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Asia Today: Remote-learning begins in virus-hit Philippines

Inside Telecom Staff

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Remote-learning

Grade and high school students in the Philippines began classes at home Monday after the coronavirus pandemic forced remote-learning onto an educational system already struggling to fund schools.

The shift to distance-learning has been a logistical nightmare for the poverty-stricken Southeast Asian country that has long lacked enough classrooms, teachers and educational equipment. Nearly 25 million students enrolled this year in mostly 47,000 public schools nationwide that would have to be replicated in homes and enlist the help of parents and guardians as co-teachers.

A majority of families, especially from poor and rural communities, opted to use government-provided digital or printed learning materials or “modules,” which students would read at home with the guidance of their elders before carrying out specified activities. Most lacked computers and reliable internet connections. Teachers could answer questions by telephone.

The rest of the families preferred for their children to get lessons online or through regional radio and TV educational broadcasts.

“The system may not be perfect and there may be issues as we shift to flexible learning … but we are confident that the Department of Education would address these challenges,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said.

President Rodrigo Duterte has said school classes should resume only when a COVID-19 vaccine has been made available, fearing classrooms could become infection hotspots.

The Philippines has reported more than 322,400 infections, the highest in Southeast Asia, with more than 5,700 deaths.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— Sri Lankan authorities closed a university and imposed restrictions on buses and trains on Monday, a day after a COVID-19 patient was reported from the community for the first time in two months. A curfew was imposed Sunday in the Colombo suburbs where the patient lived, and about 15 hospital staff and 40 co-workers have been quarantined. The state-run University of Kelaniya in the area was also closed down for a week starting from Monday. Buses and trains must transport passengers according to the number of seats, and commuters must wear masks. Schools countrywide have been closed down. For more than two months, health officials have been saying that they have prevented the community spread of the virus. The country has reported 3,388 confirmed cases, including 13 deaths. Of the total, 3,254 have recovered.

— India registered 74,442 new coronavirus cases, driving the country’s tally to 6.6 million. The Health Ministry on Monday also reported 903 deaths in the past 24 hours, taking total fatalities to 102,685. India, the second worst-affected nation in the world after the United States, is witnessing a sustained decline in new coronavirus infections and active virus cases have remained below the million mark for 14 consecutive days. It still is registering the highest number of daily cases globally and is soon expected to cross the U.S. which has 7.4 million confirmed coronavirus cases.

— South Korea reported 73 new cases of the coronavirus, although officials worry of a potential rise after the five-day holiday period that ended Sunday. Health Minister Park Neung-hoo during a virus briefing Monday urged people who experience fever or other symptoms after traveling during the holiday to get tested immediately. A recent decline in new infections may be related to fewer tests being conducted during the Chuseok harvest holiday. The updated figures by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency brought the caseload to 24,164, including 422 deaths. The newest cluster in the capital region is an army unit in Pocheon, where more than 30 troops have tested positive.

MANILA, Philippines (AP).

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Is Facebook really ready for the 2020 election?

Inside Telecom Staff

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Ever since Russian agents and other opportunists abused its platform in an attempt to manipulate the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Facebook has insisted — repeatedly — that it’s learned its lesson and is no longer a conduit for misinformation, voter suppression and election disruption.

But it has been a long and halting journey for the social network. Critical outsiders, as well as some of Facebook’s own employees, say the company’s efforts to revise its rules and tighten its safeguards remain wholly insufficient to the task, despite it having spent billions on the project. As for why, they point to the company’s persistent unwillingness to act decisively over much of that time.

“Am I concerned about the election? I’m terrified,” said Roger McNamee, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and an early Facebook investor turned vocal critic. “At the company’s current scale, it’s a clear and present danger to democracy and national security.”

The company’s rhetoric has certainly gotten an update. CEO Mark Zuckerberg now casually references possible outcomes that were unimaginable in 2016 — among them, possible civil unrest and potentially a disputed election that Facebook could easily make even worse — as challenges the platform now faces.

“This election is not going to be business as usual,” Zuckerberg wrote in a September Facebook post in which he outlined Facebook’s efforts to encourage voting and remove misinformation from its service. “We all have a responsibility to protect our democracy.”

Yet for years Facebook executives have seemed to be caught off guard whenever their platform — created to connect the world — was used for malicious purposes. Zuckerberg has offered multiple apologies over the years, as if no one could have predicted that people would use Facebook to live-stream murders and suicides, incite ethnic cleansings, promote fake cancer cures or attempt to steal elections.

While other platforms like Twitter and YouTube have also struggled to address misinformation and hateful content, Facebook stands apart for its reach and scale and, compared to many other platforms, its slower response to the challenges identified in 2016.

In the immediate aftermath of President Donald Trump’s election, Zuckerberg offered a remarkably tone-deaf quip regarding the notion that “fake news” spread on Facebook could have influenced the 2016 election, calling it “a pretty crazy idea.” A week later, he walked back the comment.

Since then, Facebook has issued a stream of mea culpas for its slowness to act against threats to the 2016 election and promised to do better. “I don’t think they have become better at listening,” said David Kirkpatrick, author of a book on Facebook’s rise. “What’s changed is more people have been telling them they need to do something.”

The company has hired outside fact-checkers, added restrictions — then more restrictions — on political advertisements and taken down thousands of accounts, pages and groups it found to be engaging in “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” That’s Facebook’s term for fake accounts and groups that maliciously target political discourse in countries ranging from Albania to Zimbabwe.

It’s also started added warning labels to posts that contain misinformation about voting and has, at times, taken steps to limit the circulation of misleading posts. In recent weeks the platform also banned posts that deny the Holocaust and joined Twitter in limiting the spread of an unverified political story about Hunter Biden, son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, published by the conservative New York Post.

All this unquestionably puts Facebook in a better position than it was in four years ago. But that doesn’t mean it’s fully prepared. Despite tightened rules banning them, violent militias are still using the platform to organize. Recently, this included a foiled plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan.

In the four years since the last election, Facebook’s earnings and user growth have soared. This year, analysts expect the company to rake in profits of $23.2 billion on revenue of $80 billion, according to FactSet. It currently boasts 2.7 billion users worldwide, up from 1.8 billion at this time in 2016.

Facebook faces a number of government investigations into its size and market power, including an antitrust probe by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. An earlier FTC investigation socked Facebook with a large $5 billion fine, but didn’t require any additional changes.

“Their No. 1 priority is growth, not reducing harm,” Kirkpatrick said. “And that is unlikely to change.”

Part of the problem: Zuckerberg maintains an iron grip on the company, yet doesn’t take criticism of him or his creation seriously, charges social media expert Jennifer Grygiel, a Syracuse University communications professor. But the public knows what’s going on, they said. “They see COVID misinformation. They see how Donald Trump exploits it. They can’t unsee it.”

Facebook insists it takes the challenge of misinformation seriously — especially when it comes to the election.

“Elections have changed since 2016, and so has Facebook,” the company said in a statement laying out its policies on the election and voting. “We have more people and better technology to protect our platforms, and we’ve improved our content policies and enforcement.”

Grygiel says such comments are par for the course: “This company uses PR in place of an ethical business model.”

Kirkpatrick notes that board members and executives who have pushed back against the CEO — a group that includes the founders of Instagram and WhatsApp — have left the company.

“He is so certain that Facebook’s overall impact on the world is positive” and that critics don’t give him enough credit for that, Kirkpatrick said of Zuckerberg. As a result, the Facebook CEO isn’t inclined to take constructive feedback. “He doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to. He has no oversight,” Kirkpatrick said.

The federal government has so far left Facebook to its own devices, a lack of accountability that has only empowered the company, according to U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat who grilled Zuckerberg during a July Capitol Hill hearing.

Warning labels are of limited value if the algorithms underlying the platform are designed to push polarizing material at users, she said. “I think Facebook has done some things that indicate it understands its role. But it has been, in my opinion, far too little, too late.”

By BARBARA ORTUTAY and DAVID KLEPPER Associated Press.

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UK Space Agency backs medical drone delivery project

Inside Telecom Staff

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A medical drone delivery service founded by trainee doctors that aims to transport coronavirus samples, test kits and protective equipment between hospitals has won the backing of Britain’s Space Agency.

The start-up project can help free up healthcare staff, avoid courier waiting times and minimize the risk of virus transmission, authorities said Saturday.

Trainee doctors Hammad Jeilani and Christopher Law are trialing “dronepad” infrastructure so the miniature aircraft can take off from and land on hospitals, laboratories and warehouses. They are planning to scale up the trials and set up a nationwide network of secure air corridors to enable the drone delivery service to work safely across National Health Service sites.

The hybrid drones — which have the rotors of a typical drone and the wings of a plane — can carry a maximum of 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) and fly about 60 miles (96 kilometers.)

The drone project is among others set to share 1.3 million pounds ($1.7 million) of funding from the U.K. Space Agency and the European Space Agency to businesses developing space-based solutions for challenges created by Covid-19.

LONDON (AP).

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Black scholars form effort to fight trolls, disinformation

Inside Telecom Staff

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Black scholars form effort to fight trolls, disinformation

A group of U.S. Black scholars, activists and writers has launched a new project to combat misleading information online around voting, reparations and immigration, supporters announced Friday.

The newly formed National Black Cultural Information Trust seeks to counter fake social media accounts and Twitter trolls that often discourage Black voters from participating in elections or seek to turn Black voters against other communities of color.

Jessica Ann Mitchell Aiwuyor, the project’s founder, said some dubious accounts behind the social media #ADOS movement — which stands for American Descendants of Slavery — have urged Black voters to skip the presidential election.

Some accounts also use the hashtag to flame supposed divisions between African Americans and Black immigrants from the Caribbean and Latin America, she said. Most recently, some social media users have used #ADOS to blame Somali immigrants in Minneapolis for the May 2020 death of George Floyd rather than the police officer charged with killing him.

“The disinformation used to target Black communities is cultural,” said Aiwuyor, an African American activist and scholar. “It’s cultural disinformation, which uses cultural issues to infuse false information and cause confusion.”

Aiwuyor said some social media accounts are using “digital Blackface” — posing as Black users when they aren’t — or resurrecting old accounts that haven’t tweeted in four years to spread false information about where to vote or where candidates stand on issues.

Members of the National Black Cultural Information Trust plan to monitor social media posts and flag those spreading misleading and fake stories. They plan to use crowdsourcing, website tools that show if accounts have troll-like behavior, and scholars on standby to counter any claims about slavery or voting.

Through its website, the project will direct users to discussions and stories around Black voting and U.S. reparation supporters who reject xenophobic rhetoric and push coalition-building with Black immigrants and Latinos.

RIO RANCHO, N.M. (AP).

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