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Trump is not doing anything to stop weaponisation of social media

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“A small handful of powerful social media monopolies control the vast portion of all private and public communications in the United States.” So said US President Donald Trump, unlikely challenger of corporate power and even more unlikely defender of democracy on the occasion of the announcement of his Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship, issued on May 28.

Trump issued the order after Twitter, the president’s favourite weapon of disinformation, dared to fact-check and slap warnings on some of his tweets, including one posted after protests broke out in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing. According to Twitter, Trump’s threatening statement – “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” – violates the company’s rules about glorifying violence.

In response to this unprecedented type of correction, Trump’s executive order seeks to remove the immunity afforded to internet companies by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law that protects companies like Twitter and Facebook from being sued for libel if users publish defamatory content on their platforms.

The logic here is baffling: if internet companies are going to censor his free speech, Trump will try to remove the protection that allows free speech in the first place – protection that has allowed him to tweet with impunity!

As if that was not enough, Trump is claiming, with newly found antitrust vigour, that a concentration of corporate power (in the form of “censorship” of his tweets) is a direct threat to American democracy. As the executive order states: “When large, powerful social media companies censor opinions with which they disagree, they exercise a dangerous power. They cease functioning as passive bulletin boards, and ought to be viewed and treated as content creators.”

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The Trump administration is right about one thing: social media platforms are not mere bulletin boards. In reality, their algorithms can promote or hide content according to opaque principles that they are not obligated to disclose, and which are not regulated.

Their policies can also foment hate speech and disinformation, which can have serious political ramifications and even put lives at risk. As the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated, however, the current administration and its supporters consider it acceptable to endanger some lives in the interest of profit maximisation.

Still, Trump’s strategy is not well thought out, and experts agree that the changes to the law proposed by the executive order – changes that would require the Federal Communications Commission to be involved in determining which companies should be protected by Section 230, and which ones should not – would be ineffective and possibly in violation of the First Amendment, which prevents the government from restricting free speech.

Even if it all came to pass, the good news for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is that his company could escape Trump’s wrath. While Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has suggested that their fact-checking is necessary to allow users to judge content for themselves, Zuckerberg has consistently held that social media companies should not be in the business of determining what is true or what is not (this time, some Facebook employees are publicly disagreeing with their boss and holding virtual walkouts).

Zuckerberg’s insistence might have less to do with a passion for free speech and more with the fact that controversy, disinformation, and unrest are good business drivers for social media platforms.

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They increase traffic and get more users to spend time watching advertisements. This explains why Facebook dismissed its own research about the divisive effect the platform has on society. Facebook, like tobacco companies, knows it is not in the business of protecting its users, as the sharp increase in customer data breaches also shows.

Meanwhile, the government sees hate speech and disinformation posted on social media as useful data points that can be used to monitor citizens, or even foreigners applying for visas.

As for why Twitter, which has previously removed content from Presidents Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, is finally standing up to Trump, there is a simple explanation: the tide is finally turning, and many who have been silent may be feeling it is finally safe to be openly critical.

Corporations are coming out in support of Black Lives Matter. Celebrities are participating in George Floyd protests (as long as selfies can be posted afterwards). It is now acceptable at the highest levels of power to make fun of Trump’s obesity or give him nicknames like “President Tweety”.

Trump’s absurd comments that he is prepared to sic the “most vicious dogs” on protesters outside the White House have invited comparisons to Mr Burns, the wealthy evil character in the “The Simpsons” animation, famous for his command – “release the hounds”. All this would be amusing if the country were not in the midst of a pandemic, burning with social unrest, and struggling with record unemployment.

So, yes, there is reason to question the relevance of Section 230. And yes, social media corporations wield power in ways that are anti-democratic, like Trump says in his executive order. But beyond that, it is all theatrics.

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Trump is what philosopher Harry Frankfurt would call a bullshitter, someone different from a mere liar. According to Frankfurt, a liar still acknowledges the existence of the truth, if only to distract us from it.

A bullshitter, on the other hand, no longer cares about the truth and is only interested in creating impressions. These may have been enough to get Trump elected in 2016 (with a little help from Cambridge Analytica and Russia, which is now trying to take advantage of the George Floyd protests). But perhaps some of his bullshit is finally catching up with him.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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China accused of interference as Australia PM’s WeChat account vanishes

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Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison opened his WeChat account in 2019 ahead of Australian elections that year


Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison opened his WeChat account in 2019 ahead of Australian elections that year – Copyright NO BYELINE/AFP STRINGER

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s WeChat account has disappeared, prompting accusations of Chinese “interference” from senior members of his government Monday.

Morrison’s account on the Chinese social media app, which was launched in February 2019, appears to have been replaced with one titled “Australian Chinese new life.”

WeChat is the overwhelmingly dominant messaging and social media platform in China, where Western services such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter are blocked.

There was no immediate comment from Morrison but a senator from his ruling centre-right Liberal Party accused Beijing of being behind the change.

“What the Chinese government has done by shutting down the prime minister’s account is effectively foreign interference in our democracy,” James Paterson told 2GB radio on Monday.

Paterson called on Australian politicians to boycott WeChat in response.

According to the account’s about page, the “Australian Chinese new life” name was registered on October 28, 2021.

But the account has posts dating back to February 1, 2019, including Morrison’s first, which reads: “I’m very happy to open my official WeChat account”.

AFP has contacted WeChat’s parent company Tencent for comment.

Morrison first launched his WeChat account to communicate with Australia’s sizable Chinese-Australian community ahead of elections in 2019.

That year, Morrison was asked by reporters whether there was a risk his account could be censored by the Chinese Communist Party.

“We haven’t experienced any such censorship,” he said.

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In December 2020, WeChat removed a post from Morrison that defended Australia’s investigation into allegations of war crimes perpetrated by Australian soldiers.

The post also criticised Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, who had tweeted a fake image of an Australian soldier holding a knife.

The last post on the “Australian Chinese new life” account is from July 9, 2021.

The Daily Telegraph reported Morrison has been locked out of his account since then.

All of the posts on the “Australian Chinese new life” account relate to Australian government announcements or messages from Morrison.



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TikTok’s Working on a New, Opt-In Function to Show You Who Viewed Your Profile

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TikTok's Working on a New, Opt-In Function to Show You Who Viewed Your Profile


I’m not entirely sure what value this might bring, but TikTok is reportedly working on bringing back the option to see who viewed your profile in the app over the preceding 30 days, which would provide more transparency over user interest.

As you can see in these screenshots, uncovered by app researcher Kev Adriano (and shared by Matt Navarra), TikTok looks to be testing an opt-in functionality that would enable you to see who’s checking out your TikTok profile, while users would also be able to see when you’ve checked out their profile as well when this feature is switched on.

Which TikTok used to have, as a means to increase connections in the app.

TikTok profile views notification

As you can see here, TikTok used to provide a listing of people who’d checked out your profile, with a view to helping you find others to follow who may have similar, shared interests. TikTok removed the functionality early last year, amid various investigations into its data sharing processes, and with several high-profile cases of TikTok stalkers causing real-world problems for platform stars, it made sense that it might not want to share this information anymore, as it likely only increases anxiety for those who may have concerns.

But I guess, if stalkers wanted to check out your profile they wouldn’t turn the feature on, so maybe, by making it opt-in, that reduces that element? Maybe.

I don’t know, I don’t see a heap of value here, and while I can understand, when an app is starting out, how this sort of awareness might help to increase network connections, I’m not sure that it serves any real value for TikTok, other than providing insight into who’s poking around, and likely increasing concerns about certain people who keep coming back to check out your profile again and again.

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Maybe there’s a value for aspiring influencers, in reaching out to potential collaborators who’ve checked out their stuff, or maybe it works for hook-ups, if that’s what you want to use TikTok for, which is why the opt-in element is important.

But much like the same feature on LinkedIn, mostly, it seems pretty useless. I mean, it’s somewhat interesting to know that somebody from a company that you’d like to work for checked out your profile, but if they did, and they didn’t feel compelled to get in touch, who really cares?

There is a limited value proposition here, in that getting in touch with those who did check out your profile could result in a business relationship, similar to the above note on potential collaborators on TikTok. But I’d be interested to see the actual percentage of successful contacts made is as a result of these insights.

I can’t imagine it’s very high – but maybe, if you give users the choice, and they explicitly opt-in, there is some value there.

Seems like stalker tracking to me, and potential angst and conflict as a result.

There’s no official word from TikTok as to whether this option will ever be released at this stage.





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‘Flurona’ is a great example of how misinformation can circulate

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'Flurona' is a great example of how misinformation can circulate


This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19—isolated from a patient in the U.S. Virus particles are shown emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. The spikes on the outer edge of the virus particles give coronaviruses their name, crown-like. Image captured and colorized at NIAID’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) in Hamilton, Montana.
Source – NIAID, CC SA 2.0.

In early January, Israel confirmed its first case of an individual infected with both the seasonal flu and COVID-19 at the same time, authorities reported. The two infections were found in an unvaccinated pregnant woman who had mild symptoms.

At the rime, the Times of Israel said, “Some reports suggested this marked the first such dual case in the world, but reports of patients with both flu and COVID-19 surfaced in the US as early as spring 2020.”

And it was the Times of Israel that helped the story to go viral by using a catchy, made-up name – “flurona” – and reporting that this is the “first” such case in the country, which some people read as the first case ever.

One news outlet went about amplifying the anecdotal report into “a new nightmare to keep us awake at night.” All the hype over this supposedly new and nightmarish disease did nothing more than fuel the amount of misinformation already bogging down social media platforms.

Scientific American suggests that physicians and scientists just don’t seem to be able to get the right message across to the public about what is real, what is treatable, and what is downright false.

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Yes, you can catch the flu and Covid

Let’s look back a bit to the start of the pandemic. In March 2020, hospitals were being overrun with patients. At that time, COVID testing was still rather sluggish and expensive. So doctors often ordered several tests for patients, trying to identify — or eliminate from suspicion — other possible infections.   

And yes, any number of patients were found to have not only COVID-19 but nearly 5 percent of patients tested had another viral respiratory infection, too. At first, doctors worried more for these patients, whose immune systems were fighting two battles at once. 

“What we found was actually that patients who had Covid plus another infection — they had lower rates of inflammation in their body and were less likely to be admitted to the hospital,” said Dr. Sarah Baron, a physician who helped author a study in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy to describe the findings.

While the study was small in the number of patients involved, it may offer an intriguing look at how one virus suppresses the effects of another – something called viral interference.

Researchers have known about viral interference since the 1960s when a group of scientists noticed that a live vaccine against polio and other enteroviruses also seemed to protect against unrelated viral respiratory diseases like influenza.  

For the week ending December 25, 2021, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 6.2 percent of people tested for flu were positive, and 1,825 people were admitted to U.S. hospitals with flu that week.

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So I would suggest to everyone that first – remember there are many reliable news sources on the Internet. Secondly, if a story you read sounds outrageous, take a few minutes to research it. You may just find out how inaccurate it may be.



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