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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.”

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Associated Press misinformation reporter David Klepper contributed to this report.

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Israel hails ‘success’ after blocking unprecedented attack from Iran

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Israel hails ‘success’ after blocking unprecedented attack from Iran

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israeli leaders on Sunday credited an international military coalition with helping thwart a direct Iranian attack involving hundreds of drones and missiles, calling the coordinated response a starting point for a “strategic alliance” of regional opposition to Tehran.

But Israel’s War Cabinet met without making a decision on next steps, an official said, as a nervous world waited for any sign of further escalation of the former shadow war.

The military coalition, led by the United States, Britain and France and appearing to include a number of Middle Eastern countries, gave Israel support at a time when it finds itself isolated over its war against Hamas in Gaza. The coalition also could serve as a model for regional relations when that war ends.

“This was the first time that such a coalition worked together against the threat of Iran and its proxies in the Middle East,” said the Israeli military spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari.

One unknown is which of Israel’s neighbors participated in the shooting down of the vast majority of about 350 drones and missiles Iran launched. Israeli military officials and a key War Cabinet member noted additional “partners” without naming them. When pressed, White House national security spokesman John Kirby would not name them either.

But one appeared to be Jordan, which described its action as self-defense.

“There was an assessment that there was a real danger of Iranian marches and missiles falling on Jordan, and the armed forces dealt with this danger. And if this danger came from Israel, Jordan would take the same action,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi said in an interview on Al-Mamlaka state television. U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Sunday.

The U.S. has long tried to forge a regionwide alliance against Iran as a way of integrating Israel and boosting ties with the Arab world. The effort has included the 2020 Abraham Accords, which established diplomatic relations between Israel and four Arab countries, and having Israel in the U.S. military’s Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East and works closely with the armies of moderate Arab states.

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The U.S. had been working to establish full relations between Israel and regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack sparked Israel’s war in Gaza. The war, which has claimed over 33,700 Palestinian lives, has frozen those efforts due to widespread outrage across the Arab world. But it appears that some behind-the-scenes cooperation has continued, and the White House has held out hopes of forging Israel-Saudi ties as part of a postwar plan.

Just ahead of Iran’s attack, the commander of CENTCOM, Gen. Erik Kurilla, visited Israel to map out a strategy.

Israel’s military chief, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, on Sunday thanked CENTCOM for the joint defensive effort. Both Jordan and Saudi Arabia are under the CENTCOM umbrella. While neither acknowledged involvement in intercepting Iran’s launches, the Israeli military released a map showing missiles traveling through the airspace of both nations.

“Arab countries came to the aid of Israel in stopping the attack because they understand that regional organizing is required against Iran, otherwise they will be next in line,” Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israel’s military intelligence, wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, said he had spoken with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and that the cooperation “highlighted the opportunity to establish an international coalition and strategic alliance to counter the threat posed by Iran.”

The White House signaled that it hopes to build on the partnerships and urged Israel to think twice before striking Iran. U.S. officials said Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Washington would not participate in any offensive action against Iran.

Israel’s War Cabinet met late Sunday to discuss a possible response, but an Israeli official familiar with the talks said no decisions had been made. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing confidential deliberations.

Asked about plans for retaliation, Hagari declined to comment directly. “We are at high readiness in all fronts,” he said.

“We will build a regional coalition and collect the price from Iran, in the way and at the time that suits us,” said a key War Cabinet member, Benny Gantz.

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Iran launched the attack in response to a strike widely blamed on Israel that hit an Iranian consular building in Syria this month and killed two Iranian generals.

By Sunday morning, Iran said the attack was over, and Israel reopened its airspace. Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, claimed Iran had taught Israel a lesson and warned that “any new adventures against the interests of the Iranian nation would be met with a heavier and regretful response from the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

The foes have been engaged in a shadow war for years, but Sunday’s assault was the first time Iran launched a direct military assault on Israel, despite decades of enmity dating back to the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Iran said it targeted Israeli facilities involved in the Damascus strike, and that it told the White House early Sunday that the operation would be “minimalistic.”

But U.S. officials said Iran’s intent was to “destroy and cause casualties” and that if successful, the strikes would have caused an “uncontrollable” escalation. At one point, at least 100 ballistic missiles were in the air with just minutes of flight time to Israel, the officials said.

Israel said more than 99% of what Iran fired was intercepted, with just a few missiles getting through. An Israeli airbase sustained minor damage.

Israel has over the years established — often with the help of the U.S. — a multilayered air-defense network that includes systems capable of intercepting a variety of threats, including long-range missiles, cruise missiles, drones and short-range rockets.

That system, along with collaboration with the U.S. and others, helped thwart what could have been a far more devastating assault at a time when Israel is already deeply engaged in Gaza as well as low-level fighting on its northern border with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia. Both Hamas and Hezbollah are backed by Iran.

While thwarting the Iranian onslaught could help restore Israel’s image after the Hamas attack in October, what the Middle East’s best-equipped army does next will be closely watched in the region and in Western capitals — especially as Israel seeks to develop the coalition it praised Sunday.

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In Washington, Biden pledged to convene allies to develop a unified response. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. would hold talks with allies. After an urgent meeting, the Group of Seven countries unanimously condemned Iran’s attack and said they stood ready to take “further measures.”

Israel and Iran have been on a collision course throughout Israel’s war in Gaza. In the Oct. 7 attack, militants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, also backed by Iran, killed 1,200 people in Israel and kidnapped 250 others. Israel’s offensive in Gaza has killed over 33,000 people, according to local health officials.

Hamas welcomed Iran’s attack, saying it was “a natural right and a deserved response” to the strike in Syria. It urged the Iran-backed groups in the region to continue to support Hamas in the war.

Hezbollah also welcomed the attack. Almost immediately after the war in Gaza erupted, Hezbollah began attacking Israel’s northern border. The two sides have been involved in daily exchanges of fire, while Iranian-backed groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have launched rockets and missiles toward Israel.

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Federman reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Zeke Miller and Michelle L. Price in Washington; Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran; Samy Magdy in Cairo; Omar Akour in Amman, Jordan; and Giada Zampano in Rome contributed to this report.

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How to get rid of NYC rats without brutality? Birth control is one idea

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How to get rid of NYC rats without brutality? Birth control is one idea

New York lawmakers are proposing rules to humanely drive down the population of rats and other rodents, eyeing contraception and a ban on glue traps as alternatives to poison or a slow, brutal death.

Politicians have long come up with creative ways to battle the rodents, but some lawmakers are now proposing city and statewide measures to do more.

In New York City, the idea to distribute rat contraceptives got fresh attention in city government Thursday following the death of an escaped zoo owl, known as Flaco, who was found dead with rat poison in his system.

City Council Member Shaun Abreu proposed a city ordinance Thursday that would establish a pilot program for controlling the millions of rats lurking in subway stations and empty lots by using birth control instead of lethal chemicals. Abreu, chair of the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management, said the contraceptives also are more ethical and humane than other methods.

The contraceptive, called ContraPest, is contained in salty, fatty pellets that are scattered in rat-infested areas as bait. It works by targeting ovarian function in female rats and disrupting sperm cell production in males, The New York Times reported.

New York exterminators currently kill rats using snap and glue traps, poisons that make them bleed internally, and carbon monoxide gas that can suffocate them in burrows. Some hobbyists have even trained their dogs to hunt them.

Rashad Edwards, a film and television actor who runs pest management company Scurry Inc. in New York City with his wife, said the best method he has found when dealing with rodents is carbon monoxide.

He tries to use the most humane method possible, and carbon monoxide euthanizes the rats slowly, putting them to sleep and killing them. Edwards avoids using rat poison whenever possible because it is dangerous and torturous to the rodents, he said.

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Some lawmakers in Albany are considering a statewide ban on glue boards under a bill moving through the Legislature. The traps, usually made from a slab of cardboard or plastic coated in a sticky material, can also ensnare small animals that land on its surface.

Edwards opposes a ban on sticky traps, because he uses them on other pests, such as ants, to reduce overall pesticide use. When ants get into a house, he uses sticky traps to figure out where they’re most often passing by. It helps him narrow zones of pesticide use “so that you don’t go spray the entire place.”

“This is not a problem we can kill our way out of,” said Jakob Shaw, a special project manager for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “It’s time to embrace these more common sense and humane methods.”

Two cities in California have passed bans on glue traps in recent years. On the federal level, a bill currently in committee would ban the traps nationwide.

“It ends a really inhumane practice of managing rat populations,” said Jabari Brisport, the New York state senator who represents part of Brooklyn and sponsored the bill proposing the new guidelines. “There are more effective and more humane ways to deal with rats.”

Every generation of New Yorkers has struggled to control rat populations. Mayor Eric Adams hired a “rat czar” last year tasked with battling the detested rodents. Last month, New York City reduced the amount of food served up to rats by mandating all businesses to put trash out in boxes.

While the war on rats has no end in sight, the exterminator Edwards said we can learn a lot from their resilience. The rodents, he said, can never be eradicated, only managed.

“They’re very smart, and they’re very wise,” he said. “It’s very inspiring but just — not in my house.”

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Coachella: Earthquake shakes SoCal desert during music fest

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Coachella: Earthquake shakes SoCal desert during music fest

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) — A small earthquake shook the Southern California desert Saturday near Coachella, where the famous music festival is being held this weekend. No damage or injuries were reported.

The quake, with a preliminary magnitude of 3.8, hit at 9:08 a.m. about 8 miles (13 kilometers) northeast of Borrego Springs in Riverside County, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The epicenter was about 20 miles (32 kilometers) southeast of Coachella. It struck at a depth of about 7 miles (11 kilometers), the USGS said.

A dispatcher with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department said there were no calls reporting any problems from the quake.

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