Economy & business/Silicon Valley & Technology

Twitter Offers $7.99 Monthly Subscription That Includes Checkmark

Twitter on Saturday launched a subscription service for $7.99 a month that includes a blue check now given only to verified accounts as new owner Elon Musk overhauls the platform’s verification system just ahead of the U.S. midterm elections.

In an update to Apple iOS devices, Twitter said users who “sign up now” can receive the blue check next to their names “just like the celebrities, companies and politicians you already follow.” So far, verified accounts do not appear to be losing their checks.

Anyone being able to get the blue check could lead to confusion and the rise of disinformation ahead of Tuesday’s elections if impostors decide to pay for the subscription and co-opt the names of politicians and election officials. Along with widespread layoffs that began Friday, many fear the social platform that public agencies, election boards, police departments and news outlets use to keep people reliably informed could become lawless if content moderation and verification are chipped away.

The change represents the end of Twitter’s current verification system, which was launched in 2009 to prevent impersonations of high-profile accounts such as celebrities and politicians. Before the overhaul, Twitter had about 423,000 verified accounts, many of them rank-and-file journalists from around the globe that the company verified regardless of how many followers they had.

Experts have raised grave concerns about upending the platform’s verification system that, while not perfect, has helped Twitter’s 238 million daily users determine whether the accounts they were getting information from were authentic. Current verified accounts include celebrities, athletes, influencers and other high-profile public figures, along with government agencies and politicians worldwide, journalists and news outlets, activists and businesses and brands.

The update Twitter made to the iOS version of its app does not mention verification as part of the new blue check system.

Musk, who had earlier said that he wants to “verify all humans” on Twitter, has floated that public figures would be identified in ways other than the blue check. Currently, for instance, government officials are identified with text under names stating that they are posting from an official government account.

President Joe Biden’s @POTUS account, for example, says in gray letters it belongs to a “United States government official.”

Co-founder Dorsey apologizes for job losses

The change comes a day after Twitter began laying off workers to cut costs and as more companies are pausing advertising on the platform as a cautious corporate world waits to see how it will operate under its new owner.

About half of the company’s staff of 7,500 was let go, tweeted Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of safety and integrity.

He said the company’s front-line content moderation staff was the group the least affected by the job cuts and that “efforts on election integrity — including harmful misinformation that can suppress the vote and combating state-backed information operations — remain a top priority.”

Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey Saturday took blame for the widespread job losses. He had two runs as CEO of Twitter, with the most recent stretching from 2015 into 2021.

“I own the responsibility for why everyone is in this situation: I grew the company size too quickly,” he tweeted. “I apologize for that.”

Musk tweeted late Friday that there was no choice but to cut jobs “when the company is losing over $4M/day.” He did not provide details on the daily losses at Twitter and said employees who lost their jobs were offered three months’ pay as a severance.

Revenue already falling

Meanwhile, Twitter has already seen “a massive drop in revenue” because of pressure from activist groups on advertisers to get off the platform, Musk tweeted Friday. That hits Twitter hard because of its heavy reliance so far on advertising to make money. During the first six months of this year, nearly $92 of every $100 it made in revenue came from advertising.

United Airlines Saturday became the latest major brand to pause advertising on Twitter, confirming the move but declining to discuss the reasons for it or what it would need to see to resume advertising on the platform.

It joined the growing list of big companies pausing ads on Twitter, including General Motors, REI, General Mills and Audi.

Musk tried to reassure advertisers last week, saying Twitter would not become a “free-for-all hellscape” because of what he calls his commitment to free speech.

But concerns remain about whether a lighter touch on content moderation at Twitter will result in users sending out more offensive tweets. That could hurt companies’ brands if their advertisements appear next to them.

Science & Health

WHO: Rise in Ebola Outbreaks in Africa Linked to Climate Change

World health officials are linking a significant rise in African Ebola outbreaks in this century to climate change.    

Uganda’s September 20 Ebola outbreak is just the latest in a growing number of eruptions of this deadly hemorrhagic disease in Africa. Since 2000, the World Health Organization has reported 32 outbreaks of Ebola, 19 in the last decade compared to 13 in the preceding one.

Ebola is one of a range of zoonotic diseases — infections originating in animals and jumping to humans. A WHO analysis finds Ebola and other viral hemorrhagic fevers constitute nearly 70% of these outbreaks. The remaining 30% include dengue fever, anthrax, plague, and monkeypox.  

WHO Africa incident manager for the Ebola outbreak in Uganda, Patrick Otim, says the number of zoonotic diseases occurring in the region in the last decade has increased by more than 63%.

“There have been a couple of researchers that have shown a possible link between the climatic changes that we are seeing and the increase in zoonotic diseases, and for this particular case for Ebola, for instance,” he said.

Otim said diseases are caused by several factors. Ebola, he said, is strongly influenced by the human factor. As populations increase and people encroach on wildlife habitats, interaction with animals increases. This, he said, increases the spread of disease to humans.

Otim said temperature and climatic changes also spur migration and movement of some Ebola virus hosts. 

“For the Ebola virus, we know that the bats and other animals are hosts of this particular virus,” he said. So, when they move from areas where, for instance, there is drought or whether areas that are no longer conducive for them and they move to favorable areas, they may move into an area where the human population is inhabiting and therefore the interaction between the humans increases.”

WHO says Ebola now has spread to seven districts in Uganda beyond the original epicenter in the Mubende district. The latest reports put the number of cases at 131, including 48 deaths.

The current Ebola outbreak in Uganda has been triggered by the so-called Sudan strain for which there is no vaccine. WHO said several promising candidate vaccines soon will undergo clinical trials to evaluate their potential against Ebola.

Science & Health

Astronomers Spot Closest Known Black Hole to Earth

Astronomers have discovered the closest known black hole to Earth, just 1,600 light-years away.

Scientists reported Friday that this black hole is 10 times more massive than our sun. And it’s three times closer than the previous record-holder.

It was identified by observing the motion of its companion star, which orbits the black hole at about the same distance as Earth orbits the sun.

The black hole was initially identified using the European Space Agency’s Gaia spacecraft, said Kareem El-Badry of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

El-Badry and his team followed up with the International Gemini Observatory in Hawaii to confirm their findings, which were published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The researchers are uncertain how the system formed in the Milky Way. Named Gaia BH1, it’s located in the constellation Ophiuchus, the serpent-bearer.

Science & Health

Over 120 Leaders to Attend Climate Talks; Egypt Positive on Protest

More than 120 world leaders will attend this year’s U.N. climate talks, and requests by environmental activists to stage a rally during the event would be responded to “positively,” host Egypt said.

Veteran diplomat Wael Aboulmagd, who heads the Egyptian delegation, told reporters Friday that his country had been working for months to set the scene for “meaningful outcomes” at the two-week meeting in the Red Sea coastal resort of Sharm el-Sheikh starting Sunday.

“We have, I think about 121 maybe, and the number is growing, heads of state and government here,” he said during an online briefing. “We hope that it will be a watershed moment.” Leaders such as U.S. President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak confirmed their attendance, but Aboulmagd said other major heads of state such as China’s Xi Jinping and India’s Narendra Modi would not be going.

Aboulmagd said recent scientific reports highlighted the urgency of tackling global warming.

“Everyone is now aware of the gravity of the situation, of the enormity of the challenge, and have come here hopefully to work together,” he said.

Greenhouse gases, financial aid

Several thorny issues will be discussed at the November 6-18 talks, including further cutting greenhouse gas emissions and boosting financial aid for poor countries struggling with the impacts of climate change. It is the first such meeting held in Africa since 2016. Over 40,000 people have registered for the event.

Aboulmagd appealed to negotiators to engage constructively. “We cannot afford to waste any time,” he said. “So everyone must rise to the occasion and must move away from the adversarial winner-takes-all approach that has plagued this process for too long.”

Civil society groups have expressed concern that their presence at this year’s talks will be restricted, citing Egypt’s questionable human rights record.

But Aboulmagd said activists would get their space, with special arrangements already put in place “for those who want to organize demonstrations or protests or stand-ins.”

Asked about the possibility of holding a large rally midway through the talks, as has traditionally happened in previous meetings, he said, “That will be taken care of.”

Organizers would need to submit the names of contact persons, and city officials must approve the planned route.

“Once a request to that effect comes, it will be responded to positively,” he said.

Egypt would press diplomats to live up to the lofty pledges their leaders had made, Aboulmagd said, warning that so far, these had not been translated into the negotiating rooms.

“This separation between the reality in the public sphere and what actually happens in negotiating rooms cannot continue,” he said. “It is about real lives that are being lost and future lives that will be devastated” by unchecked climate change. 

Science & Health

In Meat-Loving South Africa, Climate Concerns Whet Appetite for Veggie Burgers

In South Africa, a country where ‘braai’ all-day barbecuing is a national pastime, plant-based substitutes are making surprising inroads despite a deep cultural love of meat and hostility from the regulator.

That could be heartening for climate scientists, who say shifting diets from emissions-heavy meat and dairy towards more plant-based foods is vital to the fight against climate change.

Plant-based meat substitutes are growing by 6.5% a year and sales are expected to reach $561 million by 2023, according to Research and Markets – more than half Africa’s share of a global market forecast to hit $162 billion by 2030.

That is still pretty niche – South Africans spent $15 billion on meat products in 2018 and is now the world’s 9th biggest per capita consumer of beef.

But the popularity of veggie alternatives would have been unthinkable even a decade ago and the market is outstripping forecast growth for meat. The shift has so unnerved South Africa’s processed meat industry that in June it lobbed for – and got – a government ban on plant-based products using words like ‘nugget’, ‘sausage’ or ‘burger’ on packaging.

The agriculture department at the time said the move was aimed at preventing consumer confusion. A spokesperson did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Food producers remain undeterred.

At meat processor Feinschmecker, staff pour powdered soy and pea protein into vats and rehydrate them to make its plant-based ‘deli slice’ – called so in anticipation of a ban on labeling it ‘ham’.

“A lot of it’s driven by flexitarianism. People who want to make a bit of an effort to eat less meat,” Alistair Hayward, Feinschmecker managing director, told Reuters.

Top food producer Tiger Brands TBSJ.J bought a stake in meat-substitute start-up Herbivoire in March, while supermarkets like Woolworths WHLJ.J have introduced their own ranges.

Clearly, ethical food choices are a luxury of the relatively well-to-do – a quarter of South Africans struggle to put any food on the table.

Consumer climate

Evidence is accumulating that curbing consumption of meat and dairy – which the latest estimates put at around a fifth of all emissions – is key to meeting U.N. climate goals.

A paper in Science in February said ending animal agriculture could stabilize greenhouse gas levels for 30 years and offset 68% of CO2 emissions this century; another in 2018 showed switching the world to a purely plant-based diet could slash food-related emissions – which are about 30% of the total – by nearly half.

Yet forgoing cheeseburgers is not something governments, many of which dole out billions of dollars to livestock farmers, are likely to propose at this month’s climate talks in Egypt.

Lowering animal consumption, then, may boil down to consumers – like Angie Raphalalani, 57. She gave up meat over climate concerns and her diabetes.

“My immediate family … were shocked,” she said, after lunching at plant-based restaurant Lexi’s Healthy Eatery in Johannesburg. “But probably they’ll follow me. I’m quite influential in their lives.”

Economy & business/Silicon Valley & Technology

Widespread Twitter Layoffs Begin, Worry Advertisers, Civic Groups

Twitter began widespread layoffs Friday as new owner Elon Musk overhauls the company, raising grave concerns about chaos enveloping the platform and its ability to fight disinformation just days ahead of the U.S. midterm elections.

The speed and size of the cuts also opened Musk and Twitter to lawsuits. At least one was filed Thursday in San Francisco alleging Twitter has violated federal law by not providing fired employees the required notice.

The company had told workers by email that they would find out Friday if they had been laid off. It did not say how many of the roughly 7,500 employees would lose their jobs.

Musk blames activists for drop in advertising

Musk didn’t confirm or correct investor Ron Baron at a Friday conference in New York when he asked the billionaire Tesla CEO how much money he would save after he “fired half of Twitter.”

Musk responded by talking about Twitter’s cost and revenue challenges and blamed activists who urged big companies to halt advertising on the platform. Musk hasn’t commented on the layoffs themselves.

“The activist groups have been successful in causing a massive drop in Twitter advertising revenue, and we’ve done our absolute best to appease them and nothing is working,” he said.

No other social media platform comes close to Twitter as a place where public agencies and other vital service providers — election boards, police departments, utilities, schools and news outlets — keep people reliably informed. Many fear Musk’s layoffs will gut it and render it lawless.

Several employees who tweeted about losing their jobs said Twitter also eliminated their entire teams, including one focused on human rights and global conflicts, another that checks Twitter’s algorithms for bias in how tweets get amplified, and an engineering team devoted to making the social platform more accessible for people with disabilities.

Fear that disinformation spreads ‘like wildfire’

Eddie Perez, a Twitter civic integrity team manager who quit in September, said he fears the layoffs so close to the midterms could allow disinformation to “spread like wildfire” during the post-election vote-counting period in particular.

“I have a hard time believing that it doesn’t have a material impact on their ability to manage the amount of disinformation out there,” he said, adding that there simply may not be enough employees to beat it back.

Perez, a board member at the nonpartisan election integrity nonprofit OSET Institute, said the post-election period is particularly perilous because “some candidates may not concede and some may allege election irregularities, and that is likely to generate a new cycle of falsehoods.”

Workers laid off worldwide

Twitter’s employees have been expecting layoffs since Musk took the helm. He fired top executives, including CEO Parag Agrawal, and removed the company’s board of directors on his first day as owner.

As the emailed notices went out, many Twitter employees took to the platform to express support for each other — often simply tweeting blue heart emojis to signify its blue bird logo — and salute emojis in replies to each other.

The sweeping layoffs will jeopardize content moderation standards, according to a coalition of civil rights groups that escalated their calls Friday for brands to pause advertising buys on the platform. The layoffs are particularly dangerous ahead of the elections, the groups warned, and for transgender users and other groups facing violence inspired by hate speech that proliferates online.

Leaders with the organizations Free Press and Color of Change said they spoke with Musk on Tuesday, and he promised to retain and enforce election integrity measures already in place. But the mass layoffs suggest otherwise, according to Jessica Gonzalez, co-CEO of Free Press.

“When you lay off reportedly 50% of your staff — including teams who are in charge of actually tracking, monitoring and enforcing content moderation and rules — that necessarily means that content moderation has changed,” Gonzalez said.

The layoffs affected Twitter’s offices around the world. In the United Kingdom, Twitter would be required by law to give employees notice, said Emma Bartlett, a partner specializing in employment and partnership law at CM Murray LLP.

In the case of mass firings, failure to notify the government could “have criminal penalties associated with it,” Bartlett said, adding that whether criminal sanctions are ever applied is another question.

The speed of the layoffs could also open Musk and Twitter up to discrimination claims if it turns out, for instance, that they disproportionally affected women, people of color or older workers.

Employment lawyer Peter Rahbar said most employers “take great care in doing layoffs of this magnitude” to make sure they are justified and don’t unfairly discriminate or bring unwanted attention to the company.

The layoffs come at a tough time for social media companies, as advertisers are scaling back and newcomers — mainly TikTok — are threatening older platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

In a tweet Friday, Musk blamed activists for what he described as a “massive drop in revenue” since he took over Twitter late last week. He did not say how much revenue had dropped.

Big companies including General Motors, REI, General Mills and Audi have all paused ads on Twitter because of questions about how it will operate under Musk. Volkswagen Group said it is recommending its brands, which include Audi, Lamborghini and Porsche, pause paid activities until Twitter issues revised brand safety guidelines.

Musk last week sought to convince advertisers that Twitter wouldn’t become a “free-for-all hellscape,” but many remain concerned about whether content moderation will remain as stringent and whether staying on Twitter might tarnish their brands.

In his tweet, Musk said “nothing has changed with content moderation.”

But Twitter advertisers have steadily declined since Musk agreed to buy Twitter in April, according to MediaRadar, which tracks ad buys. Between January and April, the average number of advertisers on Twitter was 3,350. From May through September, the number dropped to 3,100. Prior to July, more than 1,000 new advertisers were spending on Twitter every month. In July and August, that number dropped to roughly 200.

Science & Health

Death in CRISPR Gene Therapy Study Sparks Search for Answers

The lone volunteer in a study involving a gene-editing technique has died, and those behind the trial are now trying to figure out what killed him.

Terry Horgan, a 27-year-old who had Duchenne muscular dystrophy, died last month, according to Cure Rare Disease, a Connecticut-based nonprofit founded by his brother, Rich, to try and save him from the fatal condition.

Although little is known about how he died, his death occurred during one of the first studies to test a gene editing treatment built for one person. It’s raising questions about the overall prospect of such therapies, which have buoyed hopes among many families facing rare and devastating diseases.

“This whole notion that we can do designer genetic therapies is, I would say, uncertain,” said Arthur Caplan, a medical ethicist at New York University who is not involved in the study. “We are out on the far edge of experimentation.”

The early-stage safety study was sponsored by the nonprofit, led by Dr. Brenda Wong at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School and approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The hope was to use a gene-editing tool called CRISPR to treat Horgan’s form of Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The rare, genetic muscle-wasting disease is caused by a mutation in the gene needed to produce a protein called dystrophin. Most people with Duchenne die from lung or heart issues caused by it.

At this point, it’s unclear whether Horgan received the treatment and whether CRISPR, other aspects of the study or the disease itself contributed to his death. Deaths are not unheard of in clinical trials, which test experimental treatments and sometimes involve very sick people.

But trials involving CRISPR are relatively new. And Fyodor Urnov, a CRISPR expert at the Innovative Genomics Institute at University of California, Berkeley, said any death during a gene therapy trial is an opportunity for the field to have a reckoning.

“Step one is to grieve for the passing of a brave human soul who agreed to be basically a participant in an experiment on a human being,” Urnov said. “But then, to the extent that we can, we must learn as much as we can to carve out a path forward.”

Few answers yet

A statement from Cure Rare Disease said multiple teams across the country are looking into the details of the trial and its outcome, and the company intends to share findings with the scientific community.

“It will probably be 3-4 months to come up with a full conclusion,” said spokesman Scott Bauman. “At this stage of the game, saying anything is pure speculation.”

The company, which is also working on 18 other therapeutics, said in its statement that the team’s work is essential not only to shed light on the study’s outcome but also “on the challenges of gene therapy broadly.” Meanwhile, it said, “we will continue to work with our researchers, collaborators, and partners to develop therapies for the neuromuscular diseases in our pipeline.”

Bauman said the company has filed a report on death the with the FDA as required. The FDA declined to release or confirm the report.

Sarah Willey, spokesperson for Chan Medical School, said scientists there provided data to the company for the report. She later emailed to say no one there would comment further; out of respect for the family’s wishes, all information would come from Cure Rare Disease.

A crucial question is whether CRISPR played a part in Horgan’s death.

The chemical tool can be used to “edit” genes by making cuts or substitutions in DNA. The tool has transformed genetic research and sparked the development of dozens of experimental therapies. The inventors of the tool won a Nobel Prize in 2020.

In this case, scientists used a modified form of CRISPR to increase the activity of a gene. The CRISPR therapeutic is inserted directly into the body and delivered to cells with a virus.

But CRISPR is not perfect.

“We know that CRISPR can miss its target. We know that CRISPR can be partially effective. And we also know that there may be issues with … viral vectors” that deliver the therapy into the body, Caplan said. “Red flags are flying here.”

Another difference? The recent trial involved just one person — a type of trial Caplan is skeptical about.

A ‘medical pioneer’

On the company’s website, Horgan was described as a “medical pioneer” who “will be remembered as a hero.”

In 2020, the Montour Falls, New York resident blogged that he was diagnosed with Duchenne at age 3. As a kid, he said, he loved computers — once building his own — and would play catch in the driveway with his family when he could still walk. Later in his life, he used a motorized wheelchair. He studied information science at Cornell University and went on to work at the school in the information science department.

“As I grew up and began to understand what it meant to have DMD, my fears about this disease began to grow as it began to manifest,” Horgan wrote. “There weren’t many, or any, trials available to me through the years” — until this one brought the prospect of a customized drug.

The plan was to suppress Horgan’s immune system to prep his body for a one-time, gene-editing therapy delivered by IV at UMass medical school, followed by monitoring in the hospital. The therapy is designed to increase the level of an alternate form of the dystrophin protein using CRISPR, with the goal of stabilizing or potentially reversing the progression of symptoms.

Urnov, scientific director for technology and translation at the Berkeley genomics institute, said no other trial targeted this disease using this kind of virus to deliver this particular payload with its modified form of CRISPR.