In 2020, homegrown US disinformation surpasses Russian effort

A supporter of US President Donald Trump stands inside the Republican headquarters in Union City, Pennsylvania, US, on Oct. 23, 2020. (REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)
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Updated 26 October 2020

In 2020, homegrown US disinformation surpasses Russian effort

  • Special counsel Robert Mueller's probe detailed Moscow’s disinformation campaign showed bias for Trump and antipathy toward Hillary Clinton in 2016
  • In this election, the disinformation campaign claims that Trump is locked in a struggle with Democratic and Hollywood elites who practice child sex trafficking and cannibalism

WASHINGTON: Russia’s coordinated effort to nudge Americans toward voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election caught social media companies flat-footed and remains a stain on the reputation of Facebook in particular.
Four years later, the FBI and other American security officials — aware of interference but silent last time — are warning that Russia and Iran are meddling.
But Russia’s actions — special counsel Robert Mueller’s report detailed the Kremlin’s bias for Trump and antipathy toward Hillary Clinton in 2016 — and those of other countries are only part of the disinformation problem.
Americans are now playing the leading role, posting the bulk of false or misleading comments, memes, photographs and videos that are spread with the ease and speed of online distribution. And there are signs that it is out of control.
“What the Russians did in 2016 was show a toolkit, where you could use deceptive actors online working in coordination with each other as a political tool,” Joshua Tucker, a professor of politics and expert on data science and social media at New York University, told AFP.
“There’s been a fixation on foreign interference, but the people who really have an incentive to influence the outcome of an election are people who live in that country — Americans.”
Facebook’s latest report about inauthentic behavior confirms the trend.

Sowing political discord
In the first week of October alone it took down 200 Facebook accounts, 55 Pages and 77 Instagram accounts that originated in the US.
Copying the Russian tactics of 2016, the operators used stock profile photos and posed as right-leaning individuals across the United States. Some of the removed accounts were older, and had pretended to be left-leaning individuals around the 2018 US congressional elections.
The overall effect was to sow political discord and undermine faith in the democratic process, just as Mueller’s report last year said was Russia’s overarching and continuing aim.
The most egregious example disclosed by Facebook involved a US marketing firm that used teenagers in Arizona to post comments that were either pro-Trump or sympathetic to conservative causes, while also criticizing 2020 Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
Research undertaken by Tucker and his colleagues shows that political partisanship — heightened by social media algorithms that drive users to one side of a story — means neither liberals or conservatives are good at sorting fact from fiction when challenged.
As part of a third-party fact-checking relationship with Facebook, AFP has flagged thousands of false or misleading posts in the US. Some had been shared hundreds of thousands of times. User feedback shows that even verified facts are not accepted when they go against partisan political belief.
Twitter is also removing impostor content. One such account featuring the image of a Black police officer, Trump and the slogan “VOTE REPUBLICAN” gained 24,000 followers earlier this month despite tweeting only eight times.
Its most popular tweet was liked 75,000 times before the account was removed for breaking the platform’s rules against manipulation.
But social media researchers say the detection of such accounts are the exception rather than the norm.

QAnon conspiracy theory
Professor Russell Muirhead, co-author of “A Lot Of People Are Saying,” a title that plays on words often used by Trump to promote unproven theories, said US disinformation has evolved rapidly since 2016.
Referring to Pizzagate, the false claim that top Democrats ran a child sex trafficking ring from a Washington, DC pizza restaurant, Muirhead said political debate has been poisoned.
“This story, with no basis whatsoever, purports to show Hillary Clinton as a concentration of pure evil,” said Muirhead, who teaches politics and political science at Dartmouth College.
“How do you make politics with such a person? You can’t, so you have to make war. That story told Trump supporters that in a political context you are engaged in a war with someone who should be locked up.”
In this election cycle, Pizzagate has metastasized and been succeeded by the QAnon conspiracy theory, which claims that Trump is locked in a struggle with Democratic and Hollywood elites who practice child sex trafficking and cannibalism.
Its adherents are taking aim at Biden.
“QAnon is now painting Joe Biden not as a legitimate opponent but as part of this team of globalists who are intent on destroying America, not to be argued with but to be eliminated,” said Muirhead.
The most immediate disinformation risk to the 2020 vote, however, according to Tucker, is Trump’s repeated claims that the use of mail-in ballots will lead to fraud and a “rigged” election.
He made the same claims in 2016. Subsequent investigations showed no evidence of widespread fraud.
“This is disinformation,” said the NYU’s Tucker.
“There are problems with people not filling out their ballots correctly, there’s problems with people getting their ballots late, but there is no evidence to suggest that there has been wide-scale fraud.
“Who needs the Russians running around casting doubt on the integrity of the democratic process when the president of the United States is doing it?“


India’s vaccine giant Serum Institute warns of supply hit from US raw materials export ban

Updated 6 min 17 sec ago

India’s vaccine giant Serum Institute warns of supply hit from US raw materials export ban

  • Recent invocation of the US Defense Production Act to preserve vaccine raw materials goes against the global goal of sharing vaccines equitably

NEW DELHI: A temporary US ban on exports of critical raw materials could limit the production of coronavirus vaccines by companies such as the Serum Institute of India (SII), its chief executive said in a World Bank panel discussion on Thursday.
SII, the world’s biggest vaccine maker, has licensed the AstraZeneca/Oxford University product and will soon start bulk-manufacturing the Novavax shot.
“There are a lot of bags, filters and critical items that manufacturers need,” Adar Poonawalla said. “The Novavax vaccine, which we are a major manufacturer of, needs these items from the US.”
He said the recent invocation of the US Defense Production Act to preserve vaccine raw materials for its own companies went against the global goal of sharing vaccines equitably.
The White House said this week it had used the act to help drugmaker Merck & Co. produce Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine.
“This really needs to be looked at because if they are talking about building capacity all over the world, the sharing of these critical raw materials, which just can’t be replaced in a matter of six months or a year, is going to become a critical limiting factor,” Poonawalla said.
India’s Biological E has tied up with J&J to potentially contract manufacture up to 600 million doses of its vaccine per year. They have signed an initial deal but production volumes have not been agreed upon.


Swiss mull ‘burqa ban’ in vote centering on security, rights

Updated 6 min 14 sec ago

Swiss mull ‘burqa ban’ in vote centering on security, rights

  • The face-covering measure has come to be known colloquially as the “burqa ban.” It would put Switzerland in line with countries like Belgium and France that have already enacted similar measures
  • The issue strikes at the intersection of religious freedom, security, the economy and women’s rights

GENEVA: At a time when seemingly everyone in Europe is wearing masks to battle COVID-19, the Swiss go to the polls Sunday to vote on a long-laid proposal to ban face-coverings, both the niqabs and burqas worn by a few Muslim women in the country and the ski masks and bandannas used by protesters.
The issue strikes at the intersection of religious freedom, security, the economy and women’s rights.
Critics say the proposal “Yes to a ban on covering the face” is an ironic throwback to a time not long ago when violent extremism was a greater concern than global pandemic, and say it would unfairly stigmatize Muslims who wear full face-covering burqas or niqabs, which have open slits for the eyes, in Switzerland.
Proponents, including populist, right-wing movements behind the idea, say it’s needed to combat what they consider a sign of the oppression of women and to uphold a basic principle that faces should be shown in a free society like that of the rich Alpine democracy.
The issue is one of three measures on national ballots in the vote culminating Sunday — most voters in Switzerland cast ballots by mail – as part of the latest installment of regular Swiss referendums that give voters a direct say in policymaking.
Other proposals would create an “e-ID” to improve security of online transactions — an idea that has run afoul of privacy advocates — and a free-trade deal with Indonesia, which is opposed by environmentalists who have concerns about palm oil plantations on the archipelago in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
The face-covering measure has come to be known colloquially as the “burqa ban.” It would put Switzerland in line with countries like Belgium and France that have already enacted similar measures. Two Swiss regions also already have such bans.
One campaign poster presented by the Swiss People’s Party — a populist, right-wing party that is the leading faction in parliament and has strongly backed the measure — features a caricatured image of the scowling eyes of a woman in a burqa above the words: “Stop Islamic Radicalism.”
A coalition of left-leaning parties have put up signs that read: “Absurd. Useless. Islamophobic.”
Support appears to have been eroding, but the vote is expected to be tight. An initial poll for public broadcaster SSR by the gfs.bern agency in January found more than half of voters backed the proposal, but a second poll published on Feb. 24 showed the figures had dipped to under half. Some remain undecided.
The Swiss government opposes the measure, arguing that it could crimp economic development: Most Muslim women who wear such veils in Switzerland are visitors from well-heeled Arabian Gulf states, who are often drawn to bucolic Swiss lakeside cities. The justice minister insists existing laws work just fine.
The measure would make it punishable by fines to cover the face in public in places like restaurants, sports stadiums, public transport or simply walking in the street — though exceptions are made for religious, security and health reasons, as well as for the Swiss traditional Carnival celebrations.
A counter-proposal would require people to show their faces if requested to do so by authorities.
It’s another indication how Switzerland is grappling with security issues and cultures and people from abroad. In the past, Swiss voters have approved a ban on the construction of minarets in the Alpine country whose flag carries the cross.
Andreas Tunger-Zanetti, a researcher who heads the Center for Religious Studies at the University of Lucerne, estimates at most a few dozen Muslim women wear full-face coverings in the country of 8.5 million people, and says the issue is really about Switzerland’s take on religion and ability to “cope with diversity.”


Afghan suspected of stabbing 7 held in custody in Sweden

Updated 05 March 2021

Afghan suspected of stabbing 7 held in custody in Sweden

  • Suspect an asylum-seeker whose residence permit had expired last year

STOCKHOLM: A 22-year-old Afghan man who is suspected of having stabbed seven men in a town in southern Sweden, leaving three of them in critical condition, was remanded in pretrial custody for at least two weeks on Friday.
The Eksjo District Court added that there was a flight risk, Swedish broadcaster SVT said. The suspect, who was not identified under Swedish rules and who faces seven counts of attempted murder, denied any wrongdoing.
“I have done nothing. I was at home,” the suspected shouted at the beginning of the custody hearing and banged his fist on the table, Swedish media reported.
The man, who has Afghan citizenship, was described by Swedish media as an asylum-seeker whose residence permit had expired last year. Local news reports also have said the man had a history of mental health issues. He is known to police for petty crimes.
On Friday, he entered the court room limping after having being shot in the leg by police Wednesday, some 20 minutes after the first calls of an ongoing incident in the small town of Vetlanda, 190 kilometers southeast of Goteborg, Sweden’s second-largest city. Officers who arrested him found a knife in his possession.
Police say there are five crime scenes in the town of 13,000. It appeared that the seven male victims were picked at random. All are stable, according to hospital officials.
At first, police floated the idea that the preliminary investigation could be considered terror-related, but later changed it to attempted murder.


Indian farmers plan major road blockade outside Delhi to mark 100th day of protests

Updated 05 March 2021

Indian farmers plan major road blockade outside Delhi to mark 100th day of protests

  • Tens of thousands have been camped outside New Delhi since December

NEW DELHI: Indian farmers who have been protesting for months against deregulation of produce markets plan to block a major expressway outside New Delhi on Saturday, the 100th day of their campaign, they said.
Tens of thousands have been camped outside Delhi since December, demanding Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeal three farm laws that open up the country’s agriculture markets to private companies, which the farmers say will make them vulnerable.
Farmers from the northern states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh plan to stop all traffic on the six-lane Western Peripheral Expressway that forms a ring outside New Delhi for up to five hours, union leaders said on Friday.
“We believe that after these 100 days, our movement will put a moral pressure on the government to accede to our demands, because the weather will also worsen,” said Darshan Pal, spokesperson for the farmer unions’ coalition Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), or United Farmers’ Front. “It will weaken the government, which will have to sit down with us to talk again.”
The government says the reforms will bring investment to the antiquated agriculture markets, and that new entrants would operate alongside government-regulated market yards, where farmers are assured of a minimum price for their produce.
Several rounds of talks between the government and farm leaders have failed and the movement has gained widespread support, including from international celebrities, posing one of the biggest challenges to Modi since he took power in 2014.
As the harvesting season begins this month, Pal said neighbors and friends back in the villages would help tend to farms while he and other farmers carry on the protests.
The capital typically has harsh summers with temperatures rising up to 45 degree Celsius, but Pal said that won’t hinder the movement.
“The laws are like a death warrant to us,” he said. “We are prepared for the long haul.”


One killed as Myanmar police open fire on protesters

Updated 05 March 2021

One killed as Myanmar police open fire on protesters

  • Earlier in the day, a big crowd had marched peacefully through the city

Police opened fire on Friday in the Myanmar city of Mandalay on protesting opponents of a Feb. 1 military coup, killing one person, witnesses and media said.
The young man was shot in the neck and died, media said.
Earlier in the day, a big crowd had marched peacefully through the city chanting: “The stone age is over, we’re not scared because you threaten us.”