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 media’s 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 commission’s proposals could have unwelcome consequences that would tilt the balance too much toward censorship of unpopular, or even harmful, speech.
The commission’s 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 responsibly” that 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; “harmful” communications 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 communications” are allowable expressions and which aren’t, they will be likely to lean toward the side of caution, or over-react under political pressure.
It is difficult to draw lines when we’ve 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 thought—not 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.
That’s 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 consumers’ appetite 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 don’t 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 communication” should 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 “reset” of economic and social policies. Conservative Finance critic Pierre Poilievre pounced on social media and claimed Trudeau’s 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 Poilievre’s views did not belong in news feeds? Or should the voters be allowed to make their own judgments on the parliamentarian’s 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 “facts” presented on social media.
We should not overlook the public’s 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.
Britney Spears calls recent documentaries about her ‘hypocritical’
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Pop singer Britney Spears spoke out on Tuesday about recent documentaries about her life and career, calling them “hypocritical” because they rehash her personal problems while criticizing the media for reporting them the first time.
Walt Disney Co’s FX network and The New York Times released “Framing Britney Spears” in February. The documentary examined the singer’s meteoric rise to fame as a teenager, the ensuing media scrutiny and her widely publicized breakdown.And this month, the BBC released “The Battle for Britney: Fans, Cash and a Conservatorship” in Britain. It will debut in the United States and Canada starting May 11 via the BBC Select streaming service.
In an Instagram post, Spears did not name either documentary but said “so many documentaries about me this year with other people’s takes on my life.”
“These documentaries are so hypocritical … they criticize the media and then do the same thing,” she added.
In March, Spears said she cried for two weeks after watching part of “Framing Britney Spears”.
The BBC said in a statement on Tuesday that its documentary “explores the complexities surrounding conservatorship with care and sensitivity.”
“It does not take sides and features a wide range of contributors,” the statement added.
A New York Times spokesperson declined to comment.
Spears, who shot to fame in 1998 with the hit “Baby One More Time,” is in a court battle seeking to replace her father as her conservator. He was appointed to the role in 2008 after she was hospitalized for psychiatric treatment.
Her fans have shown their support on social media under the hashtags #We’reSorryBritney and #FreeBritney. Spears is scheduled to speak to a Los Angeles court in June.
In her Instagram post, which included a video of herself dancing, Spears said that “although I’ve had some pretty tough times in my life … I’ve had waaaayyyy more amazing times in my life and unfortunately my friends … I think the world is more interested in the negative.”
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by David Gregorio)
Grammy organizers change rules after allegations of corruption
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – The organizers of music’s Grammy Awards on Friday announced an end to the so-called “secret” committees that have led to allegations that the highest honors in the industry are open to rigging.
The Recording Academy said that nominations for the next Grammy Awards in January 2022 will be selected by all of its more than 11,000 voting members, instead of by committees of 15-30 industry experts whose names were not revealed.
The Academy was slammed last year when Canadian artist The Weeknd got zero Grammy nominations, even though his critically acclaimed album “After Hours” was one of the biggest sellers of 2020.
The Weeknd, in a Twitter post last November, said “The Grammys remain corrupt. You owe me, my fans and the industry transparency.”
The Recording Academy said in a statement on Friday that the changes were significant and were made “to ensure that the Grammy Awards rules and guidelines are transparent and equitable.”
Allegations that the Grammy nominations process is tainted were made in a legal complaint filed in early 2019 by the former chief executive of the Recording Academy, Deborah Dugan.
At the time, the Academy dismissed as “categorically false, misleading and wrong” Dugan’s claims that its members pushed artists they have relationships with. Dugan was later fired.
American pop star Halsey, also shut out of the 2021 Grammys, last year called the nominations process “elusive” and said she was “hoping for more transparency or reform.”
Former One Direction singer Zayn Malik called in March for an end to “secret committees.”
“I’m keeping the pressure on & fighting for transparency & inclusion. We need to make sure we are honoring and celebrating ‘creative excellence’ of ALL,” Malik tweeted hours ahead of the 2021 Grammy Awards ceremony.
The Recording Academy on Friday also said it was adding two new Grammy categories – for best global music performance, and best Latin urban music album – bringing to 86 the total number of Grammy Awards each year.
(Reporting by Jill Serjeant; Editing by David Gregorio)
Movie theaters face uncertain future
By Lisa Richwine
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Maryo Mogannam snuck into the Empire theater in San Francisco with his older cousins to watch “Animal House” when he was 14. He watched most of the James Bond movies at the historic art house and took his wife there on some of their first dates.
The cinema, which had been showing movies since the silent film era, served notice in February that it was permanently closing because of the impact of COVID-19. The marquee is now blank, and cardboard and paper cover the box office window.
“It’s kind of like losing a friend,” said Mogannam, now 57, who owns a retail shipping outlet near the theater, which had been renamed the CineArts at the Empire.
As vaccinated Americans emerge from their homes, they also may find their neighborhood theater is not there to greet them.
An eight-cinema chain in New England said it will not reopen. The same fate hit a Houston art house beloved by director Richard Linklater and, in a shock to Hollywood, more than 300 screens run by Los Angeles-based Pacific Theatres. That includes the Cinerama Dome, a landmark that hosted several red-carpet movie premieres.
Following a year of closures, theaters face deferred rent bills plus media companies’ focus on drawing customers to streaming services. Up to one-fourth of the roughly 40,000 screens in the United States could disappear in the next few years, Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter said.
The National Association of Theatre Owners rejects that estimate, spokesman Patrick Corcoran said, noting that similar dire warnings accompanying the advent of television and the switch to digital screens never came to pass.
Hollywood filmmakers want cinemas to thrive.
“It’s the only place where the art dominates,” said “Avatar” director James Cameron. “When you watch something on streaming, the other people in the room with you are welcome to interject, to pause to go to the bathroom, to text.”
At theaters, “we literally make a pact with ourselves to go and spend two to three hours in a focused enjoyment of the art.”
“For 300 people to laugh and cry at the same time, strangers, not just your family in your house, that’s a very powerful thing,” said Chloe Zhao, Oscar-nominated director of best picture nominee “Nomadland.”
At the Academy Awards on Sunday, the movie industry will “make a case for why cinema matters,” producer Stacey Sher said. While acknowledging the hardship of the pandemic, “we also have to fight for cinema and our love of it and the way it has gotten us through things,” she said.
About 58% of theaters have reopened in the United States and Canada, most restricted to 50% capacity or less. The biggest operators – AMC, Cinemark and Cineworld – make up roughly half the overall market.
Industry leaders project optimism, forecasting a big rebound after restrictions ease and studios unleash new blockbusters.
Coming attractions include a new Bond adventure, the ninth “Fast & Furious” film, a “Top Gun” sequel and several Marvel superhero movies.
“Avatar 2,” Cameron’s follow-up to the highest-grossing film of all time, is set to debut in December 2022. Some box office analysts predict 2022 ticket sales will hit a record.
Supporters point to late March release “Godzilla vs. Kong,” which brought in roughly $48.5 million at U.S. and Canadian box offices over its first five days, even though audiences could stream it on HBO Max.
“That was a big win for the entire industry,” said Rich Daughtridge, president and chief executive of Warehouse Cinemas in Frederick, Maryland.
But near- and long-term challenges loom, particularly for smaller cinemas.
Theaters are negotiating with landlords over back rent. A federal aid program was delayed due to technical problems.
Plus, media companies are bringing movies to homes sooner. Executives say streaming is their priority, pouring billions into programming made to watch in living rooms as they compete with Netflix Inc.
Most at risk are theaters with one or two screens, Wedbush Securities’ Pachter said. He said his best guess is between 5,000 and 10,000 screens could go permanently dark in coming years.
“I think we’ll see a gradual decline in the number of screens,” Pachter said, “just like we’ve seen a gradual decline in the number of mom-and-pop grocery stores and bookstores.”
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Additional reporting by Rollo Ross in Los Angeles, Alicia Powell in New York and Nathan Frandino in San Francisco; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)
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