Australian defamation ruling threatens media companies

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Earlier this month, an Australian court issued a decision in a long-running defamation case: the judges ruled that Dylan Voller, who filed the case in 2017, could proceed with a defamation lawsuit against a number of Australian media outlets, including Murdoch-owned The Australian and Sky News. Not that unusual. Except that Voller isn’t suing these news companies for things they printed or broadcast about him, he’s suing them for things that Facebook users said in comments that appeared on the Facebook pages of those media companies after they linked to news stories about him. In effect, the Australian court said these media outlets are legally responsible for the comments their readers left on those posts, even if the companies were unaware of their existence. The chilling effect of this decision has already been felt even outside Australia: according to a report in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, CNN says it will shut off all public access to its Facebook pages in Australia because of the ruling.

The decision states that “the acts of the appellants in facilitating, encouraging and thereby assisting the posting of comments by the third-party Facebook users rendered them publishers of those comments,” and therefore liable. The judges added that an attempt by the media companies to portray themselves as “passive and unwitting victims of Facebook’s functionality” was not credible. “Having taken action to secure the commercial benefit of the Facebook functionality, the appellants bear the legal consequences,” the court said. It’s worth noting that the decision isn’t a lower-court ruling that might later be reversed: Voller won the original case, giving him the right to sue the companies; an appeals court upheld that decision in 2019, and that in turn was appealed to the country’s highest court, which issued the latest ruling. Five of the seven judges hearing it agreed with the majority.

When news of the decision was first released, some speculated that media companies might shut down their comments, or even their entire Facebook presence, for fear of being caught up in similar lawsuits. CNN appears to be the first, but it may not be the last. The media company reportedly asked Facebook for help in turning off comments on all of its posts in Australia, but the social network refused. Until recently, Facebook didn’t allow comments to be turned off on pages, presumably because they are a significant source of user engagement. It introduced the ability to do so in 2019, after the original Australian court decision in the Voller case, but comments have to be disabled on a post by post basis, rather than across all of a publisher’s pages.

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Leaked files from alt-right host Epik raise some hard questions

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

In a data leak first reported last week by independent journalist Steven Monacelli on Twitter, a group of unnamed hackers claiming to be associated with the hacker collective known as Anonymous released more than 180 gigabytes of data from Epik, a web-hosting company that has become notorious for having a number of alt-right groups and services as clients, including right-wing Twitter alternatives Gab and Parler, as well as pro-gun and pro-Trump sites. “This dataset is all that’s needed to trace actual ownership and management of the fascist side of the internet,” the group said in its news release. “Time to find out who in your family secretly ran an Ivermectin horse porn fetish site, disinfo publishing outfit or yet another QAnon hellhole.” The data dump is said to contain account information for all of Epik’s clients, including the registered owner’s email address, mailing address, and other information (although some right-wing sites use anonymization services to conceal this data).

The importance of the information in the Epik hack — if it proves to be accurate — seems obvious, especially for researchers trying to track QAnon groups or other disinformation sources, as well as hate-speech advocates and domestic terrorists. “The company played such a major role in keeping far-right terrorist cesspools alive,” Rita Katz, executive director of SITE Intelligence Group, which studies online extremism, told the Washington Post. “Without Epik, many extremist communities—from QAnon and white nationalists to accelerationist neo-Nazis—would have had far less oxygen to spread harm, whether that be building toward the January 6 Capitol riots or sowing the misinformation and conspiracy theories chipping away at democracy.”

Emma Best, co-founder of Distributed Denial of Secrets, a journalism non-profit that specializes in leaked data, told the Post that some researchers have called the Epik hack “the Panama Papers of hate groups,” a comparison to the leak of more than 11 million documents that exposed the offshore finance industry. Megan Squire, a professor at Elon University who studies right-wing extremism, told the Post “It’s massive. It may be the biggest domain-style leak I’ve seen and, as an extremism researcher, it’s certainly the most interesting. It’s an embarrassment of riches.” Like the Panama Papers, getting information out of the huge database and making sense of it is time-consuming, which could explain why it took several days for mainstream sites like CNN and the Post to report on the Epik hack.

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Facebook goes on the offensive against critical reporting

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, and widespread criticism that Facebook had helped to destabilize the process by enabling Russian trolls and spreading disinformation, the company seemed to strike mostly an apologetic tone. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder and chief executive, occasionally seemed defensive in his subsequent testimony before Congress, but the general sense was that he and the company were sorry for playing a role in those events, and were trying to do better. However, more recently Facebook appears to be taking a much more aggressive approach to criticism, if the company’s response to recent reporting from the Wall Street Journal and New York Times is any indication. The social network also seems to be trying to shift public opinion by inserting positive stories about Facebook into users’ news feeds, while Zuckerberg is doing his best to stay out of the fray.

After a series of Journal articles detailing how Facebook has a special program that allows celebrities to get around the platform’s rules of behavior, and has ignored the advice of its own researchers in its drive for growth at both Facebook and Instagram, the company responded with a lengthy blog post written by Nicholas Clegg, vice-president of global affairs and a former deputy prime minister in the UK. In it, the Facebook executive said the stories “contained deliberate mischaracterizations of what we are trying to do,” and that the reporting from the Journal “conferred egregiously false motives to Facebook’s leadership and employees.” The central allegation in the series, he said — that the company conducts research, and then systematically and willfully ignores it if the findings are inconvenient — is “just plain false.”

In the past, given such accusations, Zuckerberg might have penned his own blog post explaining the company’s behavior, as he did when Facebook said it was moving discussions on the platform toward private groups and encrypted messaging, or when he was describing his commitment to free speech, or when he discussed the decision to permanently block Donald Trump from the platform. In this case, Facebook decided to expand on Clegg’s argument in a separate post, but the post was not signed by anyone. In it, the company tried to highlight some of the positive work it has done on disinformation and abuse, including the fact that it has 40,000 people working on safety and security, and has invested more than $13 billion to protect users (which a former Facebook executive pointed out is about four percent of the company’s revenue).

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A kayak trip through Cootes’ Paradise

Whenever we travel somewhere within driving distance, I like to bring the kayaks, in case there’s a lake or a river or something where I can paddle around and see the scenery from a different perspective. So when we went to visit my daughter and son-in-law in Ancaster (near Hamilton, west of Toronto) I brought the kayaks and looked around for a place to paddle. Driving past Hamilton on the highway, you can see a large body of water to the north, and I had always wondered what it was, and whether I could paddle there. So I looked it up and it turns out it’s a wetland area called Cootes’ Paradise, which was created in 1927 and includes a marsh that’s about 320 hectares in size.

So one morning, when it looked like it was going to be warm and sunny, I drove down to a park right next to the wetland and dropped the kayak into the water and headed out. Right away I saw a bunch of white egrets sitting on a berm, and as I turned the corner into the larger part of the lake, I could see it was about half a kilometre across or so, with a couple of narrow channels I could paddle down, so I headed out to explore one. Someone seemed to have sent a memo to all the turtles telling them to lie out in the sun, because literally every downed tree was covered in turtles of various sizes.

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