Facebook Overhauls Messaging as It Pivots to Privacy

Facebook Inc on Tuesday debuted an overhaul of its core social network and new business-focused tools, the first concrete steps in its plan to refashion itself into a private messaging and e-commerce company.

Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg unveiled a fresh design for the world’s biggest social network that de-emphasized its News Feed and showcased services like its messaging app, online marketplace and video-on-demand site.

The company also rolled out features aimed both at encouraging users to interact with their close social circle as well as with businesses, including appointment booking and a “Secret Crush” option for Facebook Dating.

Zuckerberg in March promised changes to the advertising-driven social media company as it was under regulatory scrutiny over propaganda on its platform and users’ data privacy. Facebook’s News Feed continues to draw ad dollars but user growth in its most lucrative markets has slowed.

“We believe that there is a community for everyone. So we’ve been working on a major evolution to make communities as central as friends,” said Zuckerberg on Tuesday, speaking at Facebook’s annual F8 conference, where the company gives developers a peek at new product releases.

Other Facebook executives introduced changes within the Messenger and Instagram apps aimed at helping businesses connect with customers, including appointment booking and enhanced shopping features as well as a tool to lure customers into direct conversations with companies via ads.

Zuckerberg identified private messaging, ephemeral stories and small groups as the fastest-growing areas of online communication. In last three years, the number of people using WhatsApp has almost doubled.

The social media company is now working on “LightSpeed” in order to make its Messenger app smaller in size and faster.

Facebook will also introduce Messenger for Mac and Windows and launch a new feature called “Product Catalog” for WhatsApp Business. The desktop version of Messenger will be available this fall.

“I know that we don’t exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now, to put it lightly,” Zuckerberg said.

The online ad market is largely dominated by Facebook and Alphabet Inc’s Google. But by focusing more on messaging, e-commerce, payment and enterprise-focused tools,

Facebook will also need to battle the likes of Amazon.com Inc and Microsoft Corp as well as fast-growing Silicon Valley unicorns like workplace messaging app Slack.

“We’ve shown time and again as a company that we have what it takes to evolve,” Zuckerberg said.

Making money

Facebook pulled in nearly $56 billion in revenue last year, almost of all which came from showing ads to the 2.7 billion people who access its family of apps each month.

But Facebook is no longer adding many new users in the United States and Europe, its most lucrative markets, and it must find additional sources of revenue if it is to sustain growth.

The product releases at F8 indicate its answer involves efforts to keep users on its apps for longer, coupled with e-commerce tools Facebook is hoping businesses will pay to use.

Features that drive the most user engagement, like Stories and videos, are being decked out with new tools and given increased prominence across the platforms.

One new feature will allow users to watch videos together in Messenger, while also viewing each other’s reactions in simultaneous texts and video chats.

Facebook Dating will be expanded into 14 new markets, including places in Asia like the Philippines where Facebook has high user growth. A “Secret Crush” feature will allows users to explore potential romantic relationships within their friend circle.

The company is also courting businesses, giving them ways to chat with customers and conduct transactions, similar to how consumers in China are already shopping on services like WeChat. Instagram is expanding a sales system introduced last month, allowing public figures, known as influencers, to tag products in their posts so fans can buy them right away.

Sellers on Marketplace will likewise receive payments and arrange shipping directly within Facebook.


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US Treasury Secretary Hopes for ‘Substantial Progress’ in China Talks

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin says he hopes to makes “substantial progress” in trade talks with China, as the world’s two largest economies try to reach a resolution to their trade war.

Mnuchin and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer are leading a U.S. delegation meeting with Chinese officials this week in Beijing.

Next week, Chinese officials will travel to Washington for another round of talks.

Washington and Beijing have held several rounds of talks this year to resolve a trade war that began in 2018 when President Donald Trump imposed punitive tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese imports. He has been trying to compel Beijing to change its trade practices. China retaliated with tariff increases on $110 billion of U.S. exports.

 


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Tariffs Take Toll on Farm Equipment Manufacturers

Their iconic blue-colored planters and grain cars are recognizable on many farms across the United States. They are also easily spotted in large displays, some stacked one on top of the other, in front of Kinze’s manufacturing hub along Interstate 80, where, inside buildings sprawling across a campus situated among Iowa’s corn and soybeans fields, the company’s employees work with one key component. 

“Steel is the lifeblood of Kinze,” says Richard Dix, a company senior director. “We’re a factory that’s essentially a weld house. We cut, burn, form, shape, cut, paint steel.”

WATCH: Kane Farabaugh’s video report

Steel now costs more, the result of a 25 percent tariff on the material imported from most countries, including China.

“When there is a tariff on steel it cuts rights to the core of our fundamental product construction,” says Dix.

In March of 2018, President Donald Trump imposed tariffs on aluminum and steel, with the goal of boosting U.S. production and related employment. 

While there has been a modest benefit to the domestic steel industry, Dix says increased costs are negatively impacting smaller manufacturing companies like Kinze.

“We see the bills that come in from our suppliers are higher based on those tariffs,” Dix explains. “Not just in steel but also in a lot of the electronics, rubber commodities and other agricultural parts we buy from China as well. Those tariffs take their effect on our cost structure, on the profitability for the family, through our employees, and now to our dealers and on to our customers.”

Those customers are mostly U.S. farmers who use some of Kinze’s products to put soybean and corn seeds into the ground. Soybean exports in particular are now subject to retaliatory tariffs imposed by the Chinese, one of the biggest export markets for U.S. farmers, which has sunk commodity prices and contributed to another year of overall declining income for U.S. farmers. 

​That means many are less likely to purchase the products Kinze makes.

“The market is substantially down,” says Dix. “The farmers don’t have that level of security they need to go out into the dealerships and buy that equipment. We get a one-two punch. We pay more for the product that comes into us and therefore on to the customer, and then we have a reciprocal situation where we can’t export what was advantageous to us.”

These are some of the concerns Dix explained to Iowa Republican Senator Joni Ernst, who participated in a roundtable discussion at Kinze along with farmers and others in Iowa impacted by tariffs. It was part of a “Tariffs Hurt the Heartland” event hosted by Kinze, and organized by the group Americans for Free Trade along with the Association of Equipment Manufacturers. 

Ernst says the personal stories she gathers from these meetings go a long way in helping President Donald Trump understand the impact on her constituents.

“He has a very different negotiating style,” she told VOA. “He wants to start with the worst possible scenario, and negotiate his way to a good and fair trade deal, but again sharing those stories is very important and yes it does have an impact. I think the president does listen.”

Ernst says she is encouraged by news from the Trump administration on developments in negotiations that lead her to believe the trade dispute with China, and the related tariffs, could end soon.

“When I last spoke to [U.S. Trade Representative] Robert Lighthizer, he had indicated that the deal with China is largely done, it’s just figuring out the enforcement mechanism, and that is what the United States and China are really bartering over right now.”

But Kinze’s Richard Dix says one year under tariffs has already taken a toll on the company’s operations.

“We’re not really that big, so we can say that this impact has been a seven-figure impact for us in the last year, and that’s a substantial amount of money.”

It’s an amount that Dix says, so far, hasn’t been passed on to Kinze’s customers, or the employees.

“We have not actually had any direct layoffs that are attributable to this tariff situation, but we’re all tightening our belts.”


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Mother of Four Starts Career as Biking Instructor

On a sunny, breezy spring day, a group of children, four to seven-years-old, sit on their bikes, helmets and gloves on, ready to start their biking lesson. Their moms, standing nearby, watch them closely, feeling proud that their little ones are learning how to ride.

Instructor Rachel Van is also excited about making biking a part of their lives. She still remembers how she felt, riding a bike for the first time. It was an amazing “I can” moment. Now, her job is helping other kids to experience that moment. 

“It’s probably the biggest confidence booster. It gives kids such a sense of independence and agency,” she says.

Basics of biking

Rachel Van quit her job as a salesperson in the bicycle industry last year, to become a certified cycling instructor. She founded Pedal Power Kids to teach bicycle education.

Before hitting the road, she has the group review the basics of the bike maintenance, what she calls “the ABC quick check.” 

“A” is for air, she explains. “We have to check our tires before we ride. B is for brakes. We want to make sure our brakes work before we find ourselves on the top of the hill about to go down. And C is for chain. We want to make sure that our chain doesn’t have any junk in it.” 

They also work on biking skills, from balance and pedaling to turning, starting and stopping. 

And they need to learn and remember some basic rules. The first one is eyes up and forward. 

“A lot of kids struggle with their eyes on the ground, looking for their pedals, but obviously that doesn’t allow them to see what’s going on around them, and it also doesn’t allow them to turn properly,” Van says.

That’s because watching where you’re going helps you steer.

“Sometimes people think that you turn your bike using the handle bar. You see little kids going like this, steering,” she says as she demonstrates, turning the handle bar back and forth, “and they fall over. But we really turn by leaning. So, when we look, then our body leans and then our bike leans.” 

Biking changes lives

Being able to ride a bike opens a whole new world to children. It gives them a sense of accomplishment and freedom. They become more aware of their surroundings, learning to make safe, smart decisions going from one place to another.

Van’s goal is to get more kids on two wheels. That, she says, will help make the world a better place. “That’s really a great way for kids to be active and develop healthy habits,” Van says. “It helps reduce pollution and just keep families and communities connected.”

Since starting Pedal Power Kids last year, Van has helped around 250 new riders. An active community network of satisfied mothers is her best advertiser.

“Moms are pretty magic,” Van says. “If the mom is happy with something, if [having their child learn to ride] made their lives a bit easier, then they tell their friends. So my business has grown almost entirely through word of mouth.” 

Julia Roeling is part of the moms’ network. She says biking is a great activity for their kids to be outside and not to stay home playing video games all the day. But since she had neither the time nor comfort level to teach her kids how to ride, she enrolled two of her three kids in Van’s bicycling class.

“They love working with Rachel,” she says. “She knows what to say to motivate them. Now, they can do it safely. And they know how to get around the community and stop at the stop signs and be together on their bikes.”

The kids in the classes are happy and excited about their biking experiences. They name their bikes and take pride in being able to do the bike maintenance themselves. They have fun biking with their friends.

Having fun is important to teach these kids a sport that will keep them active for life. As Van observes, “We probably wouldn’t be playing lacrosse when we are 75 or 89, but we certainly can be riding a bike!” 


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Kudlow: Trump Administration Eyes More Aid to Farmers if Necessary

The Trump administration is ready to provide more federal aid to farmers if required, a White House adviser said on Monday, after rolling out up to $12 billion since last year to offset agricultural losses from the trade dispute with China.

“We have allocated $12 billion, some such, to farm assistance. And we stand ready to do more if necessary,” White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told reporters.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture had previously ruled out a new round of aid for 2019. As of March, more than $8 billion was paid out as part of last year’s program. On Monday, the department said it had extended the deadline to apply to May 17.

A constituency that helped carry Republican President Donald Trump to victory in 2016, U.S. farmers have been among the hardest hit from his trade policies that led to tariffs with key trading partners such as China, Canada and Mexico.

While farmers have largely remained supportive of Trump, many have called for an imminent end to the trade dispute, which propelled farm debt to the highest levels in decades and worsened the credit conditions for the rural economy.

Beijing imposed tariffs last year on imports of U.S. agricultural goods, including soybeans, grain sorghum and pork as retribution for U.S. levies. Soybean exports to China have plummeted over 90 percent and sales of U.S. soybeans elsewhere failed to make up for the loss.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer were scheduled to travel to Beijing on Monday for the latest negotiations in what could be the trade talks’ endgame.

Both sides have cited progress on issues including intellectual property and forced technology transfer to help end a conflict marked by tit-for-tat tariffs that have cost the world’s two largest economies billions of dollars, disrupted supply chains and rattled financial markets.


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Palm Oil Development Leaves Liberians Poorer, says Winner of ‘Green Nobel’

Palm oil plantations in Liberia are billed as bringing jobs and development but actually leave locals poorer, said a Liberian lawyer who won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize on Monday.

The U.S.-based Goldman Environmental Foundation gives the prize — often known as the Green Nobel — to six grassroots activists each year for efforts to protect the environment, often at their own risk.

Alfred Brownell was awarded for his successful campaign to protect more than 500,000 acres of tropical forest from palm oil development in the West African country, after which he was forced to flee Liberia in fear for his life.

He now lives in the United States but hopes to return to continue his work, as palm oil development continues to displace farmers without giving them an alternative means to earn a living, he said.

“These forests mean a lot to Liberia. The communities that we supported who live in these areas … it is their home and their resources and their farms,” said Brownell, 53.

“Instead of trying to empower them, (palm oil) causes the impoverishment of those communities. So this is not development at all,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Sometimes palm oil companies offer jobs, but not enough for the number of people who lose their land, he said.

Liberians have protested land grabs by foreign palm oil companies for over a decade, since the former government gave out nearly half the nation’s territory in resource concessions.

The World Bank has credited these policies with transforming Liberia into a promising place for investors after a long civil war, but activists say local communities rarely benefit.

“We’re talking about lots of communities seeing their customary lands go away, lands they depend upon on a daily basis for their livelihoods,” said Patrick Kipalu, Africa Program coordinator for Rights and Resources Initiative, a global network that advocates for indigenous peoples’ land rights.

“It’s so negative compared to the economic opportunities that those companies can bring,” Kipalu said.

Liberian authorities could not immediately be reached for comment.

Brownell helped community members file a complaint in 2012 alleging environmental damage and human rights violations by Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL), a Southeast Asia-based agro-industrial company that had signed a deal with the state to lease 543,600 acres of land for palm oil production.

An industry body responded by halting GVL’s work on most of the land – a decision that was upheld last year after a legal battle.

Protests by community members led to violent clashes in 2015, and Brownell said that his home was attacked and family members arrested — leading him to flee.

GVL, still active in Liberia, said in an email that it acknowledged past mistakes and that it created a sustainability action plan in 2018 to resolve grievances with communities.


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Tariffs Taking Double Toll on Some Agricultural Equipment Manufacturers

As U.S. farmers prepare for planting this year, they do so under a cloud of uncertainty created by continuing tariffs on U.S. grain exports. They also aren’t buying new equipment, which VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports is a growing concern for manufacturers who not only see declining sales, but increasing costs for the material they need to create their products.


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Making Driverless Cars Safer For Pedestrians

One big concern about autonomous vehicles is that logical computers sometimes have trouble dealing with a messy world. To the point, a pedestrian was struck and killed by an autonomous vehicle in Arizona last year. But new algorithms are trying to solve that potentially deadly problem. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.


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IMF: US Sanctions Cutting Iranian Growth, Boosting Inflation

The International Monetary Fund is forecasting Iran’s economy to shrink by 6% this year as it faces pressure from U.S. sanctions.

In a report released Monday, the IMF said its estimates for Iran, which include the potential for inflation to top 40%, predate a U.S. decision to end waivers that have allowed some Iranian oil buyers to continue making their purchases despite new sanctions that went into effect last year.

The Trump administration is due to formally end the waivers on Thursday for some of Iran’s top crude purchasers, including China, India, Japan, Turkey and South Korea.

The United States says it wants to deprive Iran of $50 billion in annual oil revenues to pressure it to end its nuclear and missile programs. The White House says it is working with top oil exporters Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to ensure an adequate world oil supply.

Turkey and China have attacked the U.S. action, but it is not clear whether they will continue to buy Iranian oil.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said an interview broadcast on the U.S. cable show Fox News Sunday accused the United States of trying to “bring Iran to its knees” and overthrow its government by seeking to thwart its international oil trade.

​He said U.S. officials are “wrong in their analysis. They are wrong in their hope and illusions.”

Zarif said the fact that Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 international agreement to curtail Iran’s nuclear program “would not put the U.S. in the good list of law-abiding nations.” Iran state media reported that Zarif told Iranian reporters in New York that Tehran’s withdrawal from the pact is one of “many options” it is considering in the wake of the U.S. end to the waivers on sanctions for countries buying oil from Iran.

Zarif said a team of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, and leaders in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates is trying to push U.S. President Donald Trump “into a confrontation he doesn’t want.”

“They have tried to bring the U.S. into a war,” Zarif said, with the goal, “at least,” of Iranian regime change.

Bolton, appearing on the same Fox News program, said the U.S. goal is not regime change, but a change in behavior, specifically an end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program and ballistic missile testing.

“The Iranian people deserve a better government,” Bolton said.

He called Zarif’s accusations “completely ridiculous, an effort to sow disinformation.”


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Twitter Terror: Arrests Prompt Concern Over Online Extremism

A few months after he turned 17 — and more than two years before he was arrested — Vincent Vetromile recast himself as an online revolutionary.

Offline, in this suburb of Rochester, New York, Vetromile was finishing requirements for promotion to Eagle Scout in a troop that met at a local church. He enrolled at Monroe Community College, taking classes to become a heating and air conditioning technician. On weekends, he spent hours in the driveway with his father, a Navy veteran, working on cars.

On social media, though, the teenager spoke in world-worn tones about the need to “reclaim our nation at any cost.” Eventually he subbed out the grinning selfie in his Twitter profile, replacing it with the image of a colonial militiaman shouldering an AR-15 rifle. And he traded his name for a handle: “Standing on the Edge.”

That edge became apparent in Vetromile’s posts, including many interactions over the last two years with accounts that praised the Confederacy, warned of looming gun confiscation and declared Muslims to be a threat.

In 2016, he sent the first of more than 70 replies to tweets from a fiery account with 140,000 followers, run by a man billing himself as Donald Trump’s biggest Canadian supporter. The final exchange came late last year.

“Islamic Take Over Has Begun: Muslim No-Go Zones Are Springing Up Across America. Lock and load America!” the Canadian tweeted on December 12, with a video and a map highlighting nine states with Muslim enclaves.

“The places listed are too vague,” Vetromile replied. “If there were specific locations like ‘north of X street in the town of Y, in the state of Z’ we could go there and do something about it.”

Weeks later, police arrested Vetromile and three friends, charging them with plotting to attack a Muslim settlement in rural New York. And with extremism on the rise across the U.S., this town of neatly kept Cape Cods confronted difficult questions about ideology and young people — and technology’s role in bringing them together.

The reality of the plot Vetromile and his friends are charged with hatching is, in some ways, both less and more than what was feared when they were arrested in January.

Prosecutors say there is no indication that the four — Vetromile, 19; Brian Colaneri, 20; Andrew Crysel, 18; and a 16-year-old The Associated Press isn’t naming because of his age — had set an imminent or specific date for an attack. Reports they had an arsenal of 23 guns are misleading; the weapons belonged to parents or other relatives.

Prosecutors allege the four discussed using those guns, along with explosive devices investigators say were made by the 16-year-old, in an attack on the community of Islamberg.

Residents of the settlement in Delaware County, New York — mostly African-American Muslims who relocated from Brooklyn in the 1980s — have been harassed for years by right-wing activists who have called it a terrorist training camp. A Tennessee man, Robert Doggart , was convicted in 2017 of plotting to burn down Islamberg’s mosque and other buildings.

But there are few clues so far to explain how four with little experience beyond their high school years might have come up with the idea to attack the community. All have pleaded not guilty, and several defense attorneys, back in court Friday, are arguing there was no plan to actually carry out any attack, chalking it up to talk among buddies. Lawyers for the four did not return calls, and parents or other relatives declined interviews.

“I don’t know where the exposure came from, if they were exposed to it from other kids at school, through social media,” said Matthew Schwartz, the Monroe County assistant district attorney prosecuting the case. “I have no idea if their parents subscribe to any of these ideologies.”

Well beyond upstate New York, the spread of extremist ideology online has sparked growing concern. Google and Facebook executives went before the House Judiciary Committee this month to answer questions about their platforms’ role in feeding hate crime and white nationalism. Twitter announced new rules last fall prohibiting the use of “dehumanizing language” that risks “normalizing serious violence.”

But experts said the problem goes beyond language, pointing to algorithms used by search engines and social media platforms to prioritize content and spotlight likeminded accounts.

“Once you indicate an inclination, the machine learns,” said Jessie Daniels, a professor of sociology at New York’s Hunter College who studies the online contagion of alt-right ideology. “That’s exactly what’s happening on all these platforms … and it just sends some people down a terrible rabbit hole.”

She and others point to Dylann Roof, who in 2015 murdered nine worshippers at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina. In writings found afterward, Roof recalled how his interest in the shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin had prompted a Google search for the term “black on white crime.” The first site the search engine pointed him to was run by a racist group promoting the idea that such crime is common, and as he learned more, Roof wrote, that eventually drove his decision to attack the congregation.

In the Rochester-area case, electronic messages between two of those arrested, seen by the AP, along with papers filed in the case suggest doubts divided the group.

“I honestly see him being a terrorist,” one of those arrested, Crysel, told his friend Colaneri in an exchange last December on Discord, a messaging platform popular with gamers that has also gained notoriety for its embrace by some followers of the alt-right.

“He also has a very odd obsession with pipe bombs,” Colaneri replied. “Like it’s borderline creepy.”

It is not clear from the message fragment seen which of the others they were referencing. What is clear, though, is the long thread of frustration in Vetromile’s online posts — and the way those posts link him to an enduring conspiracy theory.

A few years ago, Vetromile’s posts on Twitter and Instagram touched on subjects like video games and English class.

He made the honor roll as an 11th-grader but sometime thereafter was suspended and never returned, according to former classmates and others. The school district, citing federal law on student records, declined to provide details.

Ron Gerth, who lives across the street from the family, recalled Vetromile as a boy roaming the neighborhood with a friend, pitching residents on a leaf-raking service: “Just a normal, everyday kid wanting to make some money, and he figured a way to do it.” More recently, Gerth said, Vetromile seemed shy and withdrawn, never uttering more than a word or two if greeted on the street.

Vetromile and suspect Andrew Crysel earned the rank of Eagle in Boy Scout Troop 240, where the 16-year-old was also a member. None ever warranted concern, said Steve Tyler, an adult leader.

“Every kid’s going to have their own sort of geekiness,” Tyler said, “but nothing that would ever be considered a trigger or a warning sign that would make us feel unsafe.”

Crysel and the fourth suspect, Colaneri, have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a milder form of autism, their families have said. Friends described Colaneri as socially awkward and largely disinterested in politics. “He asked, if we’re going to build a wall around the Gulf of Mexico, how are people going to go to the beach?” said Rachael Lee, the aunt of Colaneri’s girlfriend.

Vetromile attended community college with Colaneri before dropping out in 2017. By then, he was fully engaged in online conversations about immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, gun rights and Trump. Over time, his statements became increasingly militant.

“We need a revolution now!” he tweeted in January, replying to a thread warning of a coming “war” over gun ownership.

Vetromile directed some of his strongest statements at Muslims. Tweets from the Canadian account, belonging to one Mike Allen, seemed to push that button.

In July 2017, Allen tweeted “Somali Muslims take over Tennessee town and force absolute HELL on terrified Christians.” Vetromile replied: ”@realDonaldTrump please do something about this!”

A few months later, Allen tweeted: “Czech politicians vote to let citizens carry guns, shoot Muslim terrorists on sight.” Vetromile’s response: “We need this here!”

Allen’s posts netted hundreds of replies a day, and there’s no sign he read Vetromile’s responses. But others did, including the young man’s reply to the December post about Muslim “no-go zones.”

That tweet included a video interview with Martin Mawyer, whose Christian Action Network made a 2009 documentary alleging that Islamberg and other settlements were terrorist training camps. Mawyer linked the settlements, which follow the teachings of a controversial Pakistani cleric, to a group called Jamaat al-Fuqra that drew scrutiny from law enforcement in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1993, Colorado prosecutors won convictions of four al-Fuqra members in a racketeering case that included charges of fraud, arson and murder.

Police and analysts have repeatedly said Islamberg does not threaten violence. Nevertheless, the allegations of Mawyer’s group continue to circulate widely online and in conservative media.

Replying to questions by email, Mawyer said his organization has used only legal means to try to shut down the operator of the settlements.

“Vigilante violence is always the wrong way to solve social or personal problems,” he said. “Christian Action Network had no role, whatsoever, in inciting any plots.”

Online, though, Vetromile reacted with consternation to the video of Mawyer: “But this video just says ‘upstate NY and California’ and that’s too big of an area to search for terrorists,” he wrote.

Other followers replied with suggestions. “Doesn’t the video state Red House, Virginia as the place?” one asked. Virginia was too far, Vetromile replied, particularly since the map with the tweet showed an enclave in his own state.

When another follower offered a suggestion, Vetromile signed off: “Eh worth a look. Thanks.”

The exchange ended without a word from the Canadian account, whose tweet started it.

Three months before the December exchange on Twitter, the four suspects started using a Discord channel dubbed ”#leaders-only” to discuss weapons and how they would use them in an attack, prosecutors allege. Vetromile set up the channel, one of the defense attorneys contends, but prosecutors say they don’t consider any one of the four a leader.

In November, the conversation expanded to a second channel: ”#militia-soldiers-wanted.”

At some point last fall the 16-year-old made a grenade — “on a whim to satisfy his own curiosity,” his lawyer said in a court filing that claims the teen never told the other suspects. That filing also contends the boy told Vetromile that forming a militia was “stupid.”

But other court records contradict those assertions. Another teen, who is not among the accused, told prosecutors that the 16-year-old showed him what looked like a pipe bomb last fall and then said that Vetromile had asked for prototypes. “Let me show you what Vinnie gave me,” the young suspect allegedly said during another conversation, before leaving the room and returning with black explosive powder.

In January, the 16-year-old was in the school cafeteria when he showed a photo to a classmate of one of his fellow suspects, wearing some kind of tactical vest. He made a comment like, “He looks like the next school shooter, doesn’t he?” according to Greece Police Chief Patrick Phelan. The other student reported the incident, and questioning by police led to the arrests and charges of conspiracy to commit terrorism.

The allegations have jarred a region where political differences are the norm. Rochester, roughly half white and half black and other minorities, votes heavily Democratic. Neighboring Greece, which is 87 percent white, leans conservative. Town officials went to the Supreme Court to win a 2014 ruling allowing them to start public meetings with a chaplain’s prayer.

The arrests dismayed Bob Lonsberry, a conservative talk radio host in Rochester, who said he checked Twitter to confirm Vetromile didn’t follow his feed. But looking at the accounts Vetromile did follow convinced him that politics on social media had crossed a dangerous line.

“The people up here, even the hillbillies like me, we would go down with our guns and stand outside the front gate of Islamberg to protect them,” Lonsberry said. “It’s an aberration. But … aberrations, like a cancer, pop up for a reason.”


Online, it can be hard to know what is true and who is real. Mike Allen, though, is no bot.

“He seems addicted to getting followers,” said Allen’s adult son, Chris, when told about the arrest of one of the thousands attuned to his father’s Twitter feed. Allen himself called back a few days later, leaving a brief message with no return number.

But a few weeks ago, Allen welcomed in a reporter who knocked on the door of his home, located less than an hour from the Peace Bridge linking upstate New York to Ontario, Canada.

“I really don’t believe in regulation of the free marketplace of ideas,” said Allen, a retired real estate executive, explaining his approach to social media. “If somebody wants to put bulls— on Facebook or Twitter, it’s no worse than me selling a bad hamburger, you know what I mean? Buyer beware.”

Sinking back in a white leather armchair, Allen, 69, talked about his longtime passion for politics. After a liver transplant stole much of his stamina a few years ago, he filled downtime by tweeting about subjects like interest rates.

When Trump announced his candidacy for president in 2015, in a speech memorable for labeling many Mexican immigrants as criminals, Allen said he was determined to help get the billionaire elected. He began posting voraciously, usually finding material on conservative blogs and Facebook feeds and crafting posts to stir reaction.

Soon his account was gaining up to 4,000 followers a week.

Allen said he had hoped to monetize his feed somehow. But suspicions that Twitter “shadow-banning” was capping gains in followers made him consider closing the account. That was before he was shown some of his tweets and the replies they drew from Vetromile — and told the 19-year-old was among the suspects charged with plotting to attack Islamberg.

“And they got caught? Good,” Allen said. “We’re not supposed to go around shooting people we don’t like. That’s why we have video games.”

Allen’s own likes and dislikes are complicated. He said he strongly opposes taking in refugees for humanitarian reasons, arguing only immigrants with needed skills be admitted. He also recounted befriending a Muslim engineer in Pakistan through a physics blog and urging him to move to Canada.

Shown one of his tweets from last year — claiming Czech officials had urged people to shoot Muslims — Allen shook his head.

“That’s not a good tweet,” he said quietly. “It’s inciting.”

Allen said he rarely read replies to his posts — and never noticed Vetromile’s.

“If I’d have seen anybody talking violence, I would have banned them,” he said.

He turned to his wife, Kim, preparing dinner across the kitchen counter. Maybe he should stop tweeting, he told her. But couldn’t he continue until Trump was reelected?

“We have a saying, ‘Oh, it must be true, I read it on the internet,’” Allen said, before showing his visitor out. “The internet is phony. It’s not there. Only kids live in it and old guys, you know what I mean? People with time on their hands.”

The next day, Allen shut down his account, and the long narrative he spun all but vanished.

 


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