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News Brief: Trump Trial, Domestic Extremism, Twitter's Birdwatch

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The opening day of the Senate impeachment trial was like living through January 6 all over again, and that was the point.

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The Democrats leading the push for conviction played a graphic video, scenes of the mob storming the Capitol building.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Shouting, unintelligible).

PFEIFFER: Democrat Jamie Raskin recalled how he huddled with other lawmakers after he was separated from his family who had come with him to the House floor that day.

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JAMIE RASKIN: Our new chaplain got up and said a prayer for us, and we were told to put our gas masks on. And then there was a sound I will never forget - the sound of pounding on the door like a battering ram. It's the most haunting sound I ever heard. And I will never forget it.

PFEIFFER: Today, House impeachment managers will continue laying out their case.

MARTIN: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is with us this morning. Hi, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So both sides began to lay out their arguments for the first time in this trial. What stood out to you from the impeachment managers? Let's start with them.

LUCAS: Well, the House managers made a strong defense of the constitutionality of the trial, which was the question of the day. But what stood out most really was how they put the violence of January 6 front and center and in the fear of lawmakers, staff and police, what they experienced on that day. And a key part of that was a 13-minute video that the House managers played. We heard a clip of it at the top. And this video showed footage from January 6 that had cuts of Trump near the White House urging the crowd to fight like hell. Then there was footage taken in the thick of the chaos at the Capitol, rioters smashing windows, overrunning police barricades, insurrectionists beating a D.C. police officer on the Capitol steps, fighting in the halls of Congress, video of lawmakers being led to safety in gas masks. That video was a reminder to everyone of just how bad January 6 was.

MARTIN: And what about Trump's defense team? From what I watched, they had a tough go of it.

LUCAS: It was a bit of a rocky start for Trump's defense team, yes. One of his lawyers, Bruce Castor, began with a rambling 40-plus-minute speech that didn't really address the issue of constitutionality. He was followed by Trump's other lead attorney, David Schoen. And from the beginning of Schoen's speech, he took direct aim at Democrats. He accused them of using impeachment as a weapon to eliminate a political rival to try to disqualify Trump from being able to hold federal office again. Here, Schoen is slamming Democrats for holding the trial at all.

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DAVID SCHOEN: And to what end - for healing? For unity? For accountability? Not for any of those, for they - surely there are much better ways to achieve each. It is, again, for pure, raw, misguided partisanship that makes them believe playing to our worst instincts somehow is good.

MARTIN: So, Ryan, what have you heard? What's been the reaction to the first day?

LUCAS: Well, Trump's lawyers' arguments did not go over well. Trump himself wasn't happy with the performance. Our colleague Tamara Keith has learned a number of Republican senators weren't particularly impressed either. Even a couple of Republicans who voted that the trial itself is unconstitutional told reporters that they thought the defense's arguments were poorly organized and rambling. And yet, despite that, the votes still came out 56-44, so only one vote difference from the vote on the same question of the constitutionality of the trial that was held a couple weeks ago. So Republicans are looking in this for a reason to vote against conviction, and saying that the trial is unconstitutional because Trump is no longer in office gives them that argument.

MARTIN: And now they have voted that the trial can move forward. It is constitutional. What's going to happen in the next couple days?

LUCAS: Well, the House managers will start presenting their case today at noon. They have 16 hours to do so.

MARTIN: All right. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas, thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you.

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MARTIN: Something exceptional is happening in the U.S. military. The Pentagon is pushing the pause button on all operations in order to take a deep look at domestic extremism within its ranks.

PFEIFFER: This so-called training stand-down was ordered by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. And it comes in the aftermath of the Capitol riot. That event was a wake-up call for military leaders when it became apparent that veterans were among those who stormed the Capitol. Today, President Joe Biden is expected to head to the Pentagon to meet with senior leaders and talk with the workforce.

MARTIN: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is with us this morning. Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, as Sacha said, there's going to be the stand-down within the next 60 days. What does Secretary Austin hope to accomplish with this?

BOWMAN: Well, he wants to accomplish a couple of things, Rachel - to get an idea of the scope of the problem and then ways to deal with it. So he ordered military leaders to spend one training day discussing with the troops the importance of their oath of office to support and defend the Constitution, to be aware of any unacceptable behaviors such as advocating violence or active participation in hate or supremacist groups and also ways to report suspected behavior. And a lot of this, again, was driven by the participation of veterans in the Capitol insurrection. An NPR analysis found that some 15% of those under investigation by the FBI were former military. And, Rachel, I was at the Capitol during the riot and talked to a few veterans, including a member of the Proud Boys. They're labeled an extremist group by the FBI. And this guy told me he served two tours in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne.

MARTIN: So you mentioned that part of this is understanding the scope of the problem of extremism within the ranks. How are they going to go about learning that?

BOWMAN: Well, again, it's difficult. Top military leaders are trying to get statistics from the services about extremism, such as how many were kicked out of the military and how many recruits are turned away for extremist ties. It's proving to be difficult. So far, all I've been able to gather is just a few stats. The Marine Corps told me that in the last three years, they found 16 cases of substantiated extremist behavior, mostly postings on social media; no sense from them whether any were kicked out. Also, the FBI told the Pentagon that last year, they had opened up about 143 investigations involving mostly former military members. And of that, about half had to do with domestic extremism. But that's about all we know so far. And again, officials are looking for more information.

MARTIN: And a lot of this is going to depend on how you define domestic extremism, right? I mean, as they go about this, do we know how the military is going to draw a distinction between extremist views and political beliefs?

BOWMAN: You know, it's a good question. Right now, some conservative commentators have questioned all this as maybe anti-Trump. Pentagon officials say this is not about who you voted for, your political beliefs. It's about how you act on certain beliefs. Do you advocate extremist views or call for violence? But there are some difficult political and free speech issues here. Now, right now, you cannot be an active member in something like the far-right group the Proud Boys. But the current regulations allow just membership. Here's Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby.

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JOHN KIRBY: Membership is not considered inconsistent with service in the military. And it really is really about what you do with that membership. I'm not going to be predictive one way or the other about where this discussion is going, but I think membership in these groups is certainly something that I would expect for them to look at.

BOWMAN: So as you can see, these are some of the issues they're going to have to deal with in the coming weeks and months.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, we appreciate you. Thanks for your reporting on this.

BOWMAN: OK. You're welcome.

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MARTIN: All right. So we know this - we know online misinformation campaigns played a major role in the weeks leading up to the insurrection on January 6.

PFEIFFER: And to combat this, Twitter put warning labels on false claims about the election and the coronavirus. It also added links to credible news stories that debunked those claims. And Twitter eventually suspended thousands of accounts for spreading false information and inciting potential violence, including former President Trump's account. Now Twitter is piloting a new effort to try to get the spread of misinformation under control.

MARTIN: NPR's Shannon Bond is here to tell us about Twitter's latest move. Hi, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: So this new effort by Twitter is called Birdwatch. Explain how it's going to work.

BOND: Yeah. So the idea is ultimately to use Twitter's 192 million daily users to fact-check tweets. And so how it works is if you saw a tweet you thought was misleading, you could write a note in Birdwatch saying, I think this is incorrect. Here's why. And then other Birdwatch users rate your note. If a lot of people rate your note as helpful, you can build up a reputation and then your notes and ratings get more weight. The idea is to eventually show these notes on tweets. And the way I think of it is sort of like you take Wikipedia, you know, which is, like, crowdsourcing, and you combine that with some of the functionality of Reddit where users can vote posts up or down.

MARTIN: I mean, Shannon, this sounds very complicated, depending on the people who are engaged in this. I mean, do we know if it's working at all?

BOND: Well, so this is really small right now, Rachel. It's just a thousand users in this pilot. It's on sort of a special site separate from the main part of Twitter. And looking at it right now, frankly, it is kind of all over the place. Some people are using it to fact-check. I've seen people fact-checking false claims about COVID, for example. But there's also a lot of opinion on there, the kind of partisan arguments that are familiar to anybody who spends any time on Twitter. And that gets at the big question I have, which is, you know, how do you keep Birdwatch from recreating the problems that Twitter has from being used for harassment, abuse, from spreading misinformation? And, frankly, there's also a bigger problem here. I spoke with Tiffany Li. She's a law professor at Boston University. She studies technology. Here's how she put it.

TIFFANY LI: People on Twitter do not agree on what truth is. They do not agree on what, you know, real news is. And that's a problem. If they don't agree on what the truth is, they're going to have different opinions on whether or not a tweet or a post is truthful.

MARTIN: Right. I mean, this is the problem right now in our democracy. Has Twitter responded to those concerns?

BOND: Yeah. So I spoke about this with Keith Coleman. He's Twitter's head of product. And he told me, frankly, he's worried about these big things, too.

KEITH COLEMAN: But we believe that we can design it to work differently than Twitter in a way that can handle that.

BOND: So what Coleman says is the key here - and I think this is actually really important not just for Twitter but for the way we think about social media in general. The key is changing the reward system. So Twitter, like Facebook and Instagram, you know, rewards people who get a lot of followers and they get likes and retweets no matter what they're saying. They got a lot of visibility. Birdwatch is supposed to reward credibility - right? - people whose notes are judged as helpful. That would be a big shift in the dynamics, the incentives, of social media. So if this works, it's an interesting model. But I think if is a really big question here.

MARTIN: Big if true. NPR correspondent Shannon Bond. Shannon, thank you.

BOND: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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