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Across globe, women battle ‘gendered disinformation’



(Clockwise, from top left) ex-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, ex-US first lady Michelle Obama, ex-New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern, French First Lady Brigitte Macron and Ukraine First Lady Olena Zelenska
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Fake photos showing Ukraine’s first lady sunbathing topless, incorrect video subtitles defaming Pakistani feminists for “blasphemy”, slow-motion clips falsely depicting “drunk” female politicians — a barrage of disinformation targets women in the public eye.

Researchers say “gendered disinformation” –- when sexism and misogyny intersect with online falsehoods — has relentlessly targeted women around the world, tarnishing their reputations, undermining their credibility and, in many cases, upending their careers.

AFP’s global fact-checkers have debunked falsehoods targeting politically active women, or those linked to prominent politicians, exposing online campaigns that feature fake information or manipulated images that are often sexually charged.

Last year, a fake image of Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska lying topless on a beach in Israel was shared widely on Facebook, triggering criticism that she was having fun while her war-torn country was suffering.

A reverse image search by AFP showed the woman in the photo was, in fact, a Russian television presenter.

Former American first lady Michelle Obama and current French first lady Brigitte Macron have also been targeted in false online posts that claimed they were born as men. The disinformation sparked an avalanche of mockery and transphobic remarks.

New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, who announced her resignation as prime minister in January, is another prominent figure that faced a torrent of disinformation about her sex.

“Women –- especially those in positions of power and visibility –- are unduly targeted by online disinformation,” Maria Giovanna Sessa, a senior researcher at the nonprofit EU DisinfoLab, wrote in a report last year.

– ‘Chilling effect’ –

In another tactic that raised alarm in 2020, a slowed-down version of a video of Nancy Pelosi, the then US House Speaker, went viral. The effect made her speech slurred and gave the false impression that she was drunk.

“Building on sexist stereotypes and disseminated with malign intent, gendered disinformation campaigns have a chilling effect on the women they target,” Lucina Di Meco, a gender equality expert wrote in a study published last month.

The disinformation often leads to “political violence, hate and the deterring of young women from considering a political career,” said the study titled “monetizing misogyny.”

In disinformation tactics typically deployed by political opponents, female politicians are sometimes framed as inherently undependable, too emotional or promiscuous to hold office.

When Germany’s current foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, was running for chancellor in 2021, she was the subject of frequent disinformation campaigns which raised questions about whether she was fit for the job.

One of them featured images of a nude model purporting to be of her, alongside suggestions that she had engaged in sex work.

Gendered disinformation represents a national security threat as it can be exploited by autocratic states such as Russia to exercise foreign influence, according to multiple researchers.

It can also be used to subdue the opposition.

“When autocratic leaders are in power, gendered disinformation is often used by state-aligned actors to undermine women opposition leaders, as well as women’s rights,” Di Meco’s report warned.

– ‘Attacks on dignity’ –

Women around the globe battle falsehoods that reinforce stereotypes that they are unintelligent or inefficient.

In 2021, Egyptian sports shooter Al-Zahraa Shaaban faced false social media posts that she had been excluded from the Tokyo Olympics because she had shot the referee.

That sparked a wave of comments that ridiculed women and questioned their ability to pursue such sporting activities.

Similar questions were raised about their ability to take on military jobs following last year’s crash of an F-35 fighter jet on the deck of a US aircraft carrier in the South China Sea.

False social media posts held the world’s first woman to fly an F-35 responsible for the crash. The pilot, in fact, was a man.

Such humiliating falsehoods, researchers say, can have a silencing effect on women, who are drawn to disengage, censor themselves and even avoid male-dominated professions, including politics.

That was a concern raised in a letter by dozens of US and international lawmakers in 2020 to Facebook, which along with other platforms has been blamed for the algorithmic amplification of false and hateful content targeting women.

In a statement to US media at the time, Facebook acknowledged that online abuse of women was a “serious problem” and pledged to work with policymakers on their concerns.

“Make no mistake, these tactics, which are used on your platform for malicious intent, are meant to silence women, and ultimately undermine our democracies,” the letter said.

“It is no wonder women frequently cite the threat of rapid, widespread, public attacks on personal dignity as a factor deterring them from entering politics.”


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Crypto here to stay, must be regulated: Hong Kong treasury chief




Hong Kong treasury chief Christopher Hui speaks during an interview with AFP in Hong Kong
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Hong Kong has decided to let retail investors trade cryptocurrency under its new regulatory regime because “virtual assets are going to stay”, the city’s minister overseeing financial services said Tuesday.

Cryptocurrencies have been banned in mainland China since 2021, but the former British colony, which has a separate financial system and regulators, has announced plans to become a major digital asset hub.

From June 1, authorities will begin accepting applications for licences from cryptocurrency exchanges that will allow them to sell major tokens including bitcoin and ether to individual traders.

“Despite the potential risks involved, (virtual assets) also carries with it fundamental value,” Christopher Hui, Hong Kong’s secretary for financial services and the treasury, told AFP in an interview.

“So for these positive elements to be harnessed, these activities have to be allowed in a regulated way.”

Regulators around the world are examining cryptocurrencies with renewed urgency following the collapse of trading platform FTX last year and other high-profile failures in the sector. 

Hong Kong was initially hesitant to allow crypto exchanges to take on retail clients, but Hui acknowledged that there was “considerable interest” in trading.

Asked whether Beijing backed Hong Kong’s plans to open up crypto trading, Hui said the finance hub charts its path by following the emerging global consensus. 

“Different jurisdictions will adopt the right approach to their own market, and Hong Kong is no exception,” he said. 

“We are an open market… So while different jurisdictions have different laws and requirements, I think what we should do is based on what we are good at.” 

The government’s pivot toward crypto and fintech coincides with Hong Kong’s recent reopening following three years of tough Covid policies that isolated it internationally and drove talent away. 

Hong Kong’s international business reputation also took a hit as Beijing cracked down on political freedoms after mass democracy protests in 2019.

The promise of fresh crypto exchange regulations has attracted more than 80 enquiries with the city’s investment promotion agency, the treasury chief told AFP. 

“One thing that has been very obvious is that Hong Kong is back to usual,” he said. “We are back to business.”

– ‘Right guardrails’ –

During a public consultation that ended in March, some crypto firms bemoaned stringent proposals that made compliance potentially costly.

One concession made by regulators was to lower the insurance coverage requirement down to 50 percent for virtual assets held by clients in “cold storage” — a more secure way of storing crypto offline.

“For technical reasons, of course cold storage presents lesser risk for hacking,” Hui said, saying the shift was to reflect risks in a proportional way.

Under the new rules, crypto exchanges must assess a client’s risk tolerance and knowledge of cryptocurrencies, and impose risk-exposure limits.

“Investors have to be in the know in terms of what they are going into,” Hui said, adding that education is a priority.

But authorities have yet to specify the exact threshold for crypto knowledge needed for a retail investor to trade — one of several implementation details left up in the air.

Hong Kong’s securities regulators will issue guidelines later, Hui said.

Crypto-related scams are a burgeoning problem in Hong Kong, with the city last year recording more than 2,300 such cases with total losses of HK$1.7 billion ($217 million), according to police.

“We understand the risk, we at the same time put in the right guardrails,” Hui told AFP.

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France opens its first electric car battery factory




French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said Europe must 'flex its muscles' in the industrial sector
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France launched its first factory for electric vehicle batteries on Tuesday, taking a big step in its race to build up a sector dominated by China.

The plant in Billy-Berclau is the first in a clutch of factories that are due to open over the next three years in a northern corridor billed as a “Battery Valley” for the rapidly growing industry.

The “gigafactory” is owned by Automotive Cells Company, a partnership between French energy giant TotalEnergies, Germany’s Mercedes-Benz and US-European automaker Stellantis, which produces a range of brands including Peugeot, Fiat and Chrysler.

French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire, who attended the opening ceremony, likened the factory to the creation of Airbus, which turned Europe into a powerhouse in the aircraft manufacturing sector.

“The European Union must flex its muscles” in terms of industry as “China will give no quarter”, he said.

German Transport Minister Volker Wissing said the facility, along with two other ACC factories due to open in his country and Italy, will ensure that “Europe remains at the forefront of global progress tomorrow”.

The heads of Mercedes, Stellantis and TotalEnergies also attended the event.

Building up the battery industry is at the heart of President Emmanuel Macron’s “reindustrialisation” plan for France.

The ACC factory is the length of six football pitches. Production is due to begin this summer.

– ‘Battery Valley’ –

Europe is racing to step up its production of batteries and electric vehicles as the European Union has set a 2035 deadline to phase out the sale of new fossil fuel cars.

Around 50 battery factory projects have been announced in the EU in recent years as the bloc scrambles to meet its goal of becoming climate neutral by 2050.

The ACC factory is the first of four due to open in the burgeoning “Battery Valley” in the Hauts-de-France region.

Sino-Japanese group AESC-Envision is building a plant near the city of Douai which will supply French automaker Renault from early 2025.

French startup Verkor is scheduled to begin production at a facility in Dunkirk from mid-2025. 

Taiwan’s ProLogium has also chosen the coastal city for its first overseas factory, with output to start in 2026.

The French government has set a target of producing two million electric vehicles per year by 2030.

The ACC plant is expected to supply 500,000 vehicles per year by then.

– China, US competition –

France hopes to produce enough batteries for its car industry by 2027 and later become an exporter.

But it faces higher energy costs than China or the United States.

China is the world leader in electric car battery production and also dominates the production of the raw materials needed to make them.

Europe also faces stiff competition from the United States, which is heavily subsidising the sector through the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes $370 billion in clean energy incentives.

Out of the seven billion euros ($7.5 billion) invested for the ACC project, 1.2 billion euros came from public funds.

While Battery Valley is expected to recruit more than 20,000 people in the next few years, French unions worry about the electric vehicle industry’s impact on jobs.

Some 100 people staged a protest on Tuesday against the planned closure of a Stellantis site in Douvrin.

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AI poses ‘extinction’ risk, say experts




ChatGPT burst into the spotlight late last year, sparking huge investment but also widespread criticism
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Global leaders should be working to reduce “the risk of extinction” from artificial intelligence technology, a group of industry chiefs and experts warned on Tuesday.

A one-line statement signed by dozens of specialists, including Sam Altman whose firm OpenAI created the ChatGPT bot, said tackling the risks from AI should be “a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war”.

ChatGPT burst into the spotlight late last year, demonstrating an ability to generate essays, poems and conversations from the briefest of prompts.

The program’s wild success sparked a gold rush with billions of dollars of investment into the field, but critics and insiders have raised the alarm.

Common worries include the possibility that chatbots could flood the web with disinformation, that biased algorithms will churn out racist material, or that AI-powered automation could lay waste to entire industries.

– Superintelligent machines –

The latest statement, housed on the website of US-based non-profit Center for AI Safety, gave no detail of the potential existential threat posed by AI.

The center said the “succinct statement” was meant to open up a discussion on the dangers of the technology. 

Several of the signatories, including Geoffrey Hinton, who created some of the technology underlying AI systems and is known as one of the godfathers of the industry, have made similar warnings in the past.

Their biggest worry has been the rise of so-called artificial general intelligence (AGI) — a loosely defined concept for a moment when machines become capable of performing wide-ranging functions and can develop their own programming.

The fear is that humans would no longer have control over superintelligent machines, which experts have warned could have disastrous consequences for the species and the planet.

Dozens of academics and specialists from companies including Google and Microsoft — both leaders in the AI field — signed the statement.

It comes two months after Tesla boss Elon Musk and hundreds of others issued an open letter calling for a pause in the development of such technology until it could be shown to be safe.

However, Musk’s letter sparked widespread criticism that dire warnings of societal collapse were hugely exaggerated and often reflected the talking points of AI boosters.

US academic Emily Bender, who co-wrote an influential papers criticising AI, said the March letter, signed by hundreds of notable figures, was “dripping with AI hype”.

– ‘Surprisingly non-biased’ –

Bender and other critics have slammed AI firms for refusing to publish the sources of their data or reveal how it is processed — the so-called “black box” problem.

Among the criticism is that the algorithms could be trained on racist, sexist or politically biased material.

Altman, who is currently touring the world in a bid to help shape the global conversation around AI, has hinted several times at the global threat posed by the technology his firm is developing.

“If something goes wrong with AI, no gas mask is going to help you,” he told a small group of journalists in Paris last Friday.

But he defended his firm’s refusal to publish the source data, saying critics really just wanted to know if the models were biased.

“How it does on a racial bias test is what matters there,” he said, adding that the latest model was “surprisingly non-biased”.

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