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Regulating Online Hate Will Have Unintended, but Predictable, Consequences

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The Canadian government is currently holding consultations on a new online hate bill. This bill would update Bill C-36, which addresses hate propaganda, hate crimes and hate speech; the amendment died following the election call last year.

Hate propagated on social media and other online spaces has grown exponentially in the past couple of years, driven to a significant degree by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The occupation of Ottawa earlier this year by the so-called “freedom convoy” also exposed an increasingly worrisome relationship between online and offline environments.

Making things worse It is difficult to argue against the motivations for the proposed anti-hate bill. At the same time, the discourse around the proposed bill is rapidly becoming fraught. There are serious concerns about the scope and unexamined assumptions of the bill which will result in legislation that is overly broad and unwieldy.

While the perceived imperative to “do something” about hate speech is understandable, the bill runs the very real risk of making things considerably worse.

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First, there is danger in using euphemisms such as “de-platforming” and “content moderation,” which circumvent tricky discussions over censorship. We have to be honest about the fact that we are talking about censorship.

Rather than get bogged down by more philosophical concerns, we should instead be concerned about practical ramifications. Specifically, the very real likelihood that attempts to silence particular voices will only succeed in exacerbating the issues we are trying to address.

We must be wary of the law of unintended consequences, which addresses the unforeseen outcomes of legislation and policies.

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Overt silencing will only serve to substantiate foundational far-right narratives, which include: “The government is out to get us” and “Our ideas are so dangerous, the government has to suppress them.” This, in turn, further animates and perpetuates the movement.

These attempts also expose the inherent hypocrisy of censorship, which is that it is not censorship if enough people disapprove of the intended target. The far-right will seize upon this sentiment and offer it as further corroboration, and will use it to amplify their calls for fundamental social change.

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We must avoiding feeding these narratives.

Second, consideration must be given to the vulnerable groups that are most often the targets of hateful speech. It has been argued, and quite correctly, that particular communities — including visible minorities, Indigenous and LGBTQIA2S+ people, immigrants and refugees — are disproportionately harmed by, and deserve to be shielded from, far-right invective. Unfortunately, the potential dangers for these people by the new bill have received insufficient attention.

Members of vulnerable communities have expressed concern that the bill’s provisions could be used to limit their online freedoms. This fear is grounded in fact, as historically, they have been disproportionately targeted for control by law enforcement. The thorny gap between best-laid plans on one side, and the realities of implementation and enforcement on the other, brings us back around to the law of unintended consequences.

Third, much of the discussion around the bill makes unrealistic assumptions about the capabilities of the tech companies that manage social media platforms. Contrary to popular belief, big tech does not have the capabilities to easily identify and remove specific content. Relying on purely technological solutions massively underestimates — and betrays a worrisome lack of understanding regarding — the difficulties in moderating language.

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Considerable research, including work one of the authors (Garth) has conducted with criminologists Richard Frank and Ryan Scrivens, has revealed that the far-right ecosystem is marked by an essentially distinct, coded language that is constantly evolving. This work has similarly highlighted the challenges of trying to identify specifically violent language.

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Apart from the fact that they don’t want it, we should be leery of turning over editorial control to private corporations. So far, their efforts have been chequered and may best be described as suspect. Any faith that this could be addressed through an over-reaching legislative framework is woefully misplaced.

This is not an argument for a social media “free-for-all.” It has long been evident that the anything-goes ethos underlying the earliest incarnations of the internet both comically and tragically failed to anticipate the toxic quagmire that it has become. Certain online content must be (and in most cases already is) prohibited, including threatening and promoting violence.

But when we come to efforts to restrict content that could lead to violence, we find ourselves standing on much thinner ice. Of course legislation has a role to play. And yes, tech companies should be part of the discourse aimed at finding solutions.

However, as the past 20 years have demonstrated, we cannot kill or arrest our way out of violent extremism, nor can we moderate or de-platform our way out of it. Hate speech is a social problem that requires social responses. In the interim, we must guard against unintended consequences of attempts to address online hate speech and refrain from feeding far-right narratives. 

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Twitter Stops Enforcing COVID-19 Misinformation Policy, Experts Express Concerns Over False Claims

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Twitter will no longer enforce its policy against COVID-19 misinformation, raising concerns among public health experts and social media researchers that the change could have serious consequences if it discourages vaccination and other efforts to combat the still-spreading virus.

Eagle-eyed users spotted the change Monday night, noting that a one-sentence update had been made to Twitter’s online rules: “Effective November 23, 2022, Twitter is no longer enforcing the COVID-19 misleading information policy.”

By Tuesday, some Twitter accounts were testing the new boundaries and celebrating the platform’s hands-off approach, which comes after Twitter was purchased by Elon Musk.

“This policy was used to silence people across the world who questioned the media narrative surrounding the virus and treatment options,” tweeted Dr. Simone Gold, a physician and leading purveyor of COVID-19 misinformation. “A win for free speech and medical freedom!”

Twitter’s decision to no longer remove false claims about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines disappointed public health officials, however, who said it could lead to more false claims about the virus, or the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.

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“Bad news,” tweeted epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding, who urged people not to flee Twitter but to keep up the fight against bad information about the virus. “Stay folks — do NOT cede the town square to them!”

While Twitter’s efforts to stop false claims about COVID weren’t perfect, the company’s decision to reverse course is an abdication of its duty to its users, said Paul Russo, a social media researcher and dean of the Katz School of Science and Health at Yeshiva University in New York.

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Russo added that it’s the latest of several recent moves by Twitter that could ultimately scare away some users and even advertisers. Some big names in business have already paused their ads on Twitter over questions about its direction under Musk.

“It is 100% the responsibility of the platform to protect its users from harmful content,” Russo said. “This is absolutely unacceptable.”

The virus, meanwhile, continues to spread. Nationally, new COVID cases averaged nearly 38,800 a day as of Monday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University — far lower than last winter but a vast undercount because of reduced testing and reporting. About 28,100 people with COVID were hospitalized daily and about 313 died, according to the most recent federal daily averages.

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Cases and deaths were up from two weeks earlier. Yet a fifth of the U.S. population hasn’t been vaccinated, most Americans haven’t gotten the latest boosters, and many have stopped wearing masks.

Musk, who has himself spread COVID misinformation on Twitter, has signalled an interest in rolling back many of the platform’s previous rules meant to combat misinformation.

Last week, Musk said he would grant “amnesty” to account holders who had been kicked off Twitter. He’s also reinstated the accounts for several people who spread COVID misinformation, including that of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose personal account was suspended this year for repeatedly violating Twitter’s COVID rules.

Greene’s most recent tweets include ones questioning the effectiveness of masks and making baseless claims about the safety of COVID vaccines.

Since the pandemic began, platforms like Twitter and Facebook have struggled to respond to a torrent of misinformation about the virus, its origins and the response to it.

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Under the policy enacted in January 2020, Twitter prohibited false claims about COVID-19 that the platform determined could lead to real-world harms. More than 11,000 accounts were suspended for violating the rules, and nearly 100,000 pieces of content were removed from the platform, according to Twitter’s latest numbers.

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Despite its rules prohibiting COVID misinformation, Twitter has struggled with enforcement. Posts making bogus claims about home remedies or vaccines could still be found, and it was difficult on Tuesday to identify exactly how the platform’s rules may have changed.

Messages left with San Francisco-based Twitter seeking more information about its policy on COVID-19 misinformation were not immediately returned Tuesday.

A search for common terms associated with COVID misinformation on Tuesday yielded lots of misleading content, but also automatic links to helpful resources about the virus as well as authoritative sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 coordinator, said Tuesday that the problem of COVID-19 misinformation is far larger than one platform, and that policies prohibiting COVID misinformation weren’t the best solution anyway.

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Speaking at a Knight Foundation forum Tuesday, Jha said misinformation about the virus spread for a number of reasons, including legitimate uncertainty about a deadly illness. Simply prohibiting certain kinds of content isn’t going to help people find good information, or make them feel more confident about what they’re hearing from their medical providers, he said.

“I think we all have a collective responsibility,” Jha said of combating misinformation about COVID. “The consequences of not getting this right — of spreading that misinformation — is literally tens of thousands of people dying unnecessarily.”


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Elon Musk Hints at Plans to Increase Character Limit for Tweets in Response to Twitter User

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Twitter could expand its character limit from 280, according to a tweet by new owner Elon Musk. The world’s richest man and Twitter’s new CEO responded to a user on the microblogging platform requesting the higher character limit, stating that it was part of the company’s plan. Twitter is also working on adding encrypted direct messages (DMs), and payment services, according a set of slides recently shared by Musk on Twitter. However, it is currently unclear whether the increased character limit will be the same as the longform tweet feature teased by the company’s CEO.

On Monday, Musk responded to a Twitter user asking him to expand the 280-character limit for on tweets on Twitter to 1,000 characters. Musk responded, stating :It’s on the todo list.”

Twitter, which is referred to as a “microblogging service”, originally had a 140-character limit for tweets, which was expanded to 280 characters in 2017. At the time, the company’s blog stated that “many people Tweeted the full 280 limit because it was new and novel, but soon after behaviour normalised…We saw when people needed to use more than 140 characters, they Tweeted more easily and more often.”

The platform is one of the few services that limits users’ posts to a few hundred characters. Rival Facebook allow users to upload posts with thousands of characters.

Musk has shown interest in the idea of increasing the character limit on a number of occasions since his takeover of the platform, as per a report by Mashable.

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On November 27, a Twitter user suggested to Musk to increase the platform’s word limit from 280 to 420. “Good idea” Musk wrote in response.

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Prior to that, another user had suggested “get rid of character limits,” to which Musk responded: “Absolutely”.

Musk recently announced another major change for the platform with its multi-coloured verification system. A new three-coloured verification check mark system would replace the previous ‘Twitter Blue’ service which had to be pulled off within days of its release due to rising number of accounts impersonating well-known brands and personalities while carrying the ‘verified’ check. The new Twitter Blue verification service will tentatively be relaunched on December 2, according to Musk.


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WhatsApp ‘Message Yourself’ Feature Rolling Out on Android and iOS: Report

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WhatsApp is rolling out its Message Yourself feature to users globally. The app will now let you send a text to yourself, to store messages and files. Many users around the globe rely on WhatsApp chats to jot down quick notes or reminders, or crucial information. Until now, users would use a workaround to message themselves, or use a second WhatsApp account registered to another phone number, or rely on a chat window of a defunct WhatsApp account to store messages. WhatsApp will now let you do it easily via one of its new in-built features called Message Yourself.

According to a report by TechCrunch, the Meta owned messaging app has begun to roll out the ability to message yourself. The ‘Message Yourself’ feature will be similar to sending a text to another user, except that the message will remain in a separate chat on your phone.

Once the feature is rolled out, users will see a separate chat with their name followed by “(You)”. You will be able to jot down notes, shopping lists, keep reminders, store bookmarks. You will also be able to forward messages from other users, just like you can for other chats.

You can tap on the new chat button from the WhatsApp home screen and select your name. Once you tap on it, you will be able to send texts to yourself. If you are in another app, you can also use the sharing menu to send files, images, and other media to yourself.

WhatsApp says that the Message Yourself feature is now rolling out and should reach most Android and iOS users in the coming weeks, as per the report. Users can download the latest version of the app on Android and iOS to use the Message Yourself feature.

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Recently, the messaging app also introduced a new feature that will let iOS and Android users create polls in personal and group chats to get opinions or answers from their friends and contacts. Users’ responses to a poll’s question are protected via end-to-end encryption, according to the company.

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