Twitter Moderation on Conservative, Liberal Tweets Sparks Questions

Twitter has flagged a Liberal tweet and taken down a Conservative tweet. This is sparking questions about the speech crackdown push.

For quite some time now, Canadian politicians have been attacking social media for not doing enough to tackle misinformation. In fact, fighting disinformation is part of the Conservative party platform. Likewise, the Liberals have also been attacking social media for the spread of misinformation on those same platforms. While the Liberals platform has yet to be released, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see something about misinformation in their platform as well.

Obviously, it’s extremely oversimplified to say that misinformation exists on social media, therefore, government needs to step in and, to put it mildly, “incentivize” those platforms to tackle this problem. To be sure, there are obvious disinformation such as trying to argue that you are better off with COVID-19 then taking the vaccine. Usually, these comments come from the most deranged individuals out there. Of course, there are huge swaths of commentary that is much more fuzzy. For instance, criticism towards the government on perfectly valid information. The government would be more than happy to label that criticism as disinformation. In fact, we more or less saw that back in June during the Bill C-10 debate.

The point is, fighting disinformation online is far from cut and dry even if you do find clear cut examples. Anyone with a good amount of experience moderating knows that not every decision is easy. Most would attest to the idea that a number of decisions are decided on a case-by-case basis. You can’t just wave a magic wand and make all the problems disappear. Moreover, governments intervening is likely not going to make this problem any easier to deal with. Recently, we’ve been seeing this on full display with Twitter’s moderation of both the Conservative and Liberal parties feeds.

First, the Conservative party got hit with a DMCA notice over their attack ad against the Liberals. Trudeau’s face was superimposed on a character during a scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It was a cheap manipulation that only even half made sense. It was so bad, even some Conservatives were questioning the tone of the ad. While it was a bit of a debacle, it seems as though things only got worse when it also sparked a DMCA complaint. From Global:

Twitter says it has pulled a Conservative Party attack ad against Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau from its platform after the studio behind Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory complained that a scene from its 1971 film had been used without permission.

The video posted by the official CPC account shows Trudeau’s face superimposed over that of Veruca Salt, the spoiled child who sings “I want it now” before things go awry for her in Wonka’s temptation-filled chocolate factory.

“The only reason for an election is because Trudeau wants a majority,” the intro to the 37-second video reads. The clip then shows “Trudeau” singing Salt’s song. Various items in the candy factory have also been labelled with campaign issues such as “the economy” and “higher taxes.”

The video was posted last Friday, ahead of Trudeau’s move to call a snap election on Sunday.

Twitter Canada confirmed on Tuesday that it removed the tweet after it received a copyright infringement complaint under the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

“Per our copyright policy, we respond to valid copyright complaints sent to us by a copyright owner or their authorized representatives,” a Twitter Canada spokesperson told Global News.

The ad was obviously in poor taste and was already embarrassing the Conservatives. It was cheaply made to boot. Of course, the question is whether or not this would qualify as fair dealing. A case could probably be made that it is satire and commentary. After all, the laws don’t stipulate on the quality of the content, only on its use. The problem here is that this is a US based company. Therefore, the company does have to abide by US law. Specifically, the disastrous Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in this case. As a result, even if a case can be made that the video in question follows Fair Use in the US, it doesn’t matter. A complaint means that Fair Use and Fair Dealing is simply overridden. The result is that the content is taken down. A case can be made that the platforms hands were tied given that the original owner sent a complaint in the first place.

This longstanding problem has been happening on other sites like YouTube and Facebook. Even public domain material isn’t safe. Digital rights advocates have been calling for change on this front for decades now with only moderate success at best. Some of those calls were dismissed by copyright maximalists as permission to steal despite the validity of the concerns.

While some Conservatives will no doubt flag this incident as an example of the fictitious anti-Conservative bias on social media, the Liberal party was also the subject of moderation on Twitter. Deputy Prime Minister, Chrystia Freeland, posted a video showing clips of Erin O’Toole commenting on healthcare. That tweet was then flagged with the manipulated media flag. From the CBC:

A video tweeted by incumbent Liberal candidate Chrystia Freeland, who served as deputy prime minister in Justin Trudeau’s government, was given a warning label Sunday from Twitter, which marked it as “manipulated media.”

Freeland’s tweets, posted in both English and French, contain several edits and show Conservative leader Erin O’Toole answering a question about privatized health care during an online question-and-answer session in July 2020 during the Conservative leadership race.

The tweet shows O’Toole being asked if he would bring private, “for-profit” health care to Canada. He quickly responds: “yes.”

The question is, what constitutes manipulated media? Twitter did respond to requests for comments:

Twitter’s website says it puts labels on content that it believes are “significantly and deceptively altered or manipulated” including substantially edited in a way that alters the timing, sequencing, framing, adds subtitles, or if a real person is fabricated or simulated.

“We also consider whether the context in which media are shared could result in confusion or misunderstanding or suggests a deliberate intent to deceive people about the nature or origin of the content, for example by falsely claiming that it depicts reality,” according to Twitter’s website.

When asked about the Twitter warning label, the Liberals said the Twitter posts included a highlights video, which runs 35 seconds, and noted that another Freeland tweet contains a link to O’Toole’s full-length answer, which runs 2 minutes and 18 seconds.

Conservatives, of course, pounced proclaiming that the Liberals got caught lying. The reaction is, of course, the least surprising thing to come out of this story.

Still, it put the Liberals in an awkward position because of their efforts to call on social media to crack down on misinformation. What’s more is the sudden link being thrown up to point to the full clip in an effort to make it all better. This makes things even more awkward because they’ve been calling for a link tax on top of it all. This situation was not lost on Michael Geist who commented with the following:

On the Twitter designation of @cafreeland tweet as “manipulated media”, @JustinTrudeau defended by saying there was also a link to the original. Is it the government’s position that manipulated media is ok if a link to the original is included?

Seeing lots of arguments on either side of the @cafreeland manipulated media tweet. Perhaps the takeaway is online content moderation is very hard. That’s why the @s_guilbeault plan that incentivizes takedowns within 24 hours without full due process is a terrible idea.

The irony of this whole thing is that this is precisely the kinds of situations that digital rights advocates have been warning about. When they took those concerns to the government, those concerns were brushed off by both officials and some outlets. Some even consider these arguments as a defence to misinformation – this even after explaining that those arguments do nothing of the sort. Now, we are seeing the problems that have been warned about play out in real time. It’s kind of one of those “I told you so” moments.

The hope, obviously, is that the parties will take this as a hand on stove moment when they say they want to crack down on disinformation with no real plan to handle the nuances. Chances are, though, that this situation will get swept under the rug. In fact, it also opens the door up to a push to proclaim certain accounts as above the rules to prevent this embarrassment from happening again. We saw this with former US president, Donald Trump, who was pushing to allow himself to be untouched by moderation. Obviously, this solves nothing and only makes the problem of misinformation even worse. Still, it’s not outside the realm of possibility at this stage.

At any rate, the lesson here is that misinformation isn’t a black and white problem. Whether politicians actually hear this this time and step back to properly reassess the situation remains to be seen.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.



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