Europe’s Populists Fearful of Social Media Restrictions

Europe’s populist leaders are outraged by the decision of U.S. social-media giants to block U.S. President Donald Trump from posting on their sites. They fear Facebook, Twitter and other major social media companies could start banning them, too.  
 
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki condemned the internet giants Tuesday. “The censorship of freedom of speech, the domain of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, is returning today in the form of a new, commercial mechanism fighting against those who think differently,” he wrote on Facebook.
 
Poland’s ruling populist Law and Justice Party (PiS) already has introduced legislation aimed at limiting the power of social media giants to remove content or ban users.  
 
The draft law was proposed after Twitter started flagging as misleading content tweets by Trump and supporters disputing the U.S. election result. PiS lawmakers say there shouldn’t be any censorship by social media companies or curtailment of speech because debate is the essence of democracy.
 
Opposition critics say the proposed measure sits oddly with the ruling party’s efforts to muzzle the national media and to turn the public broadcaster into a propaganda vehicle. Those moves are currently being investigated by the European Union, which has accused the PiS government of rolling back democratic norms.
 
The Polish government also has vowed to bring foreign-owned media outlets in the country under Polish control, which critics fear means turning them into government propaganda outlets.  
 
Under the draft law, if content is removed, a social media company would have 24 hours to respond to a complaint from a user and any decision could be appealed to a newly created special court.
 
Populist leaders aren’t alone in denouncing the moves by social media giants. Across Europe there is unease regardless of political affiliation at censorship by social media giants and their expulsion of Trump, a response to last week’s bid to derail the certification of the U.S. election results by pro-Trump agitators storming the U.S. Capitol. Twitter cited violations of its civic integrity policies to block Trump.
 
Facebook is blocking and deleting content that uses the phrase “stop the steal,” which refers to false claims by Trump supporters of election fraud. And Twitter says it has suspended more than 70,000 accounts of adherents of the QAnon conspiracy, who believe Trump is waging a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping pedophiles in government, business and the media.FILE – A figure representing hate speech on Facebook is seen featured during a carnival parade in Duesseldorf, Germany, Feb. 24, 2020.German Chancellor Angela Merkel has expressed her concerns about the actions of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, saying they are a step too far.  
 
“The right to freedom of opinion is of fundamental importance,” her spokesperson Steffen Seibert told reporters this week. But campaigns are mounting in Germany and in other European countries for social media giants to block hate speech, populist misinformation and fake news from their sites, regardless of authorship.  
 
Additionally, political pressure is mounting for a tightening of regulatory restrictions that some European governments have already introduced aimed at policing social media.  
 
When voicing concern about the social media blocking of Trump, Merkel’s spokesperson cited Germany’s Network Enforcement Act, which was approved in 2018 and requires social media platforms to remove potentially illegal material within 24 hours of being told to do so, or face fines of up to $60 million.  
 
Seibert said free speech should only be restricted in line “with the laws and within a framework defined by the legislature, not by the decision of the management of social media platforms.”  
 
But some German lawmakers want the law toughened and are also urging social media companies to be more forward-leaning in efforts to block what they see as dangerous speech. German Social Democrat lawmaker Helge Lindh told broadcaster Deutsche Welle that Germany is “not doing enough,” saying more restrictions are needed.  
 
The German parliament approved legislation last year that would ensure prosecution for those perpetrating hate or for inciting it online. Under the legislation, social media companies would have been obliged to report hate comments to the police and identify the online authors.
 
Final passage of the legislation was halted, though, because of objections raised by the country’s Constitutional Court, which ruled parts of the new legislation were in conflict with data protection laws. The court called for adjustments that are scheduled to be debated this month by German lawmakers.  
 
Populist politicians stand to lose more from the renewed focus on misinformation on the internet, whether the outcome from the new focus is more stringent state regulations or just social media giants being more restrictive in Europe.
 
Populists tend to be able to galvanize support using social media more than mainstream politicians and parties have managed, says Ralph Schroeder, an academic at the Oxford Internet Institute, part of Britain’s University of Oxford.  
 
“They stand to lose most along with other politicians, on the left and the right and beyond, that seek a politics that is anti-establishment and exclusionary toward outsiders,” he told VOA. “The reason is that social media gives them a means to express ideas that cannot be expressed in traditional news media or in traditional party affiliations.”
 

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After Trump Social Media Ban, Questions About Future of Online Speech

The attack on the U.S. Capitol has reignited criticism of social media and its alleged role in inciting violence. While Facebook and Twitter have banned President Trump, there are questions about the future of online speech. Tina Trinh reports.Producer: Matt Dibble 

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Facebook Shuts Down Accounts Linked to Ugandan Information Ministry 

Facebook has shut down several accounts of a network in Uganda linked to the country’s Ministry of Information. The social media company accused the network of using fake accounts to promote the ruling party and the president.The Facebook accounts shut down were allegedly linked to the “Citizens Interaction Center” at the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology.In a statement, Facebook accuses the account holders of using fake and duplicate accounts to manage pages, comment on other people’s content, impersonate users and re-share posts in groups to make them appear more popular than they were.Duncan Abigaba, the deputy head of the center, said the accounts were targeted because of their support for Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and the ruling National Resistance Movement or NRM.Abigaba said the action by Facebook is unfair since members of the opposition National Unity Platform party, led by singer-turned-politician Bobi Wine, have been using social media to promote Wine’s presidential candidacy.“So, NRM had to try and sell our candidate as well in the social media space. By selling the candidate, it means you have to employ different tactics including you put out content. And this content you must share it in different groups for it to have as much reach as possible,” said Abigaba.The Uganda Communications Commission wrote to Facebook and Twitter late last year, demanding it shut down several accounts it said were being used wrongly by members of the opposition National Unity Platform.FILE – Uganda’s president and presidential candidate Yoweri Museveni of the ruling party National Resistance Movement waves to his supporters as he arrives at a campaign rally in Entebbe, Feb. 10, 2016.Government spokesman Ofwono Opondo says the commission received a response from Facebook, saying it would investigate the claims.But instead, said Opondo, without any due process, accounts of NRM supporters have been shut down.“They have not told us the nature of the complaint. They have not written even to say we are going to switch you off. And so, it’s a double standard. And that ties very well with what our intelligence is telling us that some of the opposition is working with foreign interests,” he said.The Ugandan government is already disabling some social media platforms. Currently, unless one is using a virtual private network, videos on Facebook cannot be played.The Uganda Communications Commission has also ordered app stores to block over 100 virtual private networks being used by citizens to bypass the blockage.Joel Ssenyonyi, the National Unity Platform spokesperson, denies the party has a hand in the account shutdowns.“We actually wish we had a hand in it. We would actually love to see all the government accounts blocked, because they are using them to justify all the ills that are happening. You know that people get killed and then you see government officials and regime apologists and functionaries go on social media and they justify the killing of people and so on,” said Ssenyonyi. Ugandans go to the polls Thursday with Museveni seeking to extend his 34-year run as president. Bobi Wine has called off his final campaign appearances, due to multiple arrests and police breaking up his rallies.
 

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Parler Social Network Sues Amazon After Ban

Social media platform Parler has sued Amazon in response to being removed from Amazon Web Services (AWS), the company’s web hosting services. Calling the deplatforming a “death blow,” Parler said Amazon engaged in antitrust violations, breached its contract with Parler and interfered with the company’s business relationship with its users. Specifically, the complaint said Amazing breached its contract by not providing Parler 30 days’ notice before cutting it off from its servers. The suit asked a federal court for a temporary restraining order (TRO) against Amazon. “Without AWS, Parler is finished, as it has no way to get online,” according to the complaint. “And a delay of granting this TRO by even one day could also sound Parler’s death knell as President (Donald) Trump and others move on to other platforms.” Parler, a social network service popular with conservatives, went offline Monday after Amazon suspended it for allowing posts that encourage violence.  Before the site went down, Parler CEO John Matze accused Amazon and other tech giants of a “war on free speech.”  Google banned Parler’s smartphone app from its app store on Friday, also citing Parler’s allowance of posts that seek to incite violence in the United States.  Apple instituted its own Parler ban on Saturday.  The two-year-old Parler saw an increase in users in recent months as social media giants Facebook and Twitter stepped up enforcement of posts that violated their policies.  Both Facebook and Twitter suspended Trump’s accounts last week after some of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol.  
 

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Parler Social Network Service Loses Web Hosting

Parler, a social network service popular with conservatives, went offline Monday after its web hosting service Amazon suspended it for allowing posts that encourage violence.
 
Before the site went down, Parler CEO John Matze accused Amazon and other tech giants of a “war on free speech.”
 
Google banned Parler’s smartphone app from its app store on Friday, also citing Parler’s allowance of posts that seek to incite violence in the United States.
 
Apple instituted its own Parler ban on Saturday.
 
The two-year-old Parler saw an increase in users in recent months as social media giants Facebook and Twitter stepped up enforcement of posts that violated their policies.
 
Both Facebook and Twitter suspended President Donald Trump’s accounts last week after his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol.

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Facebook Shuts Down Ugandan Government-Linked Accounts Ahead of General Election 

Facebook has taken down several accounts linked to the government of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, saying they were being used to manipulate public opinion ahead of this week’s presidential election.
 
The U.S.-based social media giant said Monday it linked the network of accounts to the Uganda’s Ministry of Information and Communications Technology.   
 
Facebook said the ministry “used fake and duplicate accounts to manage pages, comment on other people’s content, impersonate users, re-share posts in groups to make them appear more popular than they were.”
 
The Associated Press quoted presidential spokesman Don Wanyama as saying Facebook was “interfering in the electoral process of Uganda.” He also said, “If people wanted to have the evidence of outside interference, now they have it.”
 
Voters in the East African country will cast ballots Thursday in a general election that pits President Museveni against 10 challengers, including popular singer-turned-legislator Bobi Wine.
 
The lead-up to the vote has been marred by increasing violence, numerous human rights violations, and restrictions imposed on opposition candidates and supporters.
 
The arrests and detentions in November of Wine and Patrick Oboi Amuriat, another presidential candidate, as well as other members of the political opposition, triggered riots and protests. At least 54 people were killed.

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Apple, Amazon Suspend Parler Social Network from App Store, Web Hosting Service

Apple Inc and Amazon.com Inc have suspended Parler from their respective App Store and web hosting service, saying the social networking service popular with many right-leaning social media users has not taken adequate measures to prevent the spread of posts inciting violence.The action by Apple and Amazon follows a similar move by Alphabet Inc’s Google on Friday. Parler is favored by many supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump, who was permanently suspended from Twitter on Friday, and it is seen as a haven for people expelled from Twitter.“We have suspended Parler from the App Store until they resolve these issues,” Apple said in a statement Saturday.Apple had earlier given Parler 24 hours to submit a detailed moderation plan, pointing to participants’ using the service to coordinate Wednesday’s siege of the U.S. Capitol.Amazon’s move effectively takes the site offline unless it can find a new company to host its services.Amazon suspended Parler from its Amazon Web Services (AWS) unit, for violating AWS’s terms of services by failing to effectively deal with a steady increase in violent content, according to an email by an AWS Trust and Safety team to Parler, seen by Reuters.An Amazon spokesperson confirmed the letter was authentic.Due to the “very real risk to public safety” that Parler poses, AWS plans to suspend Parler’s account effective Sunday, at 11:59 p.m. PST, the email seen by Reuters showed.Parler Chief Executive John Matze lashed out at Amazon, Google and Apple, saying it was a coordinated effort knowing Parler’s options would be limited and it would inflict the most damage right as Trump was banned from other social media platforms.“There is the possibility Parler will be unavailable on internet for up to a week as we rebuild from scratch,” he said in a post on Parler.“This was a coordinated attack by the tech giants to kill competition in the marketplace… You can expect the war on competition and free speech to continue, but don’t count us out.”In addition to Parler, right-leaning social media users in the United States have flocked to messaging app Telegram and hands-off social site Gab, citing the more aggressive policing of political comments on mainstream platforms such as Twitter Inc and Facebook Inc.

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Twitter Bans Trump, Removes Tweet by Iran’s Khamenei on Same Day, Sparking ‘Double Standards’ Backlash

U.S. tech giant Twitter took sharply different actions against the leaders of the U.S. and Iran on Friday, permanently banning President Donald Trump’s personal account while removing one tweet from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s apparent English account and suspending new posts on it.The greater severity of Twitter’s action against the @realdonaldtrump account, compared with the social media company’s treatment of Khamenei, prompted both critics and supporters of the U.S. president to post dozens of Twitter messages accusing the platform of double standards.Many of Twitter’s critics said the @Khamenei_IR account, which is not Twitter-verified but regularly shares his statements, has a history of posting comments against Israel, his regional enemy, that they view as more severe incitement to violence than recent Trump tweets deemed by the platform to violate its glorification of violence policy.The chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pal, tweeted screenshots of some of Khamenei’s most strongly worded anti-Israel posts in May, saying he believed they raise a “serious” question about potential glorification of violence.Serious question for @Twitter: Do these tweets from Supreme Leader of Iran @khamenei_ir violate “Twitter Rules about glorifying violence”? pic.twitter.com/oEkCC8UzFV— Ajit Pai (@AjitPaiFCC) May 29, 2020In a Friday message to VOA Persian, Jason Brodsky, policy director of U.S. advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran, said: “Twitter accounts of Khamenei, other autocrats and their representatives include deeply hateful and dangerous content that incites violence against groups. We’ve seen Khamenei’s call for the elimination of Israel, which is incitement. So if Twitter has a policy against incitement of violence, it needs to be applied uniformly.”A Twitter spokesperson responded to the accusations of double standards in enforcing incitement prohibitions by telling VOA Persian that the platform has taken enforcement action against world leaders prior to Friday.The spokesperson said Twitter focused its Friday actions on what he called the “harm presented by [Trump’s personal] account specifically,” and shared a link to Twitter’s statement explaining why it believes Trump’s last tweets have the potential to incite further violence following Wednesday’s storming of the U.S. Capitol complex by some of his supporters.Asked what Twitter is doing to demonstrate that it is treating world leaders consistently, the spokesperson said the company’s policy of displaying a “government account” label for users affiliated with the five permanent member states of the U.N. Security Council will soon be expanded to include similar labeling for the officials of other nations. No further details were provided.Twitter’s action against the Khamenei account came hours before its banning of Trump.The Khamenei account had posted a Friday tweet in which the Iranian supreme leader called coronavirus vaccines produced by the U.S., Britain and France “completely untrustworthy” and accused the Western powers of trying to “contaminate” other nations by offering to send them the vaccines.I call on @Jack to suspend @khamenei_ir account for spreading dangerous lies about COVID-19. He has banned Iranians from @Twitter but spreads lies on the same platform about vaccines. His posts MUST have a warning label, at least. Please retweet this. pic.twitter.com/XCxDXK7qBw— Masih Alinejad 🏳️ (@AlinejadMasih) January 8, 2021The Khamenei tweet prompted Iranian activists such as VOA Persian TV show host Masih Alinejad to urge Twitter to suspend his account for spreading misinformation about the vaccines. Twitter removed the tweet from public view after several hours.Twitter’s spokesperson told VOA the offending tweet violated the platform’s misleading information policy and the @Khamenei_IR owner would have to delete the post before regaining access to the account.It was the first time since February 2019 that Twitter had acted against the Iranian supreme leader’s main English account.That month, the @Khamenei_IR account posted a tweet endorsing a 1989 fatwa by his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had condemned British author Salman Rushdie to death for writing a book that the ruling cleric deemed insulting to Islam, The Satanic Verses.Just a reminder that not only did Twitter remove this tweet by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei for “threat of violence or physical harm” against Salman Rushdie last year, they also locked him out of his account for 24 hours until his account deleted the tweet. pic.twitter.com/T09y48Zo4S— Shayan Sardarizadeh (@Shayan86) October 28, 2020Twitter said the tweet about Rushdie constituted a threat of violence, removed it from public view and locked the @Khamenei_IR account for a day until the account owner deleted the post.In a Friday tweet, BBC Middle East correspondent Nafiseh Kohnavard said Twitter’s decisions to keep the Khamenei account visible and ban Trump have confounded many Iranians. Many Iranians users are asking Twitter how it closed down Mr. Trump’s account but Iran supreme leader Mr. Khamenei’s account is still active especially when Twitter is banned inside Iran and it’s needed VPN.— Nafiseh Kohnavard (@nafisehkBBC) January 9, 2021She said Twitter’s moves were especially perplexing to Iranians who resent Khamenei for blocking Twitter inside Iran and forcing them to access it via virtual private networks.The Trump administration has denounced Iran’s bans on Western social media platforms as suppression of legitimate forms of communication. Speaking in 2018, a State Department spokeswoman said: “When a nation clamps down on social media, we ask the question, ‘What are you afraid of?’”This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service. 

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