September 16, 2020

Turning Point Action, the more overtly partisan affiliate of well-connected conservative youth organization Turning Point USA, has been paying teenagers to post prewritten and often false and inflammatory comments from their own personal Facebook and Twitter accounts, drawing comparisons to the bots and trolls used in coordinated disinformation and political influence campaigns, The Washington Post reported Tuesday evening.

Twitter suspended 20 such accounts Tuesday for violating rules against "platform manipulation and spam," and Facebook removed a number of accounts as part of what it calls an ongoing investigation. But experts say the "sprawling yet secretive campaign" out of an office near Phoenix, Arizona, "evades the guardrails put in place by social media companies to limit online disinformation of the sort used by Russia during the 2016 campaign," the Post reports.

"In 2016, there were Macedonian teenagers interfering in the election by running a troll farm and writing salacious articles for money," Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, tells the Post. "In this election, the troll farm is in Phoenix," and "the scale and scope of domestic disinformation is far greater than anything a foreign adversary could do to us."

Turning Point, led by Charlie Kirk, 26, told the Post it's a "gross mischaracterization" to call the "sincere political activism conducted by real people" it coordinates a "troll farm." Some of the teenage contractors use their real names while others use pseudonyms, and they don't identify their connection to Turning Point, the Post reports.

Their spam-like posts, often left in the comments sections of news articles, attack Joe Biden and other Democrats, defame Black Lives Matter, spread misinformation about voting and mail-in ballots, and "play down the threat from COVID-19, which claimed the life of Turning Point's co-founder Bill Montgomery in July," the Post notes. Read more about the operation at The Washington Post. Peter Weber

5:04 p.m.

Netflix just reached a key subscriber milestone.

The streaming company on Tuesday said it added 8.5 million paid subscribers in the fourth quarter of 2020, taking it beyond 200 million subscribers, Variety reports. Netflix now has 203.7 million subscribers globally, and it beat its forecast that it would add six million subscribers in the last quarter of the year.

This came after Netflix added fewer subscribers than expected in the third quarter of 2020 with 2.2 million, as Axios reported. But the company had previously beat subscriber forecasts as COVID-19 lockdowns prompted consumers to flock to streaming, and it said Tuesday it added over 36 million subscribers in 2020. As Variety notes, this was the company's biggest annual subscriber gain ever, more than the 28.6 million it added in 2018. Netflix previously passed 100 million paid subscribers in 2017, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Netflix reaching the 200 million subscriber milestone also comes after the company recently touted its 2021 film slate, announcing that, amid uncertainty about the future of the theatrical business during the pandemic, it will release at least one new movie to streaming every week this year. Brendan Morrow

4:31 p.m.

President Trump has been having trouble getting people to attend his official send-off Wednesday morning when he'll depart from Maryland's Joint Base Andrews and begin his post-presidency life. Numerous current and former White House officials are reportedly planning to bail, and it looks like Vice President Mike Pence will join them.

Reports that surfaced earlier Tuesday suggested Pence wouldn't be able to fit Trump's farewell into his Wednesday schedule, given that he's set to attend President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration (a White House official reportedly said it would be a logistical challenge to do both). Pence's office then released his official schedule for Wednesday, and the send-off was indeed not included.

It very well may be that Pence just doesn't have time for both events, but the Jan. 6 Capitol siege does appear to have created a lingering rift between the two. In a Twitter post, Pence bid so long to the American people, but did not mention or include any pictures of Trump. Tim O'Donnell

3:34 p.m.

President-elect Joe Biden's Cabinet picks started facing Senate confirmation hearings Tuesday morning, and the first few are slated for an easy approval.

Biden's Treasury Secretary nominee Janet Yellen outlined a broad policy platform in her hearing, promising to focus on the coronavirus pandemic's devastating economic impact from "day one" and encouraging Congress to pass another relief package. Notably, she pledged to name a "very senior-level" official within the department focused on climate, noting "climate change itself and policies to address it could have major impacts, creating stranded assets, generating large changes in asset prices, credit risks, and so forth that could affect the financial system."

Avril Haines, Biden's nominee to be director of national intelligence, seemingly faced little opposition as she addressed tension with China and Iran's nuclear program, The Associated Press reports. Homeland Security Secretary nominee Alejandro Mayorkas meanwhile faced concerns over a 2015 inspector general report contending he showed "an appearance of favoritism and special access" while working in DHS under Obama. Senate Homeland Security Committee Chair Rob Portman (R-Ohio) called the report "troubling," but conceded Mayorkas has "a lot of experience" in national security, Politico reports.

After the hearing, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) blocked a unanimous measure to quickly consider Mayorkas. The nominee had promised to do everything he could to stop another violent uprising at the Capitol, something Hawley's opposition to the election allegedly helped inspire.

Yellen, Haines, and Mayorkas are expected to be among Biden's easiest nominees to confirm, bipartisan lawmakers and their aides tell Punchbowl News. Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken, whose hearing began Tuesday afternoon, is also expected to have a smooth confirmation process. Defense Secretary nominee Lloyd Austin is meanwhile likely to face pushback over his recent military experience in his Tuesday afternoon hearing. Kathryn Krawczyk

3:21 p.m.

President-elect Joe Biden delivered an emotional farewell to Delaware on Tuesday one day before his swearing-in, choking up while paying tribute to the state and to his late son, Beau Biden.

Biden spoke from Delaware before departing for Washington, D.C., and he became emotional from the top of the remarks as he thanked Delawareans who have been with him "through the good times and the bad" and said it's "deeply personal that our next journey to Washington starts here."

The president-elect went on to say he'll "always be a proud son of the state of Delaware," emotionally adding that "when I die, Delaware will be written on my heart." He concluded the speech by honoring his late son, Beau Biden, who served as attorney general for the state and died in 2015.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I only have one regret: that he's not here," Biden said. "Because we should be introducing him as president."

Biden was set to depart for Washington shortly after concluding his remarks. He'll be flying to the nation's capitol on a private aircraft, CNN's Jeff Zeleny reports, describing this as "yet another remarkable change in protocol." Zeleny adds, "No immediate word on why he wasn't offered — or isn't flying — on a U.S. government plane, which is standard for a president-elect." Brendan Morrow

3:19 p.m.

The United States recorded yet another lamentable milestone Tuesday, as data from Johns Hopkins University shows the country has surpassed 400,000 COVID-19 deaths.

The American death toll continues to lead the world in fatalities, nearly doubling Brazil's total, which is the second highest globally at more than 210,000.

It took just one month for U.S. COVID-19 fatalities to jump from 300,000 to 400,000 as the coronavirus surged across the country during the winter months and holiday season. The pandemic remains widespread in every state, though there's been a faint glimmer of hope that infections have begun to trend downward in recent days.

Regardless, experts believe there's still a long road ahead and — even with a massive, albeit slower-than-expected vaccination drive underway — the death toll could reach 500,000 by the end of February. Tim O'Donnell

2:00 p.m.

The Georgia Secretary of State's office on Tuesday certified the state's pair of Senate runoff votes, which means Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are set to be sworn into the upper chamber after defeating GOP incumbent Sens. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) earlier this month.

Warnock and Ossoff will reportedly join fellow Democrat Alex Padilla, who is taking over Vice President-elect Kamala Harris' California seat, for a swearing-in ceremony Wednesday, not too long after Harris takes her own oath of office.

Once that's done, the Democratic Party will have the slimmest of majorities in the Senate, with Harris serving as the tie-breaking vote on matters that require it. Tim O'Donnell

1:57 p.m.

Two members of the National Guard have been removed from Inauguration Day security over ties to far-right militias, The Associated Press reports.

There was no plot found against President-elect Joe Biden, but the two guard members were removed over their connections to the unnamed militias, a U.S. Army official and a senior U.S. intelligence official told AP. The move comes after militia groups and other President Trump supporters attacked the Capitol earlier this month, and as federal law enforcement takes unprecedented steps to secure the Wednesday inauguration of Biden.

Thousands of National Guard members have been filing into the Capitol Hill area over the past week, shutting down the National Mall and surrounding streets amid fears of threats to the inauguration. Hundreds of guard members were spotting sleeping in the Capitol building last week.

In response to the reported removal, the National Guard Bureau told AP that "due to operational security, we do not discuss the process nor the outcome of the vetting process for military members supporting the inauguration." The Secret Service also would not comment. Kathryn Krawczyk

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