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Facebook, Twitter Step Up Fight Against Misinformation on US Elections

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By Reuters | Updated: 13 August 2020

Social media platforms stepped up fight against misinformation on the US elections, with Facebook starting a hub to help users with poll-related resources and Twitter expanding rules against misinformation on mail-in ballots and early voting.

The move comes as online social networks have been drawing flak for what has been called a lax approach to fake news reports and misinformation campaigns, which many believe affected the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

Twitter’s move will involve coming up with new policies “that emphasise accurate information about all available options to vote, including by mail and early voting.”

“We’re focused on empowering every eligible person to register and vote through partnerships, tools and new policies,” Jessica Herrera-Flanigan, Twitter’s vice president for public policy in the Americas, told Reuters in an email.

Facebook, meanwhile, launched a Voting Information Center to help users with accurate and easy-to-find information about voting wherever they live.

The company said in a blog it was also speaking with officials about misinformation surrounding election results as an emerging threat.

Twitter said it would roll out measures on new tools, policies and voting resources in the next month. It is exploring how to expand its “civic integrity policies” to address mischaracterisations of mail-in voting and other procedures.

The finer details of the step are still being finalised.

US President Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed without evidence that voting by mail, which is expected to increase dramatically due to the coronavirus outbreak, is susceptible to large-scale fraud.

The process is not new in the United States — nearly one in four voters cast 2016 presidential ballots that way.

Many experts have said that routine methods and the decentralised nature of US elections make it very hard to interfere with mailed ballots.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Twitter Says Dataminr Monitoring Service Does Not Violate Surveillance Ban

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 30 September 2020

Twitter defended letting the service, Dataminr, tap into the flow of public tweets to send alerts to police or other government agencies about plans for protests or civil disobedience, such as those involved in the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Twitter prohibits the use of our developer services for surveillance purposes. Period,” a spokesman for the San Francisco-based company said in reply to an AFP inquiry.

“We see a societal benefit in public Twitter data being used for news alerting, first responder support, and disaster relief.”

The stance provokes a debate as to what exactly constitutes surveillance.

Dataminr is a social media-monitoring service that uses artificial intelligence to comb platforms such as Twitter for user-determined keywords.

In recent months, Dataminr has provided government clients with alerts that include Twitter handles of those posting messages about protest plans or where activists are blocking streets, according to a Wall Street Journal report that cited seeing email copies of alerts.

A Dataminr service called First Alert “notifies first responders about critical events as they’re happening, minimising response time and enabling them to act quickly and confidently,” according to a post at the company’s website.

First Alert relies on public tweets and was built with input from Twitter. Controls were built in to comply with a Twitter policy against surveillance, according to the social media platform.

Twitter said it does not prohibit alerting information about what is happening that can be gleaned from public tweets.

Protests and discussions about the Black Lives Matter movement are major topics on Twitter.

Threat alerts that can keep people out of danger or help support first responders can focus on specific locations, such as parks or schools, and what is happening, according to Twitter.

Twitter said it has audited Dataminr’s suite of products and found no violation of its ban on surveillance.

“We proactively enforce our policies to ensure customers are in compliance and will continue to do so,” the Twitter spokesman said.

“We consistently hold ourselves accountable to rigorous standards, including third-party audits of key products and services like Dataminr.”

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Twitter Aims to Label More State-Affiliated Accounts Worldwide

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By Reuters | Updated: 26 September 2020

Twitter Chief Executive Jack Dorsey said on Friday the social media platform plans to expand its labelling of state-affiliated accounts worldwide, even as he defended its policy of allowing leaders of countries like Iran and China to use Twitter.

During the virtual Oslo Freedom Forum, hosted by New York-based nonprofit the Human Rights Foundation, Dorsey said Twitter would label accounts in more countries to give users more context for information tweeted by state-affiliated accounts and “if there’s an agenda behind it.”

Twitter first announced the labelling last month, but only initially applied it to accounts from China, France, Russia, the UK and the United States.

Twitter has been used widely by activists, sometimes using pseudonyms, to broadcast human rights abuses from countries like Saudi Arabia and China, but has been criticised for failing to prevent bad actors from using so-called “bot” accounts to spread disinformation.

Dorsey said the company is using signals such as when batches of new accounts are created, and how quickly they begin tweeting about certain topics, to crack down on disinformation campaigns, while protecting activists under pseudonyms.

“Pseudonymity is a built identity, and that’s what we want to value and protect,” he said.

Asked if it was hypocritical of Twitter to allow leaders from Iran and China to use the platform despite the governments blocking access to citizens, Dorsey said there was value in “understanding how they’re thinking.”

“It’s important … to know how the story of the regime is being told to the rest of the world,” he said.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Facebook Critics Launch Rival Oversight Board

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By Reuters | Updated: 26 September 2020

Critics of Facebook, including the organisers of an advertising boycott against the company, on Friday launched their own oversight board to review the company’s content moderation practices.

The launch comes a day after Facebook’s officially-mandated Oversight Board said it would start work in mid-late October, nearly a year behind schedule.

The new group, which bills itself as the “Real Facebook Oversight Board,” counts among its initial members the heads of three US civil rights groups, the former president of Estonia and the former head of election integrity at Facebook.

The delay of the launch of the official Facebook-funded board means it is unlikely to review cases related to the November 3 US election, which has generated some of the most contentious issues faced by the world’s biggest social network.

The rival board plans to move faster, it said in a statement. It will hold its first general meeting next week, and focus squarely on election topics, including voter suppression, election security and misinformation, it said.

Facebook “responds to criticism with bad faith statements and cosmetic changes,” said board member Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook who turned critical of its leaders over their handling of misuse of the platform in the 2016 election.

“The Real Oversight Board will act as a watchdog, helping policymakers and consumers defend against a renegade platform.”

Members of the rival board plan to broadcast their meetings in weekly shows on Facebook Live, according to the statement.

A Facebook company spokesman hit back in a statement on Friday.

“We ran a year-long global consultation to set up the Oversight Board as a long-lasting institution that will provide binding, independent oversight over some of our hardest content decisions,” he said. “This new effort is mostly longtime critics creating a new channel for existing criticisms.”

The new group said it was being funded by Luminate, a philanthropy backed by The Omidyar Group, but did not disclose a funding amount.

Facebook has committed $130 million to its Oversight Board project, which it said would cover operational costs for at least six years.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Facebook Suspends Fake Russian Accounts, Warns of US Election Hack-and-Leak Threat

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By Reuters | Updated: 25 September 2020

Facebook said on Thursday it has dismantled three networks of fake accounts which could be used by Russia’s intelligence services to leak hacked documents as part of efforts to disrupt the upcoming US election.

The company said the accounts, which it suspended for using fake identities and other types of “coordinated inauthentic behaviour,” were linked to Russian intelligence and people associated with a St. Petersburg-based organisation accused by US officials of working to sway the 2016 presidential vote.

The Russian foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment after normal working hours in Moscow. Russia has repeatedly denied allegations of election meddling and says it does not interfere in the domestic politics of other countries.

Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, said there was no immediate evidence that hacked documents were about to be leaked, but by suspending the accounts Facebook hoped to prevent them being used in any subsequent operation.

“Our team watches for the threats and trends that we need to be ready for, and one that we are very aware of … is a hack-and-leak operation, particularly in the next 6-8 weeks,” he told Reuters.

“We want to make sure that the accounts are down to prevent their ability to pivot them to facilitate a hack-and-leak around the US election.”

Facebook said the networks were small with only a handful of accounts on its website and photo-sharing service Instagram, some of which posed as independent media outlets and think tanks. The accounts had a combined total of around 97,000 followers.

While some of the activity did target audiences in Britain and the United States, the networks were predominantly focused on countries in the Middle East and bordering Russia, such as Syria, Turkey, Ukraine and Belarus, Facebook said.

Twitter said it had worked with Facebook to identify and remove 350 accounts operated by state-linked organisations in Russia.

Both companies said one of the networks had been identified following a tip from the FBI, which warned on Tuesday that foreign actors and cybercriminals were likely to spread disinformation about the results of the November 3 election.

The warnings follow an alert by Microsoft earlier this month that hackers linked to Russia, China, and Iran are trying to spy on people tied to both US President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden.

Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, worked with Facebook to analyse the suspended accounts. He said the activity showed Russia was continuing efforts to exacerbate political tensions in the United States and elsewhere.

“That doesn’t dismiss the fact that the scale and scope of domestic disinformation is far greater than what any foreign adversary could do,” he said. “But Russia’s efforts remain an extremely serious national security vulnerability.”

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Facebook, Twitter Arbitrarily Censuring ‘Nationalistic’ Content: Tejasvi Surya

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By Press Trust of India | Updated: 24 September 2020

BJP member Tejasvi Surya on Wednesday raised the issue of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook allegedly arbitrarily censuring content posted by users, especially those with a “nationalistic approach” and sought government intervention for protection of such content.

Raising the issue during Zero Hour in Lok Sabha, Surya said for a long time there have been many “credible” allegations made against Twitter, Facebook and their affiliates of “arbitrary and unilateral regulation and censuring” of content posted by third party users, especially those with a “nationalistic approach”.

“This poses a significant constitutional challenge not only on the grounds of unreasonable restriction of free speech but also amounts to illegal interference during elections,” he said.

The MP said Facebook, Twitter and similar platforms claim themselves to be intermediaries within the meaning of the term under the IT Act, 2000.

He said the key element of this definition is that the role of the said intermediaries is limited to processing, storing and transmitting data of third party users and does not include intervention on content of the users.

Therefore, Section 79 of the Act provides these intermediaries exemption from liability. An intermediary receives protection that a regular publisher does not receive, he said.

Surya said while this is the explicit spirit of the statute, the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines) Rules, while laying down what sort of third party content must be prohibited by the privacy policy and terms and conditions of the intermediary, goes far beyond the remit of Article 19(2) of the Constitution read with Section 79 and 69 of the IT Act.

Article 19(2) of the Constitution authorises the government to impose, by law, reasonable restrictions upon the freedom of speech and expression “in the interests of… public order”, whereas section 69 of the IT Act allows the government to intercept any information and ask for information decryption.

Surya said the guidelines essentially empower private party intermediaries to remove on the basis of user complaints or suo moto any content deemed to be in violation of its guidelines.

He said these guidelines are not only ultra vires the parent statute but also unconstitutional as the grounds they provide are too wide and will fail the standards of constitutionality set out by the Supreme Court in the Shreya Singhal case while striking down Sec 66A of the IT Act (which provided police the power to arrest a person for posting “offensive” content online).

The guidelines are problematic because they empower private enterprises performing essentially a public function to act as censors of free speech without government oversight, thus effectively and severely impacting safeguards of the fundamental right to free speech, he said.

“I therefore urge the government to repeal such unconstitutional guidelines and issue new ones to govern social media platforms, thereby protecting the fundamental right to free speech of our citizens and protect our democracy from foreign interference,” he said.

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Twitter Restores ‘Mistakenly’ Locked, Limited Accounts

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By ANI | Updated: 24 September 2020

Twitter on Wednesday said it has restored accounts that were mistakenly locked or limited, hours after some users reported delay in tweets showing up on timelines as well as accounts being locked “by mistake.”

“The accounts that were mistakenly locked or limited have been restored. We are sorry this happened in the first place,” Twitter Support tweeted.

A few hours back, Twitter said it is seeing a number of accounts that have been locked or limited by mistake and not because they tweeted about any particular topic.

“We are seeing a number of accounts that have been locked or limited by mistake and not because they tweeted about any particular topic,” Twitter Support tweeted. “We are working to undo this and get those accounts back to normal.”

According to a report by CNET, the accidental locking or limiting of accounts comes amid the lead-up to the 2020 US presidential election, as the micro-blogging site seeks to crack down on false and misleading information spreading via the social network and is ramping up the removal of accounts and tweets that violate its rules.

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