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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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Google looks to take generative AI lead with Gemini




Google is giving its Bard chatbot a major artificial intelligence boost as ChatGPT-maker OpenAI deals with the aftermath of a boardroom coup that saw chief executive Sam Altman fired then rehired within a span of days
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Google on Wednesday infused its Bard chatbot with a new-generation artificial intelligence model called Gemini, which it touts as being able to reason better than ChatGPT and other rivals.

The search engine juggernaut is aiming to take the generative AI lead from ChatGPT-maker OpenAI as that company deals with the aftermath of a boardroom coup that saw chief executive Sam Altman fired and then rehired within a matter of days.

Google has for years discreetly developed AI powers but was caught off guard when OpenAI late last year released ChatGPT and teamed up with Microsoft to make its capabilities available to users worldwide.

“This is incredible momentum, and yet, we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of what’s possible,” Google chief executive Sundar Pichai said in a release.

“This new era of models represents one of the biggest science and engineering efforts we’ve undertaken as a company.”

It is the first AI model to outperform human experts in certain benchmarks involving problem solving, math, physics, history, law, medicine and ethics, Google DeepMind vice president of product Eli Collins said during a briefing.

A demonstration showed Gemini recognizing what it was shown, from a person acting out a “Matrix” movie scene to someone drawing a duck and then holding up a rubber duck.

Gemini commented on what it was shown, making comparisons, drawing conclusions, and offering suggestions.

Performance of an “Ultra” version of Gemini “far exceeds” that of other state-of-the-art models in 30 benchmark tests measuring capabilities such as image understanding or mathematical reasoning, according to Collins.

A “Pro” version of Gemini built into Bard is designed to handle a wide range of tasks. A “Nano” version is tailored for smartphones, coming first to Google’s top-of-the-line Pixel 8 handset.

Google raced out its own Bard chatbot earlier this year, continually updating the chatbot based on people’s feedback, according to Bard vice president Sissie Hsiao.

“All of that rapid innovation is bringing us to what we see as a truly transformative moment,” Hsiao said during the briefing.

“With Gemini, Bard is getting its biggest upgrade yet.”

– AI collaborator –

Bard will use Gemini for more advanced reasoning, planning, and understanding capabilities, a demonstration showed.

It will be available in English in more than 170 countries and territories, with more languages added soon, according to Hsiao.

Gemini-infused Bard will be expanded to be “multi-modal,” meaning it will be able to work with auditory and visual input as well as text prompts, executives said.

“With Gemini we are one step closer to our vision of bringing you the best AI collaborator in the world,” Hsiao said.

Gemini ramps up the quality of Bard’s performance, whether in writing poetry or computer code to shopping queries or research projects, according to Hsiao.

The “Ultra” version of Gemini designed to handle highly complex tasks will be released early next year, Google said.

“I’m in awe of what it’s capable of,” Collins said of Gemini.

“This is the start of a new era for us at Google as we continue to rapidly innovate and advance the model’s capabilities.”

Google in September integrated Gmail, YouTube and other tools into its Bard chatbot as tech giants seek to persuade users that generative AI is useful and not dangerous or just a fad.

Those capabilities closely match offerings from Microsoft that infuse its Office 365 apps with AI powers, though those come at an extra cost to customers and are not available through the chatbot on its search engine Bing.

The staying power of generative AI chatbots, once the initial excitement has faded, is yet to be confirmed.

Moreover, integration of the OpenAI-based chatbot into Microsoft’s search engine earlier this year failed to make an impact on Google’s overwhelming dominance of search.

Governments and tech companies however insist that generative AI is technology’s next big chapter and have ramped up spending on new products, research, and infrastructure.

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EU proposes three-year delay on UK electric car tariffs




The U-turn by the European Commission delays a 10% tariff on electric car sales between the EU and UK for three years
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Brussels proposed Wednesday a three-year delay on tariffs on the sale of electric vehicles between Britain and the EU that was meant to kick in from January, in a major reversal of its previous position.

The European Commission said it now wants a one-off extension, until December 31, 2026, after the EU automotive industry raised concerns about the massive costs that would arise from a post-Brexit 10-percent tariff.

The commission’s extension proposal must formally be approved by the EU member states. EU leaders are to hold a regular summit in Brussels next week.

The commission had initially strongly opposed such an extension, despite industry’s pleas, requests from the British government and calls for pragmatism by EU lawmakers.

Its extension proposal, which also covers batteries, includes wording designed to make it legally impossible to put off tariffs beyond the December 2026 date.

“Today’s decision means that we skip an intermediate phase of somewhat strict rules of origin that would have applied from 2024 until the end of 2026,” Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic said.

“This removes the threat of tariffs on export of EU electric vehicles to the UK and vice versa on 1st January 2024.”

The change of stance was needed because of “circumstances not foreseen” when an EU-UK agreement regulating post-Brexit trade and ties was signed in 2020, Sefcovic said.

He cited higher energy prices spurred by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, high inflation, and big subsidies China and the United States deploy to boost their electric-vehicle industries.

The European Automobile Manufacturers’ Associations (ACEA) and the UK’s Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) welcomed the commission’s move and urged EU countries to endorse it.

The tariffs, ACEA said, would have cost the EU vehicle makers it represents 4.3 billion euros ($4.6 billion) over the next three years and caused them to lose market share to non-European competitors.

The extension would “allow UK and EU manufacturers to compete with the rest of the world and, crucially, give the European battery industry time to catch up,” Mike Hawes, SMMT chief executive, said.

– ‘Cannot be repeated’ –

The European Union is particularly concerned about potentially unfair competition from cheaper Chinese electric vehicles. In October it formally launched an investigation into Beijing’s subsidies for car manufacturers.

Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen accused China in September of keeping the cost of Chinese electric cars “artificially low by huge state subsidies”.

Sefcovic said the commission’s proposal “supports the competitiveness of our industry and protect jobs in the European Union” and “it’s absolutely clear that this one-off extension cannot be repeated nor prolonged”.

Britain formally left the European Union in January 2020 then, during a transition period, sealed the post-Brexit free-trade agreement with the bloc which came into effect in 2021.

Under that deal, tariffs were to start on January 1, 2024, on vehicles that do not have at least 45 percent UK- or EU-made content, and with batteries that are at least 50-60 percent sourced from each of those territories.

Along with the extension proposal, the commission announced additional funding of up to three billion euros to boost the EU’s battery-manufacturing industry.

The EU’s trade commissioner, Valdis Dombrovskis, said the proposal “provides much-needed predictability and stability to EU car- and battery-makers at a time of fierce global competitive pressure”.

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Twitch to shut down in SKorea over ‘seriously’ high fees




The platform said it had tried to lower its costs by reducing the maximum video quality but it was still losing money
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US-based streaming platform Twitch said Wednesday it would stop its service in South Korea in February because of “seriously high” network costs, dealing a blow to millions of users in one of the heartlands of e-sports.

The Amazon-owned company said in a statement signed by CEO Dan Clancy that costs were 10 times higher than most other countries, making it impossible to continue operating.

South Korea allows internet service providers to charge data-heavy companies like Twitch extra fees, which has already led to a long dispute with Netflix.

Big telecom firms in Europe have pushed for a similar deal, which they call “fair share”, but an EU consultation concluded in October that the idea was not popular.

Twitch said it had tried to lower its costs by reducing the maximum video quality but it was still losing money and would pull out of the country on February 27.

“The cost of running Twitch in South Korea is currently seriously high,” said the statement.

– ‘Stellar player’ –

Twitch, acquired by Amazon in 2014 for close to $1 billion, gained significant traction among gamers in South Korea.

The firm does not publish user numbers but it was widely reported in 2021 to have six million users in South Korea, more than four percent of its global total.

The country is known for its passionate, competitive, and dedicated gaming community, as well as its megastar Faker — a gamer hailed as the Michael Jordan of e-sports.

“We would like to reiterate that this was a very difficult decision, and one that all of us at Twitch are deeply saddened by,” the company’s Wednesday statement said.

“South Korea has always been a stellar player in the global e-sports community and will continue to do so.”

Shares in South Korean video streaming service Afreeca TV, Twitch’s competitor, soared almost 30 percent in afternoon trading in Seoul.

Some of the country’s Twitch users were devastated by the news.

One streamer, yummy_2 said: “It feels like losing my job right now.”

– Biden vs Trump –

Netflix was the first major international firm to cry foul over South Korea’s rules on network fees, getting entangled in lawsuits with SK Broadband, one of South Korea’s biggest internet service providers.

However, the two firms announced in September they would drop the legal cases and would now instead “collaborate as partners for the future”.

While the usage fees are a boon to telecom companies, they are bitterly opposed by tech platforms around the world.

European lawmakers and digital rights activists also argue such an arrangement could break rules on net neutrality, whereby telecoms firms are barred from selling faster internet speeds to particular companies.

The issue has been at the heart of a years-long dispute in the United States with former President Donald Trump rolling back net neutrality rules and his successor Joe Biden struggling to restore them.

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