Thursday, January 11, 2018

"Fake news" or censorship -- is that the question? (Jan. 11, 2018)

Alleged Russian interference in the U.S. 2016 presidential election has led to a spate of accusations in other countries. But the Russian excuse is also used as justification for a disturbing trend of government efforts to censor so-called "fake news," reports The Intercept

The Brazilian Federal Police announced this week that a specially formed working group, together with representatives from the judiciary, will combat "fake news" during this year's electoral process. Conservative Supreme Court justice Gilmar Mendes will be participating.

There is no current legislation permitting such extreme censorship, notes the Observer. Proponents of the new internet censorship program said they will seek a new law in order to define their functions, but without it, they plan on using a dictatorship-era law penalizing people who "spread rumors that caused panic." 

"That 1983 legal framework was used by Brazil’s military dictatorship to arrest dissidents, critics, and democracy activists. That they are now eyeing a resurrection of this dictatorship-era censorship law to regulate and censor contemporary political expression on the internet — all in the name of stopping “fake news” — powerfully symbolizes how inherently tyrannical and dangerous are all government attempts to control political expression," notes The Intercept. The piece delves into the extremely vague nature of "fake news" and the difficulties inherent in trying to control it within a framework of freedom of expression.

A law Congress approved last year also aims to fine internet users who publish content aimed at influencing the election under a false identity.

Hypothetical Russian intervention and questionable censorship efforts aside, Brazil's voters -- passionate users of social media and in the midst of intense political polarization -- are at unique risk for misinformation, according to Bloomberg. Brazilian fact-checkers have been worried about fake news since it plagued the controversial impeachment of former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in 2016, notes Poynter.

With that in mind, Facebook announced last week that it will partner with Aos Fatos, part of the International Fact-Checking Network, to create a chatbot for the company’s messenger service.  Aos Fatos director Tai Nalon told Poynter that the short-term goal of the bot — tentatively named “Fátima,” shorthand for “fact machine” — is to enable Facebook users to be their own fact-checkers.

However, such a mechanism cannot be applied to WhatsApp. Brazil is WhatsApp’s second-largest market, with 120 million users -- more than half the nation’s population.

Facebook will also be supporting an online course developed by Brazilian researchers to help young people and educators avoid falling for hoaxes.

Several dozen Brazilian organizations of civil society, including Instituto Update and App Civico, have launched #NãoValeTudo, an initiative aimed at responsible use of technology in elections. They recognize the "hyper-connected" nature of the world today, and how reality is increasingly mediated by new platforms. Technologies "are tools that can be used in different ways," they warn. "There are unethical and dishonest uses that can manipulate the debate in order to disinform public opinion and make noise in the democratic political arena." These techniques, which are negative for democracy, are multiplying, and have been present recently in important political proceses, like the U.S. presidential elections in 2016, the referendum regarding the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, or in the debates about the peace accords in Colombia. ... We, the signatories of this letter, believe that technology can improve democracy. Because of that, we commit ourselves to make ethical use of them, according to the principles in this letter, during the 2018 elections."

News Briefs
  • Colombia's ELN guerrillas carried out three bomb attacks yesterday, immediately after a temporary cease-fire expired, reports Reuters. Bombing against the country's second most important pipeline forced the suspension of pumping operations. The ELN also staged a grenade attack on a naval base in Arauca province, injuring two soldiers.  In response, the Colombian government recalled negotiators from a peace round due to start yesterday in Quito, reports the BBC. "The government was always willing to extend the ceasefire. Inexplicably, the ELN refused," said President Juan Manuel Santos. Later in the day ELN representatives urged the government to reopen negotiations. Talks, which started in February of last year, have suffered numerous setbacks. The group's negotiator in Quito said said the attacks occurred in "complex situations" of war and that the group maintained its intention to negotiate a new ceasefire. "The attacks underscored the steep challenges Colombia faces as it tries to negotiate a peace deal with the ELN similar to the one that it signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in 2016," according to the New York Times.
  • The ceasefire itself had disparate impact in different regions under ELN control, reports Silla Vacía. While Arauca residents had a peaceful holiday season for the first time in 50 years, in Pacífico numerous violations occurred -- at least two in relation to skirmishes over former FARC territories and drug trafficking routes.
  • Political maneuvering could impact the selection of Guatemala's new attorney general, reports InSight Crime. In fact, machinations to impact a commission that would select the next head prosecutor have already begun on the part of powerful elites seeking to thwart anti-corruption efforts. Nómada details how fifteen lawyers will select six candidates that President Jimmy Morales will choose between.
  • Mexico may be on the verge of a perfect storm, argues Jorge Castañeda in a New York Times op-ed. "Three dark clouds threaten Mexico’s future in 2018: Donald Trump’s tax overhaul, the possible end of Nafta and a presidential election that may introduce an era of turmoil and uncertainty for the economy and Mexican society at large." He makes the interesting point with regard to the presidential election, that it's not so much whether front-runner leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador will actually win, but whether investors believe he will. They do, and they are either delaying projects in the pipeline or postponing new ones until after the election, writes Castañeda. "What these three clouds imply for Mexico is a protracted period of insignificant growth after a long period of mediocre growth. They probably entail more drug production, migration and violence. Poverty and inequality, which have both shrunk slightly over the past 15 years, will rise again."
  • The U.S. state department has warned Americans to completely avoid five Mexican states plagued by crime and drug cartel violence, putting the regions on the same level as war-zones such as Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, reports the Guardian.
  • The Washington Post has a briefing on what TPS, after the Trump administration canceled the provisional residency program for about 200,000 Salvadorans this week. (See Tuesday's post.)
  • And Canada is apparently fearing a huge influx of Salvadoran migrants crossing the border in search of asylum, as occurred last year when Haiti's TPS was cancelled, reports the Washington Post.
  • The Vatican has taken over a Peru-based Catholic movement whose founder was accused of sexual and psychological abuse, just days before Pope Francis starts a trip to Chile and Peru where the sexual abuse scandal is expected to play out on the sidelines, reports the Associated Press.
  • Argentine military Bishop Santiago Olivera said yesterday that he has in his power a previously undisclosed book of baptisms carried out in the ESMA chapel between 1975 and 1979. The ESMA (Navy Mechanical School) was the site of a clandestine maternity ward for illicit captives of the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina at the time. Many of the infants born there were given in illegal adoption and their mothers were subsequently killed. The book apparently contains records of 127 baptisms, some of which could correspond to children of military officers, but some may provide clues regarding the still-missing children of the disappeared, reports Página 12. 

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