Last week, the conservative news site Just the News reported that government agencies were outsourcing their attempts to censor social media to a private consortium. While this story feeds into conservative paranoia about bias against conservative groups, it also raises important issues of improper attempts by government agencies to circumvent free speech constraints. It suggests, at a minimum, the need for a regime of transparency and disclosure to prevent mission creep and political manipulation.
The private sector group involved, a consortium called the Election Integrity Partnership, included the Stanford Internet Observatory, the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, and social media analytics firm Graphika. This consortium of serious and responsible organizations worked with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to pass on to social media companies certain posts they considered election misinformation during the 2020 election. Social media platforms could take action or not when they received these referrals. But the platforms apparently took action about a third of the time, according to the group’s report on the 2020 effort. The group is getting the band back together for the 2022 election.
Just the News alleged that this public-private partnership is a thinly veiled attempt to evade First Amendment restrictions on government censorship and compared it to the now discredited and discontinued Disinformation Governance Board.
It is worth noting that DHS in its August 24 press release announcing the termination of the Disinformation Governance Board reaffirmed that “countering disinformation that threatens the homeland, and providing the public with accurate information in response” is part of DHS’s mission. As part of this mission, since 2018, DHS’s Cybersecurity and Information Security Agency (CISA) has been referring to social media platforms posts it thinks constitute election disinformation and will almost certainly continue to do so.
The issue of private sector collaboration is a red herring. Whether CISA or any other government agency works through a consortium of private sector companies or directly with social media companies seems irrelevant to the policy and speech issues involved.
It is also worth noting that other countries have similar government operations, generally called internet referral units. And they are controversial around the world. Several years ago, there was an attempt to write them into the European Union’s terrorist material directive but as law scholar Daphne Keller noted objections from civil liberties moved the European Parliament to discard that section of the regulation.
Israel’s version of an internet referral unit is called the Cyber Unit and its operations have been cleared by its courts of any free speech violations. It regularly refers Palestinian posts to social media companies for action. But a report from a business group in September suggested that social media companies were biased in their content moderation actions involving these posts. The report recommended transparency among other reform measures.
That seems to me to be a reasonable first step, even if further restrictions might be needed to protect free speech. If an agency of government refers material that it thinks is illegal or violates a company’s terms of service, it should make that referral public, and not just transmit it to social media companies in secret. It does not and should not matter whether the agency launders that referral through a private sector consortium. The agency should also publish regular summary reports of its activities. The reports and the underlying data should be available to independent researchers for review.
Private sector actors who pass on government referrals should also report on their activities in enough detail so that independent researchers can evaluate what they have done. The Election Integrity Partnership took a first step in this direction with its retrospective report, but it should be transparent in real time as well as publishing an after the fact summary of its activities.
On the social media side, the companies should reveal what referrals their receive directly or indirectly from government agencies and which ones were acted on and why. This too should be done in real time, with notification to the user whose posts were affected that the actions were taken at the suggestion of a government agency and which agency was involved.
As renowned Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis noted, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Government activities and related public-private partnerships aimed removing material from social media need a little disinfectant.
Move The Chains | Antisemitism & Social Media – BC Lions
Iran begins construction on nuclear plant: State media
Iran on Saturday began construction on a new nuclear power plant in the country’s southwest, Iranian state TV announced, amid tensions with the U.S. over sweeping sanctions imposed after Washington pulled out of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear deal with world powers.
The announcement also comes as Iran has been rocked by nationwide anti-government protests that began after the death of a young woman in police custody and have challenged the country’s theocratic government.
The new 300-megawatt plant, known as Karoon, will take eight years to build and cost around $2 billion, the country’s state television and radio agency reported. The plant will be located in Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province, near its western border with Iraq, it said.
The construction site’s inauguration ceremony was attended by Mohammed Eslami, head of Iran’s civilian Atomic Energy Organization, who first unveiled construction plans for Karoon in April.
Iran has one nuclear power plant at its southern port of Bushehr that went online in 2011 with help from Russia, but also several underground nuclear facilities.
The announcement of Karoon’s construction came less than two weeks after Iran said it had begun producing enriched uranium at 60% purity at the country’s underground Fordo nuclear facility. The move is seen as a significant addition to the country’s nuclear program.
Enrichment to 60% purity is one short, technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90%. Non-proliferation experts have warned in recent months that Iran now has enough 60%-enriched uranium to reprocess into fuel for at least one nuclear bomb.
The move was condemned by Germany, France and Britain, the three Western European nations that remain in the Iran nuclear deal. Recent attempts to revive Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal, which eased sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program, have stalled.
Since September, Iran has been roiled by nationwide protests that have come to mark one of the greatest challenges to its theocracy since the chaotic years after its 1979 Islamic Revolution. The protests were sparked when Mahsa Amini, 22, died in custody on Sept. 16, three days after her arrest by Iran’s morality police for violating the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code for women. Iran’s government insists Amini was not mistreated, but her family says her body showed bruises and other signs of beating after she was detained
In a statement issued by Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency on Saturday, the country’s national security council announced that some 200 people have been killed during the protests, the body’s first official word on the casualties. Last week, Iranian Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh tallied the death toll at more than 300.
The contradictory tolls are lower than the toll reported by Human Rights Activists in Iran, a U.S.-based organization that has been closely monitoring the protest since the outbreak. In its most recent update, the group says that 469 people have been killed and 18,210 others detained in the protests and the violent security force crackdown that followed.
Iranian state media also announced Saturday that the family home of Elnaz Rekabi, an Iranian female rock climber who competed abroad with her hair untied, had been demolished. Iran’s official judiciary news agency, Mizan, said the destruction of her brother’s home was due to its “unauthorized construction and use of land” and that demolition took place months before Rekabi competed. Antigovernment activists say it was a targeted demolition.
Rekabi became a symbol of the antigovernment movement in October after competing in a rock climbing competition in South Korea without wearing a mandatory headscarf required of female athletes from the Islamic Republic. In an Instagram post the following day, Rekabi described her not wearing a hijab as “unintentional,” however it remains unclear whether she wrote the post or what condition she was in at the time.
Separately, the U.S. Navy said Saturday it intercepted a fishing vessel in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday attempting to smuggle 50 tons of ammunition and a key component for missiles from Iran to Yemen.
Experts have accused the Iranian government of continually conducting Illicit weapons smuggling operations to supply Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The shipments have included rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and missiles. Last month, the U.S. seized 70 tons of a missile fuel component hidden among fertilizer bags aboard a ship bound for Yemen from Iran.
“This significant interdiction (on Thursday) clearly shows that Iran’s unlawful transfer of lethal aid and destabilizing behavior continues,” said Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of the Bahrain-based U.S. 5th Fleet, in a statement.
There was no immediate comment from Iran on the seizure.
Iran has been the Houthis’ major backer since the rebel force swept down from Yemen’s northern mountains in 2014 and seized the capital, Sanaa, forcing the internationally recognized government into exile. In the following year, a Saudi-led coalition armed with U.S. weaponry and intelligence intervened to try to restore the internationally recognized government to power. Since 2014, the United Nations has enforced an arms embargo prohibiting weapons transfers to the Houthis.
The United States unilaterally pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal — formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — in 2018, under then-President Donald Trump. It reimposed sanctions on Iran, prompting Tehran to start backing away from the deal’s terms. Iran has long denied ever seeking nuclear weapons, insisting its nuclear program is peaceful.
Spotify Wrapped is a social media sensation. Its impact on artists and listeners is debatable
For some, it’s Christmas. For astronomers, it’s the Winter Solstice. But for literally millions of others, December means something different — for them, it’s Spotify Wrapped month.
The juggernaut campaign, currently in its sixth officially branded year, packages Spotify users’ listening statistics, and musicians’ streaming numbers in easily shareable panes. For some music fans, it has come to partially define the holiday season.
It takes over social media for at least a few days after its Dec. 1 premiere, and has grown big enough that other streaming giants have aped it themselves, with both YouTube and Apple Music recently coming out with their own versions.
What began as a small side project has exploded into what is essentially a multi-million dollar ad campaign. The tangible impact of Wrapped on listener statistics is still debatable; as is how much the project boosts Spotify itself, versus the benefit it provides artists.
It’s also unclear why users are so enamoured with the idea of having their private data packaged and sold back to them. One digital rights advocacy group described Wrapped as a “business model … based on surveillance” in a recent Wired magazine article.
Jem Aswad, deputy music editor of Variety, said the campaign’s real benefit to Spotify is difficult to measure. In a cluttered field of year-end critics’ polls and retrospective reviews, it’s almost impossible to tease out what had the most impact — despite the fact that app downloads typically increase in December. Spotify downloads jumped by 21 per cent that month in 2020, according to marketing company MoEngage.
LISTEN | Is Spotify Wrapped the best way to support musicians?
Up To Speed7:07The best way to support your favourite artists? This artist says it takes a lot more than sharing your Spotify Wrapped stats on social media
That’s no small feat for one of the biggest music streaming platforms on Earth.
Of roughly 525 million subscribers to music streaming services globally, Spotify holds a market share of about 30 per cent, according to Midia Research, an entertainment consultancy.
Increasing its brand recognition through the Spotify Wrapped campaign is “catnip” for the streaming service and its staff, Aswad said.
The real purpose of Wrapped is users sharing screenshots of the lists provided to them, which prominently includes the Spotify logo, he said. “Because it’s both endorsing Spotify in a sort of sidelong way, and it really makes the thing more popular.”
‘It is a brilliant use of social media’
But the most powerful aspect is that Wrapped works as both a commercial and a service, he said, helping the promotion gain user interest.
“The reason that Wrapped and things like it have become the phenomenon that they have … is it’s both about the music and the person,” he said “It’s a reflection. It is a brilliant use of social media — or the tactics of social media — to enable people to say something about themselves.”
The fact that this kind of project works at all is still something of a mystery to some observers. Concerns over online tracking are simmering. Apple allowed users to turn it off for certain apps earlier this year — threatening Facebook’s entire business strategy — so it seems odd that a feature built on sharing personal data would take off.
But Kimeko McCoy, an Atlanta-based freelance journalist and digital marketer, said this trend can help stoke desire.
“There’s a hunger, if you’ll put it that way, for people: ‘If you’re going to use my data, make it worth my while,'” she said. “And it seems that’s kind of what Spotify has hit the nail on the head with.”
The knock-on though, leads to more than just a grassroots advertising campaign. As Spotify users share their Wrapped lists and potentially drum up desire for the only app that currently offers such detailed analytics, some artists says it drowns out valid criticism of how the streaming service remunerates them.
“Each year I wonder why Spotify Wrapped graphics never tell us how much money we made from Spotify — in comparison to how much revenue our music generated for the platform,” Canadian rapper Masia One wrote in a Facebook post, sharing her own modified version of the trend.
“This year, I re-jigged my Spotify Wrapped to reflect the numbers that effect my life and sustainability as a songwriter and artist.”
American labour group Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) took a similar stance, creating a parallel campaign — “Spotify Unwrapped” — to highlight the low pay artists receive for streams on the app.
Happy Spotify Unwrapped day 💪 link in bio to contact your reps and tell them to support <a href=”https://twitter.com/RepRashida?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@RepRashida</a> and UMAW’s resolution for a new streaming royalty! It’s time to get artists paid fairly! <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/JusticeAtSpotify?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#JusticeAtSpotify</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/SpotifyUnWrapped?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#SpotifyUnWrapped</a> <a href=”https://t.co/DRUsGzXro2″>pic.twitter.com/DRUsGzXro2</a>
As for the immediate effect Wrapped has for artists, answers run the gamut. Aswad said big-name musicians with billions of streams for the year like Taylor Swift or The Weeknd would likely see an observable benefit from tens of thousands of posts sharing their music.
Meanwhile Ralph, a singer-songwriter from Toronto, who racked up 5.7 million streams this year, said for her Wrapped initially did more harm than good. Beginning as a musician, seeing peers post their streaming numbers at the end of the year turned their careers into a very public competition — one she worried she was losing.
“It was really hard for me, actually. I actually had to put my phone down,” she said. As her career has grown, however, she said she’s come to appreciate the opportunity to share her results and celebrate other artists.
And then there’s the artists in between — like Vancouver’s bbno$, whose earworms Lalala and Edamame helped him bring in nearly 550 million streams this year. In his case, Wrapped added a very noticeable cherry on top.
“Edamame was streaming at like, let’s say like 270 a day, and yesterday did like 400,” he said the day after Spotify Wrapped’s launch. “For no reason really. It’s just people are reminded again that I listened to bbno$ all year, so let’s just go back and listen to him again.”
Despite the fact Spotify allegedly pays an industry-low of under half a cent per stream, he said the trade-off is worth it. During the pandemic, one of the most difficult times for musicians to make a career, he said any service that can help artists keep going is worthwhile. As is any campaign, like Wrapped, that helps the service to thrive, he added.
“Who cares? It’s still there,” he said, pointing to the streaming service as his saving grace during the loss of touring income brought on by the pandemic. “I have a career out of literally nothingness. And God bless Spotify at the same time … Like, do I think there could be more money? Absolutely. But right now, I’m fine.”
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