Silicon Valley & Technology

Could Twitter’s New Abuse Crackdown Lead to Censorship?

Twitter introduced new safety measures this week meant to crack down on online harassment and protect people from viewing offensive material, but some free-speech advocates are concerned the changes could lead to censorship of unpopular ideas.

The social media company announced Wednesday that it would start hiding potentially menacing tweets, even if the tweets or accounts in question hadn’t been reported as abusive.

“We’re working to identify accounts as they’re engaging in abusive behavior, even if this behavior hasn’t been reported to us,” the company said in a statement announcing the changes. “Then, we’re taking action by limiting certain account functionality for a set amount of time, such as allowing only their followers to see their Tweets.”

The so-called stealth bans could be placed on accounts, the company’s statement said, if a Twitter user sent unsolicited messages to another user who was not following the sender.

Twitter said it would “act on accounts” only when it was confident abuse had taken place, based on the algorithms it uses to identify illicit posts.

This new automated stealth ban capability became a cause of consternation for Suzanne Nossel, executive director of the free-speech advocacy group PEN America, because she said it could easily become a solution “where there is really no problem that needs to be solved.”

‘Mistaken’ moves?

“To take action when there hasn’t been a complaint raises the concern of whether there will be mistaken blocking of accounts or suspending of accounts,” she said. “That raises a risk.”

Twitter has been under pressure to address abusive speech and trolling on its platform in recent months after celebrities and others complained of sustained, coordinated abuse campaigns.

Actress Leslie Jones notably swore off the social media service for a brief time last year after she was targeted by online trolls and harassed with racism and death threats. The incident led to a personal meeting between Jones and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and several months later the company began introducing new tools to address online abuse.

Twitter expanded its “mute” feature to allow users to block specific words or phrases from showing up in their notifications. It expanded users’ ability to report hateful conduct. And it retrained its support teams on dealing with online abuse.

These types of changes that allow users to have more control over what content they see and whom they interact with are positive steps, Esha Bhandari, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, told VOA.

Control for users

The ACLU encourages companies to focus less on a top-down approach to censorship and more “on tools that allow users to control their experience on the platform,” she said.

“Attempts to put the thumb on the scale on the censorship side are prone to error and prone to human biases,” Bhandari said.

Newer tools introduced by Twitter, though, give the company a far greater role in controlling what content gets seen.

In February, Twitter began pre-emptively hiding what it called “potentially abusive or low-quality tweets” from conversations on the website. The tweets will still be visible to users, but only to “those who seek them out.”

“Our team has also been working on identifying and collapsing potentially abusive and low-quality replies so the most relevant conversations are brought forward,” Twitter said in a February statement.

VOA contacted Twitter multiple times for clarification on guidelines used to identify “low-quality” tweets but received no response.

Twitter also introduced a “safe search” feature in February that automatically removes tweets that contain “potentially sensitive content” from search results. A request for clarification on how this content is identified was not returned.

Being a private company, Twitter has no real obligation to preserve free speech on its website. But Twitter has billed itself as a platform for free expression, and on the Twitter rules page, it says it believes in “speaking truth to power.”

Global town square

This is a role both PEN America and the ACLU take seriously. Both Nossel and Bhandari referred to the website as a sort of global town square, where everyone’s voice has equal weight.

“As a practical matter, decisions made by Twitter have a huge impact on the messages that we receive, and I hope that Twitter and other companies take those responsibilities seriously,” Bhandari said.

Nossel noted that Twitter has a financial incentive to be cautious on issues involving the balance between allowing free expression and stopping abuse.

“The power and influence of their platform depends on the free flow of ideas, so I think there are commercial reasons why they would not want to limit [free speech],” she said. “And I think for their users, they do have a kind of softer, implicit contract that they are going to be a platform in which you can express things freely.”

Bhandari said it’s important to find that balance, because if Twitter “allows a heckler’s veto to take over,” it will have a chilling effect on speech that’s similar to pre-emptively hiding content.

“One of the really important parts of that has to be transparency,” she said.

Science & Health

Doctors Alarmed by Post-antibiotic Future

Unless new antibiotics are developed quickly, people will once again die from common infections. The World Health Organization has issued an urgent call for scientists to develop these new drugs, and for governments to fund the research.

Dr. Trish Perl, chief of infectious diseases at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, said if there are no effective antibiotics, it will affect the entire practice of medicine.

“You all of a sudden understand what it was like to practice medicine maybe 50, 70, 80 years ago, when there weren’t antibiotics,” Perl said.

Without antibiotics, surgery will become much more dangerous. Doctors will be unable to treat diseases caused by E. coli, a bacterium that causes urinary tract infections and diarrhea. Even a virus such as the flu, which can lead to bacterial pneumonia, will mean these viruses will ultimately claim even more lives.

WATCH: Doctors Alarmed by Post-Antibiotic Future

New antibiotics needed

New antibiotics are urgently needed against bacteria that pose the greatest threat to human health. Those most at risk: residents of nursing homes, hospital patients, and children. Children may have weaker immune systems than adults, and they receive smaller doses of antibiotics than adults do.

“For the longest time we’ve had a number of different antibiotics in the pipeline at any given time, so whenever we ran out of the ability to use one, we would move to the next one,” Dr. Michael Bell, an expert in drug-resistant pathogens at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told VOA.

But that’s no longer possible. Joe Larsen, the director of biological, chemical and radiological and nuclear countermeasures at the Department of Health and Human Services, said his department drew up a list of pathogens several years ago that were becoming resistant to antibiotics.

Funding needs to change

“There are antibiotics in the pipeline, but the numbers are insufficient … to deal with the increasing rates of antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” he said.

Larsen’s department invests in pharmaceutical and bio-tech firms to make drugs, vaccines and diagnostics for public health emergency preparedness. Larsen is hopeful that a new antibiotic will be approved by the Food and Drug Administration later this year. He also said two to three more antibiotics are being developed that should be available in a year or two.

The WHO said it’s too expensive for pharmaceutical companies to develop new antibiotics on their own because they wouldn’t recoup their investment. Larsen agrees that the way antibiotics are commercialized needs to change.

Bacteria are constantly changing

One reason is that the more an antibiotic is used, the less effective it becomes. That’s because bacteria are constantly changing and finding new ways to resist the drugs that kill them. Once they find a way, they can pass on the gene so other bacteria can become drug-resistant as well.

To preserve the effectiveness of an antibiotic, Larsen said the profits from selling these drugs can’t be linked to the volume of sales the way the market normally works. He said the solution lies in public-private partnerships between governments and pharmaceutical or biotech firms.  

In the meantime, antibiotic resistance is very real.

Lauri Hicks, who leads research on antibiotic use and resistance trends at the CDC, said, “We are seeing greater than 2 million episodes of antibiotic resistant infections each year in the U.S. alone. Twenty-three thousand of these episodes result in death.”

Don’t overuse antibiotics

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has asked hospitals and doctors to be careful not to overuse antibiotics. But beyond overuse, Bell, of the CDC, said there are other reasons these drugs are being rendered powerless.

“Antibiotic resistance is being generated by not only using too many antibiotics, but also by spread of infection by lack of hygiene, from unintended contact with soiled surfaces, so the infection-control side is equally important,” he said.

Patients can also help. On its website, the CDC says to take antibiotics as prescribed and finish the prescription, even if you feel better. Still, urgent action on a global level is needed to prevent the catastrophe that a post-antibiotic era would cause.

Arts & Entertainment

Former President Bush Honors Veterans With ‘Portraits of Courage’

Since leaving the White House in 2009, former President George W. Bush has transformed his post-presidential perch into an easel for artwork, which helps him raise awareness and funds to ease soldiers’ transition to civilian life, and to treat the wounds of war. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.

Economy & business

Save the Elephants: Beehive Fences Help Protect Small-scale Farms from Crop Raids

It may seem odd that the world’s largest land mammal would be afraid of bees, but Kenya-based research and conservation group Save the Elephants has used the elephants’ fear of being stung around the eyes, mouth and trunk to deter them from crop-raiding. It is doing this through “beehive fences,” which they have found to be 80 percent effective.

“Elephants have come to my farm but they couldn’t manage to enter the farm,” said Hesron Nzumu, a farmer who lives near the Tsavo East National Park in Kenya. “They see the beehive and they are really afraid of the bees. When they see them, they run away.”

Research findings by Save the Elephants, the Kenya Wildlife Service, and the Mwakoma community near Tsavo East have been published in the journal Conservation Biology. Researchers used data collected over a three-and-a-half-year period from 10 farms near Tsavo East where 131 beehives were placed.

They found that only 20 percent of the 253 elephants that entered Mwakoma farms during that time managed to break the fences.

Strong fencing wire outlined the boundary of each trial plot of 0.4 hectares, upon which dummy hives and real hives were alternately suspended every 10 meters. If an elephant disturbed the wire, it would also anger the bees, making the fence essentially “moveable,” unlike other stationary deterrents.

“It’s a sustainable, long-term, low-cost solution for these small-scale farms, and we’re not at all pretending this is going to work on a large-scale, for 100-acre farms; this is for the one-acre, two-acres farms, who have absolutely minimal income,” said Lucy King, who heads the Human-Elephant Coexistence Program at Save the Elephants, and is the lead author of the paper.

Honey provided by the bees gives farmers added income, says King, who offers an example of a farmer in her study who makes $22 per month. With earnings from honey, he and his colleagues could each make as much as an extra $100 to $200 a year — a significant increase.

Nzumu is one of the farmers who has benefited from the honey.

“The beehive protects my farm from elephants,” he said. “Secondly, I harvest the honey and sell it and sometimes we use it at home. Most of the honey we sell so that we can reduce poverty and also pay school fees for our children.” Nzumu added that the bees also help with pollination of his crops.

When it comes to poaching, sedentary farmers rarely become poachers, says King, but she adds that it is not uncommon to hear of farming communities that turn a blind eye when poachers come into the area because they are angry at the elephants.

Like many other conservationists, King argues that in the long term, human-wildlife conflict will be a bigger threat to elephants than poaching.

“And it’s just going to be such a conflict because they require so much food and they need to move across the landscape. If they don’t, they start to damage vegetation in a very quick manner. And so these elephants have to be allowed large areas of land. And it’s becoming less viable in Africa, which is developing so fast and the human population is expanding so fast,” King said.

King says that farmers have promoted the fences to their neighbors, resulting in 24 farms in the area now using them. And it looks like the buzz is spreading: Beehive fences are being tested in 14 countries across Africa and Asia.

Arts & Entertainment

Aboriginal Trans-women to Debut at Sydney’s Gay Mardi Gras

A group of Aboriginal transgender women have traveled more than 3,000 kilometers to take part in Sydney’s world-famous Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. They have spent decades fighting for recognition within the indigenous community on the remote Tiwi Islands.

About 30 transgender women from the islands off the coast of Australia’s Northern Territory will march Saturday for the first time with thousands of other participants in outfits colored with glow-in-the-dark paint emblazoned with traditional patterns and totems.

Known as “sistagirls,” the group’s trip has been financed through various fundraising campaigns. They bring to Sydney a story of struggle and defiance. It has taken the women many years to gain acceptance in their remote Indigenous communities, where attitudes have shifted slowly. Several of the women have committed suicide in the past.

Born a male, Simon Miller now identifies as a woman.

“[I] did not know about sistagirls until I was, like, 22. When I am [a] sistagirl, I feel like 100 percent true to me and I feel happy, you know, and when I am, like, dressing like a boy and that I feel, like, depressed and feels really awkward and uncomfortable,” Simon said.

Sydney’s gay and lesbian Mardi Gras began as a civil rights rally in the late 1970s. It was born out of solidarity for New York’s Stonewall movement, and called for an end to discrimination against gays and lesbians.

The group has a loud political voice, as campaigners continue their efforts to persuade Australia’s leaders to legalize same-sex marriage.

Opponents of the march, including some Christian groups, have in the past described it as a “public parade of immorality and blasphemy.”

Arts & Entertainment

Prize-winning Author Paula Fox Dies at 93

Paula Fox, a prize-winning author who created high art out of imagined chaos in such novels as Poor George and Desperate Characters and out of the real-life upheavals in her memoir Borrowed Finery, has died at age 93.


Her daughter, Linda Carroll, told The Associated Press that Fox died Wednesday at Brooklyn Methodist Hospital. She had been in failing health. 


Abandoned as a girl by her parents, a single mother before age 20, Fox used finely crafted prose to write again and again about breakdown and disruption, what happens under the “surface of things.” In Poor George, her debut novel, Fox told of a bored schoolteacher and the teen vagrant who upends his life. Desperate Characters, her most highly regarded work of fiction, is a portrait of New York City’s civic and domestic decline in the 1960s, a plague symbolized by the bite of a stray cat.


“It seems to me that in life, behind all these names and things and people and forces, there’s a dark energy,” Fox told The Associated Press in 2011.

Late-life revival


Her work was out of print for years, but she enjoyed a late-life revival thanks to the admiration of such younger authors as Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Lethem. She lived for decades in Brooklyn and was a revered figure in the New York City borough’s thriving literary community.


Her other books included the novels A Servant’s Tale, The Western Coast and a memoir about living in Europe after World War II, The Coldest Winter. Fox also wrote more than a dozen children’s books, including The Slave Dancer, winner of the Newbery medal in 1974. Borrowed Finery, published in 2001, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award.


She might have written more novels, but a head injury sustained from a mugging in Jerusalem in the 1990s left her unable to write long fiction. She instead began working on memoirs and shorter pieces.

Difficult childhood


Born in New York City in 1923, Fox was the daughter of novelist-screenwriter Paul Fox and fellow screenwriter Elsie Fox. Paula Fox remembered her father as a drunk given to “interminable, stumbling descriptions of the ways in which he and fellow writers tried to elude domesticity.” Her mother was a “sociopath” who kicked her out of the house as a young girl. Fox lived everywhere from a plantation in Cuba to a boarding school in Montreal.


Living in Hollywood in the 1930s and ’40s, she danced with John Wayne and encountered John Barrymore, “yellowing with age like the ivory keys of a very old piano.” Marlon Brando was a friend, and Courtney Love is her granddaughter, born to Carroll, whom a 19-year-old Fox gave up for adoption. Her brother-in-law, Clement Greenberg, was among the 20th century’s most influential art critics.


Although a devoted reader since childhood, she didn’t publish until past 40. She worked for years as a teacher and as a tutor for troubled children and was married briefly for a second time, to Richard Sigerson, with whom she had two sons. She finally settled down with her third husband, translator and Commentary editor Martin Greenberg, whom she met after he had rejected a story she submitted for the magazine. 

Arts & Entertainment

Nature Plays Starring Role in Florida Everglades

National parks traveler Mikah Meyer says visiting Everglades National Park in southern Florida was like stepping back in time.

Time standing still


“It’s this huge section of [protected] land … it takes up the entire southwestern corner of Florida and essentially before human interaction, everything south of Orlando looked like the Everglades.”

Join Mikah in the Everglades

That huge expanse of land includes more than half a million hectares of wetland, the largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S. It’s known throughout the world for its unparalleled land and waterscapes, which support a wide variety of plant and animal life.

Mikah immersed himself in the wetlands adventure with treks through mud-filled swamps and close encounters with some of the parks’ avian and reptilian residents.

Teeming with wildlife

On the raised boardwalk of the Anhinga Trail on the east side of the park, Mikah had unparalleled views of some of the area’s lush landscape and unique wildlife.

“It’s a marshland with a bunch of trees, and so there’s all these birds everywhere that make it their home. We saw Terrapin turtles; there’s gators sunning themselves on the banks … we saw one alligator here, and one alligator there, and at one point we walked up and there were like 25 alligators all lying together, on top of each other, next to each other sunning, and it was just like more gators than I’d ever seen in my life,” he said.

In fact, in that one area of the park alone, he said he easily saw “the most amount of wildlife I’ve seen in one place at one time.”

Slough slog

Another highlight for Mikah and his travel companion Andy Waldron was wading through knee-deep water and mud, on a hike called a slough slog.

“So you start out and you slog through the mud and then eventually you get to the water and in that water there’re a bunch of fish, alligators, snakes, all sorts of things that you would not want to come at you,” he recounted.

“Fortunately the park service gives you a giant stick … whose primary function is to step it in front of you to see how deep the water is,” the idea being not to fall into the “fish, possibly gator, possibly snake-infested water.”

“It sounds gross, it sounds horrible but it was one of the most fun things I’ve done at a national park yet,” Mikah admitted. Being in the muddy waters surrounded by exotic trees and plant life “feels like you’re on another planet, like you’re in an episode of Star Trek,” he said.

He credits much of that surreal but awesome experience to their National Park ranger guide, Lori Mobbs.


“Lori was probably one of the most fun people I’ve met this entire trip,” Mikah said. He says she told him how she was from “the hillbilly mountains of Alabama,” and after finishing her service with the U.S. Army, decided to join the National Park Service.

“I spent time protecting America, wearing a green uniform, and now I’m going to get another green uniform and go protect America’s wildlife,” he quoted her saying.

Everglades on steroids

In another part of the park, near the Shark Valley Visitor Center, Mikah and his travel companion were fortunate to find another wonderful guide … Ozzie Gonzalez, from Everglades Nature Tours.

He took the young men on an exclusive and exhilarating ride through the famous southern Florida wetlands on an airboat.

“I think what made this so special is that our guide has grown up in this area and he knew it like the back of his hands,” Mikah said. “So he took us out on this airboat into the middle of the River of Grass and right away he takes us to the spot where there’s always a mama gator.”

Close encounters of the reptilian kind

The female alligator made puffy, hissing noises as the boat drew near.

“She was warning us that my babies are here,” Mikah said, interpreting her warnings as, “’Don’t mess with me or I’m going to be really angry!’ And then sure enough, we look around and we saw like eight different baby alligators.”

And that wasn’t the only close encounter with gators. … Ozzie then took Mikah and Andy to meet another reptilian resident he had come to recognize.

“He parks the air boat and he calls the gator over like a dog and the thing comes swimming right up to the side of the boat,” Mikah marveled. “And it was just so incredible.”

Ozzie also took the time to show off some of the area’s plant life. Parking the airboat near some tall, reed-like plants, he took one in his hands to give them a closer look.

“They call it sawgrass because if you pull your arm against it one way it won’t hurt you at all, but if you go the other way it’ll cut your skin because it’s got these saw ridges on it,” Mikah explained.

Ozzie went on to describe how the plant has all the nutrients one would need to survive for a while out in the wild, and how Native American tribes in the area used to use sawgrass to cut the umbilical cords from babies.

Mikah, who’s on a mission to visit all of the more than 400 sites within the National Park Service, says his final adventure, on a sunset boat tour at the western edge of the Everglades, captured the wonder of his wetlands experience.

“We had heard that oftentimes you can see dolphins on this tour and it delivered!  It was so cool. … It’s such a rare treat to see something in the wild and not in a zoo or not on TV or not in a National Geographic magazine. This was real. It was real life.”

Mikah invites you to learn more about his travels in Florida and all across America by visiting his website, Facebook and Instagram.

Science & Health

Doctors Alarmed by a Post-Antibiotic Future

Unless new antibiotics are developed quickly, people will once again die from common infections. The World Health Organization on Feb. 27 issued an urgent call for scientists to develop these new drugs, and for governments to fund the research. VOA’s Carol Pearson reports.