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Will the Capitol Riots Prompt a Re-Think as to How Social Platforms Address Free Speech?



will the capitol riots prompt a re think as to how social platforms address free speech

Will the events of this week mark a turning point for social media platforms and their approach to content moderation and censorship, particularly around dangerous movements and politically motivated debate?

Following the riots at the Capitol building on Wednesday, which had been instigated, at least in part, by US President Donald Trump, who had called on his supporters to mobilize, and even fight for him, in a last-ditch attempt to overturn the election result, all of the major social platforms took action against the President and his avid supporters, in varying ways.

Many believe that these actions were long overdue, given Trump’s history of using social media as a megaphone for his divisive agenda, but others have rightly noted that this was the first time that the resulting violence could be directly tied to social media itself.

There’s been a range of previous movements, like QAnon, which have been linked to criminal acts, but the actual role that social media has played in facilitating such has been up for debate. That’s somewhat similar to Russian interference in the 2016 US Election – we know now that Russian-based groups did seek to interfere, and influence voter actions in the lead up to the poll. But did those efforts actually work? Did people really change their voting behavior as a result? The actual impact is difficult to accurately measure.

This week’s Capitol riots, however, can be clearly and directly linked to social media activity

As explained by ProPublica:

For weeks, the far-right supporters of President Donald Trump railed on social media that the election had been stolen. They openly discussed the idea of violent protest on the day Congress met to certify the result.”

The specific details of their planned action are also tied into Trump’s social posts – for example, after Trump tweeted:

Trump tweet about Pence

The focus of the protesters turned to VP Pence, with various reports suggesting that they intended to kidnap or hold Pence hostage in order to force Congress to reinstate the President.

This was the first time where the full plan of action, from inception to outcome, was traceable via social posts and activity, with the President actively playing a part in provoking and inciting the mob. Which is why the platforms moved to stronger mitigation efforts in response – but does that mean they’ll look to change how they view similar incidents in future?

In many ways, Trump himself is an anomaly, a hugely popular celebrity turned politician, who then used his celebrity status to share his messaging via social platforms. Having a well-known personality become a politician is not uncommon, so it’s not an entirely new approach, but the way Trump weaponized his social media following was different to what we’ve ever seen.

As Trump himself told Fox Business in 2017:

I doubt I would be here if it weren’t for social media, to be honest with you. […] When somebody says something about me, I’m able to go bing, bing, bing and I take care of it. The other way, I would never be get the word out.”

In this way, Trump essentially used social platforms as his own propaganda outlet, deriding any stories negative of him and his administration as being ‘fake news’, while any positive coverage was 100% accurate. This lead to various contradictions – one week, The New York Times was ‘the enemy of the people’, publishing false information at will, then the next, when it posted a poll in his favor, it was acceptable once again. 

Yet, despite these inconsistencies, Trump’s supporters lapped it up, and over time, he’s been able to use his social media presence to build a cult-like empire, which eventually lead to him being able to effectively incite a coup in an attempt to keep himself in power. This is despite there being no solid evidence to support his claims of massive voter fraud, which, in Trump’s view, invalidates the election result.

Trump’s approach is been different to what we’ve seen in the past – but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen again. And if it does, will the social platforms look to take a tougher stand earlier on? Will they now see that the end result of taking a more ‘hands-off’ approach is more dangerous than actually addressing such issues in their initial stages?

A key example here is QAnon – as far back as 2016, various experts had warned Facebook about the dangers posed by the ‘pizzagate’ conspiracy movement, which had been gaining momentum and support across its platforms. Facebook refused to take action, citing its ‘free speech’ ethos, and that initial seed then evolved into a more organized movement, which then morphed into the QAnon group. An internal investigation conducted by Facebook last year found that the platform had provided a home for thousands of QAnon groups and Pages, with millions of members and followers. And as threats of violence and dangerous activity were increasingly linked to the group, Facebook finally chose to act, first cracking down on QAnon groups in August last year, before announcing a full ban on QAnon-related content in October.

Facebook will argue that it acted based on the evidence it saw, and in line with its evolving approach to such. But it does seem likely that, had Facebook sought to take a stronger stance in those initial stages, QAnon may not have ever been able to develop the momentum that it did. And while QAnon was only one of the many groups at play in the Capitol riot, you could argue that the situation could have been avoided had there been a more concentrated effort to draw a line on misinformation and dangerous speech much earlier in the piece.

Yet at the same time, Facebook has been calling for a more comprehensive approach to such – as noted by Instagram chief Adam Mosseri this week:

“We, at Facebook and Instagram, have been clear for years that we believe regulation around harmful content would be a good thing. That gets tricky when elected officials start violating rules, but is still an idea worth pursuing.”

Facebook itself has implemented its own, independent Oversight Board to assist with content decisions, a team of experts from a range of fields that will help the company implement better approaches to content moderation, and rulings on what should and should not be allowed on its platforms.

The Oversight Board has only just begun, and it’s still an experiment in many respects, and we don’t know what sort of impact it’ll end up having. But Facebook sees this as a micro-example of what the entire industry should be seeking.

Again from Mosseri:

“We’ve suggested third-party bodies to set standards for harmful content and to measure companies against those standards. Regulation could set baselines for what’s allowed and require companies to build systems accordingly.”

In Facebook’s view, it shouldn’t be up to the platforms themselves to rule on what’s allowed in this respect, it should come down to a panel of independent experts to establish parameters for all platforms, in order to ensure uniformity in approach, and lessen the burden of censorship on private organizations – which clearly have different motivations based on business strategy. 

In some ways, this means that Facebook is agreeing with critics that it hasn’t adequately addressed such concerns, because it’s working to balance different goals, while it’s also learning as it goes in many respects. No company has ever been in Facebook’s situation before, serving over 2.7 billion users, in virtually every region of the world, and when you’re working to monitor the actions of so many people, in so many different places, with so many different concerns, inevitably, things are going to slip through the cracks.

But at that scale, when things do slip, the consequences, as we’ve seen, can be significant. And many also overlook, or are unaware of the impacts that Facebook has had in smaller Asian and African regions, where it’s also seen as a major influential factor in local politics, elections, unrest, etc.

Maybe now, however, with the scenes playing out on the doorstep of American democracy, with Senators locked in their offices to avoid the violence. Maybe now, there’ll be an increased push for change, and to implement more stringent rules around what action needs to be taken to stamp out concerning movements before they can take root.

Whether that comes from the platforms themselves, or via increased external regulation, the Capitol riots could be a turning point for social media more broadly.

Of course, there will always be those who seek to push the limits, no matter where those limits are set, and there will always be elements that ride the line, and could easily veer into more dangerous territory. But it seems clear now that something must be done, with the weaponization of social media posing major risks. 

Will that spark a new debate around the limits of free speech, and the responsibility of big tech? It seems like now is the time to ask the big questions.

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Paris mayor to stop using ‘global sewer’ X



Hidalgo called Twitter a 'vast global sewer'

Hidalgo called Twitter a ‘vast global sewer’ – Copyright POOL/AFP Leon Neal

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said on Monday she was quitting Elon Musk’s social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, which she described as a “global sewer” and a tool to disrupt democracy.

“I’ve made the decision to leave X,” Hidalgo said in an op-ed in French newspaper Le Monde. “X has in recent years become a weapon of mass destruction of our democracies”, she wrote.

The 64-year-old Socialist, who unsuccessfully stood for the presidency in 2022, joined Twitter as it was then known in 2009 and has been a frequent user of the platform.

She accused X of promoting “misinformation”, “anti-Semitism and racism.”

“The list of abuses is endless”, she added. “This media has become a vast global sewer.”

Since Musk took over Twitter in 2022, a number of high-profile figures said they were leaving the popular social platform, but there has been no mass exodus.

Several politicians including EU industry chief Thierry Breton have announced that they are opening accounts on competing networks in addition to maintaining their presence on X.

The City of Paris account will remain on X, the mayor’s office told AFP.

By contrast, some organisations have taken the plunge, including the US public radio network NPR, or the German anti-discrimination agency.

Hidalgo has regularly faced personal attacks on social media including Twitter, as well as sometimes criticism over the lack of cleanliness and security in Paris.

In the latest furore, she has faced stinging attacks over an October trip to the French Pacific territories of New Caledonia and French Polynesia that was not publicised at the time and that she extended with a two-week personal vacation.

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Meta Highlights Key Platform Manipulation Trends in Latest ‘Adversarial Threat Report’



Meta Highlights Key Platform Manipulation Trends in Latest ‘Adversarial Threat Report’

While talk of a possible U.S.  ban of TikTok has been tempered of late, concerns still linger around the app, and the way that it could theoretically be used by the Chinese Government to implement varying forms of data tracking and messaging manipulation in Western regions.

The latter was highlighted again this week, when Meta released its latest “Adversarial Threat Report,” which includes an overview of Meta’s latest detections, as well as a broader summary of its efforts throughout the year.

And while the data shows that Russia and Iran remain the most common source regions for coordinated manipulation programs, China is third on that list, with Meta shutting down almost 5,000 Facebook profiles linked to a Chinese-based manipulation program in Q3 alone.

As explained by Meta:

“We removed 4,789 Facebook accounts for violating our policy against coordinated inauthentic behavior. This network originated in China and targeted the United States. The individuals behind this activity used basic fake accounts with profile pictures and names copied from elsewhere on the internet to post and befriend people from around the world. They posed as Americans to post the same content across different platforms. Some of these accounts used the same name and profile picture on Facebook and X (formerly Twitter). We removed this network before it was able to gain engagement from authentic communities on our apps.”

Meta says that this group aimed to sway discussion around both U.S. and China policy by both sharing news stories, and engaging with posts related to specific issues.

“They also posted links to news articles from mainstream US media and reshared Facebook posts by real people, likely in an attempt to appear more authentic. Some of the reshared content was political, while other covered topics like gaming, history, fashion models, and pets. Unusually, in mid-2023 a small portion of this network’s accounts changed names and profile pictures from posing as Americans to posing as being based in India when they suddenly began liking and commenting on posts by another China-origin network focused on India and Tibet.”

Meta further notes that it took down more Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior (CIB) groups from China than any other region in 2023, reflecting the rising trend of Chinese operators looking to infiltrate Western networks.  

“The latest operations typically posted content related to China’s interests in different regions worldwide. For example, many of them praised China, some of them defended its record on human rights in Tibet and Xinjiang, others attacked critics of the Chinese government around the world, and posted about China’s strategic rivalry with the U.S. in Africa and Central Asia.”

Google, too, has repeatedly removed large clusters of YouTube accounts of Chinese origin that had been seeking to build audiences in the app, in order to then seed pro-China sentiment.

The largest coordinated group identified by Google is an operation known as “Dragonbridge” which has long been the biggest originator of manipulative efforts across its apps.

As you can see in this chart, Google removed more than 50,000 instances of Dragonbridge activity across YouTube, Blogger and AdSense in 2022 alone, underlining the persistent efforts of Chinese groups to sway Western audiences.

So these groups, whether they’re associated with the CCP or not, are already looking to infiltrate Western-based networks. Which underlines the potential threat of TikTok in the same respect, given that it’s controlled by a Chinese owner, and therefore likely more directly accessible to these operators.

That’s partly why TikTok is already banned on government-owned devices in most regions, and why cybersecurity experts continue to sound the alarm about the app, because if the above figures reflect the level of activity that non-Chinese platforms are already seeing, you can only imagine that, as TikTok’s influence grows, it too will be high on the list of distribution for the same material.

And we don’t have the same level of transparency into TikTok’s enforcement efforts, nor do we have a clear understanding of parent company ByteDance’s links to the CCP.

Which is why the threat of a possible TikTok ban remains, and will linger for some time yet, and could still spill over if there’s a shift in U.S./China relations.

One other point of note from Meta’s Adversarial Threat Report is its summary of AI usage for such activity, and how it’s changing over time.

X owner Elon Musk has repeatedly pointed to the rise of generative AI as a key vector for increased bot activity, because spammers will be able to create more complex, harder to detect bot accounts through such tools. That’s why X is pushing towards payment models as a means to counter bot profile mass production.

And while Meta does agree that AI tools will enable threat actors to create larger volumes of convincing content, it also says that it hasn’t seen evidence “that it will upend our industry’s efforts to counter covert influence operations” at this stage.

Meta also makes this interesting point:

“For sophisticated threat actors, content generation hasn’t been a primary challenge. They rather struggle with building and engaging authentic audiences they seek to influence. This is why we have focused on identifying adversarial behaviors and tactics used to drive engagement among real people. Disrupting these behaviors early helps to ensure that misleading AI content does not play a role in covert influence operations. Generative AI is also unlikely to change this dynamic.”

So it’s not just content that they need, but interesting, engaging material, and because generative AI is based on everything that’s come before, it’s not necessarily built to establish new trends, which would then help these bot accounts build an audience.

These are some interesting notes on the current threat landscape, and how coordinated groups are still looking to use digital platforms to spread their messaging. Which will likely never stop, but it is worth noting where these groups originate from, and what that means for related discussion.

You can read Meta’s Q3 “Adversarial Threat Report” here.

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US judge halts pending TikTok ban in Montana



TikTok use has continued to grow apace despite a growing number of countries banning the app from government devices

TikTok use has continued to grow apace despite a growing number of countries banning the app from government devices. — © POOL/AFP Liam McBurney

A federal judge on Thursday temporarily blocked a ban on TikTok set to come into effect next year in Montana, saying the popular video sharing app was likely to win its pending legal challenge.

US District Court Judge Donald Molloy placed the injunction on the ban until the case, originally filed by TikTok in May, has been ruled on its merits.

Molloy deemed it likely TikTok and its users will win, since it appeared the Montana law not only violates free speech rights but runs counter to the fact that foreign policy matters are the exclusive domain of the federal government.

“The current record leaves little doubt that Montana’s legislature and attorney general were more interested in targeting China’s ostensible role in TikTok than they with protecting Montana consumers,” Molloy said in the ruling.

The app is owned by Chinese firm ByteDance and has been accused by a wide swathe of US politicians of being under Beijing’s tutelage, something the company furiously denies.

Montana’s law says the TikTok ban will become void if the app is acquired by a company incorporated in a country not designated by the United States as a foreign adversary.

TikTok had argued that the unprecedented ban violates constitutionally protected right to free speech.

The prohibition signed into law by Republican Governor Greg Gianforte is seen as a legal test for a national ban of the Chinese-owned platform, something lawmakers in Washington are increasingly calling for.

Montana’s ban would be the first to come into effect in the United States – Copyright AFP Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV

The ban would make it a violation each time “a user accesses TikTok, is offered the ability to access TikTok, or is offered the ability to download TikTok.”

Each violation is punishable by a $10,000 fine every day it takes place.

Under the law, Apple and Google will have to remove TikTok from their app stores.

State political leaders have “trampled on the free speech of hundreds of thousands of Montanans who use the app to express themselves, gather information, and run their small business in the name of anti-Chinese sentiment,” ACLU Montana policy director Keegan Medrano said after the bill was signed.

The law is yet another skirmish in duels between TikTok and many western governments, with the app already banned on government devices in the United States, Canada and several countries in Europe.

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