Archive for August, 2018

Philippines says no possible Chinese interference on grounded Navy ship

August 31, 2018

Malacañang allayed fears of China’s possible actions while the Philippines is retrieving BRP Gregorio del Pilar, which has ran aground near Hasa-Hasa Shoal in the West Philippine Sea.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque pointed out that retrieval operations for the Navy frigate are ongoing “with no problems from China.”

“Let’s not speculate,” Roque told reporters when asked about what China would do after the incident.

Philippine navy’s frigate BRP Gregorio del Pilar is anchored near Thitu island during the visit of Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to the island in The Spratlys on April 21, 2017. Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana flew to a disputed South China Sea island on April 21, brushing off a challenge by the Chinese military while asserting Manila’s territorial claim to the strategic region.

AFP/Ted Aljibe

Greg Poling, director of Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, warned that China may take advantage of the situation by offering assistance to the Philippines.

Noting that Beijing closed Jackson Atoll in 2016 to remove a foreign vessel, Poling said China might do the same to the Philippines.

“Worse, China could unilaterally act to ‘assist’ the ship stranded on what China calls Banyue Jiao [and] prevent [Philippine] ships from intervening,” Poling said on Twitter.

The AMTI director noted that Hasa-Hasa Shoal is about 60 nautical miles from Palawan, which is close to Mischief Reef, one of Beijing’s military outposts in the Spratly Islands.

Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, also noted that Hasa-Hasa Shoal was the same place where a People’s Liberation Army Navy ship ran aground in 2013.

It also where Chinese where caught with more than 500 dead marine turtles, Batongbacal said on Twitter.

“It has a large navigable lagoon. Possible FP-15 was caught by low tide while standing guard,” Batongbacal said.

Meanwhile, the Philippine Navy’s Western Command has deployed all of its vessels to retrieve Del Pilar and to return it to harbor.

“An investigation is expected in such situations to find out the possible causes of the grounding and to come up with steps to ensure that similar incidents will be prevented,” the Armed Forces of the Philippines said in a statement.




Iraqis clash with security forces in Basra in protest over neglect

August 31, 2018

Hundreds of Iraqi protesters stoned and tried to break into the provincial government headquarters in the southern oil hub of Basra on Friday to press demands for better public services and an end to pervasive corruption.

Some protesters also set fire to tires outside the building and there were minor clashes with riot police who fired tear gas to try to quell the protest. No serious injuries were reported.

Dozens of Iraqis shout slogans and wave national flags during a demonstration outside the local government headquarters in the southern city of Basra on July 13, 2018, as they protest against poor services, unemployment, and corruption. (Photos by AFP)

FILE Photo — Dozens of Iraqis shout slogans and wave national flags during a demonstration outside the local government headquarters in the southern city of Basra on July 13, 2018, as they protest against poor services, unemployment, and corruption. (Photos by AFP)

Protests have swept cities in the long neglected south, Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim heartland, over widespread electricity outages during the blistering hot Iraqi summer, a lack of jobs and proper government services, and entrenched graft.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi suspended the electricity minister last month and said earlier this week that his government had begun punishing those responsible for poor services in Basra, Iraq’s second biggest city.

Public anger is rising at a time when politicians are struggling to form a new government after an inconclusive parliamentary election in May. Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has expressed support for the protests.

Friday’s protests were particularly concerned with the high level of salt in Basra’s drinking water that residents say makes it undrinkable.

The city’s infrastructure is crumbling from years of neglect and under-investment, generating widespread bitterness as locals contrast their impoverishment with the oil wealth the province provides for federal government coffers.

Reporting by Aref Mohammed; Writing by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Mark Heinrich


Lagarde to meet Argentine finance minister next week

August 31, 2018

IMF and Argentine authorities working closely to strengthen arrangements after recent market turbulence
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By Sam Fleming 

Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, will meet Argentina’s finance minister next week to hold talks over the country’s bailout terms after a tumbling currency triggered concerns about the Fund’s $50bn rescue plan.

In a statement, the Fund said its staff and the Argentine authorities have been working closely to strengthen the arrangement in light of the recent market turbulence.

Ms Lagarde and her staff would meet Finance Minister Nicolás Dujovne and his team on Tuesday next week to advance the dialogue.

“Our goal is to rapidly conclude these talks and submit the revised economic plan to the Executive Board. As the Managing Director stressed, Argentina has the full support of the Fund and we’re confident that the strong commitment and determination of the Argentine authorities will help the country overcome the current difficulties,” the Fund’s spokesman Gerry Rice said in a statement.

The Argentine peso crashed to a record low on Thursday even as the central bank lifted interest rates to 60 per cent to stem the loss of market confidence.

Ms Lagarde has said the IMF would “re-examine the phasing of the financial programme” after President Mauricio Macri made a public plea for the fund to speed up the disbursement of the bailout money.

In a message broadcast to Argentines on YouTube, Mr Macri said he had requested “all the resources that should be necessary” to guarantee the country’s 2019 financing programme after the fund disbursed the first tranche of $15bn in June.

U.S. charges associate of indicted Russian with lobbying violation

August 31, 2018

U.S. prosecutors on Friday charged a business associate of Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian consultant indicted by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller, with failing to register as a foreign agent for lobbying on behalf of a Ukrainian political party.

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Konstantin Kilimnik

Samuel Patten was charged with violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) for lobbying for the Ukrainian Opposition Bloc between 2014 and 2018, without disclosing the work to the U.S. government.

Patten, who is expected to plead guilty at 11 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT), did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Patten’s lawyer also did not respond to an email request for comment.

The criminal case was brought by the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia and the Justice Department’s National Security Division and referred by Mueller’s team, according to Bill Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office.

The charge of violating FARA is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison, Miller said.

Patten was a business associate of Kilimnik, a longtime associate of Paul Manafort, the former campaign chairman for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Manafort was found guilty of bank and tax fraud last week by a jury in Virginia.

Kilimnik was indicted along with Manafort in Washington earlier this year. Manafort is set to go on trial in that case next month on charges that include money laundering and a FARA violation related to his lobbying work in Ukraine.


(This story corrects spelling of Ukrainian in first and second paragraphs)

Reporting by Nathan Layne and Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe

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Boko Haram’s reign of terror reignites Nigeria’s religious wars

August 31, 2018

Isa Salisu ran almost a mile without stopping in a bid to escape his attackers at a military checkpoint in Jos, a large city in north-central Nigeria.

“Three of us were returning from the cattle market,” said Mr. Salisu, a 20-year-old herder, recalling how he and two friends were driving 150 miles from the city of Bukuru to their home in Barkin Ladi, closer to the national capital of Abuja. “Our vehicle was ambushed.”

Knife-wielding youths belonging to the Berom, a Christian ethnic group of farmers, attacked Mr. Salisu’s car. He was eventually able to escape, but his companions were not so lucky. They were hacked to death.

By Ali Abare Abubakar
The Washington Times

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Photo by: Hafsat Musa Usman
A wounded Fulani herder was transported to a local hospital after he and other herders were attacked by native farmers. (Photographs by Ali Abare Abubakar/Special to The Washington Times)

The reason for the ambush: Mr. Salisu and his friends were Muslim members of the Fulani ethnic group who mostly raise cattle. They were caught in a place and time of particularly tense relations between Nigeria’s Christian and Muslim populations.

The attack was just another incident in a budding religious war that many fear could grow far worse than the conflict against Boko Haram, the Islamic State-affiliated terrorist group that rampaged across the country’s remote north for almost a decade until Nigerian forces launched a serious campaign against them two years ago.

he Boko Haram reign of terror in large part has reignited Nigeria’s religious wars.

The Boko Haram insurgency pushed herders out of traditional grazing lands and into farming regions to the south. That in turn set off a fierce competition for land and resources.

Conflicts between mostly ethnic Fulani Muslim herders and predominantly Christian farming groups such as Berom have claimed 3,000 lives in north and north-central Nigeria, according to government statistics.

In April, the U.S. Agency for International Development organized a three-day conference in Abuja for officials, herders and farmers, as well as religious and ethnic leaders, to try to hash out their differences. Among the problems identified in the discussions: a proliferation of arms, diminishing farmland and grazing pastures resulting from climate change, and incendiary media coverage of religious clashes.

But the country’s leading religious figures are showing little effort to reconcile the two communities. This month, leaders of the Christian and Muslim communities debated over which was the more persecuted.

Catholic Bishop Matthew Kukah said Christians are effectively shut out of practicing their religion in Muslim-majority regions. “Up until today, you can’t find a single governor in northern Nigeria that will effortlessly sign a certificate of occupancy for the building of a church — nowhere,” he told reporters.

That led the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs to issue a statement accusing the bishop of trying to “play the underdog in highlighting their pathological hatred and undisguised intolerance for Muslims in this country.”

“Without any fear of contradiction whatsoever, the [irrefutable] truth is that no religious group faces the persecution that Muslims face in Nigeria,” the council said. “From the usual hijab saga to religious witch-hunting in private and public establishments, Muslims have always been subjected to the same treatment the colonial masters made them to suffer.”

Pressure to act

As with the Boko Haram menace, the government of President Muhammadu Buhari has been criticized for acting slowly to address and quell the carnage.

“There are various factors responsible for these conflicts, but mostly it’s due to the inability of government to take decisive action,” said Nurudeen Kyaagba, a researcher with the Kaduna-based African Research and Development Agency. The think tank is seeking to find lasting solutions to conflicts between farmers and herders in the West African country, the most populous on the continent.

The latest large-scale violence occurred in June when a group of Fulani attacked Gashish, a Berom community. About 300 were killed. Barely able to escape to safety, Francis Chong, president of the Gashish Youth Development Association, said his two brothers died in the violence. “The herdsmen took positions, surrounding the entire villages,” he said.

Berom youths responded by blockading sections of the busy Jos-Abuja expressway to avenge the deaths of their kinsmen. They attacked commuters identified as Muslims.

The Nigerian government signed a protocol with the Economic Community of West African States for the free movement of people. It allows herders from 15 countries in the region to cross one another’s borders or relocate within their respective countries.

But Mr. Chong said Mr. Buhari and other officials have done little to smooth relations between newcomers and those already on the land.

For Comrade Peter Ahemba, the conflict started when the local legislature enacted a law against open grazing, barring herdsmen from locating anywhere they please. The herdsmen responded by assaulting farmers on their own land.

Mr. Ahemba is president of the Tiv Youth Organization, an umbrella body for youths of the Tiv, an ethnic group of Christian farmers from Nasarawa.

“This crisis, aside from the killings and loss of lives, affected our economic activities,” said Mr. Ahemba. “Our people have not been able to access their farms because of the destruction of houses and the fear that is still prevailing.”

The U.N. Security Council has issued a statement condemning the conflict and calling for action.

“These attacks have had a devastating humanitarian impact including through the displacement of a large number of civilians in Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad, and represent a threat to the stability and peace of West and Central Africa,” the statement said.

Alhaji Muhammed Hussaini, local leader of a Fulani herder’s welfare group, the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, agreed that the government needs to act. Christians have been stealing his members’ cattle, he said, and the Fulani have no recourse but to take matters into their own hands.

“Injustice is the major cause of this lingering crisis,” said Mr. Hussaini. “Certain criminal elements both within the Fulani and natives who connive to rustle cows. Once a Fulani man loses his cows, he knows no peace because for him cattle is only means of livelihood.”

He said the Fulani community has lost more than 500 kinsmen since 2012 and more than 20,000 cows to rustlers.

Mr. Salisu said he fears that the conflict could escalate from arguments over land to a full-blown West African religious war.

“I can’t see myself return home now,” said Mr. Salisu, who escaped with a knife wound to his chest and now lives with relatives in Jos. “I can go back to Barkin Ladi only if our security is guaranteed.”

Brexit talks hit snag on EU food labelling protections

August 31, 2018
UK insists on right to reassess geographical indicators
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An EU official said it was ‘dangerous’ for the UK to stall on the geographical indicators issue given the political importance of the protections for nations such as France and Italy © Reuters

By Jim Brunsden

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator has warned that the bloc will not agree to a deal that does not protect European specialities such as parmesan cheese and Parma ham, saying that he has “concerns” about Britain’s unwillingness to offer guarantees.

The EU’s system of “geographical indicators” that protect its emblematic food products has emerged as a sticking point in the final stretch of Brexit negotiations, with Brussels frustrated by British insistence that the protections will need to be reassessed by the UK government on a case-by-case basis.

“I expressed again my concern,” Michel Barnier said at a joint press briefing with UK Brexit secretary Dominic Raab in Brussels.

Brexit “cannot lead to a loss of existing protection of intellectual property”, he said. “It has to be clarified in the withdrawal agreement.”

The geographical indicators are one of the most sensitive issues in EU trade policy, covering around 3,000 different products.

EU officials said that Britain has told them that, while the European geographical indicators have been protected in the UK up to now, they will need to be reviewed and re-approved again by the government after Brexit.

One official said that it was “dangerous” for the UK to stall on the issue given the political importance of the protections for EU nations such as France and Italy.

EU’s Barnier offers partnership with Britain

But Mr Barnier and Mr Raab, who were speaking after their latest round of Brexit talks, also emphasised that progress is being made, and that both sides still have the ambition to reach a deal on the UK’s withdrawal agreement by October.

“There is a measure of leeway, but that is what we are aiming for,” said Mr Raab.

Mr Barnier also underlined that the negotiating teams have found common ground on some key aspects of the future EU-UK relationship, notably on security and criminal justice co-operation, where plans have been developed for an extradition agreement and also for the exchange of law enforcement data such as DNA and fingerprints.

“We have now the elements to build a close and effective relationship on many subjects,” said Mr Barnier, although he added that there were limitations to how far the EU could go on security co-operation given that Britain will be outside both the EU and Europe’s Schengen free-travel area.

Mr Raab said that Britain would like to be “even more ambitious”, adding: “I understand the EU position and the legalism that underpins that and the principles that underpin that.”

Mr Barnier also confirmed the bloc’s offer to the UK to remain in non-security sensitive parts of the bloc’s Galileo satellite navigation programme.

“Our offer includes also the access to the public regulated service signal,” Mr Barnier said. “It is now for the UK to decide if it wants, as we wish, this close co-operation”.

Both Mr Raab and Mr Barnier emphasised that work is continuing to find a solution to the question of the Irish border after Brexit, with Mr Barnier warning that the issue needs to be addressed with “urgency”.

“I have asked Dominic to provide us with the technical data we need for our work,” he said.

“This backstop is critical for closing this negotiation,” he said. “Without a backstop, there is no agreement”.

Palestinians clash with Israeli police in West Bank protest

August 31, 2018

Israeli security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets on Friday at rock-throwing Palestinians protesting against land seizures for Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, among the disputes stalling peace efforts.

Around a dozen of the hundreds of Palestinians gathered in the village of Ras Karkar were injured, witnesses said. An Israeli police spokesman had no immediate comment.

An Israeli soldier throws a sound grenade during a scuffle with Palestinian demonstrators at a protest against Israeli settlement construction, in the village of Ras Karkar, near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, August 31, 2018. (Reuters)

An Israeli court broke new judicial ground on Tuesday by giving legal recognition to a Jewish settlement built without Israeli government authorization on privately owned Palestinian land.

The international community considers all of the settlements built on land that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war to be illegal.

Some 500,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas that are also home to more than 2.6 million Palestinians. Palestinians say rapid settlement expansion in recent years could deny them a viable and contiguous state.

The other Palestinian territory, Gaza, was largely quiet on Friday despite expected border demonstrations, a weekly event in the Hamas-controlled enclave since March 30.

Israel has killed most than 170 Palestinians during the Gaza protests, in what it called an effort to thwart breaches of the fortified frontier. Israel withdrew settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005.

The last round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed in 2014.

Iran said to give Iraqi militias ballistic missiles capable of hitting Israel

August 31, 2018

Move seen as a message to regional enemies; Tehran also training Shiite proxies in its western neighbor to build their own missiles

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, left, briefs the media as Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan listens after unveiling the surface-to-surface Fateh-313, or Conqueror, missile in a ceremony marking Defense Industry Day in Iran, August 22, 2015. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, left, briefs the media as Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan listens after unveiling the surface-to-surface Fateh-313, or Conqueror, missile in a ceremony marking Defense Industry Day in Iran, August 22, 2015. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

For the first time, Iran is deploying ballistic missiles in its western neighbor Iraq with a range that makes them capable of hitting Israel and Sunni rival Saudi Arabia.

According to a report by the Reuters news service, several dozen such rockets are already deployed with Iran’s Shiite proxies in Iraq, while Tehran is working to make sure its allied militias in the country are capable of building more rockets indigenously. That includes the installation of manufacturing facilities in al-Zafaraniya, which lies east of Baghdad, in Jurf al-Sakhar, north of Karbala and in Iraqi Kurdistan, according to various sources cited in the report. Iran has also been training militia members in operating the new weapons.

The deployment is meant to improve Iran’s ability to retaliate against any Western or Arab attacks on its territory, as well as to expand its options for attacking opponents in the region, Reuters said.

Iran’s proxies, allied militias and even its own forces are involved in internal conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.

The report cited “three Iranian officials, two Iraqi intelligence sources and two Western intelligence sources.” It said the missiles are of the Zelzal, Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar types, with ranges from 200 to 700 kilometers (124-435 miles), enough to hit the Saudi capital Riyadh from southern Iraq and Israeli territory from western Iraq.

Fighters from the Badr Brigades Shiite militia clash with Islamic State fighters at the front line on the outskirts of Fallujah in the Anbar province of Iraq, June 1, 2015. (AP/Hadi Mizban)

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and its overseas Quds Force, have bases in both areas of Iraq.

“The logic was to have a backup plan if Iran was attacked,” a senior Iranian official was quoted as saying. “The number of missiles is not high, just a couple of dozen, but it can be increased if necessary.”

The sources claimed Quds Force chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani is leading the effort.

Neither Iran, nor Iraq, would comment to Reuters about the report.

Iran already trains, arms and in many cases directly controls militias throughout the region, from Lebanon’s Hezbollah to Yemen’s Houthi rebels and multiple groups in Syria. This has included shipments of missiles, especially to Hezbollah and in recent years to the Houthis.

One Western source said that “Iran has been turning Iraq into its forward missile base,” adding that the move was not meant to go unnoticed, but sent a “warning” to the US and Israel following Israeli strikes against Iranian installations in Syria.

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani, center, attends a meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Revolutionary Guard commanders in Tehran, Iran, September 18, 2016. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

The move makes Iran’s allies in Iraq better able to attack US troops in the country in the event Iran is attacked.

“We have bases like that in many places and Iraq is one of them. If America attacks us, our friends will attack America’s interests and its allies in the region,” one top IRGC commander said.

The factories that will build new missiles are located in parts of Iraq controlled by Shiite militias most closely allied to Iran.

The factory in al-Zafaraniya produced parts for ballistic missiles, including warheads, under the Saddam regime, and was brought back into use with the help of Iranian officials in 2016. The militias have already tested missiles at the Jurf al-Sakhar site, the report claimed.

Iraqi intelligence has reportedly been following the shipments of missiles to the militias, which began under the pretense of being intended for use in the fight against the Islamic State. But the shipments continued after the IS defeat in Iraq, one Iraqi intelligence official told the news service.

“It was clear to Iraqi intelligence that such a missile arsenal sent by Iran was not meant to fight Daesh (IS) militants, but as a pressure card Iran can use once involved in regional conflict,” the official said.

A member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps speaks on his walkie-talkie while Zolfaghar surface-to-surface ballistic missiles are displayed in an annual pro-Palestinian rally marking Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day in Tehran, Iran, on June 23, 2017. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

The Iraqi government could not stop the transfers, the official added. “We can’t restrain militias from firing Iranian rockets because simply the firing button is not in our hands; it’s with Iranians who control the push button.”

He added: “Iran will definitely use the missiles it handed over to Iraqi militia it supports to send a strong message to its foes in the region and the United States that it has the ability to use Iraqi territories as a launch pad for its missiles to strike anywhere and anytime it decides.”

Iran has long used its Shiite proxies and allies in Iraq to hit back at its opponents. According to transcripts of interrogations in 2007 of a top Shiite military and religious figure in Iraq declassified earlier this year, Iran was heavily involved in Iraqi Shiite militias’ attacks on US troops in the years following the American invasion of the country in 2003.

Qais al-Khazali, who now heads the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia that won 15 parliamentary seats in the country’s May elections, detailed the scale of Iranian involvement in the country in the 2007 interrogation, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday, citing recently declassified documents.

Khazali was under arrest at the time on suspicion of organizing an attempted kidnapping of US soldiers in the Iraqi city of Karala that left five Americans dead.

Khazali’s testimony from that period, declassified by the US military’s Central Command, is especially damning.

Though he is now a critic of Iranian involvement in Iraqi affairs, a decade ago his statements to US interrogators depicted Iranian assistance as key to the ability at the time of Iraqi Shiite militias to carry out their ongoing campaigns of bombings and other attacks against US troops.

Some of the ordinance key to the campaign against US troops, including explosively formed penetrators that killed and injured hundreds of Americans, were delivered by Iran, he claimed at the time.

The Friday report also comes amid rising tensions between the US and Iran over Washington’s May decision to abandon the 2015 nuclear deal that exchanged sanctions relief for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program. One key American argument for the decision concerned Iran’s expansion of its involvement in various conflicts in the region, as well as its burgeoning ballistic missile program.


The World Isn’t as Bad as Your Wired Brain Tells You

August 31, 2018

Magnified by the internet’s algorithms, our primitive biases make our fears go viral

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Ever wonder why people’s perception of the incidence of crime, terrorism, kidnapping and other violent acts is often much higher than the reality? Why the U.S. is becoming a low-trust society? Why Americans are collectively in a funk?

A big part of the answer, according to experts in social science, psychology and computer science, is that the biases that were once useful to our primitive forebears have become—like the craving for sweet foods—detriments in our modern world. Instincts that may once have saved us from real dangers have now, thanks to global instantaneous communication, turned us all into Chicken Littles.

Our best hope for breaking their spell may lie in understanding the workings of our cognitive and social biases—and the algorithms of online social networks that reinforce them.

The Availability Basis

First described in 1973 by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, author of the book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” the availability bias refers to our tendency to think that whatever we heard about most recently is more common than it actually is. This might have been useful when we had to make life choices based on a trickle of information, but now that we have a fire hose of it, we can’t seem to be rational about the likelihood of bad things happening.

The availability bias helps explain why people are afraid of shark attacks, even though they’re more likely to drown at the beach. People fear terrorism, even though the odds they will die in a plane crash are far higher—and the odds that they’ll be killed walking down the street are many times higher still.

Sometimes known as the availability heuristic, this bias is one reason parents are afraid to let children play unsupervised, though it’s never been safer to be a child in America.

Mass media has leveraged this bias since at least the birth of so-called yellow, or sensationalist, journalism in the late 1800s, but the internet makes every child abduction, shark bite and terrorist attack seem like it’s happening in our backyards, says Lenore Skenazy, president of Let Grow, a nonprofit that advocates for childhood independence.

The Extremity Bias

We also have social biases that come out when we’re in crowds, says Jonah Berger, a professor at Wharton who studies how ideas spread. The “extremity bias” is our tendency to share the most extreme version of any story, to keep our listeners rapt. A positive story becomes absolutely glowing, a negative one turns horrific, like the tall tales of ancient oral tradition.

Online, this tendency goes into overdrive. “Our audiences are getting larger and larger, so our bias is to make things more and more extreme to engage those audiences,” says Prof. Berger. Note the rise of hyperbolic phrases—things aren’t merely “exciting,” they’re “extremely exciting.”

Content that evokes both positive and negative response at the same time is even more viral. For example, sharing content about children being abducted from their parents by strangers—an exceedingly rare phenomenon—simultaneously arouses feelings of anger and feelings of self-righteousness, says Ms. Skenazy. Even as we’re incensed, we feel we are helping to protect children by sounding the alarm. “It is this double whammy of outrage and virtue.”

The Confirmation Bias

We have a natural tendency to seek information that confirms our pre-existing views and discount information that doesn’t. That’s confirmation bias, and ironically, it may have evolved as a way to keep us from succumbing to manipulation by others.

Confirmation bias has come to the fore this week as President Trump has seized on a perception in conservative circles that Google elevates critical news articles about his presidency to threaten action against the search giant. Google says its search results aren’t politically biased.

Social media’s algorithms tend to lump us into buckets and feed us information that more or less conforms to what we’ve previously showed an interest in. Doing this across millions of people has meant dividing and polarizing populations into nonoverlapping views of reality.

As a result, when inaccurate information infects one of these echo chambers—for example, that kidnapping is on the rise or that vaccines cause autism—there are few checks on its spread.

When Algorithms Augment

Algorithms that maximize engagement play off our biases, or unwittingly fuel them. Either way, this leads to a litany of well-documented ills, from mental-health issues to ever-deeper political polarization.

The end result is systems that—whatever their makers’ intent—are highly optimized to make us believe things that aren’t true. Facebook Inc., Alphabet Inc. (parent of Google and its YouTube division) along with a few other tech companies, have built history’s biggest, farthest-reaching and most profitable delusion machine.

Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg promised to spend 2018 fixing Facebook’s assorted issues, and pledged to help ensure that users’ time on its services is “time well spent.” Facebook also says it’s actively working to make its platform less susceptible to manipulation of the sort that occurred when Russia used Facebook to attempt to disrupt the 2016 U.S. elections. Whether or not these measures have had any effect, people are spending less time on Facebook.

YouTube previously said it was beefing up content moderation and surfacing more authoritative news sources to people searching breaking-news topics. It has also recently terminated accounts found to be pushing misinformation. It’s not clear what impact that has had on its user experience.


Skeptics might argue that this column is itself a product of our cognitive biases.

“I’m always skeptical of now-more-than-ever observations that are not backed up by time-series data, since they themselves can be products of the availability heuristic and may be inaccurate,” says Harvard University psychology professor Steven Pinker.

The good news, says Peter Reiner, a neuroethicist at the University of British Columbia, is that educating ourselves about these cognitive biases could help. “The best thing you can do to inoculate yourself is to know that they exist,” he adds.

That’s why it’s imperative that you don’t share this column on social media, where it will just become part of one bias-reinforcing echo chamber or another. Instead, talk about it with friends or family members. Or better yet, total strangers. After all, the odds of being killed by one are astronomically low.

Write to Christopher Mims at

Roaring economy isn’t lifting Donald Trump approval rating. He has only himself to blame.

August 31, 2018

A good economy isn’t making Trump popular and probably never will. It’s not in his DNA to be decent, classy or respectful of our fragile democracy.

By Paul Brandus
USA Today

What’s a guy have to do to be popular?

Unemployment is 3.9 percent. Gasoline prices are up, but at $2.84 (AAA’s national average), they still seem far from “ouch” territory. Retailers, restaurants and summer vacation spots say business is good. The stock market is once again touching all-time highs. On Wednesday, the government said the economy grew at a 4.2 percent pace in the second quarter — faster than first thought. It’s the fifth best quarter in fact, for the last decade.

And yet, says an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey, 62 percent of Americans say the nation is on the wrong track. As for the man at the top, President Donald Trump’s approval — as measured by the FiveThirtyEight average of all polls — is an anemic 41.5 percent.

When the economy’s this good, the president usually gets the credit. In 1999 and 2000, during the last two years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the stock market was booming, gas was cheap, people had money to burn. The unemployment rate dropped to 3.9 percent. Sounds familiar, right? Yet Clinton’s approval was in the 60s, at times hitting 66 percent — 25 percentage points higher than Trump now.

Bad Trump numbers are good for Democrats

These numbers spell trouble as the November midterms approach. The president’s name won’t be on any ballot, but midterms are always about the man in the Oval Office. FiveThirtyEight and two closely watched political forecasters — the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and the Cook Political Report — all say the stage is set for a Democratic takeover of the House. This in turn could mean — as the president himself acknowledged on Fox News last week — that he could face impeachment next year.

Here’s the question: With the best economy we’ve seen in a generation, why is Trump reviled and disrespected by most of the country?

What’s a guy have to do to be popular?

The answer lies within Trump himself. He is reviled and disrespected because he gives reason to revile and disrespect. His self-constructed dilemma is this: If he would just tone it down, take the high road, show, for once, that he is capable of class and decency and integrity and honesty, then his numbers would begin to inch up.

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But Trump can’t do these things because that’s not who he is. It’s not in his DNA to be honest. It’s not in his DNA to be decent. Just ask the family of the late Sen. John McCain, the Gold Star parents of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, the students of Trump University, or members of any minority. We disapprove of Donald Trump because he equivocates on matters that are beyond equivocation.

Public opinion is not just eroding among Americans. Fact: At the beginning of Trump’s presidency, 64 percent of the world had confidence in the U.S. president; at the end of June 2017 — just five months later — only 22 percent did. The Pew global survey of 37 nations added that those holding a favorable view of the United States slipped by 15 points to 49 percent.

Trump and his nativist “America First” followers might say who cares what the world thinks? My response: Try asking someone you’ve dissed for a favor. Then there is this: 41 million American jobs — 1 in 5 — are linked to trade (and the casualties of Trump’s trade wars already have begun).

Who cares what other countries think? 

Perhaps our head-in-the-sand president and his band of eager believers might want to acknowledge that we need the rest of the world just as it needs us. Here are two questions for them: 1) What happens when and if we need help from countries that Trump has alienated with his antics? And 2) How does the world laughing at us help with the whole “Make America Great Again” thing?

I’ve said it before and it bears repeating: Whenever Trump’s supporters are confronted with these realities, their default response is, “Well, we know he’s not Mother Teresa, but unemployment is down and stocks are up.” It’s acceptable, then, to lower our standards with such a trade-off? It’s OK to have a president who surrounds himself with felons and corner-cutting grifters? Who is genetically incapable of instilling pride in more than just a small subset of the country? Who mocks the ethos that once made us the envy of the world?

This is why even a roaring economy can’t lift Donald Trump’s numbers.

I do give the president credit for something very important: He has reminded us that the values we cherish must never be taken for granted. He is a bull running about unchecked in our fragile china shop of a democracy. His base, blind to the lies, selfishness and shameless self-dealing, doesn’t seem to mind. For this, they must be written off.

For the rest of us, the Trump era can be seen as a clarion call for change. Trump is not the cause of our problems but the result of them. We can and must do better — and when we do, that’s when America will be great again.

Paul Brandus, founder and White House bureau chief of West Wing Reports, is the author of “Under This Roof: The White House and the Presidency” and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @WestWingReport​​​​​​

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