Saturday, the 16th of May

Talking Points

America's small businesses are bleeding. PHOTO: Independent
  1. Three million more jobless Americans brought the total to 36 million
  2. Global carbon dioxide emissions reached a record high
  3. Angela Merkel alleged that Russians tried to hack her email
  4. Poland held a "legal absurdity": an election with no votes
  5. Authorities in Wuhan set about testing all 11 million residents
  6. 19 Iranian soldiers were killed in a friendly fire naval accident
  7. FIFA's corrupt influence was found to have swayed Swiss AG
  8. Hundreds were arrested at Hong Kong's renewed major protests
  9. Ex-French President d'Estaing was investigated for sexual assault
  10. Britain conceded Irish Sea border controls (remember Brexit?)

Deep Dive

Who moderates the moderators? PHOTO: Reuters

There is a not-insignificant chance that once you've read this edition of the Weekly Wrap you'll open Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. You'll see videos from friends, pictures of pets, and an inordinate amount of dubiously-targeted advertising. All this mildly enjoyable (if mindless) material is a far cry from the hideously violent and pornographic material that is filtered out every day.

Flagging the entire internet as harmful content

The ugly truth is that the internet is an awful place. There has never been a more effective tool to disseminate untruths, bully people , share exploitative pornography, or broadcast a massacre. This week, Facebook released its quarterly Community Standards Enforcement Report, which detailed an alarming rise in the removal of content related to hate-speech and terrorism. 9,600,000 posts containing hate speech in three months – nearly double that of Q4 2019. You can look at this in two ways: either Facebook is getting better at removing harmful content, or there is simply more of it to remove.

One data point that could help us understand which of the two possibilities is more likely is the average time taken to remove offending content. Unfortunately, this crucial metric is missing from Facebook's report. The longevity of harmful content has proven to be a persistent challenge for social media platforms. So persistent in fact that some countries have thrown down the gauntlet. France has just passed a law which requires platforms to remove "manifestly illicit" posts within 24-hours. This may include paedophilic, or violent material. The punishment for non-compliance is a fine of up to 4% of the company's global revenue. For Facebook that would mean a possible $2.8b fine for every offending piece of content!

Now add to this the fact that we are experiencing what has been termed the largest disinformation event in human history. Humans seem to be producing coronavirus conspiracies and fake cures faster than the virus can replicate.

Sacrificed in the name of your newsfeed

Much has been made of Facebook's supreme court . The 20-person panel has been drawn from a variety of backgrounds and professions, to have the final say on thorny ethical issues. A cynic might opine that this seems to be yet another PR-friendly exercise to draw attention upwards and away from the company's policy and business model. And from those at the frontline of disinformation and harmful content: content moderators.

Like much of Silicon Valley's jargon, 'content moderator' is a banal technical title that obscures more than it reveals. There is nothing moderate about these jobs. They are mostly contractors, poorly paid, and living well beyond the purview of the few agencies that try to regulate Silicon Valley. Recruiting agencies also act as a firewall between the moderators and their true employer. The work is hard. And repetitive. Entire days are spent clicking on a handful of buttons to remove or retain posts that have been flagged as potentially harmful. Every few seconds, screens flash with a beheading video, a racism screed, or a picture of a tortured animal. These individuals, inveigled in the nadir of humanity, are at considerable risk of Post-traumatic stress disorder. Now, finally, this is being acknowledged: i n a first, this week Facebook announced that it would pay out $52m to content moderators who had developed PTSD on the job. The moral injury is hard to calculate on top of that.

Take these overwhelmingly poor working conditions, and then consider the importance of the work content moderators do. Lives hang in the balance. Literally. This week, Facebook publicly apologised for how it had handled content during the 2018 civil unrest in Sri Lanka. Despite being warned before the fact about the sharing of virulent Islamophobic conspiracies, Facebook failed to remove the offending content. As a consequence, incendiary posts helped spark and accelerate deadly violence that targeted muslims in Sinhalese areas of the island. Responsible for lives, but treated like dirt: the moderators are people being sacrificed at the altar of our clean newsfeeds.

And so, the next time you open Facebook and don't see child molestation, graphic snuff videos, or genocidal exhortations, say a silent 'thank you' to the people who did.


Everything old is new again. PHOTO: Carlos Barria / Reuters

All the president's men

It was a big week for President Trump. He decried “Obamagate!”. When pressed for an explanation, he deflected with, “Don’t ask me. Ask China !”. But let’s side-step this attention-grabbing enigma for a moment, and focus on an actual scandal that was developing in the White House: Michael Flynn.

This week, the US Department of Justice sought to drop its investigation into Flynn, Trump’s ex-National Security Adviser. The FBI previously investigated Flynn for calls he'd had with a Russian ambassador towards the end of Obama’s presidency. And Flynn had twice pleaded guilty (to lying to the FBI). In doing so, he became the first of many White House officials to be skewered by the Mueller investigation.

Now though, new documents suggest that the FBI’s investigation into Flynn was flawed from the start. The newly released documents indicate that the FBI was motivated by a desire to sow distrust and have Flynn fired. It certainly worked – Flynn lasted a scant three weeks in the White House. US Attorney General William Barr is one of the people touting this theory. As evidence he cites the fact that numerous Obama officials had submitted requests for unmasked intelligence which would have revealed Flynn’s identity in relation to the call with the Russian ambassador. Contending that Flynn was not really under investigation when he lied to the FBI, Barr has called for the DOJ to free Flynn. Barr’s move is a rare one – it is unusual that the DOJ would defend someone that it itself was investigating. If successful, Barr's move would delegitimize the Mueller investigation that Trump has long called a “hoax”. Across the aisle, senior Democrats claim that Barr's actions are weaponising the DOJ ahead of the election . A boon for the sitting president.

Barr’s move has left other corners of the legal system in a bind : a US judge has stalled the DOJ’s efforts . And almost 2,000 ex-FBI and Justice Department officials have demanded that Barr resign . Meanwhile, this has given Trump ammunition for “Obamagate”, his theory that Obama officials interfered to derail his presidency. If Flynn is let off the hook, we may see him by Trump’s side again soon. After all, stranger things have happened. Another former Trump ally, Paul Manafort, was also released from prison this week – apparently amid concerns about coronavirus.

Senseless violence in Kabul. PHOTO: AFP

Killed in their cots

On Tuesday morning three gunmen, almost certainly Islamic State fighters, entered a maternity hospital in a Hazara neighbourhood on the outskirts of Kabul. By the time they were dislodged by security forces, 24 civilian bodies were strewn across the ward. Mothers in their delivery beds, nurses in the aisles, and even two newborn babies. Bereft families who rushed to the hospital were met with tragedy. And now an excruciating question remains: who raises the 18 motherless babies ? So nauseating was this brand of violence that an Islamic State suicide bombing that killed many more and injured over 100 the following day went largely unheralded.

Afghanistan, long deadlocked, is now in a state of flux. The Taliban have consolidated their strength ahead of the US withdrawal. Peace is at hand – but the axis of violence is shifting. Islamic State, excluded from the ceasefire and seeking to disrupt it , is free to spill blood across the country. The Shia Hazara community, which has long suffered at the hands of the Taliban, are just one more religious minority for Sunni zealots to torment.

Terrorism is political theatre. And Islamic State continues to demonstrate a blood-curdling ability to transfix our attention. With their battlefield success a distant memory, the disparate network has returned to its roots: massacring civilians. It's hard to imagine a softer target than a maternity hospital. Gone is the powerful political symbolism of earlier terror groups (e.g., felling the pillars of America's economic empire), today Afghanistan is enduring a profound attack on its collective psyche.

The Best of Times

Better late than never. PHOTO: The Independent

A mortarboard crashes through the glass ceiling

At risk of highlighting the symbolic over the concrete: it ought be noted Princeton University has finally named its first black valedictorian, Nicholas Johnson . Another bastion of WASP privilege falls to societal progress. Funnily enough, he's actually Canadian.

Stop working so much

One curious and welcome side-effect of the coronavirus pandemic has been found in Japan's suicide rate, which is down 20% year on year. The delayed school term, reduced work hours and lack of commuting are all believed to have alleviate stress. We all have an opportunity to learn from this – don't squander it once the pandemic has abated.

The Worst of Times

Damned if they do. PHOTO: Al Jazeera

Denial is not just a river in Egypt

Internationally-sponsored water-sharing talks between the three major Nile countries of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia have faltered yet again. The perennial obstacle (which gets a little larger each day) is Ethiopia's magnificently named Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam . Addis Ababa intends to fill the huge reservoir in June – with or without an agreement. Ethiopia's negotiators have not meaningfully addressed the very real and present threat that their project represents to the already-exhausted river.

On the subject of water conflict

The utterly ineffectual Mekong River Commission has just rubber-stamped yet another large hydroelectric dam in Laos. The Mekong really doesn't stand a chance against this disease of short-termism.

Weekend Reading

The quote

"I attribute everything that has gone wrong to coronavirus. Everything."

– Concede nothing! Hollywood heavyweight and Democratic Party money faucet Jeffrey Katzenberg explains why his high-end, short-form video streaming platform Quibi has struggled early. If nothing else, Jeffrey, thank you for producing every good Disney and Dreamworks film of the 90's and 00's.

The number


- The amount spent by the world's nine nuclear-armed countries on their arsenals in 2019. These weapons are so powerful – as evidenced by two vaporised cities last century – that they rendered themselves obsolete. No nation can use one without an absolutely catastrophic chain reaction. What's galling is not just the gargantuan sum – it's the frivolousness.

The headline

"Dogs endure emotional difficulties in puberty like humans, says study" The Guardian

The special mention

No doubt you assumed – as we did – that overpaid, heavily-armed American mercenaries being humiliated by Venezuelan fishermen would be the low point for covert operations this month. Fate makes a fool of us all. It's come to our attention that in early May a Saudi Arabian bot network began sharing doctored videos of a coup in neighbouring Qatar. But, the attempt at destabilisation was identified almost immediately . So here's to Saudi Arabia: a country unable to win even a fictional coup.

A few choice long-reads

Tom Wharton