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Hate Crimes in US: Experts Highlight Increasing Online Videos on Gun Violence to Spread Radicalisation

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The young man in the jeans and sunglasses proudly shows off his gun in the YouTube video, then instructs his 1 million subscribers how to fit an extra clip in his gun belt, and offers a chilling observation.

“Pretty cool for active shooter stuff, if you need extra mags.”

It’s a typical video, one of thousands teaching military-style training and tactics to civilian gun owners, offering instructions on silencers and grenade launchers, on shooting from vehicles or into buildings. Other websites sell ghost gun kits, gas masks and body armour.

“You shouldn’t be scared of the NRA. You should be scared of us,” one online ghost gun dealer Tweeted last week.

As Americans reel from repeated mass shootings, law enforcement officials and experts on extremism are taking increasing notice of the sprawling online space devoted to guns and gun rights: gun forums, tactical training videos, websites that sell unregistered gun kits and social media platforms where far-right gun owners swap practical tips with talk of dark plots to take their weapons.

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It’s an ecosystem rich with potential recruits for extremist groups exploiting the often blurry line separating traditional support for a Constitutional right from militant anti-government movements that champion racism and violence.

White supremacists have carried out most of the deadliest attacks on US soil in the last five years, including a 2018 shooting inside a Pittsburgh synagogue and a 2019 rampage in which a gunman targeting Hispanics inside a Texas Walmart killed 23 people.

The gunman who perpetrated last month’s rampage in Buffalo, for example, claimed in a rambling racist diatribe that he was radicalised when pandemic boredom led him to far-right social media groups and tactical training videos he found online.

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One of the companies specifically cited by the gunman sells firearm accessories and operates popular social media channels boasting hundreds of training videos. The videos cover topics like shooting from cars, assaulting a building, using gas masks while shooting, and night vision goggles.

“I think we’re going to see an increase in these kinds of attacks,” said Kurt Braddock, a professor and extremism researcher at the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University. “Until we’re able to figure out a way to address this, this kind of disinformation is going to keep spreading, and with it the risk of increased radicalisation and violence.”

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Elected leaders in some states are considering how to address the internet’s role in radicalising extremists. New York lawmakers, for example, recently introduced legislation to require social media companies to set policies on “hateful conduct” and to create mechanisms for users to report disturbing posts they may read.

New York Attorney General Letitia James initiated an investigation into some of the platforms used by the Buffalo gunman, who streamed his attack on Twitch, which is owned by Amazon. Twitch pulled the livestream after about two minutes.

Federal authorities have also taken notice, increasing funding for investigations into domestic terrorism, a challenge that FBI Director Christopher Wray last year described as “metastasizing.” But there’s little law enforcement can do but monitor as extremists use the threat of gun control to recruit new members.

Extremists paint any effort to regulate firearms as the prelude to widespread gun seizures, according to Callum Hood, director of research at the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a UK-based organisation that researches online extremism and abuse.

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“The message quickly becomes ‘the government is coming to take your guns and leave you undefended,’” Hood said. That’s despite the obvious political challenges that even modest attempts at gun control face in the US. Despite a long and growing list of mass shootings, gun rights have not been restricted in any significant way in the US in decades.

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Rather than be under threat, guns are flourishing. Since the year 2000, the year after Columbine school shooting in Colorado, the number of firearms manufactured in the US has tripled. There are now an estimated 400 million guns in the US — more than one for everyone in the country — giving the nation the world’s highest gun ownership rate.

Gun manufacturers and industry groups like the National Rifle Association bear some responsibility for unfounded conspiracy theories about federal plots to seize American’s guns, according to Braddock.

“What’s the first rule in salesmanship? It’s to create the need for the item. We think about guns as something different – and they are because they’re instruments of violence – but they’re also commodities sold in huge quantities,” Braddock said. “They’re creating the illusion of need.”

Contacted by the Associated Press, one website selling ghost gun kits responded with a statement saying “all questions” about regulating firearms amount to “naked attempts to disarm traditional Americans, weaponize the government against them, and subject them to the ignorant and vicious tools of federal power.”

While some of the creators of tactical training videos posted on platforms like YouTube say their intended audience is law enforcement, others say their subscriber base is mostly those looking to arm themselves against the government.

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Despite their alarm, law enforcement officials and experts on extremism caution there’s little to do about the growing online spaces devoted to military-style weaponry unless they find evidence of illegal gun sales or other crimes.

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For their part, tech companies and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter say they have rules to prohibit violent threats, hate speech and other content that poses a direct harm. Some platforms also prohibit the sale of firearms.

Further restrictions on content about guns or even extremism will only backfire anyway, according to Amy Cooter, an expert on militias. While efforts to ban users might be successful in the short term, they’re bound to fail as those users flee to other platforms with less moderation.

“If we want to reduce the size of the movement, de-platforming is really effective,” Cooter said. “But If we want to de-radicalise it, it is not. The most extreme elements will find other ways to stay connected.”


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Twitter Under Elon Musk Leaning on Automation to Moderate Content Against Hate Speech

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Elon Musk’s Twitter is leaning heavily on automation to moderate content, doing away with certain manual reviews and favoring restrictions on distribution rather than removing certain speech outright, its new head of trust and safety told Reuters.

Twitter is also more aggressively restricting abuse-prone hashtags and search results in areas including child exploitation, regardless of potential impacts on “benign uses” of those terms, said Twitter Vice President of Trust and Safety Product Ella Irwin.

“The biggest thing that’s changed is the team is fully empowered to move fast and be as aggressive as possible,” Irwin said on Thursday, in the first interview a Twitter executive has given since Musk’s acquisition of the social media company in late October.

Her comments come as researchers are reporting a surge in hate speech on the social media service, after Musk announced an amnesty for accounts suspended under the company’s previous leadership that had not broken the law or engaged in “egregious spam.”

The company has faced pointed questions about its ability and willingness to moderate harmful and illegal content since Musk slashed half of Twitter’s staff and issued an ultimatum to work long hours that resulted in the loss of hundreds more employees.

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And advertisers, Twitter’s main revenue source, have fled the platform over concerns about brand safety.

On Friday, Musk vowed “significant reinforcement of content moderation and protection of freedom of speech” in a meeting with France President Emmanuel Macron.

Irwin said Musk encouraged the team to worry less about how their actions would affect user growth or revenue, saying safety was the company’s top priority. “He emphasizes that every single day, multiple times a day,” she said.

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The approach to safety Irwin described at least in part reflects an acceleration of changes that were already being planned since last year around Twitter’s handling of hateful conduct and other policy violations, according to former employees familiar with that work.

One approach, captured in the industry mantra “freedom of speech, not freedom of reach,” entails leaving up certain tweets that violate the company’s policies but barring them from appearing in places like the home timeline and search.

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Twitter has long deployed such “visibility filtering” tools around misinformation and had already incorporated them into its official hateful conduct policy before the Musk acquisition. The approach allows for more freewheeling speech while cutting down on the potential harms associated with viral abusive content.

The number of tweets containing hateful content on Twitter rose sharply in the week before Musk tweeted on November 23 that impressions, or views, of hateful speech were declining, according to the Center for Countering Digital Hate – in one example of researchers pointing to the prevalence of such content, while Musk touts a reduction in visibility.

Tweets containing words that were anti-Black that week were triple the number seen in the month before Musk took over, while tweets containing a gay slur were up 31%, the researchers said.

‘More risks, move fast’

Irwin, who joined the company in June and previously held safety roles at other companies including Amazon.com and Google, pushed back on suggestions that Twitter did not have the resources or willingness to protect the platform.

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She said layoffs did not significantly impact full-time employees or contractors working on what the company referred to as its “Health” divisions, including in “critical areas” like child safety and content moderation.

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Two sources familiar with the cuts said that more than 50 percent of the Health engineering unit was laid off. Irwin did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the assertion, but previously denied that the Health team was severely impacted by layoffs.

She added that the number of people working on child safety had not changed since the acquisition, and that the product manager for the team was still there. Irwin said Twitter backfilled some positions for people who left the company, though she declined to provide specific figures for the extent of the turnover.

She said Musk was focused on using automation more, arguing that the company had in the past erred on the side of using time- and labor-intensive human reviews of harmful content.

“He’s encouraged the team to take more risks, move fast, get the platform safe,” she said.

On child safety, for instance, Irwin said Twitter had shifted toward automatically taking down tweets reported by trusted figures with a track record of accurately flagging harmful posts.

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Carolina Christofoletti, a threat intelligence researcher at TRM Labs who specializes in child sexual abuse material, said she has noticed Twitter recently taking down some content as fast as 30 seconds after she reports it, without acknowledging receipt of her report or confirmation of its decision.

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In the interview on Thursday, Irwin said Twitter took down about 44,000 accounts involved in child safety violations, in collaboration with cybersecurity group Ghost Data.

Twitter is also restricting hashtags and search results frequently associated with abuse, like those aimed at looking up “teen” pornography. Past concerns about the impact of such restrictions on permitted uses of the terms were gone, she said.

The use of “trusted reporters” was “something we’ve discussed in the past at Twitter, but there was some hesitancy and frankly just some delay,” said Irwin.

“I think we now have the ability to actually move forward with things like that,” she said.

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© Thomson Reuters 2022


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Elon Musk Introduces ‘Live Tweeting’ Feature Amid Ongoing Plans for Twitter

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Twitter CEO Elon Musk, on Saturday, added a new feature ‘live tweeting’ and now it is currently active on the platform.

Author Matt Taibbi becomes the first user to use this new feature with his cryptic tweet “Thread: THE TWITTER FILES”

Taking to Twitter, Musk wrote, “Here we go!!” with popcorn emoticons.

Earlier, he tweeted, “We’re double-checking some facts, so probably start live tweeting in about 40 mins.”

We’re double-checking some facts, so probably start live tweeting in about 40 mins

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 2, 2022

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Griftopia writer followed his first tweet which reads, “Thread: THE TWITTER FILES”, “What you’re about to read is the first installment in a series, based upon thousands of internal documents obtained by sources at Twitter.”

He added, “The “Twitter Files” tell an incredible story from inside one of the world’s largest and most influential social media platforms. It is a Frankensteinian tale of a human-built mechanism grown out the control of its designer.”

Twitter’s new boss is also working on “purging a lot” of spam/scam accounts.

On Thursday, Musk took to his Twitter account and shared the word limit update with everyone. He tweeted, “Twitter is purging a lot of spam/scam accounts right now, so you may see your follower count drop.”

Twitter is purging a lot of spam/scam accounts right now, so you may see your follower count drop

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 1, 2022

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Musk is also planning to up Twitter’s character limit from 280 to 1000.

A few days ago, a social media user tagged Musk and tweeted, ” Idea on explanding character limit to 1000.”

In response, Musk wrote, “It’s on the todo list.”

The character limit has been one of the prime differences between Twitter and other social media services.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. 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. Prior to that, another user had suggested “get rid of character limits.”

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“Absolutely”, the multi-billionaire responded.

Now it remains to be seen when Musk finally makes the changes regarding character limit.


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WhatsApp Begins Beta Testing Android Tablet Support, iOS Testers Get ‘Search by Date’ Feature

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WhatsApp is rolling out an update for its beta testers on Android that introduces support for WhatsApp for tablets. Select Android beta testers can now link their existing WhatsApp account on their phones with the tablet version of the app. Until now, a WhatsApp account on an Android phone could not be accessed on a secondary Android device. Meanwhile, some beta testers on WhatsApp for iOS are reportedly getting access to a new feature that will allow them to quickly jump to messages based on the date they were sent or received.

Spotted by WhatsApp feature tracker WABetaInfo, users who have signed up for WhatsApp’s beta programme will begin to see an in-app banner announcing the feature. A screengrab on the website shows a banner on top of chats which reads “Have an Android tablet? WhatsApp for tablet is available for beta testers.’ The banner will be visible as part of WhatsApp beta 2.22.25.8 update for Android, which makes the popular messaging app compatible on tablets. Gadgets 360 staff members who are part of the beta programme also received the banner on their smartphones.

However, the feature tracker states that the new tablet version of the app might not be feature-complete. “Note that some features may still not be available when installing WhatsApp on your tablet, for example, the ability to share a new status update, live locations, and broadcast lists,” the report said.

Notably, WhatsApp users can access their primary account on computer and WhatsApp for Web. The feature is finally coming to Android tablets, allowing beta testers to access their messages on both their smartphone and their tablet.

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Meanwhile, WABetaInfo also reports that beta testers on iOS are getting a new update that adds the ability to search for messages by date. WhatsApp version 22.24.0.77, via the TestFlight beta programme, will make it easier for users to jump to specific dates in a chat window. To check if the feature is available, users can look for a calendar icon inside the search option for a chat. The icon lets you use the ‘Jump to Date’ feature to look for specific messages sent on the day.

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WhatsApp has been busy in the past few weeks, rolling out multiple features on both Android and iOS. The app recently rolled out a ‘Message Yourself’ feature on both platforms that lets users text themselves, in case they need to note down important information, reminders, or store files. Additionally, iOS users also received an update that adds the ability to include captions for forwarded media.


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