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Some GOP state lawmakers help spread COVID-19 misinformation

Associated Press

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Some GOP state lawmakers help spread COVID-19 misinformation

Many Republican lawmakers have criticized governors’ emergency restrictions since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. Now that most legislatures are back in session, a new type of pushback is taking root: misinformation.

In their own comments or by inviting skeptics to testify at legislative hearings, some GOP state lawmakers are using their platform to promote false information about the virus, the steps needed to limit its spread and the vaccines that will pull the nation out of the pandemic.

In some cases, the misstatements have faced swift backlash, even getting censored online. That’s raised tough questions about how aggressively to combat potentially dangerous misinformation from elected officials or during legislative hearings while protecting free speech and people’s access to government.

Last week, YouTube pulled down a video of committee testimony in the Ohio House after a witness inaccurately claimed COVID-19 wasn’t killing children. The platform said the video violated its community standards against the spread of misinformation.

Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology project, said YouTube went too far.

“When we’re talking about testimony that occurred at a public hearing, the far better response would be counterspeech, maybe in the form of fact-checking or labeling, rather than this attempt to flush it down the memory hole,” Wizner said.

But opposing voices aren’t always present in committee hearings.

In Michigan, for example, a House Oversight Committee meeting didn’t feature state health officials or other virus experts in a discussion about an extended pause on youth contact sports ordered by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

It did include Jayme McElvany, a virus skeptic who also has posted about the QAnon conspiracy and former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims of election fraud. Founder of a group called Let Them Play, McElvany questioned mask mandates and the science behind state COVID-19 data during a legislative hearing that didn’t feature any witnesses from the other side. The committee chairman, Republican Rep. Steven Johnson, said the state health department was invited to testify but did not. Legislative Republicans have been challenging decisions of the Whitmer administration throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

Wizner said such imbalances need to be highlighted, not suppressed.

“People need to know this is what passes for local government,” he said. When the hearings are posted online, YouTube owner Google has plenty of tools for flagging questionable information and directing people to facts, Wizner said.

In Tennessee, a Republican lawmaker is pushing legislation that would ban most government agencies from requiring anyone to get COVID-19 vaccines, which isn’t a mandate anywhere. Rep. Bud Hulsey has tried to drum up support downplaying the seriousness of the disease.

While testifying, he ticked off selective statistics that COVID-19 has a lower death rate among children and falsely alleged that the vaccines could cause genetic modifications.

Hulsey faced pushback from a fellow Republican, Rep. Sabi Kumar, a surgeon who has been a rare GOP advocate for proper mask-wearing while lawmakers gather at the Tennessee Capitol.

“The concern I have is that (the bill) creates an anti-vaccine attitude,” Kumar said.

Kumar pointed out that vaccines have saved countless lives throughout the centuries and repeatedly fact-checked Hulsey by emphasizing that the vaccines don’t change a person’s DNA.

Hulsey wasn’t convinced.

“People have seen governments all across this country do things that have never ever happened in the history of the United States, and it scares them,” he said. “They have every right to be afraid.”

His bill has advanced out of a House subcommittee.

In Alaska, Gov. Mike Dunleavy is fighting what he called a pattern of misrepresentations by state Sen. Lora Reinbold, a fellow Republican, saying he would no longer send members of his administration before her Senate Judiciary Committee.

In a scathing Feb. 18 letter that referenced her Facebook posts, Dunleavy accused Reinbold of misrepresenting the state’s COVID-19 response and deceiving the public.

“The misinformation must end,” the governor wrote.

Reinbold has been a vocal critic of Dunleavy issuing disaster declarations while the Legislature wasn’t in session. She has used her committee to amplify voices of those who question the effectiveness of masks and the effects of the government’s emergency response.

On social media, she characterized the Dunleavy administration as being “wild” over “these experimental” vaccines. At a hearing in early February, Reinbold questioned the extent to which the administration had suspended regulations during the pandemic.

“It’s almost like martial law,” she said.

The governor said that while he has tried to ease rules on businesses such as suspending fees, he’s never imposed martial law or forced Alaskans to get vaccines. Reinbold has called the governor’s criticism of her baseless.

“Some call ‘misinformation’ information they do not agree with or do not want to hear,” Reinbold said by email.

The dustup prompted intervention by the Senate president, who said he expected his committees to provide a “balanced approach.”

In Idaho, Rep. Heather Scott opened the legislative session in January by declaring, “The pandemic is over.” She said Idaho’s 1,600-plus COVID-19 deaths at that time amounted to “nowhere close to a pandemic.”

The average number of daily COVID-19 cases is falling in Idaho, but the death toll has risen.

During a live Zoom forum with constituents in mid-February, Scott criticized the National Governors Association, which last year issued a statement with tips for fighting misinformation about the virus. She alleged that the group is run by “globalists” at the World Economic Forum and that “they are the ones that came out with COVID.” The term “globalists” is widely considered to be an anti-Semitic slur.

Scott didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking clarification on what she meant.

Several of those who are spreading bogus virus information in legislatures also have supported Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

In Virginia, Republican Del. Dave LaRock, who attended the Trump rally in Washington, D.C., that preceded the attack on the U.S. Capitol, warned a state House Health committee in late January that COVID-19 vaccines couldn’t be trusted. He said they were especially risky for several communities, including the elderly and people of color.

Democratic Del. Cia Price, who is Black, called LaRock’s false claims “simply dangerous.”

“There is legitimate vaccine hesitancy in communities that the gentleman listed, but actual and factual information is key, not fanning the flames that are based on historic events,” she said.


COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — By JULIE CARR SMYTH and BECKY BOHRER

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Biden tells execs US needs to invest, lead in computer chips

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Biden tells execs US needs to invest, lead in computer chips

President Joe Biden used a virtual meeting with corporate leaders about a global shortage of semiconductors to push Monday for his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, telling them that the U.S. should be the world’s computer chip leader.

“We need to build the infrastructure of today, not repair the one of yesterday,” he told the group of 19 executives from the technology, chip and automotive industries. “China and the rest of the world is not waiting and there’s no reason why Americans should wait.”

He said the country hasn’t made big investments to stay ahead of global competitors, and it needs to step up its game.

Biden made an appearance at the meeting between administration officials and company leaders held to discuss developing a stronger U.S. computer chip supply chain. The meeting came as the global chip shortage continued to plague a wide array of industries.

CEOs of AT&T, Dell, Ford, General Motors, Stellantis (formerly Fiat Chrysler), Intel, Northrop Grumman, and others were scheduled to attend.

But industry experts say there’s little they can do to stem the shortage, which has delayed a new iPhone and forced automakers to temporarily shut factories because they’re running short of the multiple computers needed to run engines, transmissions, brakes and other essential features.

Instead, Biden brought up developing a U.S. chip supply chain since most are made in Asia and shipped to the U.S. In February he ordered a review of the supply chain and pledged to work with international partners to ensure stable supplies.

Wedbush analyst Daniel Ives said there’s little that can be done immediately to end the current problem. “This could change things over the next three to five years, but for right now, there’s no structural changes that could alleviate the shortage,” he said.

The shortage already has made it harder for schools to buy enough laptops for students forced to learn from home, delayed the release of popular products and created mad scrambles to find the latest video game consoles.

But things have worsened in recent weeks, particularly in the auto industry, where factories are shutting down because there aren’t enough chips to finish building vehicles that are becoming rolling computers.

The coronavirus pandemic touched off a cascade of events that led to the problems. Chip factories had to shut down early last year, particularly overseas where most processors are made. By the time they reopened, they had a backlog that was worsened by unforeseen demand. Personal computer demand, for instance, spiked as government lockdowns forced millions of office employees and students to work or attend class remotely.

High demand for consumer electronics squeezed the auto industry. Chip makers compounded the pressure by rejiggering factory lines to better serve the consumer-electronics market, which generates far more revenue for them than autos.

After eight weeks of pandemic-induced shutdown in the spring, automakers started reopening factories earlier than expected. But they found out that chip makers weren’t able to flip a switch quickly and make the more robust processors needed for cars. Industry executives say the shortage should start to end by the third quarter of this year.

It’s merely a symptom of a larger problem of the U.S. relying too much on Asia for critical parts such as semiconductors, said Ives said, who called the meeting long overdue. “I think now it’s just exposing the structural issues as well as some of the potential national security issues the U.S. faces, given our reliance on Asia,” he said.

The U.S. has only 12% of the world’s semiconductor factory capacity, down from 37% in 1990, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association.

Not surprisingly, the major players in the chip industry welcomed the opportunity to gain even more support from the Biden administration to help subsidize the efforts to expand the supply and distribution of processors likely to play an integral role in the economy for decades to come.

“We appreciate the White House meeting with industry leaders about the importance of ensuring a strong and resilient semiconductor supply chain,” said the semiconductor association, a trade group whose board of directors includes three CEOs who participated in Monday’s discussions.

The association’s other members include three major chip players outside the U.S., Samsung, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. and NXP, who sent executives to the meeting.

Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger warned a future shortage of chips “could have a devastating economic impact, or worse, compromise our national defense.”

The trade group representing Ford, General Motors and Stellantis thanked the administration for pressing chip makers to fill automakers’ orders. “It is imperative that all efforts are made to ensure our auto industry remains indispensable to the U.S. economy and American jobs,” Matt Blunt, president of the American Automotive Policy Council, said in a statement.

The shortage comes just as the auto industry is accelerating plans to shift away from internal combustion vehicles, shifting more toward those powered by batteries.

As part of his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, Biden wants to spend $174 billion over eight years on electric vehicles. That figure includes incentives for consumers, grants to build 500,000 charging stations, and money to develop U.S. supply chains for parts and minerals needed to make batteries. Biden also wants Congress to put $50 billion into semiconductor manufacturing and research.


WASHINGTON (AP) — By TOM KRISHER and ALEXANDRA JAFFE

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Chinese regulator orders Ant Group to conduct major overhaul

Associated Press

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Chinese regulator orders Ant Group to conduct major overhaul

Chinese regulators have ordered Ant Group, a financial affiliate of e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding, to become a financial holding company to ease financial oversight amid stepped up scrutiny of technology firms.

In a meeting Monday, the central bank and other financial regulators also ordered Ant to cease anti-competitive behavior in its payments business and improve its risk management and corporate governance, according to a statement on the website of the People’s Bank of China.

The guidance follows a decision by regulators last November to suspend a planned $34.5 billion initial public offering just days before Ant’s trading debut. Officials cited changes in the regulatory environment.

Ant Group is the world’s largest financial technology company. It was valued at $150 billion after a 2018 fundraising round, and its valuation later rose to $280 billion ahead of its now ill-fated IPO.

The regulators told Ant to rectify unfair competition in its payments business and reduce the balance of its Yu’ebao money-market fund — which at one point was the largest in the world. It also was ordered to break its information monopoly and to minimize the collection and use of personal data and to stop any illegal credit, insurance and wealth-management activities.

In a statement on its official WeChat social media account, Ant said, “Under the guidance of financial regulators, Ant Group will spare no effort in implementing the rectification plan, ensuring that the operation and growth of our financial-related businesses are fully compliant.”

Ant is one of two leading companies in the online payments business in China, the other being rival Tencent. The company says more than 1 billion people use its Alipay service, which offers a slew of functions including bill payments, purchases online and offline and money transfers.

In January, China proposed draft rules to curb monopolies in the online payments market. Any non-bank company with half of the market in online transactions or two companies with a combined two-thirds market share could be subject to antitrust probes.

As of the first quarter of 2020, Tencent and Ant Group had a combined market share of more than 90%, with Ant taking 55.4% of the market and Tencent 38.8%, according to data from market research firm iResearch.

The new guidelines for Ant’s overhaul come days after Alibaba was fined $2.8 billion following an antitrust probe into the company founded by billionaire Jack Ma.

Alibaba’s stock price rose 6.5% in Hong Kong on Monday.


HONG KONG (AP) — By ZEN SOO

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Alibaba fined $2.8 billion on competition charge in China

Associated Press

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Alibaba

Alibaba Group, the world’s biggest e-commerce company, was fined 18.3 billion yuan ($2.8 billion) by Chinese regulators on Saturday for anti-competitive tactics, as the ruling Communist Party tightens control over fast-growing tech industries.

Party leaders worry about the dominance of China’s biggest internet companies, which are expanding into finance, health services and other sensitive areas. The party says anti-monopoly enforcement, especially in tech, is a priority this year.

Alibaba was fined for “abusing its dominant position” to limit competition by retailers that use its platforms and hindering “free circulation” of goods, the State Administration for Market Regulation announced. It said the fine was equal to 4% of its total 2019 sales of 455.712 billion yuan ($69.5 billion).

“Alibaba accepts the penalty with sincerity and will ensure its compliance with determination,” the company said in a statement. It promised to “operate in accordance with the law with utmost diligence.”

The move is a new setback for Alibaba and its billionaire founder, Jack Ma, following a November decision by regulators to suspend the stock market debut of Ant Group, a finance platform spun off from the e-commerce giant. It would have been the world’s biggest initial public stock offering last year.

Ma, one of China’s richest and most prominent entrepreneurs, disappeared temporarily from public view after criticizing regulators in a November speech. That was followed days later by the Ant Group suspension, though finance specialists said regulators already had been worried Ant lacked adequate financial risk controls.

Alibaba, launched in 1999, operates retail, business-to-business and consumer-to-consumer platforms. It has expanded at a breakneck pace into financial services, film production and other fields.

The government issued anti-monopoly guidelines in February aimed at preventing anti-competitive practices such as exclusive agreements with merchants and use of subsidies to squeeze out competitors.

The next month, 12 companies including Tencent Holdings, which operates games and the popular WeChat messaging service, were fined 500,000 ($77,000) each on charges of failing to disclose previous acquisitions and other deals.

Regulators said in December they were looking into possibly anti-competitive tactics by Alibaba including a policy dubbed “choose one of two,” which requires business partners to avoid dealing with its competitors.

Also in December, regulators announced executives of Alibaba, its main competitor, JD.com, and four other internet companies were summoned to a meeting and warned not to use their market dominance to keep out new competitors.


BEIJING (AP) — By JOE McDONALD

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