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Action against social media abuse could have some unwelcome outcomes – iPolitics.ca

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Social media platforms are finally being called out over online hate speech, disinformation, bullying and misogyny that undermine journalism, and democracy itself.

The tech giants have been profiting on online viciousness and lies long enough.

Our democracy depends on an engaged electorate whose access to information is not overwhelmed by a deluge of digital pollution.

The medias job to inform the public is made even more challenging by the flood of disinformation and misinformation that pollutes the internet, and the tendency of public figures to bully journalists that challenge them.

Concerned about the Wild West reality of social media, the Public Policy Forum established a Canadian Commission on Democratic Expression, which made a series of recommendations to rein in online excesses while seeking to protect freedom of speech.

It is a delicate balance, but some of the commissions proposals could have unwelcome consequences that would tilt the balance too much toward censorship of unpopular, or even harmful, speech.

The commissions recommendations raise the troubling question of who should be deciding what acceptable free speech on the internet is. 

A key proposal is the creation of a federal regulator of social media advocated by the commission, and an idea endorsed by a growing cohort that includes Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault.

The regulator would enforce a “duty to act responsiblythat would be imposed on social media platforms like Facebook and Google to force them to more actively manage the content on their sites.

In assigning a regulatory role to independent commission, the Public Policy Forum (PPF) panel fails to distinguish between criminal content such as hate with incitement to violence or child porn; harmfulcommunications that is deliberately planted to deceive the public or disparage identifiable groups, and online speech that is merely offensive or erroneous.

Most Canadians would agree hate speech, child pornography, libellous disinformation and incitement of violence already prohibited by the Criminal Code should not be online.

In criminal law, mens rea, also known as criminal intent, must be established before conviction. Establishment of mens actus, the actual commission of an offence, is not enough. Establishing the criminality of online speech is particularly difficult given the speakers are often anonymous or reside outside the country. 

Administrative law covers government agencies, commissions and tribunals and does not have the same standards of evidence. Administrative law is about the balance of probabilities. Criminal law is about crime being beyond a reasonable doubt.

Staff in any government office tend to be risk averse. On questions of which harmful communicationsare allowable expressions and which arent, they will be likely to lean toward the side of caution, or over-react under political pressure.

It is difficult to draw lines when weve decided some speech falls short of criminal incitement, but is nonetheless beyond the pale. 

As American Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes observed: If there is any principle of the constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thoughtnot free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate.

Still, freedom of expression cannot be limitless.

As a society, we evolved beyond libertarian belief in a marketplace of ideas that will tolerate just about any opinion. Hate towards identifiable groups, authoritarian propaganda and disinformation aimed at undermining democracy all need to be called out.

But in our current age of cancel culture, in which unpopular opinions are shouted down, we need to be careful how we do that.

In addition to establishing a federal regulator, the PPF commission would end the impunity social media giants now enjoy with the content they carry.

Thats easily said, less easily accomplished. Canada is constrained under trade law from holding platforms liable for content. Section 203 of the Communications Decency Act, the U.S. law that absolves social media platforms of this liability, is embedded in the revamped NAFTA.

Social media like Facebook or Google have been laissez-faire concerning who and what they host. Worse, they often drive extremist content through the use of algorithms that reinforce consumersappetite for sensationalism, regardless of its validity. Digital liability for content will require international agreement.

So while the companies should face pressure to be more responsible, we dont want Facebook to be the arbiter of acceptable speech. The challenge is to find the appropriate balance.

The digital giants are mindful that the wild and wooly days of social media are coming to an end and are therefore sensitive to the shifting winds of tolerance. They will, as the commission observed, dial up or dial down the toxicity. 

So we have a dilemma. If we allow platform hosts to vet and regulate content, we are subject to their outlook on what should be viewed. If we leave the job of deciding what harmful communicationshould be allowed on the internet to a government regulator we are subject to the shifting winds of political policy.

Last November, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a United Nations body that the pandemic provided an opportunity for a resetof economic and social policies. Conservative Finance critic Pierre Poilievre pounced on social media and claimed Trudeaus remarks proved the elites of the world were planning to impose socialism on ordinary people.

Poilievre was widely criticized for giving oxygen to a conspiracy theory that had been lurking in the darker corners of the web for months. 

Would it be up to a government regulator or a social media platform to decide Poilievres views did not belong in news feeds? Or should the voters be allowed to make their own judgments on the parliamentarians behaviour?

Whatever actions governments take to address online harms, there must be clear and explicit protection for unpopular, even offensive, opinion. 

A proposed social media regulator or commission should be a division of the Federal Court of Canada as similar agencies like the Canadian International Trade Tribunal are. That way, rulings are made according to jurisprudence and rules of evidence.

Social media companies should be held to account for what appears on their platforms, but not given full licence to censor content according to the sensitivities of public opinion. 

And ultimately, Canadian consumers must play a role in cleaning up the internet. Media literacy needs to be taught early and often in Canadian schools, including lessons on how to assess the truthfulness of factspresented on social media. 

We should not overlook the publics right to choose.

Shawn McCarthy is president of World Press Freedom Canada, of which Gord McIntosh is a committee member.

Big Digital Lies, a World Press Freedom and iPolitics collaboration podcast, looks at what misinformation and disinformation is, what it looks like, who perpetuates it, and how it’s changed over the years.  We invite you to take a listen.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by all iPolitics columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of iPolitics.

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TikTok debuts new voice after Canadian actor sues

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After noticing a new female voice narrating the videos on the popular video-sharing social networking service, users of TikTok were baffled as to why. It actually turns out that the Canadian actress behind the old voice filed a lawsuit against the platform for copyright violation as her voice was apparently being used without her permission.

Bev Standing, a voice actor based in Ontario, is taking China-based ByteDance to court. TikTok’s parent company has since replaced her voice with a new one, with Standing reportedly finding out over email after a tip-off from a journalist. On the matter, Standing said: “They replaced me with another voice. I am so overwhelmed by this whole thing. I’m stumbling for words because I just don’t know what to say.”

TikTok is said to be considering a settlement for Standing outside of the courts, but nobody knows whether or not this is true. According to legal experts, the fact TikTok now has a new voice on the popular social media app suggests they acknowledge Standing’s case and potentially understand that she may have suffered as a result of the company’s actions.

Thanks to the emergence of the powerful smartphone devices of today, alongside taking high-quality images for Instagram, getting lost down YouTube wormholes, and accessing popular slots like Purple Hot, people are turning to relatively new platforms like TikTok. The service has 689 million monthly active users worldwide and is one of the most downloaded apps in Apple’s iOS App Store. This latest news could harm the platforms future, although many of its younger users potentially aren’t aware that this type of scenario is unfolding.

For Bev Standing, the ordeal is a testing one. She wasn’t informed of the voice change, there is no mention of it in TikTok’s newsroom online, and the development is news to her lawyer also.

 

This all comes after her case was filed in a New York State court in early May after the voice actor noticed a computer-generated version of her voice had been seen and listened to around the world since 2020. Speculation is rife as to how TikTok managed to obtain the recordings but Standing believes the company acquired them from a project she took part in for the Chinese government in 2018.

(Image via https://twitter.com/VoiceOverXtra)

The Institute of Acoustics in China reportedly promised her that all of the material she would be recording would be used solely for translation, but they eventually fell into the hands of TikTok and have since been altered and then exposed to a global audience.

According to Pina D’Agostino, an associate professor with Osgoode Hall Law School at York University and an expert in copyright law, the fact that the hugely popular social media platform has now changed Standing’s voice could result in a positive outcome for the distraught voice actor. She said: “It’s a positive step in the way that they are mitigating their damages. And when you’re mitigating, you’re acknowledging that we did something wrong, and you’re trying to make things better.”

When assessing social media etiquette and how both companies and users should act, this type of news can only do more harm than good. Not only does it make the company look bad, but it could have an effect on revenues and, ultimately, TikTok’s reputation.

With a clear desire to move on and put this whole process behind her, Bev Standing is eager for the case to be resolved and get back to the daily work she loves and has been doing for a large part of her life. TikTok has until July 7 to respond to her claim.

 

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Nigeria orders broadcasters not to use Twitter to gather information

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Nigerian television and radio stations should not use Twitter to gather information and have to de-activate their accounts, the broadcast authority said following the move to suspend the U.S. social media giant in Africa’s most populous country.

Nigeria’s government on Friday said it had suspended Twitter’s activities, two days after the platform removed a tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari that threatened to punish secessionists. Nigerian telecoms firms have since blocked access to Twitter.

International diplomats responded with a joint statement in support of “free expression and access to information as a pillar of democracy in Nigeria”.

Buhari, who was Nigeria’s military ruler in the 1980s, has previously been accused of cracking down on freedom of expression, though his government has denied such accusations.

Twitter has called its suspension “deeply concerning” and said it would work to restore access for all those in Nigeria who rely on the platform to communicate and connect with the world.

The National Broadcasting Commission, in a statement dated June 6, told broadcasters to “suspend the patronage of Twitter immediately”.

“Broadcasting stations are hereby advised to de-install Twitter handles and desist from using Twitter as a source of information gathering,” it said in the statement, adding that “strict compliance is enjoined”.

The statement comes two days after the attorney general ordered the prosecution of those who break the rules on the ban.

The foreign minister on Monday held a closed door meeting in the capital, Abuja, with diplomats from the United States, Britain, Canada, the European Union and Ireland to discuss the ban.

It followed the statement by their diplomatic missions on Saturday in which they criticised the move.

“These measures inhibit access to information and commerce at precisely the moment when Nigeria needs to foster inclusive dialogue…. as well as share vital information in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic,” they said in their statement.

Nigeria’s information minister on Friday said the ban would be “indefinite” but, in a statement late on Sunday, referred to it as a “temporary suspension”.

The minister did not immediately respond to phone calls and text messages on Monday seeking comment on the altered language.

 

(Reporting by Camillus Eboh and Abraham Achirga in Abuja; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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Lisa Kudrow discusses impact of ‘Friends The Reunion’

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Comedic actor Lisa Kudrow is set to return to television comedy in the second season of “Feel Good”, hot on the heels of appearing in “Friends: The Reunion”.

The reunion of the classic sitcom “Friends” cast became a hot topic on social media and saw a surge in subscriptions for the show’s platform HBO Max.

Kudrow told Reuters via Zoom she found it “a little bit mind-blowing because you don’t really fully get the impact that the show had on people internationally and the personal stories that you would hear about over the years. It’s really nice. I go to sleep now thinking ‘Ah, I did a good thing’.”

 

In the series “Feel Good”, which is entering its second and final season, Kudrow plays the mother of Mae, a non-binary comedian who is struggling with the demons of her past while trying to keep up a relationship with girlfriend George.

The first series was critically acclaimed and Mae Martin, who based the series on her own experiences, won two Royal Television Society awards for Best Writer – Comedy and also the Breakthrough Award.

“Once I was sent the script … I loved it. I loved every episode, I loved what it was about,” said Kudrow.

However, her attachment to the project meant that the “Friends” star would have to travel to the United Kingdom where most of the series was shot during the pandemic.

“I was anxious about it but then forgot it once I was there on their set with the COVID protocols. I felt perfectly safe,” Kudrow said.

As the show is based on Martin’s own experiences, she suffered from a lot of anxiety leading up to the launch of the first series.

Martin said she’s still a little apprehensive about the second season. “It was all such an unknown with series one. I had no idea how people would feel about it … last time I was just terrified about my parents watching it but now I know they love it, that’s a huge weight off so yeah I do feel a lot less freaked out.”

“Feel Good” will begin streaming on Netflix on Friday.

 

(Reporting by Rollo Ross; Editing by Diane Craft)

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