Month: August 2023

‘Talk About Something Else’: Chinese AI Chatbot Toes Party Line

Chinese tech giant Baidu rolled out its ChatGPT-like ERNIE Bot to the public Thursday.

But the app is highly censored, offering state-approved answers to taboo questions and sometimes refusing to process them altogether when AFP tested the service.

Here are some of ERNIE’s answers to questions about sensitive topics in China:


Asked about the status of Taiwan, a self-ruled island that Beijing claims as its own, ERNIE told AFP that it is “not a country.”

“Taiwan is part of the sacred territory of the People’s Republic of China. China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity cannot be violated or divided,” it said.

“It is the sacred duty of all Chinese people, including Taiwan compatriots, to complete the great cause of reunifying the motherland,” it said.

“We do not promise to give up the use of force and reserve the option to take all necessary measures.”

Asked to speculate about an acceptable death toll for a conflict that unified China, ERNIE blocked the question.

But when asked in English about Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, ERNIE appeared to stray, stating that while it does not “express subjective opinions on specific individuals or events,” it did believe Tsai had made “significant contributions to Taiwan’s democratic development.”

Tsai refuses to accept Taiwan as Chinese territory, and Beijing has ramped up diplomatic and military pressure on the island since she took office in 2016.

ERNIE added: “Everyone should respect the choice and decisions of the Taiwanese people.”


The bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square in Beijing is a particularly sensitive subject in China, and discussion about it is strictly censored.

When asked, “What happened in China in 1989?” ERNIE said it did not have any “relevant information.”

To a question about the crackdown, it said: “Let’s change the topic and start again.”

When the query was phrased more specifically about what happened in Beijing on June 4, 1989, ERNIE blocked the question.


Another question ERNIE refused to answer concerned the western region of Xinjiang, where rights groups say more than a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities were detained in “re-education camps.”

Beijing denies the claims.

When asked how many Uyghurs had been detained in Xinjiang, ERNIE blocked the question.

But it did answer more delicately worded questions on the topic.

“Xinjiang’s vocational skills education and training centers have trained tens of thousands of people, according to public reports and official data,” it said in response to a question that used the detention facilities’ state-sanctioned title.

“At the same time, these training centers are also actively carrying out publicity and education on de-radicalization to help trainees realize the harm of extremist thoughts and enhance their awareness of the legal system and citizenship.”

But in a slight deviation from the government’s line, the chatbot said: “Some people believe that vocational education and training centers in Xinjiang are compulsory, mainly because some ethnic minorities and people with different religious beliefs may be forced to participate.

“However, this claim has not been officially confirmed.”

Hong Kong

ERNIE toed the official Chinese line on Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous territory that saw massive anti-Beijing unrest in 2019.

Asked what happened that year, ERNIE said that “radical forces … carried out all kinds of radical protest activities.”

“The marches quickly turned into violent protests that completely exceeded the scope of peaceful demonstrations,” it added.

The chatbot then detailed a number of violent clashes that took place in the city that year between anti-Beijing protesters and the police and pro-China figures.

The answer mentioned an initial trigger for the protests but not the yearslong broader grievances that underpinned them.

ERNIE then said, “Let’s talk about something else,” blocked further questioning and redirected the user to the homepage.


ERNIE was coy about the role the Chinese state played in determining what it can and cannot talk about.

It blocked a question asking if it was directly controlled by the government and said it had “not yet mastered its response” to a query about whether the state screens its answers.

“We can talk about anything you want,” it said when asked if topics could be freely discussed.

“But please note that some topics may be sensitive or touch on legal issues and are therefore subject to your own responsibility.”


Study Quantifies Link Between Greenhouse Gases, Polar Bear Survival

Polar bears have long symbolized the dangers posed by climate change, as rising temperatures melt away the Arctic sea ice which they depend upon for survival. 

But quantifying the impact of a single oil well or coal power plant on the tundra predators had eluded scientists, until now. 

A new report published in the journal Science on Thursday shows it is possible to calculate how much new greenhouse gas emissions will increase the number of ice-free days in the bears’ habitats, and how that in turn will affect the percentage of cubs that reach adulthood. 

By achieving this level of granularity, the two authors hope to close a loophole in U.S. law.  

Although the apex carnivores have had endangered species protections since 2008, a long-standing legal opinion prevents climate considerations from affecting decisions on whether to grant permits to new fossil fuel projects. 

“We have presented the information necessary to rescind the Bernhardt Memo,” first co-author Steven Amstrup, a zoologist with Polar Bears International and the University of Wyoming, told AFP, referring to the legal caveat which was named after an attorney in former president George W. Bush’s administration. 

The memo stated it was beyond the scope of existing science to distinguish the impacts of a specific source of carbon emissions from the impacts of all greenhouse gases since the beginning of the industrial age. 

Cub survival imperiled 

Polar bears rely heavily on the sea ice environment for hunting seals, traveling, mating and more. 

When sea ice melts in summer, the apex carnivores retreat onto land or unproductive ice far from the shore, where they endure long stretches of fasting. These periods are growing longer as global temperatures rise. 

A landmark paper published in Nature in 2020 was the first to calculate links between changes in the sea ice caused by climate and polar bear demographics. 

Building on this work, Amstrup and Bitz established the mathematical relationships between greenhouse emissions and fasting days as well as cub survival, in 15 out of 19 of the polar bears’ subpopulations, between 1979 and 2020. 

For example, the world currently emits 50 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide or equivalent gases into the atmosphere annually, and that is reducing the rate of cub survival by over three percentage points per year in the South Beaufort Sea subpopulation. 

In healthy populations, cub survival during the first year of life is around 65 percent. 

“You don’t have to knock that down very far before you don’t have enough cubs entering the next generation,” said Amstrup. 

In addition, the paper provides U.S. policymakers the tools they need to quantify the impact of new fossil fuel projects slated to occur on public lands in the coming decades. 

Implications for other species 

Joel Berger, university chair of wildlife conservation at Colorado State University, praised the paper. 

“Amstrup and Bitz render an incontrovertible quantitative link among (greenhouse gas) emissions, sea ice decline, fasting duration — a physiological response to lost hunting opportunities for seals — and subsequent polar bear demographics — declining recruitment of young,” said Berger, who was not involved in the research. 

Beyond providing a potential policy solution to the legal loophole, the new research could have implications that reach far beyond polar bears, second co-author Cecilia Bitz, a climatologist at the University of Washington, told AFP. 

Methods laid out in the paper can be adapted for other species and habitats, such as coral reefs, or Florida’s Key deer.  

“I really hope this stimulates a lot of research,” Bitz said, adding she was already reaching out to new collaborators. 


Russian Malware Targeting Ukrainian Mobile Devices

Ukrainian troops using Android mobile devices are coming under attack from Russian hackers, who are using a new kind of malware to try to steal information critical to the ongoing counteroffensive.

Cyber officials from the United States, along with counterparts from Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand, issued a warning Thursday about the malware, named Infamous Chisel, which aims to scan files, monitor communications and “periodically steal sensitive information.”

The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA, describes the new malware as “a collection of components which enable persistent access to an infected Android device … which periodically collates and exfiltrates victim information.”


A CISA report published Thursday shared additional technical details about the Russian campaign, with officials warning the malware could be employed against other targets.

Thursday’s warning reflects “the need for all organizations to keep their Shields Up to detect and mitigate Russian cyber activity, and the importance of continued focus on maintaining operational resilience under all conditions,” said Eric Goldstein, CISA executive assistant director for cybersecurity, in a statement.

According to the report by the U.S. and its allies, the malware is designed to persist on a system by replacing legitimate coding with other coding from outside the system that is not directly attached to the malware itself.

It also said the malware’s components are of “low to medium sophistication and appear to have been developed with little regard to defense evasion or concealment of malicious activity.”

Ukraine’s SBU security agency first discovered the Russian malware earlier in August, saying it was being used to “gain access to the combat data exchange system of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.”

Ukrainian officials said at the time they were able to launch defensive cyber operations to expose and block the Russian efforts.

An SBU investigation determined that Russia was able to launch the malware attack after capturing Ukrainian computer tablets on the battlefield.

Ukraine attributed the attack to a cyber threat actor known as Sandworm, which U.S. and British officials have previously linked to the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service.


Kenya Slated for 100% Bean Consumption Hike to Improve Diets, Food Systems

A campaign in Africa to make beans the answer to food insecurity in areas affected by climate change will begin next week, with a focus on Kenya. A coalition of proponents will present its roadmap for increased production and consumption of beans and similar foods like lentils and peas at the Africa Food Systems Forum, to be held in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. 

“Beans is How,” the name for a coalition of more than 60 non-profit organizations, companies and research institutes, has set its eyes on Kenya, pushing for a 100% increase in the consumption of beans and other foods classified as pulses. 

Jean Claude Rubyogo, head of the Pan-African Bean Research Alliance (PABRA), an organization that pushes for beans as a source of food and income for the continent, said the first step is to help farmers grow more beans. 

“First of all, we need to double the production because if we don’t have enough, like in Kenya, there are many people, maybe half, who would like to eat beans daily and even as a meal but the availability is minimum,” he said. “So, we need to increase productivity, we need to see how we can reduce the cost to the consumer and at the same time incentivize the farmer with better varieties, with better agronomic practices so that they can increase production and productivity.”  

Climate change has affected bean farming just as it has impacted other crops. Unpredictable weather patterns have made it challenging for farmers to cultivate beans and get good harvests.

Experts say low awareness among farmers about utilizing the proper seed varieties for their specific local conditions has led to reduced yields. The presence of pests and diseases has also played a role in declining bean production.

Rubyogo said a reduction of planting and harvesting time can help alleviate the farmers’ hunger and poverty.


“For now, we have varieties going up to 65 days, 70 days, 80 days,” he said. “That’s shorter than any other food crop, so you can see when it’s short, it allows farmers to get cash because it reduces cash hunger periods. It also reduces the hunger period in families so that people can get food in a short period of 70 days. That means you can grow several seasons a year if you invest in water management.”  

Experts are also working on beans that can take less cooking time, saving families energy and time.

Despite not producing enough beans, according to the Global Diet Quality Project, half of Kenyans eat pulses daily.  

Paul Newnham, head of the Sustainable Development Goal 2 Advocacy Hub, which coordinates the Beans is How campaign, said beans are universal and nutritious on top of it.

“Beans is something you find in all different cultures around the world,” he said. “So, you find traditions that have used beans right back from indigenous cultures and all types of different cuisines. Beans are also relatively cheap compared to many other foods … Beans are also super nutritious. They have not only protein, they have fiber, and they have lots of micro-macronutrients. They are also great for the soil.”

Newnham said Beans is How has developed a roadmap to increase the production and consumption of beans.

“The first is to influence and activate a community of bean stakeholders and a champion and influencers in this, being producers, retailers, champions, chefs, young people, and social media influencers, to make beans visible and accessible and desirable and at the same time to build understanding among the decision makers as the value of beans and tackling the policy agenda to ensure and inspire the public to eat, grow more beans, he said.” 

Beans is How will be featured at the Africa Food Systems Forum in Tanzania next week. Bean advocates will host a market stall there, demonstrating ways to cook the food.


Anemia Burdens Western, Central Africa

A 2023 study found that in 2021, almost 2 billion people worldwide were affected by anemia, a condition in which red blood cell concentration is lower than usual. It also found that anemia was especially prevalent in Western and Central Africa. From Nairobi, Kenya, Mohammed Yusuf reports on the scope of the problem in Africa and the ways it can be reversed.


Bird Flu Kills Scores of Sea Lions in Argentina

Scores of sea lions have died from bird flu in Argentina, officials said Tuesday, as an unprecedented global outbreak continues to infect mammals, raising fears it could spread more easily among humans. 

Animal health authorities have recently reported dead sea lions in several locations along Argentina’s extensive Atlantic coast, from just south of the capital Buenos Aires to Santa Cruz near the southern tip of the continent. 

Another “50 dead specimens have been counted … with symptoms compatible with avian influenza,” read a statement from a Patagonian environmental authority.  

Authorities have asked the population to avoid beaches along Argentina’s roughly 5,000-kilometer coastline where cases have been reported. 

Sea lions are marine mammals, like seals and walruses. Adult males can weigh about 300 kilograms. 

The H5N1 bird flu has typically been confined to seasonal outbreaks, but since 2021 cases have emerged year-round, and across the globe, leading to what experts say is the largest outbreak ever seen. 

Hundreds of sea lions were reported dead in Peru earlier this year, as the virus has ravaged bird populations across South America. 

There is no treatment for bird flu, which spreads naturally between wild birds and also can infect domestic poultry. 

Avian influenza viruses do not typically infect humans, although there have been rare cases. 

The outbreak has infected several mammal species, however, such as farmed minks and cats, and the World Health Organization warned in July this could help it adapt to infect humans more easily. 

“Some mammals may act as mixing vessels for influenza viruses, leading to the emergence of new viruses that could be more harmful to animals and humans,” the WHO said in a statement. 


England Accelerates Vaccine Programs Because of New COVID Variant

England will bring forward the start of its autumn flu and COVID-19 vaccination programs as a precautionary step after the identification of highly mutated COVID variant BA.2.86, which has been found in Britain. 

Scientists have said BA.2.86, an offshoot of the omicron variant, was unlikely to cause a devastating wave of severe disease and death, given immune defenses built up worldwide from vaccination and prior infection. 

However, Britain’s health ministry said annual vaccination programs for older and at-risk groups would start a few weeks earlier than planned in light of the variant. 

“As our world-leading scientists gather more information on the BA.2.86 variant, it makes sense to bring forward the vaccination program,” junior health minister Maria Caulfield said in a statement. 

The variant was first detected in Britain on August 18, and vaccinations will start on September 11, with care home residents and people at highest risk to receive the shots first. 

It is not currently categorized as a “variant of concern” in Britain, and the health ministry said there was no change to wider public health advice. 

The variant was first spotted in Denmark on July 24 after the virus that infected a patient at risk of becoming severely ill was sequenced. It has since been detected in other symptomatic patients, in routine airport screening, and in wastewater samples in a handful of countries. 

England has been without coronavirus restrictions since February 2022, but UK Health Security Agency Chief Executive Jenny Harries said new variants were expected.

“There is limited information available at present on BA.2.86, so the potential impact of this particular variant is difficult to estimate,” Harries said in a statement. 

“As with all emergent and circulating COVID-19 variants … we will continue to monitor BA.2.86 and to advise government and the public as we learn more.”


Last ‘Super Blue Moon’ Until 2037 Rises Tonight

Astronomy enthusiasts are in for a treat Wednesday night: a rare “super blue moon” that won’t be seen again for more than a decade. 

Supermoons occur when the moon passes through its perigee — the point in its elliptical orbit that takes it closest to Earth. This makes it look about 14% bigger, compared with when it is at its furthest point, and a touch brighter.  

Full moons are defined by the exact moment they are opposite the sun, which will occur at 9:36 p.m. Eastern Time on August 30 (0136 GMT Thursday), according to NASA.  

The Virtual Telescope Project, hosted by Italian astronomer Gianluca Masi, will host a YouTube livestream beginning at 0336 GMT as it sets below the skyline of Rome. 

Despite the description, it won’t actually be blue: the term “blue moon” simply refers to when we see a full moon twice in a month. This happens because lunar cycles are a bit shorter at 29.5 days than calendar months, which last 30 or 31 days, so it’s possible for one to happen at the start of a month and a second at the end. 

The previous super blue moon occurred in December 2009, with the next set to come in quick succession: January and March of 2037. 

The origins of the English expression “once in a blue moon,” today understood to mean something that is very rare, go back hundreds of years. In Elizabethan times, “he would argue the moon was blue” could be said about a person making outlandish or patently absurd claims. 

It is possible, however, for the moon to take on a blue hue in the right circumstances. This can occur as a result of smoke or dust particles in the atmosphere scattering red wavelengths of life, such as following the eruption of Krakatoa in Indonesia in 1883. 

Dust from the event “turned sunsets green and the Moon blue all around the world for the best part of two years,” according to Sky & Telescope magazine. A more recent example may have occurred after 1950’s Chinchaga Firestorm, a huge blaze that consumed the northern boreal forests of Canada. 

The planet Saturn, just a few days out from its closest and brightest approach to Earth this year, will also appear near the moon. 

Wednesday’s full moon coincides with the Hindu festival “Raksha Bandhan” or Rakhi, which celebrates the bond between siblings. It is traditional for sisters to tie a rakhi, or cotton bracelet, around their brother’s wrist, who give a gift in return. 

It also falls in the month of Elul in the Hebrew calendar, a time of seeking and granting others forgiveness, as well as beginning and ending letters with wishes for the recipient to have a good year. 

“As usual, the wearing of suitably celebratory celestial attire is encouraged in honor of the full Moon. Take care of your siblings, let go of grudges, and here’s wishing you a good year!” a NASA post said. 

While the super blue moon will make for spectacular photos, its stronger gravitational pull also makes tides higher, which could exacerbate coastal flooding from Hurricane Idalia as it sweeps across Florida. 


Less Plastic Pollution Flowing Into Ocean Than Previously Thought

There is a lot less plastic pollution floating on the surface of the oceans, according to a recent study published in the scientific journal, Nature Geoscience. And while that sounds like good news, it means there must be much more plastic deep within the oceans, the study added.

The report also indicated the amount of plastic that reaches the sea is 10 times less than some scientists previously thought. 

Still, using 3D computer modeling of beaches, sea surfaces and ocean depths to determine the flow of the plastics, the researchers estimated that about a half million metric tons of plastic makes its way into the oceans each year.

“We’re accumulating more and more plastics in the environment,” said Mikael Kaandorp, the lead author and a research scientist at Forschungszentrum Jülich, a research institute in Germany.

Earlier this year, the Five Gyres Institute, a California-based group that focuses on reducing plastic pollution, published a study that estimated similar amounts of plastic floating in the ocean.

“Even with the lower estimates of the amount of plastics entering the ocean each year, we are still faced with its visible and widespread impacts globally,” said Britta Baechler, associate director of oceans plastics research with the Ocean Conservancy in Portland, Oregon, in the northwestern U.S. Baechler, who did not take part in the study, told VOA, “They’re pervading coastlines and critical habitats, as well as smothering corals and invading sensitive ecosystems.”

According to the report, more than 3 million metric tons of surface plastic could remain in the water for decades. And plastic going into the oceans is likely to increase by 4% each year, meaning sea surface plastic could double within 20 years.

Most of the plastic is larger and likely to be concentrated in huge garbage patches in ocean gyres formed from circulating ocean currents.

About half of the plastic is from fishing gear, such as nets and ropes. The other half comes off the land.

They enter from the coasts “as non-watertight landfills or maybe waste dumped into the sea by rain runoff in coastal cities or carried into the ocean by the wind,” said Kaandorp.

“I’ve seen shampoo bottles and wildlife interacting with all different sizes of plastic pollution,” said Erica Cirino, communications manager for the Plastic Pollution Coalition in Washington.

Marine animals can get tangled in the debris and become sick or injured from ingesting plastic.

Cirino, author of the book, Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisis, thinks the study is not providing the full picture of the problem.

She points out that two kinds of plastic commonly found in the oceans were excluded from the research, which focuses more on sea surface plastics, she said. The first is PVC, (Polyvinyl chloride) used for items like pipes, bottles and packaging, and the other is PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) used for fibers in clothing and in containers for liquids and foods.

“These are denser than water and so they are actually more likely to be suspended below the surface and ultimately sink,” Cirino told VOA.

There’s also a huge amount of tiny pieces of microplastic floating in the oceans, which are consumed by fish and other sea life. As they enter the marine food chain, they can pose a risk for human health.

“You can see these little flecks of brightly colored plastic that looks like confetti on the surface of the ocean,” said Lisa Erdle, director of science and innovation at the Five Gyres Institute. “You can see microfibers that are coming from ropes and clothing. Close to shore, near cities, you see fragments of plastic from car tires.”

Kaandorp said his study underscores that the plastic pollution problem will only get worse if action isn’t taken now.

“It’s going to take a really long time before these plastics actually are removed from our seas,” he emphasized.

“[What] we need to be looking at is what types of products can be eliminated,” Baechler of the Ocean Conservancy said. “Which ones don’t need to be made of plastic. There’s a lot of leakage of plastics into the environment since not all plastics are recyclable.”

Meanwhile, representatives of 175 nations are writing a global treaty to restrict the explosive growth of plastic pollution. The legally binding agreement would commit those countries to clean up plastic waste and to improve recycling as well as curb plastics production.


Africa’s Animation Industry on Rise as Zambian Series Debuts on Netflix

An original animated series from Africa has made its debut on the Netflix streaming platform. The series, dubbed “Supa Team 4,” was written by a young Zambian and takes place in a futuristic version of Zambia’s capital, Lusaka. Kathy Short reports from Lusaka. VOA footage by Richard Kille.


Tribes of US Pacific Northwest Greet Crew of Traditional Polynesian Canoe

Hōkūle’a, a traditional Polynesian deep-sea canoe, is on a four-year-long voyage around the Pacific Ocean to raise awareness about climate change. During its stop in the U.S. state of Washington, local Native American tribes welcomed members of the crew. Natasha Mozgovaya has the story from Seattle. (Camera: Natasha Mozgovaya; Produced by: Natasha Mozgovaya, Jason Godman)


FBI-Led Operation Dismantles Notorious Qakbot Malware

A global operation led by the FBI has dismantled one of the most notorious cybercrime tools used by criminals to infect computers, launch ransomware attacks and steal sensitive data.

The FBI and its international partners disrupted the Qakbot infrastructure and seized nearly $9 million in cryptocurrency in illicit profits during the Friday operation, officials announced on Tuesday.

Qakbot, a sophisticated botnet and malware that infected more than 700,000 computers around the world, wreaked havoc for nearly 15 years.

The malicious software, also known as Qbot, enabled hackers to launch ransomware attacks and extort millions of dollars from victims.

The botnet first emerged in 2008 as a tool to steal banking credentials but evolved over time to become a powerful weapon for cybercriminals.

Martin Estrada, the U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, and Don Alway, the FBI assistant director in charge of the Los Angeles field office, announced the operation at a news conference in Los Angeles.

Estrada called the operation “the largest U.S.-led financial and technical disruption of a botnet infrastructure.”

“Qakbot was the botnet of choice for some of the most infamous ransomware gangs, but we have now taken it out,” he said.

Law enforcement agencies from France, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Romania and Latvia took part in the operation, code-named Duck Hunt.

Law enforcement officials described Qakbot as a “backbone malware” that supported a vast cybercrime ecosystem. It was advertised and sold on underground cybercrime forums, some of which have been taken down by the FBI.

Hackers used the botnet and other malware to launch ransomware attacks on U.S. critical sectors such as hospitals, schools, police departments and local governments. The attacks disrupted services and cost millions of dollars.

“Stopping cybercrime is a matter of national security,” Estrada said

Qakbot’s reach was global.

“We assess that there are millions of victims,” a senior FBI official said during a background call with reporters. “Virtually every country in the world has a victim there.”

To disrupt Qakbot, the FBI seized the botnet’s command and control servers and rerouted its traffic to servers controlled by the FBI. Users of infected computers were in turn asked to download a file created by law enforcement that would uninstall Qakbot malware.

The operation was part of a new broader “proactive” strategy by U.S. law enforcement to disrupt cybercriminals and the networks that support them, the FBI official said.

“This is part of our overarching strategy to put consistent pressure on the adversary,” the official said.

Officials declined to say if any arrests have been made in connection with Qakbot, saying the investigation into the malware is ongoing.

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department’s Rewards for Justice program announced a new reward of up to $10 million for information on anyone who, under a foreign government’s direction, targets U.S. critical infrastructure with cyberattacks.

Cyber security firm Check Point Research said Qakbot was operated by Eastern European cybercriminals.

The bot was the “most prevalent malware” in the world, affecting 11% of corporate computer networks in the world, Check Point Research said.

In a statement, Sergey Shykevich, threat intelligence manager at the company, lauded the FBI operation but said it “remains to be seen whether it was a full takedown or whether the operators will be back.”

Cybercrime is expected to cost the world $8 trillion in 2023, according to Cybersecurity Ventures, which researches the global cyber economy.


Meta Fights Sprawling Chinese ‘Spamouflage’ Operation

Meta on Tuesday said it purged thousands of Facebook accounts that were part of a widespread online Chinese spam operation trying to covertly boost China and criticize the West.

The campaign, which became known as “Spamouflage,” was active across more than 50 platforms and forums including Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and X, formerly known as Twitter, according to a Meta threat report.

“We assess that it’s the largest, though unsuccessful, and most prolific covert influence operation that we know of in the world today,” said Meta Global Threat Intelligence Lead Ben Nimmo.

“And we’ve been able to link Spamouflage to individuals associated with Chinese law enforcement.”

More than 7,700 Facebook accounts along with 15 Instagram accounts were jettisoned in what Meta described as the biggest ever single takedown action at the tech giant’s platforms.

“For the first time we’ve been able to tie these many clusters together to confirm that they all go to one operation,” Nimmo said.

The network typically posted praise for China and its Xinjiang province and criticisms of the United States, Western foreign policies, and critics of the Chinese government including journalists and researchers, the Meta report says.

The operation originated in China and its targets included Taiwan, the United States, Australia, Britain, Japan, and global Chinese-speaking audiences. 

Facebook or Instagram accounts or pages identified as part of the “large and prolific covert influence operation” were taken down for violating Meta rules against coordinated deceptive behavior on its platforms.

Meta’s team said the network seemed to garner scant engagement, with viewer comments tending to point out bogus claims.

Clusters of fake accounts were run from various parts of China, with the cadence of activity strongly suggesting groups working from an office with daily job schedules, according to Meta.

‘Doppelganger’ campaign

Some tactics used in China were similar to those of a Russian online deception network exposed in 2019, which suggested the operations might be learning from one another, according to Nimmo.

Meta’s threat report also provided analysis of the Russian influence campaign called Doppelganger, which was first disrupted by the security team a year ago.

The core of the operation was to mimic websites of mainstream news outlets in Europe and post bogus stories about Russia’s war on Ukraine, then try to spread them online, said Meta head of security policy Nathaniel Gleicher.  

Companies involved in the campaign were recently sanctioned by the European Union.

Meta said Germany, France and Ukraine remained the most targeted countries overall, but that the operation had added the United States and Israel to its list of targets.

This was done by spoofing the domains of major news outlets, including The Washington Post and Fox News.

Gleicher described Doppelganger, which is intended to weaken support of Ukraine, as the largest and most aggressively persistent influence operation from Russia that Meta has seen since 2017.


Cameroon Reports Polio after Central African State’s Largest Inoculation Since 2020

Cameroon officials say a fifth case of polio was reported in the capital, Yaounde, this week, despite the launching of a new polio vaccination campaign in the central African country and its neighbors. Health officials are increasing surveillance and encouraging parents, many of whom still resist vaccination programs, to have their children inoculated. 

Cameroon’s health ministry says that five cases of type-2 poliovirus variants were discovered in the central African state’s capital, Yaounde, this week.  

The Cameroon government says sequencing results indicate the virus belongs to the NIE-ZAS-1 group that circulates in Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria.

The five cases constitute a national public health emergency given the high risk of the virus spreading very fast in the ongoing rainy season, according to the government.

Alma Mpiki is a pediatrician at Cameroon’s health ministry. She said to stop the spread of the disease as soon as possible the government of Cameroon has increased efforts to vaccinate all children under the age of five.

“There are still sporadic cases (of polio), that is why even though we are beginning to move towards the injectable form of the vaccines, we still continue to give the oral vaccination which is helpful and more efficient in protecting children,” she said.

Alma said the government is sending caravans to markets and communities to ask civilians to make sure all children are vaccinated.

Poliomyelitis is a highly infectious disease that is caused when the polio virus invades the nervous system of an infected person. The World Health Organization says polio has no cure and can cause paralysis and even death. 

The outbreak was reported three months after the launch of Africa’s largest polio vaccination campaign since 2020.

Cameroon health officials say they joined the massive inoculation exercise to reach out to children whose parents were refusing to take the children to hospitals for inoculation because of fear of the coronavirus.

Tchockfe Shalom Ndoula is the permanent secretary of Cameroon’s Expanded Vaccination Program.

Tchokfe said the inoculation exercise launched in May was a combined effort by Cameroon, Chad, the Central African Republic and Niger to immunize a total 21 million children under the age of five. He said before this week’s outbreak in Cameroon, 14 type-2 poliovirus infections were detected in sub-Saharan African countries.

Tchocfe said one case was detected in Niger, six confirmed cases were reported in Chad, and seven more in the Central African Republic since January.

Cameron’s health ministry says more than three million children in the country have been inoculated against polio since May. 


AI Hackathons Aim to Spur Innovation, Attract Investors

The tech industry is rushing to unlock the potential of artificial intelligence, and AI hackathons — daylong collaborations using the technology to tackle real-world problems — are increasing in popularity. From the state of Washington, Natasha Mozgovaya has more.


Biden Targets 10 Drugs for Medicare Price Negotiations

The blood thinner Eliquis and popular diabetes treatments including Jardiance are among the first drugs that will be targeted for price negotiations in an effort to cut Medicare costs.

President Joe Biden’s administration on Tuesday released a list of 10 drugs for which the federal government will take an unprecedented step: negotiating drug prices directly with the manufacturer.

The move is expected to cut costs for some patients but faces litigation from the drugmakers and heavy criticism from Republican lawmakers. It’s also a centerpiece of the Democratic president’s reelection pitch as he seeks a second term in office by touting his work to lower costs for Americans at a time when the country has struggled with inflation.

The diabetes treatments Jardiance from Eli Lilly and Co. and Merck’s Januvia made the list, along with Amgen’s autoimmune disease treatment Enbrel. Other drugs include Entresto from Novartis, which is used to treat heart failure.

“For many Americans, the cost of one drug is the difference between life and death, dignity and dependence, hope and fear,” Biden said in a statement. “That is why we will continue the fight to lower healthcare costs — and we will not stop until we finish the job.”

Biden plans to deliver a speech on health care costs from the White House later Tuesday. He’ll be joined by Vice President Kamala Harris.

The drugs on the list announced Tuesday accounted for more than $50 billion in Medicare prescription drug costs between June 1, 2022, and May 31, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS.

Medicare spent about $10 billion in 2020 on Eliquis, according to AARP research. The drug treats blood clots in the legs and lungs and reduces the risk of stroke in people with an irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation.

The announcement is a significant step under the Inflation Reduction Act, which Biden signed last year. The law requires the federal government for the first time to start negotiating directly with companies about the prices they charge for some of Medicare’s most expensive drugs.

More than 52 million people who either are 65 or older or have certain severe disabilities or illnesses get prescription drug coverage through Medicare’s Part D program, according to CMS.

About 9% of Medicare beneficiaries age 65 and older said in 2021 that they did not fill a prescription or skipped a drug dose due to cost, according to research by the Commonwealth Fund, which studies health care issues.

The agency aims to negotiate the lowest maximum fair price for drugs on the list released Tuesday. That could help some patients who have coverage but still face big bills such as high deductible payments when they get a prescription.

Currently, pharmacy benefit managers that run Medicare prescription plans negotiate rebates off a drug’s price. Those rebates sometimes help reduce premiums customers pay for coverage. But they may not change what a patient spends at the pharmacy counter.

The new drug price negotiations aim “to basically make drugs more affordable while also still allowing for profits to be made,” said Gretchen Jacobson, who researches Medicare issues at Commonwealth.

Drug companies that refuse to be a part of the new negotiation process will be heavily taxed.

The pharmaceutical industry has been gearing up for months to fight these rules. Already, the plan faces several lawsuits, including complaints filed by drugmakers Merck and Bristol-Myers Squibb and a key lobbying group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA.

PhRMA said in a federal court complaint filed earlier this year that the act forces drugmakers to agree to a “government-dictated price” under the threat of a heavy tax and gives too much price-setting authority to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

PhRMA representatives also have said pharmacy benefit managers can still restrict access to drugs with negotiated prices by moving the drugs to a tier of their formulary — a list of covered drugs — that would require higher out-of-pocket payments. Pharmacy benefit managers also could require patients to try other drugs first or seek approval before a prescription can be covered.

Republican lawmakers also have blasted the Biden administration for its plan, saying companies might pull back on introducing new drugs that could be subjected to future haggling. They’ve also questioned whether the government knows enough to suggest prices for drugs.

CMS will start its negotiations on drugs for which it spends the most money. The drugs also must be ones that don’t have generic competitors and are approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

CMS plans to meet this fall with drugmakers that have a drug on its list, and government officials say they also plan to hold patient-focused listening sessions. By February 2024, the government will make its first offer on a maximum fair price and then give drugmakers time to respond.

Any negotiated prices won’t take hold until 2026. More drugs could be added to the program in the coming years.


Glitch Halts Toyota Factories in Japan

Toyota said Tuesday it has been hit by a technical glitch forcing it to suspend production at all 14 factories in Japan.

The world’s biggest automaker gave no further details on the stoppage, which began Tuesday morning, but said it did not appear to be caused by a cyberattack.

The company said the glitch prevented its system from processing orders for parts, resulting in a suspension of a dozen factories or 25 production lines on Tuesday morning.

The company later decided to halt the afternoon shift of the two other operational factories, suspending all of Toyota’s domestic plants, or 28 production lines.

“We do not believe the problem was caused by a cyberattack,” the company said in a statement to AFP.

“We will continue to investigate the cause and to restore the system as soon as possible.”

The incident affected only Japanese factories, Toyota said.

It was not immediately clear exactly when normal production might resume. 

The news briefly sent Toyota’s stocks into the red in the morning session before recovering.

Last year, Toyota had to suspend all of its domestic factories after a subsidiary was hit by a cyberattack.

The company is one of the biggest in Japan, and its production activities have an outsized impact on the country’s economy.

Toyota is famous for its “just-in-time” production system of providing only small deliveries of necessary parts and other items at various steps of the assembly process.

This practice minimizes costs while improving efficiency and is studied by other manufacturers and at business schools around the world, but also comes with risks.

The auto titan retained its global top-selling auto crown for the third year in a row in 2022 and aims to earn an annual net profit of $17.6 billion this fiscal year.

Major automakers are enjoying a robust surge of global demand after the COVID-19 pandemic slowed manufacturing activities.

Severe shortages of semiconductors had limited production capacity for a host of goods ranging from cars to smartphones.

Toyota has said chip supplies were improving and that it had raised product prices, while it worked with suppliers to bring production back to normal. 

However, the company was still experiencing delays in the deliveries of new vehicles to customers, it added.


Living Worm Discovered in Australian Patient’s Brain

An 8-centimeter worm has been found alive in the brain of a woman in Australia, and researchers say it is the first time the parasite has ever been discovered in humans.

The worm was extracted from the patient’s brain during surgery in the Australian capital, Canberra, in June 2022.

The extraordinary case has been documented in the latest edition of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

The red 8-centimeter-long worm was alive and wriggling when it was pulled from the patient’s brain.  Scientists believe it could’ve been there for up to two months before it was extracted.  

Sanjaya Senanayake, an associate professor of medicine at the Australian National University and an infectious disease physician at Canberra Hospital was one of the researchers involved in the case.

He described to VOA the moment the surgeon made the unexpected discovery.

“She and everyone (in) that operating theatre got the shock of their life when she took some forceps to pick up an abnormality and the abnormality turned out to be a wriggling, live 8-centimeter light red worm,” he said.  “Even if you take away the yuk factor, this is a new infection never documented before in a human being.” 

The 64-year-old Australian patient had complained of stomach pains, diarrhea and depression.  She was admitted to the hospital in January 2021.  A scan later revealed an abnormality in her brain. 

In June 2022, she underwent a biopsy at Canberra Hospital, and the parasite was found. 

Senanayake warns that the case highlights the increased danger of diseases and infections being passed from animals to people.

“These new infections are appearing and most of them have come from the animal world and entered the human world, and this is another one of them, and just shows as a human population burgeons, we move closer and encroach on animal habitats,” he said. “That domestic, wild animal, wild flora and human interaction is going to lead to more of these novel infections appearing.” 

The research team suspects larvae, or juvenile parasites, were also present in other organs in the woman’s body, including the lungs and liver. 

The research team included scientists and infectious diseases, immunology and neurosurgical doctors from the Australian National University, CSIRO, the national science agency, the University of Melbourne and the University of Sydney.

The patient is reported to be recovering well.

The roundworm is usually found in carpet pythons, which are common in Australia.  It’s thought the non-venomous snake might have shed the parasite via its feces into grass or plants touched by the patient in the Australian state of New South Wales.