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News Brief: Ala. GOP Senate Runoff, Facebook's Role In 2016 Election


We're following a political story in the South. This could be a political victory or a political defeat for the Trump administration.


Yeah, we are talking Alabama, where voters today are choosing the Republican candidate in a runoff election for that state's open Senate seat. President Trump turned out to campaign for the establishment candidate, Luther Strange, and Vice President Mike Pence also rallied for Strange. But the team who got Trump elected isn't so keen on him.

Just yesterday, the president's former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, made a rare appearance to support the other guy, Roy Moore, and polling suggests Moore may win. What would that mean? What a loss for Strange look like on the heels of yesterday's defeat on health care?

GREENE: All right, let's ask NPR's Geoff Bennett, who's been following this. And he's in the studio.

Hey, there, Geoff.


GREENE: So a lot at stake for the Trump White House here in the Senate race.

BENNETT: I think so. I mean, consider that Alabama is among the most solid Trump states in the country. He won the 2016 election with more than two-thirds of the vote there. So if Trump has a deep well of political capital anywhere, it's in a place like Alabama. And the president has, by all appearances, gone all-in for Luther Strange. He initially tweeted his support. He's since recorded a robocall for Strange. His face is on a bunch of Luther Strange mailers. And that was all before he appeared at that rally over the weekend.

So if Luther Strange loses, there's no other way to characterize it than it being a blow to Trump's political standing - more specifically, a knock against his perceived standing among his base. And not only that - it could give Republican lawmakers more political cover to break with Trump ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

GREENE: Although, isn't this really complicated? Because you have the president here supporting the establishment candidate. You - he ran as such an outsider. You have a lot of his base seeming to be supporting the outsider in this race. So I mean, how much should we read into this when we look forward in terms of the larger political climate?

BENNETT: Yeah, I mean, you make a good point. You never want to read too much into a special election because there are always dynamics that play into it and affect the outcome. But I think if Roy Moore wins, I think it could mean that the populist revolt within the party - within the Republican Party - that President Trump has helped fuel and which he helped exploit to his own benefit - it could suggest that the revolt within the party is even beyond that which Trump can control and that which he can influence.

And I think this could also be a test of figuring out who really curries favor with the so-called Trump base. Is it the president himself? Or is it the cast of political celebrities among that group of voters - people like Sarah Palin, people like Steve Bannon who were in Alabama campaigning, as you say, for Roy Moore?

GREENE: It's so interesting. So did he unleash something that maybe he can no longer control?

BENNETT: Yeah, that's right.

GREENE: Let me just ask you before I let you go. We have Republican Susan Collins who is now saying she is not going to vote for the latest Republican plan to replace the Affordable Care Act. Where does the GOP go from here now?

BENNETT: Well the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been silent about this. We expect Republican senators to figure out among themselves whether or not they're going to vote on this on the floor, even without the votes, today at their weekly lunches. But, you know, even though this latest Obamacare repeal-and-replace effort has failed, as the previous ones before it have failed...

GREENE: ...Because Collins' vote was crucial for them to have, and now they don't have the Republican votes to pass it.

BENNETT: That's right. Yeah, I mean - yeah, but there's still pressure on Republicans to make good on their seven years of promises to do just that.

GREENE: OK, NPR's Geoff Bennett. Thanks a lot, Geoff.

BENNETT: You're welcome.


GREENE: All right, the pressure just has been staying on Facebook. They are under a lot of scrutiny over their role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

KELLY: One of the reports that's popping up now is about these 3,000 Facebook ads, which we already know were purchased by a Russian agency during the campaign. Here's a new detail. According to The Washington Post, some of those ads specifically sought to deepen disagreements about Muslims and the black lives matters - Black Lives Matter movement. The revelation comes days after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said his company would turn over all its Russia-sponsored ads to Congress. But Facebook still has to confront other unwelcome questions.

GREENE: Yeah, and NPR's David Folkenflik is going to talk about those unwelcome questions with us.

Hey, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good morning, guys.

GREENE: Let's just remind people about the backdrop here. I mean, Facebook, these accusations that it allowed the spread of fake news during the election - what do we know at this point?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, there's been a number of unwelcome headlines for Facebook in recent days. Let's walk through them a little bit. You know, these allegations have been out there, it turns out. Thanks to our friends at The Washington Post, we've learned that President Obama, just, you know, days so after the November presidential elections, personally interceded with Mark Zuckerberg, the, you know, main founder and CEO of Facebook, and said, this is a problem. You guys have to deal with this. This could affect democracy. And Zuckerberg kind of brushed him off and said, well, you know, to the extent it's true, it's just a very hard problem to deal with.

What they had said publicly was, you know, this really isn't an issue. The volume of ads were small. But, you know, it appears that the ability to microtarget certain demographic groups, certain psychographics of folks, has allowed, in the conclusion of investigators, folks who want to sow discord - the Russians - to find ways to do so using Facebook ads. Other headlines have included the fact that, as ProPublica showed, there's the ability to do microtargeting of folks who are anti-Semites and, you know, target ads to them. There's this real pressure.

GREENE: You could just microtarget anyone. I mean, it's getting harder for Zuckerberg to just brush this kind of stuff off. And I mean, the kind of stuff you're talking about, it seemed to interest people like Steve Bannon - right? - who deemed Facebook's influence - before he joined the Trump campaign - so important that he actually wanted to try and get involved, it sounds like.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, there was this notion raised by a conservative activist who sent him a note and said, look, they're apply - they're asking for ads for a Washington-based job for WhatsApp - you know, the social media app that's owned by Facebook. We could put a bunch of people - all kinds of stripes - job applicants into the pipeline and see how Facebook treats job applicants. We can get knowledge of how Facebook works.

Let's remember, Steve Bannon, before he became chief advisor to the campaign was, of course, a guy who ran - oversaw Breitbart, the news site. And he, you know, was funded by the Mercer family, a very conservative group that through their outfit Cambridge Analytica was very into the idea of figuring out how to use data to understand voters.

GREENE: So this was a BuzzFeed story suggesting that Bannon was actually figuring out a way to know exactly how Facebook worked from the inside.

FOLKENFLIK: He was intrigued by it. But what it really means is that we're at a moment where Facebook is being seen as so influential and so important, and it's being a - forced to concede that - that it's not only being reviewed by Congress, but I think you may see pressure build.

Is Facebook going to take responsibility for the kinds of material that it publishes, or is it going to face pressure on Congress to be regulated like a public utility in the way that the phone company has if it's not going to take responsibility for the kinds of conversations, communications that are occurring on its platform?

KELLY: And, of course, you're saying all this as we know that Congress is demanding that Facebook hand over everything it's got. There are also questions about when we in the public will get to see some of this, and whether any of this will ever come out and see daylight

FOLKENFLIK: That's exactly right.

GREENE: Yeah, I mean, Facebook being regulated would be such a big moment in American society and culture. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thanks.



GREENE: All right, it is safe to say this is a historic transition of power we are seeing this morning in the South African country of Angola.

KELLY: That is right. The only president that many Angolans have ever known is stepping down, and a new leader is going to step up and take his place. But the new president happens to be the hand-picked successor of Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who would be the man stepping down, which prompts this question - how significant is this change in leadership going to be?

GREENE: And NPR's Eyder Peralta is actually at the inauguration festivities in the capital of Angola, Luanda.

Hey, there, Eyder.


GREENE: So how significant a day does this feel like, as you're watching it?

PERALTA: It's history. It is definitely history. I mean, Jose Eduardo dos Santos has been in power since 1979. That's 38 years. And everybody I've talked to says they're going to take a moment to let that sink in. Right now, I'm at the memorial of Agostinho Neto, which is the country's first president. And it's this emotional Brutalist monument, and it tells you the history of the struggle of this country - everything from slavery to the centuries of Portuguese rule and, you know, the struggle for independence.

And, you know, this is - it's hard to understate what a big deal this is. This is only the third election since the long civil war ended in 2002. And, you know, as you said, this is the first time many Angolans - this is a very young country - have seen a transfer of power.

GREENE: Well, it's a country that has been criticized for being incredibly corrupt, with a lot of oil money but little to show for it because of the corruption. You have the new pres - a new president now. Who is the new president? And how much are people expecting this new president to actually change things?

PERALTA: So the new president is Joao Lourenco. He's the hand-picked successor of President dos Santos, and he was a defense minister - very much a ruling-party guy. But he's seen as a technocrat, a guy who eschews politics. I mean, the sort of short answer as to whether there will be change is - you hear it on the streets here a lot, which is, it's (foreign language spoken) - very complicated. This is uncharted territory for Angola. So we'll see if there's change. I don't think there's an easy answer for that.

GREENE: OK, but at least for the moment, it sounds like people are going to take some days or at least hours to let the fact that there's a transition of power in this country sink in since it's been so long. That's NPR's Eyder Peralta, who is at inaugural festivities in Angola, which has not seen a transition of power in decades. Eyder, thanks.

PERALTA: Thank you, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHIGETO'S "SO SO LOVELY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.