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Tech Tyranny: Online Satire in Danger?

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Tech Tyranny: Online Satire in Danger?

Editor’s Note – As the technological realm becomes more pervasive, whom can we trust? Each week, Liberty Nation brings new insight into the fraudulent use of personal data, breaches of privacy, and attempts to filter our perception.

Last week, we mentioned the absurdist twist taken in the Trump versus Twitter feud; although it didn’t seem possible for the episode to get sillier, our expectations have been exceeded. It started when the microblogging site attached a “manipulated media” tag to one of the president’s tweets featuring a parody CNN report. The “doctored” video depicted a “racist” white toddler (said to be a Trump voter) chasing a “terrified” black toddler. The video used footage from an old story by the network, and in real life, the two children are best friends. The obviously satirical meme was fact-checked by Twitter, while critics complained that Trump was spreading fake news. One might have thought that would be the end of it, but the insanity didn’t end there.

The video was quickly taken down due to a complaint by the copyright holder. As is its wont, CNN reacted to the parody in anger, claiming that Trump was “tweeting fake videos that exploit innocent children,” and it appears the network told Twitter to remove the video. That wasn’t the end of the matter, either. Behind the parody was the pro-Trump meme-creator who goes by “CarpeDonktum,” now permanently banned by Twitter for copyright violations.

Further upping the ante on this ridiculous story, the children’s parents are planning to sue Trump and CarpeDonktum over the meme, calling it “propaganda.” The concern is not over the actual use of the children’s images online – the original CNN story was about how popular the footage had been on social media. Instead, the families’ attorney Ven Johnson told ABC 6 Action News there must be “ramifications” for an attempt to “to shed a negative light on what is otherwise this positive, warm message.” Talk about controlling narratives.

Back to the critical issue, however. Twitter confirmed that the meme creator had been banned, telling Fox News, “We respond to valid copyright complaints sent to us by a copyright owner or their authorized representatives. The account was permanently suspended for repeated violations of this policy.”

CarpeDonktum fired back in a statement, claiming he had never violated Twitter’s rules. Donald Trump Jr. tweeted in support: “Twitter claiming he violated ‘copyright infringement’ on videos that are public domain or clearly parodies covered by fair use is beyond fraudulent.”

Satire at Risk from Copyright Claims

This surreal episode may seem relatively minor, but it is not the first time that copyright enforcement has been highlighted as a potential free speech matter concerning online satire.

In 2019, the European Union passed copyright regulations, including the controversial Article 13. Liberty Nation‘s Joe Schaeffer reported: “The new regulation assumed an ominous reputation … with opponents warning it would mean the death of memes and other forms of parody, satire, and free speech.”

Article 13 was part of legislation “aimed at protecting copyrights that will force websites that host user-generated content – such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. – to make sure that copyright-protected material is not posted.” Schaeffer and other observers predicted the law would severely limit creative expression online – which often makes use of copyrighted content – and transfer significant speech control to major corporations under the guise of supporting artists. “Though all this will be happening in Europe, by tilting the universal internet among such a huge population in favor of big corporations, the cherished notion of the net as a ‘free-for-all’ buffet of information will be greatly reduced,” he commented. E.U. nations have until 7 June, 2021, to enact the law. Are we seeing unofficial overtures from Silicon Valley, hoping to send the U.S. down the same path?

Copyright Violation or Fair Use?

Stateside, there have been a few disputes over copyright restrictions stifling satirical or parodical content. Parody and, to a lesser extent, satire is often protected by the legal doctrine of “fair use.” The principle allows copyrighted content to be distributed or adapted under certain circumstances – particularly when it does not impact the money-making ability of the original creator.

In 2010, NPR published an article examining a popular meme whereby scenes from the movie Downfall, which depicts the final days of Hitler, were used in various online parodies. Since the movie is in the German language, English-speakers inserted their own humorous subtitles during a scene in which an enraged Hitler berates his military commanders. The videos began disappearing from YouTube when the copyright holder, Constantin Films, started using a filter to scan for its material and have the parodies removed. The content ID system, still in place, was developed “as a response by the Google-owned YouTube to complaints by big media companies that people were stealing their content when they put it up on YouTube,” reported NPR. However, Corynne McSherry, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), told the outlet: “All the ones [Downfall parodies] that I’ve seen are very strong fair use cases and so they’re not infringing, and they shouldn’t be taken down. But via this filter system they are taken down virtually automatically.”

The EFF has stood up for satirical voices on several occasions. In a 2007 lawsuit over a lampoon of The Colbert Report being deleted from YouTube, the foundation stated:

“Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a mere allegation of copyright infringement on the Internet can result in content removal, silencing a creator before any misuse is proven. This ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ system can silence online artists and critics, creating unfair hurdles to free speech.”

The lawsuit was dropped a month afterward, after the copyright holder, Viacom, admitted its fault.

A few years later, Viacom was on the receiving end, when it and Comedy Central were sued over a South Park send-up of an online video. The case was quickly dismissed by a Wisconsin district court and a Seventh Circuit appeals court, saying the parody was clearly a case of “fair use.” The court stated: “[I]nfringement suits are often baseless shakedowns.” The EFF added that quick dismissal of such suits was vital to deterring “copyright trolls” who “depend on the threat of legal costs to encourage people to settle cases even though they might have legitimate defenses.”

More to Come?

Why spend so much time looking at the particulars of one farcical Twitter feud, anyway? CNN and Twitter were quick to accuse Trump of spreading misinformation after he tweeted the meme when any rational viewer could see that it was intended as a joke. Copyright accusations were just a convenient excuse to remove unwanted content.

Further south, Brazil is now under fire for a fake news bill that would severely limit free communications. According to Human Rights Watch, the law “prohibits using ‘manipulated’ content for the purpose of ‘ridiculing’ political candidates … That broad provision would effectively ban satire and irony during elections, and thus violate free speech guarantees.” While the Brazilian law would be imposed by a government to protect politicians, why is restricting satirical “manipulated content” a breach of human rights in one country, but perfectly acceptable in another?

From fake news and copyright trolls to bills around the world threatening the existence of online satire, perhaps this “racist baby” episode is just one of many to come.

That’s all for this week from Tech Tyranny. Check back next Monday to find out what’s happening in the digital realm and how it impacts you.


Read more from Laura Valkovic.

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