Daily Media Links 9/28

September 28, 2021   •  By Nathan Maxwell   •  
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Online Speech Platforms

Washington Post (The Technology 202): Politicians could exploit Twitter’s new safety tools to silence critics, legal experts warn

By Cristiano Lima

Twitter is testing a host of new features the social network says will boost user safety on the platform, but free speech advocates warn that the tools could be easily exploited by government officials to suppress dissent and limit access to their remarks online.

The rollouts include a “safety mode” tool that when enabled automatically detects and temporarily blocks accounts hurling insults or other “harmful language” at users to “reduce the burden on people dealing with unwelcome interactions.” The company said Friday it’s also testing a setting that lets users automatically “filter” or “limit” unwanted and harmful replies…

The company says it’s aware the features could be used by government leaders to stifle opposing viewpoints, and so it’s excluding politicians initially from tests…

Legal experts argue the automated tools could be abused by political leaders to more easily silence critics and bar them from reacting to and viewing their public comments, which would infringe on those users’ First Amendment rights…

Kate Ruane, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the safety feature “could be a really good thing for most Twitter users.” But if used by political leaders acting in their public capacities, it would raise serious constitutional concerns, she said. 

“Let’s say the government announces a policy or tweets a picture of the new class of incoming [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and [Customs and Border Protection] agents … say that there’s a massive response to that image that triggers safety mode because some of the language used makes safety mode think that it’s abusive. That’s what I’m worried about.”

Politico: Covert Postal Service unit probed Jan. 6 social media

By Betsy Woodruff Swan

In the days after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, an obscure arm of the U.S. Postal Service did some serious internet sleuthing.

On Jan. 11, the United States Postal Inspection Service’s Internet Covert Operations Program — better known as iCOP — sent bulletins to law enforcement agencies around the country on how to view social media posts that had been deleted. It also described its scrutiny of posts on the fringe social media network Wimkin.

Few Americans are aware that the same organization that delivers their mail also runs a robust surveillance operation rooted in an agency that dates back to the 18th century. And iCOP’s involvement raises questions about how broad the mandate of the Postal Service’s policing arm has grown from its stated mission of keeping mail deliverers safe…

Two more previously unpublished government documents reviewed by POLITICO — one of which was reported on by ABC News — reveal more about the increasingly complex work of tracking extremism, and the concerns those efforts generate among civil liberties advocates.

USA Today (via Yahoo News): Enlightened algorithms? Progressives ask Big Tech to censor ‘bad’ ideas to save us from ourselves

By Jonathan Turley

Today, we seem to be living in an age of enlightened corporate despotism, where social media and technology companies watch over what we read and what we discuss to protect us from ourselves.

That corporate governance model was on display this month when Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., called on Amazon CEO Andy Jassy to use algorithms to steer readers away from books that spew “misinformation.”

Enlightened algorithms are already responsible for large-scale censorship across social media platforms that reach global audiences…

Warren argued that people were not listening to the enlightened views of herself and leading experts. Instead, they were reading views of vaccine skeptics by searching Amazon and finding books “based on falsehoods about COVID-19 vaccines and cures, including those written by the most prominent spreaders of misinformation.” …

Once considered un-American and authoritarian, censorship has become a rallying cry from the left. Indeed, a new poll shows roughly half of the public supports not just corporate censorship but also government censorship of anything deemed “misinformation.”

Washington Post: The Internet became less free this year — again

By the Editorial Board

The Internet is becoming less free — more and more so. Freedom House’s annual “Freedom on the Net” report found that in 2021 the rights of Web users declined for the 11th year in a row. The primary threats may seem contradictory, but they’re intertwined: a lack of regulation that enables abuse by powerful technology companies and too-aggressive regulation that is abusive itself…

The [United States’] “laissez-faire approach” to the tech industry, write the report’s authors, has enabled a ripe environment for data exploitation, disinformation and other malfeasance. By doing next to nothing, the federal government leaves the door open for companies to take advantage of consumers — or for bad actors to take advantage of consumers while the companies themselves do next to nothing. The risk of doing too much is also present here, however: See Texas, where a new law already facing legal challenge seeks to stop social media sites from removing posts or disciplining users based on “viewpoint.” A similar stricture in Florida was blocked by a judge this summer.

The States

Politico: DeSantis pushing election officials to investigate Facebook

By Matt Dixon

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis directed his secretary of state to launch an investigation into a Facebook program that could have given incumbent politicians “an advantage over challengers” — but it’s unclear what state laws the social media giant could have violated.

The Facebook program, reported earlier this month by the Wall Street Journal, created a system where high profile users were either “whitelisted” — which effectively means they were exempt from Facebook guidelines over allowable content — or allowed to post content that violates the company’s rules pending review from its staff.

The program was put in place for Facebook “VIP” users such as well-known athletes, not just elected officials, but did include many government officials. Because not all politicians were included in the program, it gave what amounts to an incumbent advantage over challengers, according to internal Facebook documents reviewed by the Wall Street Journal…

“Your office should use all legal means to uncover any such violations, including but not limited to, issuing subpoenas, conducting witness interviews, reviewing all available information and consulting with law enforcement,” DeSantis wrote in a letter to Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee.

DeSantis did not outline what specific election laws he thought were violated. Generally, potential election law violations are investigated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, not the Department of State, which serves as the state’s top election administrator.

Crosscut: Weekly WA newspaper fined $15,000 for selling election coverage

By Melissa Santos

A weekly newspaper in Tacoma was fined last week for violating Washington state election law in a way that one official said threatens to undermine trust in both journalism and politics.

The Tacoma Weekly agreed to pay a $15,000 fine for telling political candidates last year that they could buy a news story — and even the newspaper’s editorial endorsement — as part of a $2,500 advertising package. 

Accepting money in exchange for story placement or positive coverage goes against journalistic standards of ethics. But beyond that, it also violates Washington state law, which forbids news outlets from soliciting money in exchange for “an endorsement, article, or other communication in the news media promoting or opposing a candidate.”

Leaders of the Tacoma Weekly said they never actually ended up writing a story in exchange for money. But staff with the state Public Disclosure Commission — Washington’s campaign finance watchdog agency — found that two candidates who took the Weekly up on its advertising offer understood that they were each buying a cover story as part of an ad package. Those two candidates each paid $150 fines, agreeing that those news stories — which ran on the front page of the Weekly — didn’t contain the required disclosures that they were ads bought by the candidates.

Fox News: New Los Angeles protest law aims to curb demonstrations targeting private homes

By Danielle Wallace

A new law passed in Los Angeles aims to tamp down on protests targeting private homes, casting a spotlight on a trend that appears to have grown across the country.

The Los Angeles City Council approved the law last week, banning protesters from organizing demonstrations within 300 feet from targeted private homes. It comes after protesters most recently showed up at the homes of Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez and Councilman Mitch O’Farrell demanding the city stop forcing restaurants to require proof of vaccination for indoor dining…

The new measure against protests at private homes in Los Angeles, approved last Tuesday in a 12-to-2 vote, tightened restrictions already banning demonstrations within 100 feet from private dwellings. It allowed those aggrieved by unlawful picketing to seek up to $1,000 for each violation.

Nathan Maxwell

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