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The Boeing 737 Max 8.


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Two years after it was banned from flying passengers, the Boeing 737 Max has been cleared to return to the skies in much of the world. As part of their decisions, aviation safety agencies in the US, Brazil, Canada, Australia, the UK and the European Union have ordered Boeing and airlines to make repairs to a flight control system blamed for the two crashes that led to the ban; update operating manuals; and increase pilot training. China, the world’s second-largest market for commercial air traffic, is still prohibiting the plane from flying, however, and it hasn’t indicated when it’ll reverse course.

The beleaguered aircraft was grounded worldwide on March 13, 2019, after two crashes, one in Indonesia in 2018 and the other in Ethiopia in 2019, that killed a combined total of 346 people. Apart from the human tragedy, it was a huge blow to Boeing’s business, since the company has thousands of 737 Max orders on its books. In addition to the flight control system at the center of both investigations, other reports identified concerns with the airliner’s flight control computerwiring and engines

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Airlines are now slowly adding the 737 Max back into their schedules. Southwest was the latest carrier to do so when it resumed flights March 11. The plane is now back in service with all US carriers, but Boeing will have to work vigorously to retain the trust of airlines and the flying public in regard to the Max family. Here’s everything else we know about what’s happened with the airliner. 

What happened in the two crashes?

In the first crash, on Oct. 29, 2018, Lion Air flight 610 dove into the Java Sea 13 minutes after takeoff from Jakarta, Indonesia, killing 189 people. The flight crew made a distress call shortly before losing control. That aircraft was almost brand-new, having arrived at Lion Air three months earlier. 

The second crash occurred on March 10, 2019 when Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 departed Addis Ababa Bole International Airport bound for Nairobi, Kenya. Just after takeoff, the pilot radioed a distress call and was given immediate clearance to return and land. But before the crew could make it back, the aircraft crashed 40 miles from the airport, six minutes after it left the runway. Aboard were 149 passengers and eight crew members. The aircraft involved was only four months old. 

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The 737 Max 9, shown here at the 2016 Paris Air Show, is a larger version of the Max 8, but with the same piloting system that’s under investigation.


Kent German/CNET

What caused the crashes?

Planes crashes rarely have a single cause, which is the case here. On Oct. 25, 2019, the Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee published its final report on the Lion Air crash. The report identifies nine factors that contributed to the crash, but largely blames MCAS. Before crashing, the Lion Air pilots were unable to determine their true airspeed and altitude and they struggled to take control of the plane as it oscillated for about 10 minutes. Each time they pulled up from a dive, MCAS pushed the nose down again. 

“The MCAS function was not a fail-safe design and did not include redundancy,” the report said. Investigators also found that MCAS relied on only one sensor, which had a fault, and flight crews hadn’t been adequately trained to use the system. Improper maintenance procedures, confusion in the cockpit and the lack of a cockpit warning light (see next question) contributed to the crash, as well.

On March 9, 2020, almost one year to the day since the crash in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau published an interim analysis. Like the Indonesian findings, it cites design flaws with MCAS such its reliance on a single angle-of-attack sensor. It also blamed Boeing for providing inadequate training to crew on using the Max’s unique systems. (The Seattle Times has a great deep dive on the report.)

Unlike their Indonesian counterparts, the Ethiopian investigators do not mention maintenance problems with the plane nor does it blame the flight crew. “The aircraft has a valid certificate of airworthiness and maintained in accordance with applicable regulations and procedures,” the report said. “There were no known technical problems before departure.” 

Remember that crash investigations are tremendously complex — it takes months to evaluate the evidence and determine a probable cause. Investigators must examine the debris, study the flight recorders and, if possible, check the victims’ bodies to determine the cause of death. They also involve multiple parties including the airline, the airplane and engine manufacturers, and aviation regulatory agencies.

What is the Boeing 737 Max?

Built to compete with the Airbus A320neo, the 737 Max is a family of commercial aircraft that consists of four models. The Max 8, which is the most popular version, made its first flight on Jan. 29, 2016, and entered passenger service with Malaysia’s Malindo Air on May 22, 2017. (Malindo no longer flew the plane by the time of the first crash.) Seating between 162 and 210 passengers, depending on the configuration, it’s designed for short- and medium-haul routes, but also has the range (3,550 nautical miles, or about 4,085 miles) to fly transatlantic and between the mainland US and Hawaii. The larger Max 9 first flew in 2017, and the Max 10 has yet to fly (it made its formal debut Nov. 22, 2019). The smaller 737 Max 7 flew for the first time in May 2018.

The design of the 737 Max series is based on the Boeing 737, an aircraft series that has been in service since 1968. As a whole, the 737 family is the best-selling airliner in history. At any given time, thousands of some version of it are airborne around the world and some airlines, like Southwest and Ryanair, have all-737 fleets. If you’ve flown even occasionally, you’ve most likely flown on a 737.

What’s different about the 737 Max series compared with earlier 737s?

The 737 Max can fly farther and carry more people than the previous generation of 737s, like the 737-800 and 737-900. It also has improved aerodynamics and a redesigned cabin interior and flies on bigger, more powerful and more efficient CFM LEAP engines. CFM is a joint venture between General Electric and France’s Safran.

Those engines, though, required Boeing to make critical design changes. Because they’re bigger, and because the 737 sits so low to the ground (a deliberate design choice to let it serve small airports with limited ground equipment), Boeing moved the engines slightly forward and raised them higher under the wing. (If you place an engine too close to the ground, it can suck in debris while the plane is taxiing.) That change allowed Boeing to accommodate the engines without completely redesigning the 737 fuselage — a fuselage that hasn’t changed much in 50 years.

But the new position of the engines changed how the aircraft handled in the air, creating the potential for the nose to pitch up during flight. A pitched nose is a problem in flight — raise it too high and an aircraft can stall. To keep the nose in trim, Boeing designed software called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS. When a sensor on the fuselage detects that the nose is too high, MCAS automatically pushes the nose down. (For background on MCAS, read these excellent in-depth stories from The Air Current and The Seattle Times.) 

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Compared with previous versions of the 737, the Max’s engines sit farther forward and higher up on the underwing pylons.


Andrew Hoyle/CNET

When was the Max grounded?

About 30 airlines operated the Max by the time of the second crash (the three largest customers being Southwest Airlines, American Airlines and Air Canada). Most of them quickly grounded their planes a few days later. Besides the airlines already mentioned that list includes United Airlines, WestJet, Aeromexico, Aerolíneas Argentinas, GOL Linhas Aéreas, Turkish Airlines, FlyDubai, Air China, Copa Airlines, Norwegian, Hainan Airlines, Fiji Airways and Royal Air Maroc.

More than 40 countries also banned the 737 Max from flying in their airspace. China (a huge Boeing customer and a fast-growing commercial aviation market) led the way and was joined by Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, India, Oman, the European Union and Singapore. Canada initially hesitated, but soon reversed course.

Up until March 13, 2019, the FAA also declined to issue a grounding order, saying in a statement tweeted the previous day that there was “no basis to order grounding the aircraft.” That was despite a public outcry from a group of senators and two flight attendant unions. But following President Trump’s decision to ground the Max that day, the agency cited new evidence it had collected and analyzed. 

Older 737 models, like the 737-700, 737-800 and 737-900, don’t use MCAS and weren’t affected. 

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Of the four 737 Max versions, only the Max 10 has yet to fly.


Boeing

What was the problem with the warning light?

The Air Current reported March 12, 2019 that the Lion Air plane lacked a warning light designed to alert pilots to the faulty sensor and that Boeing sold the light as part of an optional package of equipment. When asked about the warning light, a Boeing spokesman gave CNET the following statement:

“All Boeing airplanes are certified and delivered to the highest levels of safety consistent with industry standards. Airplanes are delivered with a baseline configuration, which includes a standard set of flight deck displays and alerts, crew procedures and training materials that meet industry safety norms and most customer requirements. Customers may choose additional options, such as alerts and indications, to customize their airplanes to support their individual operations or requirements.”

But on April 29, 2019, The Wall Street Journal said that even for airlines that had ordered it, the warning light wasn’t operating on some Max planes that had been delivered (a fact the Indonesian accident report confirmed). Then on June 7, 2019, Reps. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon, and Rick Larsen, a Democrat from Washington, said they’d obtained information suggesting that even though the plane maker knew the safety alert wasn’t working, it decided to wait until 2020 to implement a fix. 

Boeing responded to DeFazio and Larsen in a statement sent to CNET the same day.

“The absence of the AOA Disagree alert did not adversely impact airplane safety or operation,” the statement read. “Based on the safety review, the update was scheduled for the MAX 10 rollout in 2020. We fell short in the implementation of the AoA Disagree alert and are taking steps to address these issues so they do not occur again.”

Boeing 737-100

The original version of the 737 first flew in 1967.


Boeing

What kind of MCAS training did 737 Max pilots receive?

Not much, which was a factor cited in both crash reports. As the Indonesian report said, “The absence of guidance on MCAS or more detailed use of trim in the flight manuals and in flight crew training, made it more difficult for flight crews to properly respond.”

Though MCAS was a new feature, existing 737 pilots didn’t have to train on a simulator before they could start flying the Max. Instead, they learned about the differences it brought through an hour’s worth of iPad-based training. MCAS received scant mention. The reason? It was because Boeing, backed by the FAA, wanted to minimize the cost and time of certifying pilots who’d already been trained on other 737 versions. To do so, Boeing and the FAA treated the Max as just another 737 version, rather than a completely new airplane (which it pretty much is). 

Pilot complaints about the lack of training emerged quickly after the Lion Air crash. On Nov. 12, 2018, The Seattle Times reported that Max pilots from Southwest Airlines were “kept in the dark” about MCAS. The Dallas Morning News found similar complaints from American Airlines pilots four months later.

Etihad 777 flight

The previous model, the 737-900ER, doesn’t have the MCAS flight control system.


Boeing/Ed Turner

What other issues with the aircraft besides MCAS were identified?

There are a few.

Were any other reports issued?

On Oct. 11, 2019, an international flight safety panel issued a Joint Authorities Technical Review that faulted both the FAA and Boeing on several fronts. For the FAA, it said the agency needs to modernize its aircraft certification process to account for increasingly complex automated systems.

For Boeing’s part, the report cited the company’s “inadequate communications” to the FAA about MCAS, pilot training and shortage of technical staff. The review was conducted by representatives from NASA, the FAA and civil aviation authorities from Australia, Canada, China, Europe, Singapore, Japan, Brazil, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates.

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How did Boeing respond?

Boeing was fully involved with both investigations early on. On Nov. 6, 2018, just eight days after the first crash, the company issued a safety warning advising 737 Max operators to deactivate MCAS if a flight crew encountered conditions like the Lion Air pilots experienced. It also expressed sympathy for victims’ families and pledged $100 million in support, and it quickly backed the US grounding order. 

“There is no greater priority for our company and our industry,” Boeing said in a March 13, 2019 statement. “We are doing everything we can to understand the cause of the accidents in partnership with the investigators, deploy safety enhancements and help ensure this does not happen again.”

As is common after a crash, Boeing didn’t comment on preliminary findings of either investigation, but the day after the Ethiopian crash the company said it would issue a software update that would include changes to MCAS, pilot displays, operation manuals and crew training.

Following the Lion Air accident report, then CEO Dennis Muilenburg said the company was “addressing” its safety recommendations. “We commend Indonesia’s KNKT for its extensive efforts to determine the facts of this accident, the contributing factors to its cause and recommendations aimed toward our common goal that this never happens again,” he said.

The grounding order also caused Boeing to halt production of the Max for four months in January, 2020. 

Did Boeing know about Max problems before the crashes?

There is evidence that it did. On Oct. 17, 2019, Boeing revealed text messages between two of the company’s top pilots sent in 2016, which indicated the company knew about problems with the MCAS system early on. In one of the messages, a former chief technical pilot for the Boeing 737 described the MCAS’ habit of engaging itself as “egregious.” 

Later that month, as he appeared before two congressional committees, Muilenburg admitted Boeing knew of the test pilot concerns in early 2019. “I was involved in the document collection process, but I relied on my team to get the documents to the appropriate authorities,” he said. “I didn’t get the details of the conversation until recently.”

Then on Jan. 10, 2020 Boeing released a series of explosive emails and instant messages to Congress in which Boeing employees discussed the 737 Max. Though some expressed regret for the company’s actions in getting the aircraft certified — “I still haven’t been forgiven by God for the covering up I did last year,” one employee wrote in 2018 — others openly discussed the 737 Max’s flaws and joked about the FAA’s approval process. “This airplane is designed by clowns who in turn are supervised by monkeys,” another employee wrote. (The New York Times has compiled the documents online.)

Did Boeing change its leadership?

Yes, but it didn’t happen quickly. Though Muilenburg apologized to the victims’ families in an interview with CBS News in May, 2019, he came under sharp criticism for his response to the crashes. On Oct. 11, 2019, Boeing announced it had taken away his role as chair so that as CEO, Muilenburg could “focus full time on running the company as it works to return the 737 Max safely to service.” 

Muilenburg spent the next two months resisting calls for his resignation from his other position, but on Dec. 23, 2019 the company announced that he had stepped down. “The Board of Directors decided a change in leadership was necessary to restore confidence in the company moving forward as it works to repair relationships with regulators, customers, and all other stakeholders,” Boeing said in a statement. Chairman David Calhoun officially replaced Muilenburg on Jan. 13, 2020. 

Calhoun had defended Muilenburg before taking the top role, but in a March 5, 2020 interview with the New York Times he said his predecessor had needlessly rushed production of the Max before the company was ready. “I’ll never be able to judge what motivated Dennis, whether it was a stock price that was going to continue to go up and up, or whether it was just beating the other guy to the next rate increase.”

Separately, on Oct. 22, 2019, the company said it replaced Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Kevin McAllister, the official overseeing the 737 Max investigation, with Stan Deal, former president and CEO of Boeing Global Services.

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What has the FAA’s role been?

Complicated. The agency quickly came under fire on multiple fronts over the crashes. Congress, the FBI, the Justice Department’s criminal division and the Department of Transportation all called for investigations of the FAA’s certification process. Under an FAA program, Boeing was allowed to participate in the process, meaning that it inspected its own plane.

But on Jan. 16, 2020, an independent panel set up by the Department of Transportation (the FAA is a division of the DOT) dismissed that criticism. In its report, the committee found no significant problems with how the Max was cleared to fly. Though the committee said the FAA could improve the certification process, it saw no need for substantial changes. 

Those findings were largely echoed by a report from the Department of Transportation inspector general’s office on Feb. 24 that made 14 recommendations for revising the FAA’s certification program. Though the 55-page report said the FAA didn’t deviate from an established protocol when it first cleared the plane to fly in 2016, it significantly misunderstood the MCAS flight control system.

Outside of the certification process, the FAA slapped Boeing with two fines for installing substandard or unapproved equipment in some Max planes. With the first fine, which the FAA proposed in January 2020 for $5.4 million, the agency said Boeing used improper equipment to guide the slats on 178 Max planes. Positioned at the leading edge of each wing, slats are deployed at takeoff and landing to provide more lift. The FAA also accused Boeing of installing a guidance system on 173 Max planes that used sensors that hadn’t been properly tested. The proposed penalty is $19.68 million.

Has Boeing been subject to other fines?

Yes. After the Department of Justice charged Boeing with conspiring to defraud the FAA, the company entered into a deferred prosecution agreement to pay more than $2.5 billion in criminal penalties, compensation payments and the establishment of a $500 million beneficiaries fund for the 346 crash victims.

Did Congress get involved?

Yes. In March 2020, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure released a report on the design, development and certification of the 737 Max and the FAA’s oversight of Boeing. It said “acts, omissions, and errors occurred across multiple stages and areas of the development and certification of the 737 MAX.” The report went on to identify five specific issues.

  • Production pressures: There was tremendous financial pressure on Boeing and the 737 Max program to compete with the A320neo, leading the company to rush the plane into service. 
  • Faulty assumptions: Boeing made fundamentally faulty assumptions about critical technologies on the 737 Max, most notably with MCAS.
  • Culture of concealment: In several critical instances, Boeing withheld crucial information from the FAA, its customers and 737 Max pilots.
  • Conflicted representation: The FAA’s current oversight structure over Boeing creates inherent conflicts of interest that have jeopardized the safety of the flying public. 
  • Boeing’s influence over the FAA’s oversight: Multiple career FAA officials documented examples of FAA management overruling the determination of the agency’s own technical experts at the behest of Boeing.

On Sept. 16, the House Transportation Committee issued a report that blamed the crashes on a “horrific culmination” of failures at Boeing and the FAA. “In several critical instances, Boeing withheld crucial information from the FAA, its customers, and 737 MAX pilots,” the report said. And as for the FAA, “the fact that a compliant airplane suffered from two deadly crashes in less than five months is clear evidence that the current regulatory system is fundamentally flawed and needs to be repaired.”

Then on Dec. 21 after a Senate report faulted Boeing’s and the FAA’s initial review of the Max, Congress passed legislation that reforms the FAA’s protocols for certifying new aircraft. Among other things the bill eliminates some parts of the process that allows manufacturers to certify their own planes and creates new safety review procedures and whistleblower protections.

What happened during the grounding period?

First off, Max airlines had to look for parking spaces for the roughly 300 Max aircraft Boeing had delivered by the time the worldwide order went into effect. That’s a tremendously complicated effort by itself.

But while airlines can’t fly the plane (except to ferry empty aircraft from one airport to another) Boeing was able to conduct test flights for evaluating its proposed fixes

On May 16, 2019, the company said its updates were largely complete after more than 135 test flights. Five months later, on Oct. 22, the company said it had made “significant progress” toward that goal by adding flight control computer redundancy to MCAS and three additional layers of protection. It also had conducted simulator tests for 445 participants from more than 140 customers and regulators. Boeing provided a further progress report Nov. 11, 2019. 

Boeing and the FAA finally began the recertification flights on June 29. The flights attempted to trigger the steps that led to the two crashes and confirm that MCAS isn’t activating erroneously. The FAA also reviewed pilot training materials and FAA Administrator Steve Dickson piloted the plane on a Sept. 30 test flight to evaluate Boeing’s changes. Speaking to reporters after the flight he said he “liked what I saw.”

When did the FAA lift the grounding order, and what are its proposed fixes?

The agency lifted the order on Nov. 19. The mandatory fixes include:

  • MCAS must compare data from more than one sensor and avoid relying on a single angle-of-attack sensor that’s giving faulty readings.
  • All aircraft must have a warning light that shows when two sensors are disagreeing.
  • When MCAS activates, it must do so only once, rather than activating repeatedly (another factor that contributed to both crashes).
  • If MCAS is erroneously activated, flight crews must always be able to counter the movement by pulling back on the control column. 
  • Pilots must get more-rigorous training on MCAS, including time in a Max simulator (see next question).

Outside of MCAS, the FAA identified other modifications Boeing must make, including separating two bundles of wiring that power control surfaces on the aircraft’s horizontal stabilizer to ensure redundancy if one of the bundles fails.

Not everyone is trusting in the FAA’s decision, though. On March 10, relatives of some of the Ethiopian crash victims asked the agency to reverse its decision. In a meeting with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, they also called for several top FAA officials to be removed. 

How will pilot training change?

Simulator time focusing on MCAS will now be required, a change from a position the FAA previously took. It took lobbying from pilots and regulatory officials from other countries, like Canadian Transport Minister Marc Garneau, to change that decision.

They won an influential supporter on June 19, 2019, when “Miracle on the Hudson” Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger argued before a congressional committee that simulator training should be required before pilots take the Max back into the air. He also said the original design of MCAS was “fatally flawed and should never have been approved.”

On Jan. 7, 2020, Boeing agreed when it issued a recommendation that pilots receive simulator training on MCAS before the Max returns to service. Simulator sessions will require extra time and expense for airlines struggling to get their Max fleets back in the air.

What happens next?

Before airlines can fly the Max again, Boeing must work with them to make the required fixes and retrain pilots. Only then will the FAA sign off on certification for each aircraft. That will take time. 

American Airlines resumed flights Dec. 29 with a Max flight between Miami and New York LaGuardia. The airline says it will continue to add Max flights, “with up to 36 departures from our Miami hub depending on the day of the week.” United Airlines resumed flights on Feb. 11 while Southwest Airlines started flying the Max again on March 11. Alaska Airlines, a new 737 Max customer, began flights March 1.

But that’s just in the US. Aviation regulatory agencies around the world also need to approve the fix before they’ll let the Max fly to the countries they oversee. Traditionally, they’ve followed the FAA’s lead on such matters, but Transport Canada, China, the European Aviation Safety Agency and the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority conducted independent tests of the plane on different timelines while working with the FAA. 

Brazil’s National Civil Aviation Agency lifted its grounding order Nov. 25. Canada followed on Jan. 18the EU and the UK on Jan. 27 and Australia on Feb. 26. China is still conducting its review, and has not set a timetable for any updates.

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A Boeing 737 Max 7 lands at Boeing Field in Seattle after a test flight to evaluate the MCAS software fix.


Paul Christian Gordon/Boeing

How will I know I’m booked on a Max flight and will I be able to change my reservation?

Your aircraft type will be listed in the flight details as you book. Some airlines will spell out the full aircraft name as “737 Max,” while other carriers may shorten it to “7M8.” If you’re not sure, contact a reservations agent to confirm. Just remember, though, that airlines can change the aircraft type for your flight at the last minute.

For now at least, all US airlines operating the Max will allow you to change your flight with penalty or cancel your trip for either a full refund or a travel credit. The exact details will vary, and I wouldn’t expect the policies to last forever, so click the link above and confirm with your airlines as you book.

How important is the Max series to Boeing?

Hugely important. Boeing and Airbus are in a fierce battle for the 150- to 200-seat aircraft market. Following the second crash, new orders for the 737 Max slowed dramatically, and some carriers canceled or delayed their orders, a trend only hastened by the travel slowdown from the coronavirus pandemic.

But Boeing still has almost 4,000 737 Max orders on the books, and new orders have started to creep up since the lifting of the grounding order. The list of buyers includes AlaskaRyanair, United, Virgin Australia, Air Canada, AeroMexico, Southwest and Air Astana

Has a commercial aircraft been grounded before?

Yes. In the most recent example, the FAA grounded the Boeing 787 for three months in 2013 after a series of nonfatal battery fires. Before that, the FAA grounded the Douglas DC-10 for a month in 1979 after a crash near Chicago O’Hare Airport killed 271 people on board, plus two on the ground. (Outside of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, that remains the deadliest airplane crash on US soil.) The Chicago crash was ultimately attributed to improper maintenance. The crash of a DC-10 in 1974 in France, killing 346 people, was caused by a design flaw on a cargo hold door latch.

Outside the US, both Qantas and Singapore Airlines voluntarily grounded their Airbus A380s for a couple of days after a Qantas flight from Singapore to Sydney in 2010 had an uncontained engine failure

Correction, Jan. 10, 2020, 1:54 p.m. PT: This story initially misstated the status of Malaysia’s Malindo Air at the time of the first crash.

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People hold up signs at a Stop Asian Hate rally in Chicago on March 27.


Vincent Johnson/Xinhua via Getty

Shirley Wang’s phone wouldn’t stop buzzing as the hurtful tweets flooded in. Earlier that day, the 26-year-old Harvard student posted a thread of tweets about anti-Asian racism, prompting more than 100 replies.

“We must fight anti-Asian racism without fueling anti-Blackness (calls for increased policing are unacceptable),” Wang tweeted on Feb. 14.

While some Twitter users praised Wang for her remarks, online trolls hurled insults at her. “Apologize for corona first,” an anonymous Twitter account replied. Other users told Wang she had a “mental disorder,” was “dumb” or a “Bozo,” with some users adding a clown emoji in their replies. 

Wang reported dozens of tweets to Twitter for harassment — until she simply got tired of clicking the same button over and over. Hours later, she received an influx of emails from Twitter, informing her that most of the tweets she reported didn’t violate the company’s rules. 

“That was in its own weird way almost more upsetting than the tweets themselves,” she said.

Twitter’s response underscores the confusing and inconsistent attempts by social media to stamp out racist and hurtful content — efforts that have fallen short of curbing the spread of anti-Asian rhetoric online even as it emerged as a serious problem a year ago. Social networks, including Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and Google-owned YouTube, all have rules against hateful behavior, violent threats and harassment, but it’s often unclear where they draw the line. 

Twitter‘s hateful conduct policy says it doesn’t allow “targeting individuals with repeated slurs, tropes or other content that intends to dehumanize, degrade or reinforce negative or harmful stereotypes about a protected category.” But some Twitter users who report tweets are finding out their interpretation of Twitter’s rules don’t match up with the views of the social network, which is also trying to promote free expression. CNET also showed Twitter several tweets that targeted Asians, and the company flip-flopped about whether the remarks violated its rules. 

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While social media has the ability to connect people with family and friends, it’s increasingly being used to sow division. Social networks have ways for people to mute or block users, but people still struggle to control the hate coming at them online. Advocacy groups such as the Anti-Defamation League say these tech companies need to do more. 

“Even as technology companies insist that they are taking unprecedented steps to moderate hateful content on their social media platforms, the user experience hasn’t changed all that much,” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement in March. “Americans of many different backgrounds continue to experience online hate and harassment at levels that are totally unacceptable.” 

Fueling an outcry against anti-Asian hate

In March 2020, CNET found dozens of hateful comments and posts about Asians across social media, including those that used ethnic slurs and perpetuated stereotypes. Since then, this problem appears to have gotten worse as more reports about anti-Asian violence surface. 

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A mural in Atlanta, Georgia was painted by the Bad Asian and Civic Walls groups is a remembrance of the eight lives lost at the three spa shootings in the state. 


Megan Varner/Getty Images

The outcry over anti-Asian bias reached another boiling point after the Georgia spa shootings in March, which killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women. While federal investigators say they haven’t found evidence to classify the shootings as a hate crime, the tragedy has sparked more fears about violence against Asians, who have been blamed for the outbreak of the coronavirus. Last week, the White House announced new actions to tackle anti-Asian violence, bias and xenophobia that have existed long before the coronavirus. 

Social networks haven’t released data about how much anti-Asian content they’ve suppressed or removed since the coronavirus outbreak, which first appeared in China in December 2019 and has since infected more than 132 million people around the globe. Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition aimed at addressing anti-Asian hate during the pandemic, received nearly 3,800 reports of harassment, physical assault and acts of discrimination against Asian Americans from March 2020 to February 2021. About 6.8% of those complaints were for online harassment. 

Online hate and harassment aren’t unique to Asians. For many years, social media users who identify as Black, Jewish, transgender or as part of other marginalized groups have also complained that Facebook and Twitter aren’t doing enough to stamp out hate speech, despite having rules against that type of behavior. But the coronavirus pandemic has meant that Asian Americans are dealing with racist comments more often than they have in the past.

The ADL released a survey last month that showed “severe” harassment such as “stalking, physical threats, swatting, doxing or sustained harassment” has been on the rise for Asian Americans. About 17% of Asian Americans said in January they experienced severe online harassment compared with 11% during the same period last year, the largest uptick compared with other groups. About half said they were harassed because of their race.

Perpetuating Asian stereotypes and hate online

The use of anti-Asian rhetoric has also been infused into political speech, making it trickier for social networks to moderate this type of content. Conservatives have accused sites such as Facebook and Twitter of censoring their speech, allegations the companies repeatedly deny.

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Twitter has been grappling with anti-Asian hate speech.


Image by Pixabay/Illustration by CNET

Lawmakers and advocacy groups have also slammed former President Donald Trump, who has referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” and “Kung Flu,” a term that deflects from the global nature of the pandemic and stokes discrimination against Asians.

Trump has denied he was being racist, noting the virus was first discovered in China, but Asian Americans, Democrats and civil rights activists have criticized the use of the term. The World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said people should avoid referring to any disease using the name of a location. A study from the University of San Francisco found that Twitter users who use #chinesevirus were more likely to “pair it with overtly racist hashtags.” Half of the more than 775,000 hashtags with #chinesevirus included anti-Asian bias.

More than a year after the pandemic started, terms such as “Chinese virus” are still being used on social media. In March, CNET asked Twitter about two tweets targeting Chinese people. One user with the pseudonym “Thefox” said they preferred to use terms like “Chinese sneeze” and “Wuhan flu.” Another Twitter user in February called Chinese people “nasty,” noting they have “eaten wild animals.”

A Twitter spokeswoman said at the time the tweets didn’t violate the site’s rules. The spokeswoman then said after further review the company determined the tweets did go against its rules against hateful conduct and they’re no longer available, highlighting the confusion around content moderation. 

CNET also showed Twitter an anonymous account that tweeted out pornographic images of Asian women and paired the photos with a hashtag that included a racial slur and the word “slut.” One image the user tweeted showed an Asian woman sleeping along with phrases such as “dream of white conquest” and “your race has failed.” Twitter permanently suspended the account after CNET pointed it out. The user had been barred for multiple violations of Twitter’s hateful conduct policy but was trying to evade the ban, violating another one of Twitter’s policies.

Facebook and YouTube sometimes allow users to use the racially insensitive term “Kung Flu.” CNET showed Facebook several posts that used the term, but the social network said they didn’t violate its rules. One image on Facebook’s Instagram site showed two people engaging in martial arts that said “everyone was Kung Flu fighting.” Facebook said it would continue to monitor trends and talk to organizations to make sure they’re drawing the lines of hate speech at the right place. The company said it removes that term in ads when they’re being used to sell products.

On YouTube, comics artist Ethan Van Sciver posted a video on his account in March in which he jokes about killing Chinese people. “Give me a tommy gun and line ’em up against the wall,” he says in the video, which has now been removed from YouTube. A spokesperson for YouTube said the video was removed for violating its hate speech policy and had fewer than 60,000 views after it was removed in less than 24 hours. 

Van Sciver said his remarks about Chinese people were “facetious sarcasm” and that the video was “taken out of context,” noting that “genuine anti-Asian rhetoric is deplorable.”http://www.cnet.com/”I do not want to hurt Asian people or any people,” he said in an email. While YouTube pulled the video, clips of it still exist on Twitter, some posted by people who’ve denounced Van Sciver’s comments.

Blocking anti-Asian hate terms

TikTok, a short-form video app owned by Chinese company ByteDance, has taken a stronger stance when it comes to curbing the spread of racially insensitive comments targeting Asians. Unlike Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, TikTok has blocked terms such as “Kung Flu” from its search results.

screen-shot-2021-04-06-at-4-04-51-pm.png

TikTok blocks search results for terms that use anti-Asian rhetoric. 


TikTok

“No results found. This phrase may be associated with behavior or content that violates our guidelines. Promoting a safe and positive experience is TikTok’s top priority,” a notice on the app states.

In a congressional hearing with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg last month, Rep. Doris Matsui, a California Democrat, pointed out that Twitter and Facebook still allow hashtags that are harmful to the Asian community. 

Dorsey and Zuckerberg said they have policies against hateful behavior but noted the hashtags also contained counter speech that denounces the use of the terms, making enforcement of their hate speech rules more difficult. “With social media, it travels all around the world and hurts a lot of people,” Matsui told the executives. “We really have to look at how we define hate speech.” 

Manny Chong, a 26-year-old student in Massachusetts who organizes #stopasianhate rallies, has used TikTok to speak out against using racism. Chong said some of his videos have been accidentally flagged for hate speech. He has also received racist comments on the short-form video app, including “ok orientals,”http://www.cnet.com/”Ching Chong” and “Everybody was Kung Flu fighting,” comments viewed by CNET showed.

The comments, he noted, showcase the problem he’s speaking out against so he doesn’t bother to delete or report most of them. Chong does draw the line when someone is sharing spam or trying to attack other TikTok users in the comments. In March, TikTok said it was releasing new tools that gave users more control over their comments, including the ability to hide recent comments unless they approve them.

“It’s just not worth my mental energy,” Chong said in regards to flagging comments for removal. “I just don’t have the space for negativity.” 

Since dealing with harassment on Twitter, Wang said she’s learned more about muting notifications on the social network, which means she won’t get pinged every time someone replies to a viral tweet. Twitter also allows users to hide replies. 

Initially, Wang felt nervous about tweeting again. Then she realized that would just let the online trolls win.

“Later that day, I made another post,” she said. “I’m just reaffirming my stance that we have to fight anti-Asian racism, [support] Black Lives Matter, and we have to do both in solidarity.”

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An Amazon Prime truck on the road

Sarah Tew/CNET

The “peeing in bottles thing” is, in fact true, Amazon said Friday, as it issued a public apology for a tweet from its Amazon News account that suggested stories about its drivers urinating in bottles while working are bogus.

“You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us,” the company had said in that original, March 24 tweet, which was a response to a tweet from congressional Rep. Mark Pocan. Pocan’s tweet had said, “Paying workers $15/hr doesn’t make you a ‘progressive workplace’ when you union-bust & make workers urinate in water bottles.”

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After being called out about its original tweet, Amazon recanted it late Friday, saying in a blog post that the tweet was “incorrect” and that it owed an apology to Pocan.

“We know that drivers can and do have trouble finding restrooms because of traffic or sometimes rural routes,” the company said in the post, “and this has been especially the case during Covid when many public restrooms have been closed.”

The apology could signal that the company is having second thoughts about a spate of unusually aggressive tweets it fired off last month. Amazon made headlines in March with snarky tweets directed at Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. After Vermont’s Sanders said he’d travel to Alabama in the final days of a union vote at an Amazon warehouse there, the company’s chief of consumer operations fired back on Twitter.

Read more: Amazon on edge: What’s behind its snark-tweeting of Sanders and Warren

“I welcome @SenSanders to Birmingham and appreciate his push for a progressive workplace,” Amazon exec Dave Clark tweeted on March 24. “I often say we are the Bernie Sanders of employers, but that’s not quite right because we actually deliver a progressive workplace.”

The testy tweets appeared as lawmakers in the US and elsewhere are investigating Amazon and other Big Tech firms over what critics have charged are anticompetitive practices. The companies face potential regulation that could force them to break up their businesses or otherwise weaken their power. Amazon is also facing the prospect of a unionized workforce amid accusations that it mistreats its workers. And critics have said Amazon doesn’t pay enough taxes despite the fact that its founder, Jeff Bezos, is one of the richest people in the world.

Related: Amazon’s union vote: What the election at an Alabama warehouse could mean

In its apology Friday, Amazon said the bathroom-break problem affects drivers for other delivery services too, as well as drivers for ride-hailing companies. “Regardless of the fact that this is industry-wide, we would like to solve it. We don’t yet know how, but will look for solutions,” Amazon said in its post.

The company has drawn scrutiny from lawmakers and others this year over AI-equipped cameras installed in Amazon vans to monitor drivers and confirm their identities. A company program for disciplining delivery drivers, which surfaced around the time Amazon’s plans for the cameras emerged, reportedly mentioned “public urination” among actionable offenses. Some drivers have said they worry the camera program will increase pressure on them to work even faster and lead to punishment for behaviors that are hard to avoid under intense time constraints. Amazon has said the cameras are meant solely as a safety measure, with tests showing significant decreases in things like accidents and distracted driving.

More info: Amazon drivers must consent to biometric monitoring or lose jobs, reports say

In its apology post Friday, Amazon also said the original tweet “wrongly focused only on our fulfillment centers.” In 2018, an author went undercover at an Amazon fulfillment center in Britain and alleged that workers there urinated in bottles for fear that regular bathroom breaks might cost them their job. Amazon disputed that claim. In its Friday post, the company said fulfillment center workers can take bathroom breaks whenever they need to. 

“A typical Amazon fulfillment center has dozens of restrooms, and employees are able to step away from their work station at any time,” the company said in the post. “If any employee in a fulfillment center has a different experience, we encourage them to speak to their manager and we’ll work to fix it.”

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you-tube-app-video-photos-youtube-logo-3387-edit-2

YouTube is trying something new with dislikes. 


James Martin/CNET

YouTube on Tuesday said it’s testing new designs that hide the number of dislikes on a video from public view. People in the test group will start seeing the new designs in the coming weeks, the company said.

“In response to creator feedback around well-being and targeted dislike campaigns, we’re testing a few new designs that don’t show the public dislike count,” YouTube said in a tweet. “If you’re part of this small experiment, you might spot one of these designs in the coming weeks (example below!).”

👍👎 In response to creator feedback around well-being and targeted dislike campaigns, we’re testing a few new designs that don’t show the public dislike count. If you’re part of this small experiment, you might spot one of these designs in the coming weeks (example below!). pic.twitter.com/aemrIcnrbx

— YouTube (@YouTube) March 30, 2021

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Creators will still be able to see how many likes and dislikes their content receives in YouTube Studio. Viewers who are part of the test will also still be able to like or dislike videos “to share feedback with creators and help tune the recommendations you see on YouTube,” the company tweeted

Already, people on Twitter have responded to the company’s post to criticize the move. 

“What about content that is objectively bad and harmful to people? Like scams etc?” one tweet reads

“You are actually promoting bad content by hiding dislikes,” another person tweeted. “That’s what partially keeps people accountable and let’s [sic] other viewers know if something is worth watching.”

Another tweet reads: “the problem with websites that don’t have dislike buttons is it’s harder for people to get an idea of what’s good and what’s bad. like if twitter had a dislike button, you guys could see how much everybody hates this.”

A handful of social media companies have recently made changes which they say are part of an effort to tackle harassment. In 2019, Facebook and Instagram began experimenting with hiding likes among some users. Instagram also nixed its Following tab, which showed which posts and accounts people were engaging with. Still, some experts have been skeptical of Big Tech’s motivations, saying those moves could be a matter of risk mitigation in the face of intense scrutiny. Social media companies have long been criticized for being addictiveharboring harmful content and fostering anxiety and depression, particularly among younger audiences.

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