very dumb law that will hopefully be stopped before it takes effect tomorrow.

Lawyers for two large tech industry groups appeared Monday in federal court in Austin to argue that Texas’ new social media law — inspired by Republican complaints that conservatives are ill-treated on Twitter, Facebook and other large platforms — should be blocked as unconstitutional.

Known as House Bill 20, the law lets social media users sue if they are blocked or their posts are removed based on the user’s viewpoint. It also gives companies two days to respond to user complaints about content removal and two weeks to handle appeals if users disagree with the action.

But lawyer Scott Keller argued that the law should be blocked from taking effect Thursday because it violates the First Amendment free speech right of social media companies to monitor, screen and delete content published on their platforms.

Instead, Keller said, the law requires platforms to continue publishing posts that violate their terms of service, including those that glorify Nazis or spread medical misinformation.

“This is a striking assertion of government power,” he told U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman during a two-hour in-person hearing Monday in downtown Austin. “The First Amendment protects editorial discretion.”

HB 20 also creates an onerous set of regulations on complaints and appeals that would be impossible to meet, Keller argued, noting that in a three-month period earlier this year, YouTube removed 9.5 million videos and 1.16 billion comments for violating decency and other standards.

But Assistant Attorney General Courtney Corbello argued that the law does not stop social media companies from prohibiting certain types of content.

“HB 20 says continue to have your policies, continue to prohibit the content the way you want to, just don’t discriminate against people,” she said. “HB 20 prohibits viewpoint discrimination. It does not prohibit content moderation.”

Corbello also disputed claims that the law is onerous, noting that Facebook and YouTube already inform users when content is removed and have an appeals process in place to resolve disagreements.

See here for the background. I may have been wrong about the timing of the slapdown on this dumb law, but I don’t think I’m wrong about the outcome. This time I can point to someone with fancy law credentials who also thinks this law is trash and the lawsuit will succeed – see here for the analysis of HB20, and here for his thoughts on the filings. There are other analyses of the law and similar ones in equally ridiculous states like Florida, which you should read, and there’s this resource page from NetChoice, one of the plaintiffs, if you really want to go deep. As I said, this and other laws from the special session go into effect tomorrow, so expect there to be something in short order.

Lawsuit filed over our very dumb new social media “censorship” law

So very dumb.

Texas is being sued over its new law barring social media platforms from banning users over their political views by two trade associations that represent some of the industry’s biggest online companies.

NetChoice and the Computer and Communications Industry Association, which represent Google and Twitter, among other companies in the e-commerce and social media industries, filed a lawsuit Wednesday asking a federal judge to block the law.

Under the law, which was passed by the Legislature as House Bill 20, and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott on Sept. 9, social media platforms with over 50 million monthly users in the U.S. — a threshold that includes Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube — must publicly report details about content removal and account suspensions biannually. The platforms are also required to establish an easily accessible complaint system, where users could flag violations of the law.

Supporters of the bill said it was a necessary step to ensure users’ viewpoints aren’t censored and people who are blocked have a path for recourse.

The state cannot force platforms to host content they wouldn’t otherwise host, the presidents of NetChoice and CCIA said in a Tuesday meeting with reporters. The law threatens the safety of users, creators and businesses that use platforms to reach their audiences, said NetChoice President and CEO Steve DelBianco.

“They can’t be forced to carry content that violates the community standards that they use to curate a community of online content that suits their advertisers and audience,” DelBianco said.

[…]

This lawsuit isn’t the first of its kind for NetChoice and CCIA. In May, the groups sued to block a similar measure in Florida, which became the first state to regulate tech companies’ speech. In June, a federal judge granted the request to block the enforcement of the law.

DelBianco said the First Amendment flaws outlined by the judge in Florida’s case “match pretty closely” to the Texas law.

I didn’t blog about this while it was happening because it was dumb. It was more performance art in a legislative session that was all about grievances and wingnut wish lists. This law will almost certainly die a quiet but expensive-to-defend death without ever being enforced, and we will all get on with our lives. And we will all be a little bit dumber because of it.

Here’s your special session agenda

They call this “red meat”, but it’s really just bullshit.

Gov. Greg Abbott has announced the agenda for the special legislative session that begins Thursday, asking lawmakers to prioritize 11 issues that largely appeal to conservatives who wanted more out of the regular session.

The announcement of the agenda came just over 24 hours before lawmakers are set to reconvene in Austin.

The agenda includes Abbott’s priority bills related to overhauling Texas elections and the bail system, as well as pushing back against social media “censorship” of Texans and the teaching of critical race theory in schools. Those issues were anticipated after they did not pass during the regular session and Abbott faced pressure to revive them or had already committed to bringing them back.

[…]

The special session agenda also includes funding for the legislative branch, which Abbott vetoed last month. He did so after House Democrats staged a walkout in the final hours of the regular session that killed the priority elections bill. The inclusion of the legislative funding raises the possibility that lawmakers could restore paychecks for their staff — and other staff at the Capitol — before the next fiscal year begins on Sept. 1. More than 2,000 staffers are affected by the veto of the Legislative funding, which Democrats have called an executive overreach of power.

Late last month, House Democrats and legislative staffers asked the state Supreme Court to override it. The court had not ruled in the case yet.

The Democrats’ walkout prompted a flood of national attention, and now the minority members must decide how to try to derail it in the special session with their staff pay on the line. Republicans also have their work cut out for them in the special session, faced with preventing another embarrassing defeat of the elections bill and remedying two provisions they claimed after the regular session were mistakes.

The special session is set to start at 10 a.m. Thursday and could last up to 30 days, with the potential for Abbott to add more items as it proceeds. It is one of at least two special sessions expected this year, with a fall special session coming to address redistricting and the spending of billions of dollars of federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Abbott’s agenda for the first special session notably does not include anything about the state’s electric grid, which was exposed as deeply vulnerable during a deadly winter weather storm in February that left millions of Texans without power. Lawmakers made some progress in preventing another disaster during the regular session, but experts — as well as Patrick — have said there is more to do. Last month, calls for the Legislature to take further action to fix the power grid were renewed when grid officials asked Texans to conserve energy.

Despite Abbott’s recent claim that grid is better than ever, he sent a letter Tuesday to the state’s electricity regulators outlining a number of steps he would like them to take to “improve electric reliability.” But it appears Abbott does not want to reopen legislative debate on the issue for now.

Just to recap, I continue to expect the Supreme Court to delay and hope the legislative budget veto issue becomes moot. I don’t think there’s much if anything that Democratic legislators can do to stop any of these bills if Republicans are determined to pass them – it’s not out of the question that on some of them the Republicans are not sufficiently unified – so the best thing to do is to try to at least make sure everything has a real committee hearing first. Finally, I’m not surprised that Abbott has no interest in revisiting the power grid, not when he’s already staked his claim on everything being just fine now. The other piece of business for the Dems is to hammer this point over and over again, until it seeps into the public consciousness. Good luck, y’all. This is going to suck. The Chron has more.

SCOTX and Facebook

Interesting.

The Texas Supreme Court will allow three human trafficking victims to move forward in litigation against Facebook that alleges the platform enabled their abusers to groom them into a life of prostitution.

In a 6-0 ruling, with two justices not participating, Justice Jimmy Blacklock rejected Facebook’s plea for mandamus relief, based on arguments that the federal Communications Decency Act said the social media giant couldn’t face liability for things that its users published or said on its platform.

“It was time for the court to adjust the way it looks at how the internet is regulated,” said plaintiffs attorney Annie McAdams, partner in Annie McAdams PC in Houston. “I think it will have a profound influence. This is the first major decision that puts a crack in absolute immunity for internet companies.”

A Facebook spokesman emailed a comment from the company that said it was reviewing the high court’s ruling.

“We’re reviewing the decision and considering potential next steps. Sex trafficking is abhorrent and not allowed on Facebook. We will continue our fight against the spread of this content and the predators who engage in it,” the statement said.

The ruling said the plaintiffs’ claims for statutory human trafficking can proceed, but the high court dismissed common-law claims for negligence, gross negligence, negligent undertaking and products liability.

Blacklock wrote in the ruling in In re Facebook that the Communications Decency Act doesn’t create a “lawless no-man’s land on the internet” that strikes a state’s power “to impose liability on websites that knowingly or intentionally participate in the evil of online human trafficking.”

Although the high court agreed that the federal statute wouldn’t enable the plaintiffs to hold Facebook accountable for its users’ comments, it decided this case poses a different situation.

“Holding internet platforms accountable for their own misdeeds is quite another thing,” said the opinion. “This is particularly the case for human trafficking.”

See here for the opinion, and here for all the filings related to the case. Note that the question here was whether or not the victims could sue Facebook, not whether they won their suit. At this point, everything goes back to the district court, where an actual trial can begin on the merits of the case. It will likely be some number of years before there is a final result.

I had not followed this case at all and wasn’t aware of it until I saw these stories. The Chron provides some background.

The lawsuits were brought by three Houston women recruited as teens through Facebook apps and trafficked as a result of those online connections. The young women said in court filings that the social media giant cloaked traffickers with credibility and provided “a point of first contact between sex traffickers and these children” and “an unrestricted platform to stalk, exploit, recruit, groom, and extort children into the sex trade.”

One young woman who sued was 15 when a friend of a mutual friend reached out to her on Facebook in 2012. The adult who began messaging her had images on his profile of “scantily-clad young women in sexual positions” with money stuffed in their mouths and “other deeply troubling content,” the justices wrote. She confided in him and he complimented her, offering her a modeling job. After they met in person, the trafficker posted photos of her in prostitution ads on Backpage, an online platform shuttered due to its promotion of human trafficking. The young woman said she was “raped, beaten, and forced into further sex trafficking.”

Another plaintiff was 14 in 2017 when a man contacted her on Instagram, another Facebook property. The pimp in this instance lured her with “false promises of love and a better future.” She said the easy access to her through social media made it possible for the man to traffic her, using Instagram to advertise her as a prostitute and set up “dates,” during which she was raped numerous times. After the teen was rescued from his operation, traffickers kept using her profile to lure in other minors, according to the ruling. In this case the family says the girl’s mother reported what had happened to Facebook and the company never responded.

The third girl who sued identified herself as being 14 on Instagram in 2016. A man of about 30 whom she didn’t know sent her a friend request on Instagram. They exchanged messages for two years in what plaintiffs said was a calculated effort to “groom” her and prepare her for sex-trafficking. In March 2018, the man asked the teen to leave home and meet him. He brought the girl to a motel, photographed her and posted images in Backpage ads, according to the opinion. The johns who responded to the post raped her.

Nasty stuff. This is a big ruling, but it is far from the end of the line, and there will be plenty of opportunity for Facebook to prevail in other ways as we proceed. The HuffPost has more.

Twitter lawsuit against Paxton dismissed

That’s not quite the end of it, though.

Best mugshot ever

A federal judge in California on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit brought by Twitter against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, whose legal efforts to investigate the social media platform after it suspended President Donald Trump’s account led the company to sue.

Twitter’s lawsuit included a request for a temporary restraining order that would keep Paxton and his office from enforcing a demand that seeks documents revealing the company’s internal decision making processes for banning users. Judge Maxine M. Chesney said the company’s legal action was “premature.”

Paxton, a passionate supporter of Trump, sent Twitter a civil investigative demand after it banned Trump from its platform following January’s deadly siege at the U.S. Capitol. Twitter wrote in its suit responding to Paxton that it sought to stop him “from unlawfully abusing his authority as the highest law-enforcement officer of the State of Texas to intimidate, harass, and target Twitter in retaliation for Twitter’s exercise of its First Amendment rights.”

The company claimed Paxton’s “retaliatory” investigation violated the First Amendment as an inappropriate use of government authority.

“Twitter’s lawsuit was little more than an attempt to avoid answering my questions about their large-scale censorship and content-moderation policies,” Paxton said in a statement Tuesday.

See here and here for the background. I Am Not A Lawyer, but when I see that the suit was dismissed because it was “premature”, that says to me this didn’t have to do with the merits or legality of the suit, just the timing. The Trib story doesn’t give any explanation of that, so I looked around and eventually found this AP story, which answered my question.

In her Tuesday ruling, Senior U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney of San Francisco ruled that Paxton’s administrative summonses were not “self-executing,” meaning that Twitter was not bound to comply with them absent a court order.

In her seven-page opinion, Chesney noted that Paxton had taken no court action to enforce his summonses and that Twitter was not bound to comply with them without court action. So, she dismissed Twitter’s suit, noting that its request for an injunction or court declaration against Paxton was premature.

Law and Crime explains further.

Paxton’s office issued civil investigative demands (CID)—subpoena-like requests for information— to Twitter, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple, seeking the companies’ content moderation policies and practices. The Texas attorney general, who has been under the legal microscope himself due to securities fraud charges and allegations of briberysaid that for years the tech companies “have silenced voices in the social media sphere and shut down competing companies and platforms,” couching his concern as a First Amendment issue that “chills free speech.”

Twitter responded by suing Paxton in the U.S. District Court for Northern California, seeking an injunction barring the AG from “initiating any action” to enforce the investigatory demands and a declaration that the probe is barred by the First Amendment as “unlawful retaliation against Twitter for its moderation of its platform, including its decision to permanently suspend President Trump’s account.”

In a seven-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Maxine M. Chesney, an appointee of former President Bill Clinton, found that Paxton opening a probe and issuing CIDs to Twitter did not amount to a “cognizable adverse action” against the company as required for a First Amendment retaliation claim.

Chesney reasoned that, unlike subpoenas, CIDs like the one issued by the attorney general’s office, are not “self-executing” discovery instruments, meaning that they can be ignored, without penalty, unless an additional court order is sought.

“[T]he Office of the Attorney General has no authority to impose any sanction for a failure to comply with its investigation. Rather, the Office of the Attorney General would be required to go to court, where the only possible consequence adverse to Twitter would be a judicial finding that the CID, contrary to Twitter’s assertion, is enforceable,” Chesney wrote. “Accordingly, as, to date, no action has been taken to enforce the CID, the Court finds Twitter’s lawsuit is premature, and, as such, is subject to dismissal.”

In other words, because Twitter is not currently obligated to comply with Paxton’s demand for access to its communications and moderation policies, it’s too early in the legal process for a federal court to decide the controversy on the merits.

Should Paxton pursue a court order, Twitter would likely make the same arguments regarding the investigation being barred as unlawful retaliation under the First Amendment, resulting in a merit-based ruling.

I think that’s pretty clear. I hadn’t realized that Paxton had taken the same action with those other companies, who I guess either decided to ignore them or wait and see what happened with the Twitter case. In any event, now they all know – this is just sound and fury, at least for now. We’ll see if Paxton raises the ante, or if making the news was all he was interested in.

Recruiting poll workers

One good thing Facebook has ever done.

Facebook has set out to recruit poll workers, providing free ads for state election officials to help fill jobs at voting centers in a very unusual election year.

“With the election less than three months away, we’re seeing a massive shortage of poll workers to staff our voting booths across the country because we are in a global pandemic,” said Facebook spokesman Robert Traynham.

The California tech giant has partnered with the nonpartisan Fair Election Center to share data about where to apply to be a poll worker based on a user’s location. Notifications posted in Saturday’s newsfeeds for all U.S. based Facebook users over 18 directing those who clicked to information about jobs with their state’s election offices.

The local effort to fill 11,000 such vacancies is going well, according to Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins. He said he does not foresee a shortage, it’s just a matter of screening the flood of applicants, many of whom have worked the polls before.

“We have been very pleasantly surprised at the enthusiasm for people to be election workers,” Hollins said. “We first put out the call a month and a half ago the immediate response to that was 500 to 700 applications a day.”

The office has had 9,000 applicants to date. The pay begins at $17 per hour and Hollins is hiring for multiple shifts and seven days a week during three weeks of early voting. To qualify, applicants must be 18 or older and registered to vote in Harris County, and may not be a relative or employee of a candidate or have a prior conviction for election fraud.

“People are just excited and more politically engaged than ever and want to be a part of the history that’s going to be made this year,” Hollins said. “During the time of COVID-19 and time of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the (Nicolas) Chavez news…I think people want to be a part of the change that they want to see in society and doing your civic duty and being a part of elections.”

For those of you in Harris County, go here to apply to be a poll worker. I’ve pointed this out to Olivia, the 16-year-old, and she was interested, but like her old man she’s kind of a procrastinator, so I will need to give her a nudge. If you’re in some other county, by all means check with your local election administrator. We all need to show up this year.

You may wonder, why does Harris County need this many poll workers? Here’s one reason:

Just behold all of the early voting locations here. The ones with the little car icon next to them (like Fallbrook Church, the first one listed on page 2), have curbside voting. Early voting in person starts October 13 – mail ballots will be sent out beginning later this week – so make your plan, and find a way to help someone else vote, too.

Kaylynn Williford

Goodbye, and good riddance.

The head prosecutor for Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg’s trial division resigned Monday after posting a meme on Facebook last week that equated protesters who remove Confederate statutes with Nazis.

The meme posted by the veteran prosecutor last week shows a black-and-white photograph of hands holding an overflowing bin of rings.

It says, “Wedding bands that were removed from Holocaust victims prior to being executed, 1945. Each ring represents a destroyed family. Never forget, Nazis tore down statues. Banned free speech. Blamed economic hardships on one group of people. Instituted gun control. Sound Familiar?”

Assistant District Attorney Kaylynn Williford said in a statement that she took down the post after a friend’s daughter and later a Jewish lawyer told her they found it offensive to compare the two groups. Williford, a 28-year-veteran of the office who has tried major capital cases, said this was never her intent.

She posted it, she said, because she thought it was “thought provoking and promoted tolerance.”

You can see what she posted in that earlier story, which came out over the weekend. I held off on posting about this mostly because I wanted to see what the reaction from the DA’s office was going to be first. A group of Democratic State Reps had called for her resignation earlier in the day, and eventually got what they asked for. All I can say is that if Kaylynn Williford really truly had no idea that her stupid image was offensive and why it was offensive, then she should have been fired years ago and should never get on Facebook again. Even if you were to somehow grant her some kind of Sleeping Beauty-level exemption for deeply childlike innocent ignorance, the controlling principle of “don’t post political shit to Facebook if you don’t understand it” should apply. You know the old saying about how it’s better to keep silent and be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt? It was for situations like this that it was first uttered. Keri Blakinger has more.

More runoff debates

In case you had not seen this, as I myself had not before Sunday.

Watch Democratic Candidate Debates Here!

Every Tuesday and Thursday in May, join us for our debate series:

Debate Schedule:
Tuesday, May 5 – Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner
Thursday, May 7 – Texas State House District 138
Tuesday, May 12 – Texas State House District 142
Thursday, May 14 – Texas State House District 148
Tuesday, May 19 – US Congressional District 10
Thursday, May 21 – Texas State Board of Education Position 6
Tuesday, May 26 – Texas Railroad Commission
Thursday, May 28 – United States Senate

Video of past debates are on the page, so for example if you want to hear Anna Eastman and Penny Shaw, go here. In some cases, one of the candidates in the runoff has declined or not responded, but in most cases you can hear both candidates. Early voting begins June 29, so remind yourself of who’s on your ballot and start making up your mind.

What is happening in the CD22 primary?

Holy smokes.

Nyanza Moore

A state district judge on Wednesday barred Democratic congressional candidate Nyanza Moore from making domestic violence allegations against opponent Derrick Reed after the former Pearland councilman sued her for defamation.

Brazoria County Judge Patrick Sebesta issued a temporary restraining order after concluding that Reed would “suffer immediate and irreparable damage” to his integrity and reputation if Moore persisted with a series of social media posts implying that Reed “beats women.”

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday, Reed cited a handful of times in which Moore alleged or suggested that he had beaten his ex-wife or otherwise committed domestic violence. In one post, Moore indicated she possessed a protective order between Reed and his ex-wife.

In the court filing, Reed emphatically denied the allegations and said no protective order “exists between he and his ex-wife or any other woman.”

“Mr. Reed was with his ex-wife for approximately 20 years and has never beat or abused her,” the filing reads. “The police have never been called out to any of their residences for domestic violence or any physical altercation.”

In a statement, Reed’s ex-wife, Erin Reed, said, “The claim being made that my ex-husband, Derrick Reed, physically abused me during our marriage is false. This accusation is damaging and unfair to our young and impressionable children and is an untrue characterization of their father.”

The order prohibits Moore from making any allegations that Reed committed domestic violence, and instructs her to retract any prior statement “used to disseminate the defamatory statements.”

The lawsuit is embedded in the story, or you can see it here. There’s a high standard to meet to win in an action like this when you are a public figure and political speech is involved, as noted in the story. A hearing for the injunction will be held on February 25, after which there will be three more days of early voting. I think it’s safe to say that more people are now aware of this allegation than when it was first made.

We’re all more sensitive to claims about violence against women now, and we all know that just because such a claim was not decided in a courtroom doesn’t mean it was without merit. That said, there are two things about this particular case that stand out to me. One is Moore’s claim about that alleged protective order. She did’t say she heard that one existed, she said she had an actual copy of an actual order in her possession, which she has threatened to make public – “Keep it up and the Protective Order will see day light” was a response Moore made on one of the cited Facebook posts (see Exhibit B in the lawsuit). If you claim you have something like this, you better have it. If she doesn’t, that puts a big dent in her own credibility. Sooner or later in this process, she is going to be asked to produce that order.

The other thing is that if Reed is not being fully truthful, there is a chance someone else could come forward now that this has all been made public and provide their own evidence to back up Moore’s claim or make one of their own. We have certainly seen that dynamic play out in other cases. What we know for sure is that it cannot be the case that both of them are telling the truth. It could be the case that both of them are being less than fully honest, but at least one of them is wrong. We’ll see what happens in court.

One more thing, which isn’t relevant to the lawsuit but which I noticed in the document: Moore repeatedly referred to Reed as a Republican in the Facebook posts. The Erik Manning spreadsheet lists candidates’ primary voting history for the last four cycles. Derrick Reed did indeed vote in the Republican primary in 2016; he then voted in the Democratic primary in 2018. Nyanza Moore had no primary voting history shown. Make of that what you will.

The Russia-Texas-secession connection

So many people got played.

A sprawling Russian disinformation campaign aimed at influencing the 2016 elections found success with social media accounts promoting the idea of Texas secession, according to a report commissioned by the U.S. Senate that was released Monday.

When it came to stirring up social divisions and exerting political influence, two accounts about the Lone Star State proved especially effective: a “Heart of Texas” Facebook page and a @rebeltexas account on Instagram.

Both accounts were created and managed by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian company that’s been characterized by the U.S. government as a “troll farm” and was indicted by a federal grand jury.

Heart of Texas, which amassed hundreds of thousands of followers on Facebook, promoted an image of the state as a land of barbecue and guns while sharing posts that attacked immigration.

The page had the most shares of all IRA Facebook accounts, at 4.8 million, according to the report, which was prepared by an Austin-based company, New Knowledge.

“Heart of Texas visual clusters included a wide swath of shapes of Texas, landscape photos of flowers, and memes about secession and refugees,” the report said.

Posts by the Facebook page cited in the report include a truck with a giant state flag and a photo of Texas wildflowers as well as another laying out the “economic grounds for Texas secession.” The page also shared memes criticizing immigration.

You can read that report here. The extent of this activity is mind-boggling, and in just about any other context we’d call it highly aggressive, if not warlike. Every now and then I see one of these yahoos with a “Secede” sticker on their car, and I wonder if they have any idea. We’re doing this to ourselves, that’s the really scary part.

Suing Facebook

Good luck with that.

A Houston businessman launched a wide-ranging class action lawsuit [last] Friday against Facebook for violating the trust of millions of users by sharing personal data with a company that used the information to post targeted political ads for President Donald Trump.

The security breach has made headlines across the world, prompted a variety of lawsuits, and caused European regulators to investigate the British firm involved in the breach. In the U.S., the apparent misuse of private information has engendered deep resentment and mistrust from social media users who are now contemplating whether to cut ties with Facebook, or wait out privacy improvements.

The lawsuit filed by businessman Matthew Lodowski targets Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, a British firm exposed in news reports for mining the private profiles of nearly 50 million Facebook users. Also named as defendants are Robert Leroy Mercer of New York, a wealthy conservative investor in Cambridge Analytica, and Aleksandr Kogan, a professor at Cambridge University accused of extracting personal information from Facebook for the data company.

Lodowski is accusing the social media giant of acting negligently by failing to protect user data, failing to take reasonable measures to avert problems when it learned the company had obtained users’ personal information without permission and failing to let users know their data had been taken until journalists broke the story.

According to the attorney who filed it, the suit is unique among legal actions sprouting up around the country related to the data breach in that it claims a violation of the Stored Communications Act, a law that allows online users to sue over “intentional access without authorization to a facility through which an electronic communication service is provided.” The suit also charges the defendants with conspiracy and negligence.

The suit, filed in Houston federal court, seeks to include in the class action anyone in the United States with a Facebook account whose data was impacted by Cambridge Analytica’s data breach. Lodowski is seeking compensatory damages, restitution and fees as well as an injunction against Cambridge Analytica and Kogan, the professor tied to the breach.

You can see a copy of the lawsuit here. I did a little googling to see if I could find a story that included an assessment of the legal merits of the case, but no dice. According to Engadget, there are five other lawsuits against Facebook and Cambridge so far, and it won’t be surprising if there are more. I figure they’re all longshots, but sometimes longshots come in. We’ll see what happens.

News flash: Businesses still hate bathroom bills

IBM hates them.

As state lawmakers return to Austin for legislative overtime, tech giant IBM is stepping up its fight to defeat legislation it says would discriminate against children and harm its Texas recruiting efforts.

In an internal email sent Monday to thousands of employees around the world, IBM’s human resources chief outlined the New York-based company’s opposition to what the letter described as discriminatory proposals to regulate bathroom use for transgender Texans. IBM sent the letter to employees the same day it dispatched nearly 20 top executives to the Lone Star State to lobby lawmakers at the state Capitol. A day earlier, it took out full-page ads in major Texas newspapers underlining its opposition to legislation that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and a cadre of far-right lawmakers have deemed a top priority.

“Why Texas? And why now? On July 18th, the Texas legislature will start a thirty-day special session, where it is likely some will try to advance a discriminatory ‘bathroom bill’ similar to the one that passed in North Carolina last year,” wrote Diane Gherson, IBM’s senior vice president for human resources. “It is our goal to convince Texas elected officials to abandon these efforts.”

[…]

The email IBM sent to employees on Monday echoed concerns businesses voiced in their letter to Abbott earlier this year, saying the company — which has more than 10,000 employees in Texas — is focused on defeating the bathroom proposals because they’re detrimental to inclusive business practices and fly in the face of “deep-rooted” values against discrimination targeting LGBT people.

“A bathroom bill like the one in Texas sends a message that it is okay to discriminate against someone just for being who they are,” Gherson, the company’s HR chief, wrote.

As do other companies.

CEOs from 14 leading employers in the Dallas area, including AT&T, American Airlines and Texas Instruments, are taking a public stand against a “bathroom bill” that would discriminate against transgender people in Texas.

On Monday morning, they delivered a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus. A bathroom bill, the letter says, “would seriously hurt the state’s ability to attract new businesses, investment and jobs.”

“Our companies are competing every day to bring the best and brightest talent to Dallas,” the letter says. “To that end, we strongly support diversity and inclusion. This legislation threatens our ability to attract and retain the best talent in Texas, as well as the greatest sporting and cultural attractions in the world.”

The letter is signed by Randall Stephenson of AT&T, Doug Parker of American Airlines, Gary Kelly of Southwest Airlines, Kim Cocklin of Atmos Energy, Matthew Rose of BNSF Railway, Mark Rohr of Celanese, Harlan Crow of Crow Holdings, Sean Donohue of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, Emmitt Smith of EJ Smith Enterprises, Fred Perpall of the Beck Group, David Seaton of Fluor, Thomas Falk of Kimberly-Clark, Trevor Fetter of Tenet Healthcare and Richard Templeton of Texas Instruments.

As the story notes, these efforts join other efforts by businesses to stop this thing. Such efforts have been met with an indifference bordering on hostility and contempt by Abbott and especially Patrick. I appreciate what all these companies and groups like TAB and the various chambers of commerce and visitors’ bureaus have done so far, which has been a tremendous help in keeping this awful legislation from reaching Abbott’s desk. But the big question remains what they will do after the special session gavels out, whatever the outcome of these efforts. I’ve had this question for a long time now. Between potty politics and the anti-immigration fervor of SB4, a lot of damage has already been done to our state’s reputation, and the men in charge keep wanting to do more. They’re not going to go away if they lose this session – they have the zealous will and a crap-ton of money powering them. Will these business interests, who have been getting so badly served by politicians they have generally supported, or at least tacitly accepted, in the past, put their money where their press conferences are and actively oppose Abbott and Patrick and their legislative enablers? Or will they bend over and take another lash from the paddle? One wonders at this point what they think they have to lose. The Chron has more.

Beto-mania

Rep. Beto O’Rourke made his first visit to Houston as a Senate candidate over the weekend.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

Senate hopeful and U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke introduced himself to Houston on Sunday as a potential check on President Donald Trump, urging voters to send a Democrat to the upper chamber in 2018 rather than waiting to make a dent in deep red Texas.

The El Paso Democrat – best known as an ex-punk rocker who recently livestreamed a “bipartisan roadtrip” to Washington, D.C. with Texas Republican Congressman Will Hurd – announced his bid Friday to unseat hometown U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

O’Rourke, who has little name recognition across Texas, faces a steep uphill battle in a state that has not elected a Democrat statewide since 1994.

His pitch on Sunday focused more on counterbalancing Trump rhetoric and policies than it did ousting Cruz.

“If we want balance – if we want a check on this president – it runs through the Senate,” O’Rourke said, asking hundreds of attendees to picture themselves years from now, trying to answer questions from their children. “‘When you knew what was happening, and you knew what we needed, and you knew what it took, what did you do?'”

[…]

O’Rourke, who pledges to refuse contributions from political action committees, appears to have taken a page out of Cruz’s 2012 campaign playbook by announcing his bid early and taking a grass-roots approach.

“I think a people-powered, people-driven, Texas-first campaign is going to make the difference,” O’Rourke said.

He criticized Cruz for helping to shut down the government in 2013 and setting his sights on the White House.

“He shut it down because he put party over country, ideology over the interests of the people he served, and has used Texas for four years as a platform from which to pursue the presidency,” he said to a packed hall at northwest Houston’s IBEW Local Union 716.

O’Rourke named immigration reform, mental health services for veterans, military spending and health care as top campaign issues.

“It’s not a function of what you can afford or what you make or who you happen to work for or where you live or who you were born to,” he said of health care. “It’s a right.”

Here’s a Facebook Live video of the event, streamed by O’Rourke himself because that’s a thing he does. As you can see, the crowd was indeed large – I was unfortunately not able to be there, but my Facebook feed was full of pictures from people who were. Here’s a photo album O’Rourke posted – this picture gives a good view of the crowd size at the Houston event. For all that O’Rourke gets described in stories as “little known”, he’s been generating an impressive amount of coverage for himself so far, in part I’d say for being such an early candidate, in part because it’s Ted freaking Cruz he’s running against, and in part for his self-professed unorthodox approach to how he will run. This CBS News story captures some of that.

O’Rourke does have one thing in common with Cruz: He’s a social media obsessive who believes in the power of the internet to connect directly with voters.

His social media persona is part of his strategy. O’Rourke made headlines last month when he embarked on an impromptu 1,600-mile, 36-hour road trip from Texas to Washington with Republican Rep. Will Hurd after snow grounded their flights. The duo broadcast the bipartisan marathon on Facebook Live.

To follow him on social media is to become familiar with even the most mundane details of the congressman’s life. He’s an avid user of Instagram and Snapchat. On Friday, he snapped his morning run with his dog along the U.S.-Mexico border. Later, he boarded his flight and tweeted a grinning selfie from his middle seat in coach.

O’Rourke boasted that he has more Snapchat followers than any other member of Congress and says he’ll continue to be “the most accountable and transparent person in Congress,” using social media to connect with constituents and voters he would otherwise never get the chance to meet.

But O’Rourke, who once played in a rock band and lived in Brooklyn, plans to take on Cruz directly on the issue of money in politics.

It’s going to be awhile before we have any empirical data to suggest that this race is closer than expected or just another example of false Democratic hope. In the meantime, though, we will be able to use a couple of metrics to see how well O’Rourke is doing by his own standards: His fundraising, especially in terms of small-dollar donors, and his social media followers. Right now, his Facebook page has about 48,000 likes. That’s not a bad number for a third-term Congressman just getting started on a statewide run, but Ted Cruz’s candidate page has over two million likes – running for President will do that for you – and his official US Senate page has one million. O’Rourke is off to a good start, but he has a long way to go. As such, while there has been a lot of positive buzz for Beto O’Rourke, there’s a lot of skepticism as well, as Josh Kraushaar (“it would take an epic Cruz col­lapse for Demo­crats to make the race in­ter­est­ing”) and Eric Garcia (“Toppling Cruz Will be a Tall Order for O’Rourke”) demonstrate. Daily Kos and RG Ratcliffe have more.

Snopes’ world

These are busy times for fact checkers.

The last line of defense against the torrent of half-truths, untruths and outright fakery that make up so much of the modern internet is in a downscale strip mall near the beach.

Snopes, the fact-checking website, does not have an office designed to impress, or even be noticed. A big sign outside still bears the name of the previous tenant, a maker of underwater headphones. Inside there’s nothing much — a bunch of improvised desks, a table tennis table, cartons of Popchips and cases of Dr Pepper. It looks like a dot-com on the way to nowhere.

Appearances deceive. This is where the muddled masses come by the virtual millions to establish just what the heck is really going on in a world turned upside down.

Did Donald J. Trump say on Twitter that he planned to arrest the “Saturday Night Live” star Alec Baldwin for sedition? Has Hillary Clinton quietly filedfor divorce? Was Mr. Trump giving Kanye West a cabinet position? And was Alan Thicke, the star of “Growing Pains,” really dead?

All untrue, except for the demise of Mr. Thicke, which was easily verifiable.

“Rationality seems to have fallen out of vogue,” said Brooke Binkowski, Snopes’s managing editor. “People don’t know what to believe anymore. Everything is really strange right now.”

That is certainly true at Snopes itself. For 20 years, the site was dedicated to urban legends, like the purported existence of alligators in New York City sewers, and other benign misinformation. But its range and readership increased significantly during a prolonged presidential election campaign in which the facts became a partisan issue and reality itself seemed up for grabs.

[…]

But the role of fake news and misinformation in Mr. Trump’s surprise win quickly reached a fever pitch, prompting questions about the extent to which Facebook, where many of these bogus stories were shared, had influenced the election. Reluctantly, the social media giant was forced to act.

The plan is for Facebook to send questionable links to a coalition of fact-checking sites, including Snopes. If the links are found to be dubious, Facebook will alert users by marking stories with a “disputed” designation.

Mr. Mikkelson, speaking from Washington State, declined to claim this new initiative was a potential turning point in the quest for truth on the internet, or even in the history of Snopes.

“I said, ‘O.K., we’ll give it a try,’” he said. “It doesn’t really involve us doing anything we wouldn’t already be doing.” As for Facebook, he thinks it had to do something but had few good options. Blocking content outright, for instance, would be a public relations minefield.

You know, I’m so old I was once subscribed to the soc.urban-legends Usenet feed, from whence David and then-wife Barbara Mikkelson got their start in this business. I’m glad that Facebook has enlisted Snopes’ services to try and separate truth from lies, but I wouldn’t hold out much hope that it will make much difference. People are going to believe what they want to believe, and when those too-good-to-be-true stories align with their politics, good luck with that. But you still have to do something, so we can hope this will help even a little bit.

30 day finance reports, citywide races

Here’s a brief summary of the 30 Day campaign finance reports that I’ve been able to find, some of which are on this page and some of which are findable via the normal campaign finance report website, and all of which are collected on my Election 2015 page. First up, the Mayoral candidates:

Candidate Raised Spent Loans On Hand =================================================== Bell 126,563 240,035 0 91,901 Costello 266,845 871,109 90,000 696,539 Garcia 584,916 1,060,457 0 831,284 Hall 57,859 111,417 850,000 758,618 King 284,031 626,621 650,000 322,474 McVey Turner 526,516 1,265,239 0 507,099 Ferreira Lane 11,105 14,467 9,000 5,457 Munoz Nguyen 150 0 5,000 150 Smith Steffes

I’ve separated the “real” candidates from the “minor” candidates. Marty McVey did file a 30-day report but the totals on cover sheet page 2 are wrong; the Chron’s Rebecca Elliott did the pencil work to tot things up if you’re interested. Neither Sylvester Turner nor Adrian Garcia slowed down after their torrid initial pace, thought both Steve Costello and Bill King weren’t as prolific. On the spending side, I’ve seen plenty of Costello ads on my TV lately, as well as a handful of Turner ads; Turner has been all over my Internet, but all of the “real” candidates minus Hall have had multiple sponsored Facebook posts on my feed. I keep wondering when I’m going to see an Adrian Garcia ad on the tube.

The Controllers:

Candidate Raised Spent Loans On Hand =================================================== Boney Brown 42,820 181,923 0 106,165 Frazer 58,375 80,377 32,500 58,293 Jefferson Khan 84,950 5,495 5,100 81,290 Robinson 14,050 17,556 0 1,527

No report as yet from Jew Don Boney or Dwight Jefferson. That’s a pretty decent haul for MJ Khan given how late he entered the race. He also had an ad running during the fourth quarter of the Monday Night Football game between the Steelers and Chargers. I’m about 99% certain it was a rerun of one of his Controller ads from 2009. I’ve seen several Chris Brown ads on TV, but nothing from anyone else. Brown, Bill Frazer, and Carroll Robinson have been in my Facebook feeds.

At Large races:

Candidate Raised Spent Loans On Hand =================================================== Griffin 1,000 1,600 0 895 Knox 22,940 11,370 0 9,349 Lewis 40,164 64,479 100 48,803 McCasland 60,978 33,222 0 112,443 Oliver 9,400 7,840 0 25,230 PartschGalvan Pool Provost 1,956 6,841 0 543 Candidate Raised Spent Loans On Hand =================================================== Burks 2,525 1,906 0 618 Davis 7,000 662 0 7,000 Dick 0 103,772 0 0 Rivera Robinson 27,596 40,188 0 121,348 Candidate Raised Spent Loans On Hand =================================================== Kubosh 39,025 46,255 25,000 41,306 LaRue 13,250 4,524 0 8,725 McElligott Peterson 10,225 9,886 0 2,271 Candidate Raised Spent Loans On Hand =================================================== Blackmon 27,285 34,500 0 0 Edwards 131,417 61,327 0 191,445 Hansen Morales 17,495 30,042 2,200 3,786 Murphy 670 5,125 14,045 167 Robinson 29,050 25,923 15,040 35,886 Thompson 0 1,850 0 0 Candidate Raised Spent Loans On Hand =================================================== Batteau 0 0 0 0 Christie 33,202 50,153 0 84,899 Moses 550 1,418 0 0 Nassif 29,690 27,558 0 14,368 Tahir

Candidates with blanks next to their names had no reports I could find. I’ve given some details in the posts about the At Large #4 and At Large #1 races, and Greg covered some of this ground last week. I like to think of campaign finance reports as being one part about who people want to see win, and one part about who (some other) people think actually will win. To whatever extent that holds true, you can see who the betting favorites are. It’s not destiny, of course – as I said, it’s more like Vegas – but it does tell you something. What are your guesses for these races? Leave a comment and let us know.

As if we needed a reminder that Sid Miller is an idiot

We got one anyway.

DoubleFacepalm

Don’t expect Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller to apologize over a social media post that appeared to call for the atomic bombing of “the Muslim world” – despite an outcry from critics.

Miller, who is currently on a trade mission to China, did not personally share a controversial photo that appeared on his campaign Facebook account and has since been removed, Todd Smith, the Republican’s campaign spokesman, said Monday. The commissioner has no plans to figure out which of his staffers shared the posting, or to apologize, Smith said.

“We’re not going to apologize for the posts that show up on our Facebook page,” said Smith, estimating that 18 people have access to the campaign account. “I don’t know who did it, but I’m not going to start a witch hunt to find out who did.”

The photo, originally shared by the Facebook user The Patriots IV Drip 2, depicted a mushroom cloud framed by two statements: “Japan has been at peace with the US since August 9, 1945,” and “It’s time we made peace with the Muslim world.”

The posting also included the text: “#noislamknowpeace” and “#COMETAKE.”

Late Sunday, Miller’s campaign account shared the post without adding a comment, according to the Dallas Morning News, and it was removed some time Monday morning.

You can click over and see the picture in question, if you haven’t already. There’s not much one can do with something like this except make snarky comments and attempt to score cheap political points, so let’s get on with it.

– Obviously, Miller owns this action. It’s his campaign account, and he’s not even making a token gesture of regret or distancing himself from it. (There were some weasel words from one of his people in the Chron story, but nothing from Miller himself.) I just wonder if anyone related to his campaign is smart enough to realize what a huge security risk it is to grant author permissions to 18 people (or so; they don’t even know exactly who has this level of access). All it takes is for one of those people to get hacked, and that campaign Facebook page can get pwned. One has to wonder about the security protocols they may be following with the official state accounts and files if this is how they treat their campaign assets. Maybe they should have a chat with Susan Combs about that.

– I’m pretty sure everyone in Miller’s office and campaign considers themselves good, devout Christians. I’m also pretty sure that Jesus Christ never suggested to his disciples that genocide was a good idea, or a thing to do if one wanted to follow him.

– Similarly, I’m pretty sure that everyone who works for the man who authored the sonogram law while he was in the House considers themselves strongly “pro-life”. I’m also pretty sure that some of the people they’re apparently comfortable with the idea of killing en masse are children, and that some of them are pregnant women. How that squares with their “pro-life” beliefs, I’ll leave for them to explain.

You get the idea. I could say something serious here, but honestly, what’s the point? We get the Sid Millers we deserve. The Observer, the Current, the Press, Juanita, and Paradise in Hell have more.

It’s called “social media”, Ted

Ted Cruz is shocked, shocked to learn that his silly little Facebook poll got shared with some people who weren’t supposed to answer it.

Not Ted Cruz

Not Ted Cruz

An old maxim about the law – U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s chosen profession – holds that courtroom litigators don’t ask questions if they don’t already have the answers.

But in the chaotic world of social media, as the Texas Republican found out, all bets are off.

An impassioned Facebook clash involving tens of thousands of posterserupted this week in response to Cruz’s informal online survey marking the fourth anniversary of President Barack Obama’s health care law.

“Quick poll,” the survey began, “Obamacare was signed into law four years ago yesterday. Are you better off now than you were then? Comment with YES or NO!”

More than 53,000 responses had been logged as of Tuesday, dominated in recent days by Cruz opponents eager to defend a health care law that the tea party favorite had tried to repeal last fall through a government shutdown.

A surge of “yes” and “absolutely” comments overwhelmed an initial wave of anti-Obamacare posts, leaving Cruz’s staff with the clear impression that something was amiss.

“This is very clearly a manufactured, concerted effort from the left,” said Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier. “Maybe a better use of their time would be advocating for an Obamacare website that actually works.”

That’s so precious. So much so that I can’t quite put my reaction to that into words, so I’ll just do this:

Like that, yeah. Back to the story:

Dave Kapell, a small-business owner in Minneapolis, also voted yes, noting that a plan he found on Minnesota’s insurance exchange was saving him $200 a month. Kapell said nobody solicited his participation in the poll. “It just popped up on my Facebook page,” he said in an interview. “I think somebody I know reposted it.”

Amazing how that works. That Facebook sure is something, isn’t it? Someone ought to figure out how to leverage it for use in a campaign. I bet it’d work really well for that.

Anyway. BOR has some screenshots. Go look and have a good laugh at Cruz’s cluelessness.

Who are these people on our ballot?

The filing deadline is long past, and campaigning for the primary and general election is well underway. Democrats in Harris County have a fairly full complement of legislative candidates this fall, some of whom are better known than others. I thought I’d take a moment to look over the primary ballot list and see what I can find about the candidates who are challenging incumbents of either party. In particular, I’m looking to see if I can find a campaign webpage and/or Facebook page, plus whatever Google can tell me. I’m limiting this to Harris County and to legislative races not counting the US Senate. I may do more of these later if I have the time and the inclination. For now, let’s get started.

Congress

CD02 – Niko Letsos: No webpage or Facebook page that I can find so far. Google tells me nothing.

CD07 – James Cargas and Lissa Squiers – Both ran for this office in 2012. Their links from that year still work.

CD10 – Tawana Cadien: Another repeat candidate from 2012. Her old website and Facebook page are still available. Interviews for all three of these candidates can be found on my 2012 Primary Election – Harris County page.

CD22 – Frank Briscoe and Mark Gibson: Neither appears to have a webpage or a Facebook page yet. Briscoe is a candidate with some pedigree. He ran for CD22 in 2002, losing by a hair in the primary to Tim Riley. He’s the son of the late District Attorney and two-time Houston Mayoral candidate Frank Briscoe, Senior, and apparently a relative in some fashion of former Texas Governor Dolph Briscoe. Here’s an interesting Q&A with him in Architectural Record, which isn’t dated but based on context appears to be from not too long after his unsuccessful run in 2002. As for Mark Gibson, Google tells me there’s a Mark Gibson that was an independent candidate for Congress in Virginia in 2012. I rather doubt this is the same Mark Gibson – it’s not that unusual a name – but that’s what I could find in Google.

CD36 – Michael Cole. Cole was the Libertarian candidate for CD36 in 2012 before announcing in August that he would run again as a Democrat. Here’s an interview he did with a Daily Kos member shortly thereafter, which includes links to all his relevant web and social media pages.

State Senate

SD07 – Jim Davis: Google tells me nothing.

SD15 – Sen. John Whitmire and Damian LaCroix: Sen. Whitmire has served in the Senate for many years, but is new to the internets; his Facebook page was created on November 19. I’ve written about LaCroix before and will have an interview with him, and one with Sen. Whitmire, soon.

SD17 – Rita Lucido: Lucido is a longtime activist and volunteer, and is the highest-profile challenger to a Republican incumbent among the legislative candidates. Her campaign Facebook page is quite active.

State House

HD129 – John Gay: No webpage or Facebook presence yet, but Google tells me that John Gay ran for CD14 as a Republican in 2012; he finished seventh in the field of nine. His campaign webpage domain (johngay.org) has expired, but via here I found his personal Facebook page, and while I consider myself to be open and welcoming to party-switchers, it’s safe to say that this guy is a problem. Here’s a screenshot from his Facebook page, so you can see what I mean. Barring a major and convincing change of heart from this guy, my advice is to not waste any time or effort on him. There’s plenty of other good candidates to support.

UPDATE: Upon further investigation, it appears there are two John Gays, the one who ran as an R in 2012 in CD14, and the one who is running in HD129 as a Dem. The latter one does not have any web presence that I found at a cursory search, hence the confusion. I’ve got a business phone number for the HD129 John Gay and will try to reach him tomorrow to discuss. My apologies for the confusion.

HD131 – Rep. Alma Allen and Azuwuike Okorafor: Rep. Allen has a primary challenge for the second straight cycle. Okorafor is a newcomer on the scene but looks like a good candidate. I intend to interview them both for the primary.

HD132 – Luis Lopez: No web presence yet, and the name is too common for Google to be reliable. This may be his personal Facebook page.

HD133 – Laura Nicol: No campaign webpage yet, but her campaign Facebook page is active. She and I have been Facebook friends for awhile, and I met her in person at an HCDP event a couple of weeks ago.

HD134 – Alison Ruff: No web presence as yet. I’ve mentioned her on my blog a couple of times, and met her at HCDP headquarters a couple of weeks back. This is her personal Facebook page.

HD135 – Moiz Abbas: I got nothing.

HD138 – Fred Vernon: Another blank, though this may be him.

HD145 – Rep. Carol Alvarado and Susan Delgado: Rep. Alvarado is my State Rep, and I consider her a friend. Delgado is a realtor, a multiple-time candidate, and the former mistress of the late Sen. Mario Gallegos. Based on comments she has left here and on her personal Facebook page, I think it’s fair to say mud will be flung in this race. For the record, I’ll be voting for Rep. Alvarado.

HD150 – Amy Perez: The full complement – webpage, Facebook page, and Twitter account. Well done.

That’s it for now. I may do a similar exercise for judicial candidates if I find myself with a few spare hours. You can also check out my new 2014 Election page, where I’ll be tracking contested primaries mostly but not exclusively in Harris County. If you think I’ve misrepresented anyone here, or if I’ve missed anything relevant, please let me know. Thanks.

Twelve years

Twelve years ago today, I started this blog. That was on blogspot – believe it or not, it still exists; truly, the Internet is forever – and a few months later I had my own domain. I don’t do retrospectives, I don’t have a list of favorite or “most popular” posts readily available, and sometimes I don’t even remember to mark my blogging anniversaries, but I figured I ought to mention it this time, as I enter my baker’s dozenth year at it.

I tend to be a creature of habit, and when I find something I like that works for me, I just keep doing it. That’s the basic answer to the question of why I do this and how long I plan to keep doing it. It’s fun, I get something out of it, I’d miss it if I weren’t doing it, so I have no plans to stop. The day when those things are no longer true will come, but it’s not on my radar just yet.

One of the things I have enjoyed getting from this blog is a long list of friendships and acquaintances from across the political spectrum and in media, traditional and otherwise. I’ve gotten to meet a whole lot more people in real life because of this Internet thing than I could have without it. I’ve gotten to be on TV – I’ll be doing another episode of Red, White, and Blue to be aired on January 17 – and on radio – I’m doing another segment of “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” for Houston Matters for this Friday, the 3rd – and discovered that I enjoy doing those things as well. More recently, I discovered that I have achieved the pinnacle of Internet fame when I stumbled across a Wikipedia page for this blog. I swear on whatever you have handy that I had nothing to do with that, and that I have no idea who created it.

Most of all, I enjoy the feedback I get from you, my readers. It still amazes me that there are people who read this blog. Thank you for doing so, thank you for commenting, and especially thank you for letting me know when I’ve got something wrong, and when I’ve got something right. I’d probably still write this thing if all my words were going into a big void, but it’s a lot more fun this way. As a reminder, there are multiple ways you can be notified about new posts on this blog. There’s good old fashioned RSS, there’s the Off the Kuff Twitter feed, and there’s the Off the Kuff Facebook page, which has 422 followers and which I’d dearly love to get to 500, if you’re so inclined. But however you access this blog, thank you for doing so, and thank you for coming back. Here’s to another fun year.

Annise Parker is in your Internets

She’s in mine, anyway. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but an awful lot of the websites I surf to now feature a familiar face looking back at me:

Annise_Cracked

Here’s another:

Annise_TBogg

Clearly, she’s seeking to dominate the liberal nerd humor vote. Of course, there are Facebook ads:

Annise_Facebook

Facebook is the one place I’ve seen other ads. Ben Hall has placed a few, mostly touting his Facebook page. I know some other candidates have spent money on Facebook ads, but as yet I’ve not seen them.

You know how at the bottom of articles on some websites there’s a listing of “related” stories that you might want to read, that are mostly sponsored links? She’s there, too.

Annise_Chron

And not just in the Chronicle:

Annise_Slate

Even out in LaLa Land:

Annise_LATimes

Too bad they can’t control the stories they get associated with. Some of them might be hard to compete with for clicks.

Anyway. Web advertising is hardly new, though this particular tactic is one I don’t recall seeing before. They’ve clearly done a good job of targeting, since it’s hardly a coincidence all these things appeared for my benefit. I don’t know how expensive this is – clearly, Team Parker dropped a decent amount of cash on it – but it seems likely to me that doing this on a perhaps more modest scale would be viable for many campaigns. Of course, I’m assuming people take notice of these things, never mind click on them. Have you been noticing these ads? What do you think about them?

A closer look at Mayoral campaign finances

I said I’d get to a closer look at the Mayoral campaign finance reports later, after I had a chance to read all the way through them. That time is now, so let’s have our look.

Mayor Parker’s finance report.

The Mayor’s report clocks in at 701 pages, with more than 500 of those pages documenting contributions. That’s a lot of donors – over 2000 of them – and quite a few of them were recognizable names. Here are a few of the notable donors that I spotted.

Name Amount Notes ====================================================== Amber Mostyn $5,000 Major Dem donor Anna Eastman $ 100 HISD Trustee Ben Barnes $1,000 Former Lt Gov Billy Briscoe $ 250 2010 Treasurer candidate Brian Cweren $ 250 Former District C candidate Brock Wagner $ 100 St Arnold CEO Christina Bryan $ 250 2010 judicial candidate Drayton McLane $5,000 Former Astros owner CM Ed Gonzalez $ 500 District H CM Ellen Cohen $ 100 District C Franci Crane $5,000 Wife of current Astros owner Gracie Saenz $ 350 Former CM Jim Crane $5,000 Astros owner Janice McNair $5,000 wife of Texans owner Janiece Longoria $5,000 Port Commissioner Jenifer Pool $ 157 At Large #3 candidate Jim Adler $1,000 The Tough Smart Lawyer Juliet Stipeche $ 100 HISD Trustee Kent Friedman $1,000 Sports Authority Laura Spanjian $ 200 Sustainability Director Michael Skelly $1,057 Parks By You board member Nancy Kinder $5,000 Philanthropist Peggy Hamric $ 350 Former HD126 Rep Peter Brown $5,000 Former CM Phoebe Tudor $5,000 Philanthropist Reagan Flowers $ 250 Former HCDE candidate Rich Kinder $5,000 Energy executive Robert McNair $5,000 Texans owner Rusty Hardin $5,000 Defense attorney Steve Mostyn $5,000 Major Dem donor Steven Kirkland $3,000 Former District Court Judge

There are some other names I could have included on that list, but you get the idea. There were two other names I noticed that made me do a double-take. One was a former girlfriend of mine, the last woman I dated seriously before I met Tiffany. I haven’t seen or heard tell of her in years, and I had no idea she had any interest in politics, let alone this race. The other was a fellow named Edward Snowdon, who is not this Edward Snowden, since among other things they spell their surnames differently. It did send me scrambling to Google to verify that.

You may notice a couple of donations that end with $57. There were many more such examples in the Mayor’s report. That puzzled me at first, till I remembered that the Mayor turned 57 this year, and that there had been a birthday-themed fundraiser for her awhile back, at which amounts like $57 and $157 were suggested contributions.

Parker also took in a ton of PAC money, about $360K worth according to my added-in-my-head count. She drew a fair amount of state and national money, from the likes of the Victory Fund, Annie’s List, and EMILY’s List, in addition to the usual suspects.

Ben Hall, whose S-PAC report I finally found – I hadn’t realized that my search was only including personal reports – also had some notable donors:

Name Amount Notes ====================================================================== May Walker $1,300 Constable Paul Kubosh $2,500 Brother of AL3 candidate Michael Kubosh Carolyn Evans-Shabazz $ 100 At Large #2 candidate Howard Jefferson $2,850 HCDE Trustee Laurie Robinson $1,000 Former At Large #5 candidate Reagan Flowers $ 250 Former HCDE candidate Christina Bryan $ 250 2010 judicial candidate Olan Boudreaux $1,000 2010 judicial candidate Reggie McKamie $1,000 Former DA candidate Carol Galloway $ 100 Former CM and HISD Trustee Davetta Daniels $ 50 Former HISD Trustee candidate US Rep. Al Green $5,000 CD09 Dikembe Mutombo $1,000 Former Houston Rocket William Lawson $3,000 Pastor Levi Benton $1,000 Former District Court judge

Any friend of Dikembe Mutombo is someone to reckon with, if you ask me. Christina Bryan and Reagan Flowers are the only people I saw that appeared on both lists, though I can’t swear to that. After scrolling through however many hundreds of pages of this stuff, the mind tends to soften. Hall had only two PAC contributions that I saw, from CWA COPE for $7,500 and from the HPFFA for the max of $10,000. He also took in $31,700 from law firms and other businesses, including a $5,000 in kind donation for office space.

Now for expenses. I’m going to break this down into a few general categories and do comparisons where reasonable. Note that Hall has a second finance report for expenses made from personal funds, from which I will also draw for this post. First up is consulting expenses.

Annise Parker Amount Consultant Notes ====================================================================== $62,500 Storefront Political Media General consulting $48,000 Keith Wade General consulting $43,751 Lake Research Polling $38,500 James Cardona Fundraising consulting $33,000 KChace Fundraising consulting $27,000 Stuart Rosenberg Salary $26,650 Sue Davis Media Communications $23,000 Storefront Political Media Campaign research $10,800 Lone Star Strategies Compliance consulting Ben Hall Amount Consultant Notes ====================================================================== $68,000 Strong Strategies Fundraising consulting $34,000 The Yates Company Voter outreach consulting $25,142 Dee Ann Thigpen Communication services $17,500 Damon Williams Voter outreach consulting $12,500 The Yates Company Consulting services $10,000 Advantage Comm. Consultants Media & community outreach $ 6,000 The Imprint Agency Social media consulting $ 7,500 Najvar Law Firm Compliance consulting $ 4,500 Sharon Davis Voter outreach consulting $ 3,100 Darcy Mackey Volunteer coordinator

This doesn’t cover everything for each campaign. Parker had numerous other people on salary, and all of them, including Rosenberg, also received a monthly “cell and medical” stipend. Other than Rosenberg, all the names on her list are people and firms that have been with her since at least 2009. Among Hall’s consultants, Williams, Davis, and Mackey also were paid wages, as were some other folks. The thing that really stands out to me is that Hall spent about as much as Parker did on fundraising, but took in about one seventh as much as she did. I will also note that there are some Republican names among those listed above. Jerad Najvar, whom I’ve mentioned here a couple of times for his good work getting the Texas Ethics Commission to permit campaign contributions via text messaging, is a Republican. Jeff Yates of The Yates Company is a former Executive Director of the Harris County GOP; I actually couldn’t find anything on Google about The Yates Company but was informed about Jeff Yates’ Republican connections some time ago by other folks who knew him. Deeann Thigpen worked for Rep. Ted Poe for six years as his press secretary. Make of all that what you will. Also of interest is that Parker spent money on polling and “campaign research”, which I’m pretty sure is the polite term for “opposition research”, while Hall as far as I can tell did not.

Now let’s look at communications in its various forms.

Annise Parker Amount Payee Notes ====================================================================== $42,430 Storefront Political Media Newspaper ads $14,086 Storefront Political Media Online advertising $10,000 Teleroots Technologies Phone bank $ 8,787 Storefront Political Media Direct mail $ 7,387 Storefront Political Media Campaign letters $ 7,000 Que Onda Magazine Advertisement $ 6,543 Storefront Political Media Letterhead, envelopes, etc $ 5,898 Storefront Political Media Banners, stickers, misc lit $ 3,475 Rindy Miller & Associates Production $ 2,735 Storefront Political Media Photography $ 2,200 Storefront Political Media Website design $ 1,022 Storefront Political Media Postcards

No, I don’t know what the difference between “direct mail” and “campaign letters” is. And wow, that’s a lot of money on newspaper ads. It was three separate entries for $14,143 and change each. I did not see any money for signs, but I suspect those are covered in the January report. I haven’t gone looking for it, because one 700 page report is enough. Rindy Miller did all of Parker’s buying of TV ad time in 2009, and producing her TV ads. I presume from this she doesn’t have much of that in the works just yet.

Ben Hall Amount Consultant Notes ====================================================================== $99,450 New Stream Marketing Strategies Voter ID phone calls $50,000 KMJQ-FM Radio One Radio advertising $40,000 Talaferry Media Group dba D-Mars Online advertising $28,105 Sprint 2 Print Yard signs $20,000 1230 AM KCOH Radio advertising $13,000 1230 AM KCOH Studio sponsorship $11,735 Neumann and Company Push cards $10,600 Advantage Comm. Consultants Print Ads $ 5,417 ShakeFX LLC Website $ 5,000 Nebo Media Radio production $ 5,000 African American News & Issues Advertising $ 4,000 Talaferry Media Group dba D-Mars Campaign signs $ 3,342 Talaferry Media Group dba D-Mars Advertising $ 2,930 Talaferry Media Group dba D-Mars Push cards $ 2,819 Sprint 2 Print Signs and bumper stickers $ 2,250 Talaferry Media Group dba D-Mars T-shirts and advertising $ 2,000 Giant Video Productions Video productions $ 1,500 Stylist Profile Magazine Advertisement $ 1,315 Talaferry Media Group dba D-Mars T-shirts and push cards

Quite the kitchen sink approach here, and no I have no idea what “Voter ID phone calls” means, or why it’s so much more expensive than a phone bank. I do know that New Stream Marketing Strategies did marketing/advertising work for Rick Santorum in 2012. $70K on radio ads is a lot. It’s about what Gene Locke reported spending on radio ads in his 8 day report in 2009. Locke’s report didn’t specify stations, however, so he may have been making a broader buy. I will add that Hall also spent roughly $25K on “sign distribution”, so if you see a lot of his signs out there, know that someone got paid to deliver them. I consolidated four different payments to Neumann and Co for push cards, so I want to point out that Hall spent money on Spanish and Chinese language push cards, which strikes me as a good idea.

And finally, some other miscellaneous expenses. Mayor Parker’s campaign spent $760 in copy costs at FexEx Kinko’s. I wouldn’t normally bother with something as minor as that, except that I saw an entry on Hall’s report that said they paid $2,400 to Advanced Business Copiers for copier rental. Someone’s going to have to explain that one to me.

Hall spent $20,485 at Tony Mandola’s for his announcement event, and $20,000 at Ranchero King Buffet for another event. Good times.

Mayor Parker’s campaign remitted $11,390 to Merchant Bank for credit card donation fees, and $38,676 to the US Treasury for payroll taxes. Other campaigns that have salaried workers pay such taxes as well, but that’s more than average. The credit card fees seem rather high as well, but I’d have to go back and review other reports to get a handle on that.

One last thing to mention is that $40K that Hall spent on online advertising, which sure seems like a lot of money. Texpatriate takes a closer look at how that money was spent and what effect it had.

Ben Hall

I would like to tell this story, from the start, because it is quite entertaining. Imagine Annise Parker’s campaign team held a meeting to come up with the absolute worst-case scenario that could arise out of Hall advertising on Facebook. That might as well be what happened, considering how badly Dr Hall’s campaign messed up (again, to use polite words).

First, Dr Hall’s campaign had a pathetically lackluster showing in the Social Media races. While Parker had other 50k Facebook likes and 15k Twitter followers, Hall had about 2k likes and 200 followers. At one point, I was keeping track of the race between them, but I eventually quit because it was not anywhere near competitive.

Eventually, the Hall campaign decided (quite rightly so) that a Social Media presence would be invaluable in a 21st Century campaign. The campaign then invested thousands of dollars into online advertisements, specifically on Facebook and Twitter. Now, the way these sorts of advertisements work is that you come up with some buzz words and select a general geographical location. I have no knowledge of how the Hall campaign answered these questions, but based upon the results, I have an inkling as to what they answered.

Most likely, the buzz words “fed up” or “morass” or “angry” were used. This would have been done, ostensibly, in an attempt to attract all those healthy dissidents who respectfully oppose Mayor Parker’s administration. Instead, the buzz words tended to match up nicely with those who support armed insurrections and the like. Additionally, instead of focusing on Houstonians, the ads targeted individuals from throughout the State.

The result was a sorry collection of Rednecks, Klansmen, Neo-Nazis and McVeigh sympathizers who found their ways to the Ben Hall campaign’s Facebook page. This ended up causing, again, an unmitigated disaster. Ben Hall’s Facebook likes rose from about 2k to 5.7k, causing nearly 2/3 of the supporters to be astroturfed non-Houstonians.

Yikes. Here’s Hall’s Facebook page, and a brief scan of it will show examples of what Texpate is talking about. Texpate has some screenshots as well. One’s campaign Facebook page and Twitter feed is always going to attract some snarky commentary from your opposition if you’re doing it right, but this is something else altogether. Let it serve as a cautionary tale about buying a social media presence instead of building one organically.

It may not matter where the casinos are

I don’t know if the gambling industry will finally gain traction in their effort to legally expand operations in Texas, but I do wonder if they’re fighting the last war and missing out on what’s happening now elsewhere in the country.

Silicon Valley is betting that online gambling is its next billion-dollar business, with developers across the industry turning casual games into occasions for adults to wager.

At the moment these games are aimed overseas, where attitudes toward gambling are more relaxed and online betting is generally legal, and extremely lucrative. But game companies, from small teams to Facebook and Zynga, have their eye on the ultimate prize: the rich American market, where most types of real-money online wagers have been cleared by the Justice Department.

Two states, Nevada and Delaware, are already laying the groundwork for virtual gambling. Within months they will most likely be joined by New Jersey.

Bills have also been introduced in Mississippi, Iowa, California and other states, driven by the realization that online gambling could bring in streams of tax revenue. In Iowa alone, online gambling proponents estimated that 150,000 residents were playing poker illegally.

Since that story was published, the states of Nevada and New Jersey have passed their laws to allow online gambling. I’m sure others will follow. Now, online gambling will never truly replace casinos. No matter how good the online experience may become, it won’t include low-cost buffets, cocktail waitresses, or Wayne Newton. Some things you still have to do in person to get the full effect. But online gambling is sure to cut into the profit margins of casinos, and perhaps reduce the overall market for them. If so, that weakens the case for expanded gambling here, at least as far as the current proposals for casinos and slot machines at racetracks go. Of course, the current proposals can be amended to allow a vote on online gambling. I don’t know if the spirit of cooperation that exists now can handle that, but who knows. In any event, this is something to keep an eye on.

Mockery is the best medicine

Business Insider comes across the Facebook fun.

Women aren’t too happy with Rick Perry’s stance on family planning funding. Today, they let him know the best way they could, with some well-directed Internet snark.

Posts asking Perry’s advice about everything from menstruation to menopause flooded the governor’s Facebook wall this morning. They’ve since been taken down, and new posting has been disabled, but screenshots document the whole episode.

Click here to see their screenshots. The only think wrong with this report, which was written Monday, was that the hijinx had started several days earlier, as Nonsequiteuse had been documenting. Sadly, that fun came to a halt yesterday, as Team Perry finally figured out that social media is a two-way street (a lesson you’d think they’d have learned by now) and shut off the ability to post on his wall. Perry’s spokeperson whined about how mean everyone was, but they were pwned, plain and simple. Well done, ladies.

Bye-bye, WHP

Thanks, Rick!

Federal health officials announced Thursday what state leaders have predicted for weeks: that they are halting funding for Texas’ Women’s Health Program.

Cindy Mann, director of the federal Center for Medicaid and CHIP Services, said Texas left her agency no other choice by forging ahead with a rule designed to force Planned Parenthood clinics out of the program

“We have no choice but to not renew their program,” Mann said. “… We very much regret that the state of Texas has taken this course.”

[…]

Mann said under federal law, Medicaid beneficiaries must be able to choose their own providers. “Neither the federal government nor the state government is permitted to stop people from getting services from their trusted source of care,” she said.

She said CMS will begin a gradual phase-out of the program, so funds won’t be cut off immediately. If Texas takes over the program and no women lose services within the next three months, she said, federal support will be terminated. If not, they might extend the support longer. Mann said the state must submit a transition plan to the federal government for approval by April 16.

Here’s the letter, and here’s a letter signed by State Reps. Garnet Coleman, Carol Alvarado, and Sylvester Turner thanking Director Mann for not cutting us off completely right away. Unfortunately, there’s also this:

Asked if local governments could skip the state level and coordinate directly with the federal government to continue to get support, Mann said no. She said money for Medicaid programs flows through the state.

Which means that the workaround Coleman and others proposed the other day won’t work. Which means we’re stuck with Perry’s phony promise, which he intends to pay for by cutting other HHS programs. If he’s going to be forced to do something for a bunch of people he couldn’t care less about, then by God someone’s gonna get hurt for it. Remember when Rick Perry pretended to care about cervical cancer?

A few years ago, in the name of fighting cervical cancer, Gov. Perry signed an executive order mandating HPV vaccinations for Texan girls. In a September 2011 presidential debate, Perry stated that “Cervical cancer is a horrible way to die” – yet he is moving to end cervical cancer screenings covered by WHP for over 130,000 Texan women. We are asking him why. The women of Texas are waiting for your response, Rick. And no, we aren’t talking about abortion – don’t change the subject – we are talking about cancer. We are talking about women’s lives.

Of course, he only pretended to care about it because it was a means to help one of his cronies, but it would be nice if some other people asked him about that. Or, if that’s too serious for you, you could head over to Facebook and ask him some questions about lady parts, since he’s such an expert about that. When you get bored with that, mosey on over to the page of Rep. Sid “Patrick” Miller, the “arthur” of the sonogram bill, and poke him with a stick, too. In the grand scheme of things it won’t really accomplish anything, but it’ll make you feel better, and Lord knows these idiots deserve it. Postcards has more.

Social media update

This is just a friendly reminder that you can find much of this blog’s content on the official Off the Kuff Facebook page, which I hope you will like. I was asked recently what the purpose of that page was, and the answer is that I wanted to provide another way for people to get the content that I provide here. Some people (like me) like RSS feeds, some people like Twitter (the Twitter feed for this blog is @offthekuff, as noted on the sidebar), and some people like Facebook. It’s good to have options, right? For those of you who like the Off the Kuff Facebook page, I generally try to add a little something extra most days – I’ll share a link to some other blog post or story that I want to share but don’t necessarily want to devote a full post to, or I’ll write an add-on to a post like this story about my inept effort to do the first candidate interview of the 2012 cycle. I may also ask for feedback about specific things I’m doing or thinking about doing here, such as my recent decision to include more pictures on the blog. It’s an ongoing experiment, which adds some fun and some challenge for me, always nice to have after doing the same thing for a decade. Feedback is always appreciated, here or on the Facebook page, so please let me know what you think. Thanks very much.

Ten years after

I don’t know how many people are actually reading blogs today, but if you’re one of them then I’m happy to tell you that today is the tenth birthday of this blog. It started as an exercise to see if I could write something on a regular basis, and I think it’s safe to say that I passed the test. I keep doing it after all this time because I still enjoy it, I still get something out of it, and I still think the exercise is good for me. There may yet come a day when I won’t have the time to do as much of it as I’ve been doing, but if so I’ll find a way to adjust. In the meantime, I’d just like to say thank you to all of you, for reading and commenting and correcting my mistakes and so on and so forth. At the time I started I figured I’d keep going even if I were shouting into a void, but I can’t say I’d have lasted anywhere near this long if that were the case.

I’ve had some preliminary discussions with Greg, who’s also been at this for a decade, about having some kind of celebration to mark the milestone, but typically we haven’t gotten past the “wouldn’t it be cool if” stage just yet. Figure maybe some time in the spring, if we ever decide what we’re doing. The 2012 state Democratic convention will be here in Houston, as it was in 2004 for the first Texas political blogger get-together, so that’s a possible tie-in. We’ll let you know when we get our act together.

Finally, I’m pleased to announce that at long last I’ve gotten my act together and created a Facebook page for this blog. I will use it to share content from here and whatever else strikes my fancy. It’s taken me this long to create the page, don’t expect me to know what to do with it right away. Please feel free to like it and tell others about it as well. You may also notice that its profile picture is somewhat lacking. If you have a modicum of design skill and would care to create something a bit less boring for me, by all means please do so and let me know. Thanks very much.

Until then, Happy New Year, and remember that the “hair of the dog” thing is just an old wives’ tale. See you tomorrow.