But North Korea appears to be again ready for some form of engagement. The decision to restore communication was made by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un following the exchange of multiple letters since April.
Moon’s office said that he and Kim had decided to “restore mutual confidence and develop their relationships again as soon as possible.” North Korean state media said the two leaders had agreed to “make a big stride in recovering the mutual trust and promoting reconciliation,” the AP reported.
A military line, as well as cross-border phone lines in the border truce village of Panmunjom, were restored Tuesday, Reuters reported.
After the phone lines were reopened, there was a three-minute exchange in which the South Korean side opened with the friendly greeting: “We are happy to connect after more than a year,” according to The Wall Street Journal.
The restoration of the communication lines between the two Koreas comes on the 68th anniversary of the signing of the armistice agreement that brought an end to Korean War hostilities, though not the war itself.
The big question in this development is why North Korea, which has repeatedly rebuffed South Korean attempts to engage it, is now open to some degree of communication.
The exact impact of the coronavirus pandemic on North Korea is unclear, but there is evidence that the country’s economy has taken a hit. There are also reports of food shortages. In recent speeches, Kim has made references to an unspecified great crisis linked to the pandemic. It is unclear if these are motivations for efforts toward engagement.
In their discussions, Moon and Kim have reportedly talked about working together to combat the negative effects of the current global health situation.
Reopening the communication lines is a step toward peaceful engagement between the two Koreas, but it remains to be seen if this will lead to diplomatic engagement between North Korea and the US, which continues to seek the North’s denuclearization.
As a South Korean military interpreter participating in a combined exercise with the US on August 29, 2017, my day began with a jolt, as a North Korean ballistic missile hurtled toward Japan at 6:00 a.m.
Not knowing the exact trajectory in the first few minutes, I quickly headed into underground bunkers near Seoul with my fellow service members.
Radars predicted that the missile would cross Japan’s airspace over its northernmost island, Hokkaido. Japan was faced with two options: shoot it down or let it pass.
The Japanese government chose not to intercept that missile. It ultimately fractured into three pieces and landed in the Pacific Ocean, but debris could have fallen onto unsuspecting citizens. Even worse, an actual nuclear strike could wipe out an entire city.
With North Korea demonstrating its ability to reach most of the US, improving missile-defense systems has quickly become a concern for everyday citizens.
Tokyo’s decision to disregard that ballistic missile compelled me to ask whether South Korea, Japan, and the US were well prepared for such missile threats.
Layered defenses, split-second decisions
The US defends its territory with a layered system that has several chances to intercept a North Korean missile: in the boost phase soon after launch near the Korean Peninsula and Japan, again over the ocean during the missile’s midcourse phase, and lastly near US territory as the missile enters its terminal phase.
All three options, however, need much improvement.
An intercept over the ocean is challenging because Aegis ships and fighter jets must anticipate where it will impact, which is made more challenging by the fact that Aegis ships and fighters have never attempted to intercept a ballistic missile in combat.
For land-based defense, the Pentagon has slammed its own flagship system, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense, for its insufficient radars and unreliability: Its success rate is barely over 50%.
Improving the intercept ability of South Korea and Japan has therefore been important to the US’s own national interests.
The US’s recent termination of the missile guidelines it imposed on South Korea in 1979 is a step toward allowing its allies to prepare defenses for North Korea’s long-range missiles.
With limits on the range and payload of its missiles now lifted, South Korea will be able to develop advanced missile-defense systems that could help deter long-range missile attacks.
My experience dodging North Korean missiles, however, highlights the need to review the intercept process further to reduce the risks posed by needing to make a split-second decision. Hesitance to shoot down missiles shows that technological ability does not necessarily equal safety.
Why did those countries decide not to respond during that August 2017 missile test? Within minutes of the launch, most countries could tell from radar tracking that the missile was headed toward the Pacific Ocean.
In the case of Japan, the government may have decided not to attempt to do so simply because it was an unnecessary risk. The missile appeared unlikely to harm civilians, and, more importantly, a failed attempt would send a catastrophic message that its US-backed missile system cannot stop North Korean missiles.
A second possibility, however, is that Japan’s Aegis destroyers were unable to intercept the missile in the first place.
The North Korean missile reached an altitude of 550 km, higher than the 500-km range of the Aegis Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptor. The Aegis interceptor may also have not been in the right place, as the missile passed over a region that is not a routine training area.
Why didn’t South Korea try to shoot it down? South Korea’s US-made Terminal High Altitude Defense (THAAD) system reports a 100% test rate, but it has never been used in combat.
THAAD is also designed to shoot down missiles as they re-enter the atmosphere during their terminal phase. The North Korean missile was only in range during its first two phases: boost and midcourse.
Military and diplomatic challenges
What can be done about future missile tests?
In order to shoot down a missile during its boost phase, a ship with an SM-3 would have to be right next to the launch site and intercept immediately upon launch.
As the US military has noted, boost-phase intercepts are quite unlikely due to the challenges in anticipating a launch and the decision process needed to approve such a response. For fighter jets to intercept a missile in that phase, the jets would need to be at a provocatively close distance to the launch site.
None of the missile defenses in Japan or South Korea – which include US-made Patriot missile systems – can intercept missiles during their midcourse phase.
South Korea could technically develop a midcourse defense in the future, but past pushback from China indicates there will be a substantial challenge to doing so. Seoul suffered as much as $7 billion in economic losses when China boycotted Korean products in response to the deployment of the THAAD system.
With nearly one-quarter of South Korea’s exports and one-fifth of Japan’s exports going to China, safely navigating the US-China rivalry while ensuring a defense against North Korean missiles will be a complex military and diplomatic task.
Jessup Jong is a Korean Army veteran (Intelligence Branch at the Transportation Command) and a master’s student at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. His latest book is “Human Suffering in North Korea.”
South Korea is tightening coronavirus prevention measures as the country sees record-breaking daily case rates. Although Seoul is not yet going into full lockdown, residents are not allowed to go to nightclubs or large social gatherings for at least two weeks.
They’re also not permitted to work out hard and fast at the gym. Under the new regulations, treadmills are capped at 3.7 miles per hour, and music played over the gym speakers cannot exceed 120 beats per minute.
For reference, that’s about the tempo of “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen, or the BTS hit “Boy With Luv.” Both songs would set the pace for a brisk walk or a really slow jog.
But anything more strenuous than a power walk has been deemed a transmission risk. (That means gym-goers will not be able to angry run to “good 4 u” by Olivia Rodrigo or bench press to the beat of Kanye West’s “Power.”)
Under the new rules, exercisers are also required to wear masks, even if fully vaccinated, and workout class sizes are limited. While those policies could help curb the spread of COVID-19, experts are skeptical that slowing down the music will have the intended effect.
Some infectious disease experts are baffled by the new rule
“When you run faster, you spit out more respiratory droplets, so that’s why we are trying to restrict heavy cardio exercises,” Son Young-rae, spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Welfare, said in a radio interview Monday.
But some scientists and lawmakers aren’t buying it.
Dr. Kim Woo-joo, an infectious disease specialist at Korea University Guro Hospital in Seoul, told the New York Times the gym policies were “absurd” and “ineffective.”
“So you don’t get COVID-19 if you walk slower than 6 km per hour?” said Kim Yong-tae, a member of the main opposition People Power Party, according to Reuters. “And who on earth checks the BPM of the songs when you work out? I don’t understand what COVID-19 has to do with my choice of music.”
Other experts pointed out that slowing down the music won’t necessarily discourage people from working out at a high intensity. And other prevention measures, like ensuring good ventilation and spacing out gym-goers, have already been proven effective.
June 25, 1950, saw troops from North Korea pouring across the 38th parallel into South Korea. This began a short, yet exceptionally bloody war.
There are those that refer to the Korean War as, “the forgotten war” as it did not receive the same kind of attention as did World War II or the Vietnam War. However, despite the lack of attention given to it, the Korean War was one of great loss for both sides involved – both civilian and military.
Even now, 70 years later, the Korean War is given less notice than other conflicts and wars in history. It is just as important and just as worthy of remembrance as anything else.
To honor those that fought, those that died, and those that were wounded in Korea between June 25, 1950, and July 27, 1953, here are five facts about the Korean War:
38th Parallel still divides the two countries
The 38th Parallel was the boundary which divided the Soviet-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the North and the pro-Western Republic of Korea to the South.
Despite the original desires of the UN and the US to completely destroy communism and stop its spread, the Korean War ended in July 1953 with both sides signing an armistice which gave South Korea 1,500 extra square miles of territory, and also created a 2-mile wide demilitarized zone which still exists today.
It was the first military action of the Cold War
After World War II ended, the world entered a time period known as the Cold War. The Cold War lasted from 1945 until 1990.
It was a period of geopolitical tension between the Soviet Union and the United States and their allies. The Korean War was the first military action following the end of WWII and the beginning of the Cold War.
American leaders viewed it as more than just a war against North Korea
North Korean troops invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950. By July, US troops had joined the war on South Korea’s behalf.
This is partly due to the fact that President Harry Truman and the American military leaders believed that this was not simply a border dispute between two dictatorships, but could be the first step in a communist campaign to take over the world.
President Truman believed that, “If we let Korea down, the Soviets will keep right on going and swallow up one place after another.” They sent troops over to South Korea prepared for war against communism itself.
Gen. MacArthur was fired from his post
By the end of summer 1950, President Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of the Asian theater, had set a new goal for the war in Korea. They set out to liberate North Korea from the communists.
However, as China caught wind of this, they threatened full-scale war unless the United States kept its troops away from the Yalu boundary. The Yalu River was the border between North Korea and communist China.
Full-scale war with China was the last thing President Truman wanted, as he and his advisers feared it would lead to a larger scale push by the Soviets across Europe. As President Truman worked tirelessly to prevent war with China, Gen. MacArthur began to do all he could to provoke it.
In March 1951, Gen. MacArthur sent a letter to House Republican leader, Joseph Martin, stating that, “There is no substitute for victory,” against international communism.
For President Truman this was the last straw, and on April 11 he fired Gen. MacArthur from his post for insubordination.
Millions of lives were lost:
Between June 1950 and July 1953, approximately 5 million lives were lost. Somewhere around half of those were civilian casualties.
American troops saw approximately 40,000 soldiers die in action in Korea, and more than 100,000 were wounded.
These numbers made the Korean War known as an exceptionally bloody war, despite the fact that it was relatively short.
Shares in South Korea-based Samsung Publishing rose more than 10% on Wednesday after Elon Musk tweeted about the viral YouTube song “Baby Shark.”
The company is a major shareholder in the song’s producer, an entertainment firm called SmartStudy. Its shares in South Korea climbed more than 10% during Asian trading on Wednesday, before closing around 6% higher. It has no affiliation with the multinational conglomerate Samsung Group, even though they share the same name.
The Seoul-based company’s stock move was driven by Musk tweeting: “Baby Shark crushes all! More views than humans,” along with a video of the song. Its shares are up 97% so far this year, according to data from Trading View.
Samsung Publishing’s stock price has quadrupled since the end 0f 2018 as the song grew in popularity. “Baby Shark” became the most-viewed YouTube video ever in November 2020, outpacing the global smash hit “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee.
Wednesday’s stock gains marks another example of Musk’s mega-influence on market movements via Twitter. His tweets about bitcoin and dogecoin have led to an uptick in conversations on cryptocurrencies, according to online social analysis platform Cyabra.
Before Musk tweeted in April that “SpaceX is going to put a literal dogecoin on the literal moon,” there were only several hundred profiles engaged online with the meme-inspired cryptocurrency. But a day later, engagement soared over 16,000%, according to Cyabra’s research.
Separately on Wednesday, Musk tweeted a satirical image of the meme-famous Shiba Inu dog with the caption: “Found this pic of me as a child.” Almost immediately after, dogecoin soared 21% to 39 cents.
Narrator: This is standard sea salt. But after 30 days, it’ll become this. High-quality bamboo salt costs almost $100 for an 8.5-ounce jar, making it the most expensive salt in the world. So, what is bamboo salt used for? And why is it so expensive?
For hundreds of years, Koreans have used bamboo salt for cooking and as a form of traditional medicine. It’s made by placing sea salt inside of bamboo and roasting it at a high temperature. The goal is to infuse the salt with minerals from the bamboo and to remove any impurities. But the premium compared to other types of salt is steep. Nine-times-roasted bamboo salt, sometimes referred to as “purple bamboo salt,” can cost over 10 times the price of pink Himalayan salt. Most of that cost comes from the labor-intensive process. Every single step is done by hand.
Shin Min-kyun: It takes about one month to 45 or 50 days from putting the salt in a bamboo barrel and melting it nine times until it is finished.
Narrator: The process starts by cutting 3-year-old bamboo into uniform trunks, leaving one side closed as a container for the salt. Sea salt from the west coast of Korea is densely packed by hand into the bamboo. Workers load filled bamboo onto a cart and push it into a kiln. Traditionally, only pine logs are used. This process takes around 12 to 14 hours. Baking everything at over 800 degrees Celsius burns away the bamboo, leaving a column of salt. But the process has only just begun.
Shin Tae-joong: Then we grind the salt column and fill the bamboo again. This process is repeated eight times.
Narrator: The ninth and final roast is the hottest, at over 1,000 degrees Celsius. It’s fired in a special kiln and operated by an expert. Shin Tae-joong has been making bamboo salt for over 20 years. That experience is extremely important, because any error at this stage could result in wasting a month of work. At this temperature, the salt and bamboo completely melt and drain into a mold. After a few days of cooling, a blackened rocklike structure remains. This is nine-times-roasted bamboo salt. Workers carefully break this down by hand, trying not to waste any material. After a month of work, it’s ready to be packaged and sold.
Shin Min-kyun: If you bake the salt in a bamboo barrel, the bad things inside, such as microplastics, will be filtered out during this process. Then, as the bamboo burns, bamboo oil comes out. The bamboo oil is absorbed into the salt, and the good ingredients in the bamboo are then concentrated in the salt.
Narrator: The final price varies depending on where you buy it and what form it’s in. But nine-times-roasted bamboo salt doesn’t come cheap.
Shin Min-kyun: Based on the bamboo salt that was baked nine times, the price ranges from 200,000 to 250,000 won [~$179-$224] per kilogram. Koreans recognize the high price of bamboo salt. In spite of the high cost, I think people buy because they know the value of it.
Narrator: The health benefits of food have always played an important role in Korean culture. For centuries, bamboo salt baked two to three times has been used in traditional Korean medicine. But in the 20th century, the nine-times-roasting process was developed. Manufacturers say this process has the lowest toxicity and highest mineral content. Today, it’s used for cooking, toothpaste, soap, and various remedies.
Shin Min-kyun: First of all, being a salt, bamboo salt has salty flavor. Then there’s bamboo salt’s unique flavor. As the salt absorbs good ingredients from the bamboo, an egg-yolk-like flavor of bamboo salt gets deeper as it is baked. Then there’s no bitter flavor.
Narrator: Proponents of bamboo salt say that it can help with everything from digestion to oral health, skin care, and inflammation and that it even has anticancer effects. The proposed medical benefits have likely helped it maintain its high price. But there hasn’t been enough scientific study to fully back up all of these claims. Studies have shown that bamboo salt contains higher levels of iron, potassium, and calcium compared to regular sea salt and that it could improve your immune system. But these beneficial minerals constitute only a small percentage — the majority of bamboo salt is sodium chloride. Even with lower toxicity, it’s unclear how potent the health benefits are. In 2016, the WHO wrote in a report that “the composition of specialty salts poses no toxicological risks but does not offer any relevant nutritional benefits either.” The full benefits of bamboo salt compared to sea salt have yet to be extensively researched. But despite that, bamboo salt continues to be popular. Insanga, a popular bamboo-salt maker, earned around $24 million in sales in 2017. And the traditional labor-intense process isn’t likely to change anytime soon.
South Koreans often refer to their country with a famous proverb: “In a fight between whales, the shrimp’s back gets broken.” But rather than a shrimp, Seoul is betting that it can become a dolphin, giving it more agency and maneuverability as competition heats up between the United States and China.
Getting it right would allow the country to balance its security alliance with the United States along with its economic dependence on China. Getting it wrong would see South Korea alienated in the region, distrusted by both Washington and Beijing. This balance will prove difficult, but South Korean leaders are unlikely to stop trying.
Upon taking office in 2017, Moon faced a Chinese economic pressure campaign in 2017 over his predecessor’s decision to install the US-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system, known as THAAD. He sought to normalize relations with Beijing by agreeing to the “three no’s” – no more THAAD deployments, no South Korean integration into a regional US missile defense system, and no trilateral military alliance with the US and Japan.
More importantly, though, the focus on Moon’s presidency misses the broader trends in South Korea’s foreign policy. Moon and his fellow progressives are not alone in seeking a middle ground between the United States and China.
There are virtually no prominent conservative national security experts in South Korea calling for the country to openly side with the United States in an anti-China coalition. Doing so would put the country’s economy at risk, as South Korea exports more to China than it does to the US, Japan and the European Union combined.
Even if a conservative candidate wins the 2022 presidential election, South Korea’s approach to relations with the US and China will remain unchanged. After all, it was Moon’s conservative predecessor, Park Geun-hye, who attended China’s parade to commemorate the end of World War II in 2015 – the only democratic leader on the stage with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.
The prospect of aligning with the US in an anti-China coalition is made even more unlikely by the view – common among South Korea’s progressive and conservative foreign policy elites alike – that Washington is an increasingly unreliable partner. The economic coercion campaign that China undertook following the March 2017 deployment of THAAD, which the United States heavily pushed for, eventually cost South Korea an estimated $7.5 billion.
There is now serious concern that Trump – or someone more organized and dangerous – could return to the White House in the future, putting the alliance in serious jeopardy. That possibility cannot be dismissed out of hand, reinforcing South Korea’s preference for maintaining maneuverability.
On the other hand, a closer alignment with China is also improbable, due in part to public attitudes.
In Chicago Council polling, China’s favorability rating in South Korea is now on par with North Korea and Japan. This decline is largely driven by the economic coercion campaign that followed the THAAD deployment, as well as ongoing battles over sensitive cultural and historical issues.
Moreover, 60% of South Koreans say that China and South Korea are mostly rivals. Majorities from members of the two main political parties – the ruling Democratic Party (54%) and the conservative People Power Party (63%) – agreed, as did majorities from all age cohorts.
Not only do South Koreans see China as a rival, they also view it as more of an economic threat (60%) than an economic partner (37%) and as more of a security threat (83%) than a security partner (12%). However, only 51% of South Koreans say that China’s economic power is a critical threat, and 53% say the same about China’s military power.
Far more people view declining birthrates (81%), climate change (76%) and North Korea’s nuclear program (62%) as critical threats.
That should not be taken as evidence that South Koreans are naïve about China and its intentions, however. Nearly nine in 10 say that China will seek to displace the United States either in the Asia-Pacific (28%) or in the world (60%).
Ultimately, there may not be a pressing need for South Korea to closely align with either great power, as it is not standing idly by in terms of its own defense. Under the supposedly dovish Moon administration, the country saw its two biggest year-on-year defense spending increases in its history, with an 8.2% increase in 2019 and 7.4% in 2020.
Roh Moo-hyun, the last progressive president before Moon Jae-in, presided over construction of a deep-water naval port on Jeju island, South Korea’s southernmost point. The advance of the South Korean navy is in part a natural outgrowth of South Korea’s growing security interests around the world. But Seoul also has one eye on China and its territorial ambitions.
South Korea is in an unenviable position, and it will face growing scrutiny as it seeks to balance its economic and security interests. But the growth of its own national power has opened up previously closed spaces as it seeks to swim – not idly float – among the whales. Its ability to strike that balance will depend on not getting its tail caught.
Karl Friedhoff is the Marshall M. Bouton fellow for Asia studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @KarlFriedhoff.
Both vaccines are authorized to be given as two injections, spaced weeks apart, but this data again shows how effective the vaccines are overall.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said on Twitter Tuesday that one dose of the vaccine co-developed by Pfizer and BioNTech was 89.7% effective at preventing COVID-19 in South Koreans aged over 60. The vaccine co-developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University was 86% effective at preventing COVID-19 after one dose, it said.
The KDCA analysis included more than 520,000 people who had been vaccinated with a single dose of either vaccine.
The agency didn’t provide a breakdown of how many people received each shot or the severity of illness – COVID-19 vaccines are generally more effective at preventing COVID-19 infections that cause hospitalization or death.
The KDCA said the vaccines’ protective effect was higher when the second vaccination was completed, so a second shot within the recommended period was “absolutely necessary”.
South Korea’s findings adds to a growing body of real-world data suggesting that a single shot of a COVID-19 vaccine protects against COVID-19, but it’s still not clear how long protection from a single dose may last.
Real-world data from the UK, posted as a pre-print study on April 23, found that either Pfizer or AstraZeneca’s vaccine cut COVID-19 infections with symptoms by 72%. Protection from a single dose probably holds up for at least 10 weeks, based on measurements of antibody levels, the study, which wasn’t peer-reviewed, said.
Another real-world study from Scotland published in the Lancet on April 23 found that a single dose of Pfizer’s vaccine was 91% effective against hospitalization at 28 to 34 days following vaccination. One dose of AstraZeneca’s vaccine was 88% effective against hospital admissions after the same time period, the study found.
“He beat around the bush and failed to pull it through,” Moon said, referring to Trump’s efforts to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
Trump did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Insider.
During his single term in the White House, Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un several times to discuss denuclearization. His interactions with Kim were historic – Trump was the first sitting US president to enter North Korea.
But by the time Trump left office, the rogue state had not given up a single nuclear weapon. North Korea has also continued provocative missile tests.
Though he was critical of Trump’s efforts on North Korea, Moon during his interview with the Times urged President Joe Biden to engage with Pyongyang to succeed where his predecessor failed. Moon emphasized that denuclearization is a “matter of survival” for South Korea.
“I hope that Biden will go down as a historic president that has achieved substantive and irreversible progress for the complete denuclearization and peace settlement on the Korean Peninsula,” Moon said.
In late March, the White House said Biden was unlikely to pursue a face-to-face meeting with Kim, though the president has signaled he’s open to diplomacy with North Korea.
Trump excoriated Moon over his comments in a statement on Friday.
“Kim Jong-un of North Korea, who I have gotten to know (and like) under the most trying of circumstances, never respected the current President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in. I was always the one who stopped the aggression toward the South, but unfortunately for them, I am no longer there,” Trump said.
The former president went on to say that Moon was “weak as a leader and as a negotiator, except when it came to the continued, long term military ripoff of the USA (as is the case with many other countries we protect!).”
Trump’s relationship with Kim was controversial and perplexing to foreign policy experts. Early on in his presidency, he traded numerous threats and insults with the North Korean leader from across the globe – sparking fears of a nuclear war. But Trump’s tone shifted drastically in 2018 ahead of his first summit with Kim. Over the rest of his time in office, Trump repeatedly showered Kim with praise and referred to him as a “friend.”
In a recent interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Trump defended his relationship with Kim.
“When I came in President Obama said… ‘the biggest problem we have is North Korea. There’s going to be a war’. There was no war, we got along great,” Trump told Hannity. “[Kim Jong Un] writes me letters. I like him, he likes me. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Facebook allowed authoritarian governments to use its platform to generate fake support for their regimes for months despite warnings from employees about the disinformation campaigns, an investigation from the Guardian revealed this week.
A loophole in Facebook’s policies allowed government officials around the world to create unlimited amounts of fake “pages” which, unlike user profiles, don’t have to correspond to an actual person – but could still like, comment on, react to, and share content, the Guardian reported.
That loophole let governments spin up armies of what looked like real users who could then artificially generate support for and amplify pro-government content, what the Guardian called “the digital equivalent of bussing in a fake crowd for a speech.”
Sophie Zhang, a former Facebook data scientist on the company’s integrity team, blew the whistle dozens of times about the loophole, warning Facebook executives including vice president of integrity Guy Rosen, airing many of her concerns, according to the Guardian.
BuzzFeed News previously reported on Zhang’s “badge post” – a tradition where departing employees post an internal farewell message to coworkers.
But one of Zhang’s biggest concerns was that Facebook wasn’t paying enough attention to coordinated disinformation networks in authoritarian countries, such as Honduras and Azerbaijan, where elections are less free and more susceptible to state-sponsored disinformation campaigns, the Guardian’s investigation revealed.
Facebook waited 344 days after employees sounded the alarm to take action in the Honduras case, and 426 days in Azerbaijan, and in some cases took no action, the investigation found.
But when she raised her concerns about Facebook’s inaction in Honduras to Rosen, he dismissed her concerns.
“We have literally hundreds or thousands of types of abuse (job security on integrity eh!),” Rosen told Zhang in April 2019, according the Guardian, adding: “That’s why we should start from the end (top countries, top priority areas, things driving prevalence, etc) and try to somewhat work our way down.”
Rosen told Zhang he agreed with Facebook’s priority areas, which included the US, Western Europe, and “foreign adversaries such as Russia/Iran/etc,” according to the Guardian.
“We fundamentally disagree with Ms. Zhang’s characterization of our priorities and efforts to root out abuse on our platform. We aggressively go after abuse around the world and have specialized teams focused on this work,” Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois told Insider in a statement.
“As a result, we’ve already taken down more than 100 networks of coordinated inauthentic behavior. Around half of them were domestic networks that operated in countries around the world, including those in Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa, and in the Asia Pacific region. Combatting coordinated inauthentic behavior is our priority. We’re also addressing the problems of spam and fake engagement. We investigate each issue before taking action or making public claims about them,” she said.
However, Facebook didn’t dispute any of Zhang’s factual claims in the Guardian investigation.
Facebook pledged to tackle election-related misinformation and disinformation after the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Russia’s use of its platform to sow division among American voters ahead of the 2016 US presidential elections.
“Since then, we’ve focused on improving our defenses and making it much harder for anyone to interfere in elections,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a 2018 op-ed for The Washington Post.
“Key to our efforts has been finding and removing fake accounts – the source of much of the abuse, including misinformation. Bad actors can use computers to generate these in bulk. But with advances in artificial intelligence, we now block millions of fake accounts every day as they are being created so they can’t be used to spread spam, false news or inauthentic ads,” Zuckerberg added.
But the Guardian’s investigation showed Facebook is still delaying or refusing to take action against state-sponsored disinformation campaigns in dozens of countries, with thousands of fake accounts, creating hundreds of thousands of fake likes.
And even in supposedly high-priority areas, like the US, researchers have found Facebook has allowed key disinformation sources to expand their reach over the years.
A March report from Avaaz found “Facebook could have prevented 10.1 billion estimated views for top-performing pages that repeatedly shared misinformation” ahead of the 2020 US elections had it acted earlier to limit their reach.
“Failure to downgrade the reach of these pages and to limit their ability to advertise in the year before the election meant Facebook allowed them to almost triple their monthly interactions, from 97 million interactions in October 2019 to 277.9 million interactions in October 2020,” Avaaz found.
Facebook admits that around 5% of its accounts are fake, a number that hasn’t gone down since 2019, according to The New York Times. And MIT Technology Review’s Karen Hao reported in March that Facebook still doesn’t have a centralized team dedicated to ensuring its AI systems and algorithms reduce the spread of misinformation.