News Brief: Beirut Explosion, Trump On Twitter And Facebook, National Conventions
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Rescue workers in Beirut are still hoping to find survivors in all of the rubble after that massive explosion at the city's port.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Yeah. The death toll is now at least 137 with more than 5,000 wounded. Thousands of buildings across Beirut are damaged, and Lebanese officials have ordered house arrest for anyone suspected of being involved in storing the chemicals that exploded.
MARTIN: We've got NPR's Ruth Sherlock with us to talk about what's happening in Beirut. Hi, Ruth.
RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hi.
MARTIN: What can you tell us? I mean, where are rescue efforts right now? What do we know?
SHERLOCK: Well, you know, the damage from this explosion is catastrophic. There are miles of smashed buildings, and officials estimate hundreds of thousands of homeless. So people are still very much trying to come to terms with this. There are aid groups on the ground, and the rescue effort is ongoing. And also there are, you know, hundreds of regular Lebanese who are just coming out onto the streets. Some of them have had their own homes damaged. But they're rallying to help the worst affected and try to clear the debris. There's already a terrible economic crisis in Lebanon. And so there had been these Facebook groups set up where people were bartering goods to survive that. Those Facebook groups are being used to coordinate the worst areas. And just to give you a sense of what they're up against, the landlord of our Beirut bureau, which is also damaged, is an architect who restores these beautiful traditional Lebanese buildings. Now he's watched most of his life's work destroyed in the blink of an eye. And he said, you know, Lebanese are used to damage from the country's 15 years of civil war. But this is like the destruction of the civil war happened again in a single moment.
MARTIN: Wow. And we should just point out, NPR's bureau was damaged in Beirut, but you happen to be in London where you're covering all of this. But as you have been reporting, Ruth, I mean, what are you learning about how it could have happened?
SHERLOCK: You know, initially, a lot of people think Beirut, they think the Lebanese militia Hezbollah or the sporadic conflict with Israel. But initial responses now from officials suggest that this might have been actually a tragic accident. They're briefing that the explosion was caused by the eruption of 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate, which is used for fertilizers and bombs. They say that was improperly stored for years in a warehouse at the port and that a separate smaller fire might have ignited it. It seems the ammonium nitrate may have arrived on a ship that made an unscheduled stop at the port in Beirut in 2013 because of technical difficulties. And then it was abandoned by the Russian businessman who leased it. And apparently customs officials appealed something like six times to Lebanese courts for guidance on what to do with this material. And they warned of the dangers of keeping this volatile (ph) substance, you know, in the middle of a crowded city. Local media is now saying that the issue might even have been flagged up to the prime minister's office last year. So potentially this is, you know, criminal negligence.
MARTIN: Which speaks to so much of the dysfunction that Lebanon has been going through and the protests and what those have been about for so long. I mean, what are you hearing from Lebanese friends, colleagues, others?
SHERLOCK: Yeah. I mean, exactly as you said, you know, those protests have been going on for months and - last year. And the, you know, state corruption and dysfunction has already been driving Lebanon into financial destitution. So you can just imagine the rage that people have. Lebanese are really trying to put together the pieces of their shattered lives right now. But you're already seeing spontaneous protests with young people marching through the streets shouting revolution. Yesterday, stones were thrown at the convoy of the former prime minister, Saad al-Hariri. And I think, you know, this is just the beginning.
MARTIN: NPR's Ruth Sherlock. Thank you so much, Ruth.
SHERLOCK: Thank you.
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MARTIN: All right. Something remarkable happened on social media yesterday.
GREENE: Yeah. So it all started with President Trump and his campaign sharing an interview he did on Fox News, which is hardly remarkable, right? But then both Twitter and Facebook stepped in saying their rules against spreading misinformation about the coronavirus were broken. Now Twitter has labeled President Trump's tweets as misinformation before, but this is the first time Facebook has actually removed one of his posts about the coronavirus.
MARTIN: All right. Let's talk about this with NPR's Shannon Bond, who covers all things tech. We should also note Facebook is an NPR financial supporter. Shannon, good morning. Start with what happened. What was President Trump trying to share?
SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: So like David just said, this was a video clip from a Fox News interview from Wednesday morning. And in it, the president was urging schools to reopen. And as part of that, he claimed falsely that children are, quote, "virtually immune" from COVID-19. Of course, that's not true. Now research has shown that while children tend to get infected with the coronavirus less often, they tend to have milder symptoms than adults, kids can still contract it. They can spread it. And, you know, some children have gotten seriously ill and even died. So it just wasn't true.
MARTIN: Right. So David mentioned Twitter has labeled Trump's tweets as misinformation before. But what did they do? Did they just take it down? Facebook actually removed it, right?
BOND: Right. Well, so both companies say, you know, we have rules against spreading misinformation about COVID-19. This is a big issue. And this video crossed that line. So Facebook just took the post down completely. It said you can't make false claims that a group of people is immune from the virus. As for Twitter, it temporarily banned the Trump account, the Trump campaign account, which is who tweeted this video. They banned the account from tweeting until it removed the video. Now it's done that and it's tweeting again.
MARTIN: So what does this tell us about how social media platforms are going to act as we head toward November? I mean, are there any hard-and-fast rules, or is it just case by case?
BOND: Well, I mean, I think we really have to look back to 2016, right? That was seen as a real failure for these platforms. Russian hackers were spreading disinformation to influence voters. There's a lot of pressure this year to do better. Facebook has really tried to stay hands off, especially when it comes to politics. CEO Mark Zuckerberg says he doesn't want to be the arbiter of truth. But that doesn't mean that anything goes. In recent months, Facebook has removed things that the campaign and the president have posted, like a post from Trump with a doctored video. So, you know, despite Zuckerberg's reluctance, Facebook is acting sometimes sort of as a traffic cop.
MARTIN: Right. And what about Twitter?
BOND: Well, Twitter has taken a much more aggressive approach than Facebook, especially lately. It's labeled some of the president's posts, put these warning labels or fact-checks on them. It even blocked his son Donald Trump Jr. from tweeting not long ago after he broke the rules about coronavirus misinformation. So it's shown more appetite to crack down.
MARTIN: And what's the Trump campaign saying about this latest move?
BOND: Well, the campaign sent out a public statement saying, look, the president was stating a fact. He was merely saying that children are less susceptible to the disease. I mean, let's be clear, that's not exactly what he said on Fox News. And the campaign also accused social media platforms of anti-conservative bias. And that's something we've heard from a lot of conservatives, you know, for a while now, even though it's not backed up by much evidence. But I think, you know, to look at the import of this, what you really need to do is look at how the Trump campaign quickly removed the tweet with the video after it lost its tweeting privileges. That's an admission on their part they really need Twitter. With the pandemic, it's even more clear this election is going to be fought online.
MARTIN: NPR's Shannon Bond. Thanks, Shannon.
BOND: Thanks, Rachel.
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MARTIN: OK, David, let's play a game, OK?
MARTIN: You up for it?
GREENE: Sure, sure.
MARTIN: You have to guess what I'm describing, and I'm going to give you three hints. Ready? Here we go.
MARTIN: Red, white and blue hats, biographical videos that go on way too long, Clint Eastwood talking to his chair.
GREENE: Clint Eastwood kind of gave it away.
MARTIN: Clint Eastwood talking to his chair.
GREENE: Political conventions.
MARTIN: Ding, ding, ding. Yes. And by the way, if you don't get the Eastwood reference, look up the GOP convention of 2012. The point is, conventions are a fundamental part of the American political experience but not now, not in 2020.
GREENE: That's right. In 2020, all these questions about how an election is going to take place. And as for those conventions, both parties are talking about the conventions, the events, being forced online. And both candidates are talking about accepting the nominations virtually.
MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is following it all and joins us now. Hi, Tam.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: So Democrats start their convention in just over a week. What's it going to look like?
KEITH: You know, they had been planning for a while now for a largely virtual convention. Well, it is going to be even more virtual than originally planned. There had been a thought that former Vice President Joe Biden would go to Milwaukee to accept the nomination in a sort of socially distanced setup with a lot of protocols. Well, now organizers say that at the recommendation of health officials, he will be joining from his home state of Delaware. His running mate won't be going either. And members of Congress already had been told not to go. Most conventiongoers have been told not to go. This really cements where they had been headed, which is a fully virtual convention.
MARTIN: But for so long, the Republicans just hadn't thought that way, right? They had been insisting on something in person. What do we know now?
KEITH: We now know that there will be a very small gathering in Charlotte, N.C. That's where the convention was originally supposed to be until the president searched for another venue that would let him have that big, bold, in-person event with no social distancing and masks. Well, now the whole idea of a big, bold, in-person event is off. And President Trump said yesterday that he would consider giving his acceptance speech at the White House.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think it would be a very convenient location. It would be by far the least expensive location. There'd be very little in terms of that tremendous traveling security with airplanes and everybody flying all over the place.
KEITH: It would also bust norms and take down any remaining separation between the official and the political at the people's house.
MARTIN: Right. And is it even legal?
KEITH: Well, he has already gotten some pushback. Senator John Thune, a Republican, asked whether it was legal, and he said, I think anything you do on federal property would seem to be problematic. There's something called the Hatch Act, which prevents executive branch employees from engaging in campaign activities on the taxpayer's dime. It doesn't apply to the president, but it would apply to everyone else.
MARTIN: OK. So we're in this brave, new world. Conventions are going online. It means you don't have to do as much travel, I suspect. But what are the campaigns going to be missing out by not being able to hold these?
KEITH: They're missing the energy, the party loyalists coming together, the balloons, the crazy hats and really that bump of energy that comes out of one of these events.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Tamara Keith. You're still going to be watching it all, just maybe...
KEITH: From my house.
MARTIN: ...From home, from your couch - going to be more comfortable, let's be honest. We appreciate you, Tamara. Thanks so much.
KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.