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Republicans, aided by Musk, accuse Big Tech of colluding with Democrats

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Republicans, aided by Musk, accuse Big Tech of colluding with Democrats

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Soon after Elon Musk took over Twitter, he began promoting screenshots of internal company documents that he said exposed “free speech suppression” on the social media platform during the 2020 election. Republicans were thrilled.

“We knew Big Tech was censoring conservatives, but the #TwitterFiles keep showing us it was worse than we thought,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) tweeted recently.

On Wednesday, Musk’s “Twitter Files” will take center stage in a Capitol Hill hearing where GOP leaders will try to advance their campaign to turn Twitter’s decision to briefly block sharing a story about the president’s son into evidence of a broad conspiracy. Conservatives have long argued that Silicon Valley favors Democrats by systematically suppressing right-wing viewpoints on social media. These allegations have evolved in nearly a half-decade of warnings, as politicians in Washington and beyond fixate on the industry’s communications with Democratic leaders, seeking to cast the opposing party as against free speech.

The Twitter Files show no evidence of such a plot. Conservative influencers and stories from conservative platforms regularly draw a massive audience on social media. But Wednesday’s hearing, which will feature former Twitter executives as witnesses, is the latest effort to advance an increasingly popular Republican argument.

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Elon Musk’s ‘Twitter files’ are an exercise in hypocrisy

As House Republicans throw their political weight behind the narrative that Democrats colluded with social media companies, they have formed a new House panel to probe perceived government abuses against conservatives, including allegations of social media bias. Meanwhile, two Republican attorneys general in Louisiana and Missouri have filed a lawsuit alleging that the Biden administration is circumventing the First Amendment to censor social media.

Taken collectively, these actions represent the next phase of a GOP strategy, which contributed to the distrust among some conservatives that seeded “the “big lie,” the baseless claim that the 2020 election was stolen. The early warnings that liberal employees inside tech companies tilt the playing field in favor of Democrats have ballooned into accusations that government officials actively collude with the platforms to influence public discourse.

Paul M. Barrett, the deputy director of the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, said the increased pressure from Republicans have resulted in tech companies “bending over backward” to accommodate content from right-wing accounts for fear of political reprisal.

“The fact that … people are continuing to bang this drum that there’s anti-conservative bias is really unfortunate. It’s really confusing, and it’s just not true,” Barrett said in an interview.

What the Jan. 6 probe found out about social media, but didn’t report

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Top Republican leaders have made alleged tech censorship one of their first priorities in the House, scheduling hearings and demanding reams of documents in a multipronged pressure campaign.

House Oversight Committee Chair James Comer (R-Ky.), along with House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Jordan, in January introduced a bill called the Protecting Speech from Government Interference Act, which would penalize federal employees if they’re found to be asking social media companies to take down posts. The House Judiciary Committee has formed a special subcommittee focused on the “weaponization of the federal government,” designed in part to examine the interactions between the Biden administration and major tech companies.

Jordan sent letters in December to five large tech companies, demanding that they detail their “collusion with the Biden administration.”

“Big Tech is out to get conservatives, and is increasingly willing to undermine First Amendment values by complying with the Biden administration’s directives that suppress freedom of speech online,” Jordan wrote in the letters, which were sent to the executives of Facebook parent company Meta, Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post). The accusations threaten to unravel nearly a decade of investment in people and policies intended to root out violence and falsehoods online — a powerful partisan attack on Silicon Valley, even as President Biden calls for unity to take on Big Tech.

An evolution of a years-long strategy

For more than half a decade, accusations of anti-conservative bias have plagued Silicon Valley, fueled by a high-profile mishap at Facebook in the run-up to the 2016 election. Anonymous former Facebook employees told the tech news website Gizmodo that the social media giant often passed over conservative media outlets when choosing stories to curate for its “trending” news feature.

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Though stories with a conservative slant regularly outperform those from moderate or liberal-leaning outlets, tensions escalated under former president Donald Trump. As tech companies scrambled to shore up defenses against misinformation in the wake of Russian influence operations in the 2016 election, they created policy on the fly for Trump’s often false and racist tweets. Under political pressure, Facebook tilted to the right in policies, personnel and public gestures, according to a Post investigation.

How social media ‘censorship’ became a front line in the culture war

Top Republicans and right-wing influencers routinely accuse the companies of secretly tampering with their follower counts or “shadowbanning” their posts, even as their online audiences have grown. For many influencers, promoting how deeply they’ve been suppressed has become a marketing tool, especially after a number of them were invited by Trump to a White House “social media summit” on censorship in 2019. The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., that year solicited preorders for his book on Twitter by calling it “the book the leftist elites don’t want you to read.”

Prodded by calls in Congress to overhaul social media laws, Trump signed an executive order that sought to change Section 230, a decades-old legal shield that prevents tech companies from being sued over the posts, photos and videos that people share on their platforms. In 2021, social media companies made the unprecedented decision to ban a sitting president from their services in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Trump’s ban ignited a new legislative strategy in Republican-led statehouses. Florida and Texas forged ahead with new laws aimed at prohibiting the companies from banning politicians and censoring political views. States and the tech industry have called on the Supreme Court to weigh in on the constitutionality of the laws, after federal appeals courts issued conflicting rulings. The Supreme Court recently asked the Biden administration to weigh in on whether states can bar social media companies from removing political speech.

From the early days of his deal to buy Twitter, Musk has signaled that he shares Republican concerns that tech companies are suppressing their views. Before closing the deal, he boosted criticism of Twitter executive Vijaya Gadde, who was involved in politically controversial content moderation decisions, including the decision to ban Trump. Republicans have summoned Gadde to testify at Wednesday’s hearing.

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Twitter lawyer long weighed safety, free speech. Then Musk called her out.

Since the deal closed, House Republicans have pressed Musk to hand over records related to Twitter’s handling of the New York Post article about Hunter Biden. In December, a group of handpicked journalists tweeted screenshots of internal company documents dubbed the Twitter Files, and GOP policymakers immediately teased congressional action.

“We’re very serious about this. We’re very concerned about this,” Comer said in a December interview on Fox News.

Back on Capitol Hill, Comer described the hearing as the beginning of a “narrow investigation” into “influence-peddling by the Biden administration.” House Republicans have mounted a sprawling effort across multiple congressional committees to scrutinize communications between tech companies and Democratic leaders, blanketing platforms and public officials with demands for documents and internal emails.

“I think Musk should be applauded because he’s been very transparent,” Comer said. “He’s putting stuff out there.”

Democrats on the House Oversight Committee say they plan to use the hearing to probe former Twitter leaders on concerns about violence and misinformation.

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“Elon Musk has made it clear that he is going to be completely with the right-wing propaganda program,” Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (Md.), the committee’s top Democrat, said in an interview with The Post.

Raskin said that the controversy over whether the government alerted Twitter that the Hunter Biden story could be foreign propaganda was a nonissue, and that GOP bills seeking to ban such interactions would only serve to benefit foreign leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I think it should be completely within the power of government to alert private media entities about the existence of foreign propaganda and disinformation campaigns,” he said. “So that legislation … looks like it’s going to be very good news for Vladimir Putin.”

Jan. 6 Twitter witness: Failure to curb Trump spurred ‘terrifying’ choice

Meanwhile, discovery continues in the Missouri and Louisiana case. Biden administration lawyers have attempted to dismiss the case, arguing that it contains no plausible evidence of coercion. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit has been skeptical of the states’ arguments, urging a lower court to consider the federal government’s argument that voluminous documents produced during discovery have so far shown no First Amendment violation.

State attorneys general leading the suit said in a recent statement that the litigation is part of a broader strategy to defend constitutional rights.

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“This case is about the Biden administration’s blatant disregard for the First Amendment and its collusion with Big Tech social media companies to suppress speech it disagrees with,” Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey said.

Bailey’s office has promoted emails between the White House and Facebook, in which a White House official flags posts related to coronavirus vaccinations that he finds concerning. In one message, the official says that “the top post about vaccines today is tucker Carlson saying they don’t work.” Biden has previously called on social media companies to address coronavirus misinformation.

Barrett, the NYU professor, said political leaders and government officials have been communicating with companies for years, citing Trump’s dinner as president with Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg. Often, such communication is not nefarious, Barrett said, and has the routine intention of getting out information about how to vote or protect public health.

“We don’t want there to be some kind of impenetrable wall between these companies and the government,” Barrett said.

There is a need for Silicon Valley to be more transparent about its policies for interacting with governments and legal enforcers, he added, and congressional hearings could be a venue for politicians from both parties to ask “fair and substantive” questions about companies’ efforts to promote authoritative information.

But Barrett is not expecting that at Wednesday’s hearing, which he said has “all the earmarks of a purely partisan mudslinging exercise.”

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Christian family goes in hiding after being cleared of blasphemy

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Christian family goes in hiding after being cleared of blasphemy

LAHORE, Pakistan — A court in Pakistan granted bail to a Christian falsely charged with blasphemy, but he and his family have separated and gone into hiding amid threats to their lives, sources said.

Haroon Shahzad (right) with attorney Aneeqa Maria. | The Voice Society/Morning Star News

Haroon Shahzad, 45, was released from Sargodha District Jail on Nov. 15, said his attorney, Aneeqa Maria. Shahzad was charged with blasphemy on June 30 after posting Bible verses on Facebook that infuriated Muslims, causing dozens of Christian families in Chak 49 Shumaali, near Sargodha in Punjab Province, to flee their homes.

Lahore High Court Judge Ali Baqir Najfi granted bail on Nov. 6, but the decision and his release on Nov. 15 were not made public until now due to security fears for his life, Maria said.

Shahzad told Morning Star News by telephone from an undisclosed location that the false accusation has changed his family’s lives forever.

“My family has been on the run from the time I was implicated in this false charge and arrested by the police under mob pressure,” Shahzad told Morning Star News. “My eldest daughter had just started her second year in college, but it’s been more than four months now that she hasn’t been able to return to her institution. My other children are also unable to resume their education as my family is compelled to change their location after 15-20 days as a security precaution.”

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Though he was not tortured during incarceration, he said, the pain of being away from his family and thinking about their well-being and safety gave him countless sleepless nights.

“All of this is due to the fact that the complainant, Imran Ladhar, has widely shared my photo on social media and declared me liable for death for alleged blasphemy,” he said in a choked voice. “As soon as Ladhar heard about my bail, he and his accomplices started gathering people in the village and incited them against me and my family. He’s trying his best to ensure that we are never able to go back to the village.”

Shahzad has met with his family only once since his release on bail, and they are unable to return to their village in the foreseeable future, he said.

“We are not together,” he told Morning Star News. “They are living at a relative’s house while I’m taking refuge elsewhere. I don’t know when this agonizing situation will come to an end.”

The Christian said the complainant, said to be a member of Islamist extremist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan and also allegedly connected with banned terrorist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, filed the charge because of a grudge. Shahzad said he and his family had obtained valuable government land and allotted it for construction of a church building, and Ladhar and others had filed multiple cases against the allotment and lost all of them after a four-year legal battle.

“Another probable reason for Ladhar’s jealousy could be that we were financially better off than most Christian families of the village,” he said. “I was running a successful paint business in Sargodha city, but that too has shut down due to this case.”

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Regarding the social media post, Shahzad said he had no intention of hurting Muslim sentiments by sharing the biblical verse on his Facebook page.

“I posted the verse a week before Eid Al Adha [Feast of the Sacrifice] but I had no idea that it would be used to target me and my family,” he said. “In fact, when I came to know that Ladhar was provoking the villagers against me, I deleted the post and decided to meet the village elders to explain my position.”

The village elders were already influenced by Ladhar and refused to listen to him, Shahzad said.

“I was left with no option but to flee the village when I heard that Ladhar was amassing a mob to attack me,” he said.

Shahzad pleaded with government authorities for justice, saying he should not be punished for sharing a verse from the Bible that in no way constituted blasphemy.

Similar to other cases

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Shahzad’s attorney, Maria, told Morning Star News that events in Shahzad’s case were similar to other blasphemy cases filed against Christians.

“Defective investigation, mala fide on the part of the police and complainant, violent protests against the accused persons and threats to them and their families, forcing their displacement from their ancestral areas, have become hallmarks of all blasphemy allegations in Pakistan,” said Maria, head of The Voice Society, a Christian paralegal organization.

She said that the case filed against Shahzad was gross violation of Section 196 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), which states that police cannot register a case under the Section 295-A blasphemy statute against a private citizen without the approval of the provincial government or federal agencies.

Maria added that Shahzad and his family have continued to suffer even though there was no evidence of blasphemy.

“The social stigma attached with a blasphemy accusation will likely have a long-lasting impact on their lives, whereas his accuser, Imran Ladhar, would not have to face any consequence of his false accusation,” she said.

The judge who granted bail noted that Shahzad was charged with blasphemy under Section 295-A, which is a non-cognizable offense, and Section 298, which is bailable. The judge also noted that police had not submitted the forensic report of Shahzad’s cell phone and said evidence was required to prove that the social media was blasphemous, according to Maria.

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Bail was set at 100,000 Pakistani rupees (US $350) and two personal sureties, and the judge ordered police to further investigate, she said.

Shahzad, a paint contractor, on June 29 posted on his Facebook page 1 Cor. 10:18-21 regarding food sacrificed to idols, as Muslims were beginning the four-day festival of Eid al-Adha, which involves slaughtering an animal and sharing the meat.

A Muslim villager took a screenshot of the post, sent it to local social media groups and accused Shahzad of likening Muslims to pagans and disrespecting the Abrahamic tradition of animal sacrifice.

Though Shahzad made no comment in the post, inflammatory or otherwise, the situation became tense after Friday prayers when announcements were made from mosque loudspeakers telling people to gather for a protest, family sources previously told Morning Star News.

Fearing violence as mobs grew in the village, most Christian families fled their homes, leaving everything behind.

In a bid to restore order, the police registered a case against Shahzad under Sections 295-A and 298. Section 295-A relates to “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” and is punishable with imprisonment of up to 10 years and fine, or both. Section 298 prescribes up to one year in prison and a fine, or both, for hurting religious sentiments.

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Pakistan ranked seventh on Open Doors’ 2023 World Watch List of the most difficult places to be a Christian, up from eighth the previous year.

Morning Star News is the only independent news service focusing exclusively on the persecution of Christians. The nonprofit’s mission is to provide complete, reliable, even-handed news in order to empower those in the free world to help persecuted Christians, and to encourage persecuted Christians by informing them that they are not alone in their suffering.

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Individual + Team Stats: Hornets vs. Timberwolves

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CHARLOTTE HORNETS MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES You can follow us for future coverage by liking us on Facebook & following us on X: Facebook – All Hornets X – …

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What went wrong with ‘the Metaverse’? An insider’s postmortem

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What went wrong with 'the Metaverse'? An insider's postmortem


It’s now two years since Facebook changed its name to Meta, ushering in a brief but blazing enthusiasm over “the Metaverse”, a concept from science fiction that suddenly seemed to be the next inevitable leap in technology. For most people in tech, however, the term has since lost its luster, seemingly supplanted by any product with “artificial intelligence” attached to its description. 

But the true story of the Metaverse’s rise and fall in public awareness is much more complicated and interesting than simply being the short life cycle of a buzzword — it also reflects a collective failure of both imagination and understanding.  

Consider:

The forgotten novel

Ironically, many tech reporters discounted or even ignored the profound influence of Snow Crash on actual working technologists. The founders of Roblox and Epic (creator of Fortnite) among many other developers were directly inspired by the novel. Despite that, Neal Stephenson’s classic cyberpunk tale has often been depicted as if it were an obscure dystopian tome which merely coined the term. As opposed to what it actually did: describe the concept with a biblical specificity that thousands of developers have referenced in their virtual world projects — many of which have already become extremely popular.

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Snow Crash.

You can see this lack of clarity in many of the mass tech headlines attempting to describe the Metaverse in the wake of Facebook’s name change: 

In a widely shared “obituary” to the Metaverse, Business Insider’s Ed Zitron even compounded the confusion still further by inexplicably misattributing the concept to TRON, the original Disney movie from the 80s.

Had the media referenced Snow Crash far more accurately when the buzz began, they’d come away with a much better understanding of why so many technologists are excited by the Metaverse concept — and realize its early incarnation is already gaining strong user traction.  

Because in the book, the Metaverse is a vast, immersive virtual world that’s simultaneously accessible by millions of people through highly customizable avatars and powerful experience creation tools that are integrated with the offline world through its virtual economy and external technology. In other words, it’s more or less like Roblox and Fortnite — platforms with many tens of millions of active users. 

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But then again, the tech media can’t be fully blamed for following Mark Zuckerberg’s lead.

Rather than create a vision for its Metaverse iterating on already successful platforms — Roblox’s 2020 IPO filing even describes itself as the metaverse — Meta’s executive leadership cobbled together a mishmash of disparate products. Most of which, such as remotely working in VR headsets, remain far from proven. According to an internal Blind survey, a majority of Zuckerberg’s own employees say he has not adequately explained what he means by the Metaverse even to them.

Grievous of all, Zuckerberg and his CTO Andrew Bosworth promoted a conception of the Metaverse in which the Quest headset was central. To do so, they had to overlook compelling evidence — raised by senior Microsoft researcher danah boyd at the time of the company acquiring Oculus in 2014 — that females have a high propensity to get nauseous using VR.

Meta Quest 3 comes out on October 10 for $500.
Meta Quest 3.

Contacted in late 2022 while writing Making a Metaverse That Matters, danah told me no one at Oculus or Meta followed up with her about the research questions she raised. Over the years, I have asked several senior Meta staffers (past and present) about this and have yet to receive an adequate reply. Unsurprisingly, Meta’s Quest 2 VR headset has an estimated install base of only about 20 million units, significantly smaller than the customer count of leading video game consoles. A product that tends to make half the population puke is not exactly destined for the mass market — let alone a reliable base for building the Metaverse. 

Ironically, Neal Stephenson himself has frequently insisted that virtual reality is absolutely not a prerequisite for the Metaverse, since flat screens display immersive virtual worlds just fine. But here again, the tech media instead ratified Meta’s flawed VR-centric vision by constantly illustrating articles about the Metaverse with photos of people happily donning headsets to access it — inadvertently setting up a straw man destined to soon go ablaze.

Duct-taped to yet another buzzword

Further sealing the Metaverse hype wave’s fate, it crested around the same time that Web3 and crypto were still enjoying their own euphoria period. This inevitably spawned the “cryptoverse” with platforms like Decentraland and The Sandbox. When the crypto crash came, it was easy to assume the Metaverse was also part of that fall.

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But the cryptoverse platforms failed in the same way that other crypto schemes have gone awry: By offering a virtual world as a speculative opportunity, it primarily attracted crypto speculators, not virtual world enthusiasts. By October of 2022, Decentraland was only tracking 7,000 daily active users, game industry analyst Lars Doucet informed me

“Everybody who is still playing is basically just playing poker,” as Lars put it. “This seems to be a kind of recurring trend in dead-end crypto projects. Kind of an eerie rhyme with left-behind American cities where drugs come in and anyone who is left is strung out at a slot machine parlor or liquor store.”

All this occurred as the rise of generative AI birthed another, shinier buzzword — one that people not well-versed in immersive virtual worlds could better understand.

But as “the Metaverse” receded as a hype totem, a hilarious thing happened: Actual metaverse platforms continued growing. Roblox now counts over 300 million monthly active users, making its population nearly the size of the entire United States; Fortnite had its best usage day in 6 years. Meta continues plodding along but seems to finally be learning from its mistakes — for instance, launching a mobile version of its metaverse platform Horizon Worlds.  

Roblox leads the rise of user-generated content.
Roblox.

Into this mix, a new wave of metaverse platforms is preparing to launch, refreshingly led by seasoned, successful game developers: Raph Koster with Playable Worlds, Jenova Chen with his early, successful forays into metaverse experiences, and Everywhere, a metaverse platform lead developed by a veteran of the Grand Theft Auto franchise.

At some point, everyone in tech who co-signed the “death” of the Metaverse may notice this sustained growth. By then however, the term may no longer require much usage, just as the term “information superhighway” fell away as broadband Internet went mainstream.  

Wagner James Au is author of Making a Metaverse That Matters: From Snow Crash & Second Life to A Virtual World Worth Fighting For 

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