Take the New Grand Tour in Costa Rica

Irina Matuzava of the Human Bridges project has assembled the Costa Rica map and information portal for our New Grand Tour project, published on the Observatory. It’s our prototype for an accessible global data set for visitors and global audiences to learn more, and find ways to travel and connect with guides who visit human prehistory and ecology sites. Soon you’ll see the map expand to South Africa, France, Peru and Indonesia.

The New Grand Tour is an initiative of the Human Bridges project. We aim to increase awareness and circulation of discoveries in the social sciences, human origins, archaeology, and related disciplines. 

Currently, we are developing an exciting new project to encourage travelers to visit prehistoric sites, museums, and ecological hotspots around the world. The New Grand Tour is an initiative of the Human Bridges project. We are working to expand global public consciousness of new research and discovery in the field of human origins, archaeology, and related disciplines. 

You can read a general overview of the New Grand Tour, or watch Peter Coyote’s narrated documentary here, on the Observatory.

Observatory Special Report on How Investors Are Exploiting Public Education

Click here to read the article on the Observatory.

For-profit operators and their investors use complex business arrangements and networks of related companies to enrich themselves and do little to improve education.

Ever since charter schools were created in the 1990s, there’s been a persistent question1 of whether or not the schools introduce an element of profit-making into the public education sector. In statutory law, legislatures have generally ruled that charter schools must be operated as nonprofits. In fact, only one state,2 Arizona, technically allows for-profit organizations to be licensed to run charter schools. Yet, the charter school industry has proven to be an innovator in developing business arrangements in which third-party and related organizations profit handsomely off a nonprofit charter.

One such entryway for profit-making enterprises to exploit charter schools, according to an in-depth examination conducted by Our Schools in 2021, occurs when for-profit charter school operators partner with private investors intent on turning quick profits from public dollars meant for educating children.

Our Schools examined the relationship between Pansophic Learning, owner of the Accel Schools chain of for-profit charter schools, and Safanad Limited, a private equity firm, originating in the Middle East, with extensive investment holdings in K–12 education, senior living, and other public sector-related enterprises.

What Our Schools found was that for-profit businesses like Pansophic Learning are providing entryways for wealthy investors from abroad to flood the U.S. with money to buy up struggling taxpayer-funded enterprises and put into place elaborate business schemes and networks of interrelated companies that hide their profiteering while doing little to improve the quality of services to the public.

A request for comment regarding Pansophic’s relationship with Safanad and the partnership’s potential for conflicts of interest that was left as a press inquiry at the Pansophic website did not receive a reply.

The combination of for-profit operators backed by private equity has become prevalent in other publicly funded sectors that have traditionally been operated by federal and/or state governments or nonprofit organizations. And the results have not been beneficial to the public or the individuals the publicly funded system was intended to serve.

For example, in the government-funded prison system, “The involvement of private equity firms, which manage large investment portfolios, presents a conflict between the financial and social goals of some investors,” reported Prison Legal News in 2019, citing two studies—one from the nonprofit Worth Rises, which advocates for “dismantling the prison industry,” and the other from the American Federation of Teachers, a national teachers’ union.

Another analysis, by the ACLU, found that for-profit prison operators backed by private investors are more apt to create profit for their investors by maintaining high rates of incarceration, which results in significantly higher social and fiscal costs to the public.

Our Schools found that this combination of for-profit entrepreneurs backed by private investors is having a similarly corrosive impact in the charter school industry.

Ron Packard and K12 Inc.

The genesis of Accel Schools goes back to 2014, when Education Week reported that Ron Packard, the former CEO of K12 Inc., had formed a new education enterprise called Pansophic Learning. K12 Inc., which changed its name to Stride Inc. in 2020, was then, and as of this writing still is, the largest for-profit charter school operator in the U.S.

Packard, a former Goldman Sachs executive who specialized in mergers and acquisitions, departed K12 Inc., which he founded, at a time when the company was besieged with negative publicity.

In 2011, K12 Inc. was the subject of a scathing story in the New York Times revealing that “only a third” of the students enrolled in its online charter schools “achieved adequate yearly progress, the measurement mandated by federal No Child Left Behind legislation,” while the company employed multiple ways to “squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload, and lowering standards.”

The withering critique, which ran on the newspaper’s front page, “caused” the publicly traded company’s stock price “to drop precipitously,” Education Week reported in 2012, and prompted a shareholder to file a federal lawsuit accusing K12 Inc. executives, including Packard, of “misleading investors with false student-performance claims.”

More negative publicity came in 2013 when Politico reported K12 Inc. was one among many online charter schools that “posts dismal scores on math, writing, and science tests and mediocre scores on reading.” Another blow came that year when influential hedge fund manager and charter school proponent Whitney Tilson announced he was shorting K12 Inc. stock, betting the company would fail.

In 2014, K12 Inc. became the target of yet another lawsuit accusing the company of “misleading investors by putting forward overly positive public statements… only later to reveal that it had missed key operational and financial targets,” Education Week reported. The lawsuit also charged Packard, whose relationship to the company had become unclear, of selling off his own stock before revealing the negative financials, and, thus, earning a windfall of $6.4 million before the stock price plunged.

But as Packard disengaged from one troubled education enterprise, he started another with a financial partner that would provide the capital to quickly scale up.

As Education Week reported in 2014, Packard’s new company, Pansophic Learning, included a partnership with a holding company, Safanad Education, a subsidiary of Safanad Limited, a New York- and Dubai-based real estate and investment firm. Packard and Safanad spent an unknown sum to purchase part of K12 Inc.’s assets, mostly in higher education, and acquire an international brick-and-mortar private school. The two entrepreneurs were “on the hunt for acquisitions,” according to Education Week.

A Charter School Shopping Spree

Initially, Packard and Pansophic Learning kept a low profile until, in 2016, a visit by then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump drew attention to a Cleveland, Ohio, brick-and-mortar charter school “that usually escapes notice,” reported the Plain Dealer, a Cleveland newspaper.

According to the Plain Dealer, the school, the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy, was one of 27 schools in Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio that had been recently acquired by Accel Schools, a new for-profit network of charter schools owned and operated by Pansophic Learning.

Packard is listed as the CEO of both Pansophic Learning and Accel Schools. Two other C-suite executives of both Pansophic Learning and Accel Schools are COO Maria Szalay and CTO Eric Waller. Pansophic Learning and Accel Schools also have street addresses within 5 minutes’ walking distance of each other in McLean, Virginia.

Prior to the news about Trump visiting its school, Accel Schools had been “amassing an education empire” in Ohio, the Akron Beacon Journal reported.

Among its acquisitions were, in 2014, the “troubled K-8 schools” of White Hat Management, which had previously been, according to the Akron Beacon Journal, Ohio’s largest charter school chain. In 2018, Accel Schools purchased White Hat’s last remaining online charter school as well.

In 2015, Accel Schools also acquired the assets of another financially struggling charter management firm, Mosaica Education, and bought Cleveland-based I Can Schools, which, Packard told the Plain Dealer, were also “struggling financially.”

The charter school shopping spree Accel Schools went on undoubtedly benefited from the financial support of Safanad.

“We are fortunate to partner with Safanad,” Packard is quoted saying in Safanad’s official announcement of its partnership with Pansophic Learning in 2014. “Safanad’s extensive resources will allow us to pursue opportunities of all sizes,” he said.

The Bahamdan Connection

According to the firm’s website, Safanad’s founder and CEO is Kamal Bahamdan, a Saudi national. Kamal Bahamdan “was the CEO of the Bahamdan [investment Group],” according to his profile.

Kamal Bahamdan’s current relationship with the Bahamdan Investment Group is unclear, but the Bahamdan firm maintains a controlling interest in Safanad. According to its SEC filings brochure, Safanad is “controlled by Bahamdan Investment Group and KB Group Holdings Ltd.” KB Group Holdings Ltd., according to Safanad’s SEC filing form, is owned by the Bahamdan Investment Group.

The Bahamdan Investment Group is a Saudi-based investment firm founded by Salem Bahamdan, Kamal Bahamdan’s father, according to ZoomInfo. Kamal Bahamdan is the grandson of Abdullah Bahamdan, according to Wikipedia.

In numerous online profiles, Abdullah Salem Bahamdan (also Abdullah S. Bahamdan, Abdullah Salim Bahamdan, and Abdullah Bahamdan) is described as a “seasoned banker” and one of “the Middle East’s most prominent and influential financiers.”

Abdullah Bahamdan also spent more than 50 years as the chairman of “Saudi Arabia’s National Commercial Bank, the largest lender in the Arab world,” according to Institutional Investor. National Commercial Bank (NCB), which merged with Samba Financial Group in 2021 to form Saudi National Bank (SNB), was established in 1953 by royal decree, according to the SNB website, with the Saudi government as its major shareholder.

Despite its close relationship to the Saudi government, NCB was one among 16 financial institutions that were fined by the Saudi Monetary Authority in 2019 “for violating principles of responsible finance,” according to Reuters. “[T]he violations were related to exceeding debt burdens imposed on people in proportion to their monthly income.”

In 2020, the U.S. Treasury Department settled a lawsuit with NCB accusing the bank of violating U.S. sanctions against Syria and Sudan between November 2011 to August 2014.

The bank and Abdullah Bahamdan have been the subjects of at least two lawsuits accusing them of financing terrorist groups, which may have been part of what prompted the Saudi government to, in 2017, “crack down on corruption” in its banking industry, Reuters reported.

Perhaps as a result of the crackdown, SNB, as of 2019, claimed on its website that it “developed a Bank-wide Anti-Money Laundering and Combating Terrorist Financing Policy.”

Mixing Charter School Investments With Subpar Senior Care

Aside from its investments in Pansophic Learning, Safanad has made some of its biggest commercial real estate deals in the health care sector, principally in senior care facilities, including assisted living, independent living, memory care, and nursing homes, frequently called skilled nursing facilities.

Senior Housing News reported that Safanad teamed up with investment firm Formation Capital, an Atlanta-based health-care-focused private investment company, to purchase 36 senior care facilities in 2011, and, in 2012, the partners spent $750 million to acquire 68 more nursing homes located in East Coast states. The acquisitions made the two investment firms “one of the United States’ largest standalone skilled nursing portfolios,” according to Senior Housing News, with “more than $1 billion worth of senior care assets in the U.S.”

In 2013, the same two investment firms purchased a “36-property senior housing portfolio for approximately $400 million,” reported Senior Housing News, and in 2014, the two firms struck another deal to buy “14 skilled nursing facilities in the mid-Atlantic for about $150 million,” according to Senior Housing News.

The deals Safanad and Formation Capital struck to acquire senior care facilities are strikingly similar to the business transactions Safanad conducted with Pansophic Learning in the charter school sector, principally, buying up financially struggling service businesses that receive large amounts of public funding—in the case of the senior care sector, from Medicare and Medicaid—and that also happen to include significant holdings of real estate.

The nursing home and senior living facilities industry was struggling financially before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trust. Facilities had been cutting corners for years, skating by with too few staff, due to stagnating wages, and sometimes hiring unskilled workers instead of highly trained personnel.

COVID-19 simply revealed an industry that was already “broken,” reported NBC News, citing “low pay, high turnover, and tough working conditions” as chronic problems in the senior care facilities industry.

Yet the growing presence of private equity investors in the senior care industry has done little to help the industry and appears to have done mostly harm.

2020 study3 found that private equity ownership of nursing homes and other kinds of senior living facilities increased costs to the public by 19 percent while shortening the lifespans of patients.

Patients in facilities with substantial private equity backing tended to have less access to nurses, declining mobility, and greater use of antipsychotic medications, the study found. Consequently, “private equity ownership increases short-term mortality by 10 percent,” the authors claimed, “which implies about 21,000 lives lost due to private equity ownership over our sample period.”

As with the for-profit prison industry, many of the problems posed by private investment firms in the senior care industry, according to the study, can be sourced to “high-powered for-profit incentives… [being] misaligned with the social goals of quality care at a reasonable cost.”

The study distinguished private equity for-profit ownership from “generic” for-profit ownership because “private equity ownership confers distinct incentives to quickly and substantially increase the value of their portfolio firms.” It is this form of intense, high-powered profit-maximizing incentives, the authors asserted, “that characterize[s] private equity… [and could lead to] detrimental implications for consumer welfare.”

Investor-driven senior care facilities were especially hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, a 2020 article in the New York Times reported.

“Decades of ownership by private equity and other private investment firms left many nursing homes with staggering bills and razor-thin margins,” according to the article.

“The toll of putting profits first started to show when the outbreak began,” the article continued. “[S]ome for-profit homes were particularly ill equipped and understaffed, which undercut their ability to contain the spread of the coronavirus.”

Among the for-profit operators that appear to have fared poorly in the pandemic is Consulate Health Care, one of the providers that were snapped up by Safanad and Formation Capital in 2014, according to Senior Housing News. In a 2020 report, the Private Equity Stakeholder Project listed Formation Capital as the owner of Consulate Health Care.

Nursing homes operated by Consulate Health Care and Formation Capital have been hotspots for COVID-19 outbreaks, according to numerous news reports from Florida and Virginia. The high incidence of outbreaks prompted, in part, a U.S. House committee to launch an investigation into the country’s five largest for-profit nursing home companies, including Consulate Health Care, Politico reported in 2020.

‘Creative Ways to Wring Profits’

As the New York Times reported in 2020, while senior care facilities often struggle financially, their private equity-backed owners have “found creative ways to wring profits out of them.”

Some of these creative ways include charging their operators “hefty management and consulting fees”; buying the real estate from the operators and then leasing the buildings back to the operators, while upping the rents; and pushing their operators to buy products and services from companies that are controlled by the investors.4

The real estate plays these firms pull off are particularly lucrative, the New York Times noted, because the buildings are often “more valuable than the businesses themselves.”

A 2018 article in the Naples Daily News described how these arrangements work in Consulate Health Care facilities owned by Formation Capital, the state’s largest provider.

Consulate Health Care and Formation Capital both operate a network of other related businesses—including “real estate, management, rehabilitation and other companies”—that they use as subcontractors for the nursing homes they own.

So when “[t]axpayer money flows to Consulate nursing homes,” the article explained, some of the money also goes to subcontractors that are related to the owners, Consulate Health Care and its controlling company, Formation Capital. “[A]nd profits earned go to the chain’s owner, the Atlanta-based private equity firm Formation Capital,” the article stated.

One of the Consulate Health Care nursing homes highlighted in the article pays its owner and management fees to two Consulate companies and also pays its lease payments and rehabilitation service fees to providers that are both related to Formation Capital.

“In each case,” the article said, “the money flows back to Formation Capital and its wealthy investors,” which include Safanad.

Pansophic Learning and Accel Schools operate similar business arrangements that help their organizations maximize their profits, according to a 2021 report by the Network for Public Education (NPE).[2]

Much in the same way Consulate Health Care facilities and Formation Capital push their nursing homes into contracts with their other related businesses, Accel and Pansophic use “a complex web of corporations,” according to NPE, to “control the operations of the school and in doing so, steer business to their related services.”

The report highlighted Accel-managed Broadway Academy, in Cleveland, a charter school previously owned by White Hat Management, according to the Accel Schools contract with the school.

Under the “fees” section in the terms of that contract—originally with for-profit management company Chippewa Community School, LLC, which is now a subsidiary of Accel Schools Ohio LLC—the school, referred to in the contract as the corporation, pays the operator (Accel, by way of its subsidiary Chippewa Community School, LLC) 96 percent of the school’s monthly qualified gross revenue, which is the per-pupil revenue the school receives from the state. In return, Accel is the sole source to provide the school with school staffing and professional development, school management and consulting, textbooks, equipment, technology, student recruitment, building payments, maintenance, custodial service, security, and capital improvements.

In other words, there’s nothing that stops Accel or Pansophic from creating yet more subsidiaries and other related companies that can do business with Broadway Academy. According to the contract, Accel can subcontract services “without the [Broadway Academy] Board’s approval,” and property purchased by Accel “shall remain… [Accel’s] sole property.”

According to NPE, these kinds of contracts, known as “sweeps,” are commonplace in the for-profit charter school industry.

“Sweeps contracts give for-profits the authority to run all school services in exchange for all or nearly all of the school’s revenue,” said the NPE report.

Taxpayer funding for the Broadway Academy that isn’t swept up by Accel’s continuing fee must be deposited into a “Student Enrichment Fund” for “educational services in the areas of student cultural activities[,] … supplemental tutoring services[,] and other programs.” Accel has sole authority to “propose uses for such funds,” and 85 percent “of all Student Enrichment Funds not spent during the fiscal year in which they are received shall be paid over to [Accel].”

While Accel’s contract with Broadway Academy doesn’t include real estate, the authors of the NPE report searched the database of Ohio charter school contracts, called “community schools documents,” and found that “Global School Properties Ohio, LLC holds the leases for many Accel charter schools. The… [landlord] is at the same 1650 Tysons Blvd. address in McLean, Virginia, as Pansophic [Learning].”

Profiting From D- and F-Rated Schools

School choice and charter school advocates are often quick to defend for-profit charter companies and their private investors, arguing that they are “sector agnostic”5 about who owns and operates a school and care only about the school’s “results.”

But what constitutes good results in education is a much-debated topic,6 and studies about the results of for-profit charter schools have found mixed results at best.

A 2017 report from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that students who attend for-profit charter schools have weaker growth in math than they would have in a district public school and similar growth in reading.7 Students in nonprofit charter schools experienced stronger academic growth in both subjects than their peers enrolled in for-profit charters. The differences were “significant,” according to the study.

Also in 2017, Chalkbeat reported, “studies comparing for-profit schools to nonprofits and traditional public schools in the same area don’t find consistent differences in performance, as measured by test scores.”

None of these studies examined the performance of Accel Schools or the impact of private equity in the for-profit charter industry.

Nevertheless, an ongoing investigation by Our Schools has revealed charter schools operated by for-profit operators like Accel Schools cycle struggling charter schools through a series of private entities that, in turn, strip the schools of resources, run them at bare-bones costs, and reap whatever assets that remain before handing the schools off to the next private operator, or shutting them down completely. The result is charter operators and their investors may achieve the results they want, while the children caught up in this investor-driven enterprise often have their education significantly disrupted, or even permanently impaired, perhaps with lifelong impact.

References

  1. Network for Public Education, “Do Charter Schools Profit From Educating Students?” (April 2021).
  2. Network for Public Education, “Chartered for Profit: The Hidden World of Charter Schools Operated for Financial Gain” (July 2021).
  3. Atul Gupta, Sabrina T. Howell, Constantine Yannelis, and Abhinav Gupta; NYU Stern School of Business; “Does Private Equity Investment in Healthcare Benefit Patients? Evidence from Nursing Homes”​​ (2020).
  4. Matthew Goldstein, Jessica Silver-Greenberg, and Robert Gebeloff; New York Times; “Push for Profits Left Nursing Homes Struggling to Provide Care” (May 7, 2020).
  5. Nicole Stelle Garnet, Notre Dame Law School, “Sector Agnosticism and the Coming Transformation of Education Law” (April 2017).
  6. W. James Popham, ASCD, “Why Standardized Tests Don’t Measure Educational Quality” (1999).
  7. James L. Woodworth et al, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), “Charter Management Organizations” (2017).

Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

Photo Credit: jonathan mcintosh / Flickr

Facing a Surge in Wildfires, the U.S. Government Turned to Native Wisdom and Advanced Archaeology

Click here to read the article on Popular Archaeology.

Collaborative efforts between forest agencies and Indigenous communities are improving wildfire management by combining oral histories with long-term archaeological datasets, demonstrating the value of integrating an understanding of the past into solutions for a better future.

By Irina Matuzava

After a sharp increase in uncontrollable wildfires across the northern U.S. and Canada in recent decades, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Forest Service have been open to new approaches and ways to address the inherent weaknesses of their bureaucracies. Due to their lack of historical understanding of past fire management methods, they turned to archaeologists, who have collected information on more than 10,000 years of human activity. For their approach, these government agencies studied the perspectives and wisdom of Indigenous peoples offered through shared oral histories.

Outreach and deliberations by federal officials led to the creation of the People, Fire, and Pines working group in 2018. The working group was formed with support from the Coalition of Archaeological Synthesis (CfAS).

Thanks to the advances in technology and the accumulation of an increasingly detailed global data set of human history, modern archaeology has more usable information for government and society than in decades past. CfAS, one of the leading early drivers of this approach, helped the working group conduct two workshops in 2018 and 2019. These workshops attempted to bridge a gap between Western and Indigenous perspectives to create a more holistic understanding of human fire use in North America since the most recent ice age. The participants of the workshops studied the Indigenous knowledge of the Border Lakes region, developed across the millennia of living on and with the land, along with archaeological and tree-ring data gathered by researchers from red pine forests in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) and the Great Lakes region.

The first workshop reached out to members of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and the Bois Forte Band of Lake Chippewa, focusing on “Indigenous fire stewardship” and the “Western concepts of wilderness.” The second workshop was held at the Lac La Croix First Nation Reserve and delved further into the discussion on ways to propel collaborative efforts. The workshops, along with other outputs from the group, including museum exhibits, documentaries, and peer-reviewed papers, have helped reshape the perspectives surrounding Indigenous fire stewardship and the damaging effects of settler groups, who actively disrupted the long-standing relationships between people and their environment.

In a 2020 paper, People, Fire, and Pines project organizer Evan Larson, a dendrochronologist and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, along with two University of Minnesota researchers, analyzed tree-ring data from 500 years of red pine forest growth in the BWCAW of northern Minnesota. This research began with a focus on the scars left behind by forest fires and co-occurring cultural modification of bark removal for medicinal and utilitarian purposes, and it later broadened to include the historical relationship between people and fire. Though the Indigenous peoples fundamentally changed and shaped these landscapes with fire for centuries, the Western population, who later moved into these lands, designated culturally relevant landscapes as “wilderness” and inaccurately defined these areas as “untrammeled by man,” under the Wilderness Act of 1964. In fact, humans have shaped the region of northern Minnesota for thousands of years through fire and forest management practices.

The research conducted in the BWCAW and facilitated through CfAS support continues to expand the understanding of Indigenous fire stewardship through the Wisconsin Sea Grant-funded project Nimaawanji’idimin giiwitaashkodeng. The “Fire, blueberries and treaty rights” episode of the podcast, “The Water We Swim In,” offers a glimpse into the story that emerged from this work. In the episode, members of Nimaawanji’idimin giiwitaashkodeng, which translates to, “We are gathering around the fire,” share their experiences with cultural fire use and gathering blueberries among the pine trees. In the context of paleoecological and archaeological data, the ecological evidence of past surface fire activity obtained from the study confirms that the BWCAW was periodically burned to achieve forest conditions that were more desirable to the Border Lakes Anishinaabeg community and are linked to the resilience and ecological health of pine forests throughout the region.

Many other North American ecosystems burned periodically as well—sometimes through forest fires started by lightning strikes, but more often through intentional fires set by Native American communities. More than a mere tool for survival and achieving agricultural goals, fire became integral to and deeply rooted within the culture of Indigenous groups. For example, the Ojibwe of the Great Lakes region regarded fire as a sacred force, identifying more than 700 uses for it. The Ojibwe spirit of fire, Oshkigin, was a symbol of renewal and transformation.

Fire is one of our most ancient and important tools for human modification of local environments. Prescribed burning or controlled burning, when used responsibly, is particularly valuable in forest management. For instance, one of the ways in which managed fire benefits the ecology and ecosystem health of forests is that burning unwanted vegetation from the forest floor allows for new seeds to germinate, which increases variability in the type and height of plants growing.

Red pine forests, like those found in the Border Lakes area, especially benefit from this use of fire as their seeds require exposed soil to grow. Moreover, a greater balance between woody and grassy/herbaceous plants improves food availability for livestock, wildlife, and pollinators. Clearing dead or dry vegetation in this manner also allows for fire-dependent species and important food sources to grow, such as the blueberry in the Great Lakes region. Blueberries used to proliferate in the region due to fire-based interventions from the Ojibwe community, who cleared patches of the forest floor and made them conducive to berry bush growth. In addition, reducing the amount of dry vegetation on forest floors also limits the potential severity of future wildfires by minimizing the available fuels.

The arrival of European settlers to the North American continent, however, brought about a turning point in the relationship between people and fire. While North American Indigenous groups viewed fire as a great assistance to landscape management, the Europeans only saw it as a destructive force that needed to be avoided at all costs, and this led them to implement policies that suppressed all fire. The shift in attitude within the continent and suppression of Indigenous culture caused a significant loss in traditional fire knowledge and practices, leading to ecological consequences and large wildfires. As a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Melonee Montano, mentioned in the podcast episode “Fire, blueberries and treaty rights,” the land has “literally been waiting” for fire and fire-based intervention.

By studying material cultural resources, such as evidence of bark collection and forest fires left behind in the form of scars on trees, archaeological researchers gain insight into past societies and the environments people lived in during those times. In the case of wildfires, a better understanding of past human involvement in shaping local landscapes can help prevent catastrophic fires in the future.

Collaboration between researchers, forest management agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service, and descendant communities creates an opportunity to reassess current practices and policies surrounding wilderness management. Since the formation of the People, Fire, and Pines group, fire management plans have been revised in partnership with the Lac La Croix First Nation to include prescribed fire in the Quetico Provincial Park of Ontario, Canada, where “[t]hese fires are important in allowing the regeneration of red and white pine and maintaining their presence on the landscape.” Burn plans for the Cloquet Forestry Center in Minnesota were also changed to include cultural fire use through a collaboration between the University of Minnesota and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. This initiative was funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Since the change in burn plans, multiple successful prescribed fires have been conducted by Ojibwe firefighters in the Cloquet Forestry Center.

The resurgence of cultural fire practices, stemming from the initiatives started by the People, Fire, and Pines project, underlines the value of combining Indigenous and archaeological knowledge. By reclaiming controlled burns and implementing centuries-old fire practices to support effective forest management today, the relationship between people and their surrounding environments can be reestablished. This restoration will not only benefit all parties in the Border Lakes region and beyond but will also increase forest ecosystem diversity and resilience to fires, offering a hopeful future for forest management in a changing climate.

The success of these initiatives sets a precedent for other institutions, which may benefit from a similar collaborative approach by the sharing of temporal data among researchers, archaeologists, and descendent communities. Organizations, such as CfAS, have begun to change the context of archaeological research by fostering collaboration across multiple institutions and disciplines.

Analyzing prehistoric data to better understand the root causes of modern issues that originated in the greater global past, like human contributions to climate change, conflict, and disease, can be used to facilitate solutions to current issues and avoid greater ones in the future.

Click here to read the article on Popular Archaeology.

Irina Matuzava is a contributor to the Human Bridges project.

Photo Credit: mypubliclands / Flickr

Congrats to April M. Short, IMI Fellow and Contributor to the Emmy Award-Winning “Covenant of the Salmon People”

Covenant of the Salmon People just won a NW Emmy for Best Documentary (Cultural/Historical). The film was directed by Shane Anderson of Swiftwater Films and IMI’s own Local Peace Economy fellow, April M. Short, was a contributor to the project.

Covenant of the Salmon People is a 60-minute film that focuses of the Nez Perce Tribe. They are the oldest documented civilization in North America and they have a historical, cultural, and spiritual bond with the local Chinook salmon, which is now a threatened species. Dam construction is one of the main impediments to the tribe’s fight to save the fish population and restore the lower Snake River.

This film beautiful illustrates the invaluable work of environmental activism, as you can see from the trailer below.

Congratulations to the team for their phenomenal work.

If you are interested in learning more about the tribe’s environmental efforts, please check out their Salmon Orca Project. Visit the Covenant of the Salmon People website for more details about the award-winning film or you can watch the feature on PBS streaming.

1,3-Dichloropropene: The Dangerous, Sweet-Smelling Pesticide You’ve Never Heard Of

Click here to read the article on the Observatory.

Regulatory loopholes allow more than 30 million pounds of a cancer-causing pesticide to be sprayed on U.S. crops.

By Caroline Cox

California regulators were stunned by their air monitor results in April 1990. Concentrations of a cancer-causing pesticide at schools in Merced County were so high that regulators immediately stopped any use of that pesticide in California. It’s a chemical with an unwieldy name, 1,3-dichloropropene, that you may have never heard about. But there are many reasons why you should be concerned about its use.

The pesticide, also referred to as 1,3-D, is still a problem three decades after I first wrote about it in 1992, when the detection of high levels of 1,3-D in the air of a junior high school led to serious concerns.

The use of 1,3-D in California was suspended from 1990 to 1995 but continued in the rest of the country. Since then, its use has come back with a vengeance. About 34 million pounds are used annually in the United States; about one-third is used in California. The use of 1,3-D is concentrated in the southeastern U.S., central California, and the potato-growing areas of Washington and Idaho. It is mainly used to kill nematodes, symphylans, and wireworms and control some plant diseases.

In California, the heaviest use of 1,3-D is for preparing fields to grow almonds, strawberries, sweet potatoes, grapes, and carrots. Nationally, potatoes accounted for about half of all 1,3-D used between 2014 and 2018, according to a 2020 United States Environmental Protection Agency report.

1,3-D is manufactured by just one company in the U.S., Dow Chemical, and is often sold under the brand name Telone.

Regulatory Loophole

The story of how and why regulators have allowed 1,3-D’s use to continue and even increase is a complicated one that involves politics, economics, and corporate power. For example, in 2002, California opened a regulatory loophole that allowed 1,3-D use to increase, leading to “unfettered 1,3-D access as its use spread to populated areas near schools, homes and businesses,” wrote Bernice Yeung, Kendall Taggart, and Andy Donohue in 2014 in Reveal.

“The loophole also expanded a key market for Dow, allowing it to sell millions more pounds of chemicals across a state that provides the U.S. with nearly half of all its fruits, vegetables, and nuts,” the article in Reveal added. Yet in 2016, limits on 1,3-D use in California increased again.

In 2022, the Office of the Inspector General at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that “EPA did not adhere to standard operating procedures and requirements for the 1,3-Dichloropropene, or 1,3-D, pesticide cancer-assessment process, which undermines public confidence in and the transparency of the Agency’s scientific approaches to prevent unreasonable impacts on human health.”

In other words, the agency did not do its job. This is in stark contrast to the European Union, where 1,3-D use is not approved.

Elaborating on the extensive use of the pesticide, the inspector general also stated that “1,3-D is one of the top three soil fumigants used in the United States.”

1,3-D Causes Air Pollution

1,3-D typically is applied as a liquid that is injected into the soil. It quickly becomes a gas, moves through the soil, and escapes into the atmosphere.

California is the only state that regularly monitors 1,3-D in the air around agricultural communities, but the few results that have been obtained are extremely concerning. Weekly air monitoring data that began to be recorded in 2011 and has continued as of May 2024 is available from four towns (Oxnard, Santa Maria, Shafter, and Watsonville) where the air monitors are located at schools.

In 2022, about one-third of the samples collected from these air monitors contained 1,3-D. Over the entire sampling period, the average 1,3-D concentration at the four schools was between .09 and .46 ppb. According to my calculations, this is double the safety level set by California’s scientists at the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) at the least contaminated school site and 10 times the safety level at the most contaminated school site.

1,3-D is classified as a hazardous air pollutant under the Clean Air Act and is also designated a toxic air contaminant in California. Regulators in California who modeled high detections of 1,3-D between 2017 and 2020 have found that 1,3-D can drift for more than 3 miles from where it is applied.

Clear Evidence of Significant Health Hazards of 1,3-D

Cancer

The World Health Organization (WHO) classified 1,3-D as a cancer-causing chemical (“possibly carcinogenic to humans”) in 1987. In 1989, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) evaluated 1,3-D and concluded that it was “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” California made a similar classification in 1989. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health calls 1,3-D a carcinogen.

In a 2021 review, California’s OEHHA summarized laboratory studies conducted on rats and mice in the 1980s and 1990s, showing that exposure to 1,3-D caused tumors or cancer in multiple organs: lungs, tear glands, bladder, and breasts.

Asthma and Other Breathing Problems

Regulatory agencies recognize that 1,3-D irritates the lungs. The European Chemicals Agency states that 1,3-D is “harmful if inhaled” and “may cause respiratory irritation.”

The HHS concludes that the “[i]nhalation of dichloropropenes may cause respiratory effects such as irritation, chest pain, and cough.” California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR) states, “Acute or short-term inhalation exposure to high concentrations of 1,3-D results in upper respiratory symptoms in humans, including chest tightness, irritated and watery eyes, dizziness and runny nose.” Researchers at the University of California, Merced, found that tiny increases in the amounts of 1,3-D in the air (0.01 parts per billion, or ppb) increased the odds of emergency room visits for asthma from 2005 to 2011.

Genetic Damage

As with cancer, evidence that 1,3-D can cause genetic damage has been available for decades. In 1987, WHO reported that 1,3-D caused genetic damage in mice, bacteria, and laboratory-grown cells from several mammals.

In 2021, California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment compiled studies of genetic damage and found evidence of it in mice, rats, bacteria, fruit flies, and laboratory-grown cells from hamsters and rats.

Environmental Injustice

California is the easiest place to evaluate environmental justice issues related to pesticides because this information is more readily available there than in other states. When I combined California’s pesticide use data for 2021 with demographic data from the U.S. Census Bureau for 2020, I found clear evidence that race and income play an important role in determining who is exposed to 1,3-D.

Of the 10 counties with the highest 1,3-D use, eight were above the state average for the percent of families living in poverty, nine had median incomes less than the state average, and eight were majority Hispanic/Latinx. The bottom line is that people who live in the areas where 1,3-D is widely used are likely to be low-income and Latinx. While the same detailed data is unavailable for the rest of the country, finding similar patterns would not be surprising if such information were provided.

And there’s more to the story in California. The state has set two different safety levels for exposure to 1,3-D. One was set by the CDPR, and the other by OEHHA. Both agencies set a safety level that is supposed to limit exposures to 1,3-D according to what they believe will only cause one cancer case per 100,000 people exposed.

CDPR’s number, focused on people who live near 1,3-D applications, is set at an average air concentration of 0.56 ppb. OEHHA’s number, which applies to everyone in California and is based on health-protective science, is an average air concentration of 0.04 ppb.

As a result, people who live in agricultural areas, likely to be low-income and Latinx, can be exposed to 14 times more 1,3-D than other Californians.

Climate Change Concerns

Dow in Freeport, Texas, manufactures 1,3-D at the largest chemical plant in the Americas. The plant was built to take advantage of natural gas wells close by. I have not come across an accounting of 1,3-D’s carbon footprint, but given that it is made from natural gas, I assume that the carbon footprint of the manufacturing process is likely to be significant. Millions of pounds of this chemical are transported thousands of miles using gasoline or diesel power, adding to the carbon footprint. Finally, the application equipment used for 1,3-D is typically diesel-powered.

Crops grown without 1,3-D and other fumigants can actually reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A good example comes from research done in California almond orchards in August 2021. The scientists who conducted the study, published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, compared conventional almond orchards (commonly treated with 1,3-D) with regenerative, certified organic orchards that do not use 1,3-D or similar pesticides. The study found that organic orchards had 30 percent more carbon in their soil than conventional orchards and, therefore, helped in removing that carbon from the atmosphere and prevented climate change.

You Can Make a Difference

Like many people in the U.S., I live in a county where 1,3-D use is rare, or even zero. No crops grown near me use 1,3-D. But I also consciously choose to avoid eating food that harms people growing or harvesting such crops or those living near fields where they are grown. Fortunately, it’s easy to make a difference. I buy certified organic food as much as possible, especially potatoes and almonds.

Buying organic products is increasingly becoming a popular choice in the U.S., with more than 80 percent of Americans purchasing some organics in 2016, according to a study by the Organic Trade Association. Accessibility to affordable organics is also getting better. More and more standard supermarkets carry organics. In many states, SNAP benefits (food stamps) are doubled for fruits and vegetables, making it easier for SNAP customers to buy organics. Farmers markets, food coops, and community-supported agriculture are other options. The more we buy organic food, the less 1,3-D will be used.

Click here to read the article on the Observatory.

Caroline Cox is a retired pesticide scientist. She was a staff scientist at the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides from 1990 to 2006 and a research director and senior scientist at the Center for Environmental Health from 2006 to 2020. She is a contributor to the Observatory.

Photo Credit: Austin Valley / Wikimedia Commons

Understanding Zoonotic Diseases: How Humans Get Sick From Other Animals

Click here to read the article on the Observatory.

The growing emergence of diseases from animals suggests that we need to rethink our reliance on animals as a food source.

By Vicky Bond

Human and animal health are closely linked, with many diseases shared between them. As our world becomes more developed and interconnected, the proximity between wild animals and humans is shrinking, increasing the risk of disease transmission. At the same time, humans are growing increasingly dependent on animals as a source of food.

The emergence of new diseases is an unfortunate byproduct of these trends. According to the World Health Organization, most of the newly discovered diseases in humans—about 75 percent—have originated in animals in the last three decades. Scientists call these kinds of diseases “zoonotic.”

As humans navigate the growing risk of zoonotic diseases, it is essential to understand how reversing our dependence on meat, dairy, and other animal products can help have a positive impact on our health and that of the planet, while ensuring a better life for the animals.

What Is a Zoonotic Disease?

A zoonotic disease is a disease that transfers from an animal population to humans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, zoonotic diseases are caused by germs such as bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi. Many different types of zoonotic diseases cause human illnesses that range from mild to life-threatening in severity.

It is estimated that six out of ten known infectious diseases that have been reported globally have spread between animals and humans, according to the World Health Organization—and zoonoses are only becoming more frequent.

What Causes Zoonoses?

Humans worldwide live near wild and domesticated animals, largely thanks to our food system’s reliance on industrial animal agriculture. As we navigate the challenges posed by this “unsustainable agricultural intensification”—that is “[destroying] the natural buffers that protect humans from viruses circulating among wildlife,” according to the United Nations—health experts say it has become crucial to understand how zoonotic diseases can spread.

Direct Contact

Diseases can pass from animals to humans who come in direct contact with them by touching an infected animal, for example, or being bitten by one. Zoonotic diseases usually spread through direct contact with an infected animalʼs bodily fluids, such as urine, blood, saliva, feces, or mucus.

Indirect Contact

Humans can also become infected in an animalʼs habitat or living quarters. For example, zoonoses can spread to a human while cleaning out an aquarium or chicken coop or while handling a petʼs food and water dishes. On industrial chicken farms, birds live in squalid conditions with the floor drenched in urine and feces, leading to the ideal conditions for animals to get sick.

Vector-Borne

In epidemiology, a “vector” usually refers to insects, arachnids, and other small organisms that spread an infection from one host to another.

An infected tick, for instance, can attach to a human and transmit Lymes disease. This is also why mosquito bites can potentially cause severe illnesses like the Zika virus, malaria, and yellow fever.

Foodborne

Foodborne diseases, or food poisoning, can be caused by eating raw or undercooked animal products. Eggs and chicken are among the most common sources of food poisoning. Salmonella and campylobacter—from raw eggs and chicken—are common zoonotic diseases. Chickens are among the most widely farmed land animals in the U.S. and worldwide. The U.S. raised more than 9 billion chickens for meat in 2020 alone.

Waterborne

Consuming water contaminated with harmful bacteria can cause illness in humans. For example, lakes, rivers, and streams contaminated with animal waste might have elevated levels of E. coli bacteria—found in the fecal matter of warm-blooded animals.

  1. coli contamination is one reason why factory farms can have devastating impacts on neighboring water bodies. If ingested by humans, the contaminated water can cause anything from minor stomach discomfort to serious health problems or even death.

How Do Zoonotic Diseases Spread Between Animals and People?

There are many ways for zoonotic diseases to spread between animals and people. However, public health researchers have found a common thread through many of the primary drivers of zoonotic diseases. Namely, factory farming and the consumption of animals around the world are sharply driving up the risks that could cause the next significant outbreak.

Farming and Ranching

By a conservative estimate, the agricultural industry has been responsible for around half of all new zoonotic diseases since 1940, according to a November 2022 paper in Science Advances. Epidemiologists say that percentage is probably higher. Nearly every aspect of intensive animal farming contributes to conditions ideal for spreading disease—overly stressed animals, who often live in sordid conditions and are crowded into tight spaces with one another, regularly come into contact with human workers.

Intensive animal farming creates a perfect storm for spreading zoonotic disease.

Wildlife Trade

In addition to animal agriculture, both the legal and illegal wildlife trade—which refers to the global commerce of non-domesticated animals and plants—are serious drivers of zoonotic disease.

A 2021 study published in Current Biology found that more than 25 percent of the mammals in the wildlife trade host 75 percent of all known zoonotic diseases. Because the complex process of transporting these animals results in “upward of 1 billion direct and indirect contacts among wildlife, animals, and domestic animals,” the studyʼs lead author, K. Nagaraju Shivaprakash, concluded that “[W]ildlife trade… is [conceivably] a significant factor in the global spread of zoonotic and emerging infectious diseases.”

Animal Captivity

Holding animals in captivity and exploiting them for human entertainment poses many ethical and moral problems. Animals in captivity also pose public health risks. Petting zoos and other animal exhibits where humans can directly touch captive animals are particularly concerning. Between 1990 and 2000, more than 25 zoonotic outbreaks were linked to animal exhibits, according to 2007 figures provided by the CDC.

Insect Vectors

There are more than a billion insects for every human on Earth. While these tiny beings are essential to our survival, some can also carry deadly diseases.

Ticks, fleas, and female mosquitoes (male mosquitoes don’t bite) can cause various illnesses, most of which are now treatable. However, one of the worst pandemics in history, the Black Plague, has been traced back to infected fleas.

Deforestation and Habitat Destruction

Deforestation and habitat destruction—primarily driven by the agriculture industry—pose serious environmental risks. When wild animals see their habitats destroyed, they have no choice but to uproot and search for a new home. As they make these journeys, they are more likely to “bump into” other animals, increasing the chances for a once-contained disease to spill over to another population.

Climate Change

For reasons similar to habitat destruction, scientists say climate change is already increasing the chances of humans experiencing more frequent zoonotic pandemics. “Using recent estimates of the rate of increase in disease emergence from zoonotic reservoirs associated with environmental change, we estimate that the yearly probability of occurrence of extreme epidemics can increase up to threefold in the coming decades,” warns a 2021 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Animal agriculture contributes more global greenhouse gas emissions than the transportation sector.

The resulting extreme heat at the equator caused by global warming has many species racing toward the poles for more hospitable climates. This has prompted once-remote animal species to travel great distances, likely increasing their chances of contact with humans and other animals and potentially spreading disease.

Contaminated Food and Water

Food or water that has been contaminated by a bacterium, virus, or parasite leads to tens of millions of annual food poisoning cases and more than 1,000 deaths in the United States alone, according to the CDC.

Norovirus is the leading cause of foodborne illness-related deaths in the U.S. After that, salmonella, C. perfringens, and campylobacter are the next most fatal pathogens. “Campylobacteriosis is the most commonly reported gastrointestinal disease” in the European Union, with more than 129,000 cases reported in 2021, which is a 5.6 percent increase compared to 2020.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control found that chickens and chicken meat accounted for roughly 20 to 30 percent of these human infection cases.

How Are Zoonoses Classified?

Public health experts classify zoonoses by their root cause. In other words, the disease pathogen could be a bacterium, a virus, or something else.

Bacterial Zoonoses

Bacterial zoonoses are diseases caused by single-cell microorganisms found almost everywhere on Earth and inside the human body. Most bacteria are harmless or even helpful, and relatively few cause disease.

Viral Zoonoses

Viral zoonoses are diseases caused by viruses, which are infectious microbes made up of DNA or RNA surrounded by a “protein coat.” They can infect humans, other animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria.

Parasitic Zoonoses

Parasitic zoonoses are diseases caused by parasites that attach themselves to or are found inside a hostʼs body. Parasitic diseases can spread from animals to humans through the consumption of raw or undercooked meat or by consuming food or water contaminated by an infected animalʼs stool.

Fungal Zoonoses

Fungal zoonoses are diseases caused by fungi, spore-producing organisms such as molds, yeasts, and mushrooms. Fungi can cause topical infections on a person’s body (such as skin rashes and brittle nails) or inside the body (such as infections of the lungs or bloodstream).

Rickettsial Zoonoses

Rickettsial zoonoses are diseases caused by an unusual type of bacteria that can live only inside the cells of other organisms. Rickettsial infections are usually transmitted to humans through bites from vectors such as ticks, lice, fleas, and mites.

Chlamydial Zoonoses

Chlamydial zoonoses are diseases caused by a family of bacteria called chlamydiae, one of the most common infectious agents affecting humans. One type of the bacteria is frequently transmitted in people as a sexually transmitted infection—and is often referred to colloquially as chlamydia. Another version, however, affects domesticated birds and can spread to humans when handling their birds or cleaning out their cages.

Mycoplasma Zoonoses

Mycoplasma zoonoses are diseases caused by an atypical family of bacteria that are harder to kill through antibiotics. Mycoplasma pneumoniae can infect the human respiratory system—a mild form of pneumonia is often called “walking pneumonia”—and spreads through tiny droplets from coughs and sneezes. There have also been reported cases of this sort of bacteria spreading from animals to humans.

Protozoal Zoonoses

Protozoal zoonoses are diseases caused by protozoal parasites and often spread from companion animals to their owners. Many humans are protected from these types of diseases by strong immune systems. However, immunocompromised pet caretakers are at a much higher risk.

Acellular Non-Viral Pathogenic Zoonoses

Acellular non-viral pathogenic zoonoses refer to diseases caused by very unusual and not well-understood pathogens, such as prion, a misfolded protein. Prion is believed to be the cause of neurological disorders such as mad cow disease and similar diseases affecting the brains of humans.

Zoonotic Disease Examples

Avian Influenza

Avian influenza, or bird flu, is a viral disease that primarily affects wild waterfowl and domesticated poultry. As of April 10, 2024, more than 85 million poultry have been affected by a bird flu outbreak, the majority of which were egg-laying hens raised in cramped cages. While it has infected humans in rare cases, given the ongoing, severe outbreak in both wild and domestic bird populations, public health experts are concerned about more potential spillover events in the near future.

Due to the sheer number of birds we factory farm, we are dramatically increasing this risk. Keeping birds in closed confines, filthy conditions, and continually stressed is the perfect environment for bird flu to flourish.

Salmonellosis

Salmonellosis is caused by an infection from salmonella bacteria, which live in the digestive tracts of birds and other animals. Humans risk infection if they do not practice good hand-washing habits and consume raw eggs, unpasteurized dairy products, or undercooked meat.

Psittacosis

Humans can contract psittacosis from infected pet birds, such as parrots and cockatiels, or domesticated poultry, such as chickens and turkeys. The illness is usually quite mild and relatively brief in humans.

Rabies

Rabies is a viral disease that can affect any mammal but is most associated with bats, raccoons, skunks, foxes, and dogs. Rabies is usually transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected animal. The infection affects the central nervous system and is nearly always fatal once symptoms are present.

Cat Scratch Disease

Cat scratch disease is a bacterial infection. It can spread to humans when a cat licks an open wound or scratches a person deep enough to break the skin. The infection can cause redness around the site of the wound, swollen glands, and flu-like symptoms. While the symptoms are usually mild, in rare cases, the infection can become serious if it spreads to other organs.

Malaria

Malaria is a disease caused by a parasite that spreads to humans through mosquito bites. If it is left untreated, malaria can be fatal, especially in children under five. The disease is most commonly found in countries near the equator, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania.

Zika Virus

Mosquito bites are the most common cause of the Zika virus. However, it can also be passed from a pregnant mother to her child or through sexual contact. The virusʼ symptoms usually include mild rash and illness. However, it can cause serious congenital disorders in newborns.

Lyme Disease

Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne zoonoses in the U.S. It is caused by infected blacklegged tick bites. While relatively easily treatable, if left untreated, Lyme disease can result in prolonged pain, stiffness, and swelling, as well as memory problems and difficulty concentrating.

Bubonic Plague

Responsible for the most infamous pandemic in history—known as the Black Plague or Black Death—the bubonic plague still crops up in some cases worldwide. However, outbreaks of this bacteria-borne zoonotic disease can be controlled with antibiotics.

Swine Flu

Also known as the H1N1 flu, swine flu is caused by an influenza virus that began infecting humans in 2009, causing a pandemic in humans, pigs, and birds. Pigs with swine flu may develop symptoms ranging from fever, coughing, and sneezing to depression and a lack of appetite. Humans can get sick from being near pigs on farms or at county fairs.

COVID-19

Scientists agree the COVID-19 pandemic originated from a nonhuman animal. However, there is yet to be a definitive conclusion about the source. According to WHO, the leading theory is that the COVID-19 virus originated in bats and spread to humans via another animal.

Who Is at Risk of Zoonotic Diseases?

As the far-reaching effects of COVID-19 have taught us, no one is immune from getting a zoonotic disease. However, various risk factors can put certain people at higher risk of infection than others.

According to the CDC, children under five, adults more than 65 years old, those with weakened immune systems, and pregnant women are at heightened risk of serious illness from zoonotic diseases.

What Can You Do to Protect Yourself from Zoonotic Diseases?

Animals are all around us, whether they are buzzing around us outdoors, wandering through our backyards, or even living inside our homes. This means there is always a chance of a bacterium, virus, or other pathogen jumping from an infected animal to one of us.

The CDC has laid out a practical list of ways to protect ourselves from preventable zoonotic diseases:

  • Wash your hands after touching animals or animal products. Soap and running water for 20 seconds is one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of germs. If soap and water arenʼt available, using a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol is the next best thing.
  • Avoid tick, flea, and mosquito bites outdoors by wearing bug spray and long-sleeved clothing and paying attention to CDC health warnings in your area.
  • If you have companion animals in your home, educate yourself about what diseases typically affect them and how to keep them healthy.
  • Be wary of animal exhibits and petting zoos.

However, the rise of industrial animal agriculture over the 20th century has transformed our food system into one in which thousands of animals are packed into dense, unclean living quarters—creating conditions ripe for disease. While taking individual precautions to avoid contracting zoonoses is essential, the threat remains high unless we collectively change our relationship with nonhuman animals.

Preventing Zoonotic Disease Globally

Public health experts agree that the world needs to address the primary root cause of emerging zoonotic diseases: animal consumption. A 2022 research article in the journal Science Advances explains that changing how we raise animals for meat is insufficient to stem the accelerated rise in these diseases.

Intensive agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation, which drives the global spread of disease. To further increase productivity, animals are increasingly kept in more intensive systems, but this process involves confining animals—and their waste—together into tight spaces. Not only is this inhumane, but in such large numbers and under so much stress, it also greases the wheels for the spread of disease.

Research shows that slowing the spread of zoonotic diseases will require reducing global reliance on animal products as a food source while accelerating forest conservation efforts worldwide.

Ending Intensive Animal Agriculture

Much work remains to end intensive animal agriculture and make the world a safer place for humans and nonhuman animals.

We must hold corporations and elected officials accountable for how their actions affect nonhuman animals’ well-being and public health. Governments must stop subsidizing animal agriculture and instead support more sustainable farming practices.

More awareness is also required to educate people about the atrocities inflicted on animals to support intensive farming and to highlight the overall environmental and health benefits of moving toward a plant-based diet.

Click here to read the article on the Observatory.

Vicky Bond is a veterinary surgeon, animal welfare scientist, and the president of The Humane League, a global nonprofit organization working to end the abuse of animals raised for food through institutional and individual change. She is a contributor to the Observatory. Follow her on Twitter @vickybond_THL.

Photo Credit: Matthew T Rader / Wikimedia Commons

Trump Loyalists Preview Strategies to Upend 2024 Election

Click here to read the article on the Bucks County Beacon.

Not just challenging voters’ credentials in battleground states. But attacking every step in running elections.

By Steven Rosenfeld

As the 2020 presidential election entered its final stretch, Christina Bobb was not just covering it as a TV newswoman for the pro-Donald Trump One America News Network (OANN). The tall, dark-haired, clear-speaking ex-marine and lawyer was working to overturn it.

Bobb believed that Democrats and election officials colluded to fabricate thousands of voter registrations, illegal voters, forged ballots, and finessed the vote count until Joe Biden was the victor in 2020’s battleground states.

Yet it was Bobb and Trump loyalists who were feverishly plotting and pushing to alter the presidential election’s outcome, as she detailed in her 2023 book, Stealing Your Vote: The Inside Story of the 2020 Election and What it Means for 2024.

Publicly, Bobb kept reporting for OANN. Under the radar, she “joined” Rudy Giuliani and others in Trump’s orbit who pursued ways to nullify the results. She wrote that she was on the call with Trump when he urged Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes.” Bobb said that she coordinated “the litigation efforts in Arizona, Michigan, and New Mexico,” including, apparently, a slate of fake Electoral College members who forged and sent paperwork to Congress certifying that Trump had won Arizona.

In April, Bobb and 17 others were indicted on multiple felonies in that electoral hijacking scheme by Arizona Attorney General Kristin Mayes, a Democrat. Only weeks before, on the same day Trump secured the 2024 Republican nomination, Bobb was named the Republican National Committee’s senior counsel for election integrity. Beyond the surreal twist that a politico indicted for attempting to overturn a swing state’s presidential vote will now lead a national party’s efforts to police elections, Bobb’s book previews the lawfare and conspiratorial mindset that is already shadowing 2024’s presidential election.

In her book, Bobb complained about “inflated” voter rolls, “ballot trafficking,” and “ballot harvesting,” which are conspiratorial pejoratives that imply fabricating voters, forging ballots, and stuffing ballot boxes. As States Newsroom reported in April 2024, the RNC and its allies have already sued in five states—including Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Nevada—to challenge their voter rolls’ accuracy, and, in turn, voters’ credentials. In Georgia, a Republican bill empowering mass challenges of voter registrations was signed into law on May 7. (The American Civil Liberties Union has vowed to sue to block last-minute voter purges.)

Bobb’s book also targeted the way that elections are run. She disparaged “centralized” counting operations (“makes cheating easier”) and complained of local election officials “removing” Republican workers and restricting GOP’s observers (“so that they could cheat”). She said that Democrats will spread “misinformation” (“an information war against the American people”), run “out the clock” after Election Day, and collude with the media to change “the Narrative.”

“The media and the Left insist that there were no crimes committed, and they love to point to the courts, claiming that all charges of criminal activity have been proven wrong,” she wrote of 2020. “The real story, however, is quite different.”

The real story of 2020’s finale, contrary to Bobb’s assertions, was that Trump loyalists would not accept his defeat and were running blind. They presented their “evidence” to courts overseen by Democratic and Republican judges and lost every substantive legal challenge. Their evidence—sworn statements by individuals who claimed they had witnessed misdeeds and voter fraud—was not deemed credible and was rebutted by factual evidence provided by experienced and informed experts.

Nonetheless, Bobb’s belief that hidden hands are again plotting to steal votes is not just taken as an article of faith in Trump circles. It is emblematic of a new development in the GOP’s “election integrity” circles, which Mimi Marziani, a political science and election law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, recently characterized as “throwing the kitchen sink” at elections officials, the courts, and the public.

In recent years, these self-taught grassroots Trump activists—who distrust almost everyone who has run an election, including Republicans—have discovered the details of election administration. These are the often-repetitive steps, procedures, and technologies used in elections. The activists assume the worst will happen at any point. They distrust almost everything about every stage in the process.

As Marziani recently told Votebeat’s Texas reporter, “They’re not actually trying to have a different person elected… They’re trying to set some sort of precedent to destabilize free and fair elections.”

“If someone really wants to interfere with our elections, they will find a way to accomplish that,” wrote Erica in April, the curator of the Election Education channel on Telegram, a platform favored by Trumpers. “The security measures the election officials repeat over and over are a false sense of security when we can’t verify any of them for ourselves.”

Telegram’s ‘Election Education’

That online comment hardly seems threatening. But what I found on the channel, which leaders of national groups seeking to defend 2024’s elections said they had not seen via emails, was stunning. Bobb’s book puts forth broad conspiracies and talking points. The Election Education channel has weaponized the details beyond anything I have seen.

I have studied and covered voting rights, election administration, voting system technology, election procedure, and disinformation for two decades. This winter, I worked for nearly two months as a county election official during California’s presidential primary, where I had an up close look at many of the practices targeted by Bobb and her fellow travelers. I understand the frustrations of not getting timely, easily understood explanations and evidence about what happened in any close election. I’ve faced many tight-lipped officials as a journalist.

But the Election Education channel is a repository that catalogs the fine print of running elections and sows doubt about almost everything. It is filled with scores of graphic charts that put forth almost every imaginable conspiracy. It makes hundreds of blunt accusations that are difficult to unwind and begin to respond to—because running an election isn’t so simple.

The graphics include topics such as: “Ballot Harvesting Hot Spots,” “Known Election Fraud Maneuvers,” “Election Observer Tips,” “Take-Aways from 2020 Elections,” “What Could Possibly Happen to a Mail-In Ballot?” “Bring Election Accountability to Your Local Elections Office,” “Why Aren’t Change of Addresses Being Updated in the Voter Rolls?” “Our Elections are Under Attack!” and “Voter Authentication Not Required When Voting by Mail.”

The channel’s messages are not unique in Trump land. They are signs of our polarized, tribal, and political times. The channel’s curators believe they are educating Trump’s base. Their most popular posts are regularly seen by tens of thousands of viewers, according to Telegram’s counter. But they are blissfully unaware of what they do not know. In contrast, the longer I have been around elections, the more I have realized how much more there is to know.

For example, below the assertion that anyone who wants to interfere will find a way is a chart entitled, “Election Fraud Work-Arounds: The Art of Cheating Without Getting Caught.” It is one of 50 graphics posted so far in 2024, has been viewed by 26,000 people, and bluntly lists a half-dozen scenarios to cheat to “Pass Post-Election Audits,” “Pass Logic and Accuracy Tests,” “Add Late Ballots to the Count,” and “Use Uncertified Systems.”

These technicalities are steps that occur during the set-up and running of elections. Like all propaganda, their assertions start with a thread of truth. A factual process or procedure or an election record or computer system is cited. But the messages and messengers invariably go on to assume that specific steps will be secretly sabotaged.

For example, under “Add Late Ballots to the Count”—which implies that Democrats or colluding officials are stealing votes—are six conspiratorial scenarios. One might “alter or don’t require [a] USPS [Post Office] time stamp.” One might “use ‘blank’ ballots later to vote” or “backfill the votes via adjudication [a process where officials review ballots if there’s more than one vote in a single contest to ascertain the voter’s intent].” One might “alter chain-of-custody records [concerning the handling and inventorying of ballots].” One might exploit the “ballot curing period [when voters can correct mistakes or return to an election office with more identifying information] to insert votes” or “use early votes to calculate how many more ballots are needed to win.”

Accusations like these sow doubts. It is virtually impossible to factually respond to people who say that no matter what evidence is presented, that something invisible is happening elsewhere to corrupt the process. But that’s their mindset.

“Election fraud does not require the assistance of election staff,” said a chart entitled, How an Election can be Stolen without Poll Worker’s Knowledge. “Poll workers can do everything right and still have the election stolen from them. There are people in this world who will stop at nothing to gain or maintain power.”

How Impactful Might This Be?

As a longtime journalist, I don’t criticize individual citizen activists. But I can’t help but notice the blind spots in this movement and its methodology.

Bobb’s assertions and Election Education’s graphics are not just overclaiming and propagandist. They are also not fully knowledgeable about their topics and targets. One can notice what is not mentioned. They never say how many voters or votes might be affected in their latest conspiratorial scenario. They never mention what steps, security measures, bureaucratic redundancies, observer scrutiny, and time crunches would prevent their feared subterfuge from pragmatically occurring. They are self-taught and unaware of their shortcomings—unintentionally, or perhaps more cynically, they are aware and don’t care.

This winter, I learned things as an election official that I had not known until I worked on the inside. Election administration is not easily understood nor is it often well-explained. That encourages propaganda. But an absence of understanding does not mean the process is implicitly corrupt and untrustworthy. Today’s voting systems are not black boxes. They are filled with data and voter- and ballot-centered evidence that is—and can be—repeatedly verified.

But Trump’s base doesn’t want to believe that he lost in 2020 and might lose again in 2024. That mindset raises some big questions about their latest messaging. Will efforts such as the Election Education channel’s targeting and disparaging of the process’s fine print and the officials who run elections lead to protests and unrest this fall? There are only several dozen swing counties in all of the swing states. It doesn’t take more than a few dozen protesters to show up at a single site, call the media, and be noisy and disruptive.

But succeeding as a propagandist is not the same as being better-informed and smarter about the electoral process. Nor does it mean Trumpers will be pursuing better-informed legal challenges after Election Day—should a statewide or federal election come down to a margin of several thousand votes.

When asked about potential impacts in 2024, several former officials who are involved in defending elections said that they had not heard of the Telegram channel. One was wary of giving the channel too much attention, as GOP activists have a history of hyping their vigilantism and then barely showing up on Election Day, and afterward.

Apparently, the channel is being tracked by some disinformation watchers. The channel’s curator has posted that one contractor working with election officials has tagged some of its posts. But that surveillance only seems to stiffen the belief of Trumpers that Democrats and many officials are plotting against them. And they think they know how.

On April 28, Election Education asked readers how they thought 2024 would be stolen. “What is your theory on how elections are stolen in your neck of the woods? We know they are all possible, but curious what you think the biggest factor is,” it said.

Nearly 4,800 people replied. That’s more respondents than most national polls. “Mail-in ballots,” replied 30 percent. “Machine vote flips,” said 22 percent. “Injecting votes using dirty voter rolls,” said 17 percent. “Machine is set for certain outcome,” said 10 percent. Their answers were seen by 16,500 viewers.

A few days later, a new graphic appeared. “They are INFLATING the voter rolls because they know we have been STUDYING the MACHINES! Do NOT get BLINDSIDED.” Below, it said, “Remember, there are multiple ways they can accomplish their goal of stealing an election.”

Click here to read the article on the Bucks County Beacon.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, The Washington Monthly, and many others.

Photo Credit: Tyler Merbler / Flickr

The Right’s Long Game to End Public Education

The following is an excerpt of an article that was originally published on the Progressive.

Click to read the full article online.

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona finally said the quiet part out loud.

On February 13, President Joe Biden’s Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, did something Democratic officials seldom do in public: He spoke the truth about what’s behind the relentless attacks on public schools by rightwing advocacy groups and their financial backers.

As HuffPost reported, one of the topics that came up during a meeting between Cardona and Black journalists that took place at the Department of Education, was the recent wave of new laws passed in mostly red states that target programs in K-12 schools and institutions of higher education that address diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

Advocates for DEI programs say they are needed to ensure positive academic, health, and social outcomes for students who often face discrimination and fewer educational opportunities due to their race, class, religion, gender, or ability level. Opponents say they shame white students and cause “reverse discrimination.”

Cardona called new laws passed by Republican state lawmakers to eliminate DEI programs “a deliberate attack on efforts to try to make sure schools are inclusive, welcoming places for all students—in particular, students from different backgrounds.”

But more than just defending schools for embracing DEI, Cardona went further to call out the intention behind these attacks on the programs, calling them “very deliberate attempts to seek division in our schools so that a private option sounds better [emphasis added] for parents.” 

“Every year, there’s something to stoke division in an attempt to disrupt our public schools and decrease the confidence in our public schools,” he said. “Four years ago were the masks. [Critical race theory] was a year after that. [Now,] DEI, [and] banning books.”

The serial crises that groups like Moms for Liberty and the Heritage Foundation string together year after year to inflame the populace with fear and suspicion about public schools have been the subject of extensive reporting.

But when major news outlets report on these outbursts of rightwing rage, the articles tend to focus solely on the legitimacy of specific grievances rather than considering whether the attacks themselves could be a tactic in a much longer game.

[…]

Read the rest of this article on the Progressive.

Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education / Flickr

A Tale of Two Federal Grants for Public Education

The following is an excerpt of an article that was originally published on the Progressive.

Click to read the full article online.

The Department of Education has separate grant programs for funding either charter or community schools; the latter provides money for what schools and families really need, the former, not so much.

Two education-related grant programs operated by the U.S. Department of Education—both of which dole out millions in federal tax dollars for educating K-12 children every year—present two opposing truths about government spending on public education: that it can be wasteful and misguided, or innovative and informed. 

The first program enjoys the significant backing of industry lobbyists and wealthy foundations, and allows private education operators—some that operate for-profit—to skim public money off the top. It also adds to racial segregation in public schools, and squanders millions of dollars on education providers that come and quickly go, or simply fail to provide any education services at all.

The second program helps schools expand learning time and opportunities for students, especially in high-poverty and rural communities; promote parent engagement; encourage collaboration with local businesses and nonprofits; and become hubs for child- and family-related services that contribute to students’ health and well-being.

These strikingly different outcomes result from two different intentions: the first program’s goal to promote a type of school that is vaguely defined versus the second’s goal to expand a way of doing school that is supported by research and anecdotal evidence.

The first grant program is the Charter Schools Program (CSP), which funds privately operated charter schools and their developers and advocacy organizations. The program, started during the Clinton Administration and greatly expanded during the Obama years, gives money directly to charter schools and to state education agencies and charter school-related organizations to distribute to new, existing, or proposed charters.

In October, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the nation’s top lobbyist for the charter school industry, hailed the federal government’s release of $572 million in taxpayer dollars from the CSP, calling the money “the most essential funding to enable the existence of public charter schools.”

In New Mexico, local press outlets reported that a $52 million CSP grant went to a charter industry advocacy group called the Public Charter Schools of New Mexico, which in turn would award subgrants to individual charter schools. One reporter quoted the group’s leader who said, “There was a large application with several requirements in there. And we were scored based on, you know, how well we met the requirements and a peer review process.”

In Idaho, Idaho Ed News reported about the $24.8 million CSP grant going to Bluum, which the reporter called “a nonprofit charter support organization.” The grant is to be used “to grow and strengthen Idaho’s charter school network,” the article said.

Maryland’s top charter school industry booster, the Maryland Alliance of Public Charter Schools, celebrated its $28.7 million CSP saying it would provide “subgrants to open new charter schools and/or replicate and expand charter schools.”

Not all CSP grants went to advocacy groups. The largest—totaling $109,740,731—went to the Indiana Department of Education. According to Chalkbeatone out of three charter schools in Indiana have closed since 2001.

A 2019 analysis conducted by the Network for Public Education, a pro-public schools advocacy group, found that over its lifespan CSP has wasted as much as $1 billion on charter schools that never opened or opened and quickly closed.

Another CSP grant of $37,579,122 went to the Minnesota Department of Education. In Minnesota, courts have grappled for years with the question of whether racial imbalances in public schools, caused to a great extent by the expansion of racially segregated charter schools, violate the constitutional right of students of color to receive an adequate education.

Other CSP grants went to credit enhancement for charter school facilities, essentially giving public money to real estate development firms and investment companies that finance and build new charter schools.

[…]

Read the rest of this article on the Progressive.

Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

Photo Credit: Fry1989 / Wikimedia Commons

Election Defenders’ Top 2024 Worry: Online Rumors, Deceptions, Lies Swaying Masses

Click here to read the article on LA Progressive.

Propaganda scholars report few measures change partisan mindsets to avert vitriol or violence. But they hope online influencers will counter some rumor mills.

By Steven Rosenfeld

A decade ago, when Kate Starbird dove into studying how rumors spread online and how people use social media to make sense of what is happening during crises, the future co-founder of the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public had no idea that she would become a target of the darker dynamics and behavior she was studying.

Starbird, a Stanford University computer science graduate who turned professional basketball player, had returned to academia as an expert in “crisis informatics.” That emerging field looks at how people use online information and communication to respond to uncertain and chaotic events. Starbird initially looked at how social media could be helpful in crises. But she and her colleagues increasingly were drawn to how false rumors emerge and spread. They confirmed what many of us have long suspected. Mistaken online information tends to travel farther and faster than facts and corrections. “[B]reaking news” accounts often magnify rumors. People who fall for bogus storylines might correct themselves, but not before spreading them.

Those insights were jarring enough. But as Starbird and her colleagues turned to tracking the post-2020 attacks on America’s elections by Donald Trump, copycat Republicans, and right-wing media, they were no longer looking at the dynamics of misinformation and disinformation from the safety of academia. By scrutinizing millions of tweets, Facebook posts, YouTube videos, and Instagram pages for misleading and unsubstantiated claims, and alerting the platforms and federal cybersecurity officials about the most troubling examples, Starbird and her peers soon found themselves in the crosshairs of arch Trump loyalists. They were targeted and harassed much like election officials across the country.

Starbird was dragged before congressional inquisitions led by Ohio GOP Representative Jim Jordan. Her University of Washington e-mail account was targeted by dozens of public records requests. As her and other universities were sued, she and her peers spent more time with lawyers than students. In some cases, the intimidation worked, as some colleagues adopted a “strategy of silence,” Starbird recounted in a keynote address at the Stanford Internet Observatory’s 2023 Trust and Safety Research Conference in September. That response, while understandable, was not the best way to counter propagandists, she said, nor inform the public about their work’s core insights—which is how mistaken or false beliefs take shape online, and why they are so hard to shake.

“Some colleagues decided not to aggressively go after the false claims that we received about ourselves,” Starbird said—such as accusations that alleged they had colluded with the government to censor right-wing speech. “I don’t think that they should have gone directly at the people saying them. But we needed to get the truth out to the public… Online misinformation, disinformation, manipulation; they remain a critical concern for society.”

Barely a week after November 2023’s voting ended, the narratives dominating the news underscored her point. The reproductive rights victories and embrace of Democrats, led by growing numbers of anti-MAGA voters, had barely been parsed by the public before Trump grabbed the headlines by transgressing American political norms.

In a Veterans Day speech, of all settings, Trump, who is the leading 2024 Republican presidential candidate, attacked his domestic opponents with rhetoric that mimicked European fascist dictators that Americans had defeated in World War II. Trump called his domestic critics “vermin,” and pledged that, if reelected, he would use the Justice Department to “crush” them. Even the New York Times noted the similarity between Trump’s words to Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

Trump’s outburst was one of many incidents and trends that have led election defenders and propaganda experts to say that their biggest worries about 2024 elections concern the reach of mistaken or deceptive propaganda—misinformation and disinformation—and its persuasive power to shape political identities, beliefs, ideologies, and provoke actions.

“It’s no secret that Republicans have a widespread strategy to undermine our democracy. But here’s what I’m worried about most for the 2024 election—election vigilantism,” Marc Elias, a top Democratic Party lawyer, said during a late October episode of his “Defending Democracy” podcast. “Election vigilantism, to put it simply, is when individuals or small groups act in a sort of loosely affiliated way to engage in voter harassment, voter intimidation, misinformation campaigns, or voter challenges.”

Elias has spent decades litigating the details of running elections. Since 2020, many Republican-run states have passed laws making voting harder, disqualifying voters and ballots, imposing gerrymanders to fabricate majorities, and challenging federal voting law. Democratic-led states have gone the other direction, essentially creating two Americas when it comes to running elections. Notably, this veteran civil rights litigator is more worried about partisan passions running amok than the voting war’s latest courtroom fights. And he’s not alone.

“It’s the minds of voters,” replied Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, when asked at the 2023 Aspen Cyber Summit in New York City about the biggest threat to the legitimacy of 2024 elections. Benson emphasized that it was not the reliability of the voting system or cybersecurity breaches. “It’s the confusion, and chaos, and the sense of division, and the sense of disengagement that bad actors are very much trying to instill in our citizenry.”

Information and Psychology

There are many factors driving the hand-wringing over the likelihood that political rumors, mistaken information, mischaracterizations, and intentional deceptions will play an outsized role in America’s 2024 elections. Academics like Starbird, whose work has buoyed guardrails, remain under attack. Some of the biggest social media platforms, led by X—formerly Twitter—have pulled back or gutted content policing efforts. These platforms, meanwhile, are integrating artificial intelligence-generated content, which some of these same researchers have shown can create newspaper-like articles that swaths of the public say are persuasive.

Additionally, the U.S. is involved in controversial wars in Ukraine and Israel invoking global rivalries, which may entice the hostile foreign governments that meddled in recent presidential elections to target key voting blocs in 2024’s battleground states, analysts at the Aspen Cyber Summit said. And domestically, federal efforts to debunk election- and vaccine-related disinformation have shrunk, as Trump loyalists have accused these fact-based initiatives of unconstitutional censorship and sued. These GOP-led lawsuits have led to conflicting federal court rulings that have not been resolved, but fan an atmosphere of lingering distrust.

It is “a real concern for 2024: That the feds and others who monitor and inform citizens about lies and false election information will unilaterally disarm, in the face of the constant bullying and harassment,” tweeted David Becker—who runs the Center for Election Innovation and Research and whose defense of election officials has made him a target of Trump loyalists—commenting after November 2023 Election Day.

What is less discussed in these warnings is what can be done to loosen online propaganda’s grip. That question, which involves the interplay of digitally delivered information and how we think and act, is where insights from scholarly research are clarifying and useful.

Debunking disinformation is not the same as changing minds, many researchers at the recent Trust and Safety conference explained. This understanding has emerged as online threats have evolved since the 2016 presidential election. That year, when Russian operatives created fake personas and pages on Facebook and elsewhere to discourage key Democratic blocs from voting, the scope of problem and solution mostly involved cybersecurity efforts, Starbird recalled in her keynote address during the conference.

At that time, the remedy was finding technical ways to quickly spot and shut down the forged accounts and fake pages. By 2020 election, the problem and its dynamics had shifted. The false narratives were coming from domestic sources. The president and his allies were people using authentic social media accounts. Trump set the tone. Influencers—right-wing personalities, pundits, and media outlets—followed his cues. Ordinary Americans not only believed their erroneous or false claims, and helped to spread them, but some Trump cultists went further and spun stolen election clichés into vast conspiracies and fabricated false evidence.

Propaganda scholars now see disinformation as a participatory phenomenon. There is more going on than simply saying that flawed or fake content is intentionally created, intentionally spread, and intentionally reacted to, Starbird and others explained. To start, disinformation is not always entirely false. It often is a story built around a grain of truth or a plausible scenario, she said, but “layered with exaggerations and distortions to create a false sense of reality.”

Moreover, disinformation “rarely functions” as a single piece of content. It is part of a series of interactions or an ongoing campaign—such as Trump’s repeated claim that elections are rigged. Crucially, while propaganda and disinformation are often talked about as being deceptive, Starbird said that “when you actually look at disinformation campaigns online, most of the content that spreads doesn’t come from people—those that are part of it [the bogus campaign], it comes from unwitting actors or sincere believers in the content.”

These layered dynamics blur the lines between what is informational and what is psychological. The factors at play include how first impressions, memory, and beliefs can clash with the ground truth—or eclipse it. Starbird cited one example she has studied. In 2020 in Arizona’s Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, Trump supporters had been hearing for months that the November election would be stolen. When they saw that some pens given to voters bled through their paper ballot, that triggered fears and the so-called “Sharpiegate” conspiracy emerged and went viral. Election officials explained that ballots were printed in such a way that no vote would be undetected or misread. But that barely dented the erroneous assumption and false conclusion that a presidential election was being stolen before their eyes.

“Sometimes misinformation stands for false evidence, or even vague [evidence] or deep fakes [forged audio, photos or video], or whatever,” Starbird said. “But more often, misinformation comes in the form of misrepresentations, misinterpretations, and mischaracterizations… the frame that we use to interpret that evidence; and those frames are often strategically shaped by political actors and campaigns.”

In 2023, online influencers do not even have to mention the triggering frames, she said, as their audiences already know them. Influencers can pose questions, selectively surface evidence, and knowingly—in wink and nod fashion—create a collaboration where witting and unwitting actors produce and spread false content and conclusions. Additionally, the technical architecture of social media—where platforms endlessly profile users based on their posts, and those profiles help to customize and deliver targeted content—is another factor that amplifies its spread.

Starbird’s summary of the dynamics of disinformation is more nuanced than what one hears in election circles, where officials avoid commenting publicly on partisan passions. But she was not the only researcher with insights into how and where mis- and disinformation are likely to surface in 2024. Eviane Leidig, a postdoctoral fellow at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, described another conduit during the conference where “personal radicalization and recruitment narratives” may be hiding in plain sight: influencer-led lifestyle websites.

Leidig showed seemingly innocuous pages from influencers that use “the qualities of being relatable, authentic, accessible, and responsive to their audiences to cultivate the perception of intimacy.” As they shared their personal stories, Leidig pointed to instances where influencers’ extreme views filtered in and became part of the community experience. “The messaging [is] to sell both a lifestyle and an ideology in order to build a fundamental in-group identity,” she said, which, in turn, ends up “legitimizing and normalizing… their political ideology.”

The reality that many factors shape beliefs, identity, community, and a sense of belonging means that unwinding false rumors, misconceptions, and lies—indeed, changing minds—is more complicated than merely presenting facts, said Cristina López G., a senior analyst at Graphika, which maps social media, during her talk on the dynamics of rabid online fandom at the 2023 Trust and Safety Research Conference.

López G. studied how some of Taylor Swift’s online fans harassed and abused other fans over the superstar’s purported sexuality—whether she was “secretly queer.” The “Gaylors,” who believed Swift was gay or bisexual, shared “tips about how to preserve their anonymity online,” López G. said. They anonymously harassed others. They used coded language. They censored others. Their mob-like dynamics and behavior are not that different from what can be seen on pro-Trump platforms that attacked RINOs—the pejorative for “Republicans in Name Only”—or anyone else outside their sect.

“Fandoms are really microcosms of the internet,” López G. said. “Their members are driven by the same thing as every internet user, which is just establish their dominance, and safeguard their community beliefs, and beliefs become really closely tied to who they are online… who they identify as online.”

In other words, changing minds is neither easy nor quick, and, in many circles, not welcomed.

“What this means is that real-world events do very little to change this belief,” López G. concluded, adding this observation also applied to political circles. “If you change beliefs, you’re no longer part of that community… So, it’s not really, ‘what’s real?’ and ‘what’s not?’ It’s really the friends we’ve made along the way.”

“Once you begin to see this phenomenon through that lens [where disinformation is participatory and tribal], you realize it’s everywhere,” Starbird said.

‘Counter-influencers’

At the Aspen Cyber Summit, the elections panel offered a sober view of the strategies undertaken during the Trump era, and challenges facing election defenders in and outside of government in 2024.

To date, the response essentially has been twofold. As Chris Krebs explained, “Information warfare has two pillars. One is information technical; the other is information psychological.” Krebs ran CISA—the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency—during the Trump administration. He was fired after 2020 Election Day for retweeting that the election was “the most secure in American history.” As he told the audience, “It was also the most litigated election. The most scrutinized election. The most audited election. I could go on…”

On the “information technical” side, Krebs said that officials have learned to protect election computers and data. There was no indication that anyone manipulated any jurisdictions’ computers in recent cycles. But that achievement mostly took place inside government offices and behind closed doors. It has not been fully appreciated by voters, especially by partisans who do not believe that their side lost.

Instead, what many disappointed voters have seen of election operations has preyed on their insecurities—such as Starbird’s Sharpiegate example. In other words, the technical successes have been offset by what Krebs called “information psychological.” The strategy to respond to this dynamic, he and others said, is to curtail propaganda’s rapid spread on both fronts.

Some of that challenge remains technical, such as having contacts in online platforms who can flag or remove bogus content, they said. But the most potentially impactful response, at least with interrupting propaganda’s viral dynamics, hinges on cultivating what Leidig called “counter-influencers,” and what election officials call “trusted voices.” These voices are credible people inside communities, online or otherwise, who will say “not so fast,” defend the democratic process, and hopefully be heard before passionate reactions trample facts or run amok.

“All the tools we need to instill confidence in our elections exist,” Benson said at the summit. “We just have to get them—not just in the hands of trusted voices, but then communicate effectively to the people who need to hear them.”

But Benson, whose hopes echo those heard from election officials across the country, was putting on a brave face. She soon told the audience that reining in runaway rumors was not easy—and said officials needed help.

“We need assistance in developing trusted voices,” Benson said. “Second, we need assistance, particularly from tech companies in both identifying false information and removing it. We know we’re farther away from that than we have ever been in the evolution of social media over the last several years. But at the same time, where artificial intelligence is going to be used to exponentially increase both the impact and reach of misinformation, we need partners in the tech industry to help us minimize the impact and rapidly mitigate any harm.”

Still, she pointed to some progress. Michigan’s legislature, like a handful of states, recently passed laws requiring disclosure of any AI-created content in election communications. It has criminalized using deep fake imagery or forged voices. Congress, in contrast, has yet to act—and probably won’t do so before 2024. The White House recently issued executive orders that impose restrictions on AI’s use. While the large platforms will likely comply with labeling and other requirements, 2024’s torrid political campaigns are likely to be less restrained.

And so, Benson and others have tried to be as concrete as possible in naming plausible threats. In November, she told the U.S. Senate’s AI Caucus they should “expect” AI to be used “to divide, deceive, and demobilize voters throughout our country over the next year.” Those scenarios included creating false non-English messages for minority voters, automating the harassment of election officials, and generating error-ridden analyses to purge voters.

But countering propaganda remains a steep climb. Even before AI’s arrival, the nuts and bolts of elections were an ideal target because the public has little idea of how elections are run—there is little prior knowledge to reject made-up claims and discern the truth. Moreover, political passions peak in presidential years, and every election cycle has a handful of errors by workers who set up the devices that check in voters, cast votes, and count ballots. This November’s election was no exception, according to this tally of administrative errors by ElectionLine.org. After Trump’s 2020 loss, operational mistakes like these—which caused some votes to be incorrectly counted before the error was found and corrected—were misinterpreted, mischaracterized, and became fodder for his stolen election tropes. Much the same scripts surfaced after this fall’s snafus.

As crisis informatics researchers like Starbird have confirmed, doubt is more easily provoked than trust. Nor do labels and fact-checking alone change minds. At the cyber summit, Raffi Krikorian, the CTO at the Emerson Collective, a charitable foundation—who held that role for the Democratic National Committee during the last presidential election—made the same point.

“Our election system, in a lot of ways, is built on trust—like we trust a lot of the portions of the mechanics will work together,” he said. “There’s a lot of humans involved. It’s not necessarily all codified. And so, [if there is] any break in the system, it’s really easy to lose trust in the entire system.”

Krikorian, who hosts the Collective’s “Technically Optimistic” podcast, was worried about 2024. Turning to Benson, he said that his research about “where people [in Michigan] are actually getting their information,” shows that it is increasingly from smaller and more obscure online platforms. Others at the summit noted that people were turning to encrypted channels like WhatsApp for political information. In other words, the propaganda pathways appear to be shifting.

“We’re actually, in some ways, spending our time maybe in the wrong places,” Krikorian said. “We need to be spending our time on these other smaller and up-and-coming platforms, that also don’t have the staff, don’t have the energy, don’t have the people and the resources needed in order to make sure that they’re secure in the process.”

Nonetheless, the remedy that Benson kept returning to was locally trusted voices. For example, her office has stationed observers within 5 miles of every voting site to investigate any problem or claim. She said that she has been engaging “faith leaders, sports leaders, business leaders, and community leaders about the truth about how to participate and how to trust our elections.”

“AI is a new technology, but the solution is an old one—it’s about developing trusted voices that people can turn to get accurate information,” Benson said. “All of this, everything we’re talking about, is about deceiving people, deceiving voters who then act on that deception.”

But rumors, misperceptions, mischaracterizations, deceptions, lies, and violence in politics are as old as America itself, as political historians like Heather Cox Richardson have noted. There is no simple or single solution, said Starbird. Nonetheless, she ended her Stanford address with a “call to action” urging everyone to redouble their efforts in 2024.

“We’re not going to solve the problem with misinformation, disinformation, manipulation… with one new label, or a new educational initiative, or a new research program,” she told trust and safety researchers. “It’s going to have to be all of the above… It’s going to be all these different things coming at it from different directions.”

Click here to read the article on LA Progressive.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, The Washington Monthly, and many others.

Photo Credit: Phil Roeder / Flickr