Twitter, Others Slip on Removing Hate Speech, EU Review Says

Twitter took longer to review hateful content and removed less of it in 2022 compared with the previous year, according to European Union data released Thursday.

The EU figures were published as part of an annual evaluation of online platforms’ compliance with the 27-nation bloc’s code of conduct on disinformation.

Twitter wasn’t alone; most other tech companies signed up to the voluntary code also scored worse. But the figures could foreshadow trouble for Twitter in complying with the EU’s tough new online rules after owner Elon Musk fired many of the platform’s 7,500 full-time workers and an untold number of contractors responsible for content moderation and other crucial tasks.

The EU report, carried out over six weeks in the spring, found Twitter assessed just over half of the notifications it received about illegal hate speech within 24 hours, down from 82% in 2021.

In comparison, the amount of flagged material Facebook reviewed within 24 hours fell to 64%, Instagram slipped to 56.9%, and YouTube dipped to 83.3%. TikTok came in at 92%, the only company to improve.

The amount of hate speech Twitter removed after it was flagged slipped to 45.4% from 49.8% the year before. TikTok’s removal rate fell by a quarter to 60%, while Facebook and Instagram saw only minor declines. Only YouTube’s takedown rate increased, surging to 90%.

“It’s worrying to see a downward trend in reviewing notifications related to illegal hate speech by social media platforms,” European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova tweeted. “Online hate speech is a scourge of a digital age and platforms need to live up to their commitments.”

Twitter didn’t respond to a request for comment. Emails to several staff on the company’s European communications team bounced back as undeliverable.

Musk’s $44 billion acquisition of Twitter last month fanned widespread concern that purveyors of lies and misinformation would be allowed to flourish on the site. The billionaire Tesla CEO, who has frequently expressed his belief that Twitter had become too restrictive, has been reinstating suspended accounts, including former President Donald Trump’s.

Twitter faces more scrutiny in Europe by the middle of next year, when new EU rules aimed at protecting internet users’ online safety will start applying to the biggest online platforms. Violations could result in huge fines of up to 6% of a company’s annual global revenue.

France’s online regulator Arcom said it received a reply from Twitter after writing to the company earlier this week to say it was concerned about the effect that staff departures would have on Twitter’s “ability maintain a safe environment for its users.”

Arcom also asked the company to confirm that it can meet its “legal obligations” in fighting online hate speech and that it is committed to implementing the new EU online rules. Arcom said that it received a response from Twitter and that it will “study their response,” without giving more details.

Tech companies that signed up to the EU’s disinformation code agree to commit to measures aimed at reducing disinformation and file regular reports on whether they’re living up to their promises, though there’s little in the way of punishment.

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Avian Flu Outbreak Wipes Out 50.54 Million US Birds, a Record

Avian flu has wiped out 50.54 million birds in the United States this year, making it the country’s deadliest outbreak in history, U.S. Department of Agriculture data showed on Thursday. 

The deaths of chickens, turkeys and other birds represent the worst U.S. animal-health disaster to date, topping the previous record of 50.5 million birds that died in an avian flu outbreak in 2015. 

Birds often die after becoming infected. Entire flocks, which can top a million birds at egg-laying chicken farms, are also culled to control the spread of the disease after a bird tests positive. 

Losses of poultry flocks sent prices for eggs and turkey meat to record highs, worsening economic pain for consumers facing high inflation and making Thursday’s Thanksgiving celebrations more expensive in the United States. Europe and Britain are also suffering their worst avian-flu crises, and some British supermarkets rationed customers’ egg purchases after the outbreak disrupted supplies. 

The U.S. outbreak, which began in February, infected flocks of poultry and non-poultry birds across 46 states, USDA data show. Wild birds like ducks transmit the virus, known as highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), through their feces, feathers or direct contact with poultry. 

“Wild birds continue to spread HPAI throughout the country as they migrate, so preventing contact between domestic flocks and wild birds is critical to protecting U.S. poultry,” said Rosemary Sifford, the USDA’s chief veterinary officer. 

Farmers struggled to keep the disease and wild birds out of their barns, having bolstered security and cleaning measures following the 2015 outbreak. In 2015, about 30% of the cases were traced directly to wild bird origins, compared with 85% this year, the USDA told Reuters. 

Government officials are studying infections at turkey farms, in particular, in hopes of developing new recommendations for preventing infections. Turkey farms account for more than 70% of the commercial poultry farms infected in the outbreak, the USDA said.  

People should avoid unprotected contact birds that look sick or have died, though the outbreak poses a low risk to the general public, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. 

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Wildlife Summit to Vote on Shark Protections 

Delegates at a global summit on trade in endangered species were scheduled to decide Thursday whether to approve a proposal to protect sharks, a move that could drastically reduce the lucrative and often cruel shark fin trade.

The proposal would place dozens of species of the requiem shark and the hammerhead shark families on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

The appendix lists species that may not yet be threatened with extinction but may become so unless trade in them is closely controlled.

If Thursday’s plenary meeting gives the green light, “it would be a historic decision,” Panamanian delegate Shirley Binder told AFP.

“For the first time, CITES would be handling a very large number of shark species, which would be approximately 90% of the market,” she said.

Spurring the trade is the insatiable Asian appetite for shark fins, which make their way onto dinner tables in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan.

Despite being described as gelatinous and almost tasteless, shark fin soup is viewed as a delicacy and is enjoyed by the very wealthy, often at weddings and expensive banquets.

Shark fins, representing a market of about $500 million per year, can sell for about $1,000 a kilogram.

From villain to conservation darling

Sharks have long been seen as the villain of the seas they have occupied for more than 400 million years, terrifying people with their depiction in films such as “Jaws” and their occasional attacks on humans.

However, these ancient predators have undergone an image makeover in recent years as conservationists have highlighted the crucial role they play in regulating the ocean ecosystem.

According to the Pew Environment Group, between 63 million and 273 million sharks are killed every year, mainly for their fins and other parts.

With many shark species taking more than 10 years to reach sexual maturity, and having a low fertility rate, the constant hunting of the species has decimated their numbers.

In many parts of the world, fisherman lop the sharks’ fins off at sea, tossing the shark back into the ocean for a cruel death by suffocation or blood loss.

The efforts by conservationists led to a turning point in 2013, when CITES imposed the first trade restrictions on some shark species.

“We are in the middle of a very large shark extinction crisis,” Luke Warwick, director of shark protection for the nongovernmental organization Wildlife Conservation Society, told AFP at the beginning of the summit.

Heated debate

Thursday’s vote followed a fierce debate that lasted nearly three hours, with Japan and Peru seeking to reduce the number of shark species that would be protected.

Japan had proposed that the trade restriction be reduced to 19 species of requiem sharks, and Peru called for the blue shark to be removed from the list.

Both suggestions were rejected, however.

“We hope that nothing extraordinary happens and that these entire families of sharks are ratified for inclusion in Annex II,” Chilean delegate Ricardo Saez told AFP.

Several delegations, including host Panama, displayed stuffed toy sharks on their tables during the earlier Committee I debate.

The plenary was also scheduled to vote on ratifying a proposal to protect guitarfish, a species of ray.

The shark initiative was one of the most discussed at this year’s CITES summit in Panama, with the proposal co-sponsored by the European Union and 15 countries.

Participants at the summit considered 52 proposals to change species protection levels.

CITES, which came into force in 1975, has set international trade rules for more than 36,000 wild species. Its signatories include 183 countries and the European Union.

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Salt, Drought Decimate Buffaloes in Iraq’s Southern Marshes

Abbas Hashem fixed his worried gaze on the horizon — the day was almost gone and still, there was no sign of the last of his water buffaloes. He knows that when his animals don’t come back from roaming the marshes of this part of Iraq, they must be dead.

The dry earth is cracked beneath his feet and thick layers of salt coat shriveled reeds in the Chibayish wetlands amid this year’s dire shortages in fresh water flows from the Tigris River.

Hashem already lost five buffaloes from his herd of 20 since May, weakened with hunger and poisoned by the salty water seeping into the low-lying marshes. Other buffalo herders in the area say their animals have died, too, or produce milk that’s unfit to sell.

“This place used to be full of life,” he said. “Now it’s a desert, a graveyard.”

The wetlands — a lush remnant of the cradle of civilization and a sharp contrast to the desert that prevails elsewhere in the Middle East — were reborn after the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein, when dams he had built to drain the area and root out Shiite rebels were dismantled.

But today, drought that experts believe is spurred by climate change and invading salt, coupled with lack of political agreement between Iraq and Turkey, are endangering the marshes, which surround the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southern Iraq.

This year, acute water shortages — the worst in 40 years, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization — have driven buffalo herders deeper into poverty and debt, forcing many to leave their homes and migrate to nearby cities to look for work.

The rural communities that rely on farming and herding have long been alienated from officials in Baghdad, perpetually engaged in political crises. And when the government this year introduced harsh water rationing policies, the people in the region only became more desperate.

Oil-rich Iraq has not rebuilt the country’s antiquated water supply and irrigation infrastructure and hopes for a water-sharing agreement for Tigris with upstream neighbor Turkey have dwindled, hampered by intransigence and often conflicting political allegiances in Iraq.

In the marshes, where rearing of water buffaloes has been the way of life for generations, the anger toward the government is palpable.

Hamza Noor found a patch where a trickle of fresh water flows. The 33-year-old sets out five times a day in his small boat across the marshes, filling up canisters with water and bringing it back for his animals.

Between Noor and his two brothers, the family lost 20 buffaloes since May, he said. But unlike other herders who left for the city, he is staying.

“I don’t know any other job,” he said.

Ahmed Mutliq, feels the same way. The 30-year-old grew up in the marshes and says he’s seen dry periods years before.

“But nothing compares to this year,” he said. He urged the authorities to release more water from upstream reservoirs, blaming provinces to the north and neighboring countries for “taking water from us.”

Provincial officials, disempowered in Iraq’s highly centralized government, have no answers.

“We feel embarrassed,” said Salah Farhad, the head of Dhi Qar province’s agriculture directorate. “Farmers ask us for more water, and we can’t do anything.”

Iraq relies on the Tigris-Euphrates river basin for drinking water, irrigation and sanitation for its entire population of 40 million. Competing claims over the basin, which stretches from Turkey and cuts across Syria and Iran before reaching Iraq, have complicated Baghdad’s ability to make a water plan.

Ankara and Baghdad have not been able to agree on a fixed amount of flow rate for the Tigris. Turkey is bound by a 1987 agreement to release 500 cubic meters per second toward Syria, which then divides the water with Iraq.

But Ankara has failed to meet its obligation in recent years due to declining water levels and rejects any future sharing agreements that forces it to release a fixed number.

Iraq’s annual water plan prioritizes setting aside enough drinking water for the nation first, then supplying the agriculture sector and also discharging enough fresh water to the marshes to minimize salinity there. This year, the amounts were cut by half.

The salinity in the marshes has further spiked with water-stressed Iran diverting water from its Karkheh River, which also feeds into Iraq’s marshes.

Iraq has made even less headway on sharing water resources with Iran.

“With Turkey, there is dialogue, but many delays,” said Hatem Hamid, who heads the Iraqi Water Ministry’s key department responsible for formulating the water plan. “With Iran, there is nothing.”

Two officials at the legal department in Iraq’s Foreign Ministry, which deals with complaints against other countries, said attempts to engage with Iran over water-sharing were halted by higher-ups, including the office of then-Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

“They told us not to speak to Iran about it,” said one of the officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss legal issues.

Iraq’s needs are so dire that several Western countries and aid organizations are trying to provide development assistance for Iraq to upgrade its aging water infrastructure and modernize ancient farming practices.

The U.S. Geological Survey has trained Iraqi officials in reading satellite imagery to “strengthen Iraq’s hand in negotiations with Turkey,” one U.S. diplomat said, also speaking anonymously because of the ongoing negotiations.

As the sun set over Chibayish, Hashem’s water buffalo never returned — the sixth animal he lost.

“I have nothing without my buffaloes,” he said.

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As Trump Looms, South Koreans Mull Their Own Nukes

In December 2019, then-U.S. President Donald Trump was asked whether he thought it was worth it to have “all those” U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.

“It could be debated. I could go either way,” Trump answered.

The comments came at the height of tense negotiations over Trump’s demand that Seoul pay much more to host approximately 28,000 U.S. troops.

Trump’s answer did not come out of the blue. Throughout his time as president — and in fact, even before and after his presidency — Trump regularly questioned the value of the U.S.-South Korea alliance.

According to I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year, a 2021 book by two Washington Post journalists, Trump privately told close aides that he planned to “blow up” the U.S.-South Korea alliance if he won reelection in 2020.

In part because he lost that election, no one knows how serious Trump was about upending the U.S. relationship with South Korea.

Some analysts say Trump was only being transactional, as he was with many other allies, and that he never intended to abandon Seoul.

Others are not so sure, noting Trump once went so far as to suggest South Korea should get its own nuclear weapons so that Seoul could protect itself.

Faced with an increasingly hostile and nuclear-armed neighbor, South Korea can afford little ambiguity on the matter, which helps explain why a growing number of prominent voices in Seoul would like to see if Trump’s nuke offer still stands.

Going mainstream

One of the most outspoken advocates of South Korea getting its own nuclear weapons is Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, a nonpartisan foreign policy research organization outside Seoul.

Cheong spoke to VOA several days after Trump announced his 2024 presidential bid. He said it is not just the possible return of Trump that is concerning — it’s the chance that his America First ideas will have a lasting impact on U.S. foreign policy.

“The United States has a presidential election every four years…[it] may go back to isolationism, which is why South Korea’s own nuclear armament is essential to maintain stable security and deter North Korea,” Cheong told VOA.

Fringe figures have long called for South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons, but recently the proposal has gone mainstream. This year, several well-known scholars have proposed Seoul either acquire its own nuclear arsenal or request the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons that were removed in the early 1990s.

A poll published in May by the conservative Asan Institute for Policy Studies suggested that more than 70% of South Koreans support their country developing indigenous nuclear weapons — the highest level of support since the organization began asking the question in 2010.

Cheong is trying to turn that support into something more organized. In early November, he launched the ROK Forum for Nuclear Strategy, which promotes South Korea’s nuclear armament and discusses plans to make it happen. In its infancy, the group already has more than 40 members, according to Cheong.

Not just Trump

Trump is far from the only factor driving South Korea’s nuclear arms debate.

South Korean leaders are also alarmed at the rapid development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. North Korea has conducted a record number of launches this year, including both long-range missiles that could reach the United States and shorter-range ones that threaten Seoul. U.S. and South Korean officials say North Korea could conduct another nuclear test soon.

North Korea has also embraced a more aggressive nuclear posture. In October, leader Kim Jong Un oversaw a series of launches simulating a tactical nuclear strike on South Korea. The North is likely moving ahead with deploying tactical nuclear weapons to frontline positions, analysts say.

In addition, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has underscored the risks that non-nuclear states face when confronted with an aggressive, nuclear-armed neighbor.

Although South Korea is protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella, some South Korean analysts believe the United States may be reluctant to respond to a North Korean attack if Pyongyang has the ability to destroy a major U.S. city — in essence, the fear is that the United States would not want to risk San Francisco to save Seoul.

“North Korea believes there’s a slight chance that they could get away with a nuclear attack without getting a reprisal from the United States,” said Chun In-bum, a retired lieutenant general in the South Korean army.

Big obstacles

In Chun’s view, acquiring nuclear weapons is one way for South Korea to guarantee its security, although he acknowledges major barriers.

Among the uncertainties is the question of how China, Russia, and others in the region would respond. For instance, would Japan, another U.S. ally in Northeast Asia, feel compelled to get its own nuclear weapons?

Analysts are also unsure exactly how the United States would react if South Korea eventually did begin pursuing nuclear weapons. And many South Koreans who support acquiring nukes hint they would tread cautiously with that in mind.

“It’s not as if I’m going to risk the alliance in order to have South Korea get nuclear weapons. But what happens if the U.S. president says he’s going to pull U.S. troops from Korea? What if that becomes a reality?” asked Chun.

In some ways, the situation mirrors the 1970s, when South Korea briefly pursued a nuclear weapons program amid questions about the long-term U.S. security commitment.

Instead, South Korea ratified the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. It is now uncertain what consequences South Korea would face for abandoning its commitments under the pact.

Reassurance limits

When asked about the issue in recent months, Pentagon and State Department officials have ruled out the idea of returning tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea. Instead, they have focused on how the U.S. is prepared to use the full range of its capabilities, including nuclear weapons, to defend South Korea.

At a meeting earlier this month with his U.S. counterpart, Lloyd Austin, South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup said Seoul is not considering the return of tactical nuclear weapons and remains committed to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

At that Pentagon meeting, both sides agreed to several measures meant to reinforce the U.S. security commitment. The steps included increasing the deployment of U.S. strategic assets, such as long-range bombers and aircraft carriers, to South Korea, and vowing that any North Korean nuclear strike “will result in the end of the Kim regime.”

What they didn’t discuss, at least according to the 10-page joint communique released following the meeting, was Trump or his America First ideas — perhaps the one area where U.S. officials can offer the least reassurance.

“You can’t,” said Jenny Town, a Korea specialist at the Washington-based Stimson Center.

“Democracies are democracies and policies can shift,” she said.

Much depends on how Trump and his ideas fare in the 2024 elections. But even if Trump loses again, Town said, many in South Korea will have concerns about the future.

“It isn’t business as usual anymore,” she said. “It’s recent memory, and it doesn’t fade very quickly.”

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Senegal’s Women Gold Miners Carry Heavy Burden

Every few minutes, 14-month-old Awa coughs, the phlegm rising from deep within her chest.

Her mother, Meta Ba, says Awa’s been coughing that way for as long as she can remember.

Ba, who suffers from chronic migraines, works as an artisanal gold miner in Senegal’s far eastern region of Kedougou, near the borders of Mali and Guinea.

Gold mining in Senegal plays a key role in the country’s economy, but the use of mercury during the treatment process is harming the environment and the health of the miners.

In Kedougou, home to 98% of Senegal’s gold mines, more than five tons of mercury are used annually.

Health experts say the heavy metal attacks the nervous, digestive and immune systems.

It can harm the lungs and kidneys and impair hearing, balance, vision, thinking and breathing. It can also cause birth defects.

Women make up half of the miners and are charged with treating the gold after it is mined, which involves mixing mercury with ore, then vaporizing the mercury to isolate the gold. They do so without gloves or masks.

Some of the female miners have visible health conditions, such large growths stemming from their throats and drooping red eyes.

They often carry their children with them to work, causing both to suffer the health consequences.

“She is still breastfeeding, so I can’t leave her at home,” Ba said. “If I don’t come here to work, how will I survive? How will I make a living?”

But Kedougou’s gold mines are no place for children.

Scores of open pits plunge 15 meters deep, without barriers or markers. There is no safety equipment, and miners say the dust they are being exposed to is toxic.

Still, Awa and other children play and nap just steps from the pits.

The metal also infiltrates the environment, damaging the ecosystem.

“When the mercury is separated from the gold, it creates a vapor that rises into the atmosphere and clings to the leaves,” said Mamadou Drame, president of the Gold Panning Federation of Kedougou. “Then with the rain or wind it leaches into the ground and gets washed into the rivers where the fish are exposed.”

Locals risk ingesting the toxic metal, not only when they consume the fish, but when they eat the crops grown from the contaminated soil or the livestock that graze there.

A 2018 study by Duke University found dangerously high levels of the neurotoxic form of mercury in soil and water ecosystems near artisanal gold mines in Senegal that far exceed World Health Organization guidelines.

Mercury can also seep into drinking water.

“The well is contaminated,” Ba said. “When you drink this water, you know you’ll get sick.”

The toxin does not break down over time. Once an ecosystem is contaminated, future generations will pay the price.

Gold mining in Kedougou is also causing soil degradation and deforestation.

Artisanal and small-scale miners work independently in the Kedougou region. The industry is critical to the miners’ ability to make a living.

Kedougou’s mines employed more than 30,000 people in 2018 and generated $136 million. The region draws miners from Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and other neighboring countries.

In 2016 Senegal ratified the Minamata Convention on Mercury, a multilateral agreement that seeks to reduce mercury pollution.

Senegal’s Ministry of Mines and Geology only created an artisanal and small-scale mining department last year and the sector is still largely unregulated.

Abou Sow, who heads the department, acknowledged the urgency of the health and environment crisis.

In 2020 he helped the ministry launch a project to install 400 mercury-free gold processing units in Kedougou.

“Everyone who comes to the center to process their gold will know that there will be no use of chemicals,” Sow said. “We will also establish regulations that will allow us to sanction those who are treating their gold outside the center using chemicals.”

Construction has yet to start, though, and is expected to take at least two years.

Until then, miners like Ba say they and their children will continue to be exposed to toxic elements.

“These women are breathing nothing but toxins all around them,” said Khady Camara, founder of environmental organization Vacances Vertes. “It’s high time the government start regulating this industry.”

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