(Bloomberg) -- Twitter is facing condemnation in Latin America’s largest economy for its laissez-faire approach on content suspected of inspiring violence in schools.
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A sudden spike in killings in education centers across Brazil — where school shootings are uncommon — prompted authorities this week to clamp down on social media companies that were hosting messages that lauded the attacks.
Twitter, which has espoused a free-speech ethos since being taken over by billionaire Elon Musk last year, initially resisted over 500 requests from Brazil’s Justice Ministry to take down posts and profiles. The stance sparked widespread backlash and the issuing of an executive decree late Wednesday that threatens Twitter and other platforms with fines — or even a potential ban for failure to comply.
The Justice Ministry’s offensive comes as the nation is still reeling from the murder of four children caused by a hatchet-wielding man at a daycare center in southern state of Santa Catarina this month.
Investigators often point to the existence of active groups in the far-reaches of the Internet that celebrate such attacks as one of the reason violence in schools keeps multiplying.
Twitter didn’t respond to a request for comment. Internet activists and enraged Twitter users struck back at the website with posts containing #TwitterApoiaMassacres, or Twitter supports massacres, which later appeared to be blocked on the platform.
“Twitter’s failure in moderating such content was simply grotesque,” said Carlos Affonso Souza, head of the Institute for Technology & Society at Rio de Janeiro State University.
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While school shootings are commonplace in the US, causing educators to employ armed guards and install metal detectors in buildings, they have been a historically rare occurrence in Brazil.
An unprecedented series of violent events has left the population alarmed. Researchers from the University of São Paulo logged 10 attacks on schools in the last 13 months. Four have occurred since the start of the year.
The federal government has responded by making millions of dollars worth of funding available to state and local authorities to increase security at schools. Yet the upswing in violence — and fears of a potential copycat attack — have tensions running high ahead of April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre.
There’s a clearly connection between attacks and social media communities to spread hate speech, according to Carolina Ricardo, executive director of the Non-Governmental Organization Sou da Paz. “There’s also a clearly reference to the US cases, all recent Brazilian cases were inspired in Columbine’s, so it’s necessary to truly debate social media regulation,” she said.
After Musk’s takeover, Twitter’s legal policy team, which removes content based on government and legal requests and reviews law enforcement inquiries for user data, faced “massive cuts,” a person familiar with the matter said. Since then, more employees on the policy team have departed voluntarily, leaving fewer people with the time or expertise to deal with government demands.
Musk’s social-media platform is wildly popular in Brazil and news of the company’s stance caused an immediate uproar.
After the pressure of Brazilian authorities, the San Francisco-based company had begun removing some of the material cited by the Justice Ministry as of Wednesday, local media outlets reported. But it remains unclear if Twitter will meet the government’s demand.
--With assistance from Beatriz Reis and Vanessa Dezem.
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