Day: October 5, 2021

US Lawmakers Pillory Social Media Giant Facebook

Key U.S. lawmakers pilloried social media giant Facebook on Tuesday after Frances Haugen, an inside whistleblower who once worked at the company, alleged that Facebook’s products are harming young people, undermining democracy and helping to divide the country politically. 

Haugen, who worked as a Facebook project manager for less than two years, held Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg responsible for prioritizing concerns about company profits over controlling online content on its various platforms, including Instagram. 

Haugen testified before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection a day after Facebook had encountered hourslong technical issues that left millions of users wondering why they could not access the site and its other platforms such as Instagram and WhatsApp. 

“I don’t know why it went down,” Haugen said, “but I know that for more than five hours, Facebook wasn’t used to deepen divides, destabilize democracies, and make young girls and women feel bad about their bodies” with the posting of glamorous pictures of models, pop singers and Hollywood starlets. 

Democratic and Republican lawmakers, in a rare show of political unanimity in Washington, quickly castigated Facebook and panned Zuckerberg for a recent sailing trip while controversy engulfed his company. They promised to enact tighter controls on social media. 

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut contended, “The damage to self-interest and self-worth inflicted by Facebook today will haunt a generation. Our children are the ones who are victims. Teens today looking in the mirror feel doubt and insecurity. Mark Zuckerberg ought to be looking at himself in the mirror.” 

He said, “Big Tech now faces the Big Tobacco jaw-dropping moment of truth.” 

Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee declared that Facebook “is not interested in making significant changes to improve kids’ safety on their platforms, at least not when that would result in losing eyeballs on posts or decreasing their ad revenues.” 

“It is clear that Facebook prioritizes profit over the well-being of children and all users,” she said. 

Other lawmakers accused Facebook of helping to foment the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, when hundreds of supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed into the building to try to prevent lawmakers from declaring that Democrat Joe Biden had won last November’s election. 

Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said, “When they allowed 99% of violent content to remain unchecked on their platform, including the lead-up to the January 6 insurrection, what did they do? Now we know Mark Zuckerberg was going sailing.” 

While the hearing was ongoing, Facebook pushed back against Haugen and the onslaught of criticism. It said in a statement that Haugen had no other Facebook employees who reported to her, had never attended a decision-making meeting with top Facebook officials, and had acknowledged in her testimony at least six times she was being asked questions about aspects of the company she had not worked on. 

“We don’t agree with her characterization of the many issues she testified about,” Facebook said. 

“Despite all this,” Facebook said, “we agree on one thing; it’s time to begin to create standard rules for the internet. It’s been 25 years since the rules for the internet have been updated, and instead of expecting the industry to make societal decisions that belong to legislators, it is time for Congress to act.”

Haugen acknowledged that she was the one who provided the documents used in a Wall Street Journal investigation of Facebook. 

Some information for this report came from Reuters. 



US Justice Department Renews Inquiry Into FBI’s Failures in Larry Nassar Probe

The U.S. Justice Department has launched a fresh inquiry into the FBI’s botched handling of its sex abuse investigation into disgraced former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, after previously declining to prosecute the agents involved, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said on Tuesday.

“The recently confirmed assistant attorney general for the Criminal Division is currently reviewing this matter, including new information that has come to light,” Monaco told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, adding that she is “constrained” on what more she can say.

“I do want the committee and frankly, I want the survivors to understand how exceptionally seriously we take this issue,” she added.

In an emotional hearing last month famous gymnasts including Simone Biles and McKayla Maroney appeared before the same Senate panel, where they blasted the FBI for failing to properly investigate abuse they suffered under Nassar’s care.

The hearing was prompted by a scathing investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general, which uncovered widespread and dire errors which allowed Nassar to continue to abuse at least 70 more victims before he was finally arrested.

Two former FBI agents were singled out in the report – the former Indianapolis field office Special Agent in Charge W. Jay Abbott and a former supervisory special agent who has since been identified as Michael Langeman.

The inspector general referred both former agents for prosecution, but the Justice Department declined to bring charges against them in September 2020.


Russian Soyuz Spacecraft with Actor, Director Arrives at ISS

The crew of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft was welcomed aboard the International Space Station Tuesday, though a communications glitch during their final approach delayed their eventual boarding.

The Soyuz spacecraft was launched Tuesday from the Russian spaceport in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. The ship was carrying a history-making crew, as it included film director Klim Shipenko and actor Yulia Peresild, who will be filming a feature film during their stay at the station.

After the spacecraft orbited the earth twice and made a final approach to the ISS, mission control reported the Soyuz craft experienced some communication issues. Those issues resulted in the crew abandoning automated docking procedures. Veteran Cosmonaut Shkaplerov, the other crew member on the Soyuz craft, manually guided the spacecraft into place without a problem.

The manual docking set back the scheduled opening of the hatch between the spacecraft and the station by an hour.

Once they were welcomed on board the ISS, Shipenko and Peresild will spend the next 12 days filming segments of a new feature film called “Challenge” — the first to actually be shot in outer space.  

NASA says filming will begin almost immediately. Pereslid will play a doctor who is launched to the orbital outpost to save an ailing cosmonaut. Shkaplerov and two fellow cosmonauts already on board the ISS, Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov, will all have speaking roles in the film.

Shipenko and Pereslid will return to Earth on October 17 with Novitskiy.

The historic mission beats out a similar plan announced last year by Hollywood superstar actor Tom Cruise, the U.S. space agency NASA and Elon Musk’s privately-owned SpaceX company, which ferries crews and cargo to the ISS.  

Russian space officials are hoping the film will restore some luster to the program, which has fallen from its glory days of the 1950s and `60s, when it launched the first man-made satellite as well as the first man and woman, into orbit, but has been plagued by delays, accidents and corruption scandals in recent years.

Tuesday’s launch comes nearly a month after four Americans became the first all-civilian crew to orbit the Earth, spending three days in space aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.

Some information for this report was provided by the Associated Press.


US Senator: Facebook Whistleblower’s Allegations Should Be Investigated by Regulators

Facebook took another pounding in the U.S. Congress on Tuesday and a senator called on federal regulators to investigate accusations by a whistleblower that the company pushed for higher profits while being cavalier about user safety.

In an opening statement to a Senate Commerce subcommittee, chair Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, said that Facebook knew that its products were addictive, like cigarettes. “Tech now faces that big tobacco jawdropping moment of truth,” he said.

He called for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify before the committee, and for the Securities and Exchange Commission and Federal Trade Commission to investigate the social media company.

“Our children are the ones who are victims. Teens today looking in the mirror feel doubt and insecurity. Mark Zuckerberg ought to be looking at himself in the mirror,” Blumenthal said, adding that Zuckerberg instead was going sailing.

In an era when bipartisanship is rare on Capitol Hill, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed on the need for big changes at Facebook.

The top Republican on the subcommittee, Marsha Blackburn, said that Facebook turned a blind eye to children below age 13 on its sites. “It is clear that Facebook prioritizes profit over the well-being of children and all users.”

Facebook spokesman Kevin McAlister said in an email ahead of the hearing that the company sees protecting its community as more important than maximizing profits and said it was not accurate that leaked internal research demonstrated that Instagram was “toxic” for teenage girls.

Frances Haugen, a former product manager on Facebook’s civic misinformation team, said the company keeps its algorithms and operations a secret.

“The core of the issue is that no one can understand Facebook’s destructive choices better than Facebook, because only Facebook gets to look under the hood,” she said in written testimony prepared for the hearing.

“A critical starting point for effective regulation is transparency,” she said in testimony to be delivered to the subcommittee. “On this foundation, we can build sensible rules and standards to address consumer harms, illegal content, data protection, anticompetitive practices, algorithmic systems and more.”

Haugen revealed she was the one who provided documents used in a Wall Street Journal investigation and a Senate hearing on Instagram’s harm to teenage girls.

The Journal’s stories showed the company contributed to increased polarization online when it made changes to its content algorithm; failed to take steps to reduce vaccine hesitancy; and was aware that Instagram harmed the mental health of teenage girls.

Haugen said Facebook had also done too little to prevent its site from being used by people planning violence.

Facebook was used by people planning mass killings in Myanmar and the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump who were determined to toss out the 2020 election results.


Three Share Nobel Prize for Physics for Work on Climate Change

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Tuesday announced the Nobel prize in physics goes to three scientists for their work in helping to understand complex physical systems, work that has proved valuable in quantifying and predicting climate.  

At a Stockholm news conference, the academy’s Secretary General Goran K. Hansson and a panel of Nobel jurors presented one half of the physics prize to Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann “for the physical modelling of Earth’s climate, quantifying variability and reliably predicting global warming.”

Hansson said the other half of the prize has been awarded to Giorgio Parisi “for the discovery of the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems from atomic to planetary scales.” 

The panel said the work of Manabe and Hasselmann “laid the foundation of our knowledge of the Earth’s climate and how humanity influences it.”

Born in Japan and now a senior meteorologist at Princeton University, Manabe pioneered studies in how increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere lead to increased temperatures at the surface of the Earth. 

A professor of meteorology at Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, in Hamburg, Germany, Hasselmann created a model that links together weather and climate, thus answering the question of why climate models can be reliable despite weather being changeable and chaotic.

And Sapienza University of Rome physicist Parisi, over the course of his career, discovered hidden patterns in disordered complex materials, making it possible to understand and describe many different and apparently entirely random materials and phenomena in all areas of science and mathematics.

The three scientists will split the $1.1 million cash prize.  The Nobel Prize for medicine was awarded Monday, with prizes for chemistry, literature, peace and economics to be awarded later this week and early next week.

Some information for this report was provided by the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence-France Presse.


Australian Researchers Tout Dengue Fever Mosquito Breakthrough 

Researchers in Australia have shown a bacteria can sterilize and eradicate a disease-carrying mosquito that is responsible for spreading dengue, yellow fever and Zika.

Three million male Aedes aegypti, or yellow fever mosquitoes, were released in the trial at three sites in Northern Queensland state. They were reared at James Cook University in Cairns and sterilized with a naturally-occurring bacteria called Wolbachia. 

Researchers say the bacteria appears to have changed part of the male insects’ reproductive biology, so that female mosquitoes that mate with them lay eggs that do not hatch. 

The flying insects were released over a 20-week period in 2018. Mosquito numbers subsequently fell by more than 80%. When scientists returned the following year, they found one of the trial areas had almost no mosquitoes.

Nigel Beebe is an associate professor at the University of Queensland and research scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, or CSIRO. He hopes the sterilization method will eventually be used in developing countries. 

“We wanted to show in a developed country that the technology was robust, we could mass rear mosquitoes. It is not very expensive to mass rear mosquitoes and it is really the separation of the males from the females,” he said. 

The Australian team plans to use a similar technique to suppress the virus-spreading Asian Tiger mosquito that has become established in the Torres Strait in northern Australia.

“At the moment we have to use relatively sophisticated technology to do that. But we are now trying to build something that is much more robust and can be used in tropical countries and will be relatively cheap to actually be able separate the males from the females. The mass rearing of the mosquitoes is actually pretty cheap to do. So, I think, absolutely we will have application in developing countries,” saId Beebe. 

Researchers elsewhere are looking at ways to use sterile male mosquitos to curb the spread of malaria, but associate professor Beebe has said it was a “complicated” challenge. 

More than 40% of people worldwide suffer from mosquito-borne diseases. The Australian team hopes its “environmentally-friendly mosquito control” method will help tackle current and future outbreaks of dengue and other debilitating diseases. 



Study: Pfizer’s COVID-19 Vaccine 90% Effective Against Hospitalization for Up to Six Months

A new study reveals the two-dose COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech is 90% effective at keeping someone from being hospitalized from the virus up to six months after receiving the second dose.   

Researchers from Pfizer and U.S.-based health care consortium Kaiser Permanente observed the records of about 3.4 million people who were members of Kaiser’s Southern California health insurer and provider program between December 2020 and August of this year.   

The study, published Monday in The Lancet medical journal, also revealed the vaccine was 93% effective against the highly contagious Delta variant for at least six months after the second shot.   

But the researchers also found that the vaccine’s effectiveness against infection dropped from 88% one month after completing the regimen to 47% after six months.   

The new study was published on the same day the European Union’s drug regulator  approved the use of booster shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for those aged 18 years and older, but left it to individual countries to decide whether or not to recommend the shots for widespread use.      

The European Medicines Agency said in a statement Monday that a booster dose of the Pfizer vaccine “may be considered at least 6 months after the second dose for people aged 18 years and older.”

The agency said people with a severely weakened immune system should be given a third dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine at least 28 days after they have received their second shot.  

The guidance comes as some EU member states have already begun administering booster shots, while others are still debating how broadly to use boosters in their populations.   

Meanwhile, the New York Times newspaper said Monday that Johnson & Johnson will ask the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve a booster shot of its single-dose COVID-19 vaccine.   

The U.S. drugmaker announced last month that clinical trials show a second shot of its vaccine increased its effectiveness against the virus to 94% about two months after the first dose, which provided about 70% effectiveness.   

Johnson & Johnson said the company is submitting the results of its studies to the FDA, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the European Medicines Agency  and other health authorities for potential use of the vaccine as a booster eight months or later after the primary single-dose vaccination. 

Johnson & Johnson’s request comes less than two weeks after the FDA authorized a third shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech two-dose COVID-19 vaccine for Americans 65 years old and above and adults at high risk of severe illness. The FDA is currently considering whether to approve a third shot of the two-dose Moderna vaccine.

Some information for this report came from the Associated Press and Reuters. 


Cleanup Continues of Massive California Oil Spill

Workers continue to clean up a massive oil spill off the coast of California as divers try to learn why an underwater pipeline started leaking late last week. Mike O’Sullivan reports from Los Angeles. 


UNICEF: Pandemic Worsens Mental Health Disorders in Children

The U.N. Children’s Fund says children are likely to suffer most from the monthslong COVID-related restrictions, school closures, and separation from family and friends.

The latest estimates show more than one in seven adolescents aged 10 to 19 suffer from mental health disorders globally, while nearly 46,000 adolescents commit suicide every year.

UNICEF spokesman James Elder told VOA most of these conditions are not being addressed because of the stigma attached to mental illness and the lack of government investment. Only about two percent of government health budgets are allocated to mental health spending globally, he said. 

“Twenty percent … of young people are saying that they are feeling depressed and have very little interest in things,” he said. “That again is a clear indication of the impact COVID’s been having. … There is a whole range of mental disorders — anxiety and depression and bipolar — that young people are suffering from.”

UNICEF reports more than 1.6 billion children have suffered some loss of education because of pandemic lockdowns. Elder said children’s mental health often deteriorates when there is a disruption to their daily routines, such as not attending school, not engaging in recreational activities, and not socializing with friends. These problems, he said, affect children all over the world, in rich and poor countries alike. 

“Of course, if you are from a country where you do not have connectivity, you do not have a laptop or one of your parents is on $200 a month, then, of course, those stresses, that anxiety, that risk of slipping into a mental health disorder is much greater,” he said. “And in some of the world’s poorest countries, governments are spending less than a dollar per person treating mental health conditions.”

The cost of ignoring mental disorders is enormous, UNICEF warned. It cited a new analysis by the London School of Economics, which indicates nearly $390 billion in human capital is lost every year due to mental disorders among young people.



Officials Seek Cause of Oil Spill off US’s California Coast

Officials investigating one of California’s biggest oil spills were trying to determine whether the undersea pipeline that spewed 572,807 liters (126,000 gallons) of heavy crude into the Pacific Ocean had been damaged by a ship’s anchor. 

The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are the two busiest container ports in the United States, according to their websites. Together, they see more than 100 cargo ships a day, and those ships pass through and anchor in the area where the pipeline runs. 

“We’re looking into if it could have been an anchor from a ship, but that’s in the assessment phase right now,” said Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Jeannie Shaye.

Meanwhile, residents of Huntington Beach, California, said authorities were slow to react to the large oil spill off the coast.

The spill, which has sullied the beaches and poses a threat to wildlife, is believed to come from a leak in an underwater pipeline.

Residents said that they noticed oil and the smell of petroleum Friday evening, but that there was no response until Saturday afternoon. They said it wasn’t until Saturday night that Amplify Energy Corp., the oil company that owns the pipeline, shut it down.

In a press release Monday, Amplify Energy said that it spotted the oil spill Saturday and immediately notified the U.S. Coast Guard and initiated its oil spill response. The company shut down the pipeline and sent a remotely operated vehicle to help find the source.

Garry Brown, president of the environmental group Orange County Coastkeeper and a Huntington Beach resident, said, “By the time (the oil) comes to the beach, it’s done tremendous damage. Our frustration is, it could have been averted if there was a quick response.”

More than 572,000 liters of crude have reportedly leaked, some of it washing up in coastal Orange County. Several beaches in the area are closed and could remain so for weeks or months, according to Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr.

In response to the spill, crews led by the U.S. Coast Guard have deployed skimmers and booms to try to contain the damage. Of particular concern is the Talbert Marsh, a 10-hectare wetland.

U.S. Representative Michelle Steel, a Republican representing the affected area, has asked President Joe Biden to declare the spill a disaster so that federal money can be allocated toward the cleanup.

“This is a really serious disaster,” she told CNN.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki responded to a reporter’s question Monday about the spill. 

“We’re working collaboratively with state and local partners to address efforts to find the leak, contain the spill and assess impact, and address potential causes,” she said.

Amplify Energy operates the pipeline and three offshore oil platforms, all installed in the early 1980s. The 16-inch pipeline carries crude oil to a storage facility in Long Beach. 

Beta Operating Company, the Amplify subsidiary that operates the field, has been cited 125 times for safety and environmental violations since 1980, according to a database from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the federal agency that regulates the offshore oil and gas industry, The Associated Press reported. 

Some information in this report comes from The Associated Press and Reuters.