A major battle over free speech on social media is playing out in India during the pandemic

“As the coronavirus pandemic rages in India, claiming thousands of lives, many Indians are turning to social media to demand that the government handle the public health crisis better. And now, the government is silencing these critics in its latest threat to the future of free speech on the internet in the world’s second-most populous country.

In recent weeks, the Indian government has requested that companies like Twitter take down content that it says contains misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic. But critics say that India’s political leadership under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is using the premise of misinformation to overreach and suppress criticism of the administration’s handling of the pandemic.”

“under the Modi administration of the past several years, the country has expanded its internet regulation laws, giving it more power to censor and surveil its citizens online. The government has several levers to pressure US-based tech companies into compliance: It could arrest Facebook and Twitter staff in India if their employers don’t follow orders. Even further, India could yank Twitter or Facebook off the local internet in India entirely, as it recently did with TikTok and several major Chinese apps in June. And the government resorted to effectively shutting down the internet in Kashmir in February 2020 when it wanted to quiet political dissent in the region.”

“Facebook confirmed that it temporarily blocked posts with a #ResignModi hashtag in India, but it later said it was a mistake because of content associated with the hashtag that violated its policies. Facebook has since restored access to the hashtag.

Facebook declined to comment on how many or what takedown requests it has received from the Indian government in recent weeks. A source familiar with the company said Facebook only took down a small portion of the total requests it received.”

“Recode reviewed the more than 50 tweets that Twitter blocked or deleted at the request of the Indian government in recent weeks. While some could be considered misleading — including one viral image showing devastation in India supposedly related to the pandemic which Indian fact-checker AltNews reported to be outdated — it wasn’t clear what was misleading about several other posts, which appeared to be straightforward news and political commentary.”

Kicking people off social media isn’t about free speech

“We know deplatforming works to combat online extremism because researchers have studied what happens when extremist communities get routed from their “homes” on the internet.

Radical extremists across the political spectrum use social media to spread their messaging, so deplatforming those extremists makes it harder for them to recruit. Deplatfoming also decreases their influence; a 2016 study of ISIS deplatforming found, for example, that ISIS “influencers” lost followers and clout as they were forced to bounce around from platform to platform. And when was the last time you heard the name Milo Yiannopoulos? After the infamous right-wing instigator was banned from Twitter and his other social media homes in 2016, his influence and notoriety plummeted. Right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones met a similar fate when he and his media network Infowars were deplatformed across social media in 2018.

The more obscure and hard to access an extremist’s social media hub is, the less likely mainstream internet users are to stumble across the group and be drawn into its rhetoric. That’s because major platforms like Facebook and Twitter generally act as gateways for casual users; from there, they move into the smaller, more niche platforms where extremists might congregate. If extremists are banned from those major platforms, the vast majority of would-be recruits won’t find their way to those smaller niche platforms. ”

“Deplatforming disrupts extremists’ ability to communicate with one another, and in some cases creates a barrier to continued participation in the group. A 2018 study tracking a deplatformed British extremist group found that not only did the group’s engagement decrease after it was deplatformed, but so did the amount of content it published online.

“When internet communities send a message of zero tolerance toward white supremacists and other extremists, other users also grow less tolerant and less likely to indulge extremist behavior and messaging. For example, after Reddit banned several notorious subreddits in 2015, leaving many toxic users no place to gather, a 2017 study of the remaining communities on the site found that hate speech decreased across Reddit.”

“As for the extremists, the opposite effect often takes place. Extremist groups have typically had to sand off their more extreme edges to be welcomed on mainstream platforms. So when that still isn’t enough and they get booted off a platform like Twitter or Facebook, wherever they go next tends to be a much laxer, less restrictive, and, well, extreme internet location. That often changes the nature of the group, making its rhetoric even more extreme.”

“One of the most frequent arguments against deplatforming is that it’s a violation of free speech. This outcry is common whenever large communities are targeted based on the content of their tweets, like when Twitter finally did start banning Nazis by the thousands. The bottom line is that social media purges are not subject to the First Amendment rule that protects Americans’ right to free speech.”

““Some argue that certain websites have gotten so large that they’ve become the de facto ‘public square,’” he said, “and thus should be held to the First Amendment’s speech-protective standards.”

In an actual public square, First Amendment rights would probably apply. But no matter how much social media may resemble that kind of real space, the platforms and the corporations that own them are — at least for now — considered private businesses rather than public spaces. And as Geronimo pointed out, “A private property owner isn’t required to host any particular speech, whether that’s in my living room, at a private business, or on a private website.””

“courts have consistently rejected free speech arguments in favor of protecting the rights of social media companies to police their sites the way they want to.”

‘What I saw was just absolutely wrong’: National Guardsmen struggle with their role in controlling protests

“POLITICO spoke to 10 National Guardsmen who have taken part in the protest response across the country since the killing of George Floyd while in police custody. Many Guardsmen said they felt uncomfortable with the way they were used to handle the unrest because demonstrators lumped them in with the police. They felt that while they swore an oath to uphold the Constitution, their presence at times intimidated Americans from expressing their opinions and even escalated the tension.

And in the case of Guardsmen involved in the Lafayette incident, some felt used.

“As a military officer, what I saw was more or less really f—ed up,” said one D.C. Guardsman who was deployed to Lafayette Square last Monday and who, like some others, spoke on condition of anonymity to speak freely. The official line from the White House that the protesters had turned violent, he said, is false.”

““I’m here to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and what I just saw goes against my oath and to see everyone try to cover up what really happened,” the Guardsman continued. “What I saw was just absolutely wrong.””

“One of the Guardsmen at the scene said the White House isn’t being truthful.

“I’ve been tear gassed before. I was there the night before when we got tear gassed, there was tear gas there” on Monday evening, he said. He added that he and some of his soldiers felt the effects of the tear gas from their colleagues because they didn’t have masks on.”

“The U.S. Park Police has acknowledged firing pepper balls into the crowd, which is also a chemical irritant.”

“The officer said he even told Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, just before the Park Police moved in that the protests had been peaceful that day, a sentiment that was shared by three other Guardsmen who were there.”

” As of Monday, 42,700 National Guardsmen were deployed across 34 states and D.C. to deal with protests. At the height of the response last week, 1,200 D.C. National Guardsmen and another 3,900 from 11 states were patrolling the nation’s capital. Defense Secretary Mark Esper gave the order for the out-of-state Guardsmen to begin leaving on Friday; all are expected to return home by Wednesday.”

“Torrie Osterholm, the D.C. National Guard’s director of psychological health, said in an interview that many Guardsmen have reached out to her in the past week to express the pain and confusion they struggled with during and after the mission, both for what they witnessed and how the protesters reacted.

One Guardsman told her, “‘I never thought I’d get a bottle thrown at me and be told I should die and I should kill myself,’” Osterholm said. “There’s not enough Kevlar to protect you from those kinds of statements spoken in your own language.”

Walker, the D.C. Guard commander, acknowledged the challenges Guardsmen faced in a Sunday briefing with reporters.

“I have some Guardsmen whose family members came out and criticized them. ‘What are you doing out here, aren’t you black?’” Walker said. “Of course, we’re all hurting. The nation is hurting.””