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News Brief: Trump-Biden Campaigns, Facebook Ads, COVID-19 Surge

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump is hitting all the places he can in this last week before Election Day. He will be in three states today, the latest in his whirlwind campaign rally tour.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And Joe Biden, for his part, is making two stops in Georgia today and will be in key states like Florida in the coming days. Both candidates are still hammering away at each other in these final days. Here is President Trump in Martinsburg, Pa., yesterday.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The Biden lockdown would crush America. And my plan will crush the virus. And we're going to have a boom like you've never seen before.

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GREENE: And here is Joe Biden in Chester, Pa.

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JOE BIDEN: The bottom line is Donald Trump is the worst possible president, the worst possible person, to try to lead us through this pandemic.

MARTIN: NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, is with us this morning. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So both candidates running very different campaigns right now; not a lot of time left - a week from today, in fact. So how are they using these final days?

LIASSON: Well, as you said, the president, Donald Trump, is going to a lot of places, multiple rallies a day. His campaign says that's a sign of stamina, something Biden can't match. Biden's had a lower paced schedule, but he's picking it up. Last time, Donald Trump's rallies were a sign of his momentum. This time, he's hoping that the big rallies will turn into votes. He's playing defense by definition since he won last time. He's going to swing states that got him to the White House, like Michigan and Wisconsin, but he's also going to go to Nebraska, which is a red state that Republicans should be able to take for granted. Meanwhile, both Joe Biden is playing some offense. He's going to Atlanta, Ga. That's been a red state, but polls there show Biden even to slightly ahead. And there are two Senate races in Georgia, which is very important. If Biden is to be president, he wants Democrats to have a Senate majority. But he's also visiting the top-tier swing states like Wisconsin and Michigan this week. He'll also go to Florida, and he's sending President Obama to Orlando campaigning for Biden because Florida is a state that Donald Trump absolutely needs in order to win.

MARTIN: Right. So we know what their itineraries are for the next few days. What are their closing arguments?

LIASSON: Closing arguments for the president - he's casting himself as the outsider, even though he's the incumbent. Biden, he says, is the establishment figure who's been around for 40 years and hasn't solved problems. Meanwhile, as you heard in that bit of tape, Biden says Trump has failed to provide leadership, and he's casting himself as an antidote to Trump's divisiveness and chaos.

MARTIN: Remind us where the race stands right now, Mara.

LIASSON: Race is still pretty stable. Biden's lead nationally is stable. It's smaller in the swing states. Republicans are hoping that their voters now start turning out in droves between now and November 3 to offset the advantage that Democrats are believed to have from mail-in votes and early votes. Democrats are hoping they can continue strong turnout of minorities and women, and they're very optimistic about young voters who are surpassing their turnout record from 2016 by multiples.

MARTIN: So it's sort of notable that you didn't mention Amy Coney Barrett when you were talking about Trump's closing argument, right? I mean, she is the president's third Supreme Court nominee. She was confirmed last night, but he's not trying to make hay of that?

LIASSON: No. He doesn't really talk about her very much, which is kind of puzzling since this is a huge triumph for him. Having a durable 6-3 conservative majority on the court is a big accomplishment, something conservative Republicans have wanted for decades. And in the near term, Barrett will be on the court in time to hear a challenge to Obamacare right after the election, and before the election, several voting rights cases could determine whether hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots are counted in states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and North Carolina. That's another reason Republicans were in such a hurry to confirm her and swear her in.

MARTIN: NPR's Mara Liasson. We appreciate you, Mara. Thanks.

LIASSON: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: All right. As we have noted, we are just one week to go until the official election day. That means election season will be over. And it's only at this point that Facebook has decided to put a stop to political ads on its site.

GREENE: Right. But there is a twist here worth mentioning. This ban only applies to new political ads about candidates and issues. That means that older ads that have already been published might still appear in your feed. Facebook is the biggest beneficiary of political ad spending online, but it says it's making this move to limit misinformation about the election. And just a note here - Facebook is a financial supporter of NPR.

MARTIN: We've got Shannon Bond, NPR's tech correspondent, with us this morning. Hi, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right. If we scroll through Facebook today, what's going to be different?

BOND: Well, not a whole lot. So you'll still see ads about the election, about issues on the ballot if they were running already. So if you saw an ad yesterday, you could see that same ad again today. And in fact, campaigns running these ads can distribute them as far, as wide as they choose. They can change their spending. They can change their targeting. They just can't change the message. Facebook says it's doing this because there just may not be enough time in these final days of the election to contest any new claims that are made in ads.

MARTIN: I mean, so what Facebook is doing with a week out, I mean, it's not exactly a profile in courage here. I mean, is what they're doing really going to have that much of an impact?

BOND: Well, you know, ads are just part of the puzzle, not the whole picture. They're just a fraction of all of the political content that you can find on Facebook. I mean, think about President Trump. He has a huge Facebook following. He can post new attacks on Joe Biden up to and through Election Day; Biden can do the same. They just can't pay to promote those messages.

MARTIN: OK. So put what Facebook is doing into a broader context, if you could. How does it compare with the rules that other tech companies have in place? And I'm not just talking about Twitter but also TikTok, YouTube.

BOND: Yeah. So the biggest contrast is with Twitter and TikTok. They have both banned political advertising entirely. Those were decisions those companies made last year. Google, which owns YouTube and is also an NPR sponsor, does allow political ads, but it doesn't let campaigns do the kind of microtargeting that Facebook does. So, you know, if I'm on Facebook, I might see one set of ads. My husband might be sitting right next to me on his phone or his computer and see totally different ads. But, you know, Rachel, despite all of these differences, these tech companies, they're all really concerned about this election, about the potential for unrest or even violence. And that's why they're putting so many new rules into place, even as people are already out there voting. And we are going to get a break from online political ads after Election Day. Facebook and Google are both temporarily banning all ads about the election or politics or issues after the polls close for some period of time.

MARTIN: I mean, listeners in battleground states or states where, you know, the race is close know this. They're just inundated with political ads right now, especially on TV. Is there something about ads on Facebook that we need to treat with more caution than the ones we see on television?

BOND: I mean, critics of Facebook would say, yes. You know, Facebook's ads, as we said, can be targeted much more individually than TV ads. They also just look more like regular Facebook posts, so it's not always immediately clear you're seeing an ad. But, you know, this is really all up to Facebook at the end to decide what it wants to allow.

MARTIN: NPR's Shannon Bond, she covers technology for us. Thank you, Shannon.

BOND: Thank you.

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MARTIN: Curfews and closures are spreading again across Europe as the cases of coronavirus set new records there.

GREENE: Yeah, that's right. France reported more than 50,000 new cases on Sunday, and a leading French immunologist predicted the daily total might soon be double that. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel is saying that the country is, quote, "facing very, very difficult months ahead." And Italy, which was Europe's original hot spot, once again, has ordered harsh restrictions on daily life for the next 30 days.

MARTIN: Which is where we're going to focus our conversation with NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome. Hi, Sylvia.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Hi there.

MARTIN: So last time Italy took strict measures, on the whole, people were on board, right? What's happening this time?

POGGIOLI: Yeah, Italians were very compliant. They even surprised themselves by how obedient they were. Remember the joyful scenes of, you know, neighbors singing on balconies, showing solidarity with health workers? You know, there was a great sense of community and joint sacrifice. But, you know, it turned into one of the strictest and longest lockdowns in the world. And the economic impact was devastating. It nearly brought the tourism industry to total collapse. Over the summer, things got a little better, and there was a sense of national pride for having gotten through such a difficult period, both economically and psychologically, that nobody wants to go through again.

MARTIN: So, you know, we're hearing reports of demonstrations against the lockdowns that are coming. Exactly what are the new restrictions, and are they more extreme? Is that why they're getting such a negative response?

POGGIOLI: No. The prime minister, Conte, took pains to not call it a lockdown. What happens is restaurants and bars have to close by 6 p.m. Now, Italians don't go out to eat dinner before 7:30 p.m., so that's out. And all gyms, cinemas, theaters, swimming pools are shut down for at least a month. Public schools - 75% of classes have to be conducted remotely. And so Italian media reporting that the health experts recommended to Prime Minister Conte not order but induce Italians to stay home by removing all possible temptations. But, you know, businesses spend a lot of money in adjusting and complying with the new health safety requirements. And they say another shutdown could lead them to bankruptcy.

MARTIN: I mean, Italy suffered so much in the spring. We saw photos from those hospitals just totally overwhelmed. How prepared is the country's medical system to deal with this new surge?

POGGIOLI: Not at all well. The government got a lot of praise for handling the first lockdown, but it's been seriously criticized for delays in preparing the country, sort of for the second wave phase. Now, schools come under the regions, and they have been totally unprepared for social distancing and the hospitals, the same thing. That's why there's so much anger and frustration. So many Italians have taken to the streets to protest. Many of the demonstrations are peaceful, but there have also been violent clashes in many cities. And authorities say that ultra right-wing groups and organized crime are fomenting much of the violence.

MARTIN: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reporting from Rome on the surge of coronavirus cases there and new restrictions. Sylvia, thank you.

POGGIOLI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.