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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.”

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.

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.

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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Cheeky branding wins (and missteps)

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Cheeky branding wins (and missteps)

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Branding and rebranding is getting more fun, here we look at some of cheekiest brands that have caught our eye – for the right and wrong reasons.



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Google Outlines Ongoing Efforts to Combat China-Based Influence Operations Targeting Social Apps

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Google Outlines Ongoing Efforts to Combat China-Based Influence Operations Targeting Social Apps

Over the past year, Google has repeatedly noted that a China-based group has been looking to use YouTube, in particular, to influence western audiences, by building various channels in the app, then seeding them with pro-China content.

There’s limited info available on the full origins or intentions of the group, but today, Google has published a new overview of its ongoing efforts to combat the initiative, called DRAGONBRIDGE.

As explained by Google:

In 2022, Google disrupted over 50,000 instances of DRAGONBRIDGE activity across YouTube, Blogger, and AdSense, reflecting our continued focus on this actor and success in scaling our detection efforts across Google products. We have terminated over 100,000 DRAGONBRIDGE accounts in the IO network’s lifetime.

As you can see in this chart, DRAGONBRIDGE is by far the most prolific source of coordinated information operations that Google has detected over the past year, while Google also notes that it’s been able to disrupt most of the project’s attempted influence, by snuffing out its content before it gets seen.

Dragonbridge

Worth noting the scale too – as Google notes, DRAGONBRIDGE has created more than 100,000 accounts, which includes tens of thousands of YouTube channels. Not individual videos, entire channels in the app, which is a huge amount of work, and content, that this group is producing.

That can’t be cheap, or easy to keep running. So they must be doing it for a reason.

The broader implication, which has been noted by various other publications and analysts, is that DRAGONBRIDGE is potentially being supported by the Chinese Government, as part of a broader effort to influence foreign policy approaches via social media apps. 

Which, at this kind of scale, is a concern, while DRAGONBRIDGE has also targeted Facebook and Twitter as well, at different times, and it could be that their efforts on those platforms are also reaching similar activity levels, and may not have been detected as yet.

Which then also relates to TikTok, a Chinese-owned app that now has massive influence over younger audiences in western nations. If programs like this are already in effect, it stands to reason that TikTok is also likely a key candidate for boosting the same, which remains a key concern among regulators and officials in many nations.

The US Government is reportedly weighing a full TikTok ban, and if that happens, you can bet that many other nations will follow suit. Many government organizations are also banning TikTok on official devices, based on advice from security experts, and with programs like DRAGONBRIDGE also running, it does seem like Chinese-based groups are actively operating influence and manipulation programs in foreign nations.

Which seems like a significant issue, and while Google is seemingly catching most of these channels before they have an impact, it also seems likely that this is only one element of a larger push.

Hopefully, through collective action, the impact of such can be limited – but for TikTok, which still reports to Chinese ownership, it’s another element that could raise further questions and scrutiny.

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The Drum | Trump’s Instagram & Facebook Reinstatement Won’t Cause Marketers To Riot Yet, Experts Say

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The Drum | Trump's Instagram & Facebook Reinstatement Won’t Cause Marketers To Riot Yet, Experts Say

While the reinstatement of Donald Trump’s Twitter account in November had some advertisers packing up in protest, many will strike a different tune with Meta-owned Facebook and Instagram, experts predict.

Meta Wednesday announced that it’s lifting the ban on a handful of Facebook and Instagram accounts, including that of former US president Donald Trump – who was suspended nearly two years ago following the January 6, 2021 riots at the Capitol.

In a blog post yesterday, Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, explained the reasons for the company’s decision, saying that it “evaluated the current environment” as it pertains to the socio-political landscape and security concerns and determined that “risk has sufficiently receded.” As a result, the company will welcome Trump back onto Facebook and Instagram.

The former president will be expected to comply with Meta’s user policies, but, considering his past violations, will face “heightened penalties for repeat offenses,” Clegg explained.

While it’s unclear whether Trump will become an active user on either platform following the decision, media and marketing experts are already sounding alarm bells at his potential return.

In particular, experts are cautious considering recent developments at Twitter. Elon Musk’s turbulent takeover – which has included mass layoffs, dramatic platform changes and the decision to reinstate the accounts of controversial figures like Trump and Kanye West (whose account has since been re-suspended) – has led to an exodus of advertisers. Could Meta’s decision to reintroduce Trump invite a similar fate?

‘Fear, frustration and protest’ could catalyze drawback

Concerns regarding brand safety and suitability on Facebook and Instagram are piquing among marketers. Trump’s presence on social media has long proven to exacerbate the spread of misinformation online. The risks of a potential recession, paired with new political tensions spurred by the 2022 midterms and the anticipation of the 2024 presidential election, may only up the ante.

“Misinformation on Meta’s platforms was an issue prior to Trump’s ban, during the ban and will likely continue to be an issue, even with the new [policies that] Meta has put in place,” says Laura Ries, group director of media and connections at IPG-owned ad agency R/GA. In light of this fact, Ries says, “Advertisers will need to continue to consider the type of content they’ll show up next to when evaluating whether or not to advertise on the platforms, especially as we march toward the 2024 election.”

She predicts that Meta may see some advertisers leave Facebook and Instagram “out of fear, frustration or protest.”

Others agree. “I suspect advertisers will not be pleased with this move and might make reductions in spend as they have done with Twitter,” says Tim Lim, a political strategist, PR consultant and partner at creative agency The Hooligans.

Although some advertisers are sure to pull back or cut their investments, the number will likely be low – largely because the scale and reach promised by both Facebook and Instagram will make it hard for most advertisers to quit. Smaller brands and startups in particular often rely heavily on Meta’s advertising business to spur growth, says Ries.

A ripple, not a wave

Most industry leaders believe Trump’s reinstatement won’t cause anything more than a ripple in the advertising industry. “Marketers who advertise on Facebook and Instagram care about their own problems, which generally [entail] selling more products and services,” says Joe Pulizzi, an entrepreneur, podcaster and author of various marketing books. “If Meta helps them do that, they don’t care one bit about brand safety – unless this blows up into a big political issue again. It might not, so marketers won’t do a thing.”

The sentiment is underscored by Dr Karen Freberg, a professor of strategic communications at University of Louisville, who says: “Facebook and Instagram are key fundamental platforms for advertisers. Marketers may … be aware of the news, but I am not sure if it will make a drastic change for the industry.” She points out that Twitter’s decision to lift the ban on Trump’s account in November caused such a big stir among marketers advertisers that Meta’s decision to do the same may come as less of a shock.

Trump’s return may even benefit Meta’s ads business by giving the company new opportunities to serve ads to Trump devotees, says Pulizzi. Ultimately, he says, Meta “needs personalities like Trump,” who, whether through love or hate, inspire higher engagement. “With Facebook plateauing and Instagram now chasing – and copying – TikTok at every turn, Trump’s follower base is important to Meta, which is hard to believe, but I think it’s true.”

But while some users may be energized by the former president’s return to Meta platforms, others may be outraged – even to the point of quitting Facebook and Instagram, points out Ries. In this case, she says, “advertisers will need to follow them to TikTok, Snap or other platforms where they’re spending their newfound time.”

R/GA, for its part, which services major brands including Google, Samsung, Verizon and Slack, will work on “a client by client basis” to address concerns about Facebook, Instagram or any other platform, says Ries. “R/GA recommended pausing activity on Facebook and Instagram after the insurrection and won’t hesitate to do so again if another incident occurs.”

For more, sign up for The Drum’s daily US newsletter here.

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