Lawsuit: Facebook Used Faulty Data to Convince Publishers to Go All In on Video

Read more of this story here from Truthdig RSS by Ilana Novick.

In 2016 and 2017, media companies were convinced video content was the wave of the future. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told BuzzFeed News that “We’re entering this new golden age of video.” Facebook’s vice president for Europe, Nicola Mendelsohn, concurred, telling a panel at a Fortune conference in 2016: “We’re seeing a massive increase, as I’ve said, on both pictures and video. So I think, yeah, if I was having a bet, I would say: Video, video, video.”

Companies acted accordingly. Barely two years after hiring multiple writers and editors to focus on long-form written content, MTV News laid off many of those much-heralded staffers, saying that while it was proud of its long-form content, the company was “shifting resources into short-form video content more in line with young people’s media consumption habits.” Outlets like Mic.com and others followed, hoping that video content was a magic bullet for lifting flagging page views and revenue.

A new lawsuit filed this week by a group of advertisers in California however, claims that Facebook knew for years that its data on video was faulty, and, as Laura Hazard Owen reports in NiemanLab, “[the lawsuit] argues that Facebook had known about the discrepancy for at least a year—and behaved fraudulently by failing to disclose it.”

Owen reports that the signs were there even before the layoffs, and quotes a Wall Street Journal piece from 2016 that said Facebook “vastly overestimated average viewing time for video ads on its platform for two years by as much as 60 to 80 percent.”

Facebook, Owen notes, apologized in a blog post: “As soon as we discovered the discrepancy, we fixed it.”

Owen read the lawsuit to attempt to determine “whether people working in news organizations were fired based on faulty data provided by a giant platform that publishers believed they could trust.”

Owen writes that “The lawsuit alleges that Facebook engineers knew for over a year” that the company’s metrics were ‘overstating the average time its users spent watching paid video advertisements,’ and that ‘multiple advertisers had reported aberrant results caused by the miscalculation (such as 100% watch times for their video ads.’ ”

“The suit alleges,” Owens goes on to explain, “that there was a long lag between the time that the engineers realized the metrics were faulty and the time that Facebook corrected them, due to understaffing on the engineering team,” and, as the suit itself notes:

<blockquote>Even once Facebook decided to correct the false metrics, it chose not to do so immediately. Instead, Facebook chose to continue disseminating false metrics for several more months while it developed and deployed a ‘no PR’ strategy designed to ‘obfuscate the fact that we screwed up the math.’ All the while, Facebook continued to reap the benefits from the inflated numbers.</blockquote>

While Owen is cautious to say that we may never know the exact correlation between Facebook’s faulty data and news organizations’ hiring and firing decisions, based on her own analysis of the court documents, she concludes that:

<blockquote>What does seem clear now is that Facebook’s executives’ statements about video should not have been a factor in news publishers’ decisions to lay off their editorial staffs. But it’s hard not to conclude that publishers heard that rhapsodizing about the future and assumed that Facebook knew better than they did, that Facebook’s data must be more accurate than their own data was, that Facebook was perceiving something that they could not. That their own eyes were wrong.</blockquote>

Read Owen’s analysis, including excerpts from the court documents, here.

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Abigail Disney: The Rich Are Doing Better, Thanks to the GOP Tax Plan

Read more of this story here from Truthdig RSS by Ilana Novick.

When the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed, Republicans celebrated with beers in the White House Rose Garden. President Trump promised help for financially struggling Americans, saying, “Congress has reached an agreement on tax legislation that will deliver more jobs, higher wages and massive tax relief for American families and American companies.”

But as a new, remarkably honest video by Abigail Disney, filmmaker, activist and heiress to the Walt Disney fortune shows, it’s not the American family struggling to put food on the table and pay rent that will benefit from these tax cuts.

“Greetings from the 1%,” Disney begins the video. “[W]e in the 1% got a great Christmas present last year,” she says, “I don’t know if you remember—it was called a very big tax break.”

“I didn’t need it,” Disney continues, “but the Republicans gave it to me anyway. And I hear [that] if the Republicans do well in these midterms, they want to give me another one; an even bigger one, in fact.”

Lawmakers promised higher wages and job security for the middle class. Instead, she says, the rich got money they didn’t need, which they are spending on new yachts and other luxury items.

If the Republicans retain control of Congress in November, Disney warns, they’ll only go further:

“So anyway, 1%-ers are doing better than they ever have been doing, and guess what? You are paying for all of it.”

Watch the video below:

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>This Disney heiress is here to tell you exactly what the 1% did with Trump’s tax cuts<br><br>Spoiler: They didn’t create more jobs and increase salaries <a href=”https://t.co/8Ou21x1GMG”>pic.twitter.com/8Ou21x1GMG</a></p>&mdash; NowThis (@nowthisnews) <a href=”https://twitter.com/nowthisnews/status/1050775098075045889?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>October 12, 2018</a></blockquote>

<script async src=”https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js” charset=”utf-8″></script>

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As Far-Right Groups Incite Violence on Both Coasts, Officials Struggle to Respond

Read more of this story here from Truthdig RSS by Ilana Novick.

On the East and West coasts over the weekend, far-right demonstrators clashed with police and counterprotesters. These were the latest in series of incidents in which local law enforcement officials were unprepared to address the fallout.

In a highly publicized incident, nine members of the far-right group Proud Boys and three counterprotesters were arrested in a clash after a speech by Proud Boys leader Gavin McInnes at New York’s Metropolitan Republican Club.

During his speech, McInnes “waved a sword at anti-fascist protesters and celebrated the assassination of a socialist Japanese politician … dressed up as the Japanese assassin who killed the politician, complete with glasses that made his eyes into a racist caricature of a Japanese person’s eyes,” according to the Daily Beast.

The incident, writers Kelly Weill and Will Sommer observe, “highlights how the Proud Boys have managed to insinuate themselves with mainstream Republicans, even as they increasingly make the news for their violence.”

Weill and Sommer continue:

<blockquote>Representatives Mario Diaz-Balart and Devin Nunes have posed for pictures with Proud Boys on the campaign trail. Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson posed in a Fox green room with two Proud Boys and Republican operative Roger Stone earlier this year.

Stone has himself taken steps to be initiated into the Proud Boys and made headlines in March, when he used the Proud Boys as a security force at the Dorchester Conference, a Republican event in Oregon. By then, the Proud Boys were already notorious in Oregon for a series of bloody Portland brawls.</blockquote>

Across the country, the fight was ongoing in Oregon.

A number of members of the Proud Boys are also in Patriot Prayer, another far-right group involved in clashes with protesters this week. Members came to downtown Portland for a rally Saturday on one day’s notice. Billed as a march for “law and order,” it quickly escalated into bloody fights. According to Oregon Live, members of the militia and anti-fascist protesters “used bear spray, bare fists and batons to thrash each other,” before riot police waded into the violence.

The incident made national headlines, but it wasn’t the first time an extreme-right group incited violence in downtown Portland. In fact, during a similar August rally, members of Patriot Prayer were stationed on top of a building with a cache of weapons, a fact that Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler admitted only Monday, over two months later.

Wheeler told a news conference that prior to the start of the August rally, “the Portland Police Bureau discovered individuals who positioned themselves on a rooftop parking structure in downtown Portland with a cache of firearms.” Those weapons included long guns. Splinter explains in its coverage of the incident that “the term ‘long gun’ typically refers to a rifle with a lengthy barrel for shooting at distance. It’s a blanket term that can also include shotguns.” However, writer Jack Crosbie observes, “it seems unlikely to me that it refers to a shotgun in this case.”

Wheeler held the news conference to introduce an emergency ordinance that, Crosbie writes, “will give the police greater authority to separate groups during a confrontation, if it’s voted through by the City Council this week.”

Wheeler emphasized he “will not allow continued, planned street violence between rival factions to take place in Portland,” adding, as Willamette Week reports, that he has asked his staff “to evaluate options to hold accountable those who recklessly drain our public safety resources by using our city as a venue for planned street violence.”

Saturday’s violence, and the delayed announcement of the weapons cache at the August rally, is “raising questions about why Portland police and political leaders are allowing the violent dueling clashes to continue month in and month out,” Gordon R. Friedman writes in Oregon Live.

Asked by reporters why the weapons weren’t mentioned sooner, Portland Chief of Police Danielle Outlaw said, “Hindsight is always perfect.”

As these groups continue to ingratiate themselves into mainstream Republican circles, it will take more than an ordinance from a local government to fight back.

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Myanmar Military Used Facebook to Incite Violence Against the Rohingya

Read more of this story here from Truthdig RSS by Ilana Novick.

The same social network we use to share cat photos and reports of new babies is also a breeding ground for disinformation campaigns. While Americans argue over whether posts from Russian-affiliated groups influenced the outcome of the 2016 election, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A new investigative report by the New York Times reveals the Myanmar (formerly Burma) military “turned the social network into a tool for ethnic cleansing, according to former military officials, researchers and civilian officials in the country.”

Since August 2017, nearly 700,000 Rohingya, a Muslim-minority group in majority-Buddhist Myanmar, had fled the country, mainly to Bangladesh, the BBC reported in April. The exodus began when the Myanmar government began retaliating for militants’ attacks on police posts. At least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in the first month after the military-directed violence, Doctors Without Borders reported.

However, as the Times points out, anti-Rohingya social media campaigns started years before 2017. Those who posted on Facebook, who claimed to be fans of Burmese pop stars and other celebrities to attract followers, described Islam as a threat to Buddhism all over the world or told unsubstantiated stories about Muslims raping Buddhist women.

The military, Paul Mozur writes in the New York Times, “exploited Facebook’s wide reach in Myanmar, where it is so broadly used that many of the country’s 18 million internet users confuse the Silicon Valley social media platform with the internet. Human rights groups blame the anti-Rohingya propaganda for inciting murders, rapes and the largest forced human migration in recent history.”

Facebook may have taken down the official accounts of Myanmar’s military leaders, but that doesn’t stop the unofficial accounts that do much of the work to support disinformation. Mozur continues:

<blockquote>The campaign, described by five people who asked for anonymity because they feared for their safety, included hundreds of military personnel who created troll accounts and news and celebrity pages on Facebook and then flooded them with incendiary comments and posts timed for peak viewership. Working in shifts out of bases clustered in foothills near the capital of Naypyidaw, officers were also tasked with collecting intelligence on popular accounts and criticizing posts unfavorable to the military, the people said. So secretive were the operations that all but top leaders had to check their phones at the door. </blockquote>

Those behind the efforts spread explicit photos and fake news, much of it anti-Muslim. Sometimes they even showed photos of corpses they claimed were Buddhists killed by Rohingya.

These actions, Mozur says, “are among the first examples of an authoritarian government using the social network against its own people.”

Many of the sources for the article remained anonymous. One who didn’t, Thet Swe Win, founder of Synergy, an organization that focuses on promoting social harmony in Myanmar, said, “I wouldn’t say Facebook is directly involved in the ethnic cleansing, but there is a responsibility they had to take proper actions to avoid becoming an instigator of genocide.”

The campaign in Myanmar even shared some tactics with Russian disinformation. As Mozur reports, “Three people familiar with the situation said some officers had studied psychological warfare, hacking and other computer skills in Russia. Some would give lectures to pass along the information when they returned, one person said.”

For Facebook’s part, they did confirm many of these details to the Times. Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity, said the company found “clear and deliberate attempts to covertly spread propaganda that were directly linked to the Myanmar military.”

Following questions from the Times, Facebook took down a series of accounts, with a total of 1.3 million followers, that posed as entertainment accounts but were actually connected to the military.

Read the entire report here.

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A Former Oil Lobbyist Quietly Wields Power Behind the Scenes at the Interior Department

Read more of this story here from Truthdig RSS by Ilana Novick.

Former Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt had a private plane problem. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson couldn’t explain how he came to own a $30,000 dining table bought on the government’s dime. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is facing at least six ethics investigations.

Many of Trump’s Cabinet secretaries have been plagued with, and in Pruitt’s case, ousted by, scandals, grabbing massive media attention along the way. They’ve also been portrayed as examples of Washington outsiders finally getting their moment of power. But they’re not always the ones pulling the policy strings, nor do the policies they enact differ much from those enacted by the Republican mainstream.

A Mother Jones profile by Rebecca Leber describes how this pattern fits Zinke’s second in command at the Department of the Interior, former oil lobbyist David Bernhardt. “Unlike many in the nation’s capital,” Leber writes, “acknowledgement seems less important for Bernhardt than behind-the-scenes power.”

Leber goes on to describe how, during a recent town hall meeting for staff members at the Department of the Interior, “As Zinke ticked off the accomplishments of his first year—fulfilling the president’s vision for ‘energy dominance,’ selling off public lands, and taking on the Endangered Species Act—he might as well have been naming feathers in Bernhardt’s cap.”

Bernhardt, unlike his boss, is no Washington outsider. In fact, Leber reports, “Interior watchdogs say Bernhardt is the ultimate DC swamp creature. Zinke is relatively new to Interior; Bernhardt, who spent eight years at the department earlier in his career, knows the ins and outs of its labyrinthine bureaucracy.”

That knowledge means Bernhardt has the expertise to guide policies that control nearly a fifth of the United States’ landmass, and a range of competing priorities, including land, oceans, Native American affairs and even wildlife.

During the Bush administration, when Bernhardt ran Interior’s congressional and legislative affairs office, Leber says he:

<blockquote>Helped provide the legal underpinning for some of the Bush administration’s headline-grabbing initiatives, including its attempts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling and to allow snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park. He also played a key role in implementing the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which exempted the fracking industry from certain water regulations. </blockquote>

After the Bush administration, Bernhardt worked for Brownstein Farber, a lobbying and law firm, where he lobbied on behalf of oil industry clients, the same ones his decisions can benefit today.

Leber reports that he also knows how to work the system and how to conceal his activities:

<blockquote>His calendars often have little detail in them; the environmental group Western Values Project has noted how few of his emails turn up in their frequent Freedom of Information Act requests to the Interior. “Kind of amazing that he can do anything without leaving a paper trail behind him,” said Aaron Weiss, media director of Center for Western Priorities, another conservation group. </blockquote>

Right now, Bernhardt is consolidating his power behind the scenes, but he could be gearing up for something bigger. “Much like Andrew Wheeler,” Leber says, “the technocrat who succeeded Scott Pruitt after his rocky stint atop the EPA, Bernhardt could seamlessly take command should Zinke succumb to ethics challenges or, as some speculate, exit to run to be Montana’s governor in 2020.”

It’s a stark reminder of how, in the Trump administration, the person with the highest title may not always be calling the shots. As Leber reminds us, “some of the most radical changes under Trump have come from the many behind-the-scenes appointees, the government insiders, who have come out of the swamp the president pledged to drain.”

Read the entire article here.

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USDA Algorithm Targets Small-Business Owners in Its Crusade Against SNAP

Read more of this story here from Truthdig RSS by Ilana Novick.

Since the 2008 recession, the cost of SNAP benefits has nearly doubled, to $70 billion. The rise has made the federal nutrition program a frequent target of conservative politicians, including President Donald Trump, who are convinced there is an epidemic of SNAP fraud. Never mind that the rise was “largely because the economic upheaval caused more Americans to need the help of food stamps to feed their families,” as Emelyn Rude wrote in Time in 2017.

In February, Trump suggested that most recipients should receive half of those benefits not in money they can spend as they see fit, but in the form of a box of shelf-stable packaged foods, which the administration said would reduce the overall cost of the program by $129 billion over the next 10 years.

While the budget for SNAP, nor the future of Trump’s boxes proposal, have yet to be determined, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has found other ways to punish both SNAP users and the stores the stores at which they shop.

On Monday, in collaboration with the New Food Economy, The Intercept published a report on a USDA algorithm, part of the department’s ALERT system, that in 2017 disqualified over 1,600 retailers from accepting SNAP benefits:

<blockquote>The ALERT system analyzes millions of SNAP transactions and assigns ratings to businesses based on the number of unusual transactions they process. Unusual transactions can include sales volumes that are much higher than those at neighboring stores, multiple withdrawals from the same card over a short period of time, multiple purchases that end in the same number of cents, or very frequent or large purchases.</blockquote>

“Over 90 percent of those businesses,” the Intercept writes, “are convenience stores or small groceries.”

The Intercept profiles one of those such retailers, 128 P&L Deli Grocery, whose owner, Porfirio Mejia, found himself caught in the USDA’s crosshairs because he gave IOUs to several of his regular, SNAP-eligible customers. The practice, the Intercept writes, allowed “him to deliver food to elderly neighbors and settle up after they received their benefits.”

Unfortunately, it also “triggered a suspicious activity flag in the system. By allowing customers to rack up a few weeks’ worth of grocery bills before paying with their benefit cards, Mejia violated the agency’s rules, which prohibit retailers from establishing informal credit systems with their customers.”

The USDA suspected him of fraud by trading food stamps for cash. Mejia collected letters from customers and produced reams of receipts but was unable to produce the exact itemized lists the USDA requested to absolve him. Mejia is now permanently banned from accepting food stamps, costing him from  35 percent to  40 percent of his income.

“Over 90 percent of those businesses are convenience stores or small groceries,” the Intercept reports. “And while some of them almost certainly engaged in the cash-for-food-stamps fraud that the system is designed to detect, many of them, like P&L, were probably unjustly caught in the crosshairs.”

“It’s a jerry-rigged system against small retailers unlike anything I’ve ever seen before,” Stewart Fried, an attorney who has represented store owners flagged by the algorithm, told the Intercept.

Hampering retailers’ ability to prove they are not in fact committing fraud is that the USDA does not explain what sales figures, thresholds or ranges that trigger their algorithms. One USDA official the Intercept cites, Douglas Edward Wilson, a program analyst, testified in 2017 “that he had no idea who originally set the parameters for flagging fraudulent transactions.”

The USDA defends its actions, claiming the ALERT system is merely one tool in a broader, more thorough fraud investigation.

Still, reversal rates are low, and the burden of proof is on the store. Unless they can afford an attorney, most store owners are stuck with the results. For his part, Mejia is cutting employee hours and working 14- to 15-hour days in an effort to stave off selling his business.

Read the entire article here.

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Organized Labor Breaks New Ground on the Campaign Trail

Read more of this story here from Truthdig RSS by Ilana Novick.

In July, the Ohio Democratic Party became the first state party to recognize the Campaign Workers Guild (CWG), a new union for workers who do the essential, if taxing and unglamorous, work of getting candidates elected to local, state and national office.

The union is the first of its kind, CWG President Laura Reimers told Truthdig in an email, and represents an idea that campaign workers had discussed privately for years. “For decades, campaign workers have been whispering in their offices about organizing and forming a union. For too long, we’ve been underworked, overpaid and undervalued,” she says.

The specific demands vary across campaigns, but, Reimers says, “The types of issues we address are generally the same across contracts: compensation, hours, leave time, insurance, discipline.”

Among the congressional campaigns that have affiliated with the CWG are those of Randy Bryce, running to replace the retiring Rep. Paul Ryan in Wisconsin, and Max Rose, seeking the House seat currently occupied by Republican Dan Donovan in Staten Island, N.Y. Some state campaigns have joined as well.

Campaign workers say they are organizing because they are devoted to what they do but are concerned about the conditions under which they do it. “I love field [organizing] because it bridges the gap between candidate/party and volunteers/voters,” says Sarah Willenbrink-Sahin, a regional field director for the Ohio Democratic Party. “I want to work in [field operations] as a career because I see the positive change that can be made in communities by neighborhood teams and volunteers. Unfortunately, campaign work is absolutely not sustainable—the hours worked and the low pay sees workers burn out very quickly; that’s why I’m so passionate about CWG.”

In a political campaign, field organizing is the process by which staffers educate voters about their candidates. Often it involves door-to-door canvassing, contacting constituents by phone and addressing them at political rallies or other community events.

Campaign workers unaffiliated with the guild agree that the working conditions must be improved.

“It’s absolutely brutal,” says Noah Levinson, a strategist focusing on young candidates. Levinson previously worked on a variety of campaigns, including those of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, as well as on local and state races in New York City and Pittsburgh. “The hours are brutal … the pay is low,” and there is a general sentiment that ‘[t]he only way I know we’re going to win is if we outwork the competition,’ ” Levinson says.

Campaigns get away with overworking employees, he believes, by playing to workers’ sense of loyalty, along with their commitment to their country and political cause. “I think [campaign managers] could always pull this card where it’s like, ‘Are you in it or not? … Are you one of us or not?’ in terms of trying to make this country better.”

Recognition from a prominent state party is a major victory for the nascent union, a sign that even if the long, difficult work hours aren’t going away entirely, at least workers might be better compensated and better treated in the future.

But Ohio Democrats haven’t always been amenable to organizing. After they initially recognized the Union, the Ohio Democratic party hired a prominent anti-union law firm, Taft Stettinius & Hollister to represent them during contract negotiations.

“There is absolutely no way to sugarcoat this: I am incredibly disappointed by the [Ohio Democratic Party],” Willenbrink-Sahin said at the time.

The Ohio Democratic Party found itself in an uncomfortable position with the midterms fast approaching: fighting with a labor union that represents its own workers. After two weeks of intense negotiation, however, an agreement was reached the last week of September and ratified in October.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement applies to more than 80 campaign workers, including field organizers, digital organizers and regional field directors. It also include a 5 percent pay raise, time off from work and stipends for out-of-pocket phone calls and cellphones—some of the many unreimbursed expenses that Willenbrink-Sahin says have become a reality of life in her profession.

In a statement to The Plain Dealer, David Pepper, Ohio Democratic Party chair, said the deal represents the party’s intentions to live “our Democratic values not just in whom we elect, but in how we operate. … With the positive and rapid resolution of this important process, Ohio Democrats are now focusing our complete attention on stopping Mike DeWine, Jim Renacci and the harmful and dangerous policies being introduced by the entire Republican ticket.”

With the latest hard-won victory in Ohio, Reimers, the union has made considerable progress. “In about six months, 22 campaigns have negotiated CBAs [collective bargaining agreements],” she says. “There’s been a surge of campaign workers across the country who are reaching out to organize their campaigns. We’re excited that two statewide coordinated campaigns won recognition just in the first year of organizing.”

Pooling state party money, staff and other resources, these campaigns conduct voter registration, voter outreach, canvassing and other operations for multiple candidates at once. The current Ohio Democratic Party coordinated campaign is working to elect Richard Cordray for governor and Sherrod Brown to the Senate, among other races.

Coordinated campaigns are particularly important because, as Reimers explains, they are “the major organizing apparatus for the Democratic Party during midterms and generals. Hundreds of organizers work on coordinated campaigns every year; they are often workers’ introduction to campaign work, and, of course, impact working conditions across the industry.”

One of the challenges in organizing campaign workers is the transient nature of the industry. Campaigns are inherently time-limited to election cycles, and even within one cycle staffers may work on multiple campaigns leading up to both primary and general elections.

A deal covered under one campaign may not apply to another, and, as Reimers points out, not every campaign has the same needs.

The CWG aims to address this issue by having two levels of membership: working members and associate members. “Working members are currently covered under a contract,” Reimers says. “Associate members are folks who anticipate staying in the industry or are in between campaigns and are not currently covered under a contract.

“We have already had members leave primary campaigns, remain associate members, and lead the effort to organize their next campaign,” she adds. “Associate members have access to exclusive job postings from CWG positions covered under our CBAs.”

Levinson points out that all these campaigns are overseen by the Democratic Party, which could force accountability across different races: “Effectively, even though it’s transient, at the end of the day, their boss is still kind of the party. … If they win their primary, it’s the party’s responsibility.”

Beyond a transient workforce, Levinson cites the issue of money—which Democratic campaigns often lack—as a potential roadblock to unionization.

“I think unionization should be something that is a given right to anyone who’s a worker,” he explains, “but when you’re competing against a [Republican] Party that believes that people are just capital and has the funds to put that in action, it’s hard. It’s going to be really challenging.”

Even so, Levinson believes that unions, or at least collective action and organizing, have a future in the Democratic Party. “As freelancing and independent work like this becomes more common … there needs to be something new. And it might not be unions. It might just be the right to collective bargaining, the right to good working conditions.”

Reimers agrees: “Every time a worker is paid fairly, wins a day off or a fair discipline process, is a victory. This is the first time our industry is seeing a lot of these changes.”

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Proposed Funding for Women’s Health Would Lead to ‘Contraception Deserts’

Read more of this story here from Truthdig RSS by Ilana Novick.

Religious conservatives, with the help of President Donald Trump’s administration, are working to ensure the future of women’s sexual health care in America will not include contraceptives. The administration is proposing massive changes to Title X, a $280-million program that is currently the only source of federal funding for birth control for low-income women without health insurance.

If the changes are passed, Kaiser Health News reports, clinics receiving these funds can screen for sexually transmitted infections, HIV and cervical cancer and provide prenatal care, but they will not be able to provide birth control, contributing to what Kaiser calls “contraception deserts.”

For decades after Title X was passed, clinics were required to provide a full range of medically approved contraceptives, such as condoms, birth control pills, intrauterine devices and implants. The funding does cover abortion.

Contraception used to have widespread support across political parties, Kaiser explains, even as Americans remained fiercely divided on abortion. That changed in 2010 with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which mandated that all health care plans under the law must provide coverage for contraception. That energized religious conservatives, and, Kaiser observes, “the politics of abortion and birth control converged.”

Now, as Title X is under the control of Dr. Diane Foley, the former chief executive of Life Network, a conservative Christian organization that operates anti-abortion women’s health centers, the Trump administration is expected to adopt new rules that divert funding away from contraception.

The new restrictions, called Protect Life Rule, are, as Kaiser reports, “aimed at narrowing women’s access to clinics that discuss or refer patients to abortion providers.” Kaiser continues:

<blockquote>The Trump administration has worked quickly to shape women’s reproductive health care, rolling back an Obama-era rule that required employers to cover contraception in their health insurance plans and nominating to the Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who referred to common forms of contraception as ‘abortion-inducing drugs’ during his confirmation hearing.</blockquote>

The Protect Life Rule would support clinics whose sole form of pregnancy prevention are fertility planning methods that rely on women tracking their periods and refraining from sex at certain particularly fertile times of their menstrual cycle.

Similar rules are already in place in Texas, where in 2011 lawmakers cut funding for family planning clinics by 66 percent. Over 80 clinics closed, and the impact was swift. Kaiser observes that “the vast geography combined with widespread clinic closures means that some 10 million Texans live at least half an hour from a clinic, a common standard used to determine health care shortages. It’s a phenomenon some call ‘contraception deserts.’ ”

The operators of these anti-contraception clinics say they are simply offering an alternative to Planned Parenthood. “A woman needs choice, but you can’t have a choice if the only clinic that a woman can go to is Planned Parenthood,” Kathleen Bravo, chief executive of the Obria Group, a company in the midst of expanding their clinics. She added that women “don’t want to live every day having to take a carcinogen,” referring to hormonal birth control, which, as a Harvard study showed this year, has a “weak link” to cancer.

Ofelia Alonso, a 22-year-old community organizer living in Texas, is worried about her options for the future. “It’s like abstinence only, and then, crisis pregnancy centers, anti-abortion propaganda, defunding our family clinics. So what is left for us?” Alonso told Kaiser. “We’re going to have these weird centers where you can’t get anything?”

Read the entire article here.

 

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Private Prisons Rake In Millions Detaining Immigrants

Read more of this story here from Truthdig RSS by Ilana Novick.

Private for-profit prisons are a roughly $4 billion industry in America. When Thomas Beasley first started what became CoreCivic, one of the two largest private prison corporations (the other is GEO Group) in the 1980s, America was running out of space in federally owned prisons. Beasley says he was just filling a hole in the market, telling an interviewer, “You just sell it like you were selling cars or real estate or hamburgers.”

As The New York Times notes in its Retro Report series—which explores the effects of political and business trends—such prisons “are where the government sends most people caught trying to enter the United States illegally.”

The documentary video in this week’s Retro Report explores how these immigrant prisoners are treated. As the Times explains, “One picture of private prisons captured in the video includes barely edible food, indifferent health care, guard brutality and assorted corner-cutting measures.”

Josue Vladimir Cortez Diaz, a gay immigrant from El Salvador, is a key character in the documentary. He says he came to America to escape persecution and death threats. He was captured at the border in California and sent to a GEO Group prison there.

He was later released, but, as the Times reports, “not before he and other detainees staged a hunger strike to protest their treatment at [the facility in Adelanto, Calif.). Prison guards beat and pepper-sprayed them, they say, and they are now suing GEO and federal and local authorities for what they say were rights violations.”

In the documentary, he explains that “the conditions in the detention center, they’re bad, right down to the food. … They don’t care if someone is sick, if the food goes bad. That’s how we came to say we have to protest.”

GEO Group spokesman Pablo Paez called Cortez Diaz’s statements “completely baseless,” adding that federal authorities “found that the officers acted in accordance with established protocol.”

Private prison corporations may house 9 percent of the nation’s total prison population, but they are in charge of a much larger portion of immigrant detainees—“73 percent by some accounts,” the Times reports. Alonzo Peña, a former deputy director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says that ICE is at least partly to blame:

<blockquote>We set up this partnership with the private industry in a way that was supposed to make things much more effective, much more economical,” he said. “But unfortunately, it was in the execution and the monitoring and the auditing we fell behind, we fell short.</blockquote>

While the private prison industry is raking in billions for the corporations in charge, the system doesn’t appear to save the government much money, the Times reports:

<blockquote>Studies suggest that governments save little money, if any, by turning over prison functions to private outfits. And in 2016, under President Barack Obama, the Justice Department concluded that private prisons were in general more violent than government-operated institutions, and ordered a phaseout of their use at the federal level. Reversing that order was one of the first things that President Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, did on taking office.</blockquote>

The companies claim they are in fact more efficient than the government. Rodney King, CoreCivic’s public affairs manager, told the Times, “Privately operated facilities are better equipped to handle changes in the flow of illegal immigration because they can open or close new facilities as needed.”

Corporations like CivicCore and GEO Group have extensive financial and political connections, spending millions on lobbying Congress to ensure they maintain their power.

Read the entire article, and watch the video, here.

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