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Senate advances bill requiring social networks to report terrorist activity

Members of the Senate want to make sure that when particular red-listed topics appear, the owners of the social media platform report them, or else.

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The controversial reporting methods

Everyone I know uses social medial, from my friends and family, to my favorite brands, everyone is on-board the social media band wagon. Social media enables us to keep in touch, share things, we love, and have meaningful discussions. However, plenty of illegal and unsavory conversations take place in cyberspace as well and the government is taking notice.

Members of the Senate want to make sure that when particular red-listed topics appear, the owners of the social media platform are legally obligated to inform the government. That’s right. The government is monitoring us in a big way, or rather it plans to. Reuters reports that social media sites would be required to alert authorities if “terrorists” are talking in a new Senate appropriations bill (S. 1705).

What this bill entails

Since this bill is part of a larger appropriations bill, it would also authorize all intelligence activity and spending for the next fiscal year. This is important, as it makes it more likely that Congress will move this bill quickly. The bill is quite long, as appropriations bills often are, and Reuters has done a good good of uncovering some of the issues buried deep within this bill.

Specifically, this section of the bill that outlines a duty to “report terrorist activities and the unlawful distribution of information relating to explosives.” The contentious requirement actually reads:

Whoever, while engaged in providing an electronic communication service or a remote computing service to the public through a facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce, obtains actual knowledge of any terrorist activity, including the facts or circumstances described in subsection (c) shall, as soon as reasonably possible, provide to the appropriate authorities the facts or circumstances of the alleged terrorist activities.

Basically this means all the big social media sites and networks like Twitter and Facebook will be legally obligated to tell law enforcement as soon as “reasonably possible” if anyone making terrorist-type threats, or begins discussing illegal activity, including: “explosives, destructive devices, and weapons of mass destruction.” This could be trouble for a plethora of non-terrorist-threat firearms groups if more specific provisions are not made to this bill.

Report traffic or spy on users? The two functions are very different

An unnamed Congressional official told Reuters that the purpose was to protect social media companies that report certain traffic to the authorities, rather than to compel them to spy on their users, but that doesn’t seem to be how the bill reads.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein said that social media companies should work with the government to prevent violent militants from using their sites. With this is mind, it seems more likely this bill is meant to compel a more watchful eye from social media platforms, than protect those who are already reporting activity.

Need further proof? Feinstein stated, “Twitter, FB and YouTube all, as I understand it, remove content on their sites that come to their attention if it violates their terms of service, including terrorism. The companies do not proactively monitor their sites to identify such content nor do they inform the FBI when they identify or remove their content. I believe they should.”

The slippery slope of See Something Say Something on social media

Although the bill does specifically say that nothing in it should be construed to read as a requirement for sites to monitor particular users or their communications, as a “protection of privacy,” but it doesn’t sound like the government would be too disappointed if they did. To me, this seems like they’re asking social media platforms to use an algorithm to spot and report certain activity, despite their specific language not to violate their users’ privacy. However, an algorithm merely detects a pattern, so it could be stated that several users fall into a “pattern,” and therefore you aren’t violating anyone’s individual rights.

This becomes a slippery slope. Naturally, you do not want major terrorist activity to go unreported, but you also do not want your users fearing they’re being monitored with every rant they post. Facebook has already chimed in on the issue, telling Reuters, “We share the government’s goal of keeping terrorist content off our site. Our policies on this are crystal clear: we do not permit terrorist groups to use Facebook, and people are not allowed to promote or support these groups on Facebook. We remove this terrorist content as soon as we become aware of it.” Makes you wonder what filters and algorithms are already in place, doesn’t it? But if you’re on the straight-and-narrow, perhaps this isn’t anything to worry about. It does make you wonder though, what will be the next area the government wants social media platforms to report to them about?

The bill has been reported to be out of committee and will go to the Senate floor for a vote at some not-yet-determined time in the near future.

#SMterrorism

Jennifer Walpole is a Senior Staff Writer at The American Genius and holds a Master's degree in English from the University of Oklahoma. She is a science fiction fanatic and enjoys writing way more than she should. She dreams of being a screenwriter and seeing her work on the big screen in Hollywood one day.

Social Media

Zillow launches real estate brokerage after eons of swearing they wouldn’t

(MEDIA) We’ve warned of this for years, the industry funded it, and Zillow Homes brokerage has launched, and there are serious questions at hand.

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Zillow Homes was announced today, a Zillow licensed brokerage that will be fully operational in 2021 in Phoenix, Tucson, and Atlanta.

Whoa, big huge yawn-inducing shocker, y’all.

We’ve been warning for more than a decade that this was the end game, and the company blackballed us for our screams (and other criticisms, despite praise when merited here and there).

Blog posts were penned in fiery effigy calling naysayers like us stupid and paranoid.

Well color me unsurprised that the clarity of the gameplan was clear as day all along over here, and the paid talking heads sent out to astroturf, gaslight, and threaten us are now all quiet.

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We watched The Social Dilemma – here are some social media tips that stuck with us

(SOCIAL MEDIA) Here are some takeaways from watching Netflix’s The Social Dilemma that helped me to eliminate some social media burnout.

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Last weekend, I made the risky decision to watch The Social Dilemma on Netflix. I knew it was an important thing to watch, but the risk was that I also knew it would wig me out a bit. As much as I’m someone who is active “online,” the concept of social media overwhelms me almost more than it entertains (or enlightens) me.

The constant sharing of information, the accessibility to information, and the endless barrage of notifications are just a few of the ways social media can cause overwhelm. The documentary went in deeper than this surface-level content and got into the nitty gritty of how people behind the scenes use your data and track your usage.

Former employees of high-profile platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, and Pinterest gave their two cents on the dangers of social media from a technological standpoint. Basically, our data isn’t just being tracked to be passed along for newsletters and the like. But rather, humans are seen as products that are manipulated to buy and click all day every day in order to make others money and perpetuate information that has astronomical effects. (I’m not nearly as intelligent as these people, so watch the documentary to get the in-depth look at how all of this operates.)

One of the major elements that stuck with me was the end credits of The Social Dilemma where they asked interviewees about the ways they are working to eliminate social media overwhelm in their own lives. Some of these I’ve implemented myself and can attest to. Here’s a short list of things you can do to keep from burning out online.

  1. Turn off notifications – unless there are things you need to know about immediately (texts, emails, etc.) turn it off. Getting 100 individual notifications within an hour from those who liked your Instagram post will do nothing but burn you (and your battery) out.
  2. Know how to use these technologies to change the conversation and not perpetuate things like “fake news” and clickbait.
  3. Uninstall apps that are wasting your time. If you feel yourself wasting hours per week mindlessly scrolling through Facebook but not actually using it, consider deleting the app and only checking the site from a desktop or Internet browser.
  4. Research and consider using other search tools instead of Google (one interviewee mentioned that Qwant specifically does not collect/store your information the way Google does).
  5. Don’t perpetuate by watching recommended videos on YouTube, those are tailored to try and sway or sell you things. Pick your own content.
  6. Research the many extensions that remove these recommendations and help stop the collection of your data.

At the end of the day, just be mindful of how you’re using social media and what you’re sharing – not just about yourself, but the information you’re passing along from and to others. Do your part to make sure what you are sharing is accurate and useful in this conversation.

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WeChat ban blocked by California judge, but for how long?

(SOCIAL MEDIA) WeChat is protected by First Amendment concerns for now, but it’s unclear how long the app will remain as pressure mounts.

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WeChat barely avoided a US ban after a Californian judge stepped in to temporarily block President Trump’s executive order. Judge Laurel Beeler cited the effects of the ban on US-based WeChat users and how it threatened the First Amendment rights of those users.

“The plaintiffs’ evidence reflects that WeChat is effectively the only means of communication for many in the community, not only because China bans other apps, but also because Chinese speakers with limited English proficiency have no options other than WeChat,” Beeler wrote.

WeChat is a Chinese instant messaging and social media/mobile transaction app with over 1 billion active monthly users. The WeChat Alliance, a group of users who filed the lawsuit in August, pointed out that the ban unfairly targets Chinese-Americans as it’s the primary app used by the demographic to communicate with loved ones, engage in political discussions, and receive news.

The app, along with TikTok, has come under fire as a means for China to collect data on its users. U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has stated, “At the President’s direction, we have taken significant action to combat China’s malicious collection of American citizens’ personal data, while promoting our national values, democratic rules-based norms, and aggressive enforcement of U.S. laws and regulations.”

This example is yet another symptom of our ever-globalizing society where we are learning to navigate between connectivity and privacy. The plaintiffs also pointed out alternatives to an outright ban. One example cited was in Australia, where WeChat is now banned from government officials’ phones but not others.

Beeler has said that the range in alternatives to preserving national security affected her decision to strike down the ban. She also explained that in regards to dealing with national security, there is “scant little evidence that (the Commerce Department’s) effective ban of WeChat for all US users addresses those concerns.”

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