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Fighting bogus claims a growing priority in election offices

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Fighting bogus claims a growing priority in election offices

Election officials preparing for the rapidly approaching midterm elections have one more headache: trying to combat misinformation that sows distrust about voting and results while fueling vitriol aimed at rank-and-file election workers.

Some states and counties are devoting more money or staff to a problem that has only grown more concerning since the 2020 presidential election and the false claims that it was marred by widespread fraud. A barrage of misinformation in some places has led election officials to complain that Facebook parent Meta, Twitter and other social media platforms aren’t doing enough to help them tackle the problem.

“Our voters are angry and confused. They simply don’t know what to believe,” Lisa Marra, elections director in Cochise County, Arizona, told a U.S. House committee last month. “We’ve got to repair this damage.”

Many election offices are taking matters into their own hands, starting public outreach campaigns to provide accurate information about how elections are run and how ballots are cast and counted. That means traveling town halls in Arizona, “Mythbuster Mondays” in North Carolina and animated videos in Ohio emphasizing the accuracy of election results. Connecticut is hiring a dedicated election misinformation analyst.

Still, the task is daunting. Despite Oregon putting additional money into joining a national #TrustedInfo2022 campaign, misinformation continues to reach social media and force local election officials to respond, taking time from other duties.

Ben Morris, spokesperson for the Oregon secretary of state’s office, cited three recent Facebook posts that Meta allowed to remain on Facebook despite his office providing evidence to them that they were false.

One alleged a candidate’s name had been improperly censored from election fliers. Another falsely asserted that one party was purposefully denied access to a local elections office. Yet another claimed inaccurately that election workers in Multnomah County were being required to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination.

“Meta’s policies are too limited to address the misinformation we see at a state and local level,” Morris said. “Their policies cover big national issues, but false posts about a county clerk or a state law aren’t removed. When you realize this could be happening at Meta’s scale, it’s deeply concerning.”

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The disconnect may be that Facebook policies “prioritize provably false claims that are timely, trending and consequential.” All three posts Morris referenced were presumably too localized to have “trended,” though he contends they were still damaging.

They also were posted by candidates for office, a group that includes a growing number of election deniers and whose speech social media companies strive to protect.

Meta spokesperson Corey Chambliss said the policies exempt much of what politicians say online because of “Facebook’s fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, especially in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is the most scrutinized speech there is.”

But he said those protections are waived in cases of direct election interference or threats of violence or intimidation.

In Arizona’s largest county, Maricopa, candidates shielded by those protections have liberally posted misinformation during this year’s election cycle. That has prompted officials to aggressively condemn the false narratives themselves.

When a candidate for county supervisor encouraged supporters to steal ballot-marking pens given to them at polling places on Election Day during the state’s August primary, the county attorney, Rachel Mitchell, wrote warning her to stop. The candidate pushed false claims that the pens allow election workers to change people’s votes.

And when Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake made unsupported claims of potential fraud ahead of the primary, Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Gates told local reporters her claims were “beyond irresponsible.”

“They never brought any specifics to us,” said Gates, a fellow Republican.

He said he has been more vocal on social media and more available to traditional media than ever before this year, in an effort to tamp down false election claims before they get out of hand.

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Gates and County Recorder Stephen Richer regularly respond directly to false Twitter posts with the facts. Richer said his department also emails Twitter when it sees a misleading narrative or threats against election workers gathering steam online, though it has disagreed with some of the platform’s responses.

When debunked claims about the county deleting election data off a server in 2021 resurfaced at an activist-led “election security forum” three days before the state’s August primary, the presenters publicly identified two election workers they claimed were responsible and called their actions a crime. That prompted threats and harassment against the workers online, part of a disturbing trend affecting election offices across the country.

Richer said the county wrote to Twitter in hopes of muting the hate, but the platform “didn’t always agree” that the content violated its policies.

Last month, Twitter activated enforcement of 2022 election integrity policies intended to “enable healthy civic conversation on Twitter, while ensuring people have the context they need to make informed decisions about content they encounter.” The company’s efforts included unveiling state-specific pages with live election updates featuring tweets from election officials and local reporters. The platform didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Video app TikTok, whose growing popularity has made it yet another hub for misinformation this election cycle, announced last month it is launching an election center that will help people find voting locations and candidate information. The platform said it works with over a dozen fact-checking organizations to debunk misinformation and will incorporate artificial intelligence as part of its efforts to detect and remove threats against election workers and push back against voting misinformation.

Not every state or county has Maricopa’s command of social media.

Relatively few county election offices have official presences on both Facebook and Twitter, according to a recent report by a pair of scholars who specialize in voter participation and the electoral processes, Mississippi State University’s Thessalia Merivaki and Connecticut College’s Mara Suttmann-Lea.

Many more local offices are on just one platform or the other, and the vast majority aren’t on either.

Legislation introduced in Congress earlier this year would provide $20 billion over the next decade to help state and local governments support election administration, which includes fighting misinformation.

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“Election after election, millions of Americans see inaccurate or misleading information about elections and the voting process on social media, and it is hurting our democracy,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat who is co-sponsoring the legislation, said during a hearing last spring.

When election officials battle through staffing, funding and personal safety concerns to get more involved on social media, voters of all ages — and particularly younger voters — become more engaged, according to the recent academic report on elections. The electorate benefits, the researchers wrote, “as does democracy itself.”

That’s just what the election supervisor’s office in Collier County, Florida, is trying to do.

In one TikTok video on her personal account, office spokesperson Trish Robertson snaps her fingers to the Sicilian song “Che La Luna” amid images of district maps, portraits of election officials and large windows that allow for public viewing during vote counting.

The lighthearted video from June, playing off a TikTok trend in which users display essential items in their homes and offices, is one of many efforts Robertson is making to restore voters’ trust. Besides posting to her own TikTok feed, she manages the county supervisor’s social media channels, hosts “transparency tours” of the office and responds to piles of public record requests, which often demand information that doesn’t exist.

Amid election falsehoods stoked by former President Donald Trump and amplified by his allies, Robertson said fighting misinformation “has pretty much become a full-time job.”

___

Associated Press misinformation reporter David Klepper contributed to this report.

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Muhammad Yunus: Nobel Peace Prize winner sentenced to 6 months in jail

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Muhammad Yunus: Nobel Peace Prize winner sentenced to 6 months in jail

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — A labor court in Bangladesh’s capital Monday sentenced Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus to six months in jail for violating the country’s labor laws.

Yunus, who pioneered the use of microcredit to help impoverished people, was present in court and was granted bail. The court gave Yunus 30 days to appeal the verdict and sentence.

Grameen Telecom, which Yunus founded as a non-profit organization, is at the center of the case.

Sheikh Merina Sultana, head of the Third Labor Court of Dhaka, said in her verdict that Yunus’ company violated Bangladeshi labor laws. She said at least 67 Grameen Telecom workers were supposed to be made permanent employees but were not, and a “welfare fund” to support the staff in cases of emergency or special needs was never formed. She also said that, following company policy, 5% of Grameen’s dividends were supposed to be distributed to staff but was not.

Sultana found Yunus, as chairman of the company, and three other company directors guilty, sentencing each to six months in jail. Yunus was also fined 30,000 takas, or $260.

Yunus said he would appeal.

“We are being punished for a crime we did not commit. It was my fate, the nation’s fate. We have accepted this verdict, but will appeal this verdict and continue fighting against this sentence,” the 83-year-old economist told reporters after the verdict was announced.

A defense lawyer criticized the ruling, saying it was unfair and against the law. “We have been deprived of justice,” said attorney Abdullah Al Mamun.

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But the prosecution was happy with what they said was an expected verdict.

“We think business owners will now be more cautious about violating labor laws. No one is above the law,” prosecutor Khurshid Alam Khan told The Associated Press.

Grameen Telecom owns 34.2% of the country’s largest mobile phone company, Grameenphone, a subsidiary of Norway’s telecom giant Telenor.

As Yunus is known to have close connections with political elites in the West, especially in the United States, many think the verdict could negatively impact Bangladesh’s relationship with the U.S.

But Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen on Monday said relations between Bangladesh and the U.S. would likely not be affected by an issue involving a single individual.

“It is normal not to have an impact on the state-to-state relations for an individual,” the United News of Bangladesh agency quoted Momen as saying.

The Nobel laureate faces an array of other charges involving alleged corruption and embezzlement.

Yunus’ supporters believe he’s being harassed because of frosty relations with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Bangladesh’s government has denied the allegation.

Monday’s verdict came as Bangladesh prepares for its general election on Jan. 7, amid a boycott by the country’s main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, Hasina’s arch-enemy. The party said it didn’t have any confidence the premier’s administration would hold a free and fair election.

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In August, more than 170 global leaders and Nobel laureates in an open letter urged Hasina to suspend all legal proceedings against Yunus.

The leaders, including former U.S. President Barack Obama, former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and more than 100 Nobel laureates, said in the letter that they were deeply concerned by recent threats to democracy and human rights in Bangladesh.

Hasina responded sharply and said she would welcome international experts and lawyers to come to Bangladesh to assess the legal proceedings and examine documents involving the charges against Yunus.

In 1983, Yunus founded Grameen Bank, which gives small loans to entrepreneurs who would not normally qualify for bank loans. The bank’s success in lifting people out of poverty led to similar microfinancing efforts in other countries.

Hasina’s administration began a series of investigations of Yunus after coming to power in 2008. She became enraged when Yunus announced he would form a political party in 2007 when a military-backed government ran the country and she was in prison, although he did not follow through on the plan.

Yunus had earlier criticized politicians in the country, saying they are only interested in money. Hasina called him a “bloodsucker” and accused him of using force and other means to recover loans from poor rural women as head of Grameen Bank.

In 2011, Hasina’s administration began a review of the bank’s activities. Yunus was fired as managing director for allegedly violating government retirement regulations. He was put on trial in 2013 on charges of receiving money without government permission, including his Nobel Prize award and royalties from a book.

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Kim Jung Un says military should ‘annihilate’ US and SKorea if provoked…

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Kim Jung Un says military should ‘annihilate’ US and SKorea if provoked…

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said his military should “thoroughly annihilate” the United States and South Korea if provoked, state media reported Monday, after he vowed to boost national defense to cope with what he called an unprecedented U.S.-led confrontation.

North Korea has increased its warlike rhetoric in recent months in response to an expansion of U.S.-South Korean military drills. Experts expect Kim will continue to escalate his rhetoric and weapons tests because he likely believes he can use heightened tensions to wrest U.S. concessions if former President Donald Trump wins the U.S. presidential election in November.

In a five-day major ruling party meeting last week, Kim said he will launch three more military spy satellites, produce more nuclear materials and develop attack drones this year in what observers say is an attempt to increase his leverage in future diplomacy with the U.S.

In a meeting Sunday with commanding army officers, Kim said it is urgent to sharpen “the treasured sword” to safeguard national security, an apparent reference to his country’s nuclear weapons program. He cited “the U.S. and other hostile forces’ military confrontation moves,” according to the official Korean Central News Agency.

Kim stressed that “our army should deal a deadly blow to thoroughly annihilate them by mobilizing all the toughest means and potentialities without moment’s hesitation” if they opt for military confrontation and provocations against North Korea, KCNA said.

In his New Year’s Day address Monday, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said he will strengthen his military’s preemptive strike, missile defense and retaliatory capabilities in response to the North Korean nuclear threat.

“The Republic of Korea is building genuine, lasting peace through strength, not a submissive peace that is dependent on the goodwill of the adversary,” Yoon said, using South Korea’s official name.

At the party meeting, Kim called South Korea “a hemiplegic malformation and colonial subordinate state” whose society is “tainted by Yankee culture.” He said his military must use all available means including nuclear weapons to “suppress the whole territory of South Korea” in the event of a conflict.

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South Korea’s Defense Ministry warned in response Sunday that if North Korea attempts to use nuclear weapons, South Korean and U.S. forces will punish it overwhelmingly, resulting in the end of the Kim government.

KCNA said North Korean officials held talks on Monday to implement an order by Kim to disband or reform organizations handling relations with South Korea to fundamentally change the principle and direction of the North’s struggle against the South. There was no immediate explanation of how that might alter inter-Korean relations, which have been stalled for an extended period.

Experts say small-scale military clashes between North and South Korea could happen this year along their heavily armed border. They say North Korea is also expected to test-launch intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the mainland U.S. and other major new weapons.

In 2018-19, Kim met Trump in three rounds of talks on North Korea’s expanding nuclear arsenal. The diplomacy fell apart after the U.S. rejected Kim’s offer to dismantle his main nuclear complex, a limited step, in exchange for extensive reductions in U.S.-led sanctions.

Since 2022, North Korea has conducted more than 100 missile tests, prompting the U.S. and South Korea to expand their joint military exercises. North Korea has also tried to strengthen its relationships with China and Russia, which blocked efforts by the U.S. and its partners in the U.N. Security Council to toughen U.N. sanctions on North Korea over its weapons tests.

KCNA said Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping exchanged New Year’s Day messages on Monday on bolstering bilateral ties. North Korea faces suspicions that it has supplied conventional arms for Russia’s war in Ukraine in return for sophisticated Russian technologies to enhance the North’s military programs.

Estimates of the size of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal vary, ranging from about 20-30 bombs to more than 100. Many foreign experts say North Korea still has some technological hurdles to overcome to produce functioning nuclear-armed ICBMs, though its shorter-range nuclear-capable missiles can reach South Korea and Japan.

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Sen. Fetterman says he thought news about his depression treatment would end his political career

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Sen. Fetterman says he thought news about his depression treatment would end his political career

WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. John Fetterman acknowledges having “dark conversations” about harming himself before he hit “the emergency brake” and sought treatment for depression.

He remembers thinking about his three school-age kids. “I can’t be a blueprint for my children. I can’t let them be left alone or not to understand why he would have done that,” the first-term Pennsylvania Democrat told NBC’s “Meet the Press” in a deeply personal and introspective interview taped before the broadcast that aired Sunday.

So he checked himself into Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, last Feb. 15. “There was nowhere else to go,” he said, describing how he often felt during his stay that “there wasn’t any hope sometimes and like, ‘What do I have left?’”

He also wondered whether he would survive politically.

“When it got released where I was and where it was going, it was a big story. And so, I had assumed that that would be the end of my career,” he said

When he sought treatment for clinical depression, Fetterman was still coping with the effects of the stroke he had in May 2022, during his campaign for one of the Senate’s most contested seats. “My heart technically stopped, and it was a very touch-and-go situation,” said Fetterman, 54. A pacemaker was implanted with a defibrillator to manage two heart conditions, atrial fibrillation and cardiomyopathy.

His victory over Republican Mehmet Oz had helped Democrats keep control of the Senate and made him a national figure. It was the height of his political career. But he couldn’t make it out of bed at his home in Braddock, in western Pennsylvania.

“I really scared my kids, and they thought, ’You won, Dad. Why aren’t we enough? Why are you still so sad? Why are you even more sad?’ And it was hard for — to explain why I was. And, of course, a 9-year-old child wouldn’t understand that. And it was awful,” Fetterman said.

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So much so that he said he “pleaded not to go down to D.C.” later that November for orientation sessions in Washington for newly elected lawmakers.

His favorite holiday was nearing, yet he was unable to think about getting Christmas presents for his children and “dreading” his swearing in on Capitol Hill early in the new year.

Within two months, he was at Walter Reed. Aides had described the new senator as being withdrawn and uninterested in eating, discussing work or the usual banter with staff.

“This is a conversation that I’ve had with myself and anybody that knows they’re unable to address their depression, is they start to have dark conversations with themself about self-harm,” Fetterman said. “And things continued to kind of tick off the list. And then I kind of hit the emergency brake.”

He added, “I knew I needed help.”

Before checking into Walter Reed, Fetterman had never publicly discussed his battle with depression. He has since said that he has experienced it on and off throughout his life.

He left Walter Reed at the end of March after six weeks of inpatient treatment with his depression “in remission,” according to a statement from his office.

Doctors describe “remission” as when a patient responds to treatment so that they have returned to normal social function and they are indistinguishable from someone who has never had depression.

Fetterman has since become a visible presence in the Capitol, bantering with reporters, joking with Senate colleagues and speaking up at Senate hearings.

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To others who are now “facing a really dark holiday time,” Fetterman offered this guidance: “I know that last year’s was desolate. And this year’s might be desolate. Next year’s can be the best ever. And that’s what happened for me.”

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