Moldova is trying to join the EU, but it will have a hard time breaking away from Russia’s orbit

Moldova, one of Europe’s poorest countries, straddles Ukraine to its east and European Union countries to its west – placing it in an arguably vulnerable position in the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia.

But Moldova, a former Soviet republic, is increasingly signaling that it is aligning itself with the European Union.

Mimi Castle, a wine estate southeast of the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, was the site of a June 1, 2023, political meeting of European leaders focused on security and stability in Europe. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who pressed for more Western aid in the fight against Russia, was among the leaders who attended.

Moldova’s Western-leaning government has accused Russia of trying to block its entry into the European Union. But a top EU leader said recently that the organization would welcome Moldova with “open arms and open hearts”.

“Moldova does not want to be blackmailed by the Kremlin,” Moldovan President Maia Sandu said during a pro-EU political rally in Chisinau on May 22.

“We don’t want to be on the outskirts of Europe anymore,” continued Sandu, who said her goal is that Moldova joins the EU by 2030.

One major complicating factor for Moldova, though, is that an eastern section of its territory, Transnistria, has been occupied by Russian troops since 1992.

As a researcher on Eastern Europe, I think it is important to understand the reasons Moldova might have a hard time breaking away from Russia’s orbit.

Moldova President Maia Sandu, second from left, stands with the Emmanuel Macron, president of France, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, prime minister of Ukraine, and Olaf Scholz, chancellor of Germany, at the European Political Community Summit in Moldova on June 1, 2023.
Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance via Getty Images

Moldova’s population is split

Moldova first applied to join the EU – a process that takes nine years, on average – in March 2022, shortly after Russia launched a full invasion of Ukraine.

But the country’s population of roughly 3.4 million people is split on this move, according to the Moldovan polling company Magenta Consulting.

Approximately 48% of the population said in March 2023 that Moldova should join the European Union, while 34% expressed their support for maintaining ties with Russia.

Despite the citizens’ split sentiment, Moldova is already moving away from Russia. In May 2022, the government announced its desire to leave the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States, a regional political and economic group set up after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

However, Russia still has political influence in Moldova.

A pro-Russian politician, for example, won an election for governor in Gagauzia, an autonomous region in southern Moldova, in May 2022.

Sandu has also accused Russia of trying to overthrow Moldova’s government and replace it with a puppet regime picked by the Kremlin.

Resistance to corruption reform

There are different conditions that countries need to meet before they formally start negotiations with EU countries to become part of the organization.

The European Commission has spelled out nine reforms it wants Moldova to make – six of them are focused on fighting corruption in the justice sector. Corruption in Moldova is widespread.

The Moldovan government is now undertaking a comprehensive reform of its justice system, in advance of entering formal negotiations to join the EU by the end of 2023.

However, some Moldovan judges are resisting efforts to make anti-corruption changes, which would include a pre-vetting system for potential judges. As a result, there have been widespread resignations of judges, paralyzing the Supreme Court of Justice due to too few members remaining in office.

Pro-Russian demonstrators protest against the rising cost of living in Chisinau, Moldova, in March 2023.
Diego Herrera Carcedo/Andalou Agency via Getty Images

Lack of border control

Another complicating factor in Moldova’s bid for EU membership is Transnistria, a pro-Russian breakaway region that separated from Moldova with the help of the Russian army after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The Transnistrian government has de facto independence, but other countries and the United Nations simply recognize it as as part of Moldova.

People living in Transnistria are largely Russian speakers, and the government is run by pro-Russian separatists.

Russia also provides Transnistria with free natural gas and has supported older people in the region with pension money.

The presence of Russian troops in Transnistria prevents Moldova from fully controlling its own borders. If activated, combat-ready Russian troops in Transnistria could quickly destabilize the region.

One condition for EU membership is border and territorial control. Without this, Moldova cannot join the EU.

Cost-of-living crisis

Moldova’s heavy reliance on food and energy imports from Ukraine and Russia made it vulnerable to conflict-related disruptions to food and energy supplies from Ukraine and Russia due to the war in Ukraine.

Moldova’s inflation rate reached an all-time high of 34.6% in October 2022. The country’s inflation rate has since eased, but still stands at 18%. High living costs have sparked protests over the past several months, with people concerned about energy prices, but also about the ability to afford other necessities like milk.

Unstable energy sources is another concern for Moldova.

Ukraine cut its electricity exports to Moldova after Russian missile strikes targeted the country’s energy infrastructure in 2022. And Russia cut the daily gas it gave to Moldova by half in October 2022, resulting in electricity blackouts and concern about the country running out of power in the winter.

In an attempt to escape Moscow’s orbit, Moldova started importing natural gas from other international sources, mainly from Romania, in December 2022.

The influx of Ukrainian refugees to Moldova has resulted in additional financial costs. Over 800,000 Ukrainian refugees crossed the country’s eastern border – and 100,000 Ukrainians are now living in Moldova.

While the challenges faced by Moldova are significant, there is also reason to think it might join the EU. In April 2023, the European Union’s parliament reaffirmed its commitment to Moldova’s EU membership. But some of Moldova’s problems, like lack of full territorial control and deep-rooted corruption, are unlikely to fade quickly. Läs mer…

The allure of the ad-lib: New research identifies why people prefer spontaneity in entertainment

The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.

The big idea

Audiences love to see athletes and entertainers behaving spontaneously, according to our recent research, because ad-libbed lines, spectacular catches, improvised set lists and the like make performers seem more authentic and genuine.

We observed a preference for spontaneity in entertainment across several studies. First, we examined dozens of Buzzfeed articles from the past several years about spontaneity in film and TV, like “Here Are 21 TV Moments You Probably Didn’t Know Were Unscripted.” Compared with other Buzzfeed articles about entertainment that were published on the same dates, the pieces about spontaneity garnered nearly double the social media engagement in comments, likes and shares.

We also ran an online raffle in which people could win a real, customized Cameo greeting from a celebrity of their choice. The vast majority of participants – 84.1% – wanted their chosen celebrity to record a fully improvised, off-the-cuff message rather than a scripted personal greeting.

But what is it that accounts for this preference?

Across a variety of experiments, our results showed that people are drawn to spontaneity because they believe it provides a glimpse into a performer’s true self. Our findings reveal that people rate entertainers as more sincere, genuine and authentic when they act spontaneously, rather than when they plan, and authenticity is something that consumers hold in extremely high regard.

But our research also revealed that spontaneity has a cost: When people acted spontaneously, our participants thought the output could be lower quality, less poised and more error prone. For instance, while a chef who leverages spontaneity in their cooking may be seen as more authentic, people might expect their meals to taste worse.

So, although participants often preferred spontaneous moments in entertainment, we found that that preference went away when money was on the line. For example, in one of our experiments, when participants were gambling real money on a sporting event, they preferred players who stuck to the game plan.

When it feels like anything can happen, audiences are hooked.
John Howard/DigitalVision via Getty Images

Why it matters

U.S. adults spend around six hours per day interacting with video-based media and entertainment. And great entertainment often includes spontaneity: Think of ad-libbed TV moments (many of the most heart-wrenching sequences in “Succession”), impromptu concerts (The Beatles’ 1969 rooftop concert) and on-the-fly sports plays (Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ trademark “flick” pass). Spontaneity-based entertainment, like improv comedy, reality TV and jazz soloing, continue to stand the test of time.

Our work illustrates that spontaneity can be a powerful tool to boost publicity and engagement and generate positive impressions. Working on a new project? Perhaps leave time for unplanned action. Promoting a new show or product? Consider talking about the unscripted, behind-the-scenes moments. On a first date? Maybe fight the urge to plan your talking points ahead of time. Coming off as truly yourself might mean that you are slightly less poised and articulate, but the trade-off can be worth it.

What’s next

In our studies, we told participants that performances were either planned or spontaneous and then measured their preferences. But what if we hadn’t told them which things were ad-libbed?

Moving forward, we’re interested in understanding if people can accurately tell whether an action is spontaneous just by watching it, and, if so, how they know. Are there social or behavioral cues, like eye contact, colloquial language or intense emotion, that signal spontaneous action?

Of course, being able to identify the “tells” of spontaneity might raise a concern that spontaneity – and, therefore, authenticity – can be faked. So another avenue we’re excited to pursue is understanding the moral and emotional implications of manufactured spontaneity. Läs mer…

How do credit scores work? 2 finance professors explain how lenders choose who gets loans and at what interest rate

With the cost of borrowing money to buy a home or a car inching ever higher, understanding who gets access to credit, and at what interest rate, is more important for borrowers’ financial health than ever. Lenders base those decisions on the borrowers’ credit scores.

To learn more about credit scores, The Conversation consulted with two finance scholars. Brian Blank is an assistant professor of finance at Mississippi State University with expertise related to how firms allocate capital, as well as the role of credit in mortgage lending. His colleague at Mississippi State, Tom Miller Jr., is a finance professor who has written a book on consumer lending, in addition to providing his expertise to policymakers.

Credit scoring assesses the likelihood of default

Lenders stay in business when borrowers pay back loans.

Some borrowers consistently make prompt payments, while others are slow to repay, and still others default – meaning they do not pay back the money they borrowed. Lenders have a strong business incentive to separate loans that will be paid back from loans that might be paid back.

So how do lenders distinguish between good borrowers and risky ones? They rely on various proprietary credit scoring systems that use past borrower repayment history and other factors to predict the likelihood of future repayment. The three organizations that monitor credit scores in the U.S. are Transunion, Experian and Equifax.

Although 26 million of 258 million credit-eligible Americans lack a credit score, anyone who has ever opened a credit card or other credit account, like a loan, has one. Most people don’t have a credit score before turning 18, which is usually the age applicants can begin opening credit cards in their own name. However, some people still have no credit later in life if they don’t have any accounts for reporting agencies to assess.

Credit scores simply summarize how well individuals repay debt over time. Based on that repayment behavior, the credit scoring system assigns people a single number ranging from 300 to 850. A credit score ranging from 670 to 739 is generally considered to be good, a score in the range of 580 to 669 would be judged fair, and a score less than 579 is classified poor, or subprime.

The two most important factors in credit scores are how promptly past debts have been paid and the amount the individual owes on current debt. The score also takes into account the mix and length of credit, in addition to how new it is.

Credit scores can help lenders decide what interest rate to offer consumers. And they can affect banks’ decisions concerning access to mortgages, credit cards and auto loans.

A good credit score is reason to celebrate because it means you have access to cheaper borrowing.
milan 2099/E+ via Getty Images

Recent improvements in consumer credit scores

Average credit scores in the United States have risen from 688 in 2005 to 716 as of August of 2021. They stayed steady at that level through 2022.

While credit card debt is at a record high, the average consumer was using just over a fourth of the revolving credit to which they had access as of September 2022.

As of 2021, nearly half of U.S. consumers had scores considered very good – meaning in the range of 740 to 799 – or excellent (800-850). Six in 10 Americans have a score above 700, consistent with the general trend of record-setting credit scores of the past few years. These trends might, in part, reflect new programs that are designed to note when individuals pay bills like rent and utilities on time, which can help boost scores.

During the first quarter of 2023, people taking out new mortgages had an average credit score of 765, which is one point lower than a year ago but still higher than the pre-pandemic average of 760.

Credit score evolution from the 1980s to the 2020s

Developed in the late 1950s, the first credit scores – FICO scores – were created to build a computerized, objective measure to help lenders make lending decisions. Before then, bankers relied on commercial credit reporting, the same system merchants used to evaluate the creditworthiness of potential customers based on relationships and subjective evaluation.

The FICO credit scoring system was enhanced over the 1960s and ‘70s, and lenders grew to trust computerized credit evaluation systems. Credit scores really began to exert an influence on American borrowers beginning in the 1980s as FICO become widely used.

A major goal of the credit score is to expand the pool of potential borrowers while minimizing the overall default rate of the pool. In this way, lenders can maximize the number of loans they make. Still, credit scores are imperfect predictors, likely because most credit models assume that consumers will continue to act in the same way in the future as they have in the past. In addition, some believe that various risk factors make credit scores imperfect. Credit modelers, however, continue to make progress by making continuous technological innovations. Even FinTech lenders, which strive to go beyond traditional credit models, heavily rely on credit scores to set their interest rates.

Recently, “Buy Now, Pay Later” accounts have been added to credit scoring, while medical debt has been removed.

Staying under 30% of your credit limit can help increase your credit score.

Credit scores might seem scary but can be useful

Borrowers with poor or limited credit have challenges building more positive credit histories and good credit scores. This challenge is particularly important because credit scores have become more widely used than ever because of the increasing availability of data and growing precision of credit models.

The availability of additional data results in more precise estimates of credit scoring, which can improve access to credit for consumers who repay bills consistently over time. These so-called “boost programs” factor in other payments that consumers routinely make on a monthly schedule. Think of the number of bills that you auto pay. Boost programs add points to your credit score for the bills that you pay consistently.

You can improve your credit score by making wise decisions

Two of the most important ways to improve credit scores are paying bills on time and ensuring that your credit report accurately reflects your payment history. Simply avoiding default is not enough. Timely payments are necessary. Someone who pays the bills every three months is “caught up” every quarter. But that consumer is 90 days delinquent four times a year. Being 90 days delinquent alarms creditors. So, someone who pays the bills every month will have a higher credit score at the end of the year.

Having more credit accounts can also positively affect your credit score because having these accounts shows that many lenders find you creditworthy. As a result, you might benefit from leaving credit accounts open if you make the wise decision not to access that credit. Warning! You must not use that extra credit access to spend more money and accumulate more debt. That decision is unwise.

Why? Because managing the ratio of debt to income is also critical to a good credit score. Debt-to-income ratios of 36% or less generally indicate individuals who have income to put toward savings, which is what all lenders are looking to see and one of the best ways to improve your credit. Läs mer…

Work requirements don’t work for domestic violence survivors – but Michigan data shows they rarely get waivers they should receive for cash assistance

The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.

The big idea

Very few people who have survived domestic violence are getting Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) waivers from the work requirements and time limits tied to those benefits – even though they’re eligible for them, according to our new research.

State governments administer the federal TANF program, commonly known as welfare or cash assistance, in accordance with their own guidelines. Federal law allows states to grant domestic violence waivers to TANF recipients when time limits, work requirements and other policies increase their risk of abuse or would unfairly penalize victims of abuse. Without a waiver, people who receive these benefits can only get TANF benefits for a limited time, which can’t exceed a total of five years, and they must document the completion of up to 120 hours a month of “work activities,” according to a complex compliance formula.

We examined annual reports from Michigan to the federal government on the number of domestic violence waivers it issued from 2008 to 2021. Even when the number of approved TANF applications increased, as occurred at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of domestic violence waivers issued remained flat.

In recent years, an average of 12,600 families in Michigan received TANF benefits in a typical month. More than 75% were female-led single-parent households. Since studies have found that 25% to 50% of women who get these benefits have experienced domestic violence, we would expect at least 750 to 1,000 women getting this assistance to be experiencing domestic violence or to have recently left a violent relationship.

Instead, the state has only issued a total of from seven to 36 waivers per year for the past decade.

Our estimates of how many domestic violence waivers should be issued exclude men and transgender and binary people due to a lack of relevant research.

To better understand what causes this discrepancy, we conducted focus groups with TANF caseworkers in 10 Michigan counties. They said they got no training on what domestic violence does to survivors’ ability to work, or guidance on when to grant the waivers. They also said there were no standard screening practices.

They also told us that survivors typically have to request waivers – even though by offering the waivers, Michigan has agreed to certify that TANF applicants and recipients are notified that they are available.

The caseworkers also said that domestic violence survivors who didn’t meet TANF work requirements often lost their benefits.

Why it matters

People who have experienced domestic violence can have trouble finding and keeping jobs because of physical injuries and their abusers’ efforts to sabotage their employment.

Denying waivers to survivors can hinder their ability to gain financial independence and could place them at risk for returning to their abusive partner as a way to meet their housing and child care needs.

The debt-ceiling deal struck between the White House and Republican leaders now pending in Congress would exempt people who are experiencing homelessness, former foster youth and veterans from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program work requirements. Known as SNAP, that program provides low-income people with money they must spend on groceries.

Our findings show that even with exemptions in place for at-risk groups, people who are eligible for such exceptions do not automatically get them.

That same deal also includes provisions that may encourage states to further restrict TANF waivers by setting stricter overall work requirement goals for all parents who get this aid.

What other work is being done

In states with more lenient work requirements, such as not immediately stopping benefits when people miss work requirement targets, and more generous financial incentives, people who get TANF benefits tend to have better and higher-paying jobs when they exit the program. In contrast, recent research indicates that taking TANF benefits away from domestic violence survivors can increase the risk that they will experience further abuse.

What’s next

We plan to expand our analysis to include the entire country and to see how waivers can be successfully used to help domestic violence survivors escape poverty. Läs mer…

How teachers can stay true to history without breaking new laws that restrict what they can teach about racism

When it comes to America’s latest “history war,” one of the biggest consequences is that it has made many K-12 educators scared and confused about what they can and can’t say in their classrooms.

Since 2021, at least 28 states have adopted measures that restrict how teachers can teach the history of racism in the U.S. Many more states have proposals on the table. The laws have been portrayed in the media as measures that would prevent teachers from teaching “divisive concepts” or lessons that would cause “discomfort, anguish or guilt.”

As a historian who studies some of the most brutal aspects of American history – from anti-Black lynching in the South after the Civil War to the use of torture during the war on terror – I don’t believe teachers have as much to worry about as many may think. Some observers have posited that the wave of new education laws will have a chilling effect on how history is taught. But a close look at these laws shows that they are generally written so broadly that they can’t effectively stop teachers from teaching history in a way that’s fair, accurate and true.

Weaknesses seen

I’m not the first to make this point. For instance, one media critic has noted that coverage of the laws has “focused more on educators’ perceptions of and emotions about the legislation than on the actual language.” A law professor has argued that the mainstream media “distorts reality by mischaracterizing the laws” as bans against critical race theory, or CRT. Critical race theory is a concept that holds that racism is not just something that takes place among individuals, but rather has been embedded in American law and policy.

Some, such as law professor Jonathan Feingold, go so far as to say most of the laws actually call for more CRT, not less. I wouldn’t go that far. However, I do see a lot of leeway and loopholes in the laws. Here, I offer several examples of ways teachers can introduce difficult subjects that involve racism in the U.S. without violating the new laws that govern how teachers can discuss it.

Focus on the free market

In teaching about the history of American free markets, teachers would be justified to point out that slavery – and the associated industries of cotton and tobacco, to name just two – were all major components of the economy before the Civil War.

To make this more relatable to children, teachers could discuss something that every child understands: food and hunger. Historical records reveal that slaveholders cut costs by underfeeding enslaved children. They often did this until the children were old enough to become productive laborers. Slave owners also published extensive advice on how to reward and punish the people they had enslaved. Teachers can point out that for all the prowess of America’s free market, before the Civil War, that free market was largely dependent on the violence and forced labor that slavery involved.

Examining the concept of liberty

Considerable debate has taken place as of late over whether students should be required to say the Pledge of Allegiance – a daily school ritual that ends with the reciting of the words “and liberty and justice for all.”

Since liberty has been a long-standing pillar of American society, no teacher could be faulted for having students examine if and how the nation historically has lived up to the notion that liberty had truly been secured “for all.”

For instance, when Patrick Henry reportedly exhorted his fellow Virginians “Give me liberty, or give me death!” in an effort to persuade them to declare independence from Great Britain, he was himself a slaveholder. So were most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, which famously describes liberty as an “inalienable” God-given right.

Teachers could also examine the starkly different visions of liberty that developed over time. For instance, students could compare and contrast the visions of liberty espoused by Confederates in relation to the views held by President Abraham Lincoln and other Unionists.

Paying homage to freed men in battle

In an effort to encourage patriotism, the “Stop Woke” law in Florida – adopted in 2022 – requires teachers to educate students about the sacrifices that veterans and Medal of Honor recipients have made for democracy. This serves as a great reason to teach about formerly enslaved men – including those who were awarded the Medal of Honor – who joined the Union army and helped defeat the Confederacy.

By studying these men and the reason they received these medals, students will learn the role that Black people themselves played in the abolition of slavery – the largest expansion of liberty in American history.

Given the current political climate in the U.S., there is no reason to assume more laws that govern what can be taught in public schools will not be passed. But based on how the laws are being written, there are still plenty of ways for teachers to tackle difficult subjects, such as racism in American society Läs mer…

Your LinkedIn doesn’t need to be perfect – four ways to build an authentic profile to boost your personal brand

The idea of a “personal brand” might seem like the purview of celebrities and influencers. But if you’ve spent any time on LinkedIn, you’ll know it’s something anyone can develop with well-crafted posts and engagement.

In recent years, students and young professionals have turned personal branding into a tool for success in competitive, global job markets. A personal brand is about both how you differentiate yourself from others, and about how others perceive you.

How you represent yourself online can have implications for your career prospects.
To learn more about how to successfully develop a personal brand, we interviewed those who are doing it well – Generation Z students in their final year of university. We also spoke with recruiters and a career advisor about creating personal brands on LinkedIn.

This article is part of Quarter Life, a series about issues affecting those of us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of beginning a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet or just making friends as an adult. The articles in this series explore the questions and bring answers as we navigate this turbulent period of life.

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We found that Gen Z values a dynamic, interactive, work-in-progress style of personal brand, rather than one that feels overly curated and fake. They share their ongoing projects, struggles and challenges in the professional world, and ask followers to contribute ideas and give suggestions.

These may not necessarily show them as “perfect” but willing to share imperfections and weaknesses instead. One of the recruiters we interviewed said that this approach makes candidates “stand out from the crowd and makes me stop and look at them rather than just clicking to the next profile”. Here are some tips for creating your own personal brand:

1. Stay up to date

Employers expect young professionals to use platforms like LinkedIn to build an authentic and unique online profile. They use these profiles to evaluate potential hires’ talents and professional skills, but also their fit with company culture. The more current and detailed your profile is, the easier it will be for the right employer to find you. You likely won’t work for the same organisations throughout your career, so it’s important to maintain and refresh your online persona.

One career adviser told us that he was concerned students were “underselling themselves” on LinkedIn by only including mandatory information such as name and current job title. He recommended including specific details about achievements in a role, as well as asking people they have worked with to post endorsements and testimonials, which is something a CV won’t have.

A recruiter noted that some employers are turning to online profiles instead of CVs, because they allow for a more complete view of the applicant’s personal brand.

2. Don’t leave out your weaknesses

When building your online profile, it may feel natural to just include your strengths and successes. But our interviews reveal that taking the risk to showcase your weaknesses and imperfections can pay off.

Posts about challenges and struggles in learning or workplaces show potential employers what makes you unique, and that you are able to self reflect and grow from mistakes. Participants told us that these posts are popular with followers, help generate conversations, and result in stronger personal brands.

One student wrote a LinkedIn post about her writing skills and how she was seeking to improve them. The post attracted hundreds of likes and comments, including advice, encouragement and similar stories from people in her network.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes – obsessing about creating a perfect personal brand can lead to procrastination, concerns about being judged or rejected, and may lead to disengagement with the job search overall.

Your challenges and weaknesses can be an important part of an authentic profile.

3. Engage with others

A good personal brand isn’t just about your own profile, it also involves engaging with others to show your dedication and interest in the profession. You should initiate conversations, collect thoughts and gather feedback from others in your field. As one student told us:

We’re all developing, and I don’t want to show employers a perfect, yet not ‘me’ image. Instead, I’ll show I’m a constant learner.

One way to do this is, like the student who wrote about improving her writing, to share stories about how you accomplished something or reached a goal. Posts with a strong narrative about the process of success (or failure) can spark discussion and debate, strengthen your personal brand and get the attention of recruiters or employers.

4. Keep your personal life separate

While authenticity can endear you to employers, you should still maintain professionalism. It is important to set clear boundaries between your work and private life, and make good use of privacy settings to maintain your personal brand.

Regular self-monitoring of social media profiles is important to manage your desired online persona. You should carefully tailor the choice of language and writing style on LinkedIn depending on the industry and company where you would like to work.

Your posts on professional sites can be personal, but from a professional context and not something you don’t want recruiters to see – for example, photos that show you partying. You may also want to, as some of our Gen Z participants did, search your name on Google or other social media platforms to see what images and posts appear, and monitor from there. Läs mer…

Eusebius McKaiser played a transformative role in talk radio in a democratic South Africa

South African broadcaster, author and political analyst Eusebius McKaiser passed away suddenly on 30 May 2023 at the age of 45. News of his death reverberated through media channels. Tributes bore witness to the impact of his voice and the enduring significance of radio as the medium through which many first encountered his outspoken, insightful commentary. McKaiser blazed a trail that helped inform public debate in contemporary South Africa.

Radio in South Africa has long been acknowledged as a significant arena for engaging in meaningful public discourse. This is extensively documented in scholarly literature. This includes my own work as a scholar of rhetoric in South African media.

McKaiser’s career played out in a particular historical context. South Africa’s airwaves were freed after democracy in 1994. Before this the state had tightly controlled radio during apartheid, silencing black voices and imposing strict censorship when they were eventually given airtime. As a medium that amplifies diverse voices and encourages active participation, radio has become a vital catalyst for social change. It empowers individuals to contribute to a more inclusive and democratic society. Talk radio, in particular, stands out as a means of engaging citizens in what scholars have termed “dial-in democracy”.

Within this landscape, McKaiser emerged on radio in 2010 as a transformative force. He transcended the boundaries of a traditional radio broadcaster to become known as public intellectual, knowledgeable and highly engaged in public issues and debates.

Public intellectual

As an openly gay person, McKaiser used his platform to staunchly advocate for the protection of same-sex rights. South African academic and author Pumla Dineo Gqola notes his role as an outspoken thinker on South African life:

On his show, he was unapologetic about naming white supremacist power no matter how hard it masked itself.

Describing his public cultural impact, Gqola has outlined McKaiser’s depth as a thinker, eloquence as a communicator and unwavering conviction as a citizen. She homes in on the important ways in which he helped confront the violence that characterises life in South Africa:

He modelled an unwavering determination to undoing violence in wide-ranging gestures. Whether he held fire to the feet of employers who expelled women who spoke out about sexual harassment, or refused to accept bureaucratic doublespeak while people were trapped in poverty, he was firm…

Talk radio career

McKaiser was a star academic scholar in philosophy and law, followed by work stints in corporate and academic spaces. His commercial radio career began with his late-night show Politics and Morality on 702, the largest English commercial station in South Africa with around 700,000 listeners. Here he introduced South Africans to his unique brand of persuasive moral philosophy, using words as tools of action to spark critical conversations.

The show prompted listeners to think deeper about their preconceived notions and engage in nuanced discussions on topics ranging from religion to politics. It mastered what some talk radio scholars describe as “a platform for deliberation which is akin to the idea of a public sphere”.

Read more:
Radio is thriving in South Africa: 80% are tuning in

McKaiser went on to host the popular Talk at Nine, simulcast on 702’s sister station Cape Talk. This was followed by The Eusebius McKaiser Show on talk radio station Power FM.

Through candid interviews with influential figures, compassionate dialogues with victims of injustice, and engaging discussions on books and popular culture, McKaiser deployed his eloquence and depth of thought to shape everyday dialogue and contribute to the cultural fabric of the time.

Social justice

His brand of broadcasting was what media scholars have termed the “advocative-radical”. These voices do not see themselves as neutral and objective observers, but rather “as ‘participants’ in political discourse” who bring their own particular worldview to the discussion. This compels them to act as adversaries and the voice of those whose voices have been muted. They strive to amplify ordinary people’s perspectives in mass media discourse.

One of the traits that set McKaiser apart was his ability to move beyond reliance on listener calls. He provided deep thinking, meaningful content of his own. His approach was not without critics. Some would accuse him of being confrontational and aggressive in his interviewing style. Others found fault with his tendency to make sweeping generalisations or oversimplify complex issues.

His departure from 702 in 2020, reportedly due to inadequate resource allocation, sparked passionate debates on social media. This demonstrated the impact he had on the public.

Even after his passing, people from all corners of society, including those who disagreed with him, continue to praise McKaiser’s insights and fearless approach.

Fortunately, his critical voice lives on through another powerful medium: podcasting.

Podcast star

In The Ring With Eusebius McKaiser provided a platform for McKaiser’s voice to continue to be heard when he left traditional radio broadcasting. Since its launch in 2021, the podcast has accumulated over 150 thought-provoking episodes, engaging audiences and challenging the norms of discourse.

Read more:
Radio in South Africa turns 100 – and collides with podcasting and streaming

The fact that a broadcaster of McKaiser’s stature turned to podcasting exemplifies how online audio platforms are reshaping the way broadcasters actively empower listeners to become co-creators of content, amplifying their voices and creating a more inclusive public sphere.


McKaiser’s own view of his broadcasting work was “to get public debate going about these issues which affect all of us in our private lives”. And he certainly did.

His journey as a radio broadcaster in South Africa exemplifies the power and potential of the medium to shape public discourse and deepen democracy. With activism coursing through his veins and intellect guiding his words, McKaiser demonstrated that the voice of the radio host could reverberate beyond the airwaves.

Reflecting on McKaiser’s radio career means to recognise the medium’s immense influence in shaping society, prompting citizens to question, engage, and ultimately contribute to a more inclusive and vibrant democracy. Läs mer…

Speaking up for the annoying fruit fly

Fruit flies can be truly annoying when they are buzzing around your living room or landing in your wine. But we have much to thank these tiny nuisances for – they revolutionised biological and medical science.

Flies and mosquitoes both belong to Diptera, the group of insects that have only two wings (from the Greek di meaning two and pteron meaning wing). However, just as most people accept the bothersome as well as the positive traits of their friends, we shouldn’t judge flies for their negative behaviour alone.

We should open our eyes to their enormous economic and environmental importance, as entomologist Erica McAlister argues in her book The Secret Life of Flies. For example, many plants (including the cacao plant that gives us chocolate) rely on Diptera as pollinators. Or try to imagine a world without flies to decompose dead animals.

I will argue from a different angle, though, to win your respect for one specific dipteran: the fruit or vinegar fly (Drosophila melanogaster).

Drosophila may be smaller than a fingernail but it can be a big nuisance in summer when it hovers over maturing fruit or emerges in swarms from litter bins. The species Drosophila was first mentioned by German entomologist Johann Meigen in 1830 and has since earned a celebrity status among scientists. It has become the best-understood animal organism on the planet and a powerhouse of modern medical research. Ten scientists working on Drosophila have been awarded a Nobel prize in physiology or medicine.

Science’s partnership with flies started during the early 1900s when biologist Thomas Hunt Morgan at Columbia University in New York decided to test evolutionary theories, such as how genetic mutations are linked to other characteristics, and the rediscovery in 1900 of Gregor Mendel’s theories of inheritance, published 1865. Mendel remains the acknowledged father of genetics today.

Helping science take off

Morgan was not the first to work with Drosophila. But his idea to harness the fly’s cheap husbandry (pieces of banana kept in milk bottles), and rapid reproduction (one generation in about ten days; about 100 eggs per female per day) would make it possible to study evolution in the laboratory. This is because it’s easier to see evolutionary changes in large populations of a species with high turnover.

His mass-breeding experiments with hundreds of thousands of flies led to the discovery of a single fly with white eyes, instead of the red eyes fruit flies normally have. Morgan and his team’s subsequent studies of its white-eyed progeny revealed that genes can mutate and are arranged into orderly and reproducible maps on chromosomes (a long DNA molecule). This new understanding founded the field of classical genetics as we know it. For example, it led to an understanding of how genetic disease is inherited.

In the 1940s, scientists, including George Beadle and Edward Tatum, established that some gene codes for proteins can facilitate chemical reactions and produce the molecules needed in cells.

Other researchers with fruit flies mapped the structure of the DNA helix. Through these developments, long-debated questions came into focus. For example, how genes regulate complex biological processes, such as the development of an entire organism from a single fertilised egg cell.

Scientists gradually established techniques using microscopes to study Drosophila embryos in their tiny 0.5mm transparent eggshells. The plethora of genetic strategies we’ve learned about in flies has turned into a powerful means to dissect mechanisms of fly development. Just like human gene mutations can cause body malformations in people, fly embryos also show such defects. For example, lacking their heads or tails.

Scientists can study mutant defects, even if the eggs never hatch, which can then inform us about the normal function of the affected gene. These kinds of genetic studies of Drosophila, combined with emerging technologies, such as gene cloning, helped us understand how gene networks can determine the development of a body and how they can sometimes cause inherited disorders. Gene networks are a set of genes, or parts of genes, that interact with each other to control a specific cell function. In 1995, three scientists won the Nobel prize for their contribution to this new understanding.

Fruit flies and humans have surprisingly similar biology.
Andreas Prokop, Author provided

A startling likeness

Eventually, it emerged that the entire genomes of flies and humans showed astonishing similarities, and mechanisms or processes discovered in flies often turned out to apply to more complex organisms. Many human genes can even take over the function of their Drosophilia equivalent when inserted into the fly genome.

The common ancestor that founded the evolutionary lines of flies and humans, half a billion years ago, appears to have been equipped with biology so well-designed that many of its aspects are still maintained, such as mechanisms of growth or neuronal function. Because we are so alike genetically, many aspects of human biology and disease have been explored first in Drosophila. Meanwhile, research on fruit flies is fast, cost-effective and extremely versatile. It’s ideal for scientific discoveries.

Once knowledge has been gained in a fly, that knowledge can accelerate research in more complex organisms. Today, over 10,000 researchers worldwide are estimated to work with Drosophila in many areas of science that relate to human biology and disease. It is used by neuroscientists for studying learning, memory, sleep, aggression, addiction and neural disorders. Not to mention cancer and ageing, processes of development, the gut microbiome, stem cells, muscles and the heart.

That said, flies are not mini-humans. They cannot be used to study personality loss seen in Alzheimer’s disease, for example. But they can be used to study why neurons die in such diseases and bridge important gaps in our understanding of this type of disease.

Fruit flies hovering in your kitchen might be aggravating, but hopefully you will see them in a different light now. Läs mer…

Ukraine war: Yevgeny Prigozhin and the ’warrior constituency’ that could threaten Putin from the right

As he claimed victory in the battle for Bakhmut, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of Wagner private military company (PMC), gave another of his firebrand interviews. He lambasted, in unequivocal terms, the Russian minister of defence and his chief of staff, Russia’s “deep state” – namely, the presidential administration and the “quasi-defence” establishment – and the elites who shield their sons from the battlefronts.

He revealed that he does not understand what the war in Ukraine is fought for, but “as long as there is a fight, we have to fight it well” – even though he added that the long war to come would take a huge toll. In this, Prigozhin spoke the bitter truth – which begs the question how he manages to get away with it, when others are being handed jail terms for far milder criticisms.

The answer is that he reflects the views of a significant segment of Russian society. These people are pro-war, but critical of the way it is fought, and gutted by the corruption and incompetence that have cost army lives. This anti-elite but “patriotic” sentiment is shared by those who, under certain circumstances, can act politically and, if necessary, forcefully, empowering Prigozhin with a sense of a popular resonance.

Prominent among these figures are the “heroes” of the so-called Russian Spring, the men who fought in the insurgency in Donbas from 2014. The common narrative in the west is that this insurgency was exclusively a Kremlin gambit. But my research with leaders, such as Igor Strelkov (real name Girkin) and field commanders suggested otherwise. Many of these commanders were motivated by personal convictions – antithetic to Putin’s regime, they dreamed of establishing an idealised Russian world in a new “Novorossiya” in eastern Ukraine, in contrast to the crony capitalism that characterises Putin’s Russia.

I was convinced that they were genuine in their beliefs and prepared to give their own and other people’s lives in the pursuit of a greater goal. I came to believe that if critical circumstances arise, this group will have a role to play – and it may be coming.

The Russian state, which initially was at a loss as to how to deal with these vehemently pro-Russia but unruly characters, realised that they could be dangerous. Since 2017, they started to be suppressed. Sputnik–i-Pogrom, the main online intellectual resource of rightwing Russian nationalism, was blocked, and its editor Yegor Prosvirnin died under suspicious circumstances in 2021. Those who survived, were kept in check and out of the media and politics, so they turned their energies to “milblogging”.

Men who love war

These are men who love war and everything that goes with it – the weapons, the tactics, historical battles, wargaming, uniforms, battle thrills. They exist in any society – but in Russia, the intervention in Ukraine created a chance for them to find political prominence.

These “internet warriors” rose from the obscure margins to the spotlight of politics. Their resources command large audiences on the popular app Telegram. Channels such as Rybar (1.13 million subscribers), WarGonzo (1.3 million) and personalities Igor Strelkov, the former “minister of defence” of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, who started the initial uprising in 2014 (790.000), have attracted more followers in Russia than their liberal counterparts. They post articles, videos and engage with their audiences, classing themselves as voenkory, or war correspondents. Viewers appreciate their candid assessment of the frontline realities, their sources with real knowledge, engaging journalism and interesting guests.

Collective emotions matter, and the “warriors” have created a sub-culture which has proved catchy. It has own legends, such as Vladlen Tatarsky (Maxim Fomin), who robbed banks, served time, escaped from jail when a tank shelled it, fought in the Donbas insurgency, published three memoir books and hosted a popular channel. He was recently assassinated in a targeted explosion. For Tatarsky and those like him, war was an adventure worth having – even if it was a short one.

The “Reverse Side of the Medal”, a YouTube channel with which Tatarsky was involved, markets martial clothing and insignia such as the Wagner group’s – a red skull with two mortar shells – which have become a stamp of recognition among followers.

Culture clash

Thus, two radically different military cultures clash: a rigid and top-heavy ministry of defence establishment which has resources of the state behind it, and the guerrilla tactics of volunteers and private military companies (PMCs) that rely on improvisation and initiative.
These two groups are wary of each other. The ministry of defence has been cagey about providing Wagner with large amounts of ammunition. Meanwhile Prigozhin lashes out at them for the military failure. Putin, meanwhile, looks on, appearing to enjoy the generals being challenged.

The state cannot afford to alienate this “warrior” constituency as it may have to rely on them both on the frontlines and to help maintain a pro-war momentum in society. But the Kremlin is also mindful of the risks involved – “warriors” like Prigozhin can be hard to control and may develop ambitions. Their camp is not uniform, and personal animosities and different views on the future of Russia exist. And yet, the contours of a political force that could influence post-Putin outcomes in Russia are beginning to emerge.

If an internal crisis – Putin suddenly dies, for example – opens a window of opportunity and the ruling elite lose control, this constituency will be the one most prepared to act. Thanks to the likes of Prigozhin, they will have organisational, financial and media resources at their disposal.

Prigozhin will become a kingmaker, even if not a king himself. Hence, we need to look beyond seeing the Kremlin’s hand everywhere and notice autonomous actors who can become movers and shakers of the new order. Läs mer…

South Africa’s role as host of the BRICS summit is fraught with dangers. A guide to who is in the group, and why it exists

South Africa will host the BRICS summit in August 2023. The event could offer the country an opportunity to exercise leadership in the BRICS’ efforts to reform the arrangements for global economic governance and in supporting sustainable and inclusive development in Africa and the Global South. However, the opportunity has morphed into an international challenge because Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court, has indicated that he will attend. South Africa could face the wrath of its BRICS partners if it fulfils its international obligation and arrests him. On the other hand, if it does not arrest him, it could face sanctions from those countries that want to see Putin tried for war crimes.

Hosting the 2023 BRICS summit is therefore fraught with dangers. The international environment is complicated, dynamic and unpredictable. South Africa can avoid embarrassment and capitalise on the opportunities presented by the BRICS summit only if it is able to skilfully manoeuvre in these choppy waters._

Trying to understand South Africa’s dilemma raises a number of questions: Who are the BRICS? What has the grouping achieved?

Who are the BRICS?

In 2001, the global investment bank Goldman Sachs stated that it expected Brazil, Russia, India and China to become leading actors in the global economy. It collectively named the four countries “BRICs”.

These countries decided that Goldman Sachs had a point and that they could enhance their global influence if they cooperated. They first met at a ministerial level in 2006 and at a leaders’ summit in 2009. In 2010 they invited South Africa to join the group. The group became known as “BRICS”.

A primary objective of the group is to reform global economic governance so that it is more responsive to the concerns and interests of the Global South. For example, the BRICS have called for a new global currency that can challenge the dominant role of the US dollar in the international monetary system. It has also pushed for a greater voice – and more votes – for developing countries in key international economic organisations like the IMF and the World Bank.

The group has also sought, through groups like its business forum, to promote greater economic cooperation between the participating countries.

What has the BRICS grouping achieved?

The BRICS record of achievements is mixed.

In 2016, the group established two new international economic entities.

The first was the New Development Bank. They contend that it is a “new” multilateral development bank which offers its members an alternative to institutions like the World Bank. It claims that its governance is fairer than the World Bank because its five original members all have equal votes. At the World Bank, shares (and therefore votes) are unevenly distributed among member states.

The development bank also strives to provide financing more quickly than the World Bank, and in a way that is more respectful of the laws in its member states.

However, to date, the New Development Bank has been less transparent and accountable than other multilateral development banks.

It has provided US$32.8 billion to 96 projects in the 5 BRICS countries and it has begun looking to expand the scope of its operations.

Since 2021 it has approved membership for Bangladesh, Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Uruguay. It is expected to add new members in the coming years.

The second new entity was the Contingent Reserve Arrangement. This established a series of swap arrangements between the BRICS central banks. These arrangements allow each central bank, when its country is facing a balance of payments crisis, to exchange its local currency for hard currencies, like the US dollar, with its counterparts in the BRICS.

Pursuant to the terms of the arrangement, a central bank can only draw on a fraction of the available financing without also having to enter into a financing arrangement with the IMF. Thus, the conditions that are attached to the IMF’s finances also become applicable to the funds made available through the Contingent Reserve Arrangement.

To date, no BRICS central bank has used the arrangement.

According to their communiques, the BRICS leaders have agreed to create other entities, such as a vaccine centre and a new credit rating agency. However, they have not yet implemented these agreements.

They have not been successful either in reforming the existing institutions and arrangements for global economic governance, such as the IMF. One reason for this failure is the strong opposition to reform from states, primarily those in Europe, which currently have dominant voices in the IMF and would lose them in the case of true reform.

But another important reason is that the BRICS are not unified in their demands for reform. For example, while Brazil, India and South Africa support reforming the UN Security Council to include more permanent members and to eliminate the veto power of the existing permanent members, China and Russia, as sitting permanent members, don’t.

Similarly, not all the other BRICS have supported South Africa’s call for a third African seat on the IMF’s board of directors.

Are there any downsides to BRICS membership?

The global political and economic situation has changed dramatically since 2010. These changes have created both opportunities and challenges for the BRICS.

One opportunity arises from the fact that approximately 19 countries in the Global South, including Argentina, Cuba, Iran and Saudi Arabia, have expressed an interest in joining the BRICS. It is expected that the BRICS will consider the issue of membership at their upcoming August 2023 summit.

Another opportunity arises from the growing interest around the world in having an alternative currency to the US dollar as the basis for the international financial system. The BRICS have been vocal supporters of de-dollarisation. However, given the complex economic and political relations between the BRICS member states, there is considerable scepticism about the feasibility of the BRICS developing a new global currency in the near term.

The primary challenges facing the BRICS arise from geopolitics. The war in Ukraine has created tensions within the BRICS. The participating states have been forced to balance their respect for such international law principles as self-determination, sovereignty and peaceful resolution of disputes with their friendly relations with Russia. In addition, the BRICS cannot escape the fallout from the growing economic and security tensions between China and the west, particularly the US.

Both these issues complicate the efforts of the other BRICS to maintain their formal non-aligned position. They also exacerbate existing tensions within the BRICS. The most important example of this is the complex and tense relationship between India and China. In recent years, they have had military skirmishes in disputed border areas. In addition, India has imposed economic constraints on Chinese companies operating in India. The two countries have refused to renew the visas of journalists from each country so that now there are almost no journalists from Chinese publications in India and vice versa.

What hangs on the summit?

South Africa faces another opportunity that is fraught with danger when it hosts the G20 in 2025. The G20, which brings together the 20 leading economic powers in the world, has called itself the “premier forum” for global economic governance. South Africa is currently the only permanent African member of the G20 and 2025 will be the first time the group is hosted by an African country.

Planning for this G20 event must begin soon because in 2024 South Africa will join India, the current G20 host, and Brazil, the 2024 G20 host in the troika that manages the G20 process. If the country does not plan carefully and effectively for this G20 event, South Africa risks emerging with a diminished reputation and its credibility shredded. Läs mer…

The ’truther playbook’: tactics that explain vaccine conspiracy theorist RFK Jr’s presidential momentum

While incumbent Joe Biden is the favoured Democratic pick for the 2024 US presidential nomination, another more controversial candidate is gaining popular support in the polls. Robert F. Kennedy Jr, a self-described vaccine sceptic, announced his candidacy to run for president as a Democrat in April.

Our new study on the rhetorical techniques used to spread vaccine disinformation partly explains Kennedy’s appeal to voters. We examined the strategies of RFK Jr and American osteopath Joseph Mercola, two prominent members of the “disinformation dozen”.

These 12 anti-vaccine advocates, according to research conducted by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, were responsible for nearly two-thirds of anti-vaccine content posted to Facebook and Twitter during the pandemic.

We analysed their social media profiles, books, documentaries, websites and newsletters from 2021-22, and identified the techniques that comprise what we call the “truther playbook”. These take the form of four enticing promises which figures like Kennedy and Mercola use to give their claims legitimacy and build a loyal following.

These techniques – promising identity and belonging, revealing “true” knowledge, providing meaning and purpose, as well as promising leadership and guidance – feature prominently in Kennedy’s 2024 presidential campaign.

1. Identity and belonging

COVID truthers offer their followers access to an exclusive in-group identity. They adhere to a dualistic belief system that divides the world into good and bad actors, light and dark forces. For COVID truthers, it is not simply that their opponents have acted through ignorance or error – they frame them as corrupt and evil.

Kennedy’s and Mercola’s social media posts, newsletters and publications frequently frame prominent public figures such as Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates as evil elites, or “dark forces” allegedly conspiring against ordinary people.

COVID truthers present themselves in opposition to these corrupt corporations and government institutions. They offer a promising invitation to their followers: join me, and be part of the movement fighting “the system”.

Kennedy, for example, refers to himself as a resolute “defender” of children and the public. His anti-vaccine activism is framed as a noble pursuit aligned with the public good. Similarly, his presidential pledge of honest government is pitched as being “for the people”.

2. True knowledge and enlightenment

The spread of disinformation about COVID vaccines has occurred in a society characterised by low institutional trust. Figures such as Kennedy and Mercola capitalise on this, appealing to those disillusioned with the government’s official narrative. They present themselves as having access to privileged knowledge and understanding.

They do this by revealing alternative “facts” that contradict the official narrative, and that they claim have been concealed from the public. Some researchers refer to such information as “stigmatised knowledge”, meaning claims that are not accepted by mainstream institutions.

COVID truthers, as the name suggests, promise to expose, release and reveal the truth, which they claim has been censored by powerful, corrupt organisations.

Kennedy’s presidential bid exists in opposition to what he has described as “an incredibly sophisticated system of information control”. He refers to himself as a “truth teller”, and promises to establish an honest government that will earn back the trust of the public.

The truther playbook promises followers ‘true’ knowledge and enlightenment.

3. Meaning and purpose

COVID truthers provide their followers with meaning, offering a reason to believe in a greater purpose. This can take the form of New Age spirituality, suggesting that humanity is undergoing a “shift in consciousness”, or a more secular commitment to truth, freedom and justice.

Kennedy frequently deploys the language of social justice in his posts and newsletters, as a rallying call to unite his followers. Most of his early anti-vaccine messaging focused on protecting pregnant women and children from harmful ingredients in vaccines.

During the pandemic, Kennedy shifted to the topic of medical racism – situating the opposition to vaccine mandates in a broader civil rights agenda. He compared racial segregation to non-vaccination, or what he refers to as “the new apartheid”.

In a direct call to action, Kennedy’s newsletters invited followers to “unite to create a better world”, and reminded them of the importance of “seeking justice and spreading the truth”. He made explicit analogies to the civil rights movement, telling supporters: “We won a revolution before, we can win it again.”

Similar messaging appears in his presidential campaign, which calls on supporters to “join the movement”, “spread the word”, and “restore our rights”.

4. Leadership and guidance

COVID truthers proffer order and security in a world that feels disorderly and insecure. They speak to the institutional distrust many people feel towards “the establishment”.

Kennedy’s campaign contrasts the power of corrupt government institutions, corporate cronyism and nefarious media elites with the powerlessness that the disenfranchised public feels. As a consequence, he positions himself as an incorruptible leader with the capacity to “clean up government”, restore civil liberties, and speak truth to power.

Why this matters

The success of the truther playbook in spreading anti-vaccine discourse during the pandemic demonstrates the popular appeal of belief and emotion in the current political climate. Filings with charity regulators show that revenue for Kennedy’s organisation more than doubled in 2020, to US$6.8 million.

In our current post-truth era, where opinions often triumph over facts, influencers and celebrities can achieve authority. By framing their opponents as corrupt and evil, and claiming to expose this corruption, COVID truthers can successfully encourage others to join their movement.

And, as Kennedy’s campaign is now demonstrating, these rhetorical techniques can be used to promote populist politics just as much as anti-vaccine content. Läs mer…

The worries parents from ethnic minority backgrounds have about their children’s experiences at school

Children and young people should be able to study in schools that recognise and respect their diverse backgrounds. But teachers sometimes struggle to handle this diversity in the classroom.

Findings from research conducted in Ireland have shown that teachers may not receive adequate training in intercultural education.

My research investigated how parents from minority ethnic (non-white) backgrounds who had immigrated to Ireland felt about their children’s school education.

I carried out five group discussions with 20 parents from minority-ethnic backgrounds in Ireland in early 2020. I wanted to understand the parents’ experiences with schooling in Ireland and other countries, their opinions on teaching and learning in Irish schools, their relationships with teachers and schools, and their advice for creating culturally inclusive learning environments.

Uncertainty and unfamiliarity

I found that some parents may feel fear and uncertainty when their children attend school, as they may not be familiar with the customs and practices of the education system of the country they have moved to. They had worries about the way their childrens’ race affected their school experiences: one parent said they thought teachers were unfairly singling their children out because of their colour.

The parents also had concerns about the cultural knowledge of the staff at their children’s schools, and how this might affect their education. One said:

Teachers […] need to learn how to deal with kids of different backgrounds. […] I suppose they need to further learn all the different cultures.

The parents suggested that schools needed to take specific action to learn about the cultures and backgrounds of the children they taught:

Any school with people from diverse cultures should try to organise meetings where they invite parents, particularly those from migrant backgrounds, to discuss with the parents, the difficulties they as teachers are having with their work.

Research has found that parental engagement with school promotes good behaviour by children. But how an immigrant parent interacts with their child’s school may be affected by factors such as a language barrier and lack of familiarity with the school system.

Teaching about cultures

The parents also emphasised the importance of school and teachers to convey understanding of other cultures to pupils.

Just the other day […] my daughter was playing on the yard with other children, but because they don’t understand her hair, she got her natural hair, they told her she needs to go to a hairdresser, they think something is wrong with her hair. They don’t understand. You can’t blame them because, in school, that’s what they learn. And it should be incorporated into the curriculum that we are different. Our hair is different. The teacher has to understand that.

Parents thought that children should learn about cultural differences in the classroom.
Dragana Gordic/Shutterstock

They spoke about the potential benefits of increasing diversity among teachers and other school staff. This can create a more inclusive and welcoming environment for minority ethnic students, providing them with role models who they can relate to and who understand their cultural backgrounds.

Who is teaching them is white, who is taking them on break is white, who is giving them canteen food is white […] So we should ensure that these young guys [from minority ethnic backgrounds] who are attending universities should choose the teaching profession as a priority […] For me, the solution is to diversify the teaching profession and have representations from different culture.

Inclusive education, which puts childrens’ diverse needs at the heart of the curriculum rather than in particular, separate classes or programmes, is not always implemented. School leaders and teachers may lack the competency to put inclusive education into practice.

It is essential that schools take an approach that considers how a student’s culture affects their learning. This is known as culturally responsive pedagogy. It is a teaching approach that aims to create classrooms where all students feel included and valued by teachers who incorporate their cultural backgrounds and experiences. Läs mer…

Think of solar panels more like apple trees – we need a fairer approach for what we use and sell

As we race to decarbonise by electrifying everything, solar panels – now cheaper per square metre than marine-grade plywood – will do much of the heavy lifting. But if we don’t rethink how our rooftop panels plug into the grid, the transition will be unfair and costly – for both people who own solar panels (and electric cars and smart appliances) and people who don’t.

Australia has the world’s highest solar installation rate per person. When solar panels generate more energy than a household is using, the excess electricity can be exported to the grid. Rooftop solar regularly provides more than a quarter of daytime electricity across the National Electricity Market. At times it exceeds 90% in South Australia.

Solar panel prices per square metre since 1970 (assuming 18% efficient modules).
Data: IRENA Database. Graph: Niraj Lal, Author provided

The amount of solar in our grids is affecting how the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) and distribution businesses (which own the powerlines) keep the lights on. The measures in place are costing households that are generating solar power, but also non-solar owners and network operators. So how can we make the system fairer for all?

We suggest solar panels should be thought of a little more like apple trees. If you have a tree in your backyard you should be able to use as many apples as you produce. But selling apples for profit creates extra responsibilities, along with uncertainties about supply and the fair selling price.

Our new research paper, published in The Electricity Journal, outlines principles for fairness and proposes a bill of rights and responsibilities for connecting to the grid.

What’s not fair about the current system?

At times, the amount of solar energy being exported can be too much for the network to handle.

That’s why inverters (the box on the side of a house with solar panels) have settings that automatically reduce exported electricity when network capacity is under strain. Other mechanisms are also being put in place to allow AEMO to occasionally curtail output from rooftop solar to maintain power system security.

However, such measures not only reduce how much electricity is flowing from a home to the grid, but the entire output of the home’s rooftop system. There aren’t any fundamental reasons for this, just that appropriate inverter and control settings haven’t been enabled.

But this means a household, at times, can’t use any of the electricity it’s generating. In South Australia, the annual cost to customers of this sort of curtailment is already between A$1.2 million and A$4.5 million. This isn’t fair.

But it also isn’t fair when solar owners get paid to export electricity when prices are negative – that is, when other generators must pay to keeping exporting to the grid. This is happening more often, totalling more than half of all daytime hours in SA and Victoria last quarter.

Nor is it fair for distribution businesses to build more poles and wires to accommodate everyone’s solar exports all the time. Or if the system operator has to buy more reserves to cover for the uncertainties of rooftop solar output.

In these instances, all customers foot the bill whether they own solar panels or not. But non-owners are hit hardest when the costs of such measures are passed on. People without rooftop solar are completely exposed to the 20-25% electricity price rises from July 1.

Some solar owners will hardly notice the increase.

It’s time to rethink the social contract for grid electricity

Australia’s electrification will replace fossil fuels to run households, businesses, vehicles and industry. It’s expected rooftop solar will increase five-fold. How should households with these growing distributed energy resources interact with the grid in future?

We reckon the social contract for grid electricity needs to evolve from the pay-plug-play expectations dating from the 19th century to a two-way engagement to support fairness for all.

To return to the apple tree analogy, if you have a tree in your backyard you should be able to eat as many apples as you’d like, and make crumble, cider, whatever. But selling apples for profit comes with a responsibility not to carry codling moth. And selling crumble or cider is subject to food safety and licensing requirements.

If there’s an abundance of apples, you can’t expect to sell them for a high price.

And the prices? That depends on the availability of trucks and local market value. Maybe you or our government could pay more for trucks for everyone to be able to sell apples all the time, but it probably wouldn’t be efficient or fair.

The main distinction we draw is between growing for yourself and selling for profit. The analogy obviously isn’t perfect. Apples aren’t an essential service, apple trucks aren’t a regulated monopoly, and the supply and demand of apples doesn’t need to be balanced every second.

However, the principles remain – especially for a future where apple trees (rooftop solar) and apple warehouses (home batteries and electric vehicles) are everywhere.

The principles guiding a bill of rights and responsibilities for distributed energy resources. CC-BY-NC-SA.
Author provided

A fairer balance of rights and responsibilities

In our research paper we distinguish between rights for passive use (using your own rooftop solar electricity) and responsibilities for active use (selling electricity).

No-one should be able to stop you using your own self-generated electricity (for the vast majority of the time). But making money from the grid will likely come with responsibilities to allow trusted parties such as network operators to manage your exports at times (a system known as flexible export limits).

If you’re charging and discharging batteries for profit, you will likely have a responsibility to provide some visibility of your expected use to help the operator manage the grid.

In a country with lots of solar energy, prices for selling energy mightn’t be guaranteed all the time either.

We must think about this new social contract. If we don’t, electrifying everything will be harder, more expensive, less fair and more reliant on large-scale projects requiring new transmission lines, which are complex and costly to build.

The story of distributed electricity is incredible – the power is literally in our hands when we flick a switch, grab the wheel, buy a product. We have an opportunity now to make it work better and be fairer for all of us.

You can see a summary of the DER Bill of Rights and Responsibilities here. Läs mer…

’Nature’s own Ozempic’ or berberine is all over social media. But does it really help you lose weight?

The latest health trend on TikTok has been dubbed “nature’s own Ozempic”. It’s the herbal preparation berberine.

Influencers have been enthusiastically claiming its success in helping them lose weight, with their posts viewed by millions.

But what actually is berberine? How is it related to the drug Ozempic?
Does it help people lose weight? And is it safe?

Read more:
The WHO says we shouldn’t bother with artificial sweeteners for weight loss or health. Is sugar better?

Why berberine? What is it anyway?

Many people who cannot lose weight through diet and exercise turn to medication. That includes the high-profile prescription medicine Ozempic, a diabetes drug that also leads to weight loss.

World-wide supply shortages of the drug and the need to get a prescription for it have likely driven people to look for alternatives available online or in pharmacies, such as berberine.

Berberine is a bitter tasting chemical extracted from the roots of plants, such as goldenseal and barberry.

It belongs to the class of plant chemicals called isoquinoline alkaloids. Other well known chemicals in this class include the pain-relieving medicines morphine and codeine.

Berberine extracts have been used in traditional medicines for disorders of the gut and to treat infections. It is mostly taken orally as a powder, capsule or tablet.

Read more:
Weekly dose: Taxol, the anticancer drug discovered in the bark of a tree

Is it the same as Ozempic?

Berberine is not the same as Ozempic. Ozempic is the brand name of the drug semaglutide, which is used to treat people with type 2 diabetes.

Ozempic works by imitating a natural hormone called glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1). This hormone is important because it helps the body produce insulin to regulate blood sugar levels.

More recently, Ozempic has been shown to be effective for weight loss in people who are overweight or obese. By mimicking GLP-1, Ozempic makes you feel full and less hungry.

Read more:
Ozempic helps weight loss by making you feel full. But certain foods can do the same thing – without the side-effects

Does berberine help you lose weight?

In clinical studies, berberine leads to modest weight loss in people who are obese. But the data are not conclusive as most published studies are small and of varying quality.

The strongest evidence we have comes from two meta-analyses, types of studies that pool together and analyse the results of other studies.

These show that taking a 300-3,000mg berberine a day orally is associated with modest reductions in body mass index (BMI), waist circumference and body weight (around 3kg). These results were most significant in women with a BMI great than 30, taking at least 1,000mg daily for at least three months.

Studies have only been conducted with people who are overweight or obese. So we don’t know whether berberine leads to weight loss in others.

We also don’t yet have the data to say what happens when people stop taking berberine.

We don’t exactly know how berberine works to help people lose weight. But a recent systematic review (when researchers pool together evidence) gives some clues.

It influences GLP-1 levels like Ozempic, but probably results in weight loss in other ways too. It decreases blood sugar levels, stimulates insulin release, influences how the body absorbs cholesterol, and changes the way fat is processed in the body.

Read more:
FatBlaster Max has just been banned. Why? Here’s everything you need to know about diet supplements

Is berberine safe?

Just because berberine is sold over the counter, doesn’t mean it’s safe. It can have side effects and interfere with other drugs you may be taking.

Common side effects include diarrhoea, constipation, gas and an upset stomach. Large quantities may be fatal.

Berberine is not recommended for people who are pregnant as it is thought it can cross the placenta and may harm the fetus. It may also stimulate contractions of the uterus, which can inappropriately trigger birth. Because it can be transferred to breast milk it is not appropriate if breastfeeding.

Berberine can also interact with many other drugs and supplements. These include the immune-system drug ciclosporin, cough suppressants like dextromethorphan, and herbal remedies and medicines used to lower blood pressure, lower blood sugar levels, reduce blood clotting, and help with relaxation and sleep.

Read more:
Science or Snake Oil: do skinny teas boost weight loss?

So what do do?

If you are obese or overweight and are having trouble losing weight through diet and exercise alone then berberine may be of some help.

However, before buying berberine, discuss it with your doctor or pharmacist to see if it will be safe for you, or if other medications might be more appropriate. Läs mer…

Australian Defence Force must ensure the findings against Ben Roberts-Smith are not the end of the story

On Thursday, Justice Anthony Besanko of the Federal Court dismissed defamation proceedings brought by former Special Air Service soldier Ben Roberts-Smith against several Australian news outlets.

The court found that reporting by Nick McKenzie, Chris Masters and David Wroe had satisfactorily established the truth of several serious imputations against Roberts-Smith. These included claims he committed war crimes during his service in Afghanistan.

The judgement is a landmark moment in Australian military history, with implications for the investigation and potential prosecution of other Australians suspected of war crimes. The explosive evidence heard in the case also underlines the need for the Army, the broader defence community and the Australian public to reckon fully with the conduct of Australian forces in the Afghanistan campaign.

Read more:
A win for the press, a big loss for Ben Roberts-Smith: what does this judgment tell us about defamation law?

Standards of proof and evidence

Roberts-Smith could conceivably face criminal prosecution for the alleged murders at a future war crimes trial. This case was a civil proceeding, meaning the imputations only needed to be proven true on the balance of probabilities, a substantially lower requirement than proof beyond a reasonable doubt, which would be required in a criminal trial.

Because of the different standards of proof, it is not certain Roberts-Smith would be found guilty in a war crimes trial, assuming all the same evidence was called. Prosecutors will be concerned, moreover, that the outcome of the high-profile defamation trial might influence a future war crimes proceeding.

It is likely any criminal trial for Roberts-Smith will be held before a judge, without a jury. It is not unusual for a war crimes trial to be held without a jury; past Australian trials were held before a panel of three to five judges, all of whom were military officers.

Another way to overcome the problem of the defamation outcome poisoning a future criminal trial in Australia would be for the government to hand Roberts-Smith over to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, a court with long experience in dealing with very high profile war crimes cases. However, doing so would probably be deeply unpopular and signal to the world that Australia cannot dispense its own military justice.

Contextual truth

Some imputations against Roberts-Smith were not substantiated at the defamation trial. However, Justice Besanko found that these defamatory statements, which concerned threatening a fellow soldier and domestic violence, were nonetheless contextually true. This ruling means the newspapers are not liable for these imputations because the more injurious claims, including war crimes, were found to be true, so the defendant would suffer no further reputational damage.

Broader implications

It remains to be seen what the full reaction to Thursday’s judgement will be. Roberts-Smith still holds the Victoria Cross, the country’s highest military honour. He received financial support for the case from Kerry Stokes – who, from 2015 to 2022, was chair of the Australian War Memorial. Stokes allegedly referred to McKenzie and Masters as “scumbag journalists”.

While the memorial as an institution did not support Roberts-Smith with the case, Stokes remained as chair even after his role was publicly questioned. The interpretation from some quarters that reporting on Roberts-Smith constitutes unfair criticism of a war hero will persist. Others, of course, will see it as exactly the job investigative reporting is meant to do.

The Australian Defence Force has taken the allegations brought forward by journalists and other sources seriously. It commissioned Paul Brereton’s Afghanistan inquiry and appears to accept that the conduct of some Australian personnel was potentially illegal.

Read more:
Why investigating potential war crimes in Afghanistan just became much harder – and could take years

While the findings in the defamation case support the ADF’s position that an inquiry was needed, the case was not a “proxy war crimes trial”. It does not deliver justice for alleged war crimes. Only properly convened war crimes trials can answer the questions that hover over Australian conduct in Afghanistan, including the role of commanding officers.

War crimes trials, however, take significant institutional momentum to convene and sustain: they are costly, long-running and controversial. The challenge for the ADF now is to continue to support the thorough investigation of alleged war crimes and to pursue criminal prosecution where it is warranted.

Since the second world war, Australia has positioned itself internationally as a champion of the laws and proper conduct of war. Australian forces have been deployed to many difficult conflicts, where they have largely been trusted operators.

The judgement in this case ought to have minimal impact on Australian forces who are deployed overseas, as following the rules of war is assumed to be part of any mission they undertake. If the case does come as a wake-up call to some, then the ADF will have to further assess its training on the laws of war, its leadership, and its culture.

The Roberts-Smith case, the finding against him and the graphic detail in the publicly available evidence made headlines around the world. If public faith in the ADF is to be restored, together with its international reputation, there must now be an exhaustive process of investigation and prosecution of any war crimes committed in Afghanistan. Läs mer…

How should Australia capitalise on AI while reducing its risks? It’s time to have your say

The world missed the boat with social media. It fuelled misinformation, fake news, and polarisation. We saw the harms too late, once they had already started to have a substantive impact on society.

With artificial intelligence – especially generative AI – we’re earlier to the party. Not a day goes by without a new deepfake, open letter, product release or interview raising the public’s concern.

Responding to this, the Australian government has just released two important documents. One is a report commissioned by the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) on the opportunities and risks posed by generative AI, and the other is a consultation paper asking for input on possible regulatory and policy responses to those risks.

I was one of the external reviewers of the NSTC report. I’ve read both documents carefully so you don’t have to. Here’s what you need to know.

Read more:
No, AI probably won’t kill us all – and there’s more to this fear campaign than meets the eye

Trillions of life-changing opportunities

With AI, we see a multi-trillion dollar industry coming into existence before our eyes – and Australia could be well-placed to profit.

In the last few months, two local unicorns (billion dollar companies) pivoted to AI. Online graphic design company Canva introduced its “magic” AI tools to generate and edit content, and software development company Atlassian introduced “Atlassian intelligence” – a new virtual teammate to help with tasks such as summarising meetings and answering questions.

These are just two examples. We see many other opportunities across industry, government, education and health.

AI tools to predict early signs of Parkinson’s disease? Tick. AI tools to predict when solar storms will hit? Tick. Checkout-free, grab-and-go shopping, courtesy of AI? Tick.

The list of ways AI can improve our lives seems endless.

Read more:
AI could threaten some jobs, but it is more likely to become our personal assistant

What about the risks?

The NSTC report outlines the most obvious risks: job displacement, misinformation and polarisation, wealth concentration and regulatory misalignment.

For example, are entry level lawyers going to be replaced by robots? Are we going to drown in a sea of deepfakes and computer generated tweets? Will big tech companies capture even more wealth? And how can little old Australia have a say on global changes?

The Australian government’s consultation paper looks at how different nations are responding to these challenges. This includes the US, which is adopting a light touch approach with voluntary codes and standards; the UK, which looks to empower existing sector-specific regulators; and Europe’s forthcoming AI Act, which is one of the first AI-specific regulations.

Europe’s approach is worth watching if their previous data protection law – the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – is anything to go by. The GDPR has become somewhat viral; 17 countries outside of Europe now have similar privacy laws.

We can expect the European Union’s AI Act to set a similar precedent on how to regulate AI.

The European Union’s GDPR regulations came into effect on May 25 2018, and have become a model for other nations around the world.

Indeed, the Australian government’s consultation paper specifically asks if we should adopt a similar risk and audit-based approach as the AI Act. The Act outlaws high-risk AI applications, such as AI-driven social scoring systems (like the system in use in China) and real-time remote biometric identification systems used by law enforcement in public spaces. It allows other riskier applications only after suitable safety audits.

China stands somewhat apart as far as regulating AI goes. It proposes to implement very strict rules, which would require AI-generated content to reflect the “core value of socialism”, “respect social morality and public order”, and not “subvert state power”, “undermine national unity” or encourage “violence, extremism, terrorism or discrimination”.

In addition, AI tools will need to go through a “security review” before release, and verify users’ identities and track usage.

It seems unlikely Australia will have the appetite for such strict state control over AI. Nonetheless, China’s approach reinforces how powerful AI is going to be, and how important it is to get right.

Read more:
How AI and other technologies are already disrupting the workplace

Existing rules

As the government’s consultation paper notes, AI is already subject to existing rules. These include general regulations (such as privacy and consumer protection laws that apply across industries) and sector-specific regulations (such as those that apply to financial services or therapeutic goods).

One of the major goals of the consultation is to decide whether to strengthen these rules or, as the EU has done, to introduce specific AI risk-based regulation – or perhaps some mixture of these two approaches.

Government itself is a (potential) major user of AI and therefore has a big role to play in setting regulation standards. For example, procurement rules used by government can become de facto rules across other industries.

Missing the boat

The biggest risk, in my view, is that Australia misses this opportunity.

A few weeks ago, when the UK government announced its approach to deal with the risks of AI, it also announced an additional £1 billion of investment in AI, alongside the several billion pounds already committed.

We’ve not seen any such ambition from the Australian government.

The technologies that gave us the iPhone, the internet, GPS, and wifi came about because of government investment in fundamental research and training for scientists and engineers. They didn’t come into existence because of venture funding in Silicon Valley.

We’re still waiting to see the government invest millions (or even billions) of dollars in fundamental research, and in the scientists and engineers that will allow Australia to compete in the AI race. There is still everything to play for.

AI is going to touch everyone’s lives, so I strongly encourage you to have your say. You only have eight weeks to do so. Läs mer…

Lag (2001:181) om behandling av uppgifter i Skatteverkets beskattningsverksamhet

sfs 2001:2001:181 
t.o.m. SFS 2023:231  
1 kap. Allmänna bestämmelser

Lagens tillämpningsområde

1 § /Upphör att gälla U:2023-05-08/
Denna lag tillämpas vid behandling av personuppgifter i
Skatteverkets beskattningsverksamhet och i verkets
handläggning enligt lagen (2007:324) om Skatteverkets
hantering av vissa 2001-04-19

Läs mer…

Skolförordning (2011:185)

sfs 2011:2011:185 
t.o.m. SFS 2023:327  
1 kap. Inledande bestämmelser

Förordningens innehåll

1 § /Upphör att gälla U:2023-07-02/
I denna förordning finns följande kapitel:

– inledande bestämmelser (1 kap.),

– huvudmän (2 kap.),

– lärotider (3 kap.),

– elever (4 kap.),

– utbildningen (5 kap.),

– 2011-02-24

Läs mer…

Offentlighets- och sekretesslag (2009:400)

sfs 2009:2009:400 
t.o.m. SFS 2023:321  

1 kap. Lagens innehåll

1 § Denna lag innehåller bestämmelser om myndigheters och
vissa andra organs handläggning vid registrering, utlämnande
och övrig hantering av allmänna handlingar.

Lagen innehåller vidare bestämmelser om tystnadsplikt 2009-05-20

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Förordning (2001:911) om avgifter för prövning av ärenden hos Finansinspektionen

sfs 2001:2001:911 
t.o.m. SFS 2023:95  
Förordningens tillämpningsområde

1 § Denna förordning innehåller bestämmelser om avgifter som
skall betalas för Finansinspektionens prövning av ansökningar
och anmälningar inom inspektionens ansvarsområde.

De avgifter som tas ut enligt denna förordning skall 2001-11-22

Läs mer…