hurricanes later this year could damage Gulf Coast refineries and pipelines, choking off supplies.

For now, though, the steady drop in the cost of fuel offers Americans a reprieve.

“If gasoline prices stay at or near the levels they have reached, that would mean much more cushion for households,” Ms. Bovino said.

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How Mark Zuckerberg Is Leading Meta Into Its Next Phase

SAN FRANCISCO — Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and chief executive of the company formerly known as Facebook, called his top lieutenants for the social network to a last-minute meeting in the San Francisco Bay Area this month. On the agenda: a “work-athon” to discuss the road map for improving the main Facebook app, including a revamp that would change how users browse the service.

For weeks beforehand, Mr. Zuckerberg had sent his executives messages about the overhaul, pressing them to increase the velocity and execution of their work, people with knowledge of the matter said. Some executives — who had to read a 122-page slide deck about the changes — were beginning to sweat at the unusual level of intensity, they said.

Facebook’s leaders flew in from around the world for the summit, the people said, and Mr. Zuckerberg and the group pored over each slide. Within days, the team unveiled an update to the Facebook app to better compete with a top rival, TikTok.

trimmed perks, reshuffled his leadership team and made it clear he would cut low-performing employees. Those who are not on board are welcome to leave, he has said. Managers have sent out memos to convey the seriousness of the approach — one, which was shared with The New York Times, had the title “Operating With Increased Intensity.”

the so-called metaverse. Across Silicon Valley, he and other executives who built what many refer to as Web 2.0 — a more social, app-focused version of the internet — are rethinking and upending their original vision after their platforms were plagued by privacy stumbles, toxic content and misinformation.

The moment is reminiscent of other bet-the-company gambles, such as when Netflix killed off its DVD-mailing business last decade to focus on streaming. But Mr. Zuckerberg is making these moves as Meta’s back is against the wall. The company is staring into the barrel of a global recession. Competitors like TikTok, YouTube and Apple are bearing down.

And success is far from guaranteed. In recent months, Meta’s profits have fallen and revenue has slowed as the company has spent lavishly on the metaverse and as the economic slowdown has hurt its advertising business. Its stock has plunged.

“When Mark gets super focused on something, it becomes all hands on deck within the company,” said Katie Harbath, a former Facebook policy director and the founder of Anchor Change, a consulting firm that works on tech and democracy issues. “Teams will quickly drop other work to pivot to the issue at hand, and the pressure is intense to move fast to show progress.”

Andrew Bosworth, who is known as Boz, to chief technology officer, leading hardware efforts for the metaverse. He promoted other loyalists, too, including Javier Olivan, the new chief operating officer; Nick Clegg, who became president of global affairs; and Guy Rosen, who took on a new role of chief information security officer.

In June, Sheryl Sandberg, who was Mr. Zuckerberg’s No. 2 for 14 years, said she would step down this fall. While she spent more than a decade building Facebook’s advertising systems, she was less interested in doing the same for the metaverse, people familiar with her plans have said.

Mr. Zuckerberg has moved thousands of workers into different teams for the metaverse, training their focus on aspirational projects like hardware glasses, wearables and a new operating system for those devices.

“It’s an existential bet on where people over the next decade will connect, express and identify with one another,” said Matthew Ball, a longtime tech executive and the author of a book on the metaverse. “If you have the cash, the engineers, the users and the conviction to take a swing at that, then you should.”

But the efforts are far from cheap. Facebook’s Reality Labs division, which is building augmented and virtual reality products, has dragged down the company’s balance sheet; the hardware unit lost nearly $3 billion in the first quarter alone.

privacy changes from Apple that have hampered its ability to measure the effectiveness of ads on iPhones. TikTok, the Chinese-owned video app, has stolen young audiences from Meta’s core apps like Instagram and Facebook. These challenges are coinciding with a brutal macroeconomic environment, which has pushed Apple, Google, Microsoft and Twitter to freeze or slow hiring.

a memo last month, Chris Cox, Meta’s chief product officer, said the economic environment called for “leaner, meaner, better executing teams.”

In an employee meeting around the same time, Mr. Zuckerberg said he knew that not everyone would be on board for the changes. That was fine, he told employees.

“I think some of you might decide that this place isn’t for you, and that self-selection is OK with me,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. “Realistically, there are probably a bunch of people at the company who shouldn’t be here.”

Another memo circulated internally among workers this month was titled “Operating With Increased Intensity.” In the memo, a Meta vice president said managers should begin to “think about every person on their team and the value they are adding.”

“If a direct report is coasting or a low performer, they are not who we need; they are failing this company,” the memo said. “As a manager, you cannot allow someone to be net neutral or negative for Meta.”

investment priorities” for the company in the second half of this year.

other prototypes. Bloomberg reported earlier on the smart watch.

posted an update to his Facebook profile, noting some coming changes in the app. Facebook would start pushing people into a more video-heavy feed with more suggested content, emulating how TikTok operates.

Meta has been investing heavily in video and discovery, aiming to beef up its artificial intelligence and to improve “discovery algorithms” that suggest engaging content to users without them having to work to find it.

In the past, Facebook has tested major product updates with a few English-speaking audiences to see how they perform before rolling them out more widely. But, this time, the 2.93 billion people around the world who use the social networking app will receive the update simultaneously.

It is a sign, some Meta employees said, of just how much Mr. Zuckerberg means business.

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The Fight Over Truth Also Has a Red State, Blue State Divide

To fight disinformation, California lawmakers are advancing a bill that would force social media companies to divulge their process for removing false, hateful or extremist material from their platforms. Texas lawmakers, by contrast, want to ban the largest of the companies — Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — from removing posts because of political points of view.

In Washington, the state attorney general persuaded a court to fine a nonprofit and its lawyer $28,000 for filing a baseless legal challenge to the 2020 governor’s race. In Alabama, lawmakers want to allow people to seek financial damages from social media platforms that shut down their accounts for having posted false content.

In the absence of significant action on disinformation at the federal level, officials in state after state are taking aim at the sources of disinformation and the platforms that propagate them — only they are doing so from starkly divergent ideological positions. In this deeply polarized era, even the fight for truth breaks along partisan lines.

a nation increasingly divided over a variety of issues — including abortion, guns, the environment — and along geographic lines.

a similar law in Florida that would have fined social media companies as much as $250,000 a day if they blocked political candidates from their platforms, which have become essential tools of modern campaigning. Other states with Republican-controlled legislatures have proposed similar measures, including Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa and Alaska.

Alabama’s attorney general, Steve Marshall, has created an online portal through which residents can complain that their access to social media has been restricted: alabamaag.gov/Censored. In a written response to questions, he said that social media platforms stepped up efforts to restrict content during the pandemic and the presidential election of 2020.

“During this period (and continuing to present day), social media platforms abandoned all pretense of promoting free speech — a principle on which they sold themselves to users — and openly and arrogantly proclaimed themselves the Ministry of Truth,” he wrote. “Suddenly, any viewpoint that deviated in the slightest from the prevailing orthodoxy was censored.”

Much of the activity on the state level today has been animated by the fraudulent assertion that Mr. Trump, and not President Biden, won the 2020 presidential election. Although disproved repeatedly, the claim has been cited by Republicans to introduce dozens of bills that would clamp down on absentee or mail-in voting in the states they control.

memoirist and Republican nominee for Senate, railed against social media giants, saying they stifled news about the foreign business dealings of Hunter Biden, the president’s son.

massacre at a supermarket in Buffalo in May.

Connecticut plans to spend nearly $2 million on marketing to share factual information about voting and to create a position for an expert to root out misinformation narratives about voting before they go viral. A similar effort to create a disinformation board at the Department of Homeland Security provoked a political fury before its work was suspended in May pending an internal review.

In California, the State Senate is moving forward with legislation that would require social media companies to disclose their policies regarding hate speech, disinformation, extremism, harassment and foreign political interference. (The legislation would not compel them to restrict content.) Another bill would allow civil lawsuits against large social media platforms like TikTok and Meta’s Facebook and Instagram if their products were proven to have addicted children.

“All of these different challenges that we’re facing have a common thread, and the common thread is the power of social media to amplify really problematic content,” said Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel of California, a Democrat, who sponsored the legislation to require greater transparency from social media platforms. “That has significant consequences both online and in physical spaces.”

It seems unlikely that the flurry of legislative activity will have a significant impact before this fall’s elections; social media companies will have no single response acceptable to both sides when accusations of disinformation inevitably arise.

“Any election cycle brings intense new content challenges for platforms, but the November midterms seem likely to be particularly explosive,” said Matt Perault, a director of the Center on Technology Policy at the University of North Carolina. “With abortion, guns, democratic participation at the forefront of voters’ minds, platforms will face intense challenges in moderating speech. It’s likely that neither side will be satisfied by the decisions platforms make.”

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The Lies Putin Tells to Justify Russia’s War on Ukraine

In the tense weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Russian officials denied that it planned anything of the sort, denouncing the United States and its NATO allies for stoking panic and anti-Russian hatred. When it did invade, the officials denied it was at war.

Since then, the Kremlin has cycled through a torrent of lies to explain why it had to wage a “special military operation” against a sovereign neighbor. Drug-addled neo-Nazis. Genocide. American biological weapons factories. Birds and reptiles trained to carry pathogens into Russia. Ukrainian forces bombing their own cities, including theaters sheltering children.

Disinformation in wartime is as old as war itself, but today war unfolds in the age of social media and digital diplomacy. That has given Russia — and its allies in China and elsewhere — powerful means to prop up the claim that the invasion is justified, exploiting disinformation to rally its citizens at home and to discredit its enemies abroad. Truth has simply become another front in Russia’s war.

Using a barrage of increasingly outlandish falsehoods, President Vladimir V. Putin has created an alternative reality, one in which Russia is at war not with Ukraine but with a larger, more pernicious enemy in the West. Even since the war began, the lies have gotten more and more bizarre, transforming from claims that “true sovereignty” for Ukraine was possible only under Russia, made before the attacks, to those about migratory birds carrying bioweapons.

reaching audiences that were once harder to reach.

“Previously, if you were sitting in Moscow and you wanted to reach audiences sitting in, say, Idaho, you would have to work really hard doing that,” said Elise Thomas, a researcher in Australia for the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, referring to disinformation campaigns dating to the Soviet Union. “It would take you time to set up the systems, whereas now you can do it with the press of a button.”

The power of Russia’s claim that the invasion is justified comes not from the veracity of any individual falsehood meant to support it but from the broader argument. Individual lies about bioweapons labs or crisis actors are advanced by Russia as swiftly as they are debunked, with little consistency or logic between them. But supporters stubbornly cling to the overarching belief that something is wrong in Ukraine and Russia will fix it. Those connections prove harder to shake, even as new evidence is introduced.

That mythology, and its resilience in the face of fact-checking and criticism, reflects “the ability of autocrats and malign actors to completely brainwash us to the point where we don’t see what’s in front of us,” said Laura Thornton, the director and senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy.

The Kremlin’s narratives today feed on pre-existing views of the war’s root causes, which Mr. Putin has nurtured for years — and restated in increasingly strident language last week.

President Volodymyr Zelensky himself, whose video messages to Ukrainians and the world have combined bravery with the stage presence of the television performer he once was.

Russia, though, has more tools and reach, and it has the upper hand with weaponry. The strategy has been to overwhelm the information space, especially at home, which “is really where their focus is,” said Peter Pomerantsev, a scholar at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University who has written extensively about Russian propaganda.

Russia’s propaganda machine plays into suspicion of the West and NATO, which have been vilified on state television for years, deeply embedding distrust in Russian society. State media has also more recently echoed beliefs advanced by the QAnon movement, which ascribes the world’s problems largely to global elites and sex traffickers.

Those beliefs make people feel “scared and uncertain and alienated,” said Sophia Moskalenko, a social psychologist at Georgia State University. “As a result of manipulating their emotions, they will be more likely to embrace conspiracy theories.”

Mr. Putin’s public remarks, which dominate state media, have become increasingly strident. He has warned that nationalist sentiment in Ukraine is a threat to Russia itself, as is NATO expansion.

swiftly to silence dissenting points of view that could cut through the fog of war and discourage the Russian population.

For now, the campaign appears to have rallied public opinion behind Mr. Putin, according to most surveys in Russia, though not as high as might be expected for a country at war.

“My impression is that many people in Russia are buying the government’s narrative,” said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “They have doctored images on state-controlled media. Private media don’t cover the war, fearing 15 years in prison. Same goes for people on the social media. Russia has lost information warfare globally, but the regime is quite successful at home.”

appeared in the information fortress the Kremlin is building.

A week after the invasion began, when it was already clear the war was going badly for Russian troops, Mr. Putin rushed to enact a law that punishes “fake news” with up to 15 years in prison. Media regulators warned broadcasters not to refer to the war as a war. They also forced off the air two flagships of independent media — Ekho Moskvy, a liberal radio station, and Dozhd, a television station — that gave voice to the Kremlin’s opponents.

Access to Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and most recently Instagram has also been severed inside Russia — all platforms the country’s diplomats have continued to use outside to misinform. Once spread, disinformation can be tenacious, even in places with a free press and open debate, like the United States, where polls suggest that more than 40 percent of the population believes the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald J. Trump.

“Why are people so surprised that this kind of widespread disinformation can be so effective in Russia when it was so effective here?” Ms. Thornton of the German Marshall Fund said.

As the war in Ukraine drags on, however, casualties are mounting, confronting families in Russia with the loss of fathers and sons. That could test how persuasive the Kremlin’s information campaign truly is.

The Soviet Union sought to keep a similar veil of silence around its decade-long quagmire in Afghanistan in the 1980s, but the truth seeped into public consciousness anyway, eroding the foundation of the entire system. Two years after the last troops pulled out in 1989, the Soviet Union itself collapsed.

Claire Fu contributed research.

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Russia tells Google to stop spreading threats against Russians on YouTube, article with image

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Youtube logo is placed on a Russian flag in this illustration picture taken February 26, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

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  • Russia demands YouTube stop spreading threats to Russians
  • Facebook, Instagram blocked in Russia; Google under pressure
  • Russia says it has tools to develop its own social media

March 18 (Reuters) – Russia on Friday demanded that Alphabet Inc’s (GOOGL.O) Google stop spreading what it called threats against Russian citizens on its YouTube video-sharing platform, a move that could presage an outright block of the service on Russian territory.

The regulator, Roskomnadzor, said adverts on the platform were calling for the communications systems of Russia and Belarus’ railway networks to be suspended and that their dissemination was evidence of the U.S. company’s anti-Russian position. It did not say which accounts were publishing the adverts.

“The actions of YouTube’s administration are of a terrorist nature and threaten the life and health of Russian citizens,” the regulator said.

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“Roskomnadzor categorically opposes such advertising campaigns and demands that Google stop broadcasting anti-Russia videos as soon as possible.”

Google removed an advertisement that was flagged by the Russian government, according to a source familiar with the matter who declined to describe it.

The dispute was the latest in a series between Moscow and foreign tech firms over Ukraine.

YouTube, which has blocked Russian state-funded media globally, is under heavy pressure from Russia’s communications regulator and politicians.

Outraged that Meta Platforms (FB.O) was allowing social media users in Ukraine to post messages such as “Death to the Russian invaders”, Moscow blocked Instagram this week, having already stopped access to Facebook because of what it said were restrictions by the platform on Russian media. read more

Russian news media including RIA and Sputnik quoted an unnamed source as saying YouTube could be blocked next week or as early as Friday.

DOMESTIC ALTERNATIVES

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Friday wrote a fierce criticism of foreign social media firms, mentioning by name both Meta and YouTube, but he hinted that the door leading to their possible return to the Russian market would be left ajar.

“The ‘guardians’ of free speech have in all seriousness allowed users of their social media to wish death upon the Russian military,” Medvedev, who served as president from 2008 to 2012 and is now deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council, wrote on the messaging app Telegram.

Medvedev said Russia has the necessary tools and experience to develop its own social media, saying the “one-way game” of Western firms controlling information flows could not continue.

“In order to return, they will have to prove their independence and good attitude to Russia and its citizens,” he wrote. “However, it is not a fact that they will be able to dip their toes in the same water twice.”

VKontakte, Russia’s answer to Facebook, has been breaking records for activity on its platform since Russia sent troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24.

The site attracted 300,000 new users in the two weeks after Russia began what it calls a “special operation” to demilitarise and “de-Nazify” its neighbour.

On the day Instagram was blocked in Russia, VKontakte said its daily domestic audience grew by 8.7% to more than 50 million people, a new record.

Anton Gorelkin, a member of Russia’s State Duma committee on information and communications, pointed Russians to services that would help them move videos from YouTube to the domestic equivalent, RuTube.

“It’s not that I’m calling for everyone to immediately leave YouTube,” he said on his Telegram channel. “But, probably, in light of recent events it is worth following the principle of not keeping all your eggs in one basket.”

He said earlier this week that YouTube may face the same fate as Instagram if it continues “to act as a weapon in the information war”.

Russian tech entrepreneurs said this week they would launch picture-sharing application Rossgram on the domestic market to help fill the void left by Instagram. read more

In November, Gazprom Media launched Yappy as a domestic rival to video-sharing platform TikTok.

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Reporting by Reuters
Editing by Andrei Khalip, Angus MacSwan, Frances Kerry and Grant McCool

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Ukraine Live Updates: Civilians Caught in Escalating Russian Attacks

One of the paradoxical things about Vladimir V. Putin’s increasingly authoritarian rule of Russia was how relatively open society always remained.

For all the state’s control of media, people could read or watch what they wanted, including foreign newscasts like BBC and CNN. The internet was largely unfettered, a portal to the rest of the world. Unlike, say, China, you could criticize the president with some assurance that the police would not knock at the door.

Until now.

As the war in Ukraine grinds on, Mr. Putin has strangled the vestiges of a free press to justify an invasion that has been almost universally condemned — and with that moved closer to the stultifying orthodoxy of the Soviet Union. The result will be to isolate the country, as Mr. Putin has isolated himself, leaving it with a one-sided view of the world no longer subject to debate.

Two of the remaining flagships of the country’s own independent media — Ekho Moskvy, the liberal radio station, and TV Dozhd, or Rain, a digital upstart — went off the air last week, hounded by the authorities for reporting accurately on Ukraine. Access to Facebook, Twitter and TikTok, platforms pulsing with opposition to Mr. Putin’s war, have been blocked, as have other online sites in Russia.

Credit…The New York Times

Many foreign news organizations have withdrawn correspondents or stopped reporting in Russia after Mr. Putin on Friday signed into law a measure to punish anyone spreading “false information” with up to 15 years in prison.

“Just two weeks ago it was not possible to imagine how quickly most of it would get closed,” said Nina L. Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at the New School in New York City. “And yet it is.”

Beyond the immediate impact on Russians’ ability to learn about the war next door, Mr. Putin seems to have crossed a threshold in the country’s history. He is sequestering Russian society to a greater extent than at any time since the last Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, launched a policy in 1986 called glasnost, which became known as “openness” but more precisely means “the act of giving voice.”

Access to foreign news reporting and independent voices on social media have challenged the Kremlin’s monopoly on state media — as Mr. Gorbachev’s effort broke the Soviet monopoly on truth. Independent outlets have, at great risk to reporters’ personal safety, uncovered abuses during Russia’s war in Chechnya, repression of political and human rights, and the extraordinary wealth of people close to Mr. Putin — all taboo subjects in state media.

The impact of silencing them could be much broader and last much longer than the war, pushing the country from authoritarian rule to something worse.

Credit…The New York Times

“Putin is trying to turn Russia back into a totalitarian dictatorship of the pre-Gorbachev days,” said Michael McFaul, the former American ambassador to Russia who is director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. “He will eventually fail, but he will do great damage to Russian society in trying.”

The Kremlin’s propaganda and restrictions have already disconnected ordinary Russians from the horrific violence ravaging cities across Ukraine — even those with relatives on the ground telling them otherwise. They have covered up the Russian military’s difficulties, as well as the human costs to Ukrainians that Mr. Putin claims to be defending.

Those who watch Russian television instead see the country’s troops taking part in a largely bloodless “special military operation,” to protect Ukrainian civilians from a neo-Nazi government. In this alternate reality, Russian troops are distributing aid to civilians or helping evacuate them to safety; Ukrainians are fabricating reports about Russian military setbacks — or even shelling their own cities.

The result has been to create a blinkered view of the war that few dare pierce. Not a single deputy in the State Duma, the lower house of Parliament, voted against the bill criminalizing “fake news.”

“There is less and less access to accurate information from the West amid the relentless pounding from increasingly hysterical state propaganda, which admittedly, is having its effect,” said Sergey Radchenko, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Europe.

Credit… The New York Times

Mr. Putin was a lieutenant colonel in the K.G.B., serving in the former East Germany, when glasnost was introduced. He later said that he, too, recognized the need for the Soviet Union to become more open. Only up to a point, though.

From the start of his presidency in 2000, he understood that the media — especially television — had the power not only to shape his political image but also to help him govern. He moved quickly to regain control of the main television networks from two oligarchs, Vladimir A. Gusinsky and Boris A. Berezovsky, who championed agendas not always in line with the Kremlin.

But printed media faced less direct pressure, and the internet burst with new outlets, making Russian and foreign sources widely accessible. Independent media like Ekho Moskvy were mostly left alone, serving as quasi independent sources of news and debate, at least for the educated elite. The station was itself a child of glasnost, founded in 1990 by frustrated employees of state radio who wanted a platform for genuine political discussion.

Russians attributed the station’s survival to its savvy editor in chief, Aleksei A. Venediktov, and the Kremlin’s need for both a safety valve for liberal debate and a source of information separate from its own propaganda. It was there that opposition figures long barred from state television could give interviews, and anchors could debate the impact of Kremlin policies on regular people.

Credit…The New York Times

Before it closed last week, the outlet promoted voices critical of the war and of Mr. Putin himself. Russia’s prosecutor general accused it of spreading “deliberately false information.”

As in many spheres of Russian life, tolerance for contrary or unorthodox views in the media has been eroding for years. Maria Snegovaya, a visiting scholar at George Washington University and a fellow at the Center for New American Security in Washington, said there has been a “qualitative change” in Mr. Putin’s government.

She dated it to the protests that shook Mr. Putin’s ally in Belarus in 2020; the poisoning of the Kremlin’s arch critic, Aleksei A. Navalny, and his subsequent imprisonment; and the constitutional changes enacted last year allowing Mr. Putin, now 69, to extend his presidential terms to 2036.

All generated significant opposition in Russia that seeped into the public discourse, despite the Kremlin’s effort. Mr. Navalny became famous for investigations devoted to exposing corruption, including a 143-minute documentary on YouTube after his arrest that accused Mr. Putin of secretly building a palace on the Black Sea coast.

Credit…Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press

“I always refrained from calling Russia totalitarian, but I think the military situation, the war, has pushed the authorities toward that,” Ms. Snegovaya said from Bulgaria where she was assisting Russians who fled the country in recent days.

A more severe step would be creating an analog to China’s Great Firewall, which restricts access to foreign websites on the outside and strictly controls what is allowed inside. Russia calls its vision for a sovereign cyberspace the RuNet, though it has so far stopped short of imposing total control.

In today’s digitally connected world, Mr. Putin could have a difficult time cutting off Russia entirely. Even in the Soviet Union, information flowed back and forth over borders. Virtual private networks, or VPNs, that allow people to evade internet restrictions by disguising which country they are logging in from, can help spread information the way samizdat, illegal copies of censored books or articles, circulated clandestinely in Soviet times.

“It will be difficult for the Russian government to block all outside information,” Jamie Fly, the chief executive of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the U.S.-financed network founded during the Cold War, said after the announcement that it, too, was ceasing operations inside Russia. “History shows that people will go to great lengths to seek out the truth.”

Credit…The New York Times

Those who do so now will be a small minority. As Mr. Putin’s rule continues, critics fear he will take even stronger measures to maintain the Kremlin’s uncontested grip on power.

“We have a long way to go before we get to 1937,” Mr. Radchenko said, evoking the year of Stalin’s Great Terror, “but for the first time the road is clear. You can see far ahead, like on a cold, crisp winter morning, and there, in the distance, you can just about make out the outlines of the guillotines.”

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A Ban on 19 Singers in Egypt Tests the Old Guard’s Power

CAIRO — The song starts out like standard fare for Egyptian pop music: A secret infatuation between two young neighbors who, unable to marry, sneak flirtatious glances at each other and commit their hearts in a bittersweet dance of longing and waiting.

But then the lyrics take a radical turn.

“If you leave me,” blasts/explodes/shouts the singer, Hassan Shakosh, “I’ll be lost and gone, drinking alcohol and smoking hash.”

The song, “The Neighbors’ Daughter,” has become a giant hit, garnering more than a half- billion views of its video on YouTube alone and catapulting Mr. Shakosh to stardom. But the explicit reference to drugs and booze, culturally prohibited substances in Egypt, has made the song, released in 2019, a lightning rod in a culture war over what is an acceptable face and subject matter for popular music and who gets to decide.

The battle, which pits Egypt’s cultural establishment against a renegade musical genre embraced by millions of young Egyptians, has heated up recently after the organization that licenses musicians barred at least 19 young artists from singing and performing in Egypt.

arrested teenage girls who posted videos of themselves dancing, which is a crime there. And in 2020, Northwestern University in Qatar called off a concert by a Lebanese indie rock band whose lead singer is openly gay.

But online streaming and social media platforms have poked giant holes in that effort, allowing artists to bypass state-sanctioned media, like television and record companies, and reach a generation of new fans hungry for what they see as more authentic and relevant content.

Iran’s draconian restrictions on unacceptable music have produced a flourishing underground rock and hip-hop scene. The question facing Egypt is who now has the power to regulate matters of taste — the 12 men and one woman who run the syndicate, or the millions of fans who have been streaming and downloading mahraganat.

Mahraganat first rose out of the dense, rowdy working-class neighborhoods of Cairo more than a decade ago and is still generally made in low-tech home studios, often with no more equipment than a cheap microphone and pirated software.

DJ Saso, the 27-year-old producer of Mr. Shakosh’s blockbuster hit.

Many lawyers and experts say the syndicate has no legal right to ban artists, insisting that Egypt’s Constitution explicitly protects creative liberty. But these arguments seem academic in the authoritarian state of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, which has stifled freedom of speech, tightened control on the media and passed laws to help monitor and criminalize immoral behavior on the internet.

The syndicate’s executive members have adamantly defended their move, arguing that a key part of their job is to safeguard the profession against inferior work that they say is made by uncultured impostors who tarnish the image of the country.

YouTube.

He is one of the Arab world’s leading performers. Since he was barred, he has performed in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iraq, and “The Neighbors’ Daughter” has become one of the biggest Arabic hits to date.

“It’s not the same old love songs,” said Yasmine el-Assal, a 41-year-old bank executive, after attending one of Mr. Shakosh’s concerts before the ban. “His stage presence, the music, the vibe, it’s fresh and it’s all about having fun.”

Mr. Shakosh would not agree to be interviewed, preferring to keep a low profile, his manager said, rather than to appear to publicly challenge the authorities. The ban has been harder on other artists, many of whom do not have the wherewithal or the international profile to tour abroad.

They have mostly kept quiet, refusing to make statements that they fear could ruffle more feathers.

Despite the squeeze, however, many are confident that their music falls beyond the grip of any single authority or government.

Kareem Gaber, a 23-year-old experimental music producer known by the stage name El Waili, is still burning tracks, sitting in his bedroom with a twin mattress on the floor, bare walls and his instrument, a personal computer with $100 MIDI keyboard.

“Mahraganat taught us that you can do something new,” he said, “and it will be heard.”

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Covid Test Misinformation Spikes Along With Spread of Omicron

On Dec. 29, The Gateway Pundit, a far-right website that often spreads conspiracy theories, published an article falsely implying that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had withdrawn authorization of all P.C.R. tests for detecting Covid-19. The article collected 22,000 likes, comments and shares on Facebook and Twitter.

On TikTok and Instagram, videos of at-home Covid-19 tests displaying positive results after being soaked in drinking water and juice have gone viral in recent weeks, and were used to push the false narrative that coronavirus rapid tests don’t work. Some household liquids can make a test show a positive result, health experts say, but the tests remain accurate when used as directed. One TikTok video showing a home test that came out positive after being placed under running water was shared at least 140,000 times.

And on YouTube, a video titled “Rapid antigen tests debunked” was posted on Jan. 1 by the Canadian far-right website Rebel News. It generated over 40,000 views, and its comments section was a hotbed of misinformation. “The straight up purpose of this test is to keep the case #’s as high as possible to maintain fear & incentive for more restrictions,” said one comment with more than 200 likes. “And of course Profit.”

Previous spikes in pandemic-related falsehoods focused on the vaccines, masks and the severity of the virus. The falsehoods help undermine best practices for controlling the spread of the coronavirus, health experts say, noting that misinformation remains a key factor in vaccine hesitancy.

The categories include falsehoods that P.C.R. tests don’t work; that the counts for flu and Covid-19 cases have been combined; that P.C.R. tests are vaccines in disguise; and that at-home rapid tests have a predetermined result or are unreliable because different liquids can turn them positive.

These themes jumped into the thousands of mentions in the last three months of 2021, compared with just a few dozen in the same time period in 2020, according to Zignal Labs, which tracks mentions on social media, on cable television and in print and online outlets.

The added demand for testing due to Omicron and the higher prevalence of breakthrough cases has given purveyors of misinformation an “opportune moment” to exploit, said Kolina Koltai, a researcher at the University of Washington who studies online conspiracy theories. The false narratives “support the whole idea of not trusting the infection numbers or trusting the death count,” she said.

policies that prohibit misinformation that could cause harm to people’s physical health. YouTube said it was reviewing the videos shared by The New York Times in line with its Covid-19 misinformation policies on testing and diagnostics. Twitter said that it had applied a warning to The Gateway Pundit’s article in December for violating its coronavirus misinformation policy and that tweets containing false information about widely accepted testing methods would also violate its policy. But the company said it does not take action on personal anecdotes.

Facebook said it had worked with its fact-checking partners to label many of the posts with warnings that directed people toward fact checks of the false claims, and reduced their prominence on its users’ feeds.

“The challenges of the pandemic are constantly changing, and we’re consistently monitoring for emerging false claims on our platforms,” Aaron Simpson, a Facebook spokesman, said in an email.

No medical test is perfect, and legitimate questions about the accuracy of Covid-19 tests have abounded throughout the pandemic. There has always been a risk of a false positive or a false negative result. The Food and Drug Administration says there is a potential for antigen tests to return false positive results when users do not follow the instructions. Those tests are generally accurate when used correctly but in some cases can appear to show a positive result when exposed to other liquids, said Dr. Glenn Patriquin, who published a study about false positives in antigen tests using various liquids in a publication of the American Society for Microbiology.

“Using a fluid with a different chemical makeup than what was designed means that result lines might appear unpredictably,” said Dr. Patriquin, an assistant professor of pathology at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

Complicating matters, there have been some defective products. Last year, the Australian company Ellume recalled about two million of the at-home testing products that it had shipped to the United States.

But when used correctly, coronavirus tests are considered reliable at detecting people carrying high levels of the virus. Experts say our evolving knowledge of tests should be a distinct issue from lies about testing that have spread widely on social media — though it does make debunking those lies more challenging.

said in July that it would withdraw its request to the Food and Drug Administration for emergency-use authorization of one specific test at the end of the year. Hundreds of other Covid-19 tests are still available from other manufacturers, the C.D.C. later clarified.

Still, posts claiming that the agency had withdrawn support of P.C.R. tests went viral on Facebook. The most widely shared post pushing the falsehood in July collected 11,500 likes, shares and comments, according to data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned social media analytics tool. The post added the falsehood that the C.D.C.’s advisory meant that P.C.R. tests could not distinguish between the coronavirus and the flu, when in fact the agency had simply recommended the use of tests that could simultaneously detect and distinguish between the flu and Covid-19.

Despite being fact-checked within days, the claim never fully went away. The Gateway Pundit article revived the claim at the end of the year, collecting nearly double the earlier post’s likes, shares and comments on Facebook. On Instagram, screenshots of the article also went viral, collecting hundreds of likes.

Mr. Gregory said a similar phenomenon had occurred with social media posts claiming various liquids turned at-home coronavirus tests positive.

On Dec. 23, 2020, a video on YouTube showed coronavirus tests turning positive after being tested on kiwi, orange and berry fruit juice. It collected over 102,000 views. In the same month, a video producing the same results with Coca-Cola was posted on YouTube, collecting 16,800 views.

One year later, a spate of similar videos with the same theme appeared on TikTok and Instagram.

For Ms. Koltai, the re-emergence of false narratives even after social media companies labeled them a year earlier shows the power of misinformation to “thrive when it can latch on to a current event.”

“That is how narratives can peak at different times,” she said.

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Are Apple AirTags Being Used to Track People and Steal Cars?

On a Sunday night in September, Ashley Estrada was at a friend’s home in Los Angeles when she received a strange notification on her iPhone: “AirTag Detected Near You.”

An AirTag is a 1.26-inch disc with location-tracking capabilities that Apple started selling earlier this year as a way “to keep track of your stuff.” Ms. Estrada, 24, didn’t own one, nor did the friends she was with. The notification on her phone said the AirTag had first been spotted with her four hours earlier. A map of the AirTag’s history showed the zigzag path Ms. Estrada had driven across the city while running errands.

“I felt so violated,” she said. “I just felt like, who’s tracking me? What was their intent with me? It was scary.”

posted on TikTok, Reddit and Twitter about finding AirTags on their cars and in their belongings. There is growing concern that the devices may be abetting a new form of stalking, which privacy groups predicted could happen when Apple introduced the devices in April.

warned its community of the tracking potential of the devices after an AirTag was found on a car bumper. Apple complied with a subpoena for information about the AirTag in the case, which may lead to charges, West Seneca police said.

And in Canada, a local police department said that it had investigated five incidents of thieves placing AirTags on “high-end vehicles so they can later locate and steal them.”

Researchers now believe AirTags, which are equipped with Bluetooth technology, could be revealing a more widespread problem of tech-enabled tracking. They emit a digital signal that can be detected by devices running Apple’s mobile operating system. Those devices then report where an AirTag has last been seen. Unlike similar tracking products from competitors such as Tile, Apple added features to prevent abuse, including notifications like the one Ms. Estrada received and automatic beeping. (Tile plans to release a feature to prevent the tracking of people next year, a spokeswoman for that company said.)

stalkerware.

“Apple automatically turned every iOS device into part of the network that AirTags use to report the location of an AirTag,” Ms. Galperin said. “The network that Apple has access to is larger and more powerful than that used by the other trackers. It’s more powerful for tracking and more dangerous for stalking.”

Apple does not disclose sales figures, but the tiny $29 AirTags have proved popular, selling out consistently since their unveiling.

An Apple spokesman, Alex Kirschner, said in a statement that the company takes customer safety “very seriously” and is “committed to AirTag’s privacy and security.” He said the small devices have features that inform users if an unknown AirTag might be with them and that deter bad actors from using an AirTag for nefarious purposes.

“If users ever feel their safety is at risk, they are encouraged to contact local law enforcement who can work with Apple to provide any available information about the unknown AirTag,” Mr. Kirschner said.

Police could ask Apple to provide information about the owner of the AirTag, potentially identifying the culprit. But some of the people who spoke with The Times were unable to find the associated AirTags they were notified of and said the police do not always take reports of the notifications on their phones seriously.

After a Friday night out with her boyfriend this month, Erika Torres, a graduate music student in New Orleans, was notified by her iPhone that an “unknown accessory” had been detected near her over a two-hour period, moving with her from a bar to her home.

other devices could set off the alert, including AirPods. When Ms. Torres posted a video about her experience to YouTube, a dozen people commented about it happening to them. “The number of reports makes me think there must be some sort of glitch that is causing all these people to experience this,” Ms. Torres said. “I hope they’re not all being stalked.”

posted a video of her ordeal on TikTok, which went viral.

“Apple probably released this product with the intent to do good, but this shows that the technology can be used for good and bad purposes,” Ms. Estrada said.

Ms. Estrada said she was told by a Los Angeles police dispatcher that her situation was a nonemergency and that if she wanted to file a report she’d have to bring the device with her to the station in the morning. She didn’t want to wait and disposed of it after taking several photos.

A spokesperson for the Los Angeles police told The Times that the department had not heard of cases in which an AirTag had been used to track a person or a vehicle. But Ms. Estrada said that after she posted her TikTok video, an Apple employee, acting on their own, contacted her. The employee was able to connect the AirTag to a woman whose address was in Central Los Angeles.

Another woman was notified by her iPhone that she was being tracked by an “unknown accessory” after leaving her gym in November. When she got home, she called the police.

pushed an update to AirTags to cause them to start beeping within a day of being away from their linked devices, down from three days. Still, “they don’t beep very loudly,” Ms. Galperin said.

A person who doesn’t own an iPhone might have a harder time detecting an unwanted AirTag. AirTags aren’t compatible with Android smartphones. Earlier this month, Apple released an Android app that can scan for AirTags — but you have to be vigilant enough to download it and proactively use it.

Apple declined to say if it was working with Google on technology that would allow Android phones to automatically detect its trackers.

People who said they have been tracked have called Apple’s safeguards insufficient. Ms. Estrada said she was notified four hours after her phone first noticed the rogue gadget. Others said it took days before they were made aware of an unknown AirTag. According to Apple, the timing of the alerts can vary depending on the iPhone’s operating system and location settings.

The devices’ inconsistencies have caused confusion for people who weren’t necessarily being tracked nefariously. Mary Ford, a 17-year-old high school student from Cary, N.C., received a notification in late October that she was being tracked by an unknown AirTag after driving to an appointment. She panicked as she searched her car.

Ms. Ford only realized it wasn’t a threat when her mother revealed she had put the tracker in the vehicle about two weeks earlier to follow her daughter’s whereabouts.

“I was nervous about Mary being out and not being able to find her,” said her mother, Wendy Ford. She said she hadn’t intended to keep the knowledge of the AirTag from her daughter, “but if I knew she would have been notified, I probably would have told her.”

Jahna Maramba rented a vehicle from the car-sharing service Turo last month in Los Angeles, then received a notification about an unknown AirTag near her on a Saturday night with her girlfriends.

She took the vehicle to her friend’s parking garage where she searched the outside of the car for an hour before its owner notified her that he had placed the device inside the vehicle. Ms. Maramba had been driving the car for two days.

A spokesperson for Turo said in a statement that the company has no control over the technology car owners use on the vehicles they rent out.

“Imagine finding out via a notification that you’re being tracked,” Ms. Maramba said. “And you can’t do anything about it.”

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As Omicron Threat Looms, Inflation Limits Fed’s Room to Maneuver

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus comes at a challenging moment for the Federal Reserve, as officials try to pivot from containing the pandemic’s economic fallout toward addressing worryingly persistent inflation.

The central bank has spent the past two years trying to support a still-incomplete labor market recovery, keeping interest rates at rock bottom and buying trillions of dollars’ worth of government-backed bonds since March 2020. But now that inflation has shot higher, and as price gains increasingly threaten to remain too quick for comfort, its policymakers are having to balance their efforts to support the economy with the need to keep price trends from leaping out of control.

That newfound focus on inflation may limit the central bank’s ability to cushion any blow Omicron might deal to America’s growth and the labor market. And in an unexpected twist, the new variant could even speed up the Fed’s withdrawal of economic support if it intensifies the factors that are causing inflation to run at its fastest pace in 31 years.

“In every one of the previous waves of the virus, the Fed was able to react by effectively focusing on downside risks to growth, and trying to mitigate them,” said Aneta Markowska, chief financial economist at Jefferies. “They’re no longer able to do that, because of inflation.”

said in an interview last week.

Janet L. Yellen, the Treasury secretary and a former Fed chair, made similar remarks at an event on Thursday.

“The pandemic could be with us for quite some time and, hopefully, not completely stifling economic activity but affecting our behavior in ways that contribute to inflation,” she said of the new variant.

during congressional testimony last week. “I think the risk of higher inflation has increased.”

Fed officials initially expected a 2021 price pop to fade quickly as supply chains unsnarled and factories worked through backlogs. Instead, inflation has been climbing at its fastest pace in more than three decades, and fresh data set for release on Friday are expected to show that the ascent continued as a broad swath of products — like streaming services, rental housing and food — had higher prices.

Given that, Mr. Powell and his colleagues have pivoted to inflation-fighting mode, trying to ensure that they are poised to respond decisively should price pressures persist.

Mr. Powell said last week that officials would discuss speeding up their plans to taper off their bond-buying program — prompting many economists to expect them to announce a plan after their December meeting that would allow them to stop buying bonds by mid-March. The Fed announced early in November that it would slow purchases from $120 billion a month, making the possible acceleration a notable change.

Ending bond-buying early would put officials in a position to raise their policy interest rate, which is their more traditional and more powerful tool.

nearly four million people are still missing from the labor market compared with just before the pandemic began. Some have most likely retired, but surveys and anecdotes suggest that many are lingering on the sidelines because they lack adequate child care or are afraid of contracting or passing along the coronavirus.

If the Fed begins to remove its support for the economy, slowing business expansion and hiring, the labor market could rebound more slowly and haltingly when and if those factors fade.

But the balancing act is different from what it was in previous business cycles. The factors keeping employees on the sidelines right now are mostly unrelated to labor demand, the side of the equation that the Fed can influence. Employers appear desperate to hire, and job openings have shot up. People are leaving their jobs at historically high rates, such a trend that job-quitting TikTok videos have become a cultural phenomenon.

In fact, the at-least-temporarily-tight labor market is one reason inflation might last. As they compete for workers and as employees demand more pay to keep up with ballooning consumption costs, companies are raising wages rapidly. The Employment Cost Index, which the Fed watches closely because it is less affected by many of the pandemic-tied problems that have muddied other wage gauges, rose sharply in its latest reading — catching policymakers’ attention.

If companies continue to increase pay, they may raise prices to cover their costs. That could keep inflation high, and anecdotal signs that such a trend is developing have already cropped up in the Fed’s survey of regional business contacts, called the Beige Book.

“Several contacts mentioned that labor costs were already being passed along to consumers with little resistance, while others said plans were underway to do so,” the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta reported in the latest edition, released last week.

Still, some believe that inflation will fade headed into 2022 as the world adjusts to changing shopping patterns or as holiday demand that has run up against constrained supply fades. That could leave the Fed with room to be patient on rate increases, even if it has positioned itself to be nimble.

Lifting rates “before those people come back is a little bit like throwing in the towel,” Ms. Markowska said. “I have a hard time believing that the Fed would throw in the towel that easily.”

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