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Officials battle online misinformation along with wildfires

Inside Telecom Staff

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Officials battle online misinformation along with wildfires

SEATTLE (AP) — Emergency responders in the Pacific Northwest are fighting misinformation along with raging wildfires as people spread unsubstantiated social media posts blaming coordinated groups of arsonists from both the far left and far right for setting the blazes.

The FBI said Friday that it’s investigated several claims and found them to be untrue, while officials in Oregon and Washington state have turned to Facebook to knock down the competing narratives — some posts blamed far-left antifa activists and others claimed the far-right group the Proud Boys was responsible for the fires scorching wide swaths of the region.

“I am physically and emotionally exhausted. We’ve been working really hard to protect people’s lives and homes,” firefighter Matt Lowery wrote Thursday night on the Facebook page for the East Pierce Fire & Rescue union south of Seattle. “I also want to address an issue that keeps coming up, even from some of the public that we are talking to while working. It is hot, dry, and fire spreads quickly in those conditions. There is nothing to show its Antifa or Proud Boys setting fires. Wait for information.”

The Mason County Sheriff’s Office urged Washington residents to stop spreading rumors as isolated incidents of apparent arson led to widespread, unfounded claims that antifa agitators were conspiring to start fires along the West Coast. Antifa is short for anti-fascists, a range of far-left militant groups that oppose white supremacists.

“Though some agencies have made arrests related to arson recently, they appear to all be separate individuals, however as with many incidents, it will be an ongoing investigation in each jurisdiction,” the agency wrote Thursday night on Facebook.

While some arson arrests have been made, it’s not yet clear how all the scores of fires in Washington state and Oregon started. Officials say high winds and dry conditions have made them worse in a region with a cool, wet climate that’s historically protected it from intense fire activity. Both Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee have called the wildfires “unprecedented.”

The false claims come as left- and right-wing groups have clashed during protests in the Pacific Northwest, particularly in Portland, Oregon, where a caravan of President Donald Trump’s supporters drove pickup trucks through the liberal city last month. An antifa supporter shot and killed a member of a right-wing group and was fatally shot by Washington state authorities a week later.

The FBI said it worked with local authorities to investigate claims that extremists set wildfires and found them to be false.

“Conspiracy theories and misinformation take valuable resources away local fire and police agencies working around the clock to bring these fires under control,” an FBI statement said. “Please help our entire community by only sharing validated information from official sources.”

Officials in Oregon also debunked claims this week of widespread arrests affiliated with the Proud Boys or antifa.

“Remember when we said to follow official sources only,” the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office posted Thursday. “Remember when we said rumors make this already difficult incident even harder? Rumors spread just like wildfire and now our 9-1-1 dispatchers and professional staff are being overrun with requests for information and inquiries on an UNTRUE rumor that 6 Antifa members have been arrested for setting fires in DOUGLAS COUNTY, OREGON.”

Medford, Oregon, police knocked down a fake graphic spreading online that used the department’s logo and a photo from an unrelated 2018 arrest to falsely claim five Proud Boys had been arrested for arson.

A social media post shared widely on Thursday featured a picture of a woman along with claims that she tried to start a fire near a high school in Springfield, Oregon. Springfield police told The Associated Press that they spoke to the woman Wednesday and that wasn’t true.

Another post claimed a landowner called police after arsonists threw Molotov cocktails on his land in Clackamas County and they got into a shootout. The Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office told the AP that no such reports existed.

Freelance journalist Justin Yau tweeted Thursday that he was told to leave the small town of Molalla, Oregon, by an “armed group” that feared outsiders after seeing rumors of arson nearby.

Thousands of Twitter and Facebook users shared posts trying to link the fires to antifa activists, including from Paul Romero, a former Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Oregon.

Reached by phone, Romero blamed the surge in fires statewide on a coordinated “army of arsonists” but offered no evidence to support that claim.

The posts also are being shared by social media accounts associated with QAnon, a conspiracy theory centered on the baseless belief that Trump is waging a secret campaign against enemies in the so-called deep state and a child sex trafficking ring.

Police are investigating a fire that originated in Ashland, Oregon, as a potential arson after finding human remains, Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler told reporters Wednesday.

However, Ashland Deputy Police Chief Art LeCours confirmed to the AP that the case has “no connection whatsoever to antifa.”

The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office hasn’t made any arrests and its investigation shows no evidence at this point of a coordinated effort, spokesman Mike Moran said.

“These investigations take time,” he said. “They’re intense. They’re fast moving. And so people ought to consider: ‘Does this even make sense?’ They should question anything they see in a social media setting.”

By ALI SWENSON Associated Press.

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Microsoft will buy video game maker ZeniMax for $7.5 billion

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Microsoft will buy video game maker ZeniMax for $7.5 billion

Microsoft is buying the company behind popular video games The Elder Scrolls, Doom and Fallout.

The software giant said Monday that it is paying $7.5 billion for ZeniMax Media, the parent company of video game publisher Bethesda Softworks.

Microsoft said it is buying Bethesda in part to beef up its Xbox Game Pass game subscription service, which it says has over 15 million subscribers.

Bethesda games, such as Starfield, which is currently in development, will launch on Xbox Game Pass the same day they launch on Xbox or computers, Microsoft said.

Microsoft has new consoles debuting on Nov. 10, the Xbox Series X and stripped down Series S version. It will be competing against Sony’s new PlayStation 5 console.

R.W. Baird analyst Colin Sebastian said the deal is part of a wider industry trend of consolidation. Microsoft already owns studios that make popular games including Minecraft and the Halo franchise.

“We believe the deal checks a lot of boxes for Microsoft, such as strengthening the Xbox/Games division product portfolio as competition increases, boosting the profile of Xbox subscription services, and providing more content for the company’s cloud gaming initiatives,” he wrote in an investor note.

Microsoft Corp., which is based in Redmond, Washington, expects the deal to close in the second half of fiscal 2021.

— REDMOND, Wash. (AP)

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Judge agrees to delay US government restrictions on WeChat

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Judge agrees to delay US government restrictions on WeChat

A judge has approved a request from a group of U.S. WeChat users to delay looming federal government restrictions that could effectively make the popular app nearly impossible to use.

In a ruling dated Saturday, Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler in California said the government’s actions would affect users’ First Amendment rights, as an effective ban on the app would remove their platform for communication.

WeChat is a messaging-focused app popular with many Chinese-speaking Americans that serves as a lifeline to friends, family, customers and business contacts in China. It’s owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent.

The group of WeChat users requested an injunction after the U.S. Commerce Department said Friday it would bar WeChat from U.S. app stores and keep it from accessing essential internet services in the country beginning Sunday at 11:59 p.m.

The Trump administration has targeted WeChat and another Chinese-owned app, TikTok, for national security and data privacy concerns, in the latest flashpoint amid rising tensions between Washington and Beijing. The administration contends that the data of U.S. users collected by the two apps could be shared with the Chinese government.

On Saturday, President Donald Trump said he supported a proposed deal that would have TikTok partner with Oracle and WalMart to form a U.S. company. There is still a chance that TikTok could be banned in the U.S. as of Nov. 12 if the deal isn’t completed, under the restrictions put in place by the Commerce Department.

However, a restriction to bar TikTok from app stores in the U.S., similar to what WeChat faced, was pushed back a week to Sept. 27 after Trump backed the latest TikTok deal.

On Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News that the government will ensure that under the TikTok-Oracle-WalMart deal, no American’s data would end up in the possession of the Chinese government.

In the WeChat case, the users argued that the moves targeting the all-in-one app with instant-messaging, social media and other communication tools would restrict free speech.

In her ruling, Beeler found that a WeChat ban “eliminates all meaningful access to communication in the plaintiffs’ community,” and that an injunction would be in the public’s interest. Furthermore, specific evidence about WeChat posing a national security threat was also “modest,” she wrote.

The U.S. government earlier argued that it would not be restricting free speech because WeChat users still “are free to speak on alternative platforms that do not pose a national security threat.”

The White House did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the injunction, but Kerri Kupec, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice, said the department was reviewing the judge’s order.

The dispute over WeChat and TikTok is the latest attempt by the Trump administration to counter the influence of China. Since taking office in 2017, Trump has waged a trade war with China, blocked mergers involving Chinese companies and stifled the business of Chinese firms like Huawei, a maker of phones and telecom equipment.


NEW YORK (AP)
By STAN CHOE AP Business Writer.
AP technology writer Zen Soo in Hong Kong and reporters Michael Balsamo and Martin Crutsinger in Washington contributed to this report.

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Trump backs proposed deal to keep TikTok operating in US

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Trump backs proposed deal to keep TikTok operating in US

NEW YORK (AP) — President Donald Trump said Saturday he’s given his “blessing” to a proposed deal that would see the popular video-sharing app TikTok partner with Oracle and Walmart and form a U.S. company.

Trump has targeted Chinese-owned TikTok for national security and data privacy concerns in the latest flashpoint in the rising tensions between Washington and Beijing. The president’s support for a deal comes just a day after the Commerce Department announced restrictions that if put in place could eventually make it nearly impossible for TikTok’s legions of younger fans to use the app.

Trump said if completed the deal would create a new company likely to be based in Texas.

“I have given the deal my blessing,” he said. “If they get it done, that’s great. If they don’t, that’s OK too.”

Trump said the new company will be hiring at least 25,000 people and making a $5 billion contribution to a fund dedicated to education for Americans. “That’s their contribution that I’ve been asking for,” he said.

TikTok said Oracle and Walmart could acquire up to a cumulative 20% stake in the new company in a financing round to be held before an initial public offering of stock, which Walmart said could happen within the next year. Oracle’s stake would be 12.5%, and Walmart’s would be 7.5%, the companies said in separate statements.

The deal will make Oracle responsible for hosting all TikTok’s U.S. user data and securing computer systems to ensure U.S. national security requirements are satisfied. Walmart said it will provide its ecommerce, fulfillment, payments and other services to the new company.

“We are pleased that the proposal by TikTok, Oracle, and Walmart will resolve the security concerns of the U.S. administration and settle questions around TikTok’s future in the U.S.,” TikTok said in a statement.

Trump has been demanding that the U.S. operations of TikTok be sold to a U.S. company or else be shut down. He’s also been targeting WeChat, another Chinese-owned app.

The administration contends that the user data collected by the two apps could be shared with the Chinese government. On Saturday, Trump said the U.S.-based TikTok “will have nothing to do with China.” TikTok says it has 100 million U.S. users.

On Friday, the U.S. Commerce Department said it would bar TikTok from U.S. app stores as of late Sunday. Further restrictions that would prevent TikTok from accessing essential internet services in the country would go into effect on Nov. 12. Commerce said Saturday that it will delay the barring of TikTok from U.S. app stores until Sept. 27 at 11:59 p.m.

Commerce is imposing similar restrictions on WeChat, although all of the restrictions on that app are set to go into effect Sunday night at 11:59 p.m.

Earlier Saturday, WeChat users asked a U.S. judge to block the government’s actions, saying they would restrict free speech. WeChat is an all-in-one app with instant-messaging, social media and other communication tools. The U.S. government argued that it is not restricting free speech because WeChat users still “are free to speak on alternative platforms that do not pose a national security threat.”

U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler asked lawyers for the government and WeChat users whether the prohibitions would cripple WeChat as soon as the clock ticked from Sunday night into Monday morning without a resolution. An attorney for the government said they would likely lead to a “degradation” of WeChat over time.

Judge Beeler did not rule immediately on the motion.

WeChat has millions of U.S. users who rely on the app to stay in touch and conduct business with people and companies in China and around the world. In court filings, the founder of the Mental Health Association for Chinese Communities, who is a U.S. citizen in California, said that the group’s primary tool to reach out and provide services to Chinese Americans is WeChat.

“Since many of the Chinese community members we serve are not fluent in English, WeChat is the only online tool that they rely on,” Elaine Peng said.

The Trump administration’s aggressive tactics are part of its latest attempt to counter the influence of China, a rising economic superpower. Since taking office in 2017, Trump has waged a trade war with China, blocked mergers involving Chinese companies and stifled the business of Chinese firms like Huawei, a maker of phones and telecom equipment.

China-backed hackers, meanwhile, have been blamed for data breaches of U.S. federal databases and the credit agency Equifax, and the Chinese government strictly limits what U.S. tech companies can do in China.

China’s ministry of commerce condemned the U.S. moves and urged it to stop what it called bullying behavior. It also said China may take “necessary measures” to protect Chinese companies.

The U.S. Treasury Department said Saturday that TikTok’s deal still needs to close with Oracle and Walmart, and it also needs documentation and conditions to be approved by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.

That, of course, also leaves the potential for more roller coasters of emotion for TikTok users, such as Haley Hoffman Smith, a 24-year-old who moved to Manhattan this year to pursue her dream of becoming a talk-show host. She said she had just hit 100,000 followers on TikTok and was crushed on Friday to hear it may be headed for a shutdown.

“TikTok is an inextricable part of my dream chasing story,” she said, “and to lose it forever would not only be an inconvenient setback, but an absolute heartbreak.”

___

By STAN CHOE AP Business Writer.
AP Business Writers Tali Arbel, Matt O’Brien and Barbara Ortutay contributed.

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