Frankenstein’s warning: the too-familiar hubris of today’s technoscience

Technology presuming to recreate humanity is central to Mary Shelley’s masterpiece. It is more relevant today than ever.

Can we imagine a scenario in which the different anxieties aroused by George Romero’s horror film Night of the Living Dead and Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi dystopia 2001: A Space Odyssey merge?

How might a monster that combined our fear of becoming something less than human with our fear of increasingly “intelligent” machines appear to us and what might it say?

There is one work – of both horror and science fiction – that imagines such a monster. Published almost exactly 150 years before Romero and Kubrick released their movies, it is a book in which physical deformity and technological mutiny coalesce, creating a monster that is both a zombie and AI, or something in between the two. A gothic fiction, it is also described by some literary historians as the first science-fiction novel. Its title is Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus.

Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931)

Mary Shelley’s dark Romantic masterpiece was conceived and written on Lake Geneva in the fabled “year without a summer” 1816 – when volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia shrouded the Earth – and provides a matchless metaphor for the intersection of science, technology, hubris and shortsighted ambition that characterises the present moment.

The titular Victor Frankenstein is a young scientist who develops a secret technique to impart life to non-living matter and his ambition leads him to use that technique to assemble an entire human being, one anatomical feature at a time, from the bodies of dead humans and animals. Horrified at the results of this experiment, he abandons the newly reanimated creature, whose appearance and size condemn him to a life of lonely, loveless misery. The creature swears revenge on Victor and pursues him through what remains of the novel, punishing the scientist’s friends for his crimes and demanding a companion, upon pain of more carnage.

It is a book in which physical deformity and technological mutiny coalesce, creating a monster that is zombie and AI

It is a story drenched not in blood and gore but in unbearable longing and desolation. Taking care to piece his creation together so that everything functions as it should, Victor neglects to consider the thing that makes a being fully human: participation in a community that, whatever its injustices and distortions, affords the possibility of acceptance, companionship, understanding and love.

Not unusually for a literary creation that captures the popular imagination, Shelley’s sensitive, anguished creature has undergone a significant makeover in its journey from character to archetype. The popular image of Frankenstein’s monster is of a towering, heavy-set, undead-like figure with greenish skin and an angular head. The intelligence and athletic agility of Shelley’s creation are no longer in evidence. Instead, the monster is as dull and rigid as any post-Romero zombie.

‘Great God!’ … Boris Karloff in The Bride of Frankenstein, from 1935.

The template for this representation is Boris Karloff’s interpretation of the monster in James Whale’s 1931 movie Frankenstein, which also played a major role in transforming another aspect of the Frankenstein story: the character of the monster’s creator. For while Shelley’s Victor is undoubtedly hubristic, he bears little resemblance to the mad scientist that appears in so many interpretations of the novel and in many other stories besides. That is a modern characterisation and a key reason Frankenstein, or the Frankenstein story, no longer has the resonance it deserves.

So when a technoscientific innovation – a new genetic intervention, say, in agriculture or medicine – is described by its critics as “Frankenscience”, there tends to be a collective rolling of eyes. Invocations of monstrosity are met in a spirit of amused indulgence. It’s almost as if the Frankenstein story, in its extra-literary iterations, is allegorically self-defeating – a warning not against scientific hubris, but against the accusation of such. Oh, don’t be daft, say the scientists to their critics. It’s just a cheesy fantasy with Herman Munster in the starring role!

The red eye of HAL from the film 2001 – A Space Odyssey
2001 – A Space Odyssey explores our fear of increasingly intelligent machines. Of our humanity being recreated. Photograph: Mgm/Stanley Kubrick Productions/Kobal/Shutterstock

But this overlooks that Shelley’s Frankenstein is a work of imagination focused not on some single calamity or experimental step too far, but on the broader hubris that presumes to treat being as a material fact like any other, to be made or modified at will. It is the dramatic encapsulation of a mindset, not the literary equivalent of a disaster movie.

Shelley and her literary coterie (which included Lord Byron and her lover, Percy Shelley) were deeply interested in the new techniques emerging from “natural philosophy”: in Benjamin Franklin’s experiments with lightning and conductivity, and in the scientific ideas of Erasmus Darwin, whom they believed (erroneously) to have vivified a piece of vermicelli noodle using a technique called galvanism – the chemical generation of an electrical current.skip past newsletter promotion

But for Shelley, such knowledge cannot be treated in isolation from its human context and that is why she depicts Victor Frankenstein as the product of an incomplete education – as a man whose analytic tendencies, unanchored in philosophy or the arts, cause him to take a mechanistic and reductive view of humanity. Like the Prometheus with whom he shares the book’s title – the Titan trickster who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity – he is guilty of insufficient humility in the face of our multifaceted nature. He is not a mad scientist, but a blinkered one.

Frankenstein is a work of imagination focused not on some single calamity or experimental ‘step too far’

Read in this way, Frankenstein is more relevant today than ever.

In our technoscientific era, the fundamental elements of nature are manipulated in a spirit of Promethean progress and a reductive and mechanistic idea of humanity is central to that project. The part of Victor is taken by a composite of corporations, governments, the military and the modern university, now largely denuded of its humanistic ethos. And while many of its schemes may turn out to be as fanciful as breathing life into a mouldering cadaver, the mindset that gives rise to those schemes will only go from strength to strength unless we begin, like Shelley, to question the ignorance and arrogance at its core.

Some of the interventions entertained in Silicon Valley or the biotech sector would be dangerous if they came to fruition. But more dangerous still is the ideological climate that allows them to be entertained at all.

Stephen Asma, a professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, writes: “Our generation is like Dr Frankenstein standing over a table of miscellaneous limbs and organs, only we’re on the table, too.” Asma suggests that we interrogate technological developments as incubators of the worldview that allows technoscientific hubris to reproduce and spread. His point is that, to some degree, we are all suffering from Victor’s delusion, because we are all encouraged to see nature in mechanistic terms, as something that can be bent to our will, even at the risk of bending it out of shape.

The danger is … that we begin to see ourselves and others as something less than fully human

This attitude runs so deep it is barely recognisable as an attitude at all. Convincing ourselves that recent developments in computing or genetic engineering are no different from any other kinds of innovations, we acquiesce in the myth of progress that drives the technosciences forward.

But this is to misunderstand the effect that technoscience is having and will have – not only on “the natural world” but also on our humanity.

The danger is not that we create a monster that runs amok, or a plague of zombies, or a rogue AI – or a planet of the apes, for that matter – but that we begin to see ourselves and others as something less than fully human, as machines to be rewired or recalibrated in line with the dominant ideological worldview. In that case, we would already have arrived at a perilous situation – a situation where our perception of ourselves as bounded by and connected through nature had given way to the post-humanist view that humans are fleshy automata, subject to endless modification.

Denuded of the ancient idea that humans are deserving of dignity by dint of being humans, we would have entered the liminal realm of the uncanny.

This is an edited extract from Here be Monsters by Richard King, published on 1 May by Monash University Publishing.

The Guardian – April 30, 2023

‘We’ll show just how weak they are’: Ukraine primed for crucial offensive

With concern among allies seemingly growing, there is a lot riding on an imminent counter-assault on the Russians in the sout

The last time “Luh” served in the military, he was a Soviet conscript, sailing the Arctic Ocean with the USSR’s northern fleet over four decades ago.

When Russia seized the Crimean peninsula and Russian-backed proxies moved into his home region of Luhansk nearly a decade ago, he cheered on the Ukrainian army but thought his fighting days were behind him.

Then last February, the 64-year-old signed up again to serve. “I didn’t volunteer in 2014 because I thought the country could do this without me, but then last year I saw they couldn’t.”

It was volunteers like Luh – a railway engineer in civil life – who helped propel Ukraine to victories over Russia’s military last year that stunned even close allies.

Now they aim to do it again, in a counter-offensive expected to start within weeks, perhaps even days, that will be a critical test for Ukraine.

The war has settled into nearly static frontlines for several months, with Russian forces still holding nearly a fifth of the country, and the cost of military and financial aid to Ukraine apparently starting to worry some western allies.

The coming months of fighting will show if Ukraine is able to come good on promises to reclaim all its occupied territory, after more than a year of occupation has allowed Russia to dig in extensive fortifications.

The most optimistic among Ukraine and its allies hope for a repeat of the dramatic military triumphs of last spring and autumn, when Moscow was pushed back from Kyiv and then forced out of swathes of the country’s east and south in a few weeks.

The men and women who have spent time facing Russian troops in the trenches are less sanguine about progress, although also certain about the eventual outcome. “Everyone is waiting for it and thinks we will solve everything with one hit. It will take time, and will be hard,” said Luh.

The Observer met Luh, who under military protocol asked to go by his call-sign rather than his name, at a training camp a few dozen kilometres from the frontlines in southern Ukraine. His infantry unit had withdrawn briefly from the fighting to practise tactics for storming Russian trenches. On the makeshift firing range, other groups fired off mortars and anti-tank missiles, heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Most were working on improving the speed and communication that can be the difference between life and death in battle.

A former tattoo artist and a construction worker with dreadlocks were drilling veterans like Luh, alongside relatively new recruits.

“Dark”, who is 30, signed up in January after helping his wife and son settle into a new life outside Ukraine. “Someone has to defend the country,” he said about his decision to volunteer. He has had two trips to the frontline already, but hopes to get more experience before the full-scale push starts. “We are not ready, we need to train more, we need more time.”

His concerns echo those of many in Washington and other European capitals that have poured billions into supporting Ukraine but worry about the state of its military after a punishing year. The official casualty toll is a secret, but leaked US military briefings put the number of Ukrainian dead at between 15,500 and 17,500 with more than five times that injured.

Ukrainian soldiers training
Ukrainian soldiers prepare for the counter-offensive, which is expected to start within weeks, if not days. Photograph: Emre Çaylak/The Observer

Russian deaths are estimated to be at least double Ukrainian losses, and other casualties tens of thousands higher, but a draft law and recruitment from prisons have increased troop numbers.

US intelligence warned in February that Ukraine might fail to amass sufficient troops and weaponry, and fall “well short” of its goals for regaining territory, a trove of leaked defence documents revealed. That was despite the counter-offensive serving as a driving force behind a rapid training programme and massive delivery of aid over the winter.

Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said last week that Ukraine had taken delivery of 1,550 armoured vehicles and 230 tanks, along with large amounts of ammunition from the alliance and partner nations. Nato countries have also trained and equipped nine new armoured brigades leaving Ukraine in a “strong position” to continue to take territory, Stoltenberg told journalists in Brussels.

As the new equipment has rolled over the border, and the first weeks of spring have passed, there has been increasingly intense conjecture about when and where the counter-attack might start.

The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and his ministers have not been averse to building up the coming offensive – talking about it helps to boost domestic morale and keep Ukraine in the news in western countries who are sending vital aid. Potentially, it could also undermine morale in Russia.

Still, the spiralling speculation is frustrating some top officials, who have called for patience, at home and abroad.

“Numerous counter-offensive scenarios that are now being released to [the] public could be used as screenplays for films. But we will write our history ourselves,” said deputy defence minister Hanna Malyar in a recent conference.

Presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak was more scathing about the commentary outside Ukraine, calling on allies to focus on getting weapons to the frontline rather than playing armchair general.

“‘Military observers’ argue whether the “second season” will be as successful as the first one. Political analysts warn that if viewership drops, investors will consider whether to renew the series for a third season,” he wrote in a sharply satirical post on Twitter. “The ‘fans’ are dissatisfied: photos of destroyed landscapes and wounded people no longer tug at the heartstrings, and show-runners show the lack of creativity.skip past newsletter promotion

“Meanwhile, ordinary Ukrainians who left civilian life to defend their country are preparing to reclaim their home day after day, but they do not understand where the promised ammunition, aircraft and long-range missiles are.”

Kyiv is keeping its plans under wraps because it faces a larger, well-trained army that has been digging into its defensive positions for months. Surprise is as vital to the campaign as tanks and air defences.

President Zelenskiy
President Zelenskiy has been happy to talk about the coming offensive as it is believed to boost morale. Photograph: Viacheslav Ratynskyi/Reuters

The obvious military objective for Ukrainan forces would be driving down to reclaim a foothold on the shores of the Sea of Azov. If they could push through Russian-held territory they would cut off supply lines to troops currently attacking Kherson, and sever Russia’s land bridge to Crimea.

The roads and railways through southern Ukraine into the peninsula, seized in the early days of the invasion, are Vladimir Putin’s only substantial gain of his war. Cutting them off would change the strategic calculus, and be a military humiliation isolating the military bases and pro-Moscow civilians on the Crimean peninsula. Russian troops would then be connected to Russia only by the Kerch bridge, which has already been badly damaged in a suspected Ukrainian attack.

It would be a risky push, however. Russia has dug rows of trenches, laced with minefields and anti-tank defences. Getting through them requires a combined operation, with enough force to stop Russia closing up the initial breaches.

One of the biggest factors likely influencing the start date, outside Ukrainian or Russian control, is the weather. It has been a cold and rainy spring, making the ground uncomfortably muddy for manoeuvres, and a heavy wind can limit the operations of vital surveillance and attack drones.

“The biggest challenge is to break their defensive line – if we do that they will run away,” said a member of a mortar team who goes by the call-sign Sarmat. It is a summary of both Ukrainian hopes for the operation and the challenges ahead.

Sarmat was an engineer before the war, but his four-man team has been hardened by a year of battle. The Observer met him at a training camp, where they were working to improve speed and coordination.

His team has been working through mortars from around the world including Spain, Croatia and Pakistan. Like most soldiers on the ground, they had one key request for Ukraine’s allies: more supplies.

“They have had enough time to build a lot of trenches, so we need a lot of ammunition to get them out,” Sarmat said.

“These mortars have to keep working constantly because they have a psychological effect as well. They are loud and distinctive and when the Russians hear the whistle of a mortar, they know it is coming for their soul. We know what it’s like because we have felt it too.”

Everyone who signed up last year has seen heavy fighting. “I was 20 at the beginning of the war. Now I feel like a grown man of 40,” said “Knife”, who was a student in the final year of his international relations BA when he signed up to fight last year.

He finished his degree in the trenches and said he is now “really practising another kind of international relations on the ground. I think we are about to strike and show how weak they are.”

Many Ukrainian troops fighting on the ground say confidence in their leadership, particularly commander in chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi, was raised by the victories of the last year.

“I respect Zaluzhnyi very much as a military man. Being as strategic as he is, he will hit somewhere no one expects it,” said Rock, a 34- year-old ex-special forces soldier who tried to re-enter civilian life in 2021 but rejoined to fight the full-scale invasion.

“If there is an order from him, it is because he knows what he is doing,” he said. “Death is not as frightening if you know what you are dying for.”

The Guardian – April 30, 2023

New artificial intelligence tool can accurately identify cancer

Exclusive: algorithm performs more efficiently and effectively than current methods, according to a study

Doctors, scientists and researchers have built an artificial intelligence model that can accurately identify cancer in a development they say could speed up diagnosis of the disease and fast-track patients to treatment.

Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide. It results in about 10 million deaths annually, or nearly one in six deaths, according to the World Health Organization. In many cases, however, the disease can be cured if detected early and treated swiftly.

The AI tool designed by experts at the Royal Marsden NHS foundation trust, the Institute of Cancer Research, London, and Imperial College London can identify whether abnormal growths found on CT scans are cancerous.

The algorithm performs more efficiently and effectively than current methods, according to a study. The findings have been published in the Lancet’s eBioMedicine journal.

An organ transport ice chest.

“In the future, we hope it will improve early detection and potentially make cancer treatment more successful by highlighting high-risk patients and fast-tracking them to earlier intervention,” said Dr Benjamin Hunter, a clinical oncology registrar at the Royal Marsden and a clinical research fellow at Imperial.

The team used CT scans of about 500 patients with large lung nodules to develop an AI algorithm using radiomics. The technique can extract vital information from medical images not easily spotted by the human eye.

The AI model was then tested to determine if it could accurately identify cancerous nodules.

The study used a measure called area under the curve (AUC) to see how effective the model was at predicting cancer. An AUC of 1 indicates a perfect model, while 0.5 would be expected if the model was randomly guessing.

The results showed the AI model could identify each nodule’s risk of cancer with an AUC of 0.87. The performance improved on the Brock score, a test currently used in clinic, which scored 0.67. The model also performed comparably with the Herder score – another test – which had an AUC of 0.83.

“According to these initial results, our model appears to identify cancerous large lung nodules accurately,” Hunter said. “Next, we plan to test the technology on patients with large lung nodules in clinic to see if it can accurately predict their risk of lung cancer.”

The AI model may also help doctors make quicker decisions about patients with abnormal growths that are currently deemed medium-risk.

When combined with Herder, the AI model was able to identify high-risk patients in this group. It would have suggested early intervention for 18 out of 22 (82%) of the nodules that went on to be confirmed as cancerous, according to the study.

The team stressed that the Libra study – backed by the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity, the National Institute for Health and Care Research, RM Partners and Cancer Research UK – was still at an early stage. More testing will be required before the model can be introduced in healthcare systems.

But its potential benefits were clear, they said. Researchers hope the AI tool will eventually be able to speed up the detection of cancer by helping to fast-track patients to treatment, and by streamlining the analysis of CT scans.

“Through this work, we hope to push boundaries to speed up the detection of the disease using innovative technologies such as AI,” said the Libra study’s chief investigator, Dr Richard Lee.

The consultant physician in respiratory medicine at the Royal Marsden and team leader at the Institute of Cancer Research said lung cancer was a good example of why new initiatives to speed up detection were urgently needed.

Lung cancer is the biggest worldwide cause of cancer mortality, and accounts for a fifth (21%) of cancer deaths in the UK. Those diagnosed early can be treated much more effectively, but recent data shows more than 60% of lung cancers in England are diagnosed at either stage three or four.

“People diagnosed with lung cancer at the earliest stage are much more likely to survive for five years, when compared with those whose cancer is caught late,” said Lee.

“This means it is a priority we find ways to speed up the detection of the disease, and this study – which is the first to develop a radiomics model specifically focused on large lung nodules – could one day support clinicians in identifying high-risk patients.”

Guardian – April 30, 2023

AB – The sample is constituted of patients who are most likely to have lung cancers.

Ukraine’s Military Says Crimea Blast Was Preparation for Coming Offensive

Late Sunday, a day after the Crimea blast, explosions rocked Pavlograd in central Ukraine, and air raid sirens sounded across Ukraine.

A red fire truck stands parked in front of a large plume of smoke that is coming out of a fire.
A still image taken from a handout video made available by the governor of Sevastopol purporting to show firefighters deployed to extinguish a fire Saturday at an oil depot in Sevastopol, Crimea.Credit…Governor of Sevastopol Telegram channel/EPA, via Shutterstock

An attack on an oil depot in Russian-occupied Crimea that sparked a huge fire and sent a plume of black smoke billowing into the sky was part of Ukraine’s preparations for a counteroffensive, a Ukrainian military spokeswoman said on Sunday.

The fire early Saturday in the city of Sevastopol, the home to the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet, is the latest example of what looks to be the next phase of a conflict that has for months been marked by bitter fighting, crawling advances and deadly shelling along the front line and across the border between the two countries.

The depot fire, according to the spokeswoman for Ukraine’s southern command, Natalia Humeniuk, is part of preparations for “the broad, full-scale offensive that everyone expects.” She told Ukrainian television on Sunday that it was crucial to target Russia’s logistical capacity ahead of the counteroffensive. Russian officials blamed the explosion on a drone attack that managed to reach far beyond the front lines of the fighting.

A little more than 24 hours later, Russian forces demonstrated their own ability to hit targets well inside opposing territory. Pavlograd, a city far from the front lines in central Ukraine’s Dnipropetrovsk region, was rattled by explosions, according to reports from social media and the city’s mayor, Anatoly Vershina.

Videos and photos shared on social media and reviewed by The Times appeared to show the aftermath of a large explosion inside the city. Several images also showed what appeared to be secondary explosions. Local Telegram channels shared photos of shattered windows and damage to homes following reports of an explosion. It was unclear if there were casualties. Hours later, air raid sirens sounded across Ukraine and officials warned residents to take cover from possible Russian missile strikes.

Russia has been able to launch deadly strikes far from the front lines, including an aerial assault on Friday that killed more than two dozen people. But it has been unable to break through the Ukrainian defenses in the east, making only small gains as both sides have sustained heavy casualties.

That has given Ukraine hope for a coming counteroffensive, with a belt of land just north of Crimea viewed as a likely target. Russia has held that territory, in the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions along the coast of the Sea of Azov, since shortly after the invasion.

The tempo of strikes in Crimea and in cities such as Melitopol in the Zaporizhzhia region has increased in recent weeks, a potential sign of their importance to a coming counteroffensive that is set to be powered by fresh supplies of advanced Western military equipment, including tanks and armored personnel carriers that have already arrived in the country.

A soldier, dressed in military fatigues, loads a mortar round while standing in a trench.
Ukrainian soldiers preparing to fire a mortar round on nearby Russian positions from a frontline underground trench in southern Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region.Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

While President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine says that reclaiming Crimea is a national priority, Ukrainian officials and military experts say that it is highly unlikely that the peninsula would be the immediate target of the coming campaign. Crimea is well behind Russian lines, and Russia has been attempting to strengthen its defenses along the coast, laying land mines and building obstacles to slow tanks.

Ukraine and Russia have both taken heavy casualties in hard-fought ground campaigns in the Donbas region, particularly around the city of Bakhmut, and the country’s south and east are believed to be the most likely theaters for Ukraine’s coming offensive. But shelling has remained a fixture in the daily lives of civilians from both countries in regions far from the most intense fighting.

On Sunday, four civilians were killed when Ukrainian shelling hit a Russian village close to Ukraine’s northeastern border, according to the governor of the Bryansk region, Alexander Bogomaz. Two people were also injured when several rockets struck the village of Suzemka, about six miles from the border with Ukraine’s Sumy region.

Sumy has itself been a frequent target of Russian shelling in recent months, and the regional military administration said on Sunday that Russian forces had fired a total of 57 shells on nine communities overnight, although no injuries were reported.

Ukrainian officials did report two civilian deaths from Russian shelling on Sunday, both in the country’s south. Shelling killed a woman and injured a man in the Kherson region, where Russia has been targeting territory that Ukrainian forces recaptured last fall, and one person was killed and two wounded in Nikopol, in the Dnipropetrovsk region.

Neither country’s claims of civilian casualties could be independently verified.

New York Times – April 30, 2023

Airman in Leaks Case Worked on a Global Network Essential to Drone Missions

Airman Jack Teixeira’s unit is part of a vast system that carries video and data from spy satellites and drone missions worldwide.

Six people in uniforms sit at computers, staring at the many screens in front of them.
Airman Jack Teixeira, who was accused of posting top-secret military reports online, helped maintain the Distributed Common Ground System, a vast computer network that handles immense amounts of surveillance data.Credit…U.S. Air Force

WASHINGTON — On an Air National Guard base in Cape Cod, Mass., more than 1,200 military service members and civilians maintain one of the largest support systems for Pentagon drone missions around the world.

One of the workers was Airman First Class Jack Teixeira, the 21-year-old accused of posting top-secret military reports online.

Why such a young junior-ranking service member on Cape Cod had access to sensitive intelligence, including battlefield updates on the war in Ukraine, has to do with the vast expansion in military drone operations in the post-9/11 wars that was made possible by better satellite communication networks. It is also the result of a drastic reorganization in the Air National Guard that left small, far-flung air bases in need of new responsibilities. The one on Cape Cod and many others became intelligence outfits.

His arrest and subsequent Justice Department disclosures shined a light on a little-known Air Force mission that began in the 1990s and grew rapidly, eventually spreading to the base on Cape Cod. Called the Distributed Common Ground System, it is a vast computer network that handles the immense amounts of data generated by surveillance drones, spy satellites and other sensors — information that intelligence analysts pore through and pass along to troops on the ground.

Usually referred to as D.C.G.S., it carries top-secret information, and working on it requires an equivalent security clearance.

The system is now a worldwide network, but according to the Air Force, it started small at just three Air Force bases — Langley in Virginia, Beale in California and Osan in South Korea — and expanded in the early 2000s as the U.S. military placed more communication satellites in space and demand for airborne surveillance surged.

In 2001, according to Pentagon leadership, the U.S. military had about 200 drones in service. In the years that followed, commanders in Afghanistan and later in Iraq wanted more of them. Many more.

The network soon expanded to two more bases: Ramstein, in Germany, in early 2003 and Hickam, in Honolulu, in late 2004, Air Force documents say.

According to two retired Air Force intelligence officers with direct experience in the system, a key decision by Congress at that time freed up a large labor pool to serve at new sites.

In 2005, the Pentagon’s Base Realignment and Closure commission made recommendations that affected most of the Air National Guard’s aviation units, with 14 of them losing their flying mission, the Government Accountability Office reported. The move left thousands of air guardsmen without jobs, the officers said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of their continuing work for companies that do business with the federal government.

One of those units was the 102nd Fighter Wing at a base called Otis on Cape Cod.

Men and women from that Air National Guard wing and other former flying units began training to work on the Distributed Common Ground System, learning to run its computers and analyze intelligence from spy planes and the ever-increasing numbers of drones flying in combat missions overseas, the retired officers said.

In a speech to the Air War College in 2008, Robert M. Gates, then the secretary of defense, said the number of unmanned aircraft in service with the U.S. military had increased to more than 5,000.

Stations for the network were soon established at Air National Guard bases in Indiana and at Otis, where Jack Teixeira’s stepfather made the transition from the 102nd Fighter Wing to a post at the newly christened 102nd Intelligence Wing.

Today, there are 27 D.C.G.S. stations in the United States and two foreign countries, according to Air Force documents. But the original five are the busiest, operating nonstop year-round, the retired officers said. Each of those sites is supported by a corresponding Air National Guard unit.

The unit in Germany is currently in great demand because it serves the U.S. European Command, and, by extension, America’s support of Ukraine in its war with Russia. The Ramstein station is backed up by the 102nd Intelligence Wing at Joint Base Cape Cod, the officers said, which is supported by the 102nd Intelligence Support Squadron, where Airman Teixeira is stationed.

By 2019, when Airman Teixeira joined the Air National Guard, the U.S. military was operating more than 11,000 drones, according to the Pentagon.

In 2021, his top-secret clearance was approved, Justice Department charging documents said, allowing him entry into the facility, which has an operations floor filled with computer terminals and flat-screen televisions showing live video feeds from classified drone missions. Some sites have operations facilities many thousands of square feet in size, the officers said. Cellphones are not allowed inside.

Small teams of airmen at the units typically talk to pilots flying high-altitude U-2 spy planes and RQ-4 Global Hawks as well as MQ-9 Reapers and MQ-1 Predators over combat zones.

Airmen like Mr. Teixeira typically fix hardware and software problems and conduct routine maintenance for hours at a time in what is essentially an I.T. support shop while others collect intelligence that they can transmit to ground forces around the world, the officers said.

According to his messages on Discord, Airman Teixeira alternated between working eight-hour shifts five days a week and 12-hour shifts for three or four days at a time followed by three or four days off.

How the intelligence reports were allegedly removed from secure spaces remains unclear.

President Biden has instructed officials to get to the root of why Airman Teixeira “had access in the first place,” and Pentagon leaders are reviewing how intelligence is shared and who will have access to certain reports in the future.

The Air Force announced on April 18 that it had temporarily shut down the 102nd Intelligence Wing’s missions, which have been transferred to “other organizations” in the service.

In the most recent fallout, two of Airman Teixeira’s superiors at the wing have been suspended pending the completion of an internal investigation by the Air Force inspector general, the service said.

Their access to classified information has been temporarily blocked, a spokeswoman added.

New York Times – April 30, 2023

Researchers Identify Possible New Risk for Breast Cancer

Scientists have long known that dense breast tissue is linked to an increased risk of breast cancer in women. A study published on Thursday in JAMA Oncology adds a new twist, finding that while breast density declines with age, a slower rate of decline in one breast often precedes a cancer diagnosis in that breast.

Scientists at Washington University in St. Louis analyzed breast density changes over a 10-year period in 10,000 women who were free of cancer when the study started. Some 289 women were diagnosed with breast cancer in that time; the study compared changes in their breast tissue to those in 658 similar women who did not develop breast cancer.

Breast density was higher from the start in the women who went on to develop breast cancer, and density declined in all women over time. But when each breast’s density was measured separately, scientists found a significantly slower decline in density in breasts that developed cancer, when compared with the other breast in the same patient.

A person’s hand points to a computer screen that has two X-ray views of a breast from the side, showing large white blotches that indicate dense breast tissue.
Dense breast tissue on a mammogram at a hospital in Illinois.Credit…Kristan Lieb/Chicago Tribune, via Alamy Live News

Why It Matters: A Potential Warning Sign

Shu Jiang, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of public health sciences at Washington University, said the findings might provide an individualized and dynamic tool for assessing a woman’s breast cancer risk. “I hope they can get this into clinical use as soon as possible — it will make a huge difference,” she said.

“Right now, everybody only looks at density at one point in time,” Dr. Jiang added. But women have mammograms at regular intervals throughout their lives, and the density of each breast is measured each time.

“So this information is actually already available, but it’s not being utilized,” she said. Now, a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer could “be updated every time she gets a new mammogram.”

Background: Breast Density Matters

Breast density is now an acknowledged risk factor for breast cancer, albeit one of many. Dense tissue also makes tumors harder to detect in imaging scans.

Dozens of states have started requiring mammography centers to notify women if they have dense breast tissue. In March, the Food and Drug Administration recommended that providers tell women about their breast density.

But this is the first study to measure changes in density over time and to report a link to breast cancer.

What’s Next: Finding Women at Risk

Though larger studies will need to be done to confirm the findings, Karen Knudsen, chief executive of the American Cancer Society, called the data “exciting.”

“This is the first study I’ve seen that looks specifically across time at changes from breast to breast, instead of averaging the two breasts, where you might miss these changes,” Dr. Knudsen said.

Although women are provided the information about breast density and the risks associated with it, the study suggests that information could be better used. “We need to know how to follow women with dense breasts, instead of just alerting them,” Dr. Knudsen said.

One next step may to be examine breast density over time in women taking medication to prevent breast cancer to see if the density decreases, Dr. Knudsen suggested.

“There could be different risk stratification guidelines set up to monitor those who are having much slower decline in tissue density, versus those who are not,” Dr. Jiang said.

New York Times – April 28, 2023

China Is Cracking Down on Bankers. Here Are Some of the Targets.

As Xi Jinping and the Communist Party further exercise control over the economy, the financial sector is coming under close scrutiny.

Photos of Xi Jinping at the Museum of the Communist Party of China in Beijing. Mr. Xi, China’s top leader, has made examples of some top finance executives.
Photos of Xi Jinping at the Museum of the Communist Party of China in Beijing. Mr. Xi, China’s top leader, has made examples of some top finance executives.Credit…Greg Baker/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

For years, Xi Jinping, China’s leader, has railed against greed and corruption in the country’s financial sector, making an example of a few prominent figures along the way.

But recently, the anti-graft campaign has kicked into overdrive, sweeping up a who’s who from the country’s financial and insurance sector as Mr. Xi and the Chinese Communist Party seek to consolidate control over a critical facet of the economy.

China’s anti-corruption officials warned bankers in February that it would “investigate and deal with the people who neglect the party’s leadership.” They directed the finance executives to embrace the party’s values and avoid emulating what they see as the West’s singular focus on money.

In addition to the discipline campaign, China has carried out sweeping reforms of its financial regulatory system, while deeply embedding party officials into state-owned financial institutions.

Mr. Xi and his deputies are using the disciplinary cases to force party loyalty on the financial system, said Wu Qiang, a current affairs writer and a political analyst in Beijing.

“They can only do it through the control of personnel changes, and run the party’s leadership through it,” Mr. Wu said.

The lengths to which the government would go to knock down prominent business figures became apparent in 2017 when the police snatched Xiao Jianhua, a Chinese-born billionaire known for managing assets for the country’s ruling elite, from his apartment at the Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison last year.

The party later stepped in to effectively stop Jack Ma, co-founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba, from going forward with what would have been a blockbuster stock offering of Ant Financial in 2020. Ant, the financial sister company of Alibaba, scrapped its plans, and Mr. Ma agreed this year to give up control of Ant.

Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba, was sidelined by the Communist Party.
Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba, was sidelined by the Communist Party. Credit…Charles Platiau/Reuters

In 2022, Chinese regulators said they punished banking and insurance institutions 4,620 times, a 19 percent increase from a year earlier, while issuing 7,561 penalties to officials, up 26 percent.

“Disciplining finance is a potent way to keep elites in check,” said Yuen Yuen Ang, a professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University.

Since the start of this year, dozens of Chinese executives and senior officials in the country’s financial sector have been put under investigation or sanctions, according to the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the country’s top anti-corruption watchdog, and the National Supervisory Commission, the government regulator that works in concert with the discipline commission.

Here are some of the prominent figures and firms that have been caught up in the dragnet this year.


Liu Ti, Shanghai Stock Exchange

Liu Ti, a former deputy general manager of the Shanghai Stock Exchange, is under investigation for suspicion of duty-related violations of law. The authorities have not revealed the reasons for the inquiry. The Shanghai Stock Exchange did not respond to requests for comment.


Li Xiaopeng, China Everbright

Li Xiaopeng, a former party secretary and chairman of China Everbright Group, a giant state-owned financial firm, is under review for alleged violations of discipline and law.

According to Chinese media reports, employees of Everbright Xinglong Trust in Shenzhen were taken away by the authorities in April, likely in connection with the investigation of Mr. Li. At issue is a real estate project in Shenzhen that Everbright worked on with several developers.

China Everbright Group’s party committee — leadership units inside state-owned enterprises that report to the Communist Party — said it “firmly supports” the decision to investigate Mr. Li and would “fully cooperate” with the anti-graft regulators.


Huang Xianhui, Huarong Asset Management

Huang Xianhui, a former party secretary and general manager of Beijing Branch of China Huarong Asset Management, is under investigation for suspicion of duty-related violations of law.

Huarong Asset Management, a so-called bad debt firm established in 1999, is one of four major state-owned companies set up after the Asia financial crisis to take over loans and other assets that had plunged in value.

In January 2021, Lai Xiaomin, a former chairman of Huarong, was sentenced to death on charges of bribery, corruption and bigamy after taking some $277 million in bribes. He was executed several weeks later in a rare use in China of capital punishment for economic crimes.

Liu Liange, former party secretary and president of the Bank of China.
Liu Liange, former party secretary and president of the Bank of China.Credit…Flavio Lo Scalzo/EPA, via Shutterstock


Liu Liange, Bank of China

Liu Liange, a former party secretary and president of the Bank of China, is under investigation by the country’s top anti-corruption watchdogs.

Mr. Liu was removed as the party secretary of the bank in February and a month later resigned as president and from other roles. The Bank of China, a state-owned commercial lender, is the focus of claims of misappropriation of funds, the improper classification of the risks of certain loans and other alleged offenses.

On the day Mr. Liu was removed as party secretary of the bank, regulators disclosed that the bank had been fined, along with four other financial institutions, for similar violations.

At least four other senior executives of the Bank of China have been put under investigation since the beginning of the year for alleged violations of discipline and law.


Tian Huiyu, China Merchants Bank

Tian Huiyu, an economist and banker who served from 2013 to 2022 as president of China Merchants Bank, whose shares trade in Shanghai and Hong Kong, has been under investigation since April 2022 on suspicion of insider trading and leaking insider information.

In February, Chinese prosecutors filed a case against Mr. Tian, accusing him of bribery, insider trading and the leaking of insider information. The prosecution also accused Mr. Tian of “abusing power for personal gain that caused particularly heavy losses to national interests.”

Wang Liang, president of China Merchants Bank, said in October that “Tian Huiyu’s case is only a personal incident and has no direct relationship with CMB.”

Fan Bao, chairman and chief executive of China Renaissance.
Fan Bao, chairman and chief executive of China Renaissance.Credit…Bobby Yip/Reuters


Bao Fan, China Renaissance Holdings

China Renaissance Holdings made a stunning announcement on Feb. 16: It had been “unable to contact” Bao Fan, the firm’s chairman and chief executive and a prominent investment banker in the technology sector. The company’s stock price plunged after the disclosure.

Mr. Bao’s disappearance sent a chilling message to the industry about the reach of Beijing’s crackdown on the business elite. Chinese media reported that the authorities had taken him in to assist in an investigation of a former senior executive of his company.

The company issued a statement on Feb. 26 that Mr. Bao was “cooperating in an investigation” by the Chinese authorities. There has been no update from the company about Mr. Bao Fan’s whereabouts since then.


Zhou Gaoxiong, Guangdong Rural Credit Union

Zhou Gaoxiong, a former party secretary and chairman of the Guangdong Rural Credit Union, was expelled from the party in January after being accused of serious duty violations and suspected bribery crimes. Mr. Zhou, who had retired three years earlier, was also forced to give up his pension benefits.

The move continued a crackdown on China’s rural banks after a scandal in Henan Province last year when rural banks refused to let depositors withdraw their money, causing waves of protests.

The authorities started the investigation of Mr. Zhou for alleged violations of discipline and law in November.

New York Times – April 27, 2023

Scientist Revisits Data on Raccoon Dogs and Covid, Stressing the Unknowns

After analyzing genetic data swabbed from a Wuhan market in early 2020, a virologist said it was unclear if animals for sale there had been infected.

Two health workers clad head to toe in protective gear holding some disinfectant equipment at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. A row of large, plastic red barriers are positioned directly behind them and skyscrapers loom high in the background.
A cleanup crew at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China, in March 2020.Credit…Hector Retamal/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A new study of genetic data from a market in Wuhan, China, said the data did not support the case that the pandemic had started with illegally traded animals, touching off fresh debate about samples that other scientists see as critical pieces of the puzzle of how the coronavirus reached humans.

The new study, which examined the relative amounts of animal and viral material in swabs taken from surfaces at the market in early 2020, said it was difficult to draw conclusions about whether given samples of the virus had come from infected live animals or were simply from incidental contamination.

But several outside experts said the analysis, posted online this week by the study’s author, Jesse Bloom, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, could have been affected by a number of unknown variables and decisions about how to filter the data.

For those reasons, they said, the findings did not do much to sway their impression of previous studies. Samples from the market containing animal and viral genetic material, they said, were consistent with the possibility that an animal there — perhaps a raccoon dog — had spread the virus to people, but did not prove that had happened.

“I think there’s a pretty reasonable chance they picked up an infected raccoon dog, but that doesn’t prove that was the origin,” said Frederic Bushman, a microbiologist at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in analyzing samples like those taken from the Wuhan market, but who was not involved in any of the market studies. “I don’t think the Bloom paper changes my thinking that much.”

Chinese researchers wrote about the market data last year and then made the genetic sequences available this year, allowing a team of international scientists to study them. That team wrote in a report last month that based on the data, they could not conclusively identify an animal that had passed the virus to people.

But they said the data confirmed that animals believed to be susceptible to the virus, like raccoon dogs and masked palm civets, a small Asian mammal implicated in the SARS outbreak two decades ago, were being sold at the market in late 2019. Many of the earliest Covid-19 patients also worked or shopped at the market.

Because the market was one of only four places in Wuhan reported to be selling live animals of the sort that could plausibly spread the virus, the scientists said it was unlikely that so many early patients were linked to the market purely by chance. They said the genetic data also built on other evidence, including that two early lineages of the virus had been at the market.

This week’s study took a different approach to analyzing the gene sequences.

Dr. Bloom investigated whether the amount of genetic material from the virus correlated with the amount of genetic material from susceptible animal species in the samples. If one species at the market was overwhelmingly responsible for shedding the virus, he said in an interview, he would have expected to see a clear link between the amount of genetic material from the virus and the amount from that species.

But the study found no clear correlations of that kind. Instead, the strongest correlations involved various fish sold at the market that could not have been infected, an indication that infected people had probably deposited viral material where the fish was.

Dr. Bloom said that finding suggested that the virus, also known as SARS-CoV-2, was spread widely across the market by the time the swabs were collected in early 2020.

“In the same way we shouldn’t read much of anything into the fact that there’s a bunch of SARS-CoV-2 mixed with largemouth bass and catfish samples, we also shouldn’t read much into the fact that there’s a raccoon dog sample with a SARS-CoV-2 read,” Dr. Bloom said.

A small raccoon dog, which looks like a perfect cross between a short-legged dog and a raccoon, is standing on a mossy stump in the woods. It has long, fluffy fur and looks alert.
A common raccoon dog.Credit…Buschkind/Alamy

But outside experts said that various features of the samples could throw off efforts to correlate animal and viral material. The international scientists said in their report that they had considered running a similar analysis, but that it risked producing misleading results. Dr. Bloom acknowledged that “it’s an open question of whether that is an informative thing to calculate at all.”

Genetic material from the virus degrades quickly, said Christopher Mason, a specialist in environmental sampling at Weill Cornell Medicine. Crucially, viral material may decay at a different rate than material from animals, making it difficult to compare them in samples collected over the course of weeks after the market’s closure.

It could be that fish were most closely associated with the virus simply because the fish were likely to have been frozen or refrigerated, slowing the decay of viral material in those samples, said Tom Wenseleers, an evolutionary biologist at KU Leuven in Belgium.

The latest analysis “confirms that looking at these sorts of correlations tells you next to nothing with respect to which host species could have been a plausible source of the pandemic,” Dr. Wenseleers said. This leaves scientists in the same situation as before, he said, with market data that doesn’t offer conclusive evidence of any particular origin scenario.

The new study also looked closely at a swab from a cart at the market in which the international team had found a trace of the virus alongside genetic signatures of raccoon dogs, but no detectable genetic material from humans.

Dr. Bloom wrote that the swab had only a minuscule amount of viral material, and that it was not clear why Chinese researchers had classified the swab as Covid-positive. His study said that swab was the only one that had substantial amounts of raccoon dog genetic material with any traces of the virus.

Some scientists, though, said Dr. Bloom’s analysis risked dismissing other Covid-positive swabs by setting too high of a bar for the amount of animal genetic material in a sample.

Dr. Bushman, of the University of Pennsylvania, said that the threshold used in the analysis was “aggressive” and that it was best to compare results obtained from a series of different cutoffs.

Using a more sensitive threshold, the international team of scientists identified multiple Covid-positive samples containing raccoon dog genetic material, as well as others with genetic signatures of different animals thought to be susceptible to the virus.

Alexander Crits-Christoph, a computational biologist formerly at Johns Hopkins University who helped lead the international team’s analysis, said the team also looked closely at whether the Chinese researchers had been right to describe the swab from the cart as positive for the virus.

He noted that a number of other swabs from the same stall were clearly positive for the virus. He said results from sampling elsewhere in the market also indicated that unlike the swab from the cart, most of the truly negative swabs contained no traces of the virus at all.

“This is environmental sampling of a virus that is a tiny needle in a haystack,” Dr. Crits-Christoph said.

New York Times – April 29, 2023

Digitized Silhouette Portraits Shed Light on 19th Century Life

The album’s fragile pages were laced with arsenic, so the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery put the images online last month. Curators have since identified more than 1,000 of the 1,800 subjects.

A series of black-on-white silhouette portraits, in profile, appear on the yellowed pages of an open book.
About 1,800 19th-century silhouette portraits made by a traveling artist named William Bache are included in a book the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has digitized and made available online.Credit…Mark Gulezian/National Portrait Gallery, partial gift of Sarah Bache Bloise

More than two decades ago, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery acquired a 19th-century album filled with nearly 2,000 silhouette portraits, including those of two former presidents.

Before displaying the cut-paper portraits, made by a traveling artist named William Bache, the museum needed to create a new, sturdier binding for the book. That’s when curators spotted an unusual red residue on the pages, and decided to test the book to make sure it was safe to handle. They found that each of the album’s fragile pages was laced with arsenic.

The album sat in a box until earlier this year, when curators used a grant from the Getty Foundation to digitize it. The museum put the collection online last month, allowing anyone to virtually thumb through the images and learn more about Bache’s life and work through an interactive timeline.

Robyn Asleson, the museum’s curator of prints and drawings, said that researchers had identified a little over 1,000 of the 1,800 portraits. By digitizing the album and making it available online, she said, she hoped it will eventually be possible to identify every portrait in the collection.

“We realized that this book represented a lot of people that left no other portrait behind,” Dr. Asleson said. “And so it’s a really interesting way of looking at early 19th-century American history and just kind of a cross-section of society.”

At the time, the invention of photography was still several years off, and having a portrait painted was time consuming and expensive. Silhouettes were a cheaper, more accessible form of portraiture.

The 1,800 portraits represent a wide range of people, including prominent figures like Thomas Jefferson and George and Martha Washington, as well as enslaved and formerly enslaved people, said Anne Verplanck, a retired associate professor of American studies at Penn State University, Harrisburg, and a researcher of portraits.

Detail of four silhouette portraits.
Top row, from left: portraits dating from 1803 or 1804 of Mrs. Elizabeth Fritz Morris and Capt. Gilbert Morris of New Orleans. Bottom row, from left: a pair of unidentified men from Cuba, from 1804-6.Credit…Mark Gulezian/National Portrait Gallery, partial gift of Sarah Bache Bloise

“There’s rarely a complete or large list of who they portrayed,” Dr. Verplanck said. “This gives us an unusual detail of life back then.”

Bache, who emigrated from England to Philadelphia in May 1793, was like a “traveling salesman, but for silhouettes,” Dr. Asleson said.

He traveled up and down the East Coast from Maine to Virginia, selling portraits for money. He eventually settled in New Orleans, where he created nearly 700 portraits of people of varying origins, including French, Spanish, German, British and Caribbean. Then he traveled to Cuba, where he went door to door offering his services. Despite having no formal training as an artist, Bache had a robust clientele, and kept his prices low, offering four profiles for 25 cents, or the equivalent of about $5 today.

Dr. Asleson said Bache used a physiognotrace, a mechanical device that he modified and patented in 1803, that could trace the contours of a human face with “mathematical correctness” without coming into contact with it. After he finished a portrait, Bache would add additional details, like locks of curly hair, to make it even more accurate.

Bache assigned most customers a number. He’d quickly draw their silhouette and, after handing them their copies, keep the leftover cutout and paste it into the album, creating a “yearbook” of his work, Dr. Asleson said. At the back of the book, he kept a ledger where he noted each number and the corresponding name.

Dr. Asleson said Bache had started out neatly rendering each name, but his writing became sloppier over time. Many of the names were written phonetically, she said, which often resulted in misspellings.

After receiving the grant from the Getty Foundation, the museum worked with a photographer from the Smithsonian, a paper conservator and a few other people to make high-resolution images of the portraits over a two-week period. Because of the arsenic, Dr. Asleson said that each person had to wear a face mask, gloves and a protective gown, and that a scientist was on hand to monitor the toxin levels to ensure it was safe.

A series of black-on-white silhouette portraits, in profile, appear on the yellowed pages of an open book.
Famous profiles in Bache’s album include George and Martha Washington (top row, left), and Thomas Jefferson (second row, at right).Credit…Mark Gulezian/National Portrait Gallery, partial gift of Sarah Bache Bloise

It’s unclear how the arsenic ended up on the book’s pages, but it was considered safe in small doses in the 19th century, and was often found in food, medicine and even common goods like face powder. An arsenic-based green pigment was used in wallpaper in Britain at the time.

Heather MacDonald, a senior program officer with the Getty Foundation, said the project was a perfect fit for its Paper Project initiative.

“It’s emblematic of what we are trying to do: support curators who want to take parts of museum collections that are tucked away and give them a visibility, and really create frameworks that let people understand their relevance,” she said.

Dr. Asleson and a research assistant, Elizabeth Isaacson, scanned and pored over digitized newspapers, history books, baptismal records, wills and marriage certificates to identify people whose silhouettes appear in the book. They identified even more after Dr. Asleson expanded her research to include Spanish-language materials, and discovered that Bache had worked in Cuba.

About half the people whose portraits are included in the book were identified after the gallery was released online. Dr. Asleson said she had heard from a historian in New Orleans who helped the curators identify a few of the silhouettes — exactly what the researchers had hoped would happen.

Ideally, Dr. Asleson said, someone might still have a silhouette portrait passed down through the generations that could be matched to one of the images in the book. Another hope, she said, is that as more people trace their family’s history through genetic genealogy, more of Bache’s subjects may be identified.

“We just realized that it will be of real interest to people who are descendants or who have relatives represented in this album, who have no other image of a great-great-grandfather, great-great-grandmother,” Dr. Asleson said. “I would think this would be really exciting and valuable for them to have.”

New York Times – April 29, 2023

Tweets Become Harder to Believe as Labels Change Meaning

The elimination of check marks that helped authenticate accounts has convulsed a platform that once seemed indispensable for following breaking news.

A uniformed officer stands next to a police car and other emergency vehicles outside a hospital. A long strand of yellow police tape stretches across the foreground.
Elon Musk’s elimination of verified check marks on Twitter quickly resulted in at least 11 new accounts impersonating the Los Angeles Police Department.Credit…Mark Abramson for The New York Times

In the 24 hours after Twitter last week eliminated the blue check mark that historically served as a means of identifying public agencies, at least 11 new accounts began impersonating the Los Angeles Police Department.

More than 20 purported to be various agencies of the federal government. Someone pretending to be the mayor of New York City promised to create a Department of Traffic and Parking Enforcement and slash police funding by 70 percent.

Elon Musk’s decision to stop giving check marks to people and groups verified to be who they said were, and instead offering them to anyone who paid for one, is the latest tumult at Twitter, the social media giant he has vowed to remake since he acquired it last year for $44 billion.

The changes have convulsed a platform that once seemed indispensable for following news as it broke around the world. The information on Twitter is now increasingly unreliable. Accounts that impersonate public officials, government agencies and celebrities have proliferated. So have propaganda and disinformation that threaten to further erode trust in public institutions. The consequences are only beginning to emerge.

Alyssa Kann, a research associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, said Twitter under Mr. Musk was systematically dismantling safeguards that had been put in place over years of consideration and controversy.

“When there are so many things going wrong at once, it’s like: Which fire do you put out first?” she said.

After a public dispute with NPR, which Twitter falsely labeled state-affiliated media, the platform last week removed all labels that had identified state-owned media, including those controlled by authoritarian states like Russia, China and Iran.

That, coupled with a decision to stop blocking recommendations for them, has coincided with a spike in engagement for many of these accounts, according to research by the Digital Forensic Research Lab and another organization that studies disinformation, Reset, which is based in London.

In Sudan, new accounts on Twitter are falsely representing both sides of the civil war that has erupted there. One account that, presumably, bought a blue check mark falsely proclaimed the death of Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, the leader of the rebel Rapid Support Forces. More than 1.7 million people viewed the tweet.

Twitter’s new head of trust and safety, Ella Irwin, did not respond to a request for comment on the changes and their consequences.

Twitter has always been a font of misinformation and worse, but the previous policies sought to inform readers of the sources of content and limit the most egregious instances. The debut of verified accounts at Twitter in 2009 is usually associated with Tony La Russa, a major-league baseball manager who sued Twitter for trademark infringement and other claims after being impersonated on the platform.

Over time, verified accounts with blue check marks steered users to official sources and real people. Labeling news organizations as state media indicated that the accounts reflected a certain point of view.

Impersonators became a problem almost immediately after Mr. Musk took the helm in November and offered to sell the check marks to anyone who subscribed for the monthly fee. He backtracked after companies like Eli Lilly and PepsiCo grappled with seemingly verified spoof accounts promising free insulin and praising the superiority of Coca-Cola.

By last week, Twitter had begun removing the blue check marks from companies, government agencies, news organizations and others who did not agree to pay. It appears that many chose not to sign up, though Twitter has not disclosed any figures.

Some cheered the changes.

“Now you can even find me in the search,” tweeted Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of RT, the Russian state television network that has been accused of rampant misinformation and hate speech aimed at Ukraine. She signed off the tweet by saying, “Brotherly, Elon @elonmusk, from the heart.”

Margarita Simonyan sits on a stage in a white upholstered chair, her legs crossed and her hands folded in her lap. A long, thin microphone reaches up to her face from the white stand next to her.
“Now you can even find me in the search,” tweeted Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of RT, the Russian state television network.Credit…Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Twitter’s algorithms previously excluded accounts labeled state officials or media from recommendations, dampening engagement. According to Reset, 124 accounts belonging to Russian state media have received on average 33 percent more exposure in views and impressions after the changes, which took effect in late March.

They include accounts like that of Dmitri A. Medvedev, the former president of Russia and deputy chairman of the country’s security council, who posted a distorted photograph of President Biden on Tuesday, calling him in English “a daring geezer.”

When an account argued this month that Twitter was amplifying Russia’s genocidal propaganda toward Ukraine, Mr. Musk replied dismissively: “All news is to some degree propaganda. Let people decide for themselves.” (The account he was responding to has since been suspended.)

A soldier salutes over a coffin draped with a Ukrainian flag as a mourner braces herself against it. Another soldier holds the mourner, with an outdoor crowd behind them.
A Ukrainian soldier’s funeral. Replying to an argument that Twitter was spreading anti-Ukrainian propaganda, Mr. Musk wrote: “All news is to some degree propaganda. Let people decide for themselves.” Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

Researchers said the abrupt changes in how the check marks are obtained threatened, at a minimum, to create confusion. They could also undermine trust in a tool for communication during crises like natural disasters.

The main account of the Los Angeles Police Department has a gray check mark, which Twitter created for “legacy accounts,” but not all of its various bureaus do — the Hollywood division, for example. In addition to providing blue check marks for $8 a month, Twitter has invited organizations to pay $1,000 to receive gold marks for multiple accounts. For a time, at least, one was extended to a Disney Junior impostor account that tweeted racist and vulgar language.

“This is going to be chaos for emergency services,” tweeted Marc-André Argentino, a research fellow at the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization.

Mr. Argentino tracked examples showing an account impersonating the mayor of Chicago replying to one impersonating the city’s Department of Transportation. Another had New York City’s actual government-run account arguing with an impostor.

“Yes this is funny, let us all laugh,” Mr. Argentino wrote. “Now take two seconds and go back to any mass casualty incident in a major city, or a natural disaster, or any crisis/critical incident when people turn to official sources of information in times need & think of the harm that this can cause.”

On Friday, the comedian George Carlin’s daughter, Kelly Carlin, tweeted an accusation that someone was masquerading as the account she runs for her late father, even using the same profile photo and claiming to be her.

“HERE IT BEGINS,” she wrote, later complaining after several unsuccessful attempts to have the impostor account removed that “Twitter is broken.” The spoof account was still up on Wednesday, with nine followers.

Josh Boerman, who co-hosts a pop culture podcast, “The Worst of All Possible Worlds,” was the source of the account impersonating Mayor Eric Adams of New York, promising to create a traffic and parking department and cut police funding.

A screenshot of a spoof tweet that says: “Effective tomorrow, the City of New York will be establishing a new Department of Traffic and Parking Enforcement, alongside a Department of Domestic Assistance. In tandem, we are pleased to announce a 70% reduction in funding to the New York Police Department.”
Josh Boerman, a co-host of a pop culture podcast, said he had left clues intended to make it obvious that this was a spoof Twitter account.

Mr. Boerman said he had tried hard to leave obvious hints that he was an impersonator. His tweet thread included unrealistic scenarios where all police officers’ guns were melted down and sold for scrap, with the proceeds going to the parks department. He made up an organization with a ludicrous name: the New York City Porcine Benevolent Association. He promoted his podcast to his relatively small Twitter following of 1,700 users.

“Pretty much everybody got that it was a joke immediately, which was my hope — I wasn’t trying to mislead anyone,” Mr. Boerman said. “The point was that this can be both a joke on the state of the network right now as well as an opportunity to think about the way that media is disseminated and how we think about our public figures.”

The removal of the blue verification badges caused “immediate and pure chaos,” but the novelty eventually wore off, he said. His profile name is now “bosh (not mayor anymore).” He said he was careful to confirm any announcement he saw on Twitter using other sources.

“The problem comes when you have accounts that maybe have hundreds of thousands of followers and are positioning themselves as the real thing,” Mr. Boerman said. “Twitter’s approach of ‘Well, if people pay for verification, certainly they must be legit’ is so inane I don’t even know how to put words to it.”

New York Times – April 28, 2023