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Facebook accused of trying to influence support for Kavanaugh

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: Facebook draws criticism over Kavanaugh content; Russia raises U.S. ire with sales of air defence systems to foreign governments

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

There have been recent name changes to Facebook groups that are now supporting Brett Kavanaugh, reminiscent of methods that disinformation campaigns used to try and sway opinions on Facebook during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Welcome to The National Today newsletter, which takes a closer look at what's happening around some of the day's most notable stories. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.


  • Facebook is facing accusations that it is trying to tip the social media balance in favour of Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump's pick for the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Tonight's At Issue panel: wading into the implications of both the new North American trade deal and provincial use of the notwithstanding clause.
  • Russia is raising U.S. ire with sales of air defence systems to India, China, Turkey and Syria.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here

Facebook furor

The political war over Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court is inflicting some collateral damage on Silicon Valley.

Facebook, which only weeks ago was alleged to be applying an "anti-conservative bias" to its newsfeed, is now facing accusations that it is trying to tip the social media balance in favour of Donald Trump's pick for the top court.

Observers and critics of the California-based company contend that the stories Facebook users are seeing about Kavanaugh are mostly coming from sympathetic right-wing media outlets. They add that the articles about Christine Blasey Ford — the woman who accuses the judge of trying to rape her at a drunken 1982 house party — are highly critical and are being pulled from largely the same sources.

Today, the Washington Post took a close look at the various groups backing Kavanaugh on Facebook, and discovered that several appear to have gathered their members years earlier for entirely unrelated causes.

One entitled "Justice for Justice Kavanaugh!!!," which boasts 4,200 members, was started four years ago. In the past few months it has been a forum supporting Bill Cosby, and then an advocacy group for a Nike boycott.

Another, "Confirm Judge Kavanaugh (Enough is Enough)," which has 27,000 members, started four years ago. Prior to the most recent name change it was dedicated to trying to turn out the Republican vote for the coming midterm elections. Before that, it was a group criticizing Nike's Colin Kaepernick ad campaign.

(The Facebook tool that displays group name changes only dates back to the summer of 2016, so it's hard to determine the original purpose of many of the pro-Kavanaugh pages.)

Supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 27. (Andrew Harnik/Reuters, Andrew Harnik/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, the largest pro-Blasey Ford group, a "We Believe" forum with 1,450 members, has on previous occasions been devoted to the March Madness basketball tournament, the Kentucky Derby and Tinder, and until June was called "Trump 2020 MAGA (Official)."

The name-changes are reminiscent of methods that Russian trolls and state-backed disinformation campaigns used to try and sway opinions and sow dissent on Facebook during the 2016 presidential election.

The allegations that Facebook is somehow surreptitiously backing Kavanaugh first arose last week, after one of the company's senior executives was among those who turned out to support the judge during his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Joel Kaplan, Facebook's vice-president of global public policy, worked with Kavanaugh in the White House under President George W. Bush. The company says he was at Kavanaugh's hearing in "a personal capacity." But perceptions weren't helped when his wife, Laura Cox Kaplan (who was also in attendance), showed up in a pro-Kavanaugh TV ad along with the spouse of another Facebook lobbyist.

Family members and supporters of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh listen to him testify before a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 27. From left, Kavanaugh's mother Martha, Facebook's vice-president of Public Policy Joel Kaplan, Laura Cox Kaplan (centre), and Kavanaugh's wife Ashley (far right). (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

Opponents of the Supreme Court nominee are also upset over a recent decision by Facebook fact-checkers to flag an anti-Kavanaugh article from a left-wing website as "false" news. The piece from ThinkProgress was slugged "Brett Kavanaugh said he would kill Roe v. Wade last week and almost no one noticed" — a claim that has been challenged by the Weekly Standard, a conservative publication that is among the media outlets that are helping Facebook vet content.

However, the Kavanaugh fact-checking cuts both ways.

Last month, Politifact, another Facebook helper, rubbished a series of stories from conservative outlets that claimed Kavanaugh's mother, also a judge, had presided over a mortgage foreclosure case against Blasey Ford's parents. (Martha G. Kavanaugh actually dismissed the action, leaving little motive for "revenge.")

What is certain is that Facebook continues to be a source of all sorts of torqued information that inflames America's culture battles.

Facebook is disseminating a range of incorrect information about both Kavanaugh and Blasey-Ford, including unflattering photos of other people that are presented as images of the two when they were younger. (Regis Duvignau/Reuters)

Take the controversy in North Carolina today, where a Democratic candidate for Congress is accusing a local Republican chairman of assaulting the "dignity of American women" with a recent post.

Lanny Lancaster shared a photo of a young woman with braces, large glasses and an unflattering haircut, saying it was Christine Blasey Ford in 1982, adding the comment: "This is the alleged sexual assault victim. Wow."

However, it's clearly not Blasey Ford, and the picture has been circulating as an internet meme since at least 2012.

Or there's the picture, also circulating on Facebook, of a young man passed out on a couch clutching two beer bottles, purportedly Brett Kavanaugh in 1982.

It's a stock photo from Getty Images, a picture service that was founded in 1995.

Rosemary Barton on At Issue

Tonight's At Issue panel will wade into the implications of both the new North American trade deal, and premiers using the notwithstanding clause to get their way, The National co-host Rosemary Barton writes:

Sometimes it's hard to believe how much can happen in just a few days.

This is one of those weeks.

At the 11th hour this past Sunday, Canada finally clinched an agreement on a new NAFTA deal (now known by that other ridiculous bunch of letters that don't lend themselves to any good acronym at all, USMCA).

Chrystia Freeland told me earlier this week that she always knew the negotiations would come down to that last moment.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland at a press conference in Ottawa on Monday after negotiating the United States Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA). (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

But to get a deal, did Canada give more than it received?  

While journalists, politicians and lobbyists are still sifting through the details, it doesn't seem to have landed with any significant political damage for the government — yet. This morning the Prime Minister will meet directly with dairy producers in Montreal, where he will have to further reassure them that he has not sold them and their milk down the river.

So, the question for At Issue panelists Andrew Coyne, Chantal Hébert and Paul Wells this week: Is playing defence against Donald Trump enough to call this a win, and will there be any lasting political impact either way?

As we try to sort through all that, we will also turn our attention to the results of the Quebec election. Not only was it historic, but it could well provide all kinds of lessons federally.

The Premier-designate quickly indicated he is willing to use the notwithstanding clause if needed to make sure public servants cannot wear any religious symbols.

Quebec Premier-designate François Legault speaks to the media in Quebec City Tuesday, the day after winning the provincial election. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Andrew suggests in his column this week that the federal government will have no choice but to intervene.

Chantal also writes that this is something the two levels of government will have to find a way to deal with.

And Paul warns that Francois Legault will waste much time trying to do something that will make no one happy.

There are things to talk about. Politics moves quickly. Glad we have tonight to deal with some of it on At Issue.

- Rosemary Barton

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Russian missiles

India is set to purchase a $5 billion US missile defence system from Russia, over the vociferous objections of the United States.

The deal, which will be inked today or tomorrow during Vladimir Putin's state visit to New Delhi, will see the Indian military obtain several batteries of the advanced S-400 surface-to-air defence system.

Russian S-400 Triumph air defence missile system trucks drive through Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)

The interceptor system can track up to 100 airborne targets at a time, and engage at ranges of up to 400 kilometres and altitudes of 30,000 metres.

But the Americans, who had been pressuring India to buy their THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system instead — generally viewed as a more expensive, less effective product — are threatening to impose sanctions over the Russia deal.

They have warned Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the agreement will run afoul of the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), a piece of legislation that President Donald Trump signed in the summer of 2017 to punish Russia for annexing Crimea and meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile launcher can engage targets up to 400 kilometres away. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)

India has said that it will apply for a special waiver for the transaction, although it's not clear that Trump is willing to provide one.

India has a long history of buying Russian military equipment, and during the height Cold War got 80 per cent of its hardware from the Soviets. But U.S. defence contractors have been trying hard to persuade Modi to buy American, especially as his country looks to replace its aging fleet of Russian-made MiG fighter jets.

The Russian S-400 system will be a significant upgrade over India's homegrown missile defences, given that it is said to be sensitive enough to track and shoot down stealth jets and cruise missiles.  

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, greets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan at the BRICS summit meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa, on July 27. Both nations are buying weapons from Russia. (Gianluigi Guercia/Reuters)

But it may also heighten tensions with Pakistan, and accelerate the local nuclear arms race.

If sanctions are imposed, India won't be the first country to feel America's S-400 wrath.

Last month, the U.S. State Department announce a series of financial measures targeting the Chinese military after it purchased several of the Russian missile system batteries, along with 10 SU-25 fighter jets.

Turkey will start taking delivery of $2.5 billion worth of S-400s next year, despite the objections of the U.S. and its other NATO partners.

Russian-made air defences are also an issue in Syria, where the Putin regime this week began to deploy S-300 batteries. While they are less sophisticated and have a shorter range than the S-400s, the missiles may well change the balance of power in the skies over Syria, causing the Israelis or Americans to think twice before launching airstrikes.

A Russian air force Il-20 electronic intelligence plane. An Il-20 was accidentally shot down Sept. 18 by a Syrian missile over the Mediterranean Sea, killing all 15 people on board, as the Syrian military fired on Israeli fighter jets attacking targets in northwestern Syria. (Marina Lystseva/Associated Press)

The deal between Russia and Bashar al-Assad's regime was originally signed in 2013, but had been on hold during the civil war due to Western pressure. The accidental downing of a Russian IL-20 reconnaissance plane last month, killing all 15 servicemen aboard, has changed the dynamic.  

The Russians initially blamed Israel for the loss, but have since acknowledged that it was their Syrian allies who mistakenly targeted the plane with their aging, Soviet-made air defences.

A few words on ... 

Being almost famous.

Quote of the moment

"The GRU can only succeed in the shadows. We are all agreed that where we see their malign activities, we must expose it to the light together."

- Peter Wilson, the U.K. ambassador to the Netherlands, revealing that a joint British-Dutch operation foiled an attempt by Russian military intelligence to launch a cyber-attack against the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons — part of larger pattern of disruption that has included Canadians targets as well.

British ambassador to The Netherlands, Peter Wilson, speaks at a press conference of the Dutch Military Intelligence and Security Service (MIVD) in The Hague on Thursday. (EPA-EFE)

What The National is reading

  • U.S. Navy proposing a major show of force to warn China (CNN)
  • Lander joins tiny rovers on asteroid Ryugu (CBC)
  • The $500 million central bank heist and how it was foiled (Wall St. Journal)
  • Six rescue divers drown trying to save teen in Malaysia (BBC)
  • Busboy who tried to help wounded Robert F. Kennedy dies, after a haunted life (LA Times)
  • IOC says boxing's Olympic future in jeopardy (AFP)
  • Man overdoses on erectile dysfunction drug, sees red permanently (Motherboard)
  • EygptAir magazine stands by bizarre, purported interview with Drew Barrymore (CBC)

Today in history

Oct. 4, 1987: Free Trade Agreement last-minute deal

The midnight deadline came and went, but the talks continued. Then at 1:30 a.m., Canadian finance minister Michael Wilson and U.S. treasury secretary James Baker emerged to tell the bleary-eyed press corps that an agreement in principle had been reached on free trade. The sticking point then was the same as in this week's negotiations — a binding dispute resolution mechanism. The Americans didn't want it, but Canada held out and Chapter 19 was born. Then Canuck trade negotiator Peter Murphy went outside to call Prime Minister Brian Mulroney on a brick-sized cellphone.

Negotiators salvage the Canada-U.S. free trade deal at the 11th hour. 2:50

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About the Author

Jonathon Gatehouse

Jonathon Gatehouse

Has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, including seven Olympic Games and a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey.