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Lawmakers In US Will Review Social Media Executives In September

“It would be a mistake to think this is just about elections,” added Republican Sen. John Cornyn, noting similar techniques could be used to destroy reputations or tank stock prices.

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Top executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google will face lawmakers on Capitol Hill next month to explain what the social media giants are doing to combat foreign information operations.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman, Republican Sen. Richard Burr, and ranking Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner, made the announcement Wednesday, at the start of a hearing on how Russia and other countries and actors have been manipulating social media.

The goal of the September 5 hearing will be “to hear the plans they have in place, to press them to do more, and to work together to address this challenge,” Warner said.

“They can do better to protect our democracy,” he added. “I’m concerned that even after 18 months of study we are still only scratching the surface when it comes to Russia’s information warfare.”

Burr called the foreign information operations, like those being carried out by Russia, “an intolerable assault on the democratic foundation this republic was built on.”

Google Along with Other SSocial Media Giants will Face The Lawmakers, Wikimedia Commons
Google Along with Other Social Media Giants will Face The Lawmakers, Wikimedia Commons

“It’s also important that the American people know that these activities neither began nor ended with the 2016 elections” Burr said. He warned that activities like those identified recently by Facebook have been going beyond just social media, “creating events on our streets with real Americans unknowingly participating.”

Facebook Tuesday announced it had shut down 32 Facebook and Instagram accounts because they were “involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior,” much of it targeting left-wing American political groups.

Facebook said it was too early to say whether the accounts were being run by Russia, but an analysis by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab found signs pointing to “the Russian-speaking world.”

In a blog post, the lab noted similarities to activity by Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA), including “language patterns that indicate non-native English and consistent mistranslation, as well as an overwhelming focus on polarizing issues at the top of any given news cycle with content that remained emotive rather than fact-based.”

Facebook’s announcement followed a warning issued by Microsoft less than two weeks ago, which said hackers had targeted the campaigns of at least Congressional candidates in the upcoming election.

Microsoft said the phishing attacks, similar to ones employed by Russian-linked operatives to target the Republican and Democratic campaigns during the 2016 election, were thwarted.

Late last week, The Daily Beast reported one of the targets of those attacks was Missouri’s Democratic senator, Claire McCaskill, who has been highly critical of Russia.

Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg, May 23, 2018. VOA
Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg, May 23, 2018. VOA

During Wednesday’s senate hearing, a number of senators cautioned the issue is much bigger than the 2016 or 2018 elections.

“It is about the integrity of our society,” said Sen. Burr. “This is about national security.”

“It would be a mistake to think this is just about elections,” added Republican Sen. John Cornyn, noting similar techniques could be used to destroy reputations or tank stock prices.

Experts say some of that already is happening.

“On the state actor front we have seen evidence of campaigns targeting energy and agriculture,” said Renee DiResta, director of Research at New Knowledge.

“In agriculture, that’s taken the form of spreading fear about GMOs [genetically modified organisms],” she said.

“There’s a commercial dimension to this that’s underreported. There’s a lot more going on in the commercial space,” Graphika Founder and CEO John Kelly told lawmakers.

Also Read: Social Media A Medium For Evil? No Remedy To Escape

“Sometimes they’re tied, these political attacks and attack on corporations where corporations will be basically punished with falsely amplified boycott campaigns, and similar measures for doing something, which is politically not what Russia wants to see.” (VOA)

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The Attention Shifts To The U.S. As It Strikes Down FGM Law

Looking beyond the Michigan case, Jones said the key to stopping FGM isn’t just legislation but also education.

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FILE - A T-shirt warns against female genital mutilation. Its wearer attends an event, discouraging harmful practices such as FGM, at a girls high school in Imbirikani, Kenya, April 21, 2016.Image source: VOA

When a U.S. district judge last month ruled a federal ban on female genital mutilation unconstitutional, he undercut the federal government and alarmed anti-FGM activists, who hope to eradicate the practice.

The World Health Organization calls FGM, also known as female circumcision, a human rights violation of women and girls, with no health benefits.

Some 200 million women and girls around the world, mainly in Africa, have experienced FGM, the WHO says.

In his opinion, Judge Bernard Friedman called FGM “despicable,” but also “a local criminal activity” that must be addressed at the state level. In enacting a federal law, he said, Congress overstepped.

Now, local lawmakers, advocates and newspapers are calling for state bans that equal or surpass the scope of the federal law that was struck down.

Female Genital Mutilation, FGM, judge
A badge reads “The power of labor against FGM” is seen on a volunteer during a conference on International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 6, 2018. (VOA)

‘Never again’

The case Friedman ruled on centers around Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, an emergency room physician accused of performing FGM on at least 100 girls in Michigan for more than a decade.

Prosecutors have focused their case on nine girls, aged 7 to 12, from three states. The girls allegedly were subjected to FGM with the aid of Nagarwala and seven others, including the girls’ mothers.

Defense attorneys say the procedure amounted to only a “nick” on the girls performed as part of a religious ritual — not FGM. But they also argued in July that the federal law banning FGM is unconstitutional.

State Senator Rick Jones, who represents Michigan’s 24th district, told VOA by phone that he was shocked to learn about Nagarwala’s case and strongly disagrees with Friedman’s ruling.

Last year, Jones became the spokesperson for a package of bills outlawing FGM statewide. The legislation passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Female Circumcision, FGM
The barbaric practice of genitalia mutilation has been banned in developed nations. Wikimedia

Now, Michigan has some of the toughest FGM laws in the country.

Health-care providers convicted of performing FGM face up to 15 years in prison, along with the permanent loss of their medical licenses. Parents who take their daughters to doctors to be cut can lose custody.

The 1996 federal law, meanwhile, stipulated up to five years in prison and fines for medical providers who perform FGM.

“We wanted to send a strong message around the world: Never again bring your girls to Michigan for this horrible procedure,” Jones said.

Across the U.S., 27 states have passed laws banning FGM, many of which have been written in recent years and include penalties that go beyond the federal law, which also criminalizes so-called “vacation cutting,” the practice of taking girls out of the United States to have FGM performed overseas.

News organizations are among those pushing for an expansion of state laws. Last month, the Seattle Times editorial board called for a ban in Washington, one of 23 states yet to outlaw FGM.

FGM
A doctor checks her phone as she poses for a photograph in Mumbai, India, June 8, 2016. The 50-year-old woman defends what is widely considered female genital mutilation within her small, prosperous Dawoodi Bohra community in India. VOA

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times editorial board said all 50 states should ban the “barbaric” practice, in light of Friedman’s ruling.

Religious ritual?

The health-care providers and families involved in the Michigan case belong to Dawoodi Bohra, a Shi’ite Muslim sect based in India with about 2 million followers worldwide.

According to a study published earlier this year, FGM, called khafd in Dawoodi Bohra communities, is widespread in the sect and involves cutting the clitoral hood or part of the clitoris, without an anesthetic, when girls turn seven.

The study, commissioned by WeSpeakOut, an advocacy group focused on eradicating khafd, also found that three-quarters of Dawoodi Bohra women have experienced FGM.

The severity and nature of FGM can vary.

Health-care providers have identified four types of FGM. Khafd involves Type 1 FGM. Other types involve removing all of the external genitalia and narrowing the vaginal opening.

Jones rejects the idea that there’s a religious basis for the procedure, however it’s performed.

FGM
FILE – A counselor holds up cards used to educate women about female genital mutilation (FGM). VOA

“Across the world, this has been practiced by Christians, pagans, Muslims, even a small Jewish sect in Ethiopia,” he said.

“This is not about a religion,” he added. “This is about men attempting to control women’s behavior by this horrible procedure.”

The WHO identifies both short-term and permanent harms associated with the practice. Immediate concerns include severe pain, infections and, in some cases, death. Long term, women and girls subjected to FGM face a range of physiological and psychological complications that can affect menstruation, childbirth and sexual health.

The United States has been unequivocal in condemning the practice, saying “the U.S. government considers FGM/C to be a serious human rights abuse, and a form of gender-based violence and child abuse” on a fact sheet posted to the Citizenship & Immigration Services website.

Education and legislation

Friedman’s November decision is the latest in a series of setbacks for prosecutors.

Nagarwala spent seven months in 2017 in jail before 16 friends posted a $4.5 million unsecured bond, against the pleas of prosecutors, who argued Nagarwala could silence potential witnesses or even flee the country if released.

FGM
KAMELI, KENYA – AUGUST 12: A Masaai villager displays the traditional blade used to circumcise young girls August 12, 2007 in Kameli, Kenya. Maasai are a pastoral group mostly clustered in the Rift Valley. They practice circumcision on both boys and girls during puberty years as a rite of passage to adulthood. VOA

And in January, the judge dismissed charges that Nagarwala and a second doctor, Fakhruddin Attar, transported minors with the intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, an offense that carries a lifetime sentence.

Nagarwala still faces conspiracy and obstruction charges that could result in decades in prison.

The trial is now set to begin next April, the Detroit Free Press reported last month. However, the prosecution could appeal last month’s decision, drawing the case out further.

Also Read: Somalia Calls To Outlaw Female Genital Mutilation

Looking beyond the Michigan case, Jones said the key to stopping FGM isn’t just legislation but also education.

“What we have to do is continue to fight this worldwide. This is a global problem,” Jones said.

“It is a violation of human rights,” he said. “And I’m going to continue speaking out worldwide against this horrible, horrible practice that must end.” (VOA)