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Marketplace flagged over 800 social media posts with COVID-19 misinformation. Only a fraction were removed

The world’s social media giants promised to crack down on harmful COVID-19 misinformation that has proliferated since the pandemic began, but a CBC Marketplace investigation found that when problematic posts were flagged, most weren’t labelled or removed. 

Marketplace producers, between Feb. 3 and Feb. 16, combed through Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter — using the user tool to flag and report more than 800 posts that breach each company’s policies that cover, among other things, posting misinformation.

The result: 12 per cent of the posts were labelled with warnings or taken down entirely. That number jumped to 53 per cent per cent only after Marketplace journalists identified themselves and shared the findings directly with the companies.

WATCH | Full Marketplace report on COVID-19 misinformation:

Inside one of the world’s most dangerous Covid-19 conspiracy movements; Canada’s food labels fail to disclose added sugar content which makes some packaged foods appear healthier than they are. 22:30

“Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram have become the primary superspreaders of misinformation in our world,” said Imran Ahmed, founder of the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), a non-profit based out of Washington, D.C., which Marketplace collaborated with on this project. “That is a shocking failure to act on misinformation that was handed to them on a silver platter.”

This post, presented as a study, claims ‘masks provide no benefit’ and ‘vaccines are inherently dangerous.’ It was one of the few posts that was taken down shortly after Marketplace reported it. (CBC)

Of the 832 posts Marketplace flagged, 391 came from Facebook, 166 from Instagram, 173 from Twitter and 102 from YouTube. The posts had a combined 1.5 million likes and 120,000 comments and covered a range of COVID-19-related topics, but generally circled back to a few central themes: vaccines are dangerous, COVID-19 isn’t and don’t trust authorities. 

Partly fuelled by social media, partly fuelled by the COVID-19 conspiracy movement’s effective persuasion tactics, misinformation has contributed to anti-lockdown sentiment, COVID-19 denial and vaccine hesitancy, said Ahmed.

Ahmed says companies such as Facebook are motivated to keep users sharing more content, not less. The more you scroll and the more users consume, the more these companies make from advertisements, which is where most of their revenue is generated, he said.

Imran Ahmed, the founder of the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, says social media companies have become the primary superspreaders of misinformation online. (Jason Burles/CBC)

‘Incredibly dangerous’

Marketplace was interested in seeing if the social media giants had made improvements since a 2020 CCDH study, which found the companies only acted on five per cent of misinformation it reported. The CCDH cross-referenced and analyzed CBC’s data to ensure problem posts did breach company policies for FacebookInstagram, YouTube and Twitter.

Facebook, which owns Instagram, took action on about 18 per cent of the posts flagged on both platforms. That number jumped to about 67 per cent after Marketplace shared its findings. 

One of the posts that is still up on Facebook weeks later shows a picture of Bill Gates with the headline: “New vaccine causes sterility in 97% of women!” There is no evidence that links coronavirus vaccines to sterility.

As of March 29, this post remains on Facebook, even though Marketplace reported it and subsequently shared the findings with the company. (CBC)

Another post shows a homeopathic product, which purportedly “enhanced immunity” against COVID-19 and promised “reduced frequency and shorter duration of symptoms.” It sells for $ 49.99 US.

There are no homeopathic remedies that can cure or alleviate COVID-19 symptoms.

“Completely ridiculous and a little bit infuriating,” Timothy Caulfield, a health law and policy expert at the University of Alberta, said after he was shown the post. “Homeopathic is an easy one because it’s completely scientifically implausible. That one is so clearly wrong and harmful it should be taken down immediately.”

This homeopathic remedy, which purports to prevent COVID-19 symptoms, was flagged but remains on Facebook. There are no homeopathic remedies that can cure COVID-19. (CBC)

Caulfield says self-reporting tools on social media must lead to action otherwise people will stop using them, but understands the difficulty of monitoring platforms that have billions of users.

“The numbers of messages that have to be evaluated are just huge so I think that is one of the great challenges of social media: how can you meaningfully monitor all of these posts, but we know we need to,” said Caulfield. “The challenge is there but the harm is real.”

Over the course of Marketplace‘s test, Facebook did take down a number of prominent accounts on its platforms, including Robert Kennedy Jr.’s Instagram account, which had close to a million followers — the result of a new policy in February that outright prohibited the posting of any anti-vaccination or COVID misinformation. RFK Jr.’s Facebook account, and the Facebook and Instagram accounts of his group, Children’s Health Defense — with a combined following of close to 700,000 — are still up.

The company disputed that some of the posts Marketplace flagged violated its protocols, and said in an emailed statement that it had “removed millions of pieces of content on Facebook and Instagram that violate our COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation policies — including two million since February alone.”

YouTube, Twitter performed worst

Of the four platforms Marketplace tested, Twitter and YouTube took the least action.

Twitter initially left up all but two of the 173 posts Marketplace reported — including one by a prominent anti-vaccination leader that called the COVID-19 vaccine a “military-grade, deadly bio-weapon.” The post yielded more than 2,100 likes and 1,400 retweets. 

This Twitter post claims the COVID-19 vaccine is a ‘military-grade, deadly bio-weapon.’ Marketplace reported it but it still remained online as of March 28. (CBC)

While Twitter has since removed 18 per cent of the posts Marketplace reported, the company would not say why it initially left up the majority of flagged posts and said it doesn’t “directly comment on third-party studies.” It pointed to its updated policies, which include a five-strike system for users that would lead to an account deletion.

YouTube didn’t take down any of the flagged videos until Marketplace shared its findings. After that, it took down 34 per cent of the reported videos.

But many still remain — including one from a known conspiracist telling his audience that people are sending him information “telling me causes of [COVID] death have been altered.” He said he is also receiving information about, “hospitals that are completely dead, nothing happening in there,” referencing a viral trend early in the pandemic where people would record videos of empty hospitals to try to back up their claims that COVID-19 wasn’t real.

The video has over 700,000 views.

This video showing a prominent conspiracist talking about COVID-19-related deaths being altered is still up online, despite Marketplace reporting the video. (CBC)

YouTube said in a statement that only some of the videos Marketplace reported violated its policies, and said that since February 2020, it had “removed more than 800,000 videos for violations of our COVID-19 misinformation policies.”

Ahmed says CBC’s results suggest YouTube, Twitter and Facebook may not be paying as close attention to misinformation until news organizations or legislators put them under the microscope. 

“What’s really great about this study is that this tells us what they’re doing when they think no one is watching.”

  • Watch full episodes of Marketplace on CBC Gem, the CBC’s streaming service.

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CBC | Health News

Environment a chief suspect in mystery neurological disease found only in N.B.

Doctors in New Brunswick are being told to be on the lookout for symptoms of an unknown neurological disease that appears to be a new condition found only in the province and is believed to be linked to environmental causes.

At a public health update on COVID-19 Thursday, Dr. Jennifer Russell, the province’s chief medical officer of health fielded a number of questions about the mystery disease that was originally identified in the province in 2015.

In an internal memo obtained by Radio-Canada, sent on March 5 by the office of the chief medical officer of health to the New Brunswick Medical Society and to associations of doctors and nurses, the department highlighted a cluster of 42 cases of a progressive neurological syndrome of unknown origin.

Symptoms similar to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease

The disease has symptoms similar to those of the rare and fatal Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, but “testing so far has ruled out known prion diseases,” the memo stated.

The first case of the disease was diagnosed in 2015, according to the memo. Three years later, in 2019, 11 additional cases were discovered, with 24 more cases discovered in 2020 and another six in 2021. Five people have died.

The symptoms are similar to those of prion diseases, which include Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and some of its variants, including mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

However, despite many similarities, tests for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease have so far ruled out known prion diseases, the March 5 public health memo states.

Scientists are currently looking into the possibility that this is a new variant of a prion disease — or a new disease entirely.

On Thursday, Russell confirmed it is “most likely a new disease,” and noted “we haven’t seen this anywhere else” in Canada.

The cases have been reported to Health Canada’s Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease surveillance system, which determined that the rising number of cases should now be considered a cluster, Russell said.

At that point, she said, the March 5 memo was sent out to the province’s health-care professionals.

Moncton neurologist Dr. Alier Marrero said the leading hypothesis so far is that the disease is caused by something environmental. (Tori Weldon/CBC)

Doctors suspect environmental link

According to preliminary data from a research group on the subject, headed by neurologist Alier Marrero of Moncton’s Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre, the disease is not genetic.

“We don’t know yet where this is coming from,” but the leading hypothesis so far is that it’s environmental, Marrero said in an interview with CBC News on Thursday.

“We believe it is acquired from exposure to something in the environment … either food, water … toxins.”

Over the course of the six years since the disease first appeared in New Brunswick in 2015, case numbers have grown steadily and “clustered” in the Moncton and Acadian Peninsula areas of the province. 

“We have seen clustering of cases in some areas and we don’t know why,” Marrero said. 

According to the Public Health memo, the median age of the cases is 59 years, although female cases tend to be younger, with an average age of 54. Cases are distributed equally among men and women, the memo said. 

The symptoms of the disease are typically not very specific in the initial stages.

“It’s usually behavioural changes … for instance, an excess of anxiety, a little bit of irritability, unexplained pains in the limbs, muscle spasms, insomnia,” Marrero said.

As the disease progresses over a course of 18 to 36 months, loss of balance and co-ordination have been observed, and “sometimes patients have abnormal and rapidly progressing brain atrophy.”

No public health threat

However, Marrero and Russell both stopped short of calling the cases a public health threat. 

“Fear is usually bad advice because it will paralyze us,” Marrero said. “We are working very hard to figure this out, so we can stop it, so we can treat it.”

He advised that if anyone suspects they have symptoms of the disease, they should report them to their doctor, who will then refer them to the clinic.  

Symptoms that might appear to be related to the disease could actually be caused by another condition, he said. 

“For instance the patient could have multiple sclerosis, they could have Alzheimer’s disease … or some other condition that could be known and treated. So it’s important that they get referred and evaluated.”

Russell agreed.

“Right now, it’s just about awareness, making sure that physicians are watching for neurological symptoms like this so they can refer them to be assessed,” she said.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us in terms of trying to determine the cause.”   

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Canada and New Zealand both have hot housing markets, but only 1 has plan to cool things down

The idea that Canadian residential real estate prices are rising at an unsustainable pace is no longer just a subject for Twitter rants and COVID-era chats with family. The international media are paying attention.

The New York Times described “a soon-to-burst real estate bubble.” Reuters declared “Canada’s red-hot housing market has become a bonfire.”

But while many Canadians worry, the government of New Zealand — a country often likened to Canada for its soaring home prices — is attempting a solution by making it harder to get a mortgage. There’s little doubt Bank of Canada officials are keeping a close eye on the New Zealand experience. There are some here who say we should follow suit.

Asked directly at his most recent news conference last month whether Canada would adopt the New Zealand plan, Bank of Canada governor Tiff Macklem appeared dismissive, implying getting the economy back on track after the pandemic recession was more important.

Economy needs growth

“Do we need measures right now with respect to housing?” said Macklem. “Right now, the economy is weak, we’re just out of the second wave. I think we need the support — we need the growth we can get.”

Just before that news conference, Macklem had told an Alberta audience there were “early signs” of overheating in the residential property market as some people seemed to be buying based on the assumption prices would continue to rise. However, much of the pressure was also due to people looking for more space during COVID-19 lockdown measures, he said.

Monday’s latest data from the Canadian Real Estate Association will offer a fresh reading on whether the property boom is slowing.

Later today, the Bank of Canada is expected to announce it is holding interest rates steady at record lows, something critics here and in New Zealand say has helped inflame house prices, and not just in big cities. With signs the global economy is heating up, those concerns may intensify.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern received global kudos for trouncing the spread of COVID-19. Now, the country is trying to avoid the possibility of a property meltdown. (Praveen Menon/Reuters)

It is the fear of speculative investment in housing — based on high demand, low rates and rising prices — that has prompted action from the New Zealand government and the Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ), the Kiwi equivalent of the Bank of Canada.

After COVID-19, “the availability of affordable housing — that was the No. 2 issue identified as being most important,” national pollster Emanuel Kalafatelis told Radio New Zealand last weekend.

But, for the central bank, a more important concern is the effect on the entire economy if house prices are allowed to continue to soar only to come crashing down once interest rates begin to rise.

“We are now concerned about the risk a sharp correction in the housing market poses for financial stability,” RBNZ deputy governor Geoff Bascand said last month. “There is evidence of a speculative dynamic emerging with many buyers becoming highly leveraged.”

Fear of property ‘fire sales’

In an attempt to prevent a speculative bubble from growing, the RBNZ raised the minimum required for mortgage down payments on March 1, and will raise them again on May 1, including even stricter borrowing requirements for investors.

“A growing number of highly indebted borrowers, especially investors, are now financially vulnerable to house price corrections and disruptions to their ability to service the debt,” said Bascand, who is also in charge of financial stability at the central bank. “Highly leveraged property owners, in particular investors, are more prone to rapid ‘fire sales’ that potentially amplify any downturn.”

As of May, most buyers who plan to live in their home will be required to provide a down payment of 20 per cent. Investors will need to put down 40 per cent.

WATCH | Rising demand for single-family homes during pandemic: 

New numbers for Vancouver-area real estate highlight a trend seen in cities across Canada: an increased demand especially for single-family homes. The conditions created by the pandemic have persuaded some families to redirect their spending toward housing. 1:58

Jordan Dupuis, a New Zealander who came to Canada to complete a master’s degree in political science and stayed here to work, sees many parallels between the two countries, including prohibitive prices for young people who don’t already have a stake in the real estate market. Unlike Canada, New Zealand banned most foreigners from buying in its housing market back in 2018.

Dupuis, who lives in Toronto, said housing affordability seems to have become more of an issue in New Zealand. However, there’s a similar large “gap between average incomes and the average house price,” he said. Here in Canada, Dupuis used to own a house but sold it in favour of renting.

“The prospect for getting back into the market is very difficult right now,” he said.

No easy fix

Garth Turner, a business journalist, financial adviser and former federal cabinet minister who has long been critical of Canada’s heated housing market, says he believes this country will eventually be forced to follow New Zealand’s lead.

“We’re going to have to do something about this because the average family can no longer afford the average house, not just in Toronto and Vancouver, but in Owen Sound and Squamish and Halifax,” said Turner, author of a book and blog titled Greater Fool: The Troubled Future of Real Estate, where he warns about a potential sharp decline in real estate prices.

So far, the great property crash has not happened in Canada, but Turner says with prices and borrowing climbing ever higher, an eventual rise in rates could have the kind of effect the RBNZ is worried about in New Zealand.

“This is a ticking time bomb in Canadian society right now,” Turner said in an interview.

One of the problems with the New Zealand plan is that while it may act to calm the soaring market, higher down payments are one more barrier making it difficult for young buyers to get a home of their own.

As Jordan Dupuis observed, whether in New Zealand or in Canada, putting a lid on home prices when interest rates are so low, when everyone wants a little more space and people with money are willing to bid prices up, is not a trivial task.

“If it had an easy fix, we would have fixed it by now,” he said.

Follow Don Pittis on Twitter @don_pittis

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The PlayStation 5 DualSense’s Joystick Drift Is Only Going to Get Worse

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It looks like the reports of PlayStation 5 controller drift are real and the problem isn’t going away. According to a new analysis of the DualSense, the problem is fundamental to the design of the joystick itself. Worse, it’s not even unique. Apparently, all controllers built these days suffer from the same flaws.

iFixit recently tore down the DualSense controller to analyze what might be going wrong with the failed units. We’re seeing growing reports of PlayStation 5 controllers exhibiting drift immediately after unboxing. Drift is a phenomenon where the controller constantly moves in a single direction, absent any player input commanding it to do so. The effects of drift on gameplay depend on the title and the severity of the problem. In some cases, you may be able to compensate by setting a larger dead zone.

Drift has been an item of conversation since the Nintendo Switch’s JoyCons began having problems of their own. After consumer outcry and media attention, Nintendo created its own JoyCon repair program. It has not, however, created a new version of the console that doesn’t suffer from this issue. This is one potential reason to avoid the Switch Lite. Its integrated controllers are susceptible to the same failures, only you can’t swap a bad controller out for a good one.

What’s Wrong With the PlayStation 5 DualSense?

According to iFixit, Sony is using some very standard hardware inside the DualSense.

[B]rand name notwithstanding, this joystick module looks extremely familiar. You may already recognize it from the prior-gen PlayStation’s controller, the DualShock 4. Or from the Xbox One controllers. Maybe the Nintendo Switch Pro controller. Or, somewhat confusingly, the $ 180 Xbox One Elite controller. Underneath that plastic cap, the dirty secret is that they all use the same joystick hardware.

The analysis then steps through an explanation of what a potentiometer is and how controllers use them to translate joystick motions into on-screen movement. Sony gets very low marks for how difficult it is to detach the potentiometer from the circuit board; anyone wishing to repair the controllers will need to deal with 16 solder joints and two wires.

PlayStation 5 potentiometer. Image by iFixit.

iFixit does a good job explaining why all potentiometers eventually fail (it boils down to wear and tear). The closest the article comes to an explanation for why the PS5 might be failing is a link to an Alps RKJXV ThumbPointer joystick assembly. This product, which is apparently used in a wide range of joysticks, is rated for 2,000,000 “directional operations.” According to iFixit, players can start hitting that limit within 4-7 months if they play just two hours per day.

If you’re wondering how Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony can use the same hardware with only Nintendo and Sony suffering drift, we’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that you have an eye for asking the right questions. The bad news is that Microsoft may indeed have the same problem.

Microsoft is actively attempting to prevent customers from having their case heard in court. It wants the judge to instead compel its users into private arbitration, where a much higher percentage of decisions tend to be in favor of corporations and individuals would be forced to deal with the company individually. There’s a counter-argument in play that the license terms for Xbox Live make no mention of controllers. Nevertheless, all three console manufacturers have been sued for this issue.

The JoyCon, Xbox, and PlayStation 5 controller issues all stem from the same hardware. Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony are prioritizing cost over reliability. Each manufacturer uses components that are not rated for the amount of time gamers will actually play over multi-year periods, especially if more than one person in the household games. The PlayStation 5’s problem is apparently not unique, and absent some design alterations, it isn’t going away. If they aren’t going to fix it, the three companies ought to at least make the problem easier to repair.

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The only way to control tech giants like Facebook may be for governments to gang up

It used to be that the most influential media companies in Canada had to keep at least one eye on the Canadian public interest whether they wanted to or not.

Broadcasters are regulated through the Broadcasting Act, and while newspapers face less oversight, a restriction on foreign ownership means there is always the potential that a determined Canadian government could do something, like change tax rules, that could nudge them into line.

But now, as internet mega companies including Facebook and Google have taken over much of the ad revenue and eyeballs that mainstream media used to enjoy, there have been only nascent efforts to make them answer to the public interest. 

This week, as Australia considered laws to make them pay for news, the new communications giants have demonstrated they can thumb their noses at mere national governments.

But with a growing sense around the world, including Canada, that Facebook, Google and the like have grown too big and powerful, there are those who say an international effort is necessary to take on the titans of tech.

Facebook’s warning shot to Australia

So far, Australia’s tactic doesn’t seem to be working as planned — although Canada is now vowing to follow their lead and make Facebook pay for news content.

Following a proposal by Australia to force the technology giants to pay for Australian news stories, stories that the tech companies distribute and use to earn their own profits, Facebook has fired a warning shot across the bow of the country’s Parliament.

“They’ve created chaos, and it’s quite deliberate,” Daniel Angus, a professor in digital communication at Queensland University of Technology told Bloomberg news.

Facebook not only offered a flat no, but effectively ejected Australian news stories from its site both down under and worldwide, preventing users from viewing them.

The company even removed access to things like government health notices and weather information, something they later said was a mistake.

Google, however, has entered negotiations with News Corp in a way that signalled a possible accommodation with the new rules. News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch, a conservative, has been one of the titans’ biggest critics, in 2019 joining an unlikely pact with U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, a progressive Democrat, to weaken Google’s power.

Thursday, Canada’s Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said Canada may adopt the Australian model, or follow the lead of other countries trying to get tech giants to pay for content.

After his start in Australia, Rupert Murdoch has become a global media mogul and a strong critic of the power of the internet giants that profit from the news his companies produce. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Calls for regulation

Besides the complaint that the companies like Facebook and Google are earning their profits at the expense of the struggling news industry that is so crucial to the democratic system, there have been many other reasons for demanding greater regulation.

In the U.S., the calls grew louder after Russian interference in the 2016 election of Donald Trump, along with data mining and privacy scandals. 

Many object to the uncontrolled misinformation campaigns tech giants seem unable to manage, increasingly harmful conspiracy theories — including the false narratives about the 2020 U.S. election.

Others complain they are simply too big, able to avoid taxes and acting as monopolies in areas such as search and personal communication.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, speaking at a company conference in 2015. Facebook has increasingly come under scrutiny from regulators who consider it too powerful, but efforts to regulate haven’t done much. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

So far, attempts by large international organizations to convince the tech giants to play nice have been weak or ineffective.

There are international bodies, including the United Nations Global Compact, to set standards and to encourage “business as a force for good” but participation is voluntary and Christina Koulias Senior Manager, Global Governance said in an email that Facebook is not a participant.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has a policy on Corporate Social Responsibility. But an ambitious plan by the OECD to coordinate global tax policy that I wrote about back in 2014 has yet to bear fruit for a series of reasons, most recently, say those in the know, due to a brush-off from the Trump administration.

In fact, according to Canada’s own Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), based in Waterloo, Ont., the faceoff between Facebook and Australia illustrates a gap that needs to be filled. And they have a proposal for how to do it.

Tech giants make the rules and the profits

In the case of Facebook, the company claims the Australian rules don’t fit its business model, since it would be forced to pay up when third parties post newspaper articles.

“The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content,” Facebook regional managing director William Easton told the Associated Press.

But CIGI’s managing director of digital economy, Bob Fay, said the problem is that corporations know they can set rules to maximize profits without thinking about the interests of other players, including governments.

“We have these very large, very powerful, global companies that set their own rules, based on what’s best for their own business model,” said Fay.

“We’ve seen very recent examples of where these companies, based on their business models have created substantive harm.”

As well as the new Australian conflict that interfered with people’s health and well-being, Fay specifically cites the use of social media to incite violent and anti-government action in the U.S. — culminating in the invasion of Congress.

There is currently no global forum to regulate cross-border digital giants but Canada’s CIGI wants to create one, says Bob Fay, managing director of digital economy. (Submitted by Bob Fay)

The digital giants are influential in individual countries like Canada and Australia, but in many places they have virtually no physical presence. That makes them hard to influence back.

And while international treaties on standardization or international trade agreements exist, the phenomenon of internet tech giants that cross national boundaries is so new and changing so rapidly, that national governments simply were not prepared.

“There really is no global forum [where] countries come together on these types of issues,” said Fay.

That’s why CIGI has proposed something it calls the Digital Stability Board an international body, with decision making powers, to constantly monitor and regulate global digital platforms in real time as they transform.

The name and model come from the Financial Stability Board, which has a mandate from the G20 to “promote the reform of international financial regulation and supervision,” Fay writes.

The CIGI proposal is not an instant solution for the current problem in Australia. Constituting the body and getting everyone to participate will take time.

But now that Trump, who disliked international co-operation, has been replaced by President Joe Biden, and now that the world has seen how willing Facebook has been to use its power, Fay hopes governments will be spurred into action.

“There are enormous benefits that come from these platforms, but the harms have become increasingly obvious, and they touch every aspect of our lives,” said Fay. “Governments need to take action.”

Follow Don Pittis on Twitter @don_pittis

CBC / Radio-Canada has business partnerships with Facebook for content distribution, and with Google for services that encompass mobile distribution, data storage and communication tools.i

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Sports in 2020: Disruptions aplenty, only constant was loss

2020 reminded us that the show mustn’t always go on. Disrupted by the coronavirus, sports stopped cold three months in and then started up again in emptied-out stadiums, stumbling, skidding and finally staggering across the finish line — all the while shadowed by loss.

Celebrations were muted, crowd noise was piped-in and dozens of games were cancelled at the last minute even as the sports industry hemorrhaged jobs. Facing increasingly long odds, some mega-events — the Olympics, March Madness, the Boston Marathon and Wimbledon — pushed the starting line into 2021. Those were hardly the only dislocations.

A staff member sprays disinfectant after the final patients were discharged at a temporary hospital set up to treat people with the COVID-19 coronavirus in a sports stadium in Wuhan, China in March. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash in late January, and the toll of beloved figures we mourned kept mounting — Diego Maradona, Don Shula, John Thompson and Bob Gibson, among others — until Phil Niekro passed away two days after Christmas. But those moments of unity lasted only so long. Straining under the combined weight of a pandemic and a nationwide reckoning on race, the last few bricks in the wall between sports and politics crumbled and fans and athletes quickly chose sides — take Naomi Osaka, for one, who used her U.S. Open-winning run to speak out on racial injustice.

Time will tell what was won or lost by playing on. Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse experienced both, but wasn’t sure which memories would prove lasting. Easier to settle was what he missed most: everything that goes on around the games themselves.

WATCH | 2020 showed that the sports world is greater than the sum of its parts:

Athletes around the world raised a collective voice in an unprecedented show of power. 5:03

“The `electricity’ in the streets on game day, the tremendous buzz in the city,” said Nurse, who won NBA coach of the year honours, but saw his team’s chances to repeat as champions squashed by the Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Technically that was a “home” game, but it was played in the nearly-empty NBA “bubble.”

“We certainly missed that [energy],” he added.

Sports world ‘plows through’

Stretched between public health concerns and a worsening economy, leagues and teams scrambled to innovate and return to play. With access to robust COVID-19 testing and deeper pockets than most businesses, some sports gathered players in isolated spots — like the NBA’s use of a sports complex at Walt Disney World in Florida — while others attempted to restore some semblance of home-and-away normalcy.

It worked for nearly all of them, but just barely. The Denver Broncos ran out of healthy quarterbacks at one point in the NFL season and the San Francisco 49ers called Arizona home as the coronavirus surged in California late in the season. Preparations to rush back college football and basketball games were so inconsistent from one program to the next, the schedules might as well have been written in invisible ink.

“We’re just plowing through this,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski griped in early December.

“I know the NCAA is worried about the endgame,” he added, referring to plans for the lucrative 2021 NCAA tournament. “They’re not as worried about the game we’re playing right now.”

Germany’s Bundesliga took advantage of their countrymen’s successful effort early in the pandemic and became the first big leaguers on either side of the Atlantic back on the pitch. Even less surprising, its perennial champion, Bayern Munich, beat PSG in the Champions League final, claiming the first major team sports title of the COVID-19 era.

WATCH | From refugee camp to international soccer stardom:

Canada’s breakout soccer star, 19-year-old Alphonso Davies, is now the first member of Canada’s national team to play for — and win — the coveted Champions League as a member of the victorious German team Bayern Munich. Davies, born in a refugee camp in Ghana, has become an inspiration to a new generation of Canadian soccer fans. 2:02

“It was a difficult situation, playing without fans, without atmosphere in the stadium,” said Bayern scoring ace Robert Lewandowski.

“It wasn’t just the specific nature of football. It was also in our private life. This was something new,” he added. “We didn’t want it, nobody did.”

Bayern players celebrated afterward like a team that won a rec league championship, not one of soccer’s grandest trophies. Whatever joy they felt — relief might be more accurate — was tempered knowing the 2020-21 season would kick off barely two weeks later.

Reading the room

Of course, not every champion or their fans celebrated that responsibly. After Liverpool ended a 30-year drought with an English Premier League title in June, some 2,000 fans gathered outside Anfield stadium and set off enough flares to turn the night sky red. Police made no attempt to disperse the crowd.

“It was mostly good-natured,” explained constable Rob Carden. He heaped even more praise on the “overwhelming majority of fans that recognized now is not the time to gather together to celebrate and chose to mark the event safely.”

Try telling that to Los Angeles Dodgers’ slugger Justin Turner. Pulled during the deciding game of the World Series because of a positive COVID-19 result, Turner ran back out on the field for the after-party, hugging teammates and posing for photos without a mask on.

WATCH | Justin Turner celebrates with teammates:

Justin Turner was removed from the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 3-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays after registering Major League Baseball’s first positive test in 59 days, but he returned to join the celebrations about an hour after the game. 2:16

He subsequently apologized, but defended his “mindset” in that moment: “Winning the World Series was my lifelong dream and the culmination of everything I worked for in my career.”

Now imagine just-as-hungry and even-younger athletes winning one of the more than 300 gold medals handed out, which is one reason why the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee took a pass on 2020. It marked the first time the Games, sports’ biggest global event, had been postponed or cancelled for something other than war.

“It’s a bummer,” said teenage Swedish pole vault world record-holder Armand Duplantis. “But you have to understand the situation, understand that some things are a little bigger than sport.”

LeBron James said as much moments after he and the Los Angeles Lakers wrapped their hands around the NBA championship trophy. James was one of the principals in a growing movement that saw athletes loudly and visibly pushing for social justice reforms like never before. He considered leaving the NBA bubble when the Milwaukee Bucks nearly shut down all of sports again in August by refusing to play a scheduled game after Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, was shot in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

WATCH| Milwaukee Bucks players make joint statement after boycotting Game 5 against Orlando:

After becoming the first team to boycott games in the NBA bubble, the Milwaukee Bucks players made a joint statement to the media. 1:54

“We know we all want to see better days,” James said. “When we leave here, we got to continue to push that. Continue to push [against] everything that’s the opposite of love.”

If only for a moment, the pandemic receded into the background.

“If we can continue to do that, all of us,” James concluded, “would be a much better place.”

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Rather than attack the real problem, sports organizers have only aimed to limit COVID-19 risk

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Let’s start with two observations we can now consider truth about sports in the COVID-19 era.

First, half-measures don’t work. If you’re not screening participants daily, then quarantining them from the outside world, the way the NHL and NBA did with their respective bubbles, and the way big-time fight promoters have in Las Vegas and Abu Dhabi, you’re leaving openings the virus can, and will, exploit. That’s why COVID-19 didn’t permeate the NBA’s secure campus in Orlando, and why the virus forced the cancellation or postponement of more than a dozen NCAA football games last weekend alone.

Second, the sports world won’t return to whatever normal is going to be until a safe, effective vaccine reaches a broad cross-section of the population. Teams need to sell tickets to boost revenues, but you can’t build an NBA-style bubble around a sold-out stadium. If you want a standing-room-only crowd and the kind of full-throated cheering that accompanies high-stakes games, you have to be sure spectators who arrive healthy won’t leave with a potentially deadly virus.

That’s why recent news from big pharma should have sports fans excited in North America and beyond.

Late last week, drug maker Pfizer announced early data indicated that their COVID-19 vaccine was 90 per cent effective. On Monday, Moderna issued a news release saying their new vaccine prevented COVID-19 in 94.5 per cent of participants in a preliminary trial. News like that could make you envision a return to everything we’ve missed since the COVID-19 pandemic upended the sports industry last winter – full schedules, packed stadiums, in-person meet-and-greets with your favourite athletes.

But a pair of news releases from drug firms competing for market share aren’t enough to bring pro sports back to normal. And if you think we’re all just a needle away from packing Jurassic Park to watch the Raptors in the NBA playoffs, you should temper your optimism with patience.

Sports fandom should, after all, teach us the pitfalls of extrapolating from limited data. If my favourite baseball player goes 3-for-4 on Opening Day, I know better than to think he’ll hit .750 for the season.

WATCH | Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine tests show promising results:

 A COVID-19 vaccine from biotech company Moderna has shown promising early results, appearing to be 94.5 per cent effective, and the company says that it may apply for emergency use in the U.S. within weeks. 3:24

Experts better-positioned than I am will tell you that the early reports, while encouraging, don’t give definitive answers on how these two vaccines will stand up to further trials, or, assuming they’re broadly effective, how to store and distribute the drugs for maximum impact.

But if everything unfolds the way we hope, with regulatory approval pending and broader availability a few months into 2021, we might see something resembling a normal Olympic Games in Tokyo next summer. International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach certainly sees the promise in soon-to-hit-the-market COVID-19 vaccines, and says immunization will likely become a requirement for athletes and spectators in Tokyo next July.

“In order to protect the Japanese people and out of respect for the Japanese people, the IOC will undertake great effort so that as many [people] as possible — Olympic participants and visitors — will arrive here [with a] vaccine if by then a vaccine is available,” Bach told reporters in Japan this week. “This makes us all very confident that we can have spectators in the Olympics stadium.”

Of course, the road to a COVID-19-free Olympics, contested by the best in the world in every event, goes through the United States, a regular at the top of the medal table, and home to the IOC’s most lucrative broadcast rights deal — NBC signed a 28-year, $ 7.75 billion contract extension with the IOC in 2014.

But in the country that also leads the world in COVID-19 cases (11.3 million by Tuesday afternoon), and where more than a quarter million residents have already died of the disease, addressing the pandemic often has more to do with politics and ideology than public health.

Undermining severity of COVID-19

If we drew a Venn diagram charting people who don’t believe in vaccines and people who think face coverings rob citizens of their freedom, we might not need a second circle. And if we counted the ways lame-duck President Donald Trump and his political allies helped spread COVID-19, we’d run out of fingers and toes.

In the pandemic’s opening stages, Trump’s administration bid against individual states for personal protective equipment, raising prices and lowering supplies of gear sorely needed to keep frontline medical staff safe.

In October, a COVID-positive Trump may have exposed Secret Service members to the virus when he had them drive him around Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to wave at supporters who had gathered there.

And in September he lent his heft to a campaign to force the Big Ten conference to reverse its decision to postpone fall sports like football. When the league finally decided to play football this fall, Trump tried to take credit for the decision, hoping it would help him win battleground states like Wisconsin and Michigan.

Trump failed to win Michigan or Wisconsin in this month’s election, but the virus succeeded in infiltrating football programs across Big Ten country. Before the Wisconsin Badgers smashed the Michigan Wolverines 49-11 last Saturday, the team endured a rash of positive tests and a two-week shutdown. Last month, the Wolverines kept practising even as a surge in COVID cases locally prompted a stay-at-home order for students on campus. And an outbreak among Maryland’s football team forced them to cancel a game against Ohio State.

Wrestling COVID-19 into submission seems the most effective way to return to sold-out stadiums, and to protect the athletes those fans pay to see. But reaching that point, whether for mainstream American sports or the Olympics, means surviving two more months with an administration determined not to attack the problem.

Until then, some sports outfits will move forward with compromises aimed at limiting the risk. The NCAA has announced plans to hold the entire basketball tournament known as March Madness in Indianapolis, instead of spreading its 67 games among far-flung host cities.

But other operators are treating COVID-19 as a nuisance, and not a threat to public health. When the pandemic wiped out the Battle 4 Atlantis, an annual season-opening college basketball tournament in the Bahamas, the event relocated to South Dakota, the U.S. pandemic’s current epicentre, where more than 58 per cent of COVID-19 tests come back positive. Organizers are selling tickets, even though as of Nov. 16 the state’s seven-day rolling average of new cases was 1,424, in a population of less than 885,000. If Ontario logged new COVID-19 cases at that rate, we’d see more than 23,000 a day.

In sports terms, it’s like walking Rich Aurilia to pitch to peak P.E.D. Barry Bonds.

And in terms of restoring the sports world to whatever normal is going to be in 2021 it’s a big step backward, even with vaccines on the way.

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The PlayStation 5 Will Only Be Available Online for Launch Day

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If you were hoping to line up outside a big box store on November 12th or 19th to buy a PlayStation 5, you’re out of luck this year. Sony has announced that PlayStation 5 systems will only be available online.

The company writes:

No units will be available in-store for purchase on launch day (November 12 or November 19, depending on your region) – please don’t plan on camping out or lining up at your local retailer on launch day in hopes of finding a PS5 console for purchase. Be safe, stay home, and place your order online.

Gamers who have pre-ordered for pick-up at their local retailer should still be able to do so at their designated appointment time, under the retailer’s safety protocols. Please confirm the details with your local retailer.

Objectively, this is probably the right call, as far as tamping down on the spread of the pandemic. Standing long hours in close quarters isn’t the best way to socially distance and in the United States, at least, COVID-19 cases and deaths are both heading upwards once again, with over 100,000 Americans diagnosed in a single day and deaths per day once again clearing 1K. Sony is clearly taking a cautious route to market here, emphasizing safety globally rather than attempting to maximize in-store sales. It’s the right call, from a public health perspective — but it is going to make it harder to buy a PlayStation 5.

The problem of bots has begun to get some attention in recent months after flying under the radar for years, but it’s not realistic to expect Sony’s worldwide distributor network to have implemented anti-bot protections in a matter of a few weeks. Even if some major sites have stepped up to the plate that quickly, the issue hasn’t received enough attention. There have also been rumors of low PlayStation 5 production for months, though in this case, “low” is relative — Sony’s supposed targets for PS5 production were still higher than any previous six-month ramp, and any adjustments the company has made may be strictly nominal.

It’s also difficult to forecast what demand for the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 will look like because they’re launching under such unusual circumstances. The pandemic has driven people indoors, which increases the chance that they’ll want to buy a gaming system of some sort. But COVID-19 has played hell with manufacturer shipping dates all year, and that’s before we talk about any yield or manufacturing issues that Microsoft and Sony might be encountering. That’s not to imply that either company has a specific problem, but every issue is going to be under a magnifying glass given the overall state of things.

The strangest thing about this generation of consoles is how it’s debuting without any next-generation games to really speak of. I’ve only had a week to spend with the Xbox Series X, but the games you can currently play on it are current-generation titles that don’t tap features like ray tracing. This, again, is thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it does make it a little odd to review a brand-new system in 2020.

If you want a PlayStation 5 this year, spamming refresh on your browser and keeping a constant eye on sites like NowInStock.net may be the best you can do. With no retail availability at all, it seems likely that bots will capture a higher percentage of the launch volume.

The other major piece of PlayStation-related news today is that the console’s M.2 slot won’t function at launch. This isn’t necessarily a surprise, since PS5 guru and hardware architect Mark Cerny had implied storage might not be available until after launch, but if you’re budgeting for purchases, there’s little point to immediately buying an SSD. The Verge investigated the issue but found no evidence that Sony’s compatibility program has even started yet. In order to serve as expanded storage for the PlayStation 5, drives will need to hit specific performance levels and can’t have a heatsink too large to fit into the case. It is not clear how many current commercial drives will meet the PS5 standard, and we’ll obviously have to wait for the post-launch period to find out.

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The Hulls and Howes aren’t the only father/son Hockey Hall of Famers

This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports’ daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what’s happening in sports by subscribing here.

Here’s what you need to know right now from the world of sports:

When beloved NHL play-by-play man Doc Emrick announced his retirement this week after 50 years covering the league, he made an interesting observation. At the start of his career, Emrick marvelled, Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull were still playing. And by the end, those legends had sons in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

That really put Emrick’s longevity in perspective, and it also got me thinking about father/son combos in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Here’s a look at the four instances where both men made it as players, plus another family connection that doesn’t quite meet the criteria but I just wanted to bring up anyway:

Bobby Hull and Brett Hull

The gold standard, easily. The Golden Jet and the Golden Brett are the only father/son duo to each score 50 goals in a season, to each reach 600 goals in their career, and to each win the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. Brett ranks fourth all-time with 741 goals and Bobby is 18th with 610.

Naturally, then, Brett’s son (and Bobby’s grandson) Jude chose to put all those scoring genes to use as… a goalie?! He never made it past college, but at least he has a sense of humour about it.

Gordie Howe and Mark Howe

Gordie needs no introduction. He’s one of the greatest players (some say the greatest) of all time and still ranks second in NHL history with 801 goals.

Mark was a productive defenceman who inherited his dad’s longevity and a bit of his scoring ability. His career in the WHA and NHL spanned more than two decades, from the mid-’70s to the mid-’90s. He never won the Norris Trophy, but he finished second in voting three times and averaged 18 goals over his first nine NHL seasons, which came in the run-and-gun ’80s.

The Howes, famously, even got to play together. They did so (along with Mark’s brother Marty) first with the WHA’s Houston Aeros and then in the NHL with the Hartford Whalers in 1979-80. That was the final season for Gordie, who was 52 (!) when he played his last NHL game.

Lester Patrick and Lynn Patrick (and Craig Patrick)

That’s three generations of Hall of Famers, though grandson Craig got in as a “builder” — mostly for his work as an NHL general manager.

Lester was one of the top defencemen of the pre-NHL days, which got him into the Hall of Fame as a player in 1947, though he’s probably better known for his work as coach and GM of the Rangers. That included an emergency appearance in net in the 1928 Stanley Cup final, where a 44-year-old Patrick stepped out from behind the bench to replace the injured starter for a game and help the Rangers win the Cup.

Lynn spent his whole NHL career playing for his dad’s Rangers teams. He led the league with 32 goals (in 47 games) in 1941-42 and had two other 20-goal seasons.

Oliver Seibert and Earl Seibert

Thanks to reader Simon for pointing out this duo, who are the answers to a trivia question you can probably stump most of your friends with. The Seiberts — not the Hulls, not the Howes — are the first father/son combo to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as players.

Oliver’s career pre-dated the NHL, but he was one of the better scorers of his day and one of the early adopters of the wrist shot.

Earl was one of the most respected and feared defencemen of the ’30s and ’40s, known for his hard-nosed play but also skilled enough to finish fourth in MVP voting twice and make 12 consecutive all-star teams. Unfortunately, he was also involved in one of the darkest moments in hockey history. Racing for a loose puck with the great Howie Morentz, Seibert caused him to fall awkwardly into the boards, breaking his leg. Six weeks later, Morentz died in the hospital.

Honourable mention: The Hextalls

Bryan Hextall was one of the better forwards of the late ’30s and early ’40s. Playing for the Rangers, he led the NHL in goals twice and had six consecutive 20-goal years at a time when the season was 48 or 50 games. He’s in the Hall of Fame as a player.

His sons Bryan and Dennis both had decent NHL careers but aren’t in the Hall of Fame. Neither is his grandson Ron, but you can build a case for him. He was one of the most famous goalies of the ’80s and ’90s and the first NHL netminder to truly score a goal. Billy Smith technically beat Hextall to it, but his was actually an own goal that Smith got credit for by being the last player on his team to touch the puck. Hextall became the first goalie to actually shoot one into the net in December 1987, and he did it again in the ’89 playoffs. His ability and willingness to play the puck outside of his crease were ahead of his time.

Hextall also had one of the most interesting rookie seasons of all time in 1986-87. He won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie, but not the Calder for rookie of the year (that went to Luc Robitaille), and then won the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP despite his Flyers’ losing the final. Only five guys have ever done that.

One more Hextall family note: Ron’s cousin (and Bryan’s granddaughter) Leah Hextall is a broadcaster who handled her first play-by-play assignment last March as part of the first all-woman broadcast crew to work an NHL game.

Mark Howe, left, was fortunate to have tremendous longevity in his hockey career, much like father Gordie, right. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)


The Rays pulled even in the World Series. Brandon Lowe hit two home runs, Blake Snell struck out nine in less than five innings of work and Tampa Bay’s relievers held the fort for a 6-4 win over the Dodgers in Game 2 last night. Game 3 is Friday night and features a strong pitching matchup: Tampa’s Charlie Morton vs. L.A.’s Walker Buehler. Read more about the Rays’ series-tying win here.

Women’s pro hockey got a financial boost. A deodorant brand has pledged $ 1 million in sponsorship money to the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association, which they say is the largest corporate commitment ever made in North American professional women’s hockey. The PWHPA is the group formed by 180 or so players last year after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded. The players have refused to participate in the only remaining North American women’s pro league, the NWHL, because they don’t believe it pays enough and they doubt its long-term viability. The PWHPA is seeking what it describes as a “single, sustainable” women’s pro league, preferably backed by the NHL. In the meantime, its members have trained together and played in the barnstorming Dream Gap Tour, which began last winter. A second tour is planned for early 2021, and this time players will earn prize money thanks to the new sponsorship. Read more about it here.

The Canadian figure skating championships were pushed back a month. Rather than Jan. 11-17, they’re now scheduled for Feb. 8-14 (still in Vancouver). The idea is to buy more time in hopes that various pandemic-related concerns lessen. Canada’s figure skating governing body also reduced the number of competitors. There will be only two flights in each discipline. The results decide who gets to represent Canada at the world championships in late March in Sweden, though it’s uncertain whether that event will happen. If you missed yesterday’s newsletter, read more about the many challenges facing the figure skating season here.

And finally…

A new (and different-looking) season of Battle of the Blades debuts tonight. For the sixth season of the CBC live-competition show that pairs hockey players with figure skaters to perform on ice for a panel of judges, the focus is on diversity. For the first time, three female hockey players and three male figure skaters are involved, and four of the competitors are Black — former NHLers Akim Aliu and Anthony Stewart, and skaters Asher Hill and Vanessa James. In addition, Canadian figure skater Elladj Baldé is a judge and singer Keshia Chanté co-hosts. Watch the first episode at 8 p.m. (8:30 NT) on the CBC TV network and CBC Gem, and read more about the more-diverse cast here.

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Lululemon Warehouse Sale 2020: Best Activewear Deals — Shop for 5 Days Only

Lululemon Warehouse Sale 2020: Best Activewear Deals — Shop for 5 Days Only | Entertainment Tonight

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