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A major battle over free speech on social media is playing out in India during the pandemic



A major battle over free speech on social media is playing out in India during the pandemic thumbnail

As the coronavirus pandemic rages in India, claiming thousands of lives, many Indians are turning to social media to demand that the government handle the public health crisis better. And now, the government is silencing these critics in its latest threat to the future of free speech on the internet in the world’s second-most populous country.

In recent weeks, the Indian government has requested that companies like Twitter take down content that it says contains misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic. But critics say that India’s political leadership under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is using the premise of misinformation to overreach and suppress criticism of the administration’s handling of the pandemic.

A similar debate has also played out in the US around how companies like Twitter and Facebook should moderate harmful speech on their platforms, particularly when that speech comes from world leaders. But the issue has taken on an increased intensity in India, where the government is more aggressively and directly pressuring tech companies to block content it takes issue with.

“Internet companies are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” said Anupam Chander, a law professor at Georgetown University who focuses on the regulation of international speech online. “They face a government that is accusing them of essentially abetting a violation of law. At the same time, there are huge free expression concerns here.”

India is the world’s biggest democracy and has a history of robust political debate. Its constitution protects people’s rights to freedom of speech and expression — with some exceptions including for content it deems defamatory.

But under the Modi administration of the past several years, the country has expanded its internet regulation laws, giving it more power to censor and surveil its citizens online. The government has several levers to pressure US-based tech companies into compliance: It could arrest Facebook and Twitter staff in India if their employers don’t follow orders. Even further, India could yank Twitter or Facebook off the local internet in India entirely, as it recently did with TikTok and several major Chinese apps in June. And the government resorted to effectively shutting down the internet in Kashmir in February 2020 when it wanted to quiet political dissent in the region.

Now, the tension between US social media companies and the Indian government has reached an all-time high because of the fierce debate around Modi’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. And what happens next could determine whether Indians will continue to have the same kind of access to a relatively open social media environment or if the walls around what people are allowed to say online in India will close up even more. Some fear that the country may become more like China, where the government tightly controls its residents’ access to information and where US tech giants like Google and Facebook have tried — and failed — to operate successfully.

What happened with recent takedowns

In recent days, Twitter and Facebook have taken down or blocked political content that’s critical of the Indian government.

On Wednesday, Facebook confirmed that it temporarily blocked posts with a #ResignModi hashtag in India, but it later said it was a mistake because of content associated with the hashtag that violated its policies. Facebook has since restored access to the hashtag.

Facebook declined to comment on how many or what takedown requests it has received from the Indian government in recent weeks. A source familiar with the company said Facebook only took down a small portion of the total requests it received.

In sharp contrast to Facebook, Twitter is more transparent and discloses takedown requests through an outside organization, Lumen. Twitter acknowledged that the Indian government asked it to take down several dozen tweets recently, which were about the Covid-19 pandemic in India, as first reported by Indian news site MediaNama.

Recode reviewed the more than 50 tweets that Twitter blocked or deleted at the request of the Indian government in recent weeks. While some could be considered misleading — including one viral image showing devastation in India supposedly related to the pandemic which Indian fact-checker AltNews reported to be outdated — it wasn’t clear what was misleading about several other posts, which appeared to be straightforward news and political commentary.

One of the blocked tweets, for example, is a link to a Vice news article about a mass Hindu religious bathing ritual being held in the river Ganges during the most recent Covid-19 surge — which has been widely reported in other outlets as well. Another is a satirical cartoon showing a caricature of Modi making a speech over burning coffins, with the prime minister saying, “Have never seen such huge crowds at a rally.”

The Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, which issues takedown requests to social media companies on behalf of the Indian government, did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for Modi’s BJP Party also did not respond to a request for comment.

In response to Recode’s questions about how Twitter decides which posts to block or take down, a spokesperson for Twitter emailed Recode the following statement:

When we receive a valid legal request, we review it under both the Twitter Rules and local law. If the content violates Twitter’s Rules, the content will be removed from the service. If it is determined to be illegal in a particular jurisdiction, but not in violation of the Twitter Rules, we may withhold access to the content in India only.

The company also said it notified account holders directly when they receive a legal order pertaining to their account.

Many free speech advocates are quick to accuse social media companies like Twitter of too easily giving in to pressure from the Indian government. In the past, the company has taken a more aggressive and public stance against the Modi administration — such as in February when it refused to block political activists and journalists who used Twitter to criticize the Indian government’s new agricultural reforms, which many farmers in India had been protesting for months.

Now, during the pandemic, companies like Twitter are again being tested about how much they’re willing to follow the Indian government’s orders — and run the risk of being shut down entirely if they disobey them.

“It’s easy for us to say Twitter shouldn’t do this. But the question is whether it wants to continue operating in the Indian market,” said Chander. “It’s a very complicated dance.”

One route US social media companies could take is to try to contest the government’s recent takedown requests in the Indian courts, which Chander said are relatively independent of Modi.

The US government, which has a close relationship with India, could also pressure Modi’s administration to loosen its grip on social media. On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that the Indian government ordering social media companies to block posts critical of the government “certainly wouldn’t be aligned with our view of freedom of speech around the world.”

The White House has other diplomatic leverage it could use, like threatening to cut off trade agreements or other diplomatic relations between the two countries. For now, the White House is focused on the larger issue of vaccine distribution in India. This week, the administration announced — under increasing global pressure — that it will reverse course and export Covid-19 vaccine materials to the country. So far there’s been no public indication that the Biden administration is considering taking any diplomatic action around the country’s stance toward social media.

Regardless, it’s clear that there’s a growing battle between the Indian government and US social media companies. What happens next will be a sign of where the future of free speech in the country seems to be heading.

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#COVIDSOS: India Twitter paints desperate picture of COVID-19 crisis



The Conversation

Early humans used fire to permanently change the landscape tens of thousands of years ago in Stone Age Africa

Today the shoreline of Lake Malawi is open, not forested the way it was before ancient humans started modifying the landscape. Jessica Thompson, CC BY-NDFields of rust-colored soil, spindly cassava, small farms and villages dot the landscape. Dust and smoke blur the mountains visible beyond massive Lake Malawi. Here in tropical Africa, you can’t escape the signs of human presence. How far back in time would you need to go in this place to discover an entirely natural environment? Our work has shown that it would be a very long time indeed – at least 85,000 years, eight times earlier than the world’s first land transformations via agriculture. We are part of an interdisciplinary collaboration between archaeologists who study past human behavior, geochronologists who study the timing of landscape change and paleoenvironmental scientists who study ancient environments. By combining evidence from these research specialities, we have identified an instance in the very distant past of early humans bending environments to suit their needs. In doing so, they transformed the landscape around them in ways still visible today. Crew members excavate artifacts at a site in Karonga, Malawi, where stone tools are buried more than 3 feet (1 meter) below the modern ground surface. Jessica Thompson, CC BY-ND Digging for behavioral and environmental clues The dry season is the best time to do archaeological fieldwork here, and finding sites is easy. Most places we dig in these red soils, we find stone artifacts. They are evidence that someone sat and skillfully broke stones to create edges so sharp they can still draw blood. Many of these stone tools can be fit back together, reconstructing a single action by a single person, from tens of thousands of years ago. Middle Stone Age artifacts, some of which can be fit back together. Sheila Nightingale, CC BY-ND So far we’ve recovered more than 45,000 stone artifacts here, buried many feet (1 to 7 meters) below the surface of the ground. The sites we are excavating date to a time ranging from about 315,000 to 30,000 years ago known as the Middle Stone Age. This was also a period in Africa when innovations in human behavior and creativity pop up frequently – and earlier than anywhere else in the world. How did these artifacts get buried? Why are there so many of them? And what were these ancient hunter-gatherers doing as they made them? To answer these questions, we needed to figure out more about what was happening in this place during their time. The Viphya drill barge on Lake Malawi, where researchers braved waterspouts and lake fly swarms to obtain a long record of past environments. Andy Cohen, CC BY-ND For a clearer picture of the environments where these early humans lived, we turned to the fossil record preserved in layers of mud at the bottom of Lake Malawi. Over millennia, pollen blown into the water and tiny lake-dwelling organisms became trapped in layers of muck on the lake’s floor. Members of our collaborative team extracted a 1,250-foot (380-meter) drill core of mud from a modified barge, then painstakingly tallied the microscopic fossils it contained, layer by layer. They then used them to reconstruct ancient environments across the entire basin. Today, the high plateaus of northern Malawi harbor most of the remaining forests that once extended all the way to the Lake Malawi shoreline. Jessica Thompson, CC BY-ND Today, this region is characterized by bushy, fire-tolerant open woodlands that do not develop a thick and enclosed canopy. Forests that do develop these canopies harbor the richest diversity in vegetation; this ecosystem is now restricted to patches that occur at higher elevations. But these forests once stretched all the way to the lakeshore. Based on the fossil plant evidence present at various times in the drill cores, we could see that the area around Lake Malawi repeatedly alternated between wet times of forest expansion and dry periods of forest contraction. As the area underwent cycles of aridity, driven by natural climate change, the lake shrank at times to only 5% of its present volume. When lake levels eventually rose each time, forests encroached on the shoreline. This happened time and time again over the last 636,000 years. Harnessing fire to manage resources The mud in the core also contains a record of fire history, in the form of tiny fragments of charcoal. Those little flecks told us that around 85,000 years ago, something strange happened around Lake Malawi. Charcoal production spiked, erosion increased and, for the first time in more than half a million years, rainfall did not bring forest recovery. At the same time this charcoal burst appears in the drill core record, our sites began to show up in the archaeological record – eventually becoming so numerous that they formed one continuous landscape littered with stone tools. Another drill core immediately offshore showed that as site numbers increased, more and more charcoal was washing into the lake. Early humans had begun to make their first permanent mark on the landscape. Many people around the world still rely on fire for warmth, cooking, ritual and socializing – including the research crew when doing fieldwork. Jessica Thompson, CC BY-ND Fire use is a technology that stretches back at least a million years. Using it in such a transformative way is human innovation at its most powerful. Modern hunter-gatherers use fire to warm themselves, cook food and socialize, but many also deploy it as an engineering tool. Based on the wide-scale and permanent transformation of vegetation into more fire-tolerant woodlands, we infer that this was what these ancient hunter-gatherers were doing. By converting the natural seasonal rhythm of wildfire into something more controlled, people can encourage specific areas of vegetation to grow at different stages. This so-called “pyrodiversity” establishes miniature habitat patches and diversifies opportunities for foraging, kind of like increasing product selection at a supermarket. The research team exposes ancient stone tools near Karonga, Malawi. Jessica Thompson, CC BY-ND Just like today, changing any part of an ecosystem has consequences everywhere else. With the loss of closed forests in ancient Malawi, the vegetation became dominated by more open woodlands that are resilient to fire – but these did not contain the same species diversity. This combination of rainfall and reduced tree cover also increased opportunities for erosion, which spread sediments into a thick blanket known as an alluvial fan. It sealed away archaeological sites and created the landscape you can see here today. Human impacts can be sustainable Although the spread of farmers through Africa within the last few thousand years brought about more landscape and vegetation transformations, we have found that the legacy of human impacts was already in place tens of thousands of years before. This offers a chance to understand how such impacts can be sustained over very long timescales. Open woodlands have grown over alluvial fans that formed during the Middle Stone Age. Trenches such as this one at an excavation site show multiple layers of discarded artifacts over a period of tens of thousands of years. Jessica Thompson, CC BY-ND Most people associate human impacts with a time after the Industrial Revolution, but paleo-scientists have a deeper perspective. With it, researchers like us can see that wherever and whenever humans lived, we must abandon the idea of “pristine nature,” untouched by any human imprint. However, we can also see how humans shaped their environments in sustainable ways over very long periods, causing ecosystem transformation without collapse. Seeing the long arc of human influence therefore gives us much to consider about not only our past, but also our future. By establishing long-term ecological patterns, conservation efforts related to fire control, species protection and human food security can be more targeted and effective. People living in the tropics, such as Malawi today, are especially vulnerable to the economic and social impacts of food insecurity brought about by climate change. By studying the deep past, we can establish connections between long-term human presence and the biodiversity that sustains it. With this knowledge, people can be better equipped to do what humans had already innovated nearly 100,000 years ago in Africa: manage the world around us. [The Conversation’s newsletter explains what’s going on with the coronavirus pandemic. Subscribe now.]This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Jessica Thompson, Yale University; David K. Wright, University of Oslo, and Sarah Ivory, Penn State. Read more:Turbulent environment set the stage for leaps in human evolution and technology 320,000 years agoAncient leaves preserved under a mile of Greenland’s ice – and lost in a freezer for years – hold lessons about climate change Jessica Thompson has received funding for this research from the Australian Research Council, Wenner-Gren Foundation, and National Geographic Society-Waitt Foundation. She is affiliated with Yale University and the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, Arizona State University, the Paleoanthropology Society, the Society of Africanist Archaeologists, and the Society for American Archaeology. David K. Wright has received funding from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, National Geographic Foundation, Nordforsk (Nordic Council of Ministers) fund and the National Research Foundation of Korea. He is affiliated with the University of Oslo and the State Key Laboratory of Loess and Quaternary Geology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and is a member of the Society for American Archaeology and the Society of Africanist Archaeologists.Sarah Ivory receives funding from the US National Science Foundation and the Belmont Forum.

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Twitter banter ignites a focused Phil Mickelson as he takes Wells Fargo lead



<b>Twitter</b> banter ignites a focused Phil Mickelson as he takes Wells Fargo lead thumbnail

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Joel Dahmen poked the bear.

In a friendly Twitter exchange on Wednesday night, Dahmen, a winner of one PGA Tour event, ended his back and forth with World Golf Hall of Famer Phil Mickelson by writing, “I’m excited to see how my game stacks up against the best of the @ChampionsTour.”

Well, Mickelson, 50, who has won twice on the PGA Tour Champions, flexed his PGA Tour muscles playing alongside Dahmen on Thursday and fired a 7-under-par 64 to take the lead through one round of the Wells Fargo Championship at sunlit Quail Hollow.

Mickelson, a winner of 44 PGA Tour titles, including five major championships, made a lone bogey as he bested his finest round of the season by three shots. It was clearly Mickelson’s best showing in 2021; he’s missed four cuts in nine worldwide starts and his best result was a tie for 21st in the Masters.

He has not won since the 2019 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

Wells Fargo: Leaderboard | Photos | Friday tee times, TV info

“I love the banter. I think it’s funny and it kept the atmosphere in our group really light,” Mickelson said. “We laughed a bunch. We had some fun things to talk about, but we were laughing even before we teed off.

“I like how he’s able to laugh at himself and have fun with the game of golf and not take it too seriously. Lanto (Griffin) is the same way, so we had a really fun group.”

Mickelson is two clear of the field. K.H. Lee took the early clubhouse lead with a 66 and was joined there late in the day by Keegan Bradley, who finished second last week in the Valspar Championship. A large group at 67 included Tommy Fleetwood and Gary Woodland.

Bryson DeChambeau and Rory McIlroy, each playing for the first time since the Masters, turned in scores of 70 and 72, respectively.

Mickelson birdied five of six holes in one stretch. His iron play was spot on, but it was a 2-wood – a 11.5-degree 2-wood head he’s using as his 3-wood – that had him excited. But he was most pleased with his attention span.

“Just focus,” Mickelson said about the difference from Thursday and last week’s missed cut in the Valspar Championship. “I’m just present on each shot. This course holds my attention. I’ve been doing some mental exercises and so forth just to try to get my focus to elongate over five hours and so forth.

Phil Mickelson

Phil Mickelson putts for a birdie on 18 during the first round of the Wells Fargo Championship golf tournament. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

“That’s been a real struggle for me the last few years because physically, there’s nothing physically holding me back from playing at a high level, but you cannot make mistakes at this level. The guys out here are just so good, and I’ve been making a lot of errors, just simply not being mentally sharp.”

As for the “mini driver head” for his 3-wood, as he called it, Mickelson said is allows him to control the ball much better without sacrificing distance.

“Because the fairways are so firm, if I hit it low enough, I’m able to get a lot of chase out of it,” he said. “So that allows me to kind of keep my misses a lot tighter. Today I hit it very successful, I hit a lot of good shots with it. My misses that I did miss weren’t as far offline and I was able to salvage pars.

“But that club has allowed me to kind of get it in play and then let my irons take over. My irons have always been the strength of my game, I just haven’t been able to use them enough. But that club’s working really well around here.”

Mickelson has done some really fine work around Quail Hollow despite not winning here. In 16 starts, he has 10 top-10s – eight of them top-5s – and signed for just 13 rounds over par in 65 played. His 64 Thursday fell one shot shy of his best score here – a 63 in the third round in 2014.

“The course has a great mixture of holes – great birdie opportunities and some really tough holes. That keeps my attention,” he said.

Dahmen played really well around Quail Hollow, too. Playing for the first time with Mickelson – Dahmen called it a bucket list item – he shot 68. Watching Mickelson play impressed him just as much if not more.

Lesson learned 😏

— Phil Mickelson (@PhilMickelson) May 6, 2021

“Phil’s awesome. He’s a great guy,” Dahmen said. “He’s just so full of information, would be the way to put it. He’s got great stories. He’s really fun to play with. So I poked him a little bit and he played awesome today. It was incredible.

“We got in some dopamine talk, frontal lobe and dopamine, and then the units of it, which I was actually impressed with. Then he hit a 6‑iron to three feet, so he must have had his dopamine correct on that one.”

He had whatever was working correctly on a lot of iron shots.

“The iron play today was incredible,” Dahmen said. “I don’t know what the stats are going to show, but he hit so many great shots inside of what seemed like six feet, and obviously he can chip it and pitch it unbelievably, and he made all his putts today. He has this new 2‑wood thing. He was kind of hitting his dink cut, he was calling it, past my driver all day and that’s impressive.

“If he plays like this, he can play anywhere at any time against anybody.”

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Users went from loving to hating Twitter’s reduced image crops in 24 hours. Because it’s Twitter



Users went from loving to hating <b>Twitter's</b> reduced image crops in 24 hours. Because it's <b>Twitter</b> thumbnail

I know it’s shocking to hear, but people are dissatisfied on Twitter—and they’re letting everyone on the service know it. This latest round of dissatisfaction isn’t about the state of the world or politicians or anything of the like—it’s about Twitter itself. Or, specifically, a change Twitter introduced last night that many users had been asking for for years.

Last night the company announced that it was finally expanding the crop of images users on iPhones and Android devices see in their feed. This crop traditionally cut off a significant portion of an image a user posted in a tweet, meaning Twitter users had to stop scrolling and tap the image in order to see most of what was in it.

With the new reduced crop change, users can now keep scrolling through their feed without having to stop and tap to see an image in all its full glory. And as you would expect, at first Twitter users loved this.

However, by the morning after, the tone on Twitter changed. Many were now dissatisfied with Twitter’s crop changes because it ruined a specific type of tweet many on the platform enjoyed: the “open for surprise” tweet.

The “open for surprise” tweet relied on Twitter’s aggressive cropping of photos. This aggressive cropping meant you couldn’t see the main (sometimes funny or shocking) subject of a photo until you tapped to open it fully. For example:

But now that Twitter’s reduced image crop shows a majority of the photo without the need to tap to expand it, the era of “open for surprise” tweets are over (at least on mobile—but Twitter says reduced crops will soon come to the web as well). And that doesn’t sit well with many Twitter users.

If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that you can’t please everyone on Twitter, which means Twitter, the company, can never fully win no matter what changes or improvements it decides to implement.

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