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Showing posts with label World News. Show all posts
Showing posts with label World News. Show all posts

Saturday, August 24, 2019

After international criticism, Bolsonaro deploys military to fight Amazon fires

Fallen, burnt trees still smoke atop a bed of ashes; trees spared by the flames still stand in the background. Amid ashes, tress smolder in the Amazon basin in Brazil’s Rondonia state on August 24, 2019. | Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said the country lacked the resources to fight the fires ravaging the Amazon rainforest. Now, he has sent 44,000 troops to battle the flames.

The Brazilian military began an operation on Saturday to fight the fires that have both ravaged huge swathes of the Amazon rainforest for two weeks and threatened to ignite global political disputes.

Military aircraft and about 44,000 troops are being deployed across six Brazilian states struggling with the fires. President Jair Bolsonaro, a strongman who entered office in January on a far-right nationalist platform, authorized the operations on Friday, following international protests against his administration’s handling of — and its possible role in contributing to the scale of — the wildfires.

The move came two weeks after the fires began, and shortly after French President Emmanuel Macron threatened to block a trade deal with a South American bloc that includes Brazil over Bolsonaro’s lack of concern about the crisis.

Bolsonaro has accused non-governmental organizations of starting the fires — while declining to provide any evidence they are responsible — and as recently as Thursday claimed his government didn’t have the resources to even try suppressing the flames.

But pressure mounted on the Brazilian president as Macron accused Bolsonaro of lying to his face about plans to protect the Amazon and as photos showing the extent of the devastation — including blackened skies above Sao Paulo, some 1700 miles from the fires — began spreading across social media.

Just a little alert to the world: the sky randomly turned dark today in São Paulo, and meteorologists believe it’s smoke from the fires burning *thousands* of kilometers away, in Rondônia or Paraguay. Imagine how much has to be burning to create that much smoke(!). SOS pic.twitter.com/P1DrCzQO6x

— Shannon Sims (@shannongsims) August 20, 2019

The fires come amid rollbacks to environmental protections in Brazil

Although fires are not uncommon during this time of year in Brazil, 77,000 fires sparked this year, more than doubling the scale of the fire season during 2018. And unlike the forest fires common in North America, they should not be considered a natural phenomenon, Mark Cochrane, an expert on wildfire and ecology at the University of Maryland, told the New York Times: “All of the fires in this region are caused by people.”

As Vox’s Umair Irfan and Kainaz Amaria recently reported:

Across its 550 million hectares (one hectare is about the size of two soccer fields), more than 74,000 fires have started in the Amazon this year to date, an 84 percent surge from the year before, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE). Fires are a natural part of many ecosystems, but not in the Amazon, where they are an almost entirely human-caused phenomenon. Farmers use slash-and-burn tactics to clear forest areas for crops. Illegal loggers and miners set fires to cover their tracks. In several instances, they have ignited blazes to drive indigenous people off their land.

The fires have been linked to the effects of record heat, drought, and deforestation. And as Vox’s Umair Irfan has reported, these same three issues have led to unprecedented fires across Russia, Alaska, Greenland, California, and elsewhere. These fires “are an unmistakable sign of how humans are radically reshaping the planet,” Irfan writes.

In Brazil, many blame one human in particular for the scope and scale of the Amazon disaster: Bolsonaro. The president has worked to roll back federal rainforest protections in pursuit of a pro-business agenda, and has been openly dismissive of the rights of the peoples who live inside the forest. He has also rejected the work of government experts and scientists who study the Amazon, and has shown a marked lack of curiosity or concern about the fires, as Vox’s Umair Irfan has reported:

The source of the current wildfires in Brazil is not yet known, and the government in Brazil is not all that inclined to find out. INPE’sdirector, Ricardo Galvão, was ousted from his job earlier this month after his agency reported an 88 percent increase in the deforestation rate in the Amazon.

Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, called the deforestation data “lies.”

One suspected cause of the fires is deforestation of the Amazon (which has been encouraged by Bolsonaro) caused by farmers and the natural resource industry, as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp reports:

Bolsonaro, who took office in January and has been referred to as “Captain Chainsaw,” gutted funding for agencies protecting the massive rainforest, essentially giving wink-and-nudge approval for illegal loggers to do their thing. Fire is used as a tool for clearing Amazon land for ranching, and the more trees are cut down, the more vulnerable the rainforest is to wildfires. There have been almost twice as many fires detected in 2019 so far as there were in the entirety of 2018.

Like the government’s Amazon research, federal efforts to protect the forest in general have waned under Bolsonaro. The New York Times found that “enforcement measures to protect against deforestation by Brazil’s main environmental agency fell by 20 percent during the first six months of this year, compared with the same period in 2018.”

All combined, the policies pursued — and the lack of action taken — by the Bolsonaro administration marks a sharp turnaround from the policies of the previous, left-wing Brazilian government, which scaled back Amazon deforestation by 80 percent.

Of concern to Macron — whose government released a statement that said “The president can only conclude President Bolsonaro lied to him at the Osaka summit,” when the two men discussed protecting the Amazon — and to other world leaders concerned about climate change, is the fact that policies that harm the Amazon impact the global climate because of the vast forest’s ability to absorb greenhouse gases. Beauchamp writes:

It’s hard to overstate how threatening this policy is to the climate. The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest: its trees scrub the Earth of a significant amount of CO2 and have captured a huge amount of carbon and methane within their branches and roots. If you lose the trees, a lot of greenhouse gases get released, and it becomes harder to capture emissions from other sources. Continued fires and clear-cutting in the Amazon could cripple the fight against climate change.

Because of the central role the Amazon plays in keeping life on Earth as we know it going, Macron called on his his fellow leaders to make the fires a top priority at in Biarritz, France’s G7 summit, a gathering of world leaders from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rain forest - the lungs which produces 20% of our planet’s oxygen - is on fire. It is an international crisis. Members of the G7 Summit, let's discuss this emergency first order in two days! #ActForTheAmazon pic.twitter.com/dogOJj9big

— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) August 22, 2019

Macron also said he would oppose an EU trade deal with a South American bloc that includes Brazil while the crisis continues.

“First we need to help Brazil and other countries put out these fires,” Macron said Saturday.

Bolsonaro responded to the French president’s concerns by tweeting, “I regret that Macron seeks to make personal political gains in an internal matter for Brazil and other Amazonian countries.”

Like many right-wing leaders, Bolsonaro has long been a climate change skeptic

The crisis has also highlighted a political difference when it comes to addressing climate change. Right-wing leaders, like Bolsonaro and Donald Trump, are relatively unconcerned with climate change — sometimes they even deny it exists. Moderate and left-leaning leaders, like Macron, on the other hand, consider climate change to be a critical issue. As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp notes:

Bolsonaro has been dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics,” a far-right firebrand who shares the American president’s hostility to democracy and penchant for saying extremely offensive things about women and minorities. The similarities clearly extend to climate policy — Trump famously labeled climate change a Chinese hoax, pulled out of the Paris agreement on climate change, and recently presented a “carbon regulation” plan that could actually increase emissions.

The American and Brazilian leaders are particularly aggressive on the issue, but they’re hardly alone among Western right-wingers. A February report from the German Adelphi Institute, an environmental think tank, found that 18 out of the 21 largest European far-right parties are either generally indifferent to climate action or outright oppose it.

… By contrast, the centrist and left parties in these countries were, prior to the populist wave of the past few years, doing a markedly better job on addressing climate change — not perfect or sufficient, mind you, but comparatively much better than what the far-right parties want.

Trump and Bolsonaro have also been aligned in their inconsistent public statements about the fires. The Brazilian president first said the government lacked the resources to fight the flames; now he has mobilized 44,000 troops to do just that.

And on Friday, President Trump tweeted that the US would help Brazil to fight the fires, but on the eve of the military operations, Brazilian Defense Minister Fernando Azevedo said the two governments had not been in contact about the matter at all, according to the Associated Press.

Just spoke with President @JairBolsonaro of Brazil. Our future Trade prospects are very exciting and our relationship is strong, perhaps stronger than ever before. I told him if the United States can help with the Amazon Rainforest fires, we stand ready to assist!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 23, 2019

While he initially seemed ambivalent about the fires, Bolsonaro has now pivoted to making them a priority.

Azevedo said the country’s military response “shows the concern of Bolsonaro’s government about this issue,” and in a televised address on Friday night, Bolsonaro said the military operation was part of a “zero tolerance” approach to harms against the Brazilian environment.

“I have a profound love and respect for the Amazon,” he said. “Protecting the rainforest is our duty.”

Bolsonaro’s change of heart was too slow to convince his critics, however. Even as he spoke those words, protesters were out on the streets within Brazil to denounce Bolsonaro for his role in the disaster.

And distaste for how the Brazilian government handled the fires spread beyond the streets of Brazil and the halls of government in Europe — in London, Paris, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and elsewhere, people marched carrying banners that read: “Fora Bolsonaro!” — “Bolsonaro, out!”

Original Article ©Copyrights Vox.com

Trump escalates the US-China trade war by announcing tariff hikes — on Twitter

President Donald Trump onstage speaking into a microphone.US President Donald Trump speaks at the American Veterans 75th National Convention in Louisville, Kentucky, on August 21, 2019. | MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

His Friday announcement ups the ante even as worries about a potential recession continue to grow.

The US-China trade war just keeps on escalating.

President Donald Trump on Friday announced increased tariffs in response to penalties China had levied that morning on $75 billion worth of US products — a wave of tariffs that were themselves a Chinese response to earlier US penalties.

These latest US levies, a development Trump waited to announce until after the stock market had closed, raise existing penalties on $250 billion in goods being imported from China to a 30 percent tax. They also levy an extra 5 percent tax — for a total of 15 percent — on another $300 billion in products that were set to be taxed starting September 1. The tariff hikes on the former goods are slated to go into effect on October 1.

For many years China (and many other countries) has been taking advantage of the United States on Trade, Intellectual Property Theft, and much more. Our Country has been losing HUNDREDS OF BILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year to China, with no end in sight....

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 23, 2019

....Sadly, past Administrations have allowed China to get so far ahead of Fair and Balanced Trade that it has become a great burden to the American Taxpayer. As President, I can no longer allow this to happen! In the spirit of achieving Fair Trade, we must Balance this very....

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 23, 2019

...unfair Trading Relationship. China should not have put new Tariffs on 75 BILLION DOLLARS of United States product (politically motivated!). Starting on October 1st, the 250 BILLION DOLLARS of goods and products from China, currently being taxed at 25%, will be taxed at 30%...

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 23, 2019

...Additionally, the remaining 300 BILLION DOLLARS of goods and products from China, that was being taxed from September 1st at 10%, will now be taxed at 15%. Thank you for your attention to this matter!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 23, 2019

Trump’s move ups the ante on an increasingly tense trade war that’s causing growing fallout in the stock market. In anticipation of these taxes, the Dow dropped more than 600 points on Friday after Trump tweeted out a threat earlier in the day. As Vox’s Jen Kirby has reported, Trump may be reacting to China’s latest moves now, but the country’s recent tariffs were actually in response to actions he had previously taken:

China, of course, is pushing back against Trump’s own levies. The president in August announced 10 percent tariffs on $300 billion in Chinese products starting September 1, which, when combined with previous tariffs, effectively taxes nearly all Chinese goods.

Friday’s announcement builds off several earlier rounds of tariffs that Trump had previously laid out. Last fall, the US levied a 10 percent tariff on $200 billion in Chinese imports, with a focus on products that are predominately sold to businesses. This past May, the administration raised that tax to a 25 percent tariff. (Those are the goods that will now be taxed at 30 percent.) Additionally, Trump set another 10 percent tariff to go into effect on September 1 on $300 billion in Chinese goods, a tax that’s expected to affect more consumer products. (Those goods will now be taxed at 15 percent.)

Before China announced its retaliatory tariffs Friday, Trump had said he would delay some of the tariffs slated for September 1 due to concerns that they would slow spending during the holiday season. Those tariffs applied to popular consumer goods including cellphones and clothing and are now scheduled for December 15, a timeline his Friday tweets did not comment on.

Trump’s use of tariffs is part of a larger protectionist strategy he’s employed in what he says is an effort to bring jobs back to the US, curb the US trade deficit, and hold China accountable for alleged intellectual property abuses. But as Vox’s Kirby noted, the world’s two largest economies don’t seem set to resolve their differences anytime soon:

China’s latest move is a reminder that Washington and Beijing are no closer to ending this economic brinksmanship or signing any sort of deal. China and the US are supposed to resume trade talks in September, but no date has been set yet.

Given the uncertainty plaguing not only the US economy but other economies around the world — including Germany and China — Trump’s ongoing spat over tariffs does little to ease worries about a potential recession, even if investors won’t fully react to the news until Monday.

Original Article ©Copyrights Vox.com

Friday, August 23, 2019

China hits back at the US with tariffs on $75 billion in goods

China’s Industrial Output Rose 4.8% In JulyA crane lifts steel pipes for shipment at a port on August 14, 2019, in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province, China. | Wang Chun/Visual China Group via Getty Images

The trade standoff continues — as do the global economic jitters.

China will impose $75 billion in retaliatory tariffs on US goods, escalating the bilateral trade standoff that’s continuing to rattle the world’s financial markets.

Beijing will add two rounds of tariffs — one on September 1, the other on December 15 — to match the Trump administration’s plan to add 10 percent tariffs on $300 billion in Chinese goods. China’s tariffs will range from 5 to 10 percent and include goods like soybeans and oil.

It doesn’t end there. China will also add a 25 percent tariff on cars and a 5 percent tariff on auto parts, starting December 15, according to the Washington Post.

President Trump responded to China’s announcement with a series of angry tweets. “We don’t need China and, frankly, would be far....better off without them,” he wrote.

He included a directive, too. “Our great American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China, including bringing....your companies HOME and making your products in the USA,” he wrote.

It’s not clear, exactly, what Trump means or how he intends to enforce this, though bringing jobs back to the US has long been the stated (and elusive) goal of his protectionist trade policies.

Trump added that he’d be “responding to China’s Tariffs this afternoon.”

....better off without them. The vast amounts of money made and stolen by China from the United States, year after year, for decades, will and must STOP. Our great American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China, including bringing..

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 23, 2019

China, of course, is pushing back against Trump’s own levies. The president in August announced 10 percent tariffs on $300 billion in Chinese products starting September 1, which, when combined with previous tariffs, effectively taxes nearly all Chinese goods.

Last week, however, Trump announced he was delaying tariffs on some consumer products — things like cellphones and sneakers — until December 15, likely an attempt to avoid a hit to consumer spending during the holidays. The US Trade Representative’s Office cited “health, safety, national security, and other factors” as the reason for the postponement.

That reprieve obviously did little to ease trade tensions, and China’s latest move is a reminder that Washington and Beijing are no closer to ending this economic brinksmanship or signing any sort of deal. China and the US are supposed to resume trade talks in September, but no date has been set yet.

Financial markets are worried about a possible US recession, and Trump’s aggressive trade protectionism is driving a lot of those fears. China is also experiencing an economic slowdown, and though tariffs aren’t the only reason, they’re certainly not helping.

The fallout from the US-China trade war isn’t limited to those two countries; the rest of the world is starting to get increasingly nervous as the world’s two biggest economies continue to go tit-for-tat.

Original Article ©Copyrights Vox.com

 The G7 is getting back together this weekend

TOPSHOT-CANADA-G7-SUMMIT-summit-diplomacy-CanadaPresident Trump arrives in Canada for the G7 in June 2018. Here we go again, this time, in France. | Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Get ready, France. President Trump is coming to upend another global summit.

The Group of Seven summit in Biarritz, France, hasn’t even started and everyone’s already nervous about how it will end.

Last year, President Donald Trump got into a fight with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, got upset that Russia wasn’t around, left early and skipped the climate change meetings, and refused to endorse the usually uncontroversial joint communique.

In preparation — or fear — of a repeat, this year’s host, French President Emmanuel Macron, is trying to head off any controversy. He’s scrapping the traditional statement because of what he called fundamental and deep disagreements among its members, particularly on climate change. Or to put a finer point on it, because of Trump.

“If we draft an agreement about the Paris accord, President Trump won’t agree. It’s pointless,” Macron said Wednesday in Paris.

He also admitted that “no one reads the communiqués, let’s be honest,” and while that’s probably true, he made it pretty clear this is an attempt to avoid a reprise of last year’s debacle.

So the politics of avoidance will prevail among the top economic powers gathered this weekend in an increasingly uncertain world. There are global fears of a recession, escalating tensions with Iran, trade disputes, and the ongoing dramas of Brexit and Ukraine.

Macron has said he will seek consensus through informal discussions, according to the Guardian. But it’s not clear even behind-closed-doors meetings will help these G7 members work out their differences.

The French president has championed multilateralism and cast himself as the leader of liberal democracies in the vacuum left by America and the waning power of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. But his strategy has stumbled, for the simple reason that it’s hard to foster alliances when not everyone buys into that vision.

Trump hasn’t in the past. And this year, he might not be the only one.

Macron’s G7 is officially supposed to focus on inequality. Other issues will probably take over.

The official theme of this year’s Macron-hosted G7 is inequality, including how globalization and a changing climate have contributed to the widening gap between the rich and the poor. In addition to the Group of Seven countries — US, France, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Italy — Macron has invited other countries, including Australia, India, and Rwanda, to participate in discussions on some of these broad themes. His desire to tackle this issue is also for a domestic audience, as he faced one of the biggest challenges to his presidency this year during the “Yellow Vest” protests over a gas tax and economic reform.

But Macron’s agenda is likely to be sidelined by more pressing geopolitical issues.

Trade wars will likely be at the top of this list. Trump’s protectionist trade policies have strained relationships with allies. There have been some breakthroughs on US-EU disputes and the renegotiated NAFTA, but those small successes are overshadowed by Trump’s intensifying trade war with China.

The trade spat is causing global financial strain and contributing to this bleak global economic outlook, which is looking as if a downturn might be possible in the coming months. Germany’s economy is “teetering” on the edge of recession, and Europe and the UK are bracing for the fallout of Brexit, which is starting to look as if it might end with a disastrous no-deal on October 31. Italy’s economy is also under strain, and the country has mounting debt problems, made worse by a political crisis that intensified this week when the prime minister resigned in the face of a challenge from one of his deputy prime ministers.

And then there’s Iran — and the future, if any, of the 2015 nuclear deal. The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran has driven a wedge between the US and its European allies, specifically France, Germany, and the UK, who remain party to the nuclear deal and have tried for months to salvage it.

Last month, Iran breached the limits set by the 2015 agreement, making the future of the international pact even more tenuous. On July 4, Britain seized an Iranian oil tanker, which it says was bound for Syria, in the waters off Gibraltar. Iran retaliated and took control of a British tanker. This week, that Iranian tanker was released from Gibraltar — but not before the US tried to seize it. The standoff highlighted a fraught situation in the Strait of Hormuz, a vital shipping route in the Persian Gulf, and the increasingly complicated politics involved.

It also shows that allies can’t agree on how to deescalate the tensions between Iran and the US. Macron is meeting with Iranian officials Friday, ahead of the G7 summit, in an attempt to broker some sort of breakthrough. Macron and European leaders have failed to dissuade the Trump administration from pulling out of the nuclear deal or imposing increasingly punishing sanctions, so the odds of success here look slim — but Macron is making a go of it anyway.

Russia will also be on the agenda. Ahead of the G7, Trump suggested that Russia — which was expelled from the elite club of nations after the invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014 — should be readmitted. “I think it’s much more appropriate to have Russia in,” Trump said this week. “I could certainly see it being the G8 again.” He also blamed former President Barack Obama for expelling Russia because, he claimed, Russian President Vladimir Putin “outsmarted” Obama. However, all members agreed to kick Russia out, and they laid out their reasoning in — what else — a joint statement.

Trump also complained last year that Russia wasn’t invited to the summit in Quebec. But now, at least, Macron agrees with Trump. Sort of.

Macron, who met with Putin this week, said he’d welcome Russia back to the group, but on the condition that Putin help resolve the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine. In other words, Macron wants to attach conditions. Quick consensus doesn’t look possible on what, if anything, Russia would need to do to get an invite again (which, in 2020, will likely be at a Trump property). And while the EU and, to a lesser extent, the US occasionally protest Russia’s misdeeds in Ukraine (and Crimea), they’ve largely been distracted by other international or domestic problems. That probably gives Putin little incentive to play along.

Trump might not be the only leader complicating the G7 this year

While Trump manages to do something weird at just about any multilateral meeting, he might not actually be the star of the show this year. Instead, that’s likely to be the new British prime minister, Boris Johnson, who’s at the center of the ongoing Brexit crisis.

This is Johnson’s coming-out on the international stage, and since taking office in July, the Brexit mess has just gotten messier. The EU rejected Johnson’s alternative Brexit plan outright, and the new prime minister has said he’s not keen to negotiate with the EU on such terms. The impasse is increasing the odds of a no-deal Brexit, which could be economically catastrophic for the UK, and also pretty bad for Europe.

Johnson just met with Macron and Merkel this week, but it’s hard not to see how all these European countries get together in a room and avoid talking Brexit.

And everyone is watching to see whom Johnson will ally with at the summit. Will it be his European partners, with whom he’s messily breaking up with right now? Or will it be Trump, who seems eager to gift Johnson a post-Brexit bilateral trade deal, but who remains quite unpopular in the UK?

This will mark the first meeting between Trump and his “great friend” Johnson as heads of state. While the similarities between them might be overblown, there’s a certain kinship there: They both rode populist movements to power, and they’re brash and unapologetic about it all.

Whether this will create a deeper rift within the G7 — between the Macrons and Trudeaus trying to champion, or simply cling to, the liberal democratic world order, and the Trumps and Johnsons who seem perfectly content with shattering the system — is what the world will be watching. That, and all the tweets.

Original Article ©Copyrights Vox.com

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Trump cancels his state visit to Denmark over Greenland

Daily News Headline Critical Of President Donald TrumpThe Daily News plays off a classic headline to report on Trump’s attempts to buy Greenland. Now the US president is snubbing Denmark. | Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

The president really wasn’t kidding about buying the Danish autonomous territory.

So we all kind of thought the whole Trump-buying-Greenland thing was mostly a joke.


Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen appeared to think so, too, calling the idea of buying the autonomous Danish territory “absurd.” Many Greenlanders seemed to make light of it, too. Even President Trump made the rare joke at his own expense, tweeting a picture of a golden Trump Tower looming above tiny cabins, saying, “I promise not to do this to Greenland!”


But of course that wasn’t the end of it — and now it’s turned into a somewhat serious diplomatic spat. On Tuesday evening, Trump tweeted that “based on Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s comments, that she would have no interest in discussing the purchase of Greeland, I will be postponing our meeting schedule in two weeks for another time ...”


“The Prime Minister was able to save a great deal of expense and effort for both the United States and Denmark by being so direct,” he added in a follow-up tweet. “I thank her for that and look forward to rescheduling sometime in the future!”




....The Prime Minister was able to save a great deal of expense and effort for both the United States and Denmark by being so direct. I thank her for that and look forward to rescheduling sometime in the future!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 20, 2019


Yes, the president of the United States just started a squabble with a NATO ally over a half-serious plan to buy the territory of Greenland, which was never for sale for in the first place.


Frederiksen gave a press conference Wednesday morning to respond to Trump’s cancellation, saying she received the news with “regret and surprise.” She reiterated the close ties between the US and Denmark, and said she hoped they could continue dialogue in the future, particularly on issues in the Arctic. Although Greenland still isn’t for sale.


Other Danish officials met Trump’s announcement with consternation and a little bit of anger. Former Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt questioned if this was actually the joke. “Deeply insulting to the people of Greenland and Denmark,” she wrote.


Another former prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, wrote that Trump’s decision was “a setback for our countries’ diplomatic relations, but it may be for the best.”


“The Arctic’s security & environmental challenges are too important to be considered alongside hopeless discussions like the sale of Greenland,” he said.


Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II had invited Trump for a state visit on September 2 and 3, which the White House announced in late July. Few details about the visit had been released, besides Trump engaging in bilateral talks and meetings with business leaders.


But Trump would have been only the fourth sitting US president to make a state visit to Denmark, so it was a fairly big deal. (It’s also kind of weird Trump canceled because, politics aside, he loves himself a state visit.)


Frederiksen told reporters during her press conference Wednesday that preparations had been well underway and the country had already put in a lot of effort. The US ambassador to Denmark had even tweeted that Denmark “was ready for POTUS,” just hours before Trump called the whole thing off.


This Greenland thing shouldn’t have been a thing, but now it is a thing


The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Trump was interested in Greenland because of its strategic location and natural resources. Trump said as much on Sunday, saying that “strategically for the United States, it would be nice.”


As Vox’s Matt Yglesias explained:



Modern-day interest in Greenland, however, is more about drilling and mining.


As Tim Boersma and Kevin Foley put it in their 2014 Brookings Institution report, “as the Arctic ice continues to melt due to global warming, Greenland’s mineral and energy resources — including iron ore, lead, zinc, diamonds, gold, rare earth elements, uranium and oil — are becoming more accessible.”


If Greenland were to become part of the sovereign territory of the United States, then the US government could dispense rights to these mineral and energy resources as it sees fit, which might be lucrative for various interested parties.



Trump also called it “essentially a real-estate deal” — though it’s not quite that. While the US has bought countries before (including what is now the US Virgin Islands from Denmark), and the Truman administration offered to buy Greenland in the 1940s, Denmark could not trade away the territory without Greenland’s consent.


And now a seemingly half-serious proposal bouncing around the White House has threatened a rift with one of the US’s longest-running allies.


Denmark is a strong NATO partner and has fought alongside the US (and lost soldiers) in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s of strategic importance because of its proximity to Russia and its location in the Arctic. And while Denmark doesn’t want to sell Greenland, it has leased out territory for the US to host a military base there.


This is also the latest in a series of fights with what are supposed to be America’s closest allies. This summer alone, Trump has tried to make the UK ambassador to the US persona non grata over leaked cables, insulting the outgoing prime minister in the process; sent his hostage negotiator to Sweden over a relatively minor trial for a well-connected celebrity; and is now snubbing Denmark over a fantastical idea to buy an Arctic island that isn’t for sale. Trump will also attend the G7 in France this weekend, and if last year is any indication, something will likely go awry.


Trump’s mistreatment of America’s allies has been a constant theme among critics of his foreign policy, one that’s coming up more and more on the campaign trail, where 2020 Democrats are promising to undo the damage to America’s alliances Trump has caused and prioritize NATO and other US alliances.


It’s one thing if there are legitimate disputes; there’s room to defend, for example, Trump’s push to get NATO allies to spend more for defense. It’s another thing when America’s partnerships are weakened at the expense of Trump’s very weird whims.

Original Article ©Copyrights Vox.com

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Italy’s prime minister just resigned. What the heck comes next?

Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini speaks in the Italian Senate on August 20, 2019. He’s been agitating for snap elections for weeks — and now he might get them. | Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

Italy’s prime minister resigned on Tuesday, throwing a twist in far-right, anti-immigrant leader Matteo Salvini’s power play to get early elections.

Italy has been slow walking into a political crisis for weeks. Now, it’s here.


Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned Tuesday, effectively collapsing the country’s government.


In a speech before the Italian Senate, Conte blamed his deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, for the mess, accusing him of being irresponsible and putting “his own interests and those of his party” ahead of Italy’s, at the risk of political and financial instability.


Conte is not totally wrong: Salvini has largely orchestrated this political drama.


Salvini, who leads the far-right, anti-immigrant Lega party, has been angling for weeks for snap elections, in the hopes that his rising popularity and success in May’s European Parliament elections would give him enough support that he could become prime minister outright after a new vote, or maybe with the support of smaller right-wing and far-right parties. Either way, the guy wants to become prime minister.


Italy just had elections in March 2018, and the fractured results forced an odd marriage between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the Lega party. It was a fragile coalition to begin with, and divisions between the two and Salvini’s recent power play made it recently untenable.


Salvini withdrew his support for the government earlier in August and called for a confidence vote, which was expected today. But Conte’s resignation effectively preempted the vote, upending the government anyway.


Conte’s attacked Salvini’s “irresponsible” actions for setting this crisis in motion. But Salvini said Tuesday he’d “do everything all over again.”


But it all might not work out as perfectly as Salvini originally plotted. Right now, there’s a chance he won’t get the fall elections he desperately desires. Instead, his scheme could backfire, and he might get kicked out of government altogether.


What the heck is going on in Italian politics, briefly explained


Matteo Salvini is pretty much what’s going on in Italian politics.


His rise to power fits into a broader resurgence of right-wing populism that swept Europe in recent years. When Salvini took over leadership of the Lega in 2013, it was a regionalist party with a narrow focus on northern Italy (its full name is Lega Nord, or Northern League), and it lacked national appeal.


Salvini helped changed that, especially in the lead-up to the 2018 elections. He pushed the party rightward and embraced a populist, “Italians first” message. Most notably, he embraced an anti-immigrant platform at a time whenItaly was on the front lines of Europe’s refugee and migrant crisis.


A savvy politician, Salvini plays up the anti-elitist, “man of the people” vibe, and he’s skilled at promoting this persona on social media. This summer, he campaigned on Italy’s beaches, deejaying,snapping selfies, and going shirtless, where he showed off his “proletarian paunch.”


Salvini also invokes religion a lot, something Conte criticized Salvini for during his resignationspeech on Tuesday, saying it “undermined the principle of secularism of the modern state.” Salvini, in response, kissed a rosary.


All of this has worked out well for Salvini so far. He’s arguably the most popular politician in Italy right now, and his Lega party is polling at 38 percentvery close to the number needed to fully take control of government. Salvini’s party also came in first in the European parliamentary elections in Italy, with his anti-EU campaign taking 34 percent of the vote.


What hasn’t worked out well for Salvini is the awkward coalition government he’s a member of, which consists of his party and the Five Star Movement.


The Five Star Movement is a true hodgepodge. Founded by a former comedian in 2009, the party’s only real unifying ideology is that it’s anti-establishment. Georgetown political scientist Hans Noel described the party as “like what would happen if you put Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Jon Stewart in a blender.”


But the Five Star Movement received the most votes — about 32 percent — in the elections last March. The center-left coalition, led by the Democratic Party, came in second place. In third was the center-right coalition, which included Salvini’s Lega. Lega got about 17 percent of the vote.


Thus ensued a long and complicated process of trying to form a government, in which neither the left nor the right could do so without the support of the Five Star Movement. It flirted with both sides, but Five Star’s leader Luigi di Maio eventually reached a deal with Salvini to form a government.


Both party leaders became deputy prime ministers, and they brought in Conte — an independent law professor who had never held a political office — as a compromise choice to be the prime minister.


But the Five Star-Lega partnership was an odd fit from the start, and since the 2018 election, Salvini and Lega have gained in popularity, while support for the Five Star Movement has waned.


The Five Star Movement, new to government, struggled to keep pace — or match Salvini’s political savvy. Tensions arose between the two partners, and sometimes spilled over into public feuding.


Salvini, buoyed by his popularity, saw a chance to increase his party’s power in government and perhaps become prime minister himself. In early August — just 14 months into the government — Salvini declared that the coalition with the Five Star Movement had failed and the only way to break the deadlock was to hold new elections. He pushed a confidence vote to take down the government in the hopes of getting those elections this fall.


But Salvini may have miscalculated.


What happens next may or may not be what Salvini anticipated


As mentioned, Salvini called for a confidence vote earlier this month, which was expected Tuesday. But Conte sidestepped him by resigning, putting the power into the hands of Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, who would decide whether to accept Conte’s resignation. It also undercut Salvini. (Conte’s resignation didn’t cancel the confidence vote, but Salvini and Lega, perhaps recognizing their blunder, withdrew it anyway.)


Mattarella said he requested Conte stay on as he figures out what’s next: either calling new elections or trying to piece together a new governing coalition with Italy’s party leaders.


This might be a caretaker-type government, meaning a coalition that would stay in power to pass some critical legislation and then disband in a few months, or a more long-term one that would last for the remainder of what should have been Conte’s five-year term.


But in either case, it could also mean Salvini gets pushed into the opposition and out of power altogether.


That’s because a possible option is a coalition between the center-left, led by the Democratic Party, and the Five Star Movement — which would mean Lega, and Salvini with it, would be gone.


It would certainly be a twist if Salvini’s machinations ended with a center-left coalition in power. If that happens, Salvini can still be an agitator from the outside, and skilled politician he is, he may be able to spin the narrative in his favor. But his influence within government — and right-wing, anti-immigration policies — would be diminished.


Salvini seemed to realize this over the weekend, trying to make nice again with the Five Star Movement. But it looked to be too little, too late. The Five Star Movement leader di Maio called such offers “regretful” and “tardy,” and reports suggested that they’d already started making overtures to the center-left.


But there’s no guarantee that the center-left Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement can work together. There are deep divisions within the center-left about taking such a risk, and a lot of disagreements between the Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement. The two have rejected each other in the past. But necessity — the current political crisis and Salvini’s undeniable power grab — might bring them together now.


If it doesn’t, and Italian politicians can’t figure out any other way to form a government, then Italy is likely heading for a snap election, possibly in October.


Given Salvini and Lega’s current standing in the polls, the chances they would be victorious look good if there are elections soon.


A Salvini victory would put a far-right, anti-immigrant populist in charge of Europe’s third-largest economy, undoubtedly complicating the politics of the continent and the rest of the world during an already uncertain time.

Original Article ©Copyrights Vox.com

Wildfires are burning around the world. The most alarming is in the Amazon rainforest.

Smoke rises from a wildfire in Alaska. A plane passes by as smoke rises from a wildfire on July 3, 2019 south of Talkeetna, Alaska near the George Parks Highway. New fires ignited in Alaska over the weekend. | Lance King/Getty Images

Record heat, drought, and deforestation are contributing to wildfire risk.

Major wildfires are burning all over the world right now.


More than 21,000 square miles of forest have gone up in flames in Siberia this month, putting Russia on track for its worst year on record for wildfires. The smoke from these blazes shrouded large parts of the country, including major cities like Novosibirsk, and has crossed the Pacific Ocean into the United States.


On Monday, a wildfire in the Canary Islands forced more than 8,000 people to flee. Over the weekend, new fires ignited in Alaska, extending what’s already been an unusually long fire season for the state. Last week, Denmark dispatched firefighters to Greenland combat a wildfire approaching inhabited areas. If not extinguished, officials are worried the blaze would burn through the winter, further driving up the already massive ice melt Greenland has experienced this year amid record heat.


California, which suffered its most destructive wildfire season on record in 2018, is having a much calmer year by comparison, although the potential for a major fire remains.


But perhaps even more alarming are the wildfires in the Amazon rainforest, the world’s largest tropical forest. It’s an area that almost never burns on its own, yet the blazes have grown so intense that they blacked out the sky above São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, on Monday. The state of Amazonas has declared an emergency. The #PrayforAmazonia tag has surged on social media.




Just a little alert to the world: the sky randomly turned dark today in São Paulo, and meteorologists believe it’s smoke from the fires burning *thousands* of kilometers away, in Rondônia or Paraguay. Imagine how much has to be burning to create that much smoke(!). SOS pic.twitter.com/P1DrCzQO6x

— Shannon Sims (@shannongsims) August 20, 2019


Many of these fires stem from unprecedented warmth and dryness across many parts of the world this year. And in the case of the Amazon, they are an unmistakable sign of how humans are radically reshaping the planet.



Conditions were ripe for major fires this year


The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported last week that this past July was the hottest July on record. The next five hottest Julys were all in the past five years.


This is not just for the northern hemisphere, where it’s summer right now, but for the whole world. The average global temperature last month was 1.71 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average.


It may not seem like much, but remember that this is an average, which can obscure the extremes. And there were plenty of extremes last month.


The Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium set temperature records. Paris recorded its highest temperature ever, 108.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Parts of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Spain also experienced unprecedented high temperatures. Huge swaths of the United States also baked in a heat wave last month, with minimum temperatures approaching or breaking records.


So it’s not too surprising that many of the areas burning right now experienced extreme heat last month: Siberia, Alaska, the Canary Islands.


Alaska and the Canary Islands have also dealt with severe drought this year. In May, Alaska reported “extreme” drought conditions, the first time such a rating was recorded for the state, according to the US Drought Monitor.


These conditions have long been known to exacerbate wildfires. High heat and low moisture means vegetation dries out. But people play a critical role too.


Humans make wildfires worse. In the Amazon, humans are the underlying cause.


In many ecosystems, wildfires are a natural and essential phenomenon. They clear out decaying brush, restore nutrients to soil, and even help plants germinate. But in recent years, humans have made the destruction from wildfires worse at every step. Suppression of natural fires has allowed dry vegetation to accumulate. Human activity is changing the climate, which is forcing some forests to heat up and dry out. People are building ever closer to areas ready to ignite. And people end up igniting the majority of wildfires, whether through downed power lines, errant sparks, or arson.


But the Amazon rainforest, which remains drenched for much of the year, does not burn naturally. Instead, the fires are ignited by people. Farmers use slash-and-burn tactics to clear land for farming and pasture, though it’s illegal in Brazil this time of year due to fire risk.


Illegal logging operations in Brazil have also been known to start fires as a tactic to drive indigenous people off their land and to cover their tracks. The Amazon rainforest has experienced a record number of fires this year, with 72,843 reported so far.


“There is nothing abnormal about the climate this year or the rainfall in the Amazon region, which is just a little below average,” Alberto Setzer, a researcher at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), told Reuters. “The dry season creates the favorable conditions for the use and spread of fire, but starting a fire is the work of humans, either deliberately or by accident.”




From the other side of Earth, here’s the latest on the Amazonia fires
Produced by @CopernicusEU’s atmosphere monitoring service, it shows the smoke reaching the Atlantic coast and São Paulo
DATA HERE▶️https://t.co/Q6qzFdPfIT pic.twitter.com/aJKU2YwRpJ

— WMO | OMM (@WMO) August 20, 2019


The source of the current wildfires in Brazil is not yet known, and the government in Brazil is not all that inclined to find out. INPE’s director, Ricardo Galvão, was ousted from his job earlier this month after his agency reported an 88 percent increase in the deforestation rate in the Amazon.


Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, called the deforestation data “lies.”


This deforestation stands to have major regional consequences. Without trees in place to anchor the soil and retain moisture, the underlying vegetation can dry out, making it easier to burn. Trees also evaporate a huge volume of water and emit chemicals that make it condense, helping the rainforest generate its own rainfall.


Right now, the Amazon has been deforested by 15 percent or more from its primeval state and scientists are worried that if it reaches 25 percent, there won’t be enough trees cycling water through the forest. The region will cross a tipping point and eventually degrade into savanna.


This has huge consequences for the rest of the world as well. The Amazon rainforest produces huge amounts of oxygen. Its vegetation holds on to billions of metric tons of carbon that could oxidize into heat-trapping gases.


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change earlier this month reported that conserving areas like the Amazon rainforest will be integral to mitigating climate change. But with the current pace of wildfires and deforestation, the world is rapidly galloping in the wrong direction.

Original Article ©Copyrights Vox.com

How China used Facebook and Twitter to spread disinformation about the Hong Kong protests

Protesters, some wearing masks, point lasers at a demonstration in Hong Kong in August 2019.Protests in Hong Kong have been underway for two months — and Twitter and Facebook recently uncovered the Chinese government’s efforts to spread misinformation about them. | Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images

There have long been concerns about China’s social media disinformation capabilities, but we haven’t really seen them put them into action until now.

Facebook and Twitter are dealing with the fallout of disinformation spread from another state actor on their platforms: China.


On Monday, both Facebook and Twitter announced plans to take action on coordinated attempts by the Chinese government or those associated with it to manipulate information on social media about massive protests underway in Hong Kong.


Twitter uncovered more than 900 accounts originating from the People’s Republic of China that were “deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong,” the company said, and an additional network of 200,000 accounts that were part of a broader spam campaign. Facebook subsequently said it found seven pages, three groups, and five accounts it believed were involved in “coordinated inauthentic behavior” out of China focused on Hong Kong. More than 15,000 accounts followed at least one of the pages, and about 2,200 joined one of the groups. Facebook’s discovery was based on a tip from Twitter.


Both Facebook and Twitter are blocked by China’s so-called “Great Firewall,” its broad internet censorship system.


The companies didn’t make the announcements on their own — they came after outside observers pointed out that something fishy seemed to be going on. Perhaps most notably, the social media bookmarking website Pinboard over the weekend pointed out that Twitter appeared to be allowing Chinese propaganda operations to run promoted — as in, paid-for — tweets about the Hong Kong protests on the platform.


That prompted Twitter on Monday to announce that it will not accept advertising dollars from any state-controlled news media entities, which would presumably include outlets such as RT and Al Jazeera. The policy won’t apply to taxpayer-funded entities and independent public broadcasters, and Twitter has enlisted groups such as Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House to make its determinations. Facebook told BuzzFeed News it’s not making the same move but will take a “close look at ads that have been raised to us to determine if they violate our policies.”


This is a big deal — there have long been concerns about China’s social media disinformation and misinformation capabilities, but we haven’t really seen them put into action until now.


The intelligence community has repeatedly warned about China’s potential for cyberthreats. For example, a government report earlier this year warned about the country’s ability to disrupt critical infrastructure in the US and its cyber-spying capabilities. At an event in South Carolina last year, then-Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned that China, like Russia, could pose a major cyberthreat, albeit one that’s potentially harder to spot. “In contrast to Russia, China often executes its strategy in a more deliberate and subtle manner that tends to generate less media and public attention,” he said.


The discovery of Hong Kong media manipulation is a signal that the platforms need to be on heightened alert about China, as does the United States government.


“There remain little to no steps that have been put in place by our own government to track disinformation,” Brett Bruen, the former director of global engagement under the Obama administration and president of the consulting firm Global Situation Room, told Recode. “This isn’t any longer a soft power problem, it’s a very hard issue, and we’re seeing the impact it can have on world events like in Hong Kong.”


What’s going on in Hong Kong — and what information China was trying to spread about it online — briefly explained


The mass protests in Hong Kong began in June and stem from a fight over amendments to an extradition law that would allow the city-state to extradite people accused of crimes to places with which it doesn’t have a formal extradition treaty, notably mainland China. Protesters fear such a maneuver would allow China to arbitrarily detain people accused of crimes, though it’s not entirely clear what those crimes would be. But many worry that Beijing would use the policy to target those who oppose or speak out against the Chinese government.


China regained control of Hong Kong from the British in 1997 but under the stipulation that the city could partly govern itself until 2047. It operates under a “one country, two systems” regime.


As Vox’s Alex Ward wrote at the outset of the protests, they’re about more than the extradition bill — they’re about China’s tightening control over Hong Kong and the civil liberties of the people who live there:



China is an authoritarian state. Its political leadership and law enforcement officials don’t like anyone protesting against the government in Beijing and have no tolerance for democratic movements. That, in part, is what makes Hong Kong’s status as a quasi-democracy so unique in China — and so threatening to Beijing.


Little by little, mainland China has gained more power in the city. But every move has only compelled the citizenry to resist even harder.



Demonstrations have continued to escalate. Protesters shut down Hong Kong’s airport earlier this month, and organizers say 1.7 million people took to the streets over the weekend.


China’s disinformation efforts appear to be aimed at undermining support for the Hong Kong protests and portraying them as violent, extreme, and dangerous. They appear to have been targeted at Hong Kong and abroad.


Facebook posted a sample of content from the pages it suspended, some of which compares demonstrators to ISIS fighters. “Even though the weapons are different, the outcome is the same!” one image reads. Another set of images claims demonstrators harmed a nurse’s eye. An eyepatch has become a symbol of the protests after footage surfaced showing a woman believed to be a volunteer medic whose eye was injured after being hit by a beanbag round from police — not protesters.


One of the suspended Twitter accounts said the protesters were engaged in “completely violent behavior” and called for “radical people” in Hong Kong to “just get out of here.” On top of that, Chinese state-backed news outlets appear to have been buying promoted tweets to boost the narrative of violence and extremism. The protests have been largely peaceful, though tense, and violence has at times broken out. The police have also fired tear gas, bean bags, and rubber bullets at crowds.


This is the first time we’ve seen social media companies take action on Chinese disinformation


The Chinese government has engaged in propaganda efforts and censorship for years, but it has largely held off on social media disinformation and manipulation.


“They’ve strategically chosen not to, because I think they view this as a long game and one that was unnecessary at this stage,” Bruen said. “Russia was taking a lot of the heat, and why bother?”


This signals that might be about to change — and social media platforms and governments around the world, including the United States, need to be on high alert.


The platforms and US government officials still aren’t great at identifying and stamping out disinformation. Indeed, much of the discovery of state-run disinformation efforts, as in this case, has been done by private sector entities, nonprofit organizations, and outside experts. Whatever the intelligence community does know is going on, it’s not saying a lot publicly.


At the start of the year, Facebook and Twitter, through combined efforts, suspended thousands of accounts linked to Iran, Venezuela, and Russia. Prior to that, it took down hundreds of accounts linked to the Myanmar government’s efforts to spread anti-Rohingya messaging. Facebook took down 2.2 billion fake accounts from across the globe in the first three months of this year alone, and while it says it catches 99.8 percent of them before they’re reported, it also admitted they are being created at such high rates that it’s impossible to catch them all.


Bruen said that part of the problem even stems from the language the companies use to talk about malicious activity from state actors — the term “inauthentic behavior” casts it as almost a nuisance, not a serious threat to security in the United States and around the world.


“Inauthentic behavior is someone giving themselves a positive review on Yelp,” he said. “When China is systematically, strategically, trying to target millions of people who are authentically fighting for their freedom, that is a threat to global stability, it’s a threat to America’s national security interests, it’s a threat to these companies’ bottom lines and our economies.”


The platforms have continually been caught downplaying these sorts of things. After the 2016 election, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg initially brushed off concerns that fake news on his platform might have made a difference. Twitter’s Jack Dorsey keeps saying the company is prioritizing health over growth, and that the company has taken steps to crack down on bot and fake accounts. But the platform has been slow to act in a lot of arenas, including on white supremacy.


The problem is that platforms thrive on engagement — and what’s controversial and emotion-provoking often does the trick. It’s convenient for them to be good at policing their platform and catching disinformation, but maybe not too good.


It’s no secret that Facebook and Twitter struggle with content moderation, especially when it comes to content in languages other than English.


China’s pernicious online activity around the Hong Kong protests should be a warning shot to the social media companies and to the US government. China appears willing to finally start to flex its muscles on disinformation. And its online army is powerful — it has tens of thousands of people who monitor domestic online content, massive hacking teams, and paid trolls to push the government’s messaging.


Bruen said the response should involve tracking what’s going on in China and other adversarial countries, developing defensive capabilities to fight back against disinformation campaigns when they start, and the US government potentially considering offensive campaigns to warn Chinese President Xi Jinping or Russian President Vladimir Putin that they run a risk of the US striking back publicly.


“All of this ought to be within the realm of our deterrence so that we are able, just like we do with nuclear warfare, to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction,” Bruen said. “In this case, it’s a message of mass destruction.”


Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. Subscribe to Recode podcasts to hear Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka lead the tough conversations the technology industry needs today.

Original Article ©Copyrights Vox.com

How China used Facebook and Twitter to spread disinformation about the Hong Kong protests

Protesters, some wearing masks, point lasers at a demonstration in Hong Kong in August 2019.Protests in Hong Kong have been underway for two months — and Twitter and Facebook recently uncovered the Chinese government’s efforts to spread misinformation about them. | Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images

There have long been concerns about China’s social media disinformation capabilities, but we haven’t really seen them put them into action until now.

Facebook and Twitter are dealing with the fallout of disinformation spread from another state actor on their platforms: China.


On Monday, both Facebook and Twitter announced plans to take action on coordinated attempts by the Chinese government or those associated with it to manipulate information on social media about massive protests underway in Hong Kong.


Twitter uncovered more than 900 accounts originating from the People’s Republic of China that were “deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong,” the company said, and an additional network of 200,000 accounts that were part of a broader spam campaign. Facebook subsequently said it found seven pages, three groups, and five accounts it believed were involved in “coordinated inauthentic behavior” out of China focused on Hong Kong. More than 15,000 accounts followed at least one of the pages, and about 2,200 joined one of the groups. Facebook’s discovery was based on a tip from Twitter.


Both Facebook and Twitter are blocked by China’s so-called “Great Firewall,” its broad internet censorship system.


The companies didn’t make the announcements on their own — they came after outside observers pointed out that something fishy seemed to be going on. Perhaps most notably, the social media bookmarking website Pinboard over the weekend pointed out that Twitter appeared to be allowing Chinese propaganda operations to run promoted — as in, paid-for — tweets about the Hong Kong protests on the platform.


That prompted Twitter on Monday to announce that it will not accept advertising dollars from any state-controlled news media entities, which would presumably include outlets such as RT and Al Jazeera. The policy won’t apply to taxpayer-funded entities and independent public broadcasters, and Twitter has enlisted groups such as Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House to make its determinations. Facebook told BuzzFeed News it’s not making the same move but will take a “close look at ads that have been raised to us to determine if they violate our policies.”


This is a big deal — there have long been concerns about China’s social media disinformation and misinformation capabilities, but we haven’t really seen them put into action until now.


The intelligence community has repeatedly warned about China’s potential for cyberthreats. For example, a government report earlier this year warned about the country’s ability to disrupt critical infrastructure in the US and its cyber-spying capabilities. At an event in South Carolina last year, then-Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned that China, like Russia, could pose a major cyberthreat, albeit one that’s potentially harder to spot. “In contrast to Russia, China often executes its strategy in a more deliberate and subtle manner that tends to generate less media and public attention,” he said.


The discovery of Hong Kong media manipulation is a signal that the platforms need to be on heightened alert about China, as does the United States government.


“There remain little to no steps that have been put in place by our own government to track disinformation,” Brett Bruen, the former director of global engagement under the Obama administration and president of the consulting firm Global Situation Room, told Recode. “This isn’t any longer a soft power problem, it’s a very hard issue, and we’re seeing the impact it can have on world events like in Hong Kong.”


What’s going on in Hong Kong — and what information China was trying to spread about it online — briefly explained


The mass protests in Hong Kong began in June and stem from a fight over amendments to an extradition law that would allow the city-state to extradite people accused of crimes to places with which it doesn’t have a formal extradition treaty, notably mainland China. Protesters fear such a maneuver would allow China to arbitrarily detain people accused of crimes, though it’s not entirely clear what those crimes would be. But many worry that Beijing would use the policy to target those who oppose or speak out against the Chinese government.


China regained control of Hong Kong from the British in 1997 but under the stipulation that the city could partly govern itself until 2047. It operates under a “one country, two systems” regime.


As Vox’s Alex Ward wrote at the outset of the protests, they’re about more than the extradition bill — they’re about China’s tightening control over Hong Kong and the civil liberties of the people who live there:



China is an authoritarian state. Its political leadership and law enforcement officials don’t like anyone protesting against the government in Beijing and have no tolerance for democratic movements. That, in part, is what makes Hong Kong’s status as a quasi-democracy so unique in China — and so threatening to Beijing.


Little by little, mainland China has gained more power in the city. But every move has only compelled the citizenry to resist even harder.



Demonstrations have continued to escalate. Protesters shut down Hong Kong’s airport earlier this month, and organizers say 1.7 million people took to the streets over the weekend.


China’s disinformation efforts appear to be aimed at undermining support for the Hong Kong protests and portraying them as violent, extreme, and dangerous. They appear to have been targeted at Hong Kong and abroad.


Facebook posted a sample of content from the pages it suspended, some of which compares demonstrators to ISIS fighters. “Even though the weapons are different, the outcome is the same!” one image reads. Another set of images claims demonstrators harmed a nurse’s eye. An eyepatch has become a symbol of the protests after footage surfaced showing a woman believed to be a volunteer medic whose eye was injured after being hit by a beanbag round from police — not protesters.


One of the suspended Twitter accounts said the protesters were engaged in “completely violent behavior” and called for “radical people” in Hong Kong to “just get out of here.” On top of that, Chinese state-backed news outlets appear to have been buying promoted tweets to boost the narrative of violence and extremism. The protests have been largely peaceful, though tense, and violence has at times broken out. The police have also fired tear gas, bean bags, and rubber bullets at crowds.


This is the first time we’ve seen social media companies take action on Chinese disinformation


The Chinese government has engaged in propaganda efforts and censorship for years, but it has largely held off on social media disinformation and manipulation.


“They’ve strategically chosen not to, because I think they view this as a long game and one that was unnecessary at this stage,” Bruen said. “Russia was taking a lot of the heat, and why bother?”


This signals that might be about to change — and social media platforms and governments around the world, including the United States, need to be on high alert.


The platforms and US government officials still aren’t great at identifying and stamping out disinformation. Indeed, much of the discovery of state-run disinformation efforts, as in this case, has been done by private sector entities, nonprofit organizations, and outside experts. Whatever the intelligence community does know is going on, it’s not saying a lot publicly.


At the start of the year, Facebook and Twitter, through combined efforts, suspended thousands of accounts linked to Iran, Venezuela, and Russia. Prior to that, it took down hundreds of accounts linked to the Myanmar government’s efforts to spread anti-Rohingya messaging. Facebook took down 2.2 billion fake accounts from across the globe in the first three months of this year alone, and while it says it catches 99.8 percent of them before they’re reported, it also admitted they are being created at such high rates that it’s impossible to catch them all.


Bruen said that part of the problem even stems from the language the companies use to talk about malicious activity from state actors — the term “inauthentic behavior” casts it as almost a nuisance, not a serious threat to security in the United States and around the world.


“Inauthentic behavior is someone giving themselves a positive review on Yelp,” he said. “When China is systematically, strategically, trying to target millions of people who are authentically fighting for their freedom, that is a threat to global stability, it’s a threat to America’s national security interests, it’s a threat to these companies’ bottom lines and our economies.”


The platforms have continually been caught downplaying these sorts of things. After the 2016 election, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg initially brushed off concerns that fake news on his platform might have made a difference. Twitter’s Jack Dorsey keeps saying the company is prioritizing health over growth, and that the company has taken steps to crack down on bot and fake accounts. But the platform has been slow to act in a lot of arenas, including on white supremacy.


The problem is that platforms thrive on engagement — and what’s controversial and emotion-provoking often does the trick. It’s convenient for them to be good at policing their platform and catching disinformation, but maybe not too good.


It’s no secret that Facebook and Twitter struggle with content moderation, especially when it comes to content in languages other than English.


China’s pernicious online activity around the Hong Kong protests should be a warning shot to the social media companies and to the US government. China appears willing to finally start to flex its muscles on disinformation. And its online army is powerful — it has tens of thousands of people who monitor domestic online content, massive hacking teams, and paid trolls to push the government’s messaging.


Bruen said the response should involve tracking what’s going on in China and other adversarial countries, developing defensive capabilities to fight back against disinformation campaigns when they start, and the US government potentially considering offensive campaigns to warn Chinese President Xi Jinping or Russian President Vladimir Putin that they run a risk of the US striking back publicly.


“All of this ought to be within the realm of our deterrence so that we are able, just like we do with nuclear warfare, to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction,” Bruen said. “In this case, it’s a message of mass destruction.”


Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. Subscribe to Recode podcasts to hear Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka lead the tough conversations the technology industry needs today.

Original Article ©Copyrights Vox.com