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Sophie Shafstall, Washburn

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Island ferries sent to rehab

A new engine for one and spiffed up paint jobs for both were in store for two Madeline Island Ferry Line boats that were refurbished this summer at the Washburn Marina.

Every five years, the ferries in the line's five-strong fleet must be taken out of the water per U.S. Coast Guard regulations, said Cal Linehan, Madeline Island Ferry Line's operations assistant manager and compliance officer.

During the ferries' dry spell, the company performs standard maintenance and upgrades — and this year the Nichevo II, delivered in 1962, got a new engine that meets Tier 3 emissions standards.

With the installation of the new engine, three of the line's ferries — the Nichevo, La Pointe and Bayfield — meet Tier 3 standards. Next up: the Madeline.

The Island Queen, which

was bought in 1966 and serves as the fleet's main icebreaker followed by the Nichevo, got a new paint job and when it's rebuilt the company will look into upgrades, Linehan said.

"The engine is still going strong," he said.

But with the Nichevo sporting a modern engine, it too will be able to blaze trails as equally powerful as the Island Queen through Chequamegon Bay ice. The line's other three ferries can go through some ice, but they're not icebreakers.

The ferries also received new paint jobs consistent with the updated look for the line with blue extending down to the waterline and touchups as needed onboard. Icebreaking and simple wear and tear from cars driving on and off, and passengers handling rails and seats takes its toll, Linehan said.

Although the Ferry Line is running at about 90% of its normal summer schedule because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the two ferries play an important role in connecting Bayfield and Madeline Island. Each ferry can carry up to 150 passengers, and the Island Queen can transport about 14 vehicles at most and the Nichevo 10 — depending on the size.

"Every year the cars are a couple more inches, a couple more inches, a couple more inches," Linehan said.

Communities eye ordinance to enforce local health, emergency orders

Two Bayfield County communities and Madeline Island are considering similarly written ordinances that would allow them to enforce local health and state emergency orders.

After Gov. Tony Evers' statewide safer-at-home order expired and the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down a bid to extend it, cases of COVID-19 spiked throughout Wisconsin, including Northwoods counties.

Some communities responded by passing their own facemask ordinances. Bayfield, Ashland and Madeline Island adopted the measures, and Washburn was considering the option when Evers

issued a statewide mandate on their use.

But wearing facemasks is mired in controversy, from one side citing the necessity due to health and safety concerns to the opposite claiming the order to don them violates their rights.

The dissension cultivated fear in counties and municipalities of possible lawsuits over passing facemask ordinances with Ashland at first asking the county health department to require them before adopting an ordinance pushing the measure.

And then Evers stepped into the fray on July 30 when he issued a statewide order to wear facemasks through the end of September — under the threat from Republicans to call a special legislative session to strike down the mandate.

The enforcement ordinance the city and town councils are perusing at their August regular meetings spells out how communities could enforce an executive order or local public health department mandate.

The ordinance does not make facemasks mandatory in Washburn, City Administrator Scott Kluver said. If the police issue citations, which would be no more than $200 for each violation, it would be because people are violating a state order, not a local ordinance.

La Pointe Town Administrator Lisa Potswald echoed Kluver's explanation, saying any tickets or police action taken would fall under the state's action, although Madeline Island does have a mandatory facemask ordinance.

Bayfield also passed a facemask ordinance in mid-July and the enforcement ordinance is on the agenda for the Aug. 19 council meeting, City Clerk Billie Hoopman said.

In a memo to Washburn, attorney Max Lindsey said he believes the city would be immunized from lawsuits if citations are issued because they would be based on violating the governor's executive order and not a city ordinance.

He advised Washburn against passing a mask ordinance and instead to rely on Evers's orders.

Wisconsin in crosshairs of massive disinformation campaign

Late in July, President Donald Trump used his Twitter-powered megaphone to muse about postponing the Nov. 3 election, citing alleged — and widely debunked — concerns about mail-in voter fraud.

Despite widespread efforts to fact-check the president — and make clear he lacks the power to delay the election — Trump's voter fraud myth was repeated in Wisconsin. In a July 30 Twitter post, NBC 15 in Madison ran the tweet verbatim, asking viewers' opinions of the message but failing to provide context about the harmful falsehood.

Several commenters expressed alarm at the post.

"Not only is it not a good idea, it is an illegal action, and your headline is exceedingly irresponsible journalism," one user wrote.

The station did not respond to requests for comment.

The episode shows how disinformation — content that is intended to deceive — can spread on social media even after being widely exposed as false. It also demonstrates how national influencers with vast followings wield extraordinary power to distort reality. And it shows how everyone is responsible for spreading or containing false information that circulates online — and poses a threat to democracy.

The president's words come as multiple forces threaten to disrupt the 2020 presidential election. A top national security official on Aug. 7 reported that Russia, China and Iran were attempting to "sway U.S. voters' preferences and perspectives, shift U.S. policies, increase discord in the United States and undermine the American people's confidence in our democratic process."

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters that Russian interference aimed at boosting Trump's reelection far outweighs efforts by the other two countries.

Wisconsin in the crosshairs

Disinformation can be carefully targeted to locations and demographics where it is likely to have the biggest impact. Wisconsin received a disproportionate amount of targeted disinformation from Russian actors in 2016 because of its status as a swing state, according to research led by Young Mie Kim, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an affiliated scholar at the

Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and public policy center.

Wisconsin Watch and First Draft, a leading resource on the spread of disinformation, identified multiple instances in which disinformation with murky origins appeared to target Wisconsinites.

The Facebook page Wisconsin Revolution, for example, uses stock images for both profile and cover photos and posts divisive, sometimes xenophobic content. This spring, posts suggested a connection between China, the U.S. media, the "establishment" and the spread of the novel coronavirus. The page was inactive for all of 2018 and most of 2019, but posted a large volume of anti-Hillary Clinton content in the run-up to the 2016 election and has stepped up pro-Trump and antiGov. Tony Evers content in mid-April.

Fake accounts known as bots can also amplify divisive content. Some of that content is produced by people who traffic in inflammatory content, including extreme partisans. The effect is that these voices appear to be shouting louder and gaining more traction than they would with purely human audiences.

One account identified by Wisconsin Watch appears to be a real person with bot-like tendencies. The account, @Carol_Peaslee, tweets with remarkable frequency: nearly 60 times a day, on average, between mid-June and early August, with most activity occurring overnight and during early morning hours.

The account posts a large volume of conservative propaganda and conspiracy theories about COVID-19 treatments and Evers' response to the pandemic, among other subjects. Some of the account's followers are likely bots, although most appear to be real people, a Wisconsin Watch analysis shows.

The holder of the @Carol_Peaslee account could not be reached for comment. The account has blocked direct messages. And a voice message left with a phone number associated with a person named Carol Peaslee in Wisconsin was not returned.

Biden meme launched, spreads

On March 3, just before the nation's attention zeroed in on battling COVID-19, Joe Biden swept 10 out of 14 Super Tuesday states and became the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination.

But the former vice president's victory also made him a bigger target than he had been before: Even before he was declared the presumptive nominee, numerous pages and accounts on Facebook and Twitter were circulating a meme implying that Biden was senile.

"I'm Joe Biden, and I forgot this message," it read, under an image of Biden looking into the camera that had been captured from his campaign announcement video. The meme was shared widely on proTrump pages as well as in pro-Sen. Bernie Sanders and anti-Biden groups, where it was seen, liked and shared thousands of times.

On Twitter, an account allegedly based in Wisconsin, @WiCheesehead1, shared the "I'm Joe Biden, and I forgot this message" meme. The same account has shared a variety of fabricated and hyper-partisan content, including a meme that used Biden campaign branding with a fake image of Hunter Biden, the candidate's son, at a strip club. The account has also promoted an unsubstantiated theory linking the coronavirus outbreak to the buildout of 5G networks. The holder of that account also could not be located.

Although they can be entertaining, political memes that take aim at candidates are often examples of disinformation — false information that is intentionally spread to cause harm.

Biden, of course, never says "I forgot this message" in his campaign announcement. And while many people who saw the meme probably interpreted the text as a humorous dig, rather than a literal quote, they nonetheless may have had second thoughts about Biden's mental fitness for the presidency after seeing it, potentially tamping down turnout for Biden in later contests.

The meme's content also insidiously meshed with one of Russia's goals in its ongoing information war against America — discouraging political participation.

That is also one of the primary goals of Russian "sock puppets": accounts that post under false identities and pretend to be Americans, according to Josephine Lukito, who studied disinformation as a doctoral candidate in the UW-Madison journalism school. Lukito's work on the accidental amplification of Russian disinformation by the mainstream media leading up to the 2016 U.S. election was cited in the Mueller report on Russian election interference.

When such content is accidentally amplified by real people who are unaware of its origins, it becomes misinformation. Misinformation is false information that is not necessarily meant to deceive, but is spread across the internet by people who believe it to be real. The implications of disand misformation for democracy are far-reaching. Lukito says disinformation is spread by a variety of foreign and domestic actors — not just Russians — with the goal of hurting adversaries, encouraging resentment and division and sowing distrust in the media, which play an important role in delivering factual information to the public.

Memes simple, effective

Because of their popularity and simplicity, memes are a great way to accomplish these goals.

Creating a meme is often as simple as taking a widely available photo, pasting false or misleading text over it and posting it on social media. (Not all memes spread bad information: Consider the power of "flatten the curve" in persuading Americans to stay at home to curb the spread of the coronavirus.)

In the case of the Biden meme, an early version had a watermark from a Facebook community called Americans for Liberty, which published the meme a few hours before polls began closing on Super Tuesday. Americans for Liberty — which posts libertarian and anti-left content and uses an image of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution as its cover photo — did not respond to a request for comment from Wisconsin Watch.

Every day, dozens of similar pages and accounts pump divisive content into the social media stream, providing few clues as to who is behind the messaging. Like Americans for Liberty, they often have scant "about" pages, generic profile pictures and post inflammatory content. All of those criteria are red flags, according to Lukito. If there is no clear contact information for a group or organization, it is a sign that "they don't want to be seen," she says.

Instagram users posing as Americans

Kim, the UW-Madison journalism professor, conducted a review of dozens of Instagram accounts linked to Russia, describing her findings in an article on the Brennan Center website.

"Its trolls have gotten better at impersonating candidates and parties, more closely mimicking logos of official campaigns," she wrote. "They have moved away from creating their own fake advocacy groups to mimicking and appropriating the names of actual American groups."

The Internet Research Agency is a St. Petersburg-based organization with ties to Russian oligarchs and the Kremlin that has played a key role in Russia's active disinformation campaign against the United States.

Facebook estimates that 126 million Americans may have been exposed to IRA content on their platform between 2015 and 2017, and IRA content received 187 million engagements on Instagram in the form of likes, comments and shares, according to a U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee report.

Kim says the current IRA effort sometimes takes on a Trojan horsestyle approach, in which innocuous content is used to draw in followers who can later be audiences for — and spreaders of — disinformation.

"They've increased their use of seemingly nonpolitical content and commercial accounts, hiding their attempts to build networks of influence," she wrote.

Among online forms of voter suppression, Kim noted that one has been particularly prevalent during the current election cycle: same-side candidate attack, which seeks to make a candidate within a party unacceptable to voters aligned with that party. Anti-Biden memes like the one posted by Americans for Liberty are examples of sameside candidate attacks when they get picked up by Sanders supporters.

In some of those instances, left-leaning individuals could accidentally amplify anti-Biden content which they do not realize is Russian, delegitimizing Biden's candidacy at the risk of lowering Democratic turnout and giving President Trump a boost in November.

'I just ignore that kind of stuff'

It can be easy to get lost in what feels like a deluge of partisan rancor online. So, what should ethical social media users do?

One answer is to avoid liking or sharing suspicious or inflammatory content, according to Lee Rasch, the executive director of LeaderEthicsWisconsin, a La Crosse, Wisconsin-based nonprofit that promotes integrity in American democracy.

This is especially important given that in 2016, the Russians were intent on sowing division, with many of their strategies "specifically aimed at really pushing at U.S. buttons in terms of extreme language ... intentionally trying to get people riled up and angry at each other," according to Lukito.

(Copyright © 2020 APG Media)