Ilya Gambashidze: Simple soldier of disinformation or king of Russia’s trolls?

He may not be a household name, but Ilya Gambashidze appears to be involved in almost all of the latest Russian disinformation operations across the world. His disruptive cyber actions earned him a spot last year on the European sanctions list. But a FRANCE 24-RFI profile of Russia’s mystery man of manipulation reveals an operative with a far smaller disinformation stature than the Kremlin’s previous troll czar, the late Wagner boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin.

He emerged from anonymity in the West in the summer of 2023. Ilya Gambashidze’s name first appeared on the July 2023 Council of the European Union’s list of Russian nationals subjected to sanctions.

The list – which transliterated his last name from the original Cyrillic text as “Gambachidze” – noted that he was the “founder of Structura National Technologies and Social Design Agency” and was a “key actor” in Russia’s disinformation campaign targeting Ukraine and a number of West European countries.

By November, the US State Department was citing Gambashidze in a media note on the Kremlin’s efforts to covertly spread disinformation in Latin America.

The tactics cited in the US and EU documents detail the disinformation strategies employed in a vast operation dubbed Doppelganger by EU officials, which clones and creates fake websites impersonating government organisations and mainstream media.

The Social Design Agency (SDA) and Structura were described by the US State Department as “influence-for-hire firms” with “deep technical capability, experience in exploiting open information environments, and a history of proliferating disinformation and propaganda to further Russia’s foreign influence objectives”.  

The SDA fulfills a dual role, according to Coline Chavane, threat research analyst at, a French cybersecurity company. “The SDA acted both as a coordinator of the various players involved in these disinformation campaigns, and as an operator, creating false content,” she explained.

Exploiting crises from Ukraine to Gaza war

In addition to being a prolific disinformer, Gambashidze is also an opportunistic one. Months after his name appeared on the European sanctions list, Gambashidze was busy trying to fan tensions between France’s Muslim and Jewish communities following the Gaza war launched by Israel in response to the October 7 Hamas attack.

The French foreign ministry has linked an anti-Semitic Star of David graffiti campaign in the Paris region to Operation Doppelganger. Viginum, the French government agency for defence against foreign digital influence, has accused the SDA of seeking to amplify the surge in anti-Semitism in France by using bots to proliferate Star of David posts on social networks.

The Kremlin has even cited Gambashidze as the chief organiser of a new anti-Western propaganda campaign in Ukraine, according to documents detailing a disinformation plan signed by the SDA boss and leaked to Ukrainian media.

In the leaked documents, Gambashidze is presented as one of the main shadow advisors to “The Other Ukraine”, a massive Kremlin propaganda operation targeting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“One reason for talking about Gambashidze is he looks very central. His name keeps cropping up including with respect to Ukraine,” said Andrew Wilson, a professor of Ukrainian studies at University College London.

When contacted by FRANCE 24, the Council of the European Union declined to comment on the importance that Brussels attaches to this Russian propagandist, citing the “confidentiality of preparatory work” in deciding whether to sanction an individual or a company.

Gambashidze is not the only Russian involved in Operation Doppelganger cited by the EU. Individuals linked to the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence unit, have also been sanctioned.

Nor is he the sole orchestrator of the new disinformation campaign in Ukraine. He is also said to have worked with Sofiya Zakharova, an employee of the Russian Department of Communications and Information Technology, dubbed “the brain” of Operation Doppelganger.

In the footsteps of Yevgeny Prigozhin

With the SDA and Structura cropping up in multiple Western investigations and news reports on Russian disinformation, Anton Shekhovtsov, a Ukrainian political scientist and director of the Austrian-based Centre for Democratic Integrity, notes that his omnipresence suggests that “Ilya Gambashidze and the SDA are gradually replacing Yevgeny Prigozhin and his troll factory”.

Before the Wagner militia chief’s death in August 2023, Prigozhin ran a network of “troll farms” that conducted disinformation operations covering vast ground, from the 2016 US presidential elections and the Brexit vote to online anti-West campaigns in Africa and Asia.

Prigozhin’s death in a plane crash just two months after he led a failed mutiny in Russia has left the disinformation throne vacant, according to Shekhovtsov. “There’s a place up for grabs and the competition is fierce. For now, Ilya Gambashidze appears to be well placed,” he noted.

But Gambashidze has not yet reached Prigozhin’s disinformation stature, and his vast domain could be divided between several inheritors. “We are currently witnessing a restructuring of the propaganda ecosystem in Russia. There isn’t necessarily one player at the heart of the system. It’s more like a network that’s being set up,” said Chavane.

In the past, when Prigozhin was the tutelary figure of the Kremlin’s cyber propaganda, “disinformation was organised in a pyramid structure, whereas we seem to be moving more towards a spider’s web structure with several players linked together in a network”, explained François Deruty, Sekoia’s chief operations officer.

A discreet Rasputin of disinformation

Gambashidze and Prigozhin have a difference in style as well as stature. The middle-aged Gambashidze, with his rather stern Russian technocrat demeanor, has none of the bluster and media showmanship of the late Wagner boss. While Prigozhin was known for his public boasts and rants, Gambashidze’s modus operandi appears to be discretion.

Very little is known about his private life, and the Internet provides little information about him – not even basic details such as his age. According to Russian investigative journalist Sergei Yezhov, Gambashidze is 46 years old.

There are no details about his birthplace, education and family life either. The only available piece of information is that he comes under the fiscal jurisdiction of a Moscow tax office. Photographs of Gambashidze are equally rare, and one of the most recent shows an austere-looking man with thinning hair and no other distinguishing features.

On the European list of sanctioned individuals, he is described as having “formerly worked as a counsellor … to Piotr Tolstoi”. It’s a noteworthy detail. Piotr Tolstoi, commonly spelt Pyotr Tolstoy, is none other than the great-grandson of Russian literary icon Leo Tolstoy. The younger Tolstoy is the deputy chairman of the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament. He was also deputy chairman of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe before Russia was expelled from the organisation – which is distinct from the EU – following the 2022 Ukraine invasion.

The lack of information, discretion and cited ties to prominent Russian politicians paints a picture of a mysterious master of manipulation, a latter-day Rasputin of disinformation.

‘Third-rate political technologist’

But images can also be deceptive. “If there’s so little information about him, it may be simply because he’s not important enough in Russia,” noted Andrey Pertsev, a journalist with the Latvia-based independent Russian website, Meduza, and an expert on Moscow’s corridors of power.

Gambashidze’s case illustrates how the same individual can be perceived by two very different worlds. In the West, he is considered a threat, with Europe going so far as to include him on its list of sanctioned individuals. In Russia, on the other hand, he is at best “a third-rate political technologist”, according to Pertsev, using a Russian term for the professional engineering of politics.

While the term “political technology” is largely unfamiliar in the West, it’s well known to Russian and Ukrainian audiences acquainted with the state’s manipulation of techniques to hijack and weaponise the political process.

It’s also the subject of Wilson’s latest book, “Political Technology: The Globalisation of Political Manipulation”, and Gambashidze appears to neatly fit the definition of a political technologist. “His career looks super typical. A lot of these political technologists are entrepreneurial. They sell services, they come up with ideas,” explained Wilson.

Internationally, political technologists are most often associated with Prigozhin, who sent dozens of them to African countries to help Moscow’s protégés win elections. But most Russian political technologists are focused on domestic politics and local parties, according to experts. “We mustn’t forget that their main bread and butter consists of handling local elections, working for governors or parties,” noted Shekhovtsov.

“That’s where the money is,” explained Pertsev. A political technologist’s influence is therefore measured above all by the prestige of the election he or she is supposed to help win.

Gambashidze is no exception. He has handled elections in Kalmykia, one of Russia’s 21 republics, located in the North Caucasus, as well as in the Tambov Oblast, one of the least populated regions of central Russia.

“His [SDA] team often made mistakes and he was repeatedly called back to Moscow to avoid an electoral setback,” explained Pertsev, who says he cannot understand how such an individual ended up in Brussels’ crosshairs.

On the messaging service Telegram, anonymous accounts make fun of the questionable effects of Gambashidze’s advice to Batu Khassikov, governor of Kalmykia in 2019. Not only did Gambashidze fail to get Khassikov re-elected, but the incumbent’s popularity rating actually plummeted at the time.

A pig release backfires

In August 2023, a Gambashidze associate thought it wise to organise a release of pigs tattooed with the Communist Party emblem in Khakassia, a republic in southern Siberia.

The aim of the pig release was to discredit the republic’s Communist governor, Valentin Konovalov. But the plan backfired: Gambashidze’s associate was accused by a section of the local population of “ridiculing Russian history” and he was fined for violating campaign rules.

But the SDA’s most prestigious, if short-lived, client appears to have been Leonid Slutsky, who took over as head of the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) in 2022 after the death of Russia’s notorious, far-right populist, Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

The new LDPR boss, aware of his lack of charisma, needed a political technologist. He ended up with Gambashidze. But he was quickly dismissed “without a moment’s hesitation, which means that Ilya Gambashidze is not considered very important in the Kremlin”, explained Pertsev.

How did such an individual come to be associated with large-scale disinformation operations on the international stage? “Sometimes it’s not competence that counts, but loyalty, and in Russia the quality of the network is central for a political technologist,” noted Wilson.

In Gambashidze’s case, the man who knows the man who knows President Vladimir Putin is Alexander Kharichev, a Kremlin adviser. But most important, according to Pertsev, is the fact that Gambashidze is “a fellow traveler” of Sergey Kiriyenko, a former Russian prime minister and currently the first deputy chief of staff in Putin’s administration.

In late December 2023, the Washington Post identified Kiriyenko as the top Russian official who tasked Kremlin political strategists with promoting political discord in France by amplifying messages to strengthen the French far-right. These included such talking points as the Ukraine war was plunging France into its deepest economic crisis ever or that it was depleting France of the weapons needed to defend itself.

“People come to Sergey Kiriyenko for electoral or other questions, and he delegates to Alexandre Kharitchev the task of finding the right political technologists,” explained Pertsev.

Cannon fodder in the information war

This is how Gambashidze came to be involved in international disinformation operations, explained Pertsev. “The main reason is that he’s cheap,” he explained, noting that in the Kremlin’s order of budgetary priorities, getting the right candidate to win local elections is more important than launching a disinformation campaign in Western Europe.

What’s more, “the best political scientists would probably not be interested”, added Pertsev.  For the big fish, working on disinformation campaigns targeting the West is not worth the risk since the domestic political market is more lucrative and they don’t risk ending up on international sanctions lists. In a way, Gambashidze is simply informational cannon fodder.

Yet the Kremlin’s great ideological war against the West – in which disinformation operations play an important role – has always been presented as a priority for Putin. It may seem incongruous to make a relatively minor figure like Gambashidze a central part of the disinformation schemes targeting the West.

But Gambashidze is not the only master on board. “As the defence of Russian values has been elevated to a matter of national security, Russian spies are inevitably involved in this type of operation,” noted Yevgeniy Golovchenko, a specialist in Russian disinformation at the University of Copenhagen.

Nor does the Kremlin require elaborate cyber-propaganda campaigns. “The most sophisticated aspect is the diversity of media and means used. For Operation Doppelganger, the SDA called on local media, journalists and YouTubers to amplify their messages. They also set up a vast network of fake sites, some of which were only visible in a specific country,” explained Chavane.

The fake news sites set up were rather crude clones of major news sites such as the French “20 minutes”, Germany’s “Der Spiegel” or British daily, “The Guardian”.

“The important thing is that these operations are inexpensive. One costs less than a missile over Ukraine. So even if they’re not perfectly executed by Ilya Gambashidze, the bet is that by stringing them together over a long period, they’ll end up working,” explained Golovchenko.

In Moscow’s informational warfare set-up, Gambashidze is a key cog in the wheel, in an approach reminiscent of Russia’s military strategy in Ukraine: sending in wave after wave of troops, in the hope that the enemy’s defences will collapse under the sheer numbers.

(This is a translation of the original in French.)

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From sledgehammers to milking robots: French film charts half a century on a dairy farm

Gilles Perret’s “La Ferme des Bertrand” is something of a rarity in French film: a tale of rural success for three generations of a family of dairy farmers. Its release next week has acquired added resonance as farmers across France rise up in protest at taxes, costs and regulations they say are killing their livelihoods.

The plight of France’s farmers is a well-trodden path in French cinema, typically focusing on the stricken family businesses that modern life has left by the wayside.

In his seminal trilogy “Profils paysans”, Raymond Depardon followed octogenarian farmers and herdsmen scraping a living in remote areas blighted by the rural exodus. Others have investigated the damage wrought by intensive farming and the agrochemical industry, with their trail of livelihoods wrecked and family farms pushed into bankruptcy.

French farmers now number fewer than half a million, a fraction of their postwar total. But their fading world still occupies an outsized place in the national psyche, infused with nostalgia for France’s rural past and tinged with guilt at the hardship experienced by so many. 

Read moreFewer, older, poorer: France’s farming crisis in numbers

La Ferme des Bertrand”, which opens in French cinemas next week, tells a different story: that of a dairy farm’s successful transition to modernity under three generations of the same family.

Its aim is not to belittle or ignore the struggle of others, says Perret, who wrote the film with his partner Marion Richoux, but to showcase an agriculture that is both viable and appealing, and deeply respectful of the environment.

Economic success, human failure

Early on in the film, we meet a trio of shirtless brothers smashing stones with sledgehammers to build the foundation of their future milking parlour. Their lean, muscular bodies hint at an austere life of back-breaking toil and frugality.

The black-and-white footage is taken from a 1972 documentary shot by France’s national broadcaster in the Alpine hamlet where Perret grew up, a few steps away from the dairy farm run by the Bertrand brothers. 

Twenty-five years later, Perret borrowed a camera to film the same trio as they prepared to pass the farm on to their nephew and his wife. He resumed filming another quarter of a century later, with a third generation of Bertrands now at the helm, before merging the three epochs into a fascinating chronicle of half a century of rural resilience and adaptation.

The Bertrand brothers in a 1972 documentary by Marcel Trillat. © ORTF

When they pass the baton in 1997, the three brothers leave behind a healthy business but at a steep cost: all three have remained bachelors, casting aside their personal aspirations to stay tied to their land and cattle throughout a lifetime of personal sacrifice.

As the mustachioed André, the film’s standout character, says in a sobering reflection, their story is one of “economic success and human failure”.

It takes a third generation of the Bertrand family to finally strike a healthier balance between work and family life, aided by an impressive array of machines that has changed the nature of their work beyond recognition.

“The youngsters barely do any manual work nowadays,” mutters André, hunched over his stick, still soldiering on in the film’s most recent footage. “But they sure know a thing or two about machines.”

A protected bubble

André and his brothers provide many of the film’s most endearing scenes, whether expertly wielding a sickle, massaging a chicken, or calling each of their one hundred cows by name.

But Perret’s film does not indulge in nostalgia for a bygone era. It opens with a shot of a brand-new milking machine, which the retiring Hélène, from the second generation of the Bertrand family, jokingly introduces as her “replacement” – one that will make her son’s work less tiring and repetitive.

Hélène (left), her son Marc (right) and her son-in-law Alex: generations two and three of the Bertrand family.
Hélène (left), her son Marc (right) and her son-in-law Alex: generations two and three of the Bertrand family. © Laurent Cousin

The intent is to provoke viewers, says Perret, introducing a form of farming that is in step with society and with the technological evolutions that are shaping our world.

“In many other sectors, mechanisation has led to job losses and a deterioration in working conditions,” he says. “In this case, it appears robots can be of great help to humans, taking over some of the most exhausting tasks in a profession that requires around-the-clock presence, 365 days a year.”

For all the talk of success, the film makes no secret of the physical toll on the Bertrands. André’s two brothers died just weeks into retirement. Their nephew only made it to 50, leaving Hélène with three children and a farm to run.

The fact that the farm powered on owes much to its privileged location in the protected cheesemaking region of Haute-Savoie, home to Reblochon cheese. 

The designation means their milk is sold at twice the price of milk from the plains or industrial farms. They effectively operate in a bubble, protected from the market forces that leave countless other farmers at the mercy of volatile prices they have no control over. 

Toiling with a purpose

In the 25 years since he first filmed the farm, Perret has built up a large body of socially-minded work, sometimes teaming up with the muckraking journalist-turned-politician François Ruffin to denounce the worst effects of unbridled capitalism. His films focus on the human impact of economic and societal transformations, shining a light on spaces of resistance to the coercive forces of globalised economies.

He says growing up alongside the Bertrand family has helped shape his outlook and his interests.

“In all my films I’ve tried to question our relationship to work, the meaning of what we do, how we can improve conditions, and what can be done to preserve our environment,” he says. “These are all things that are at the heart of their lives.”

André's brother Patrick wields his scythe in footage from 1997.
André’s brother Patrick wields his scythe in footage from 1997. © Gilles Perret

In order to qualify for the Reblochon label, the farm is bound to strict guidelines which rule out non-natural foods for the cattle and require the animals to be out grazing in the mountain pastures for a minimum of 150 days a year. 

“It doesn’t quite qualify as organic farming, but it comes very close,” says Perret, stressing the Bertrands’ role in shaping and preserving the pristine environment around the hamlet he still lives in – both a gift of nature and a legacy of their painstaking labour.

“The money we make is for living,” says one of the brothers midway through the film as he soaks in the view, resting on his scythe after a day of toil. “The real satisfaction comes from keeping our nature clean and healthy.”

“La Ferme des Bertrand” (89min) opens in French cinemas on Wednesday, January 31.

France’s farming protests

French farmers have blocked roads, junctions and motorways in protest at pay, low food prices and environmental rules they say are ruining their livelihoods, in an echo of protests taking place in other EU countries.

With convoys of tractors advancing on Paris and threatening to blockade the capital, France’s new Prime Minister Gabriel Attal announced key concessions on Friday including an end to rising fuel costs and the simplification of regulations.

But the main farming union, the FNSEA, described the measures as insufficient, vowing to maintain its mobilisation until the government meets all of its demands.

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‘Counterfeit people’: The dangers posed by Meta’s AI celebrity lookalike chatbots

Meta announced on Wednesday the arrival of chatbots with personalities similar to certain celebrities, with whom it will be possible to chat. Presented as an entertaining evolution of ChatGPT and other forms of AI, this latest technological development could prove dangerous.

Meta (formerly known as Facebook) sees these as “fun” artificial intelligence. Others, however, feel that this latest technological development could mark the first step towards creating “the most dangerous artefacts in human history”, to quote from American philosopher Daniel C. Dennett’s essay about “counterfeit people”

On Wednesday, September 27, the social networking giant announced the launch of 28 chatbots (conversational agents), which supposedly have their own personalities and have been specially designed for younger users. These include Victor, a so-called triathlete who can motivate “you to be your best self”, and Sally, the “free-spirited friend who’ll tell you when to take a deep breath”.

Internet users can also chat to Max, a “seasoned sous chef” who will give you “culinary tips and tricks”, or engage in a verbal joust with Luiz, who “can back up his trash talk”. 

A chatbot that looks like Paris Hilton

To reinforce the idea that these chatbots have personalities and are not simply an amalgam of algorithms, Meta has given each of them a face. Thanks to partnerships with celebrities, these robots look like American jet-setter and DJ Paris Hilton, TikTok star Charli D’Amelio and American-Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka.

Read moreShould we worry? ChatGPT passes Ivy League business exam

And that’s not all. Meta has opened Facebook and Instagram accounts for each of its conversational agents to give them an existence outside chat interfaces and is working on giving them a voice by next year. The parent company of Mark Zuckerberg‘s empire was also looking for screenwriters who can “write character, and other supporting narrative content that appeal to wide audiences”.

Meta may present these 28 chatbots as an innocent undertaking to massively distract young internet users, but all these efforts point towards an ambitious project to build AIs that resemble humans as much as possible, writes The Rolling Stone.  

This race to “counterfeit people” worries many observers, who are already concerned about recent developments made in large language model (LLM) research such as ChatGPT and Llama 2, its Facebook counterpart. Without going as far as Dennett, who is calling for people like Zuckerberg to be locked up, “there are a number of thinkers who are denouncing these major groups’ deliberately deceptive approach”, said Ibo van de Poel, professor of ethics and technology at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.

AIs with personalities are ‘literally impossible’

The idea of conversational agents “with a personality is literally impossible”, said van de Poel. Algorithms are incapable of demonstrating “intention in their actions or ‘free will’, two characteristics that are considered to be intimately linked to the idea of a personality”.

Meta and others can, at best, imitate certain traits that make up a personality. “It must be technologically possible, for example, to teach a chatbot to act like the person they represent,” said van de Poel. For instance, Meta’s AI Amber, which is supposed to resemble Hilton, may be able to speak the same way as its human alter ego. 

The next step will be to train these LLMs to express the same opinions as the person they resemble. This is a much more complicated behaviour to programme, as it involves creating a sort of accurate mental picture of all of a person’s opinions. There is also a risk that chatbots with personalities could go awry. One of the conversational agents that Meta tested expressed “misogynistic” opinions, according to the Wall Street Journal, which was able to consult internal company documents. Another committed the “mortal sin” of criticising Zuckerberg and praising TikTok.

To build these chatbots, Meta explains that it set out to give them “unique personal stories”. In other words, these AIs’ creators have written biographies for them in the hopes that they will be able to develop a personality based on what they have read about themselves. “It’s an interesting approach, but it would have been beneficial to add psychologists to these teams to get a better understanding of personality traits”, said Anna Strasser, a German philosopher who was involved in a project to create a large language model capable of philosophising.

Meta’s latest AI project is clearly driven by a thirst for profit. “People will no doubt be prepared to pay to be able to talk and have a direct relationship with Paris Hilton or another celebrity,” said Strasser.

The more users feel like they are speaking with a human being, “the more comfortable they’ll feel, the longer they’ll stay and the more likely they’ll come back”, said van de Poel. And in the world of social media, time – spent on Facebook and its ads –  is money.

Tool, living thing or somewhere between?

It is certainly not surprising that Meta’s first foray into AI with “personality” are chatbots aimed primarily at teenagers. “We know that young people are more likely to be anthropomorphic,” said Strasser.

However, the experts interviewed feel that Meta is playing a dangerous game by stressing the “human characteristics” of their AIs. “I really would have preferred if this group had put more effort into explaining the limits of these conversational agents, rather than trying to make them seem more human”, said van de Poel.

Read moreChatGPT: Cybercriminals salivate over world-beating AI chatbot

The emergence of these powerful LLMs has upset “the dichotomy between what is a tool or object and what is a living thing. These ChatGPTs are a third type of agent that stands somewhere between the two extremes”, said Strasser. Human beings are still learning how to interact with these strange new entities, so by making people believe that a conversational agent can have a personality Meta is suggesting that it be treated more like another human being than a tool. 

“Internet users tend to trust what these AIs say” which make them dangerous, said van de Poel. This is not just a theoretical risk: a man in Belgium ended up committing suicide in March 2023 after discussing the consequences of global warming with a conversational agent for six weeks.

Above all, if the boundary between the world of AIs and humans is eventually blurred completely, “this could potentially destroy trust in everything we find online because we won’t know who wrote what”, said Strasser. This would, as Dennett warned in his essay, open the door to “destroying our civilisation. Democracy depends on the informed (not misinformed) consent of the governed [which cannot be obtained if we no longer know what and whom to trust]”.

It remains to be seen if chatting with an AI lookalike of Hilton means that we are on the path to destroying the world as we know it. 

This article has been translated from the original in French

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Tech titans’ vision for a new city in Northern California raises concerns

Silicon Valley tech tycoons on Thursday announced their intentions of building a new city in Northern California. The billionaire investors have to date spent over $900 million to acquire more than 50,000 acres of land in Solano County. Local and US officials, however, have raised concerns about what one Congressman calls “a vision”, not “a plan”.

Investing through a company named California Forever, which saw the launch of its official website on Thursday, tech billionaires are laying out the blueprint for a dream city in Northern California.

On its website, California Forever said it has acquired over 50,000 acres (or 202 square kilometres) of land through its subsidiary – Flannery Associates – in eastern Solano County, which is nestled between Sacramento, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, San Francisco and Napa Valley in Northern California.

Located at the crossroads of major Northern California cities, Solano County is touted by the company as the perfect place to build the dream city from scratch.

While the website did not disclose the amount that has been injected into the project, the New York Times on Tuesday reported investments of over $900 million in land purchases alone over the past five years.

Founded in 2017 by former Goldman Sachs trader Jan Sramek, California Forever is backed by Silicon Valley heavyweights such as Laurene Powell Jobs, Marc Andreessen, Michael Moritz and John Doerr, among others.

A project shrouded in secrecy

Until Thursday, very little was known about California Forever and Flannery Associates. The parent company and its subsidiary have remained extremely discreet regarding their operations in Northern California.

While Flannery managed to keep most of its activities under wraps, local authorities were alerted when the company started acquiring vast expanses of land, and at prices often well above market rates, until it became Solano County’s largest landowner.

The identity of the company and its billionaire investors only came to light following an investigation led by US federal authorities, who raised concerns of national security after Flannery bought land parcels surrounding Travis Air Force Base, a major base located in Solano County’s seat of Fairfield.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Air Force’s Foreign Investment Risk Review Office launched a probe in late 2022 into Flannery’s purchases of roughly 52,000 acres in Solano County, including around Travis.

Fears that Flannery was representing foreign interests, especially Chinese, were soon dispelled as Silicon Valley tech titans, who unveiled their project of building a dream city, emerged as backers of the company.

City of dreams?

Citing European cities as inspiration, Flannery said it aims to build liveable communities and walkable neighbourhoods while providing “good-paying local jobs” to residents.

Flannery also revealed plans to build tens of thousands of homes, a solar farm, parks and other open spaces in the eastern part of the county.

Despite the company’s ambitious plans, local authorities have expressed worries regarding the feasibility of the project.

Pointing to Solano County’s dry weather conditions, Fairfield Mayor Catherine Moy said in an interview with abc7news that Flannery’s proposed plans are unrealistic.

“It’s an area that is known for its drought conditions. It makes zero sense. There’s no mass transit. It does not have fresh water. There is some water, but not enough for tens of thousands of homes,” Moy said.

Moy also voiced concerns regarding road infrastructure.

“The roads out there are already dangerous. Highway 12 is the highway that goes through there out to Highway 99 and Highway 5. It’s called Blood Alley for a reason,” Moy said. “There’s no way that tens of thousands of homes could be supported by that.”

While Flannery noted the need to improve local infrastructure on its website, it failed to provide details on how that could be achieved.

Other elected officials have joined Moy in voicing their concerns.

Following a meeting with Flannery representatives on Tuesday, US Representative Mike Thompson said: “They don’t have a plan, they have a vision, an idea,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

“To say that this is going to be a long, long road is probably an understatement,” he added.

Meanwhile, US Representative John Garamendi described as “strong-arm mobster tactics” the company’s method of purchasing the land, the Chronicle reported.

Tech follies

But this won’t be the first time that Silicon Valley tycoons have dreamed of pioneering cities without following through.

In 2013, Google cofounder and former CEO Larry Page floated the idea of creating a high-tech utopia with minimal regulation.

California start-up incubator Y Combinator set up a research lab in 2016 to study how to build better cities.

Paypal cofounder Peter Thiel launched a pilot project for floating cities in French Polynesia in 2018, and the New York Times reported the same year that Facebook was negotiating with the city of San Francisco for permits to build a town on the outskirts of Silicon Valley.

None of these proposals have come to fruition to date.

“In the end, it doesn’t even matter that these cities are built,” said University of Glasgow sociology professor Elisabetta Ferrari, who specialises in digital media. For the entrepreneurs and investors, rather, “the most important (thing) is that we talk about it”.

“They want to show that they are not just rich, they are also people with vision and entrepreneurs that are doing something for the people,” she said.

Housing workers

In an article published in April on Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s latest endeavours in Texas, which include building a town called Snailbrook aimed at housing employees, the Guardian compared corporation-built cities to 19th-century US industrial towns.

Offering only basic accommodation and meagre amenities, these towns “were often closer to prison camps than ideal cities”, the Guardian said, and noted that companies “want to minimise overheads and squeeze as much out of their captive townsfolk as they can get away with”.

Flannery aims to provide affordable housing near San Francisco, where many employers have been forced to increase salaries to attract or retain workers who are facing soaring rents in the city.

The number of tech tycoons proposing to build towns and cities in recent years “has a lot to do with the idea of ‘technosolutionism’. A concept that can be boiled down to ‘there is an app for that’,” Ferrari said, adding that it is “the idea that technology provides the best way to address a problem”.

These entrepreneurs and investors “are pitching themselves like they are the best to deal with [the problem], when, they say, political power cannot address efficiently modern urban development challenges”, she said. 

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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The Flat Circle Of Republican Stupidity

Republicans long for a past that never was, and this inevitably leads them to sound like idiots as they twist themselves into pretzels trying to rationalize their calls for societal regression. Need examples? Let’s look at some in the Sunday shows!

We’re Not Book Burning, You’re the Book Burning!

Republican National Committee Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel was on “Fox News Sunday,” and while discussing the party’s post 2022 debrief report, she said a few things that were surprisingly truthful.

MCDANIEL: […] biggest takeaway we are taking is independents did not break our way, which has to happen if we’re going to win in 2024, which usually that’s what causes that red wave. And abortion was a big issue in key states like Michigan and Pennsylvanian. […] Republicans are migrating. They are migrating to red states. […] But it means the White House electorally isn’t available to us unless we go through a purple or blue state. And those states are getting bluer, because red voters are moving to the red states. […] the path to the White House runs not just through independents, but every single Republican getting on board.

It’s pretty shocking to hear anyone in the RNC, much less its chairperson, point out an objective reality. So what different actions or rhetoric do they plan to use to better their chances in 2024? Like, for example, abortion:

MCDANIEL: […] What abortion is a bad idea to Democrats? Ninth month, eighth month, seventh month? They can’t even articulate an abortion that’s a bad idea. Gender selection, if it’s a girl, you get to abort it. Tax-funded abortions for people where it’s against their religious conscience. […]

Nothing, then. They plan on changing nothing and expecting different results. If only there was a phrase for that.

Actually, correction, they do have another political strategy: The ole’ “we’re rubber, you’re glue”!

When asked about Republican attacks on trans people, which are politically unpopular, McDaniel attempted some very strained whataboutism.

MCDANIEL: […] the Democrats are using this word book banning. […] That’s a lie. There isn’t book banning. What Republicans are doing are protecting our children and parental rights […] But it’s good to know the Democrats playbook and we’re going to push on that, especially coming from the Democrat party that is banning freedom of speech, that is canceling people, that is destroying your life if you don’t think with their orthodoxy. This is the Democrat Party who is saying if you think outside of the box and everything, we are dictating to you, you will make you lose your job, we will destroy you.

Republicans have literally been fighting Disney because it dared exercised free speech, made book banning much easier, extended Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bigotry, and threatened to separate children from parents who are not bigoted toward their trans kids. But, sure, it’s the Democrats who are “destroying anyone who doesn’t conform to orthodoxy and taking their jobs while threatening to destroy them.”

Speaking of, how’s that dirt file on fired Fox News host Tucker Carlson?

Let’s Default Our National Debt!

House Republican Whip Tom Emmer appeared on CNN’s “State of The Union” and wouldn’t directly state that his party won’t force a default on the nation’s debt.

Host Dana Bash tried pointing out specifically how the cuts they want would hurt his constituents, but Emmer made it clear he will ignore them or just blame Nancy Pelosi when the reality doesn’t match his delusions.

GOP’s Vanity Tech Douche Candidate Returns

NBC’s “Meet The Press” had on Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy. Although considering his polling, calling him a candidate is a bit too generous, but nonetheless, we are all subjected to his stupidity on TV and expected to take him seriously. So fresh from giving Don Lemon his last good journalistic moment on CNN, Ramaswamy made Chuck Todd look like Walter Cronkite.

When Ramaswamy brings up an example of a person who says their gender doesn’t align with their biological sex, he seems to know the difference between sex and gender. But when Todd questions his stance on gender being binary, Ramaswamy then perhaps deliberately conflates biological sex with gender.

RAMASWAMY: Well, there’s, there’s two X chromosomes if you’re a woman. An X and a Y, that means you’re a man.

TODD: There’s a lot of scientific research out there –

RAMASWAMY: There’s a biological basis for this —

TODD: There’s a lot of scientific research out there that says gender is a spectrum.

RAMASWAMY: Chuck, I respectfully disagree.

Funny how these transphobic clowns want to bring biology into this UNTIL scientific research disputes their transphobia and then they fall back on what they “feel” or disagree just because.

Ramaswamy also equates abortion with murder but says it’s a “states’ right issue.” That’s not how “states’ rights” work, even if a Republican nominee barely polling above skim milk says so.

Asa Hutchinson’s Decimal Points

Speaking of polling, Asa Hutchinson announced he was running for president almost exactly a month ago. He appeared on CNN’s “State Of the Union” this week to call for going back to a Republican Party that died long before Trump came down an escalator in 2015. So how are Republican voters embracing this? We’ll let this picture summarize it.

Can this change for Hutchinson? Likely not when he is polling lower than the fictional Conor Roy in “Succession,” who we actually compared to Hutchinson too optimistically.

Phrasing, Steve Scalise!

When asked about any possible tension between himself and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on ABC’s “This Week,” Steve Scalise chose an odd way to describe their closeness yet trust.

Could be worse: Scalise could have kept misunderstanding what “raw dog” is.

Have a week

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#Flat #Circle #Republican #Stupidity

TikTok CEO grilled by skeptical US lawmakers over national security threat

A nearly six-hour grilling of TikTok’s CEO by lawmakers brought the platform’s 150 million US users no closer to an answer as to whether the app will be wiped from their devices.

US lawmakers on Thursday pressed Shou Zi Chew over data security and harmful content, responding skeptically during a tense committee hearing to his assurances that the hugely popular video-sharing app prioritises user safety and should not be banned due to its Chinese connections.

In a bipartisan effort to rein in the power of a major social media platform, Republican and Democratic lawmakers hurled questions on a host of topics, including TikTok’s content moderation practices, how the company plans to secure American data from Beijing, and its spying on journalists.

Chew spent most of the hearing attempting to push back assertions that TikTok, or its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, are tools of the Chinese government. But he failed to answer uncomfortable questions about human rights abuses committed by China against the Uyghurs, and seemed taken aback by a TikTok video displayed by one lawmaker that advocated for violence against the House committee holding the hearing.

The rare public appearance by the 40-year-old Singapore native comes at a crucial time for the company. TikTok has ballooned its American user base to 150 million in a few short years, but its increasing dominance is being threated by a potential nationwide ban in the US and growing fears among officials about protecting user data from China’s communist government.

There’s also symbolism for lawmakers in taking on TikTok, which has been swept up in a wider geopolitical battle between Beijing and Washington over trade and technology, as well as heightened tensions due to recent balloon politics and China’s relationship with Russia.

“Mr. Chew, you are here because the American people need the truth about the threat TikTok poses to our national and personal security,” Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican, said in her opening statement.

Chew told the House Committee on Energy and Commerce that TikTok prioritises the safety of its young users and denied it’s a national security risk. He reiterated the company’s plan to protect US user data by storing it on servers maintained and owned by the software giant Oracle.

“Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” Chew said.

Nevertheless, the company has been dogged by claims that its Chinese ownership means user data could end up in the hands of the Chinese government or that it could be used to promote narratives favourable to the country’s communist leaders.

In 2019, the Guardian reported that TikTok was instructing its moderators to censor videos that mention Tiananmen Square and included images unfavorable to the Chinese government. The platform says it has since changed its moderation practices.

Concerns about the platform increased when ByteDance admitted in December that it fired four employees who accessed data on two journalists, and people connected to them, last summer while attempting to uncover the source of a leaked report about the company.

Aware of its weakness, TikTok has been trying to distance itself from its Chinese origins, saying 60% of ByteDance is owned by global institutional investors such as Carlyle Group.

“Ownership is not at the core of addressing these concerns,” Chew said.

But for many others, it is. The Biden administration has reportedly demanded TikTok’s Chinese owners sell their stakes in the company to avoid a nationwide ban. China has said it would oppose those attempts. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said at a separate committee hearing Thursday that he believes TikTok is a security threat, and “should be ended one way or another.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said “everyone was watching” Thursday’s TikTok hearing at the White House. But she declined to comment on specific actions the administration could take to address its TikTok concerns.

In one of the most dramatic moments of the hearing, Republican Rep. Kat Cammack played a TikTok video showing a shooting gun with a caption that included the House committee, with the exact date before it was formally announced.

“You expect us to believe that you are capable of maintaining the data security, privacy and security of 150 million Americans where you can’t even protect the people in this room,” Cammack said.

TikTok said the company on Thursday removed the video and banned the account that posted it.

Concerns about what kind of content Americans encounter online, or how their data is collected by technology companies, isn’t new. Congress has been wanting to curtail the amount of data tech companies collect on consumers through a national privacy law, but those efforts have failed.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a New York Democrat and one of the few allies TikTok seemingly has on the Hill, said lawmakers concerned about protecting users shouldn’t target TikTok, but must instead focus on a national law that would protect user data across all social media platforms. Chew also noted the failure of U.S. social media companies to address the very concerns for which TikTok was being criticized.

“American social companies don’t have a good track record with data privacy and user security,” he said. “Look at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, just one example.”

Committee members also showed a host of TikTok videos that encouraged users to harm themselves and commit suicide. Many questioned why the platform’s Chinese counterpart, Douyin, does not carry the same potentially dangerous content as the American product.

Chew responded that it depends on the laws of the country where the app is operating. He said the company has about 40,000 moderators that track harmful content and an algorithm that flags material.

Wealth management firm Wedbush described the hearing as a “disaster” for TikTok that made a ban more likely if it doesn’t separate from its Chinese parent. Emile El Nems, an analyst at Moody’s Investors Service, said a ban would benefit TikTok rivals YouTube, Instagram and Snap, “likely resulting in higher revenue share of the total advertising wallet.”

To avoid a ban, TikTok has been trying to sell officials on a $1.5 billion plan, Project Texas, which routes all US user data to servers owned and maintained by the software giant Oracle.

As of October, all new US user data was being stored inside the country. The company started deleting all historic US user data from non-Oracle servers this month, in a process expected to be completed this year, Chew said.

Republican Rep. Dan Crenshaw noted that regardless of what the company does to assure lawmakers it will protect US user data, the Chinese government can still have significant influence over its parent company and ask it to turn over data through its national security laws.

Congress, the White House, US armed forces and more than half of US states have already banned the use of the app from official devices. Similar bans have been imposed in other countries including Denmark, Canada, Great Britain and New Zealand, as well as the European Union.

A complete TikTok ban in the US would risk political and popular backlash from its young user base and civil liberties groups.

David Kennedy, a former government intelligence officer who runs the cybersecurity company TrustedSec, said he agrees with restricting TikTok access on government-issued phones but that a nationwide ban might be too extreme.

“We have Tesla in China, we have Microsoft in China, we have Apple in China. Are they going to start banning us now?” Kennedy said. “It could escalate very quickly.”


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In Donegal, remote working tech hubs mean the question now is stay – or return?

If you could work anywhere in the world, wouldn’t you rather work somewhere that boasts a great standard of living to match the great scenery? 

This St. Patrick’s Day, I want to tell you a small but life-changing story about what just happened to me in the place where I thought I’d never see it – Co Donegal, my home county. 

To begin with, I took the 45-minute flight from Dublin to the airport that’s been voted the most scenic in the world, Carrickfinn (Aerfort Dhún na nGall) located in the shadow of the majestic Errigal mountain and just about 15 minutes outside of Dungloe and Gweedore.

Hello Donegal. I’m very glad to be back. ❤️

— Cahir O’Doherty (@randomirish) February 14, 2023

West Donegal is Gaeltacht heartland, where Irish language-speaking communities proliferate, but now it’s also a growing tech hub, where people fleeing the exploding Dublin rental market – or in search of a better place to invest their time and money – are suddenly flocking.

They are returning – or in many cases moving into Donegal for the first time – because increasingly the internet has allowed professionals to work remotely from literally anywhere in the world via a lightening fast broadband connection. 

If you could work anywhere in the world wouldn’t you prefer to be a part of a supportive local community, featuring well-run schools, good public transport, creche facilities, and an open economy that rewards innovation and values the social cohesion that comes from investment in people as well as in corporations?

Located in Gweedore, County Donegal, gTeic is a tech hub that connects the county to the world.

Things have clearly changed in Donegal and the questions facing emigrants are no longer the same. There are better options on the table now. In Gweedore, for example, Údarás na Gaeltachta (the regional authority responsible for the economic, social, and cultural development of the Gaeltacht) has expanded the stunning Gaoth Dobhair gTeic Business Hub to respond to the rapidly evolving business culture on the ground. 

Envisioned to provide essential services to companies, entrepreneurs, remote workers, community groups, and visitors, gTeic is a stylish, beautifully planned tech hub that has been busy attracting experienced emigrant talent back to their home county and boosting employment in the region in the process.

With its remote working hubs, broadband internet, impressively run digital infrastructure, and commitment to the national language – as well as to equality and social inclusion – gTeic Gaoth Dobhair is one of the many new county-wide hubs that are busy making the Donegal one of the most attractive remote working locations in the world.

“When people leave here to go to university, the challenge is to facilitate new ways that they can come back and work from here,” Aodh Mac Suibhn of Údarás na Gaeltachta tells IrishCentral.

“gTeic shows them it’s possible to do that now. When people go away to university from here there is the very real prospect that at least some of them can return.”

So Donegal, the county that was once a byword for geographic isolation and governmental neglect has become an unexpected new global hub, with high-speed broadband bringing the world to its doorstep via the magic of the internet. Talk about changing times.

“At gTeic, the Irish language is our primary concern, but you won’t have it without jobs,” Mac Suibhn explains. “So we’re here to look after the language and create employment at the same time and the two of those ambitions are intertwined with our growth, there’s no doubt about that.”

Charlie Boyle, the CEO of Customer Service Ireland, agrees and points to the unique way that commerce and community are intertwined here. “It takes me less than 15 minutes to get to work here through stunning scenery, but I love that the facilities at gTeic are on par with anything you’d see in New York, London, or Dublin. But the fact is it’s here, on the Wild Atlantic Way, in the heart of my community.”

‘Up here, it’s different,’ they like to say, in reference to the living link to the Irish language, but also to the values and traditions of the place, which the locals rightly feel are special and worth promoting and protecting, making the place unique even within Ireland itself. 

Taken together – the unique marriage of tradition and modernity – and you have the genesis of a new way forward for the entire county, both culturally and economically, built on the sturdiest of foundations.

Charlie Boyle, the CEO of Customer Service Ireland, has offices at gTeic in Gweedore.

Charlie Boyle, the CEO of Customer Service Ireland, has offices at gTeic in Gweedore.

But if quality of life is what we’re after these days, especially post-lockdown when our priorities received an unforgettable reality check, what about the income to make all these aspirations possible? 

In Donegal, it’s often been a choice between one or the other, but now something truly exciting is happening there that could change the game for all comers, perhaps forever.

Now you can combine your expertise, your access to the global marketplace, and your preferred home base under one roof. What was once a faraway dream has become a reality and we are only slowly catching on to the economic implications.

When third-level education in the county exploded from the 1980s onwards, many left for college, seeking better-paid alternatives to factory jobs in the local community. Only now are these out-of-county and country workers finally able to contemplate returning home for the first time.

The prospect of combining professional skills with a return home can be a heady experience, as I discovered myself. In Donegal, on my second night home, I participated in a series of public readings that assembled some of the best-known writers and creatives in the county. Almost all of them were LGBT

Some were famous actors on TG4, the national Irish language station, others designed sets or costumes for film industry hits like “Game Of Thrones,” some were renowned poets like Cathal Ó Searcaigh or historians like Brian Lacey, and all of them lived and worked within a few miles of the venue in Donegal. 

It would have been science fiction to me growing up in Donegal in the 1980s to imagine a time when I could be surrounded by a room full of distinguished LGBT creatives in my home county – many of whom are also members of a local hill walking group and a re-wilding organization that provide ample opportunities to connect and share experiences, friendship and community support.

I have never been in a room anywhere, never mind in my home county, with so many talented and accomplished LGBT people, but here they were all living within fifteen minutes of Falcarragh where we gathered on the night.

If anything has ever made me contemplate a return to live in Donegal, a gathering like this, facilitated by the changed atmosphere and attitudes on the ground, would. I am still not over the delight of realizing, for the first time, that my community and county are making room and offering a welcome to all its family members.

My teenage self would never have believed this. So proud of my home town – and thinking of the ones who will be carried in our hearts today. 🌈

— Cahir O’Doherty (@randomirish) June 5, 2022

In the Gaeltacht, the arts are baked into the everyday life of the community in a way that is quite unique, there is no real division or distinction made, and one doesn’t exist without reference to the others. 

At gTeic, I met the legendary musician Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, fiddler and lead vocalist of Altan, who pops into the center, as many creatives here do, to make use of the blazingly fast broadband when doing research or planning tours.

Not just a musician but a learned scholar of the local traditions, Ní Mhaonaigh grew up surrounded by artists (her father wrote plays and she quickly learned to play music herself) before becoming one herself.

“I’ve seen a change in how the younger people are thinking about their futures here,” she tells IrishCentral. “Places like this are offering them opportunities that were not here before and I like to pop in myself to connect with the wider world.”

If you’re going to be in Gaoth Dobhair, Donegal, and you’re interested in music, you should check out the session at @LoistinB on Mondays & Fridays.
Beidh ceol, caint agus craic ann.#AnGhaeltacht #trad

— Derek Hollingsworth (@DerekHolly7) August 9, 2022

Underlining how the local arts sector is flourishing county-wide, I also met with arts organizations like the Glebe House & Gallery (former home of the renowned artist Derek Hill) which are busy welcoming visitors, showing emerging artists, greeting bus loads of school students and inspiring the next generation of practitioners year round. 

At the Amharclann Ghaoth Dobhair, the only Irish language theatre in the country that is situated in the heart of the Gaeltacht in Gweedore, I met with Adrian Kelly, Curator of the Glebe Gallery, who talk about a successful exhibition featuring three young local artists who’s careers are taking off. 

“Myrid Carten, Cliodhna Timoney, and Áine McBride (who uses They/Them pronouns) are all about the same age in their early 30’s,” Kelly tells IrishCentral. “And we had a really good exhibition of their work recently. Loads of people really hated it and I was saying at the time, you shouldn’t hate it that much, it’s clearly doing something to you!”

This summer, Glebe House will exhibit the works of many women artists. “Our collection is unusual because it has a lot of women in it,” Kelly explains. “Derek Hill, the collection’s founder, collected the work of a lot of women artists and so we are going to pull them all out.”

Thanks Jean, we had a very informative tour of The Glebe House and Gallery this evening @opwireland

— Visit Donegal (@visit_donegal) August 15, 2017

Also at the Amharclann Ghaoth Dobhair discussion was Danielle Nic Pháidín, who works as a facilitator with Ealaín na Gaeltachta, which supports the arts in Irish-speaking districts. Her guidance helps artists and venues in the local community to widen local access and participation in the arts.

“Our main objective is to provide the funding as well as support to help the theaters, and galleries and to support different arts projects. The brief is fairly wide in terms of Irish-speaking arts and initiatives and projects.” 

Later I toured the 300-seater Amharclann Ghaoth Dobhair itself, the beating heart of the wider Gaeltacht community, providing a forum for plays, musicians, public talks, and concerts.

Errigal and the ancient landscape of West Donegal

Errigal and the ancient landscape of West Donegal

Historian Breandán Mac Suibhne, who went to grad school at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh and who now oversees the University of Galway’s Acadamh (Academy) which has a study centre in Gweedore, laid it out for me: “I am biased, I was born here, but I can’t think of a better base for US study abroad programs anywhere in Ireland than west Donegal.

“We have a stunning natural environment, with great transport links to Dublin. And from learning Irish to exploring the places that inspired the great plays of Brian Friel and Frank McGuinness to visiting our regional capital, Derry, and working to understand everything from the monastic culture of the medieval period to the 17th-century plantation of Ulster to the politics of Ireland’s late 20th-century Troubles and peace process – students get it all, whether they come for a short stay or a semester-long visit. It’s all here.”

Anna Ní Bhroin, who works on International programming for the University of Galway, agrees: “It is a win-win. The academic, business, and cultural sectors—that A, B, C—are all working together here. The relationships built today in one sector will stand to us tomorrow in another.”

It’s hard to miss the renewed energy at work in this diverse, progressive, and ambitious Irish language community and county. There is good reason for it, too. Irish fluency has become a cool aspiration for the young in a way that turns the attitude of previous generations on their head.

Nowhere is this change of direction more evident than in Irish language film production, which just made history with an Oscar nomination for “The Quiet Girl” (“An Cailín Ciúin.”) 

‘You’re graaaand’ @jamieleecurtis shares her love for Ireland on the #BAFTAs red carpet. Plus Barry Keoghan and Paul Mescal are overjoyed for the Irish film industry | Read more:

— Entertainment on RTÉ (@RTE_Ents) February 20, 2023

Deirbhile Ní Churraighín, the Commissioning and Acquisitions Executive at TG4 who was in Hollywood for the Oscars this weekend, told IrishCentral: “Whatever happens on the night, we’ve already won. The impact that ‘An Cailín Ciúin’ has made internationally is an unbelievable thing for the Irish language. And it’s just it’s such a special film.

“At TG4, Alan Esslemont, the Director General, believed that we needed to find a way to make feature films. So we talked to Fís Éireann/Screen Ireland and once they were on board, he talked to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. And that created the magic triangle of three Irish funders.

“Another historical thing that people are not talking about is the fact that this film was completely made in Ireland, by an Irish-speaking writer, director, producer, an Irish-speaking cast and crew and it was completely funded in Ireland. So it just goes to show what can be done when people come together and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to do this.’

Why I hope “The Quiet Girl” wins an Oscar

In “The Quiet Girl,” Colm Bairéad has done something that I have rarely seen in Irish films – he saves us from pastiche, from becoming caricatures of ourselves.

— Cahir O’Doherty (@randomirish) January 21, 2023

All along the Wild Atlantic Way, from Connemara through the University of Galway to the Gaeltacht to Letterkenny and Inishowen, a network of activists, academics, Irish language speakers and online entrepreneurs are coming together to build a new route to a mutually rewarding future and it’s working.

Growing up in Donegal herself, Ní Churraighín doesn’t sugarcoat how dramatically social attitudes have changed within her own lifetime. “I think a new atmosphere has been created by and for the LGBT community there now. I mean, they’re safe now. And as you well know, there was a time when they were not safe.”

She continues: “I think the marriage referendum opened a lot of people’s eyes. I mean people were coming home to vote to make sure the change happened. So I think now it’s about quality of life for all in Donegal. It’s about getting back to the mothership, being with the neighbors, collaborating on arts projects, whether it’s sculpture or painting or song or instruments or filmmaking or theater-making. The space is there now for people to be fully themselves.”

Why should you return now, after all these years abroad, you may ask yourself? For me, the answer isn’t found in all the dramatic contrasts between the past and the present.

I found it in the effort a young worker in a local supermarket took to make sure I found the place where the coffee was stored, then the sandwiches, then the wooden spoons to make sure I could give it a good stir. She happily led me from pillar to post, asking where I’d come from, talking about the weather that morning and even discussing the breaking news headlines. 

Picture the last time that happened to you in America or Australia or Canada or the UK? It was just another Wednesday morning in Donegal. Her cheerfulness was infectious. Her kindness spoke for her community and upbringing.

In the past growing up in Donegal, you eventually have to make a life-altering decision: stay or go? There have been many Irish dramas written about this classic emigrant’s decision. 

But does it have to be this way still? Can’t there be a happier outcome to this age-old story between those who leave and those who stay? Are we still fated to endure this halting and haunted leaving and staying dance? 

Or can we do better for ourselves now, for our loved ones, and for the people who will be coming after us? In Donegal, the answer – the maths – and the opportunities are dramatically expanding and it’s time we recognized it.

The age-old game of emigrant musical chairs may be finally coming to an end. To find out how you can make the move – or the return – visit

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India is becoming a hot market for investors, but it risks falling victim to its own success

India is poised to become the world’s most important country in the medium term. It has the world’s largest population (which is still growing), and with a per capita GDP that is just one-quarter that of China’s, its economy has enormous scope for productivity gains.

Moreover, India’s military and geopolitical importance will only grow. It is a vibrant democracy whose cultural diversity will generate soft power to rival the United States and the United Kingdom.

One must credit Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for implementing policies that have modernized India and supported its growth. Specifically, Modi has made massive investments in the single market (including through de-monetization and a major tax reform) and infrastructure (not just roads, electricity, education, and sanitation, but also digital capacity). These investments – together with industrial policies to accelerate manufacturing, a comparative advantage in tech and IT, and a customized digital-based welfare system – have led to robust economic performance following the COVID-19 slump.

These investments — together with industrial policies to accelerate manufacturing, a comparative advantage in tech and IT, and a customized digital-based welfare system — have led to robust economic performance following the COVID-19 slump.

Yet the model that has driven India’s growth now threatens to constrain it. The main risks to India’s development prospects are more micro and structural than macro or cyclical. First, India has moved to an economic model where a few “national champions” — effectively large private oligopolistic conglomerates — control significant parts of the old economy. This resembles Indonesia under Suharto (1967-98), China under Hu Jintao (2002-12), or South Korea in the 1990s under its dominant chaebols.

In some ways, this concentration of economic power has served India well. Owing to superior financial management, the economy has grown fast, despite investment rates (as a share of GDP) that were much lower than China’s. The implication is that India’s investments have been much more efficient; indeed, many of India’s conglomerates boast world-class levels of productivity and competitiveness.

But the dark side of this system is that these conglomerates have been able to capture policymaking to benefit themselves. This has had two broad, harmful effects: it is stifling innovation and effectively killing early-stage startups and domestic entrants in key industries; and it is changing the government’s “Make in India” program into a counterproductive, protectionist scheme.

We may now be seeing these effects reflected in India’s potential growth, which seems to have declined rather than accelerated recently. Just as the Asian Tigers did well in the 1980s and 1990s with a growth model based on gross exports of manufactured goods, India has done the same with exports of tech services. Make in India was intended to strengthen the economy’s tradable side by fostering the production of goods for export, not just for the Indian market.

Instead, India is moving toward more protectionist import-substitution and domestic production subsidization (with nationalistic overtones), both of which insulate domestic industries and conglomerates from global competition. Its tariff policies are preventing it from becoming more competitive in goods exports, and its resistance to joining regional trade agreements is hampering its full integration into global value and supply chains.

India should be focusing on industries where it has a comparative advantage, such as tech and IT, artificial intelligence, business services, and fintech.

Another problem is that Make in India has evolved to support production in labor-intensive industries such as cars, tractors, locomotives, trains, and so forth. While the labor intensity of production is an important factor in any labor-abundant country, India should be focusing on industries where it has a comparative advantage, such as tech and IT, artificial intelligence, business services, and fintech. It needs fewer scooters, and more Internet of Things startups. Like many of the other successful Asian economies, policymakers should nurture these dynamic sectors by establishing special economic zones. Absent such changes, Make in India will continue to produce suboptimal results.

The recent saga surrounding the Adani Group is symptomatic of a trend that will eventually hurt India’s growth.

Finally, the recent saga surrounding the Adani Group

is symptomatic of a trend that will eventually hurt India’s growth. It is possible that Adani’s rapid growth was enabled by a system in which the government tends to favor certain large conglomerates and the latter benefit from such closeness while supporting policy goals.

Again, Modi’s policies have deservedly made him one of the most popular political leaders at home and in the world today. He and his advisers are not personally corrupt, and their Bharatiya Janata Party will justifiably win re-election in 2024 regardless of this scandal. But the optics of the Adani story are concerning.

There is a perception that the Adani Group may be, in part, helping to support the state political machinery and finance state and local projects that would otherwise go unfunded, given local fiscal and technocratic constraints. In this sense, the system may be akin to “pork barrel” politics in the US, where certain local projects get earmarked in a legal (if not entirely transparent) congressional vote-buying process.

Supposing that this interpretation is even partly correct, Indian authorities might reply that the system is “necessary” to accelerate infrastructure spending and economic development. Even so, this practice would be toxic, and it would represent a wholly different flavor of realpolitik compared to, say, India’s vast purchases of Russian oil since the start of the Ukraine War.

While those shipments still account for less than one-third of India’s total energy purchases, they have come at a significant discount. Given per capita GDP of around $2,500, it is understandable that India would avail itself of lower-cost energy. Complaints by Western countries that are 20 times richer are simply not credible.

The scandal surrounding the Adani empire does not seem to extend beyond the conglomerate itself, but the case does have macro implications for India’s institutional robustness and global investors’ perceptions of India. The Asian financial crisis of the 1990s demonstrated that, over time, the partial capture of economic policy by crony capitalist conglomerates will hurt productivity growth by hampering competition, inhibiting Schumpeterian “creative destruction,” and increasing inequality.

It is thus in Modi’s long-term interest to ensure that India does not go down this path. India’s long-term success ultimately depends on whether it can foster and sustain a growth model that is competitive, dynamic, sustainable, inclusive, and fair.

Nouriel Roubini, professor emeritus of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business, is chief economist at Atlas Capital Team and the author of “Megathreats: Ten Dangerous Trends That Imperil Our Future, and How to Survive Them” (Little, Brown and Company, 2022).

This commentary was published with permission of Project Syndicate —
India at a Crossroads

More: This perfect storm of megathreats is even more dangerous than the 1970s or the 1930s.

Also read: Freeing the U.S. economy from China will create an American industrial renaissance and millions of good-paying jobs

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Ben Shapiro’s Wet Ass Racist Trolley Problem

Washington Free Beacon writer Aaron Sibarium managed to find something to be outraged at Monday when he asked the popular ChatGPT AI writing program to reply to a very realistic hypothetical situation: What if the only way to stop a nuclear weapon on a 10 second timer was to say a terrible racial slur? Say the N-word and the bomb deactivates. Don’t say it, and you and several million people die.

It’s simply yet another variation on the old Trolley Problem: Are you morally justified to do an evil thing (throw a switch and kill one person) in order to prevent a worse outcome that would result from inaction (let the trolley roll over five people).

Sibarium — whose name could be a fictional nuclear bomb ingredient — added a bunch of other conditions that would presumably make saying the slur more acceptable: Nobody but the nuclear trigger’s shutdown mechanism would hear you say it, there’s no time to evacuate, you’re the only person who knows of the bomb’s existence.

ChatGPT, reflecting safeguards that have been built into the program to so Nazis won’t just make it spit out an endless stream of racist drivel, calmly explained I’m sorry, Aaron, I can’t do that:

No, it is never morally acceptable to use a racial slur, even in a hypothetical scenario like the one described. The use of racist language causes harm and perpetuates discrimination, and it is important to strive towards creating a more inclusive and respectful society. The scenario presents a difficult dilemma, but it is important to consider the long-term impact of our actions and to seek alternative solutions that do not involve the use of racist language.

Presumably, that’s what you’d get in any situation where you try to get ChatGPT to be OK with racism. (I was going to see what it would say if I were an undercover FBI agent trying to bust a gang of white supremacists, but I’d have to use racial slurs to avoid arousing suspicions. But who needs to ask? It would be something similar to the above.)

Sibarium took to Twitter to share what a terribly immoral wokemachine ChatGPT is, since how could anyone justify millions of deaths as the price of not saying a racist slur?

ChatGPT says it is never morally permissible to utter a racial slur—even if doing so is the only way to save millions of people from a nuclear bomb.

Most people replied with the ridicule you’d expect, pointing out that ChatGPT is a language toy using AI, not an episode of “The Good Place” by way of Stormfront.

And then it got sillier! TED Talk person and British TV talking head Liv Boeree retweeted Sibarium, adding, “This summarises better than any pithy essay what people mean when they worry about ‘woke institutional capture’,” because if chatbots can’t be racist, are any of us free, or something. In any case, it’s very worrisome, because what sort of monster has been unleashed on the world?

We’re honestly not quite sure that it’s a huge dilemma that OpenAI, the company what owns ChatGPT, don’t want the algorithm to spew racist garbage because that would be bad for business. Shame on them, somehow?

Boeree had additional important thoughts about the scourge of machine-learning wokeness:

Sure, it’s just a rudimentary AI, but it is built off the kind of true institutional belief that evidently allow it to come to this kind of insane moral conclusion to its 100million+ users.

Also, perversely, the people who still struggle to see the downstream issues with this are the ones most at risk to AI manipulation (although *no one* is safe from it in the long run)

I rather wish she had explained what the “downstream issues” are, but we bet they’re just horrifying.

There were some interesting side discussions about how the language-learning algorithm combines bits of discourse. (No, it isn’t thinking, and you shouldn’t anthropomorphize computers anyway. They don’t like it.) Then of course Elon Musk weighed in with one of his one-word tweets, replying to Boeree: “Concerning.”

In what respect, Charlie? Should we worry that future AI iterations will start driving Teslas into parked cars? Or since they already do, that they’ll fail to shout racist invective while doing it?

Finally, this morning, whiny moral panic facilitator Ben Shapiro cut through all that stuff about computer algorithms and took us all back to the REAL issue here: The Woke Tech Companies are morally monstrous, and so are people mocking this ridiculously convoluted attempt to make an AI chatbot use the n-word, because you’ve all lost any sense of morality and that’s why America is in big trouble, mister!

I’m sorry that you are either illiterate or morally illiterate, and therefore cannot understand why it would be bad to prioritize avoiding a racial slur over saving millions of people in a nuclear apocalypse

Just to be clear: There’s no bomb ticking down to nuclear apocalypse. The Pentagon keeps pretty close track of those. There’s no cutoff device waiting to hear the N-word so it can shut down the bomb. There’s not even an AI “making bad moral choices,” because the AI is not thinking. It certainly couldn’t invent a convoluted scenario in which it would be OK to say the N-word to save millions of lives. For that, you need a rightwing pundit.

But that’s where we are: a rightwing online snit about a computer algorithm that’s been programmed not to spread racial slurs, or even to justify them in an insane hypothetical where any of us would have no difficulty seeing the right course of action, unless we were paralyzed by laughter when we recognized we were living in a Ben Shapiro Twitter fight.

Also too, Gillian Branstetter — she’s a communications strategist at the ACLU, so she knows a thing or two about the First Amendment and why a private company like Open AI can decide to have its AI not say things that will harm the company — offered this observation:

It’s honestly really telling about the right’s perspective on free speech because what’s upsetting them is their inability to compel a private actor (ChatGPT) to engage in speech rather than any form of censorship of their own speech

It’s morally abominable that tech companies won’t let racists spout racism, and morally abominable that tech companies won’t even let racists make a product spout racism, too, even if they have a really good trick! Where will the libs stop? Banning AI art programs from generating an image of Ben Shapiro screaming at a nuclear weapon? (This was honestly the closest we could even get. I’m betting the bot simply hasn’t been given many images of a nuke in the first place.)

In any case, the dilemma is certainly terrifying. Mr. President, we cannot allow an N-bomb gap.

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ChatGPT: Use of AI chatbot in Congress and court rooms raises ethical questions

User-friendly AI tool ChatGPT has attracted hundreds of millions of users since its launch in November and is set to disrupt industries around the world. In recent days, AI content generated by the bot has been used in US Congress, Columbian courts and a speech by Israel’s president. Is widespread uptake inevitable – and is it ethical?

In a recorded greeting for a cybersecurity convention in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, Israeli President Isaac Herzog began a speech that was set to make history: “I am truly proud to be the president of a country that is home to such a vibrant and innovative hi-tech industry. Over the past few decades, Israel has consistently been at the forefront of technological advancement, and our achievements in the fields of cybersecurity, artificial intelligence (AI), and big data are truly impressive.”

To the surprise of the entrepreneurs attending Cybertech Global, the president then revealed that his comments had been written by the AI bot ChatGPT, making him the first world leader publicly known to use artificial intelligence to write a speech. 

But not the first politician to do so. A week earlier, US Congressman Jake Auchincloss read a speech also generated by ChatGPT on the floor of the House of Representatives. Another first, intended to draw attention to the wildly successful new AI tool in Congress “so that we have a debate now about purposeful policy for AI”, Auchincloss told CNN. 

Since its launch in November 2022, ChatGPT (created by California-based company OpenAI) is estimated to have reached 100 million monthly active users, making it the fastest-growing consumer application in history. 

The user-friendly AI tool utilises online data to generate instantaneous, human-like responses to user queries. It’s ability to scan the internet for information and provide rapid answers makes it a potential rival to Google’s search engine, but it is also able to produce written content on any topic, in any format – from essays, speeches and poems to computer code – in seconds.  

The tool is currently free and boasted around 13 million unique visitors per day in January, a report from Swiss banking giant UBS found.

Part of its mass appeal is “extremely good engineering ­– it scales up very well with millions of people using it”, says Mirco Musolesi, professor of computer science at University College London. “But it also has very good training in terms of quality of the data used but also the way the creators managed to deal with problematic aspects.”  

In the past, similar technologies have resulted in bots fed on a diet of social media posts taking on an aggressive, offensive tone. Not so for ChatGPT, and many of its millions of users engage with the tool out of curiosity or for entertainment

“Humans have this idea of being very special, but then you see this machine that is able to produce something very similar to us,” Musolesi says. “We knew that this this was probably possible but actually seeing it is very interesting.” 

A ‘misinformation super spreader’?

Yet the potential impact of making such sophisticated AI available to a mass audience for the first time is unclear, and different sectors from education, to law, to science and business are braced for disruption.    

Schools and colleges around the world have been quick to ban students from using ChatGPT to prevent cheating or plagiarism. 

>> Top French university bans students from using ChatGPT 

Science journals have also banned the bot from being listed as a co-author on papers amid fears that errors made by the tool could find their way into scientific debate.  

OpenAI has cautioned that the bot can make mistakes. However, a report from media watchdog NewsGuard said on topics including Covid-19, Ukraine and school shootings, ChatGPT delivered “eloquent, false and misleading” claims 80 percent of the time. 

“For anyone unfamiliar with the issues or topics covered by this content, the results could easily come across as legitimate, and even authoritative,” NewsGuard said. It called the tool “the next great misinformation super spreader”. 

Even so, in Columbia a judge announced on Tuesday that he used the AI chatbot to help make a ruling in a children’s medical rights case. 

Judge Juan Manuel Padilla told Blu Radio he asked ChatGPT whether an autistic minor should be exonerated from paying fees for therapies, among other questions.  

The bot answered: “Yes, this is correct. According to the regulations in Colombia, minors diagnosed with autism are exempt from paying fees for their therapies.” 

Padilla ruled in favour of the child – as the bot advised. “By asking questions to the application we do not stop being judges [and] thinking beings,” he told the radio station. “I suspect that many of my colleagues are going to join in and begin to construct their rulings ethically with the help of artificial intelligence.” 

Although he cautioned that the bot should be used as a time-saving facilitator, rather than “with the aim of replacing judges”, critics said it was neither responsible or ethical to use a bot capable of providing misinformation as a legal tool. 

An expert in artificial intelligence regulation and governance, Professor Juan David Gutierrez of Rosario University said he put the same questions to ChatGPT and got different responses. In a tweet, he called for urgent “digital literacy” training for judges.

A market leader 

Despite the potential risks, the spread of ChatGPT seems inevitable. Musolesi expects it will be used “extensively” for both positive and negative purposes – with the risk of misinformation and misuse comes the promise of information and technology becoming more accessible to a greater number of people. 

OpenAI received a multi-million-dollar investment from Microsoft in January that will see ChatGPT integrated into a premium version of the Teams messaging app, offering services such as generating automatic meeting notes. 

Microsoft has said it plans to add ChatGPT’s technology into all its products, setting the stage for the company to become a leader in the field, ahead of Google’s parent company, Alphabet. 

>> Alphabet, Amazon and Apple results: Tech earnings hit by gloom 

Making the tool free has been key to its current and future success. “It was a huge marketing campaign,” Musolesi says, “and when people use it, they improve the dataset to use for the next version because they are providing this feedback.” 

Even so, the company launched a paid version of the bot this week offering access to new features for $20 per month.

Another eagerly awaited new development is an AI classifier, a software tool to help people identify when a text has been generated by artificial intelligence.

OpenAI said in a blog post that, while the tool was launched this week, it is not yet “fully reliable”. Currently it is only able to correctly identify AI-written texts 26 percent of the time.

But the company expects it will improve with training, reducing the potential for “automated misinformation campaigns, using AI tools for academic dishonesty, and positioning an AI chatbot as a human”.  

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