Saturday, the 11th of August
EDITOR'S NOTE: As you read this Wrap you may notice that we've moved the furniture. As always, our ears and inboxes are open to your suggestions, tips and gripes. Write us at

Talking points

This Penn State study puts earlier assumptions to the sword. PHOTO: Bloomberg
  1. Puerto Rican authorities revised the death toll from Hurricane Maria upward by a factor of 21 (to 1,427 dead, rather than 64)
  2. New research suggests that half of all Britons want a second referendum if a 'no deal' Brexit eventuates
  3. Hindu nationalists in India's ruling party pushed for a controversial Assamese citizenship register to be expanded nationwide
  4. Tesla's share price jumped after Elon Musk teased the prospect of taking the company private
  5. Aftershocks continued on the island of Lombok where at least 300 people have died
  6. Argentina's Senate voted against legalising abortion in the deeply Catholic nation where 450,000 illegal procedures occur annually
  7. Democrats outperformed expectations in a sweep of elections in Michigan, Ohio, Kansas, Missouri and Washington
  8. America imposed new sanctions on Russia over the Skripals' poisoning
  9. Trailblazing Pepsi Co. CEO Indra Nooyi announced her departure
  10. The Manafort trial sped along with salacious accusations, damaging admissions and the largest media scrum we've seen in years


Toronto was threatened with a 9/11 style attack. PHOTO: Twitter

In 2018 few are surprised by Saudi Arabia's dismal human rights record. What is startling is Riyadh's sensitivity to criticism. This week the Saudi government pushed the envelope in the field of diplomatic overreactions. Last Friday a Twitter account belong to Canada's foreign ministry drew attention to the arrest of Saudi activists and called for their release.

The response was deafening. Canadian ambassador Dennis Horak found himself a persona non grata and was given 24-hours to leave the Kingdom. His counterpart in Ottawa was recalled. Trade deals, flights and medical training scholarships have been cancelled. The Saudis told thousands of students to leave Canada and find tutelage elsewhere. The government even instructed the Kingdom's investors to dump Canadian assets. Things got so heated that a Saudi youth group mocked up an image of a passenger plane flying towards CN Tower - an extraordinary nod towards Saudi involvement in the 9/11 attacks.

The (bemused) Canadians have refused to roll over for the Gulf power. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau impressed many with his insistence on standing up for human rights (that the Saudis literally crucified someone this week aided the juxtaposition). Yet the criticism rings hollow: Trudeau rubber-stamped the sale of military hardware to Riyadh just last year. Washington has stayed conspicuously quiet as two of its closest allies squabble.

Youth-led rallies sprung up across Dhaka. PHOTO: A. M. Ahad / AP
Bangladeshi students have taken to the streets in huge numbers to demand more from their government. What began as a simple (if full-throated) demand for action on road safety has morphed into something else entirely. The public bus system in the capital Dhaka comprises over one hundred operators. Corruption is rampant. The sheer size and complexity of the arrangement defies regulation - pedestrian deaths are a common occurrence. Two such deaths in July touched a nerve.

A full week of demonstrations prompted the government to consolidate the bus operators and fast-track meaningful oversight, an undeniably positive step. Yet the ruling Awami League shot itself in the foot by sending its thugs into the street to rough up protestors. At one major rally over 1,000 people were injured. Students have been arrested for posting critical messages on Facebook and organising demonstrations. The award-winning photographer Shahidul Alam was dragged into custody by police just hours after he lent his support to the students in a televised interview. 

Deep Dive

Free to speak, lie and tweet. PHOTO: Reuters
Jonesing for some controversy
This week Twitter and its social media peers laid bare a deep philosophical problem that we've all known about for a while.

The alt-right shock jock Alex Jones was banned this week from a number of the world's largest technology platforms. But Twitter demurred.

Jones is the ne plus ultra of conspiracy peddlers. Amongst his most noxious refrains is the claim that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre was a hoax. It's a lie, and a repeated one, that has led Infowars trolls to hound the grieving parents of slaughtered children. This week his Infowars brand was removed from Facebook, Spotify, Apple Podcasts and YouTube for promoting hate speech and violence.

In choosing to not follow suit Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said that Jones hadn't violated Twitter's rules. A predictable brouhaha ensued. Among the reactions were observations that Twitter's rules themselves may be suspect, if Alex Jones can do what he does and not break them. Indeed, some of the more uncharitable corners of Twitter were quick to jump down Dorsey's throat with the type of maddened glee that infects many keyboard warriors.

Dorsey's delivery may have been botched, but his position is worth understanding. Twitter's rulebook is vanishingly thin - by design. Its Trust and Safety team takes a radically non-interventionist approach to moderation. They believe that truthful information will outmanoeuvre hurtful information on the platform (aided, Dorsey hopes, by willing journalists with spare time). There are two ways to view this stance. The cynic would say that this is a smoke-screen to let Twitter abnegate responsibility in pursuit of commercial objectives. A more generous interpretation might be that theirs is in fact quite an idealistic stance. Jones hasn't broken any rules because (according to Twitter) his opinions - hurtful as they are - are no less valid than yours or mine.

And this is where the philosophical problem arises. In Economics, the laissez-faire or 'free market' view of non-intervention is rebutted by the keynsian belief in government intervention to maintain equilibrium. And there are adherents on both sides. Now, as the tech platforms grow to quasi-governmental stature, a similar debate about platform intervention is spilling over into the arena of free speech.

Apple chose to intervene this week. Twitter didn't. But what's really interesting is that both companies did as they pleased, without accountability to anyone other than themselves. Governments, after all, get voted out of office if they mismanage the economy. But what happens when tech platforms mismanage our discourse? 

Dorsey's comment that Twitter wouldn't succumb to "outside pressure" was plaintive but there is a valuable insight to be had. Every other major platform banning Jones in the space of a week reeked of peer pressure and groupthink. Right now we worry about these platforms independently and capriciously adjudicating speech. Matters will get significantly worse if they decide to run in packs.

The other issue as well is that even those few rules that do exist on Twitter are unevenly policed. Users can directly target people with hate speech, unfettered, yet others are banned for far more whimsical reasons.
Regardless of stance, moderation of any sort cannot work without trust. And the problem for Twitter and its brethren is that incomplete, misunderstood, and constantly-evolving rules may be a necessary reality of our connected and complicated world, but they do nothing to engender trust.

Lastly, it must be noted that those who advocate for Jones to be banned ('deplatforming' in contemporary vernacular) are often unprepared to answer the consequential questions of such an action. For years Jones has ranted about being silenced (on his huge platform to his legions of fans). Now he has been vindicated. Moreover, downloads of his app have skyrocketed. So 'deplatforming' is not only controversial, it might also be self-defeating. 

The Best Of Times...

Homeward bound. PHOTO: The Independent 
After 5,000 years in Iraq a handful of priceless artefacts made a brief detour to London. During the initial 2003 invasion Iraqi forces fought a short-lived defensive action at the Baghdad museum. The position was abandoned and left to looters for several days - during this time thousands of antiquities were stolen. Many found their way to collectors in the West. This week the famously tight-fisted British Museum agreed to hand back several items that made their way into its vaults in 2003. It's a small blessing that some of Iraq's cultural treasures are coming home.
While others dawdle, New Zealand acts. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced that a ban on lightweight plastic bags will come into effect in just six months. The small Pacific nation has some of the highest levels of urban waste of any developed nation; Kiwis use around 750m plastic bags annually. Wellington has rightly judged the country's natural beauty to be of paramount value. Ardern has gone all-in on reducing waste, killing introduced predators and building sustainable tourism practices.

The Worst Of Times...

Horror in Yemen. PHOTO: AFP
This is the face of the war being fought in Yemen between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The air forces of Gulf monarchies - fuelled and armed by America, Australia and Britain - have not let up their assault on Yemen's civilian population in years. Usually it is a hospital or school being flattened. This week it was a bus loaded with children near a marketplace: the International Committee of the Red Cross pulled the corpses of 29 children under the age of 15 from the remains of the vehicle. In all, 50 died and a further 77 were wounded. Saudi and Emirati spin-doctors described it as a legitimate military target carrying Houthi rebels. 

Two news stories this week cut to the heart of the Brexit debate. First, leaks revealed that the primary financial backer of Leave.EU - Arron Banks - was offered a gold deal by Kremlin-associated Russians during the referendum campaign. Shadowy, boozy lunches between Banks and Russian nationals have cast doubt on the nature of his funding. In a second blow it was revealed yesterday that Sir Jim Ratcliffe (Britain's richest man and a stout Brexiteer) is pulling up stumps and moving to Monaco with his billions. He's certainly not the first and won't be the last Brexit supporter to move wealth, businesses and assets to Europe while paying lip-service to the cause.

Weekend Reading

Featured long-reads from inkl publishers:
  • Financial Times tackles a huge problem: the crisis in auditing
  • Bloomberg Business casts an appraising eye over Steve Mnuchin
  • The New Zealand Herald examines how the West ended up on the same side as Al Qaeda in Yemen
Tom Wharton


Quote of the week... 
“For God's sake. To Venezuela's president I say this: On Saturday I was doing more important things. I was at my granddaughter's baptism” - Outgoing Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos denies involvement in the rather unconvincing drone-borne assassination attempt on Nicolas Maduro's life. The Venezuelan strongman is in fine, blustering form.

What to watch next week
North and South Korean negotiators return to Panmunjom peace village on Monday. After a brief spurt of energy both sides seem to have lost momentum in the push to denuclearise the Korean peninsula (or indeed even agree on what "denuclearise" means).

And one last thing
You can get the world's best news coverage for just 3 cents per day. That's essential news, without ads, clickbait or paywalls. So do it now if you haven't already. 

Want to change how you receive the Weekly Wrap? 
Update your email preferences or unsubscribe.