Police debunk social media misinformation linking Oregon wildfires to activists

By Elizabeth Culliford

(Reuters) – Several Oregon police departments have aimed to debunk misinformation spreading on social media platforms this week, including Facebook Inc and Twitter Inc, blaming leftist and right-wing groups for wildfires raging in the state.

“Rumors spread just like wildfire and now our 9-1-1 dispatchers and professional staff are being overrun with requests for information and inquiries on an UNTRUE rumor that 6 Antifa members have been arrested for setting fires in DOUGLAS COUNTY, OREGON,” read a Facebook post from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon on Thursday. “THIS IS NOT TRUE!”

PolitiFact, one of Facebook’s third-party fact-checking partners, wrote on Thursday on its website that dozens of posts blaming Antifa for the wildfires had been flagged by the social media company’s systems, and that collectively the posts had been shared thousands of times.

Antifa, which stands for anti-fascist, is a largely unstructured, far-left movement whose followers broadly aim to confront those they view as authoritarian or racist. U.S. President Donald Trump and some fellow Republicans have in recent months sought to blame the movement for violence at anti-racism protests, but have presented little evidence.

A Wednesday tweet from a self-described representative for conservative youth group Turning Point USA, which has been shared about 2,900 times, said the fires were “allegedly linked to Antifa and the Riots.”

Around half a million people in Oregon evacuated as dozens of extreme, wind-driven wildfires scorched the U.S. West Coast states on Friday, destroying hundreds of homes and killing at least 16 people, state and local authorities said.

Earlier this week, Medford police in Oregon also debunked a false post using the police department’s logo and name suggesting that five members of the Proud Boys had been arrested for arson.

The men-only, far-right Proud Boys group describes itself as a fraternal club of “Western chauvinists.”

“This is a made up graphic and story. We did not arrest this person for arson, nor anyone affiliated with Antifa or ‘Proud Boys’ as we’ve heard throughout the day,” the police department wrote in a Facebook post.

The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon also posted on Thursday: “We are inundated with questions about things that are FAKE stories. One example is a story circulating that varies about what group is involved as to setting fires and arrests being made.”

Climate scientists say global warming has contributed to greater extremes in wet and dry seasons, causing vegetation to flourish and then dry out in the U.S. West, creating fuel for fires.

Police have opened a criminal arson investigation into at least one Oregon blaze, the Almeda Fire, Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara said.

A Facebook spokeswoman said it had attached warning labels and reduced the distribution of posts about fires’ origins that were rated false by its fact-checking partners.

A Twitter spokeswoman said it did not seem that the rumors violated the social media site’s rules, saying in a statement: “As we have said before we will not be able to take enforcement action on every Tweet that contains incomplete or disputed information.”

(Reporting by Elizabeth Culliford in Birmingham, England, additional reporting by Katie Paul in San Francisco; Editing by Tom Brown)

Portland mayor urges restraint, renunciation of violence after fatal shooting

By Steve Gorman and Maria Caspani

(Reuters) – Officials in Portland, Oregon, said on Sunday they were braced for an escalation of protest-related violence that has convulsed the city for three months, citing social media posts vowing revenge for a fatal shooting amid weekend street clashes between supporters of President Donald Trump and counter-demonstrators.

“For those of you saying on Twitter this morning that you plan to come to Portland to seek retribution, I’m calling on you to stay away,” Mayor Ted Wheeler told an afternoon news conference, urging individuals of all political persuasions to join in renouncing violence.

He also lashed out at Trump for political rhetoric that he said “encouraged division and stoked violence,” and brushed aside a flurry of weekend Twitter posts from the president criticizing Wheeler and urging the mayor to request help from the federal government to restore order.

“It’s an aggressive stance. It’s not collaborative,” Wheeler said of Trump’s tweets. “I’d appreciate it if the president would support us or stay the hell out of the way.”

Wheeler and Police Chief Chuck Lovell said investigators were still working to establish the sequence of events leading to the fatal shooting late Saturday in downtown Portland, and they provided few new details about the investigation.

Lovell said it remained to be determined whether the shooting was connected to skirmishes that night between a caravan of protesters driving through the city’s downtown district in pickup trucks waving pro-Trump flags and counter-protesters on the streets.

Video on social media showed individuals in the beds of the pickups firing paint-balls and spraying chemical irritants at opposing demonstrators as they rode by, while those on the street hurled objects at the trucks and tried to block them.

Authorities have not identified the shooting victim. But the New York Times reported the man gunned down was wearing a hat with the insignia of the right-wing group Patriot Prayer. On Sunday, the leader of the group, Joey Gibson, appeared to confirm that the victim was a Patriot Prayer member whom he knew.

“We love Jay, and he had such a huge heart. God bless him and the life he lived,” Gibson wrote on social media. “I’m going to wait to make any public statements until after the family can.”

Trump later re-tweeted a photo of a man identified as Jay Bishop and described in that post as “a good American that loved his country and Backed the Blue,” an apparent reference to police. “He was murdered in Portland by ANTIFA.”

Trump wrote, “Rest in Peace Jay!” in his retweet.

UNDER FIRE FROM TWO SIDES

The mayor also came under renewed fire from several left-wing Oregon-based civil rights and community organizations that have been at odds with Wheeler and called for his resignation in an open letter on Sunday.

“Amid 94 days and nights of protests against police brutality, Mayor Wheeler has fundamentally failed in his responsibilities to the residents of Portland,” the letter said.

Police warned against individuals taking to Twitter on the basis of misinformation.

“There are many who are sharing information on social media who are jumping to conclusions that are not based on facts,” Lovell said.

He said the shooting was preceded by a “political rally involving a vehicle caravan that traveled through Portland for several hours.” He said those vehicles had departed from a prescribed protest route that was supposed to funnel them along Interstate 5, outside Portland, to the site of the rally in neighboring Clackamas County.

He said that by the time the shooting took place, the caravan had already cleared that section of downtown, and that there were no police at the spot when it happened.

Protests, which have grown violent at times, have roiled downtown Portland every night for more than three months following the May 25 killing of George Floyd, the Black man who died under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis.

The demonstrators, demanding reforms of police practices they view as racist and abusive, have frequently clashed with law enforcement and on occasion with counter-protesters associated with right-wing militia groups.

The Trump administration in July deployed federal forces to Portland to crack down on the protests, drawing widespread criticism that the presence of federal agents in the city only heightened tensions.

On Sunday’s broadcast of ABC’s “This Week” program, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said, “All options continue to be on the table” to resolve Portland’s unrest.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman and Maria Caspani; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

Facebook removes seven million posts for sharing false information on coronavirus

(Reuters) – Facebook Inc. said on Tuesday it removed 7 million posts in the second quarter for sharing false information about the novel coronavirus, including content that promoted fake preventative measures and exaggerated cures.

Facebook released the data as part of its sixth Community Standards Enforcement Report, which it introduced in 2018 along with more stringent decorum rules in response to a backlash over its lax approach to policing content on its platforms.

The company said it would invite external experts to independently audit the metrics used in the report, beginning 2021.

The world’s biggest social media company removed about 22.5 million posts containing hate speech on its flagship app in the second quarter, up from 9.6 million in the first quarter. It also deleted 8.7 million posts connected to extremist organizations, compared with 6.3 million in the prior period.

Facebook said it relied more heavily on automation technology for reviewing content during the months of April, May and June as it had fewer reviewers at its offices due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

That resulted in company taking action on fewer pieces of content related to suicide and self-injury, child nudity and sexual exploitation on its platforms, Facebook said in a blog post.

The company said it was expanding its hate speech policy to include “content depicting blackface, or stereotypes about Jewish people controlling the world.”

Some U.S. politicians and public figures have caused controversies by donning blackface, a practice that dates back to 19th century minstrel shows that caricatured slaves. It has long been used to demean African-Americans.

(Reporting by Katie Paul in San Francisco and Munsif Vengattil in Bengaluru; Additional Reporting by Bart Meijer; Editing by Shinjini Ganguli and Anil D’Silva)

Twitter hack raises concern in Washington

(Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers sought an explanation from Twitter Inc after hackers gained access to the social media company’s internal systems to hijack accounts of several politicians, billionaires, celebrities and companies.

The company’s shares fell nearly 3% in early trade on Thursday after hackers infiltrated the twitter handles of U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden, reality TV star Kim Kardashian, former U.S. President Barack Obama and billionaire Elon Musk, among others, to solicit digital currency.

Twitter said hackers had targeted employees with access to its internal systems and “used this access to take control of many highly-visible (including verified) accounts and Tweet on their behalf.”

In an extraordinary step, it temporarily prevented many verified accounts from publishing messages as it investigated the breach.

The hijacked accounts tweeted out messages telling users to send bitcoin and their money would be doubled. Publicly available blockchain records show that the apparent scammers received more than $100,000 worth of cryptocurrency.

Republican Senator Josh Hawley, a tech critic, sent a letter to Twitter Chief Executive Jack Dorsey, urging him to get in touch with the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to secure the site.

“A successful attack on your system’s servers represents a threat to all of your users’ privacy and data security,” Hawley told Dorsey in the letter, demanding more answers on the impact and scope of the breach.

Frank Pallone, a Democrat who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee that oversees a sizable portion of U.S. tech policy, said in a tweet the company “needs to explain how all of these prominent accounts were hacked.”

Dorsey said in a tweet on Wednesday that it was a “tough day” for everyone at Twitter and pledged to share “everything we can when we have a more complete understanding of exactly what happened”.

Other high profile accounts that were hacked included rapper Kanye West, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, investor Warren Buffett, Microsoft Corp co-founder Bill Gates, and the corporate accounts for Uber and Apple Inc.

Some analysts said hacks of this nature will not have any material impact on Twitter’s financials, others expect it to spend more on platform security to address such incidents.

The hack “certainly doesn’t help,” Joe Wittine, Edgewater Research analyst, told Reuters in an email. It will pose more of a “reputational risk”, versus “material near-term risk to advertising revenues.”

Echoing a similar sentiment, Bernstein analyst Mark Shmulik said in the long-term, “maybe if a few of the ‘blue check mark’ accounts decide to leave the platform that could have a minor impact on usage.”

(Reporting by Ayanti Bera, Aakash Jagadeesh Babu and Subrat Patnaik in Bengaluru and Nandita Bose in Washington DC; Editing by Bernard Orr and Peter Graff)

Senate committee to vote on bill banning federal employees from using TikTok

By Nandita Bose

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. Senate committee is likely to vote next week on a bill from Republican Senator Josh Hawley that would ban federal employees from using social media app TikTok on government-issued devices.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will take up the “No TikTok on Government Devices Act” at its hearing on July 22.

TikTok’s Chinese ownership and wide popularity among American teens have brought scrutiny from U.S. regulators and lawmakers.

TikTok, owned by China’s ByteDance, is known for its ability to create short videos. The company last year said that about 60% of its 26.5 million monthly active users in the U.S. are aged 16 to 24.

One of the company’s harshest critic, Hawley has repeatedly raised national security concerns over TikTok’s handling of user data and said he was worried that the company shares data with the Chinese government.

“For federal employees it really is a no-brainer. It’s a major security risk. … Do we really want Beijing having geo-location data of all federal employees? Do we really want them having their keystrokes?” Hawley told reporters in March when he announced the introduction of the bill.

Several U.S. agencies that deal with national security and intelligence issues have banned employees from using the app, which allows users to create short videos.

Recently, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States is looking at banning Chinese social media apps, including TikTok, suggesting it shared information with the Chinese government. He said Americans should be cautious in using the app.

TikTok in the past has told Reuters it has never provided user data to China. It did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Under a law introduced in 2017 under Chinese President Xi Jinping, Chinese companies have an obligation to support and cooperate in China’s national intelligence work.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington; Editing by Leslie Adler)

Three white men to face Georgia judge in death of black jogger

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – Three white men charged with the murder of an unarmed black man in Georgia will face a judge Thursday morning in a case that caused a national outcry after cellphone video of the shooting was leaked on social media.

Protests are expected outside the courthouse after more than a week of demonstrations across the United States over the death of George Floyd, a black American who was pinned down to the ground by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

In the case in Georgia, the three men were not charged until more than two months after Ahmaud Arbery, 25, was shot dead while running on Feb. 23.

State police stepped in to investigate after the video was widely seen and Glynn County police took no action, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) pressed charges.

A former police officer is accused of involvement in Arbery’s death in the coastal community of Brunswick, and state officials have called in the National Guard to assist with the crowds expected outside the courthouse.

Glynn County Magistrate Judge Wallace Harrell who will review whether or not the GBI had probable cause to bring the charges.

Former police officer Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son Travis McMichael, 34, are charged with murder and aggravated assault.

William “Roddie” Bryan, a neighbor of the McMichaels who took the cellphone video, was charged with felony murder and attempt to illegally detain and confine.

Police say Gregory McMichael saw Arbery running in his neighborhood just outside Brunswick and believed he looked like a burglary suspect. The elder McMichael called his son and the two armed themselves and gave chase in a pickup truck, police said.

Bryan’s video footage appears to show the McMichaels confronting Arbery before Arbery was shot with a shotgun.

The U.S. Department of Justice is also investigating the case as a possible federal hate crime. The GBI is investigating the police department and two local district attorneys offices over the handling of the case.

If convicted, the three men face life in prison or the death penalty.

(Reporting by Rich McKay; Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Trump to sign executive order on social media on Thursday: White House

By Jeff Mason and Nandita Bose

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump will sign an executive order on social media companies on Thursday, White House officials said after Trump threatened to shut down websites he accused of stifling conservative voices.

The officials gave no further details. It was unclear how Trump could follow through on the threat of shutting down privately-owned companies including Twitter Inc.

The dispute erupted after Twitter on Tuesday for the first time-tagged Trump’s tweets about unsubstantiated claims of fraud in mail-in voting with a warning prompting readers to fact check the posts.

Separately, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington on Wednesday upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit by a conservative group and right-wing YouTube personality against Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple accusing them of conspiring to suppress conservative political views.

In an interview with Fox News Channel on Wednesday, Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, said censoring a platform would not be the “right reflex” for a government worried about censorship. Fox played a clip of the interview and said it would be aired in full on Thursday.

Facebook left Trump’s post on mail-in ballots on Tuesday untouched.

The American Civil Liberties Union said the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution limits any action Trump could take.

Facebook and Alphabet’s Google declined to comment. Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

“Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices. We will strongly regulate, or close them down before we can ever allow this to happen,” Trump said in a pair of additional posts on Twitter on Wednesday.

The president, a heavy user of Twitter with more than 80 million followers, added: “Clean up your act, NOW!!!!”

Republican Trump has an eye on the November election.

“Big Tech is doing everything in their very considerable power to CENSOR in advance of the 2020 Election,” Trump tweeted on Wednesday. “If that happens, we no longer have our freedom.”

STRONGEST THREAT YET

Trump’s threat is his strongest yet within a broader conservative backlash against Big Tech. Shares of both Twitter and Facebook fell on Wednesday.

Last year the White House circulated drafts of a proposed executive order about anti-conservative bias which never gained traction.

The Internet Association, which includes Twitter and Facebook among its members, said online platforms do not have a political bias and they offer “more people a chance to be heard than at any point in history.”

Late on Wednesday, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said Trump’s tweets about California’s vote-by-mail plans “may mislead people into thinking they don’t need to register to get a ballot.”

Separately, Twitter said Trump’s tweets were labeled as part of efforts to enforce the company’s “civic integrity policy.”

The policy document on Twitter’s website says people may not use its services for manipulating or interfering in elections or other civic processes.

In recent years Twitter has tightened its policies amid criticism that its hands-off approach allowed fake accounts and misinformation to thrive.

Tech companies have been accused of anti-competitive practices and violating user privacy. Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon.com face antitrust probes by federal and state authorities and a U.S. congressional panel.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers, along with the U.S. Justice Department, have been considering changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a federal law largely exempting online platforms from legal liability for the material their users post. Such changes could expose tech companies to more lawsuits.

Republican Senator Josh Hawley, a frequent critic of Big Tech companies, sent a letter to Dorsey asking why Twitter should continue to receive legal immunity after “choosing to editorialize on President Trump’s tweets.”

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Nandita Bose; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu in Washington, Katie Paul in San Francisco, Supantha Mukherjee and Shubham Kalia in Bangalore; Elizabeth Culliford in Birmingham, England, and David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Howard Goller, Grant McCool and Himani Sarkar)

As lockdown fuels domestic abuse, social media users fight back

By Sonia Elks, Umberto Bacchi and Annie Banerji

LONDON/TBILISI/NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When British teenager Kaitlyn McGoldrick heard domestic violence was increasing under lockdown, she posted a video on social media showing victims how to make a silent emergency call to police without their attackers finding out.

“I just wanted to get the message out there that there are still places you can go,” said McGoldrick, 14, a volunteer police cadet whose post has had more than 50,000 views on the TikTok video-sharing platform.

As coronavirus curbs trap victims under the same roof as abusers, the United Nations has called domestic violence a “shadow pandemic”, and the issue has led to a flurry of online campaigns by charities, celebrities and ordinary social media users.

Inundated with positive responses to her video, McGoldrick plans to share more advice posts with backing from the local police youth volunteer group to which she belongs.

Some of the anti-abuse posts circulating on social media are proving more controversial, however.

There has been criticism of a trend on TikTok in which young women wear lurid fake blood makeup to depict domestic violence scenarios. Critics say such videos could upset victims and often appear more clickbait than genuine campaigning.

Domestic violence campaign groups have also expressed concerns about posts inviting victims to get in touch for support instead of directing them to more expert advice.

SPOTLIGHT ON VIOLENCE

Still, most campaigners say attention-grabbing posts and videos have shone a spotlight on violence within the family, which is often cloaked in shame and fear that stops many victims seeking help.

“We need and appreciate attention on this critical and all-too-often hidden issue,” Latanya Mapp Frett, chief executive of the Global Fund for Women, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

While celebrities from Russian punk band Pussy Riot to Bollywood stars have spoken out in anti-domestic violence campaigns, the vast majority of online posts are shared by ordinary social media users.

Some post on their own stories of abuse, often offering to support others going through similar situations.

Others share clips including tips such as how to secretly call police under the guise of ordering a pizza.

Attention-grabbing videos like those posted on TikTok could particularly help reach young people who might be less able to spot warning signs of abuse, said Marcella Pirrone, of Women Against Violence Europe (WAVE).

She cautioned that posters should offer emotional support and information rather than pressuring women to potentially put themselves at risk by demanding they contact police, but said wider discussion of the issue was valuable.

“What’s interesting is there is a lot of talk about violence now and that’s something we had always been asking for: to have awareness-raising, to have proper attention to this,” she said.

RAISE AWARENESS

The involvement of celebrities and social media influencers is also helping to raise awareness about the heightened risk of abuse during worldwide lockdowns.

“COVID-19 has not created new problems for women, it has just exacerbated the old ones,” U.S. comedian and presenter Samantha Bee said in a clip from her late-night television show addressing gendered abuse and shared on her social media pages.

The video, which has gathered hundreds of thousands of views, includes helpline details and highlights virtual support groups for women unable to leave the house.

A social media campaign starring more than a dozen Bollywood and theatre actors was launched in India earlier this month by Mumbai-based Women in Film and Television (WIFT).

“If you’re beaten at home, if you’re facing excesses or bad behavior and you want to report it, please call on the helpline numbers below,” said actor Richa Chadha in an online video in the #baskuchdinaur (‘Just a few more days’) campaign.

In Russia, a pop star who was condemned for suggesting women who spoke out against abuse had mental problems has sought to make amends by producing an informative YouTube movie about domestic violence that has racked up more than 4 million views.

In a country with high levels of abuse where speaking out is often stigmatized, Regina Todorenko’s 80-minute film has drawn “unprecedented” public attention to the issue, said Janette Akhilgova, a Russia consultant for rights group Equality Now.

With many people spending more time on social media during the lockdown, the teenager McGoldrick said it was a vital tool for increasing awareness.

“It’s such an important subject to get out there,” she said. “The more people are spreading the word about it, the better.”

(Reporting by Sonia Elks, Umberto Bacchi and Annie Banerji; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

As coronavirus empties streets, speeders hit the gas

By Tina Bellon

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Empty roads in the United States and Europe are tempting drivers to go out and shift into high gear.

From Los Angeles to New York, London and Berlin, coronavirus lockdowns have drained traffic from normally crowded roads. That has opened space for drivers who want to defy police warnings and automated traffic enforcement systems to go racing in the streets. In London and Los Angeles, police said they have clocked drivers zooming down streets at over 100 miles an hour(160 km/h).

Drivers are posting videos on social media to boast of races on empty roads in Mexico and the U.S. states of Arizona and Texas. In addition to the thrill of speeding, some drivers overestimate their abilities and falsely believe that empty roads provide safety, according to police officials.

Vehicle miles traveled, a standard industry metric to measure vehicle volume and trip distances, has dropped in every U.S. county as of early April, according to data by StreetLight Data, a transportation analytics firm.

For a graphic, click here: https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/AUTOS-TRAFFIC/qmypmyxjpra/TRAFFIC.jpg

At the same time, average speeds measured during the first week of April increased significantly in the five largest U.S. metropolitan areas.

According to data by transportation analytics firm INRIX, the average speed on interstate highways, state highways and expressways in those areas increased by as much as 75% compared to January and February and somewhat or at times significantly exceeded the speed limit.

INRIX transportation analyst Bob Pishue said drivers in some U.S. cities were seizing upon what they see as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to increase speed. “It is unprecedented,” he said.

In New York City, transportation officials reported an increase of more than 60% in the amount of speed camera tickets issued in March compared with the year-ago period. Preliminary city data suggests a similar trend for the first week of April. At the same time, traffic was down more than 90% compared with January in Manhattan, the city’s central borough.

On Bruckner Boulevard in the city’s Bronx borough, a road with a 30 mph speed limit that made up a large share of speeding camera tickets, 5% of drivers traveled faster than 43 mph in the first week of April, according to INRIX data.

In Washington, D.C., where traffic has decreased some 80% in March compared with January, according to StreetLight Data, officials have recorded a 20% jump in March speeding tickets. Of those, violations issued for driving 21-25 mph over the speed limit rose by nearly 40%.

Meanwhile, California Highway Patrol officials in Los Angeles have taken to Twitter, urging road users to slow down by posting images of rollover crashes and wrecked vehicles due to speeding on a nearly daily basis.

“It’s very common now to observe drivers speeding at around 100 mph,” California Highway Patrol officer Robert Gomez said.

The Los Angeles Police Department said it is redeploying its resources, establishing a high-speed street task force to position officers at strategic roads. The city has also changed its traffic signals sequence to avoid long stretches of green lights.

“Even though significantly fewer people are driving, the people that are out there are putting vulnerable road users at higher risk,” said David Ferry, a lieutenant in the traffic coordination section of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Ferry pointed to LAPD data showing that while collisions and fatalities decreased significantly overall in March, severe collisions were declining at a lower rate.

Police officials in Europe are witnessing a similar trend.

London police on Tuesday released a video showing a driver speeding at 150 mph (240 km/h) and officials said speeds on some roads had nearly doubled over the weekend with some drivers taking advantage of empty roads.

In Germany, police officials in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, said about 30% of all vehicles exceeded speed limits in March – compared with roughly 5-8% in a regular year.

Stefan Pfeiffer, a marshal with the Bavarian police in Southern Germany, said drivers were tempted by the false sense of safety conveyed by empty roads and warmer weather was luring inexperienced motorcycle riders.

“While traffic safety presumably increases as fewer people are on the road, individual drivers worsen the situation with their irresponsible and at times completely reckless behavior,” Pfeiffer said.

(Reporting by Tina Bellon in New York; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

Under Europe’s virus lockdown, social media proves a lifeline

By Luke Baker

LONDON (Reuters) – Hundreds of millions of Europeans are getting to grips with weeks of a massively contracted existence under lockdown.

The goal is clear and very serious — reduce the spread of a deadly virus, keep critical medical resources and hospital beds free for the most vulnerable, save lives.

But behind that sobering objective lies a new challenge for many: hours inside the same four walls, no office chatter, no social contact, kids to entertain (if you have them and they are not in school), the lure of the fridge.

The reality of the new reality is that social media has become a near-essential resource. Whether for news, shared experiences, comic relief or a heated discussion, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have become a lifeline to many.

While in Italy, tenors and the less tuneful have taken to singing songs from their balconies to cheer up neighbors and build solidarity, videos of the performances have entertained millions far beyond Italy on social media.

Chris Martin, lead singer of the band Coldplay, took to Facebook on Monday to put on a live gig for people self-isolating, tagging it #TogetherAtHome. Singer John Legend took up the baton and said he would do the same on Tuesday.

For anyone tracking the ins and outs of the virus, whether infection rates, epidemiological research, or the infection lag between Italy and its neighbors, Twitter is a constant source of information (and, be warned, misinformation).

While European leaders have been holding news conferences or delivering televised addresses, these are at best once a day.

Online, there is a constant stream of news, commentary from experts, graphs analyzing the virus, and videos from people in Italy (which is 10-14 days ahead in terms of the infection spread) recounting what they wished they had known 10 days ago.

As working from home (#WFH on Twitter) becomes the norm, there are tips on how best to do it, where to set up a desk, how to stay focused, and if you don’t have a desk, how an ironing board can double as an excellent, adjustable alternative.

Among the tips for those doing conference calls from home are the obvious — make sure to get out of your pyjamas and brush your hair, even if you don’t necessarily have to be wearing trousers if you’re sitting behind a desk.

On Facebook, home workouts have proved popular, with people posting the best ways of staying fit while confined to a room. One popular video involves a woman doing a routine around a load of toilet rolls, which have been the object of hoarding by consumers worried about the impact of the virus.

As always, pets have proved a hit. Alongside WFH advice, many have been posting pictures of their cats and dogs, some of which look surprised by all the sudden unexpected attention.

For many, the surge in social media use in recent years has been an awful contradiction — rather than making people more friendly, it has tended to cut them off, cause division and fuel anger and resentment, not sociability.

But as Europe adjusts to the reality of self-isolation, there are signs social media can bring out the best in people, not just the boastful or argumentative bits many decry.

On Twitter, alongside advice on working from home or looking after elderly relatives, users are opening their direct messages, allowing anyone to contact them, and inviting those who want to talk or share concerns to get in touch.

(Editing by Alexandra Hudson)