Apr 22, 2019

Violence prompts global social media crackdown

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

World leaders are scrambling to contain acts of violence and hate crimes by introducing censorship measures, or by shutting down parts of the internet (or the whole network) in trouble spots.

Why it matters: Some experts argue that heavy-handed rules meant to curb the online promotion of violence could unintentionally make the problems worse instead.

Driving the news: Sri Lankan officials have temporarily blocked social media and messaging apps in the country to curtail the spread of fake news after multiple bombings killed hundreds of people on Easter Sunday.

  • Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, YouTube, Viber, Snapchat and Facebook Messenger have been blocked in Sri Lanka, according to data from Internet monitoring group NetBlocks.

Yes, but: Experts worry that by taking strong measures to disconnect the internet, leaders could be making the situation worse for a few reasons.

  • Rumors spread in a vacuum: "Given the awful events in #SriLanka, it is understandable, but counterproductive, to shut down social media platforms. Rumor spreads most easily in a vacuum. The best way to tackle misinformation to counter it with accurate factual information." said Peter Cunliffe-Jones, founder of Africa Check, an independent fact-checking organization, in a tweet.
  • It gives bad actors an opportunity for more damage: “What we’ve seen is that when social media is shut down, it creates a vacuum of information that’s readily exploited by other parties,” said Alp Toker, executive director of NetBlocks, to the Associated Press. “It can add to the sense of fear and can cause panic.”

Other research shows that blocking social networks can actually result in an increase in violence. Jan Rydzak, associate director of Stanford's Global Digital Policy Incubator, concluded in a 2016 paper examining social media shutdowns in India, "Shutdowns are found to be much more strongly associated with increases in violent collective action than with non-violent mobilization."

  • "Violence does not seem to require use of social media and messaging applications," Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, said. "This violence is at least in part animated by the efforts of key domestic actors perfectly capable of doing gruesome work without social media."

The big picture: A pattern is emerging separating countries that outright shut down or censor networks from those that vow to pass tougher laws.

  • "It's clear that governments that are less committed to fundamental human rights are taking a far more interventionist stance," says Nielsen.

For some democratic nations, strong measures to regulate social media and messaging apps have emerged in the wake of violence, but there haven't been any efforts to out-right block networks.

  • For example, after the mosque shootings in New Zealand last month, officials called for tough penalties against tech executives that don't act to limit hate speech, but did not seek to block any social media channels.
  • Incidents of violence and hate crimes in the U.K. and the U.S have resulted in similar approaches.

But in other countries, particularly developing nations where social media and messaging apps have become synonymous with the internet, leaders are rushing to stop the spread of hate speech by shutting off networks altogether, usually temporarily.

  • Sri Lankan officials have done this before. The country blocked social sites in 2018, in light of a 10-day nationwide state emergency declared around violence between Muslim and Buddhist communities.
  • India announced a proposal earlier this year to install Chinese-style internet censorship rules ahead of its elections to curb hate speech, unlawful content and misinformation. The country has been battling hate crimes and violent attacks caused by the spread of misinformation on Whatsapp.
  • Some African nations, like Zimbabwe, have introduced full or partial internet shutdowns in light of violence. Other countries, like Democratic Republic of Congo, have done so in light of upcoming elections.

The bottom line: "The concern among human rights experts is that interventions that are meant to curtail these terrible events sometimes provide political cover for a more general attempt to curtail people’s access to information and ability to express themselves," says Nielsen.

What's next: The link between outbreaks of violence and social media is leading to calls for tighter regulation of social media and messaging apps, pitting free-speech ideals against efforts to curb horrifying incidents.

  • "A few years ago we’d view the blocking of social media sites after an attack as outrageous censorship; now we think of it as essential duty of care, to protect ourselves from threat," said Ivan Sigal, executive director of Global Voices, an international journalism nonprofit, in a tweet.

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Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 3:30 p.m. ET: 710,918 — Total deaths: 33,551 — Total recoveries: 148,900.
  2. U.S.: Leads the world in cases. Total confirmed cases as of 3:30 p.m. ET: 135,499 — Total deaths: 2,381 — Total recoveries: 2,612.
  3. Federal government latest: The first federal prisoner to die from coronavirus was reported from a correctional facility in Louisiana on Sunday.
  4. Public health updates: Fauci says 100,000 to 200,000 Americans could die from virus.
  5. State updates: Louisiana governor says state is on track to exceed ventilator capacity by end of this week — Cuomo says Trump's mandatory quarantine comments "panicked" some people into fleeing New York
  6. World updates: Italy on Sunday reports 756 new deaths, bringing its total 10,779. Spain reports almost 840 dead, another new daily record that bring its total to over 6,500.
  7. What should I do? Answers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingQ&A: Minimizing your coronavirus risk
  8. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it.

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Trump touts press briefing "ratings" as U.S. coronavirus case surge

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President Trump sent about a half-dozen tweets on Sunday touting the high television ratings that his coronavirus press briefings have received, selectively citing a New York Times article that compared them to "The Bachelor" and "Monday Night Football."

Why it matters: The president has been holding daily press briefings in the weeks since the coronavirus pandemic was declared, but news outlets have struggled with how to cover them live — as Trump has repeatedly been found to spread misinformation and contradict public health officials.

World coronavirus updates: Total cases surge to over 700,000

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC, and China's Health Ministry. Note: China numbers are for the mainland only and U.S. numbers include repatriated citizens and confirmed plus presumptive cases from the CDC

There are now than more than 700,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus around the world, according to data from Johns Hopkins. The virus has now killed more than 32,000 people — with Italy alone reporting over 10,000 deaths.

The big picture: Governments around the world have stepped up public health and economic measures to stop the spread of the virus and soften the financial impact. In the U.S., now the site of the largest outbreak in the world, President Trump said Saturday he would issue a "strong" travel advisory for New York, New Jersey and parts of Connecticut.

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