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Musk now gets chance to defeat Twitter’s many fake accounts

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Musk now gets chance to defeat Twitter’s many fake accounts

Twitter’s unending fight against spam accounts is now a problem for new owner Elon Musk, who pledged in April to defeat the bot scourge or “die trying!”

He later cited bots as a reason to back out of buying the social platform. Now that the billionaire has completed the deal, he’s faced with the task of delivering on his promise to clean up the fake profiles that have preoccupied him and bedeviled Twitter since long before he expressed interest in acquiring it.

The challenge carries high stakes. The bot count matters because advertisers — Twitter’s chief revenue source — want to know roughly how many real humans they are reaching when they buy ads. It’s also important in the effort to stop bad actors from amassing an army of accounts to amplify misinformation or harass political adversaries.

“The bigger picture in my mind is: How do we make Twitter a better place for everybody,” said bot-counting expert Emilio Ferrara, who worked over the summer to investigate the problem for Musk. He cited the “value of the platform as a societal experience, as a collective place to have civilized discourse and talk freely without interference from nefarious accounts,” or scams, spam, pornography and harassment.

To find out just how bad the bots are, Musk hired Ferrara and other data scientists to investigate. At the time, he sought to prove that Twitter was misleading the public when it said fewer than 5% of its daily active users are fake or spam accounts. If Twitter lied or withheld crucial information about the bot count, Musk could argue that he was justified in terminating the $44 billion agreement.

Ferrara, an associate professor of computer science and communications at the University of Southern California, said he had no real interest in whether Musk ultimately ended up owning the platform.

Instead, he hoped that “any findings would be able to help improve the platform,” Ferrara told The Associated Press, speaking for the first time about his planned role as Musk’s expert trial witness.

The question now is what Musk will do with that information. Ferrara’s presentation — some 350 pages of analysis and supporting documents — is locked up in confidential court filings, and he said he can’t disclose his conclusions.

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Twitter’s former leaders and its lawyers said Musk wildly exaggerated the problem because he had buyer’s remorse. Precise counts are “almost impossible” because any bot estimate is based on assumptions that can lead to bias, said Filippo Menczer, a researcher who was not working for either side in the dispute.

“Nobody knows exactly how bad the problem is,” said Menczer, director of Indiana University’s Observatory on Social Media. “I would guess it’s not as bad as Musk said and not as good as Twitter claimed.”

Many experts also doubt Musk’s ability to easily make improvements, which he’s suggested would rely on using algorithms to track and remove fake accounts and implementing new measures to “authenticate” real people.

Earlier this month, Ferrara was preparing to travel to the East Coast to testify in Delaware, where Musk was defending against Twitter’s lawsuit asking a court to force him to close the deal. But two weeks before the scheduled Oct. 17 trial, Musk changed his mind and said he would go ahead with the $44 billion acquisition. It closed Thursday.

Most legal experts didn’t think Musk had much of a case. The court’s head judge seemed likely to side with Twitter based on the specific terms and conditions of the April purchase agreement.

But that’s not to say Musk didn’t have a point about the bots, according to Ferrara and other researchers hired by Musk’s legal team.

The analysis firm CounterAction, which worked with Ferrara, said it concluded in a July 18 report submitted to the court that Twitter’s spam rate for monetizable accounts — those of value to advertisers — was at least 10% and could be as high as 14.2%, depending on how the rate is measured.

Trevor Davis, the firm’s founder and CEO, said that analysis was based on a “firehose” of internal data that Twitter gave to Musk, but the company declined to provide additional data sought by Musk’s team.

“We expect that access to the withheld data would reveal an even higher true spam rate,” Davis said in a prepared statement.

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Musk has long been preoccupied with Twitter spambots promoting cryptocurrency schemes, in part because as a celebrity user with more than 110 million followers, he sees a lot of them. Some scammers have opened accounts mimicking Musk’s name and likeness to try to get people to think he’s endorsing something.

Not all bots are bad. Twitter encourages the use of automated accounts that report the weather, earthquakes or post humor or lines from literary classics. Twitter also allows for anonymity, which protects free speech and privacy — especially in authoritarian regions. But that practice can make it harder to root out malicious fake accounts.

Ferrara first caught Twitter’s attention in the aftermath of revelations that Russia used social media to meddle in the U.S. presidential election in 2016, when he led a research group that estimated that 9% to 15% of Twitter’s active English-language accounts were bots.

In a blog post soon after, Twitter complained that such outside research “is often inaccurate and methodologically flawed.” The company has repeatedly reported the under-5% number in its quarterly filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission, though it also cautions that it could be higher.

Before Musk’s takeover, Twitter said it removed 1 million spam accounts each day. To calculate how many accounts are malicious spam, Twitter reviews thousands of accounts sampled at random, using both public and private data such as IP addresses, phone numbers, geolocation and how the account behaves when it is active.

But over the past months, Musk and Twitter have tussled over the methodology. Twitter uses a metric it calls mDAU, for monetizable daily active usage.

That “is literally a metric they invented,” Ferrara said. “You cannot contrast and compare that metric with any other service.”

When Musk first started publicly raising questions about the bot numbers after agreeing to buy the company, another firm, Israel-based Cyabra, said it had the answer.

“That elusive number you are looking for … we have it. It’s 13.7%,” the firm tweeted on May 17, flagging Musk’s Twitter handle to get his attention.

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Cyabra’s machine-learning technology works by scanning a large number of social media profiles to track behavioral patterns, trying to pick out which are behaving like humans. Such guesswork can misfire — but the tweet caught the attention of people close to Musk, if not the billionaire himself.

Cyabra CEO Dan Brahmy said the company started working with the Musk camp by the end of May. Regardless of what the true count is, he said it’s not going to be an easy problem to solve.

“Some bots are definitely nefarious,” Brahmy said. “The trade-offs are between being extremely high on sign-up standards and information security versus being extremely open minded in a way” that fosters freedom of speech and creativity.

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Beryl forecast to become ‘dangerous’ Category 4 hurricane

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Beryl forecast to become ‘dangerous’ Category 4 hurricane

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Hurricane Beryl was closing in on the southeastern Caribbean, and government officials late Sunday pleaded with people to take shelter from the dangerous Category 3 storm.

The storm was expected to make landfall in the Windward Islands on Monday morning. Hurricane warnings were in effect for Barbados, St. Lucia, Grenada, Tobago and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

“This is a very dangerous situation,” warned the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, saying Beryl was “forecast to bring life-threatening winds and storm surge.”

Beryl was centered about 110 miles (175 kilometers) south-southeast of Barbados early Monday. It had maximum sustained winds of 120 mph (195 kph) and was moving west at 20 mph (31 kph). It is a compact storm, with hurricane-force winds extending 30 miles (45 kilometers) from its center.

It had gained Category 4 strength Sunday before weakening slightly, and further fluctuations in strength were forecast.

A tropical storm warning was in effect for Martinique and Trinidad. A tropical storm watch was issued for Dominica, Haiti’s entire southern coast, and from Punta Palenque in the Dominican Republic west to the border with Haiti.

Beryl was expected to pass just south of Barbados early Monday and then head into the Caribbean Sea as a major hurricane on a path toward Jamaica. It was forecast to weaken by midweek, but still remain a hurricane while heading toward Mexico.

Historic hurricane

Beryl initially strengthened into a Category 3 hurricane Sunday morning, becoming the first major hurricane east of the Lesser Antilles on record for June, according to Philip Klotzbach, Colorado State University hurricane researcher.

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It took Beryl only 42 hours to strengthen from a tropical depression to a major hurricane — a feat accomplished only six other times in Atlantic hurricane history, and with Sept. 1 as the previous earliest date, hurricane expert Sam Lillo said.

 

 

People disassemble a beach bar's awning in preparation for Hurricane Beryl, in Bridgetown, Barbados, Sunday, June 30, 2024. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

 

People disassemble a beach bar’s awning in preparation for Hurricane Beryl, in Bridgetown, Barbados, Sunday, June 30, 2024. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

 

Beryl then gained more power, becoming the earliest Category 4 Atlantic hurricane on record, besting Hurricane Dennis, which became a Category 4 storm on July 8, 2005, hurricane specialist and storm surge expert Michael Lowry said.

“Beryl is an extremely dangerous and rare hurricane for this time of year in this area,” Lowry said in a phone interview. “Unusual is an understatement. Beryl is already a historic hurricane and it hasn’t struck yet.”

Hurricane Ivan in 2004 was the last strong hurricane to hit the southeastern Caribbean, causing catastrophic damage in Grenada as a Category 3 storm.

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“So this is a serious threat, a very serious threat,” Lowry said of Beryl.

Reecia Marshall, who lives in Grenada, was working a Sunday shift at a local hotel, preparing guests and urging them to stay away from windows as she stored enough food and water for everyone.

She said that she was a child when Hurricane Ivan struck and that she doesn’t fear Beryl.

“I know it’s part of nature. I’m OK with it,” she said. “We just have to live with it.”

Forecasters warned of a life-threatening storm surge of up to 9 feet (3 meters) in areas where Beryl makes landfall, with 3 to 6 inches (7.6 to 15 centimeters) of rain for Barbados and nearby islands and possibly 10 inches in some areas (25 centimeters).

Warm waters are fueling Beryl, with ocean heat content in the deep Atlantic the highest on record for this time of year, said Brian McNoldy, a tropical meteorology researcher at the University of Miami.

Lowry said the waters are now warmer than they would be at the peak of the hurricane season in September.

Beryl marks the farthest east that a hurricane has formed in the tropical Atlantic in June, breaking a record set in 1933, according to Klotzbach.

“Please take this very seriously and prepare yourselves,” said Ralph Gonsalves, the prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. “This is a terrible hurricane.”

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Bracing for the storm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Costumers purchase groceries ahead of Hurricane Beryl in Arnos Vale, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Sunday, June 30, 2024. (AP Photo/Lucanus Ollivierre)

 

Costumers purchase groceries ahead of Hurricane Beryl in Arnos Vale, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Sunday, June 30, 2024. (AP Photo/Lucanus Ollivierre)
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Long lines formed at gas stations and grocery stores in Barbados and other islands as people rushed to prepare for a storm that rapidly intensified.

Thousands of people were in Barbados for Saturday’s Twenty20 World Cup final, cricket’s biggest event, with Prime Minister Mia Mottley noting that not all fans were able to leave Sunday despite many rushing to change their flights.

“Some of them have never gone through a storm before,” she said. “We have plans to take care of them.”

Mottley said all businesses should close by Sunday evening and warned that the airport would close by nighttime.

Across Barbados, people prepared, including Peter Corbin, 71, who helped his son put up plywood to protect his home’s glass doors. He said by phone that he worried about Beryl’s impact on islands just east of Barbados.

“That’s like a butcher cutting up a pig,” he said. “They’ve got to make a bunker somewhere. It’s going to be tough.”

In St. Lucia, Prime Minister Philip J. Pierre announced a national shutdown for Sunday evening and said schools and businesses would remain closed Monday.

“Preservation and protection of life is a priority,” he said.

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Looking ahead

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hurricane Beryl's winds batter Carlisle Bay in Bridgetown, Barbados, Monday, July 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)

 

Hurricane Beryl’s winds batter Carlisle Bay in Bridgetown, Barbados, Monday, July 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)
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Caribbean leaders were preparing not only for Beryl, but for a cluster of thunderstorms trailing the hurricane that had a 70% chance of becoming a tropical depression.

“Do not let your guard down,” Mottley said.

Beryl is the second named storm in what is forecast to be an above-average hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30 in the Atlantic. Earlier this month, Tropical Storm Alberto came ashore in northeastern Mexico with heavy rains that resulted in four deaths.

On Sunday evening, a tropical depression formed near the eastern Mexico coastal city of Veracruz, with the National Hurricane Center warning of flooding and mudslides.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts the 2024 hurricane season is likely to be well above average, with between 17 and 25 named storms. The forecast calls for as many as 13 hurricanes and four major hurricanes.

An average Atlantic hurricane season produces 14 named storms, seven of them hurricanes and three major hurricanes.

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Judge acquits 28 people accused in Panama Papers case, including law firm co-founder

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Judge acquits 28 people accused in Panama Papers case, including law firm co-founder

PANAMA CITY (AP) — A judge has acquitted 28 people accused of money laundering in an international case known as the Panama Papers, including the co-founder of a law firm that authorities say was at the center of a conspiracy to hide money linked to illegal activities.

Jürgen Mossack founded Mossack & Fonseca with then associate Ramón Fonseca, who died in May. Mossack was acquitted on Friday along with others after a Panamanian judge found that the evidence against Mossack didn’t comply with the chain of custody after authorities raided the office of the now defunct firm.

Prosecutors had accused Mossack, Fonseca and others of creating offshore companies and using complex transactions to hide money from illegal activities related to the so-called car wash corruption scandal involving Brazilian construction company Odebrecht, which pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court to a charge related to using shell companies to hide millions of dollars in bribes paid worldwide to win public contracts.

The judge noted that other evidence in the Panama Papers case “was not sufficient and conclusive to determine the criminal responsibility of the accused.”

In addition, the judge lifted personal and property precautionary measures against all the defendants, according to a judicial statement.

“We feel satisfied in the midst of mixed emotions, because many lives were affected along the way,” Guillermina Mc Donald, who was the defense attorney for Mossack and Fonseca, told The Associated Press. Her firm also represented 80% of the accused firm’s collaborators.

Judge Balaoisa Marquínez had decided to combine the Panama Papers case with another known as “Operation Car Wash,” a major anti-corruption investigation that began in Brazil.

On Friday, she ruled that in the car wash case, “it was not possible to determine the entry of money from illicit sources, coming from Brazil, into the Panamanian financial system with the purpose of hiding, concealing, disguising or helping to evade the legal consequences of the preceding crime.”

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In June 2022, Mossack, Fonseca and 37 other people were acquitted in a separate money laundering case.

The investigation in Brazil began in 2014, with the Mossack & Fonseca firm later coming under scrutiny after 11 million financial documents tied to the company were leaked.

The repercussions of the leak were widespread: it led to the resignation of a prime minister in Iceland and brought scrutiny to now former leaders of Argentina and Ukraine, Chinese politicians and Russian President Vladimir Putin, among others.

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A San Francisco store is shipping LGBTQ+ books to states where they are banned

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A San Francisco store is shipping LGBTQ+ books to states where they are banned

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — In an increasingly divisive political sphere, Becka Robbins focuses on what she knows best — books.

Operating out of a tiny room in Fabulosa Books in San Francisco’s Castro District, one of the oldest gay neighborhoods in the United States, Robbins uses donations from customers to ship boxes of books across the country to groups that want them.

In an effort she calls “Books Not Bans,” she sends titles about queer history, sexuality, romance and more — many of which are increasingly hard to come by in the face of a rapidly growing movement by conservative advocacy groups and lawmakers to ban them from public schools and libraries.

“The book bans are awful, the attempt at erasure,” Robbins said. She asked herself how she could get these books into the hands of the people who need them the most.

Beginning last May, she started raising money and looking for recipients. Her books have gone to places like a pride center in west Texas and an LGBTQ-friendly high school in Alabama.

Customers are especially enthusiastic about helping Robbins send books to places in states like Florida, Texas and Oklahoma, often writing notes of support to include in the packages. Over 40% of all book bans from July 2022 to June 2023 were in Florida, more than any other state. Behind Florida are Texas and Missouri, according to a report by PEN America, a nonprofit literature advocacy group.

Book bans and attempted bans have been hitting record highs, according to the American Library Association. And the efforts now extend as much to public libraries as school libraries. Because the totals are based on media accounts and reports submitted by librarians, the association regards its numbers as snapshots, with many bans left unrecorded.

PEN America’s report said 30% of the bans include characters of color or discuss race and racism, and 30% have LGBTQ+ characters or themes.

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The most sweeping challenges often originate with conservative organizations, such as Moms for Liberty, which has organized banning efforts nationwide and called for more parental control over books available to children.

Moms for Liberty is not anti-LGBTQ+, co-founder Tiffany Justice has told The Associated Press. But about 38% of book challenges that “directly originated” from the group have LGBTQ+ themes, according to the library association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Justice said Moms for Liberty challenges books that are sexually explicit, not because they cover LGBTQ+ topics.

Among those topping banned lists have been Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer,” George Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue” and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An LGBTQ+ related book is seen on display at Fabulosa Books, in the Castro District of San Francisco on Thursday, June 27, 2024.

 

An LGBTQ+ related book is seen on display at Fabulosa Books, in the Castro District of San Francisco on Thursday, June 27, 2024. “Books Not Bans” is a program initiated and sponsored by the store that sends boxes of LGBTQ+ books to LGBTQ+ organizations in conservative parts of America where politicians are demonizing and banning books with LGBTQ+ affirming content. (AP Photo/Haven Daley)

 

Robbins said it’s more important than ever to makes these kinds of books available to everyone.

“Fiction teaches us how to dream,” Robbins said. “It teaches us how to connect with people who are not like ourselves, it teaches us how to listen and emphasize.”

She’s sent 740 books so far, with each box worth $300 to $400, depending on the titles.

At the new Rose Dynasty Center in Lakeland, Florida, the books donated by Fabulosa are already on the shelves, said Jason DeShazo, a drag queen known as Momma Ashley Rose who runs the LGBTQ+ community center.

 
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Becka Robbins, events manager and founder of the

 

Becka Robbins, events manager and founder of the “Books Not Bans” program at Fabulosa Books, packs up LGBTQ+ books to be sent to parts of the country where they are censored on Thursday, June 27, 2024 at the Castro District of San Francisco. The bookstore is sending LGBTQ+ books to where they are censored to counter the rapidly growing effort by anti-LGBTQ+ activists and lawmakers to ban queer-friendly books from public schools and libraries. (AP Photo/Haven Daley)

 

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DeShazo is a family-friendly drag performer and has long hosted drag story times to promote literacy. He uses puppets to address themes of being kind, dealing with bullies and giving back to the community.

DeShazo hopes to provide a safe space for events, support groups and health clinics, and to build a library of banned books.

“I don’t think a person of color should have to search so hard for an amazing book about history of what our Black community has gone through,” DeShazo said. “Or for someone who is queer to find a book that represents them.”

Robbins’ favorite books to send are youth adult queer romances, a rapidly growing genre as conversations about LGBTQ+ issues have become much more mainstream than a decade ago.

“The characters are just like regular kids — regular people who are also queer, but they also get to fall in love and be happy,” Robbins said.

_____

Ding reported from Los Angeles.

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