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Israel-Hamas war: How 2 debunked accounts of sexual violence fueled global dispute | AP News

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JERUSALEM (AP) — Chaim Otmazgin had tended to dozens of shot, burned or mutilated bodies before he reached the home that would put him at the center of a global clash.

Working in a kibbutz that was ravaged by Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, Otmazgin — a volunteer commander with ZAKA, an Israeli search and rescue organization — saw the body of a teenager, shot dead and separated from her family in a different room. Her pants had been pulled down below her waist. He thought that was evidence of sexual violence.

He alerted journalists to what he’d seen. He tearfully recounted the details in a nationally televised appearance in the Israeli Parliament. In the frantic hours, days and weeks that followed the Hamas attack, his testimony ricocheted across the world.

But it turns out that what Otmazgin thought had occurred in the home at the kibbutz hadn’t happened.

___

Beyond the numerous and well-documented atrocities committed by Hamas militants on Oct. 7, some accounts from that day, like Otmazgin’s, proved untrue.

“It’s not that I invented a story,” Otmazgin told The Associated Press in an interview, detailing the origins of his initial explosive claim — one of two by ZAKA volunteers about sexual violence that turned out to be unfounded.

“I couldn’t think of any other option” other than the teen having been sexually assaulted, he said. “At the end, it turned out to be different, so I corrected myself.”

But it was too late.

The United Nations and other organizations have presented credible evidence that Hamas militants committed sexual assault during their rampage. The prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan, said Monday he had reason to believe that three key Hamas leaders bore responsibility for “rape and other acts of sexual violence as crimes against humanity.”

Though the number of assaults is unclear, photo and video from the attack’s aftermath have shown bodies with legs splayed, clothes torn and blood near their genitals.

However, debunked accounts like Otmazgin’s have encouraged skepticism and fueled a highly charged debate about the scope of what occurred on Oct. 7 — one that is still playing out on social media and in college campus protests.

Some allege the accounts of sexual assault were purposely concocted. ZAKA officials and others dispute that. Regardless, AP’s examination of ZAKA’s handling of the now debunked stories shows how information can be clouded and distorted in the chaos of the conflict.

As some of the first people on the scene, ZAKA volunteers offered testimony of what they saw that day. Those words have helped journalists, Israeli lawmakers and U.N. investigators paint a picture of what occurred during Hamas’ attack. (ZAKA, a volunteer-based group, does not do forensic work. The organization has been a fixture at Israeli disaster sites and scenes of attacks since it was founded in 1995. Its specific job is to collect bodies in keeping with Jewish law.)

Still, it took ZAKA months to acknowledge the accounts were wrong, allowing them to proliferate. And the fallout from the debunked accounts shows how the topic of sexual violence has been used to further political agendas.

Israel points to sexual violence on Oct. 7 to highlight what it says is Hamas’ savagery and to justify its wartime goal of neutralizing any repeated threat coming from Gaza. It has accused the international community of ignoring or playing down evidence of sexual violence claims, alleging anti-Israel bias. It says any untrue stories were an anomaly in the face of the many documented atrocities.

In turn, some of Israel’s critics have seized on the ZAKA accounts, along with others shown to be untrue, to allege that the Israeli government has distorted the facts to prosecute a war — one in which more than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed, many of them women and children, according to Gaza health officials.

A U.N. fact-finding team found “reasonable grounds” to believe that some of those who stormed southern Israel on Oct. 7 had committed sexual violence, including rape and gang rape. But the U.N. investigators also said that in the absence of forensic evidence and survivor testimony, it would be impossible to determine the scope of such violence. Hamas has denied its forces committed sexual violence.

BODY BAGS AND ROCKET FIRE

Israel was caught off guard by the ferocity of the Oct. 7 assault, the deadliest in the nation’s history. About 1,200 people were killed and 250 taken hostage. It took days for the military to clear the area of militants.

There were hundreds of bodies scattered across southern Israel, bearing various signs of abuse: burns, bullet holes, signs of mutilation, marks indicating bodies were bound. ZAKA volunteers weren’t used to dealing with so many bodies.

“You get dizzy at some point,” said Moti Bukjin, ZAKA’s spokesperson. “Some of the bodies are burned. Some are mutilated. Some of the bodies are decapitated. Every house has a story.”

Standard protocols for dealing with attacks, which Israel encountered frequently on a far smaller scale in the early 2000s, collapsed. There was confusion over who was dead and who was taken captive, especially in the hard-hit communal farming villages and in the aftermath of the outdoor Nova music festival.

Authorities were concerned that remaining militants might snatch more bodies. ZAKA says it was instructed to gather the dead as swiftly as possible and send them for identification and quick burial, according to Jewish custom. ZAKA said it sent some 800 volunteers to southern Israel, arriving at the music festival late on Oct. 7 and entering the kibbutzim two days later, according to Otmazgin.

For the first three days, many hardly slept at all. Accompanied by military escorts, volunteers went house to house, wrapping the bodies in white plastic bags on which they wrote the person’s gender, the house number where they were found and any other identifying details. Then they’d say the Jewish mourning prayer and load them into a truck, according to Tomer Peretz, who volunteered for the first time with ZAKA in the days following the attack.

As first responders worked, rocket fire from Gaza boomed overhead. Volunteers paused and crouched when air raid sirens blared. They used anything they could find to move bodies — even shopping carts. “We worked a minute and a half per body, from the moment we touch it to the moment it is on the truck,” said Otmazgin, commander of special units with ZAKA.

Peretz, a U.S.-based artist, said the volunteers weren’t there to do forensic work; he thought the soldiers who cleared the houses of explosives beforehand were handling that process. But the Israeli military told the AP that the army did not do any forensic work in the wake of Oct. 7.

Bukjin said police forensics teams were mostly focused on the southern cities of Sderot and Ofakim. Otmazgin said forensics workers were present in the kibbutzim but spread thin and could not follow standard — and painstaking — protocols because of the scale of the attack. He said forensics teams in the area mostly instructed ZAKA on how to help identify the bodies.

That means that bodies which might have shown signs of sexual assault could have eluded examination. Instead, they were loaded into body bags, sent to a facility to be identified and dispatched for quick burial.

“People seem to have expected that the aftermath of the attack would be like a movie, that immediately the police would come, that everything would be very sterile and very clean. People who don’t live in a war zone do not understand the horrific chaos that took place that day,” said Orit Sulitzeanu, the executive director of The Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel.

The group has spent months gathering evidence of sexual violence that occurred that day, sifting through many accounts emerging from the chaotic early days just after the attack. “Some of those stories that turned out not to be true were not lies,” she said. They were, she said, “mistakes.”

FIRST ACCOUNT: PANTS PULLED DOWN

Otmazgin said he was the origin of one of two debunked stories by ZAKA volunteers about sexual assault.

He said he entered a home in Kibbutz Be’eri, one of the hardest-hit communities, where nearly a tenth of the population of roughly 1,000 was killed, and found the body of a teenage girl separated from two of her relatives. Her pants, he said, were pulled down. He assumed that meant she had been sexually assaulted.

“They slaughtered her. They shot her in the head and her pants are pulled down to here. I put that out there. Have someone give me a different interpretation,” he said then, showing an AP reporter a photo he took of the scene, which he had altered by pulling up the teenager’s pants.

Today, he maintains that he never said outright that the girl whose body he saw had been sexually assaulted. But his telling strongly suggested that was the case. Otmazgin says he told journalists and lawmakers details of what he’d seen and asked if they might have some other interpretation.

Nearly three months later, ZAKA found out his interpretation was wrong. After cross-checking with military contacts, ZAKA found that a group of soldiers had dragged the girl’s body across the room to make sure it wasn’t booby-trapped. During the procedure, her pants had come down.

Otmazgin said it took time to learn the truth because the soldiers who moved the body had been deployed to Gaza for weeks and were not reachable. He said he recognized that such accounts can cause damage, but he believes he rectified it by correcting his account months later.

A military spokesperson said he had no way of knowing what had happened to every body in the assault’s immediate aftermath. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations.

Another account with details similar to Otmazgin’s but attributed to an anonymous combat medic has also come under scrutiny after emerging in international media, including in a story by the AP. But the medic did not disclose where he saw the scene.

The military would not make the medic available for further interviews, so it was not possible to reconcile the two accounts or verify the medic’s.

SECOND ACCOUNT: EVERYTHING WAS CHARRED

Yossi Landau, a longtime ZAKA volunteer, was also working in Be’eri when he entered a home that would produce the second debunked story. Landau would recount to global media what he thought he saw: a pregnant woman lying on the floor, her fetus still attached to the umbilical cord wrenched from her body.

Otmazgin was overseeing the other ZAKA workers when he said Landau frantically called him and others into the home. But Otmazgin did not see what Landau described. Instead, he saw the body of a heavy-set woman and an unidentifiable hunk attached to an electric cable. Everything was charred.

Otmazgin said he told Landau that his interpretation was wrong — this wasn’t a pregnant woman. Still, Landau believed his version, went on to tell the story to journalists and was cited in outlets around the world. Landau, along with other first responders, also told journalists he had seen beheaded children and babies. No convincing evidence had been publicized to back up that claim, and it was debunked by Haaretz and other major media outlets.

Bukjin said it took some time for ZAKA to understand that the story was not true, then asked Landau to stop telling it. Otmazgin also told Landau to stop telling the story, but that wasn’t until about three months after the attack when ZAKA was wrapping up its work in the field. The United Nations said Landau’s claim was unfounded.

Otmazgin said it has been difficult to rein Landau in, both because he vehemently believes in his version and because there is no way to stop journalists from engaging with him directly. Both Otmazgin and Bukjin attributed Landau’s continued belief in the false account to him having been deeply traumatized by what he saw in the aftermath of Oct. 7.

AP journalists attempted to reach Landau multiple times. While he answered initial inquiries, he was ultimately unreachable.

’WE’RE NOT FORENSICS WORKERS’

Almost immediately after Oct. 7, Israel began allowing groups of journalists to visit the ravaged kibbutzim. On the trips, journalists found ZAKA volunteers onsite to be some of the most accessible sources of information and some shared what they thought they saw, even though, as Bukjin notes, “we are not forensics workers.”

“They pretend to know, sometimes very naively, what happened to the bodies they are dealing with,” said Gideon Aran, a sociologist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University who wrote a recent book on the organization.

Bukjin said that the group’s usual media protocols faltered and that volunteers, who he said typically were vetted by him before being interviewed, were speaking to journalists directly. “The information is wild, is not controlled right,” said Peretz, the first-time volunteer. He said he took photos and video of what he saw even though he was told not to and was interviewed repeatedly about what he witnessed.

Other first responders also offered accounts — of babies beheaded, or hung from a clothesline, or killed together in a nursery, or placed in an oven – which were later debunked by Israeli reporters.

ZAKA is a private civilian body made up of 3,000 mostly Orthodox Jewish volunteer workers. Beyond its work in Israel, the group has also sent teams to international incidents, including the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the 2002 attacks in Mombasa, Kenya. As part of its role to ensure burial according to Jewish law, its volunteers scour crime scenes for remains in order to bury each body as completely as possible.

Aran, the sociologist, said Oct. 7 was unlike anything the organization had previously witnessed. ZAKA’s main experience with victim identification before Oct. 7 was limited to distinguishing militant attackers from their victims, not determining who was a victim of sexual assault, Aran said.

DEBUNKED ACCOUNTS VS. THE EVIDENCE

After untrue accounts of sexual assault filtered into international media, the process of debunking them appeared, at times, to take center stage in the global dispute over the facts of Oct. 7. On social media, accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers question the very occurrence of sexual violence.

The loud debate belies a growing body of evidence supporting the claim that sexual assault took place that day, even as its scope remains difficult to ascertain.

The U.N. team investigating sexual violence said it saw “credible circumstantial information which may be indicative of some forms of sexual violence, including genital mutilation, sexualized torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”

That included photos and videos showing a minimum of 20 corpses with clothes that had been torn, revealing private body parts, and 10 bodies with indications of bound wrists and or tied legs. No digital materials showed sexual violence in real time, the report said.

The investigators described the accounts that originated with Otmazgin and Landau to be “unfounded.” Regarding Otmazgin’s original account, they said the “crime scene had been altered by a bomb squad and the bodies moved, explaining the separation of the body of the girl from the rest of her family.”

Otmazgin said he publicly corrected himself after discovering what had transpired, including to the U.N. investigators he met. He showed the investigators — and later an AP reporter — photos and video, including one of a deceased woman who had a blood-speckled, flesh-colored bulb in her genital area, as well as several bodies of women with blood near their genitals and another who appeared to have small sharp objects protruding from her upper thigh and above her genitals.

More evidence is emerging as time goes by. A released hostage has described facing sexual violence in captivity in an account to The New York Times, and a man at the music festival said he heard a woman screaming she was being raped.

On Monday, releasing arrest warrants for top Hamas and Israeli officials, ICC Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan said that “there are reasonable grounds to believe that hostages taken from Israel have been kept in inhumane conditions, and that some have been subject to sexual violence, including rape, while being held in captivity.”

The U.N. report shines a light on the issues that have contributed to the skepticism over sexual violence. It said there was “limited crime scene processing” and that some evidence of sexual assault may have been lost due to “the interventions of some inadequately trained volunteer first responders.” It also said global scrutiny of the accounts emerging from Oct. 7 may have deterred survivors from coming forward.

PULLING FOCUS FROM THE VICTIMS

In the fraught global discourse surrounding Oct. 7 and the war it sparked, sexual violence has been a particular point of tension.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as prominent figures such as former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and top technology executive Sheryl Sandberg, have called out what they saw as global indifference toward Israeli women who were sexually assaulted in the attack.

Some critics of Israel’s war, meanwhile, have raised questions about the weight of the evidence, using debunked testimonies, including from ZAKA volunteers, to do so. The site <a href="http://oct7factcheck.com" rel="nofollow">oct7factcheck.com</a>, which says its aim is to combat “atrocity propaganda” that could “justify military or political actions,” has repeatedly challenged investigations in mainstream media about sexual violence.

The site, which is run by a loose coalition of tech industry employees supporting Palestinian rights, says it has not yet reached a conclusion on the occurrence of gender-based violence. It has alleged that ZAKA members are “behind many of the Oct. 7 fabrications.” The site has also highlighted other debunked accounts, including about a baby found in an oven and a hostage giving birth in captivity.

Tariq Kenney-Shawa, a U.S. policy fellow at Al-Shabaka, a Palestinian think tank, said a long history of what he calls Israeli disinformation and propaganda has fueled global skepticism over the claims. The debunked ZAKA stories, he said, contributed to the sense that Israel exaggerated accounts of atrocities committed by Hamas to dehumanize Palestinians as its military continues its deadly offensive.

“Skepticism of all claims made by the Israeli military, a military that is being investigated for genocide at The Hague, are not only justified but should be encouraged,” he said. “That’s why Palestinians, and much of the international community, are asking for thorough scrutiny.”

Dahlia Scheindlin, a commentator on Israeli affairs, said those downplaying the atrocities committed by Hamas have seized on the debunked ZAKA accounts as “ammunition” to show that Israel fabricates or that Oct. 7 wasn’t so bad, rather than examining all the available evidence to build a more comprehensive picture of what happened.

At the same time, any false accounts, even if produced without malice, lead to further polarization and pulls the focus away from victims, she argues. “Every bit of misinformation, disinformation — good faith or bad faith, mistakes or lies — is extremely destructive.”

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Letter says UNC Chapel Hill secretly records professors

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Larry Chavis, who’s taught in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s business school for 18 years, received a letter April 22 from an associate dean revealing he was under review after the university “received some reports concerning class content and conduct within your class over the past few months.”

That was concerning by itself, Chavis said, but there was something else in the letter that’s worrying other faculty members as well. The associate dean, Christian T. Lundblad, told Chavis that the review had begun prior to April 22—using a camera in Chavis’s classroom.

“We recorded and reviewed several of your class sessions on April 8th, 10th, 15th and 17th using the existing Panopto camera in the classroom,” Lundblad wrote. (The company says its name derives from panoptic, defined by Merriam-Webster as “being or presenting a comprehensive or panoramic view,” though others have noted its ominous similarity to a panopticon, an 18th-century design for a prison where guards could constantly surveil the inmates.)

Chavis said these class cameras at Chapel Hill predate the COVID-19 pandemic, when colleges and universities nationwide invested in technology to offer remote education. The ubiquity of recording technology has previously raised worries among some faculty members about surveillance of not just themselves, but their students, too.

Lundblad, who didn’t provide an interview for this article, seemed to anticipate pushback over the secret recordings. He also indicated that Chavis hadn’t been the only professor secretly recorded. “Notice is not required to record classes, and we do record classes without notice in response to concerns raised by students,” he wrote. “We wanted to let you know that we will continue recording your class as part of a formal review.”

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Chavis told Inside Higher Ed of being secretly recorded. “Certainly not here or anywhere else.”

It’s not something that Beth Moracco, chair of the faculty at Chapel Hill, has heard of either. “There is a lot of faculty concern about classroom recording, and we will be discussing it with the provost at the Faculty Executive Committee meeting on Monday,” Moracco said in an email to Inside Higher Ed. She noted it’s “not clear what our current institutional policies are about classroom recording.”

Moracco said the concerns go beyond just “this particular incident.” Faculty members are wondering about other recordings being made “without the permission of the instructor and participants”—and about authorized recordings being “used for nonauthorized purposes,” she said.

Chapel Hill officials didn’t provide interviews for this article, and spokespeople neither confirmed nor denied surreptitiously recording Chavis or any other professor. “Regarding the general topic of filming classes, the university does not have a formal policy, but follows applicable laws,” the university’s media relations office wrote in an email.

Moracco pointed out an apparent conflict with best practices that the Office of the Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost recommended for the university as a whole. “Ensure recordings are only made available to the students enrolled in the classes recorded,” those best practices state. “A recorded classroom lecture should not be used for any purpose except to meet the educational objectives of that particular class. Should the department or instructor wish to use recordings for any other purpose, the department should contact the Office of University Counsel.”

Multiple lines in the IT policy for the Kenan-Flagler Business School, where Chavis is a clinical professor of strategy and entrepreneurship, appear to prohibit faculty members from being recorded without their consent. “Recordings are to be accessed and used only as directed by the faculty member(s) teaching the course” and “classes are only recorded with the expressed permission of faculty,” the policy says.

“I’ve never given them permission for this class to be recorded,” Chavis said.

Sekou Bermiss, a Chapel Hill associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship who said he’s friends with Chavis, said the secret recording has raised concerns for himself and others in the business school. “Faculty want more clarity,” Bermiss said. When it comes to investigating professors, he said, they want to know what “is or is not on the table for administration.”

Chavis posted the associate dean’s April 22 letter on LinkedIn, and he said the post attracted 65,000 views in two days. Some North Carolina media outlets followed up with stories. But Chavis said no other faculty members have shared similar stories of being recorded, leaving him asking, “Is this something that has happened before?” or “Is this just a rule for Larry?”

Sensitive Discussions

Chavis said he doesn’t shy away from teaching about controversial topics in his classes. A member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, Chavis said he taught about the stereotyping of other ethnicities in his international development classes this semester.

This isn’t the first time his teaching has raised objections from university officials, Chavis said. In an email to administrators, he wrote that Lundblad and another associate dean “called me into their office” last spring because “I announced in class that, in my opinion, wearing Native mascot sporting gear would violate the UNC Honor Code.” He wrote that “they asked me to ‘do them a favor’ so that the school would not get in trouble with ‘conservatives.’”

Regarding his class, Chavis told Inside Higher Ed, “We’re talking about issues of race and inequality and income and gender, and I think in a way that’s very inclusive … but we do talk about sensitive issues.”

Recording all of that is “not something those students signed up for,” he said. The business school’s IT policy says “class recordings are distributed for the exclusive use of students,” and that the policy “recognizes the privacy rights of students who speak in class.”

Secret recordings could help universities investigate student complaints. Bermiss, Chavis’s colleague, said he would be in favor of allowing secret recordings if they’re about keeping students safe—and if there were a clear policy around it.

Chapel Hill media relations wrote in its email to Inside Higher Ed that “protecting the principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression are among the most important responsibilities we share, in addition to assuring student success and well-being in the classroom.” But it remains unclear what the university is investigating Chavis for, or how the probe relates to student success or well-being.

Lundblad’s April 22 letter to Chavis doesn’t specify the allegations against him. After mentioning “reports concerning class content and conduct,” it says his classes had been recorded and reviewed “due to the nature of these concerns and our commitment to maintaining high standards of teaching and professional conduct.”

Chavis provided Inside Higher Ed an email exchange with university administrators in which he asks them, on the same day he received the letter, “Can you give me some idea of the allegations against me?” Lundblad replies, “We will schedule a meeting with you to discuss the concerns reported to us.” But Chavis said there’s been no meeting.

“There seemed to be this real initial urgency,” to the letter, the professor told Inside Higher Ed. Now, he said, the administration seems to be saying, ‘We’ll just let it ride.’ I’m really baffled.”

The university could lay off Chavis without providing a reason: He said his clinical professor role is a non–tenure track teaching position, and his current contract expires June 30. He hasn’t heard about any renewal, he said.

In his email exchange with the university leaders, Chavis asked for a pause in the recording of his classes and in the use of existing recordings until there is more policy clarity. Chris Clemens, the provost, offered to have the review “conducted by a reviewer in the classroom” instead, and Chavis said he preferred that. On the last day of Chavis’s classes, April 29, Bermiss and someone from human resources sat in, Chavis said.

“I don’t think there was any issue in the classes,” Bermiss said of his observation. He said Chavis is “someone who speaks from the heart and speaks about controversial topics,” but he still doesn’t know what prompted the review.

Chavis has said the administration is likely concerned about him reading to his class an email exchange he had with his dean, Mary Margaret Frank, in which he talks about his contract being recently reduced to one year, about new assistant professors making more than he does and about “micro and macro aggressions I have faced here,” among other things. Frank didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Chavis said he wanted the students to learn, from a management perspective, that they may have to answer an email like his one day. He said he wanted them to see an example of how they shouldn’t respond to an employee.

Ultimately, Chavis thinks that the university’s “heavy-handed” approach to the investigation is partly because he’s spoken out frequently about a lack of diversity in the business school. “They’re definitely uncomfortable with my public outspokenness,” he said.

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Nile shipwreck discovery proves Herodotus right – after 2,469 years | Archaeology | The Guardian

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In the fifth century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus visited Egypt and wrote of unusual river boats on the Nile. Twenty-three lines of his Historia, the ancient world’s first great narrative history, are devoted to the intricate description of the construction of a “baris”.

For centuries, scholars have argued over his account because there was no archaeological evidence that such ships ever existed. Now there is. A “fabulously preserved” wreck in the waters around the sunken port city of Thonis-Heracleion has revealed just how accurate the historian was.

“It wasn’t until we discovered this wreck that we realised Herodotus was right,” said Dr Damian Robinson, director of Oxford University’s centre for maritime archaeology, which is publishing the excavation’s findings. “What Herodotus described was what we were looking at.”

In 450 BC Herodotus witnessed the construction of a baris. He noted how the builders “cut planks two cubits long [around 100cm] and arrange them like bricks”. He added: “On the strong and long tenons [pieces of wood] they insert two-cubit planks. When they have built their ship in this way, they stretch beams over them… They obturate the seams from within with papyrus. There is one rudder, passing through a hole in the keel. The mast is of acacia and the sails of papyrus...”

Robinson said that previous scholars had “made some mistakes” in struggling to interpret the text without archaeological evidence. “It’s one of those enigmatic pieces. Scholars have argued exactly what it means for as long as we’ve been thinking of boats in this scholarly way,” he said.

But the excavation of what has been called Ship 17 has revealed a vast crescent-shaped hull and a previously undocumented type of construction involving thick planks assembled with tenons – just as Herodotus observed, in describing a slightly smaller vessel.

Originally measuring up to 28 metres long, it is one of the first large-scale ancient Egyptian trading boats ever to have been discovered.

Robinson added: “Herodotus describes the boats as having long internal ribs. Nobody really knew what that meant… That structure’s never been seen archaeologically before. Then we discovered this form of construction on this particular boat and it absolutely is what Herodotus has been saying.”

About 70% of the hull has survived, well-preserved in the Nile silts. Acacia planks were held together with long tenon-ribs – some almost 2m long – and fastened with pegs, creating lines of ‘internal ribs’ within the hull. It was steered using an axial rudder with two circular openings for the steering oar and a step for a mast towards the centre of the vessel.

Robinson said: “Where planks are joined together to form the hull, they are usually joined by mortice and tenon joints which fasten one plank to the next. Here we have a completely unique form of construction, which is not seen anywhere else.”

Alexander Belov, whose book on the wreck, Ship 17: a Baris from Thonis-Heracleion, is published this month, suggests that the wreck’s nautical architecture is so close to Herodotus’s description, it could have been made in the very shipyard that he visited. Word-by-word analysis of his text demonstrates that almost every detail corresponds “exactly to the evidence”.

Ship 17 is the 17th of more than 70 vessels dating from the 8th to the 2nd century BC, discovered by Franck Goddio and a team – including Belov - from the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology during excavations in Aboukir bay, with which the Oxford Centre is involved.

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How I Made Google’s “Web” View My Default Search

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Earlier this week, Google announced some big changes to its search engine that are, in a word, infuriating.

Simply put, Google has started adding “AI overviews” to many of its search results, which essentially throw pre-processed answers that often do not match the original intent of the search. If you’re using Google to actually find websites rather than get answers, it $!@(&!@ sucks. Admittedly though, it’s not the first time Google has adulterated its results like a food manufacturer in the 19th century—knowledge panels have been around for years.

But in the midst of all this, Google quietly added something else to its results—a “Web” filter that presents what Google used to look like a decade ago, no extra junk. While Google made its AI-focused changes known on its biggest stage—during its Google I/O event—the Web filter was curiously announced on Twitter by Search Liaison Danny Sullivan.

As Sullivan wrote:

We’ve added this after hearing from some that there are times when they’d prefer to just see links to web pages in their search results, such as if they’re looking for longer-form text documents, using a device with limited internet access, or those who just prefer text-based results shown separately from search features. If you’re in that group, enjoy!

The results are fascinating. It’s essentially Google, minus the crap. No parsing of the information in the results. No surfacing metadata like address or link info. No knowledge panels, but also, no ads. It looks like the Google we learned to love in the early 2000s, buried under the "More" menu like lots of other old things Google once did more to emphasize, like Google Books.

Screenshot from 2024 05 17 08 50 16

Oh, unadulterated Google, how I’ve missed you.

Ever use a de-Googled Android phone? Here’s a de-Googled Google, or as close to one as you’re going to get on the <a href="http://google.com" rel="nofollow">google.com</a> domain.

It’s such a questionably fascinating idea to offer something like this, and for power searchers like myself, it’s likely going to be an amazing tool. But Google’s decision to bury it ensures that few people will use it. The company has essentially bet that you’ll be better off with a pre-parsed guess produced by its AI engine.

It’s worth understanding the tradeoffs, though. My headline aside, a simplified view does not replace the declining quality of Google’s results, largely caused by decades of SEO optimization by website creators. The same overly optimized results are going to be there, like it or not. It is not Google circa 2001—it is a Google-circa-2001 presentation of Google circa 2024, a very different site.

But if you understand the tradeoffs, it can be a great tool. Power users will find it especially helpful when doing deep dives into things. However, is there anything you can do to minimize the pain of having to click the “Web” option buried in a menu every single time?

The answer to that question is yes. Google does not make it easy, because its URLs seem extra-loaded with cruft these days, but by adding a URL parameter to your search—in this case, “udm=14”—you can get directly to the Web results in a search.

That sounds like extra work until you realize that many browsers allow you to add custom search engines by adding the %s entry as a stand-in for the search term you put in. I use it all the time to create shortcuts to site-specific searches I regularly use. And it works great in the case of Google.

Screenshot from 2024 05 17 08 23 52

Over-under on Google changing this? (Vivaldi screenshot)

In Vivaldi, my weapon of choice, I did this:

  • Go to Settings -> Search
  • Look at the list of search engines, and hit the plus button at the bottom left of the dialog box to add a new one
  • Name the new item “Google Web Only,” and give it the nickname of “gw”
  • Set the URL as <a href="https://www.google.com/search?q=%s&udm=14" rel="nofollow">https://www.google.com/search?q=%s&udm=14</a>
  • Set it as your default search

Now, when you use the omnibar on your browser of choice, it will automatically push you to the Google Web Only search. If you want a more traditional search, add a “g” in front of the search in your omnibar, and it will give you the full-fat search, knowledge panels and all. Don’t want to make it your default? Don’t.

But when you want something more elemental, less adulterated, it’s there, no extra junk.

It’s depressing that it’s gotten to this, isn’t it?

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The Rain on Our Parade - TomDispatch.com

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Dear Allies,

Forgive me if I briefly take my eyes off the prize to brush away some flies, but the buzzing has gone on for some time. I have a grand goal, and that is to counter the Republican right with its deep desire to annihilate everything I love and to move toward far more radical goals than the Democrats ever truly support. In the course of pursuing that, however, I’ve come up against the habits of my presumed allies again and again.

O rancid sector of the far left, please stop your grousing! Compared to you, Eeyore sounds like a Teletubby. If I gave you a pony, you would not only be furious that not everyone has a pony, but you would pick on the pony for not being radical enough until it wept big, sad, hot pony tears. Because what we’re talking about here is not an analysis, a strategy, or a cosmology, but an attitude, and one that is poisoning us. Not just me, but you, us, and our possibilities.

Leftists Explain Things to Me

The poison often emerges around electoral politics. Look, Obama does bad things and I deplore them, though not with a lot of fuss, since they’re hardly a surprise. He sometimes also does not-bad things, and I sometimes mention them in passing, and mentioning them does not negate the reality of the bad things.

The same has been true of other politicians: the recent governor of my state, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was in some respects quite good on climate change. Yet it was impossible for me to say so to a radical without receiving an earful about all the other ways in which Schwarzenegger was terrible, as if the speaker had a news scoop, as if he or she thought I had been living under a rock, as if the presence of bad things made the existence of good ones irrelevant. As a result, it was impossible to discuss what Schwarzenegger was doing on climate change (and unnecessary for my interlocutors to know about it, no less figure out how to use it).

So here I want to lay out an insanely obvious principle that apparently needs clarification. There are bad things and they are bad. There are good things and they are good, even though the bad things are bad. The mentioning of something good does not require the automatic assertion of a bad thing. The good thing might be an interesting avenue to pursue in itself if you want to get anywhere. In that context, the bad thing has all the safety of a dead end. And yes, much in the realm of electoral politics is hideous, but since it also shapes quite a bit of the world, if you want to be political or even informed you have to pay attention to it and maybe even work with it. 

Instead, I constantly encounter a response that presumes the job at hand is to figure out what’s wrong, even when dealing with an actual victory, or a constructive development. Recently, I mentioned that California’s current attorney general, Kamala Harris, is anti-death penalty and also acting in good ways to defend people against foreclosure. A snarky Berkeley professor’s immediate response began, “Excuse me, she’s anti-death penalty, but let the record show that her office condoned the illegal purchase of lethal injection drugs.”

Apparently, we are not allowed to celebrate the fact that the attorney general for 12% of all Americans is pretty cool in a few key ways or figure out where that could take us. My respondent was attempting to crush my ebullience and wither the discussion, and what purpose exactly does that serve?

This kind of response often has an air of punishing or condemning those who are less radical, and it is exactly the opposite of movement- or alliance-building. Those who don’t simply exit the premises will be that much more cautious about opening their mouths. Except to bitch, the acceptable currency of the realm.  

My friend Jaime Cortez, a magnificent person and writer, sent this my way: “At a dinner party recently, I expressed my pleasure that some parts of Obamacare passed, and starting 2014, the picture would be improved. I was regaled with reminders of the horrors of the drone program that Obama supports, and reminded how inadequate Obamacare was. I responded that it is not perfect, but it was an incremental improvement, and I was glad for it. But really, I felt dumb and flat-footed for being grateful.”

The Emperor Is Naked and Uninteresting  

Maybe it’s part of our country’s Puritan heritage, of demonstrating one’s own purity and superiority rather than focusing on fixing problems or being compassionate. Maybe it comes from people who grew up in the mainstream and felt like the kid who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes, that there were naked lies, hypocrisies, and corruptions in the system.

Believe me, a lot of us already know most of the dimples on the imperial derriere by now, and there are other things worth discussing. Often, it’s not the emperor that’s the important news anyway, but the peasants in their revolts and even their triumphs, while this mindset I’m trying to describe remains locked on the emperor, in fury and maybe in self-affirmation.

When you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail, but that’s not a good reason to continue to pound down anything in the vicinity. Consider what needs to be raised up as well.  Consider our powers, our victories, our possibilities; ask yourself just what you’re contributing, what kind of story you’re telling, and what kind you want to be telling.

Sitting around with the first occupiers of Zuccotti Park on the first anniversary of Occupy, I listened to one lovely young man talking about the rage his peers, particularly his gender, often have.  But, he added, fury is not a tactic or a strategy, though it might sometimes provide the necessary energy for getting things done.

There are so many ways to imagine this mindset — or maybe its many mindsets with many origins — in which so many are mired. Perhaps one version devolves from academic debate, which at its best is a constructive, collaborative building of an argument through testing and challenge, but at its worst represents the habitual tearing down of everything, and encourages a subculture of sourness that couldn’t be less productive.

Can you imagine how far the Civil Rights Movement would have gotten, had it been run entirely by complainers for whom nothing was ever good enough? To hell with integrating the Montgomery public transit system when the problem was so much larger!  

Picture Gandhi’s salt marchers bitching all the way to the sea, or the Zapatistas, if Subcomandante Marcos was merely the master kvetcher of the Lacandon jungle, or an Aung San Suu Kyi who conducted herself like a caustic American pundit. Why did the Egyptian revolutionary who told me about being tortured repeatedly seem so much less bitter than many of those I run into here who have never suffered such harm?

There is idealism somewhere under this pile of bile, the pernicious idealism that wants the world to be perfect and is disgruntled that it isn’t — and that it never will be. That’s why the perfect is the enemy of the good. Because, really, people, part of how we are going to thrive in this imperfect moment is through élan, esprit de corps, fierce hope, and generous hearts.

We talk about prefigurative politics, the idea that you can embody your goal. This is often discussed as doing your political organizing through direct-democratic means, but not as being heroic in your spirit or generous in your gestures.

Left-Wing Vote Suppression

One manifestation of this indiscriminate biliousness is the statement that gets aired every four years: that in presidential elections we are asked to choose the lesser of two evils. Now, this is not an analysis or an insight; it is a cliché, and a very tired one, and it often comes in the same package as the insistence that there is no difference between the candidates. You can reframe it, however, by saying: we get a choice, and not choosing at all can be tantamount in its consequences to choosing the greater of two evils.

But having marriage rights or discrimination protection or access to health care is not the lesser of two evils. If I vote for a Democrat, I do so in the hopes that fewer people will suffer, not in the belief that that option will eliminate suffering or bring us to anywhere near my goals or represent my values perfectly. Yet people are willing to use this “evils” slogan to wrap up all the infinite complexity of the fate of the Earth and everything living on it and throw it away.

I don’t love electoral politics, particularly the national variety. I generally find such elections depressing and look for real hope to the people-powered movements around the globe and subtler social and imaginative shifts toward more compassion and more creativity. Still, every four years we are asked if we want to have our foot trod upon or sawed off at the ankle without anesthetic. The usual reply on the left is that there’s no difference between the two experiences and they prefer that Che Guevara give them a spa pedicure. Now, the Che pedicure is not actually one of the available options, though surely in heaven we will all have our toenails painted camo green by El Jefe.

Before that transpires, there’s something to be said for actually examining the differences.  In some cases not choosing the trod foot may bring us all closer to that unbearable amputation. Or maybe it’s that the people in question won’t be the ones to suffer, because their finances, health care, educational access, and so forth are not at stake.

An undocumented immigrant writes me, “The Democratic Party is not our friend: it is the only party we can negotiate with.” Or as a Nevada activist friend put it, “Oh my God, go be sanctimonious in California and don’t vote or whatever, but those bitching radicals are basically suppressing the vote in states where it matters.”

Presidential electoral politics is as riddled with corporate money and lobbyists as a long-dead dog with maggots, and deeply mired in the manure of the status quo — and everyone knows it. (So stop those news bulletins, please.) People who told me back in 2000 that there was no difference between Bush and Gore never got back to me afterward.

I didn’t like Gore, the ex-NAFTA-advocate and pro-WTO shill, but I knew that the differences did matter, especially to the most vulnerable among us, whether to people in Africa dying from the early impacts of climate change or to the shift since 2000 that has turned our nation from a place where more than two-thirds of women had abortion rights in their states to one where less than half of them have those rights. Liberals often concentrate on domestic policy, where education, health care, and economic justice matter more and where Democrats are sometimes decent, even lifesaving, while radicals are often obsessed with foreign policy to the exclusion of all else.

I’m with those who are horrified by Obama’s presidential drone wars, his dismal inaction on global climate treaties, and his administration’s soaring numbers of deportations of undocumented immigrants. That some of you find his actions so repugnant you may not vote for him, or that you find the whole electoral political system poisonous, I also understand.

At a demonstration in support of Bradley Manning this month, I was handed a postcard of a dead child with the caption “Tell this child the Democrats are the lesser of two evils.” It behooves us not to use the dead for our own devices, but that child did die thanks to an Obama Administration policy.  Others live because of the way that same administration has provided health insurance for millions of poor children or, for example, reinstated environmental regulations that save thousands of lives.

You could argue that to vote for Obama is to vote for the killing of children, or that to vote for him is to vote for the protection for other children or even killing fewer children. Virtually all U.S. presidents have called down death upon their fellow human beings. It is an immoral system.

You don’t have to participate in this system, but you do have to describe it and its complexities and contradictions accurately, and you do have to understand that when you choose not to participate, it better be for reasons more interesting than the cultivation of your own moral superiority, which is so often also the cultivation of recreational bitterness.

Bitterness poisons you and it poisons the people you feed it to, and with it you drive away a lot of people who don’t like poison. You don’t have to punish those who do choose to participate. Actually, you don’t have to punish anyone, period.

We Could Be Heroes

We are facing a radical right that has abandoned all interest in truth and fact. We face not only their specific policies, but a kind of cultural decay that comes from not valuing truth, not trying to understand the complexities and nuances of our situation, and not making empathy a force with which to act. To oppose them requires us to be different from them, and that begins with both empathy and intelligence, which are not as separate as we have often been told.

Being different means celebrating what you have in common with potential allies, not punishing them for often-minor differences. It means developing a more complex understanding of the matters under consideration than the cartoonish black and white that both left and the right tend to fall back on.

Dismissiveness is a way of disengaging from both the facts on the ground and the obligations those facts bring to bear on your life. As Michael Eric Dyson recently put it, “What is not good are ideals and rhetorics that don’t have the possibility of changing the condition that you analyze. Otherwise, you’re engaging in a form of rhetorical narcissism and ideological self-preoccupation that has no consequence on the material conditions of actually existing poor people.”

Nine years ago I began writing about hope, and I eventually began to refer to my project as “snatching the teddy bear of despair from the loving arms of the left.” All that complaining is a form of defeatism, a premature surrender, or an excuse for not really doing much. Despair is also a form of dismissiveness, a way of saying that you already know what will happen and nothing can be done, or that the differences don’t matter, or that nothing but the impossibly perfect is acceptable. If you’re privileged you can then go home and watch bad TV or reinforce your grumpiness with equally grumpy friends.

The desperate are often much more hopeful than that — the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, that amazingly effective immigrant farmworkers’ rights group, is hopeful because quitting for them would mean surrendering to modern-day slavery, dire poverty, hunger, or death, not cable-TV reruns. They’re hopeful and they’re powerful, and they went up against Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Safeway, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s, and they won.

The great human-rights activist Harvey Milk was hopeful, even though when he was assassinated gays and lesbians had almost no rights (but had just won two major victories in which he played a role). He famously said, “You have to give people hope.”   

In terms of the rights since won by gays and lesbians, where we are now would undoubtedly amaze Milk, and we got there step by step, one pragmatic and imperfect victory at a time — with so many more yet to be won. To be hopeful means to be uncertain about the future, to be tender toward possibilities, to be dedicated to change all the way down to the bottom of your heart.

There are really only two questions for activists: What do you want to achieve?  And who do you want to be?  And those two questions are deeply entwined. Every minute of every hour of every day you are making the world, just as you are making yourself, and you might as well do it with generosity and kindness and style.

That is the small ongoing victory on which great victories can be built, and you do want victories, don’t you? Make sure you’re clear on the answer to that, and think about what they would look like.

Love,

Rebecca

As in 2004 and 2008, Rebecca Solnit and her blue-state henchwomen and men will probably invade northern Nevada on election week to swing with one of the most swinging states in the union. She is, however, much more excited about 350.org’s anti-oil-company campaign and the ten thousand faces of Occupy now changing the world. Also, she wrote some books.

Copyright 2012 Rebecca Solnit

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She was accused of faking an incriminating video of teenage cheerleaders. She was arrested, outcast and condemned. The problem? Nothing was fake after all | Deepfake | The Guardian

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Madi Hime is taking a deep drag on a blue vape in the video, her eyes shut, her face flushed with pleasure. The 16-year-old exhales with her head thrown back, collapsing into laughter that causes smoke to billow out of her mouth. The clip is grainy and shaky – as if shot in low light by someone who had zoomed in on Madi’s face – but it was damning. Madi was a cheerleader with the Victory Vipers, a highly competitive “all-star” squad based in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. The Vipers had a strict code of conduct; being caught partying and vaping could have got her thrown out of the team. And in July 2020, an anonymous person sent the incriminating video directly to Madi’s coaches.

Eight months later, that footage was the subject of a police news conference. “The police reviewed the video and other photographic images and found them to be what we now know to be called deepfakes,” district attorney Matt Weintraub told the assembled journalists at the Bucks County courthouse on 15 March 2021. Someone was deploying cutting-edge technology to tarnish a teenage cheerleader’s reputation.

The vaping video was just one of many disturbing communications brought to the attention of Hilltown Township police department, Weintraub said. Madi had been receiving messages telling her she should kill herself. Her mother, Jennifer Hime, had told officers someone had been taking images from Madi’s social media and manipulating them “to make her appear to be drinking”. A photograph of Madi in swimwear had been altered: “Her bathing suit was edited out.”

Madi wasn’t the only member of the Victory Vipers cheer team to have been victimised. In August 2020, Sherri Ratel had been sent anonymous texts accusing her teenage daughter, Kayla, of drinking and smoking pot. Noelle Nero had been sent images of her 17-year-old daughter in a bikini with captions about “toxic traits, revenge, dating boys and smoking”. These, too, were “all altered and shown as deepfakes”, Weintraub added.

The anonymous sender had used “spoofing” software to disguise their identity behind an unknown number. The police had managed to trace it to the IP address of Raffaella Spone, a 50-year-old woman with no previous criminal record. In her mugshot, she wears a lime green turtleneck with her hair scraped back in a tight ponytail. Her eyes, thickly lined in black, look up at the camera in a cold stare; her brightly painted lips are pursed with anger. She looks terrifying.

“It appears that her daughter cheers – or did cheer – with the victims at the Victory Vipers gym,” Weintraub told the assembled journalists. Spone had taken it upon herself to smear her 16-year-old’s rivals in an attempt to get them thrown off the team.

As microphone after microphone was placed before him on the podium, Weintraub didn’t mince his words. “This tech is now available to anyone with a smartphone – your neighbour, somebody who holds a grudge,” he said, waving his own phone in the air. Here in Bucks County, we have an adult with specific intent, preying on juveniles through the use of deepfake technology.”

This went further than cheerleader rivalry in suburban Pennsylvania. Anyone could be a victim of this new kind of crime, and anyone a perpetrator. “All one needs to do is download an app and you’re off to the races,” Weintraub continued. “Sometimes these deepfakes are so good, we can’t even discern them with the naked eye.” The authorities would always be on the back foot, he added: “It takes minutes to make a deepfake video, but it takes us months to investigate.” The woman in the mugshot was the canary in the coalmine: the era of believing your own eyes was officially over.

In 2021, a fresh wave of panic about deepfakes was crashing on a world that had spent far too much time locked down at home in front of screens. Deepfaked pornography – with the faces of non-consenting people crudely superimposed on to others’ bodies – had been a concern for years, but now digitally manipulated videos were beginning to be eerily convincing.

The press conference came only a few weeks after a deepfaked video of Tom Cruise doing a magic trick went viral on TikTok. It was three months after Queen Elizabeth appeared deepfaked and twerking in Channel 4’s alternative Christmas message, sparking outrage. But the cheerleader deepfake story was something else: an irresistible combination of wholesome all-American girls, nudity, teenage rivalry, underage partying and dystopian technology.

As soon as Weintraub stepped down from the podium, the story exploded. It made international headlines, from the BBC News to the Hindustan Times to the Sydney Morning Herald (and, yes, the Guardian). Trevor Noah mocked Spone on the Daily Show.

Madi Hime appeared alongside her mother on ABC’s Good Morning America, the most watched morning show in the US. They shared the vaping footage – the only imagery from the case to be made public – and Madi described how she felt when one of her cheerleading coaches took them aside to tell them what they’d been sent. “I went in the car and started crying, and was like, ‘That’s not me on video,’” Madi said. “I thought if I said it, nobody would believe me, because there’s proof – there’s a video. But it was obviously manipulated.”

Towards the end of the police press conference, a reporter had raised his hand. Given our first instinct is to believe our eyes, how did the police conclude the videos were deepfakes, he asked, “versus saying: maybe this is teenagers lying, and the videos are real”?

“There’s what’s called metadata,” Weintraub replied. “We can look behind the curtain, as we were able to do in this case. We can’t do it in every case because some providers are halfway across the world. Some don’t cooperate. Others are just inundated with requests.”

He threw his hands up, as if overwhelmed by the scale of it all, adding, “We take it as gospel that a picture is a picture, a video is a video, that they’re unaltered, untainted. This is a setback.”

But a little over a year later, when Spone finally appeared in court to face the charges against her, she was told the cyberharassment element of the case had been dropped. The police were no longer alleging that she had digitally manipulated anything. Someone had been crying deepfake. A story that generated thousands of headlines around the world was based on teenage lies, after all. When the truth finally came out, it was barely reported – but the videos and images were real.

If the word “cheerleader” makes you think of girls with pompoms on the sidelines of high school American football games, think again. Competitive, “all-star” cheerleading is a sport in its own right. It demands jaw-dropping nerve and athleticism, a combination of gymnastic, circus and dance skills, as well as – for female cheerleaders – heavy makeup, backcombed hair and rhinestone-encrusted costumes. It’s an overwhelmingly female sport, but it’s not just for girls. Every year, four million Americans take part.

Each team is a delicate ecosystem. “Tumblers” perform stunning acrobatic feats on the mat. “Stunters” throw “flyers” vertiginously into the air to perform flips and somersaults. The pyramid is the centrepiece of any routine, where the entire squad comes together, with “bases” supporting tiers of teammates and a single flyer at the summit. Flyers need to be light, agile and athletically gifted; they are the focal point of any routine.

Cheerleading accounts for 65% of spinal or cerebral injuries across all female athletes in America. But, for some, the high stakes are worth it: all-star cheerleaders can win college scholarships, become social media influencers and gain lucrative branding deals. Simply making the team can be enough to bring young people status in their community: they become a symbol of local patriotism and clean-cut success.

Doylestown, an hour’s drive north of Philadelphia, is a pretty American town within an excellent local school district; this is where parents with sharp elbows come to raise their families. The Victory Vipers gym is on its outskirts, in a huge, nondescript hangar. On any given day, the parking lot will be full of parents in SUVs, either dropping children off or waiting for them to finish practice. You can hear coaches counting beats over high-octane music inside, but other than that, there is little to suggest this is the home of a highly competitive and successful cheer squad. From the outside, at least, it doesn’t look like a place that costs $4,950 (£4,000) a year to be part of (not including travel expenses for out-of-town competitions), if you’re in the top team.

Neither of the Victory Vipers co-owners responded to requests to speak to me for this article. When Spone was charged, they issued a statement, saying the team “has always promoted a family environment” and that “this incident happened outside of our gym”.

Matt Weintraub became a judge in January; his office said that, given his new position, “the ethical rules require him to decline” my interview offer – but he has been declining to comment on the case since May 2021.

In an email, Hilltown Township’s chief of police, Chris Engelhart, said, “This matter may still be subject to civil litigation and as such, we cannot make any comments.” I have tried to contact Madi and Jennifer Hime for two years, over email and social media, and also Kayla Ratel and her parents, Sherri and George; none of them have responded. Of the three families, only the Neros have got back to me, to politely decline my request. Those who made the loudest noise when the cheerleader deepfake story broke have now gone quiet.

But Raffaella Spone has agreed to speak, in-depth, for the first time. She barely leaves her house now, she says, but is willing to meet me 20 minutes from the Victory Vipers gym, in a diner near where her lawyer is based, so long as he can join us. In person, Spone is tiny; she has a soft, warm face that looks almost nothing like her mugshot. She greets me with a hug. We spend four hours with bottomless sodas in a booth in a corner of the diner.

“Allie was my no-fear athletic child,” she tells me of her youngest daughter (she has another, whose name she has managed to keep out of the press). “I would catch her climbing the streetlamp in our neighbourhood. She was practising gymnastic flips in trees.”

Allie made the local gymnastics team at five years old, Spone tells me. “She was talented and she loved what she did. And I loved watching her – that was my excitement, just watching her and her teammates.”

In the summer of 2016, Allie decided she wanted to do competitive cheer and tried out for the Victory Vipers, their local all-star team. Allie was always a flyer, Spone says: “She’s five one, 100lb – just tiny – and naturally super-flexible.”

After we meet, she sends me videos of her daughter tumbling and cartwheeling before being caught in the splits and thrown high into the air. Allie was prepared to work hard, begging her mother to take her to practice even when she was injured. “She felt her teammates were depending on her,” Spone says. Cheerleading became Allie’s world – and hers. “When your kids are in sports, you don’t have a life sometimes because you’re always driving somebody somewhere, dropping off, picking up. It becomes your life.”

Cheerleading depends on perfect synchronicity and complete trust: any mistake or misunderstanding could lead to a broken neck. Allie formed strong bonds with her teammates. Spone says, “They were inseparable. If they weren’t over at my house, she was over at theirs. Whether it was in the pool, at the beach, all they did was practise. They lived and breathed it.” And Spone made friends with their parents. “While we were waiting for our kids to practise, we would go to a local Mexican place and have dinners.” They took each other’s kids on their family holidays.

The way Spone describes it, there was no rivalry between the Vipers. But it’s clear that in 2020 she had been checking the social media feeds of her daughter’s cheerleading friends and had become concerned by what she saw. What happened next caused things in that cheerleading family unit to break down, irretrievably. “They were my friends. They were people I cared about,” Spone says, quietly. “It broke every part of me.”

On the evening of 18 December 2020, five male police officers banged on Spone’s door with a search warrant. “They took our phones. They took my daughter’s Xbox, her school computer, my husband’s work computer – I don’t own a computer, I never have,” she tells me, pointedly. “They took my husband’s phone charger and my daughter’s disposable camera. They took TVs out of every single room.”

She had no idea why the police were there, but she knew they were there for her, because they were asking for her by name. A male officer patted her down in a way that made her feel violated, she says. She was hysterical, hyperventilating.

The police had been in her home for several hours before officer Matthew Reiss told her what she was being charged with. “He said, ‘You know what you did. You created deepfakes.’ I had never heard that term in my life,” Spone tells me. She faced several counts of harassment, including three counts of cyberharassment of a child, but she wasn’t charged until March 2021, when she came into the police station, had the mugshot taken, and became the face of a moral panic.

In the affidavit of probable cause – the sworn police report outlining the basis for the charges against her – Reiss writes that he and his colleagues had spent months speaking to the families of the three teenagers who said they had been receiving anonymous messages. The “behind the curtain” work he describes relates to how police determined that the spoofed texts had been sent from Spone’s IP address. But when it comes to evidence that she was deepfaking images of minors, things get very vague. Reiss takes Jennifer Hime’s word that “an altered” video of Madi vaping had been sent to the Vipers’ coaches. He says he had “reviewed the video and found it to be the work of a program that is or is similar to ‘Deep Fakes’”. There is no detail on what this reviewing entailed, and how he could be certain it had been altered. Weintraub began the March 2021 press conference by thanking Reiss: “He certainly deserves credit for a very thorough and lengthy investigation.”

Unlike his client, Spone’s lawyer, Robert Birch, knew what a deepfake was. “My first reaction was, how does a 50-year-old woman deepfake something on a phone? You need pretty sophisticated editing capabilities.”

Birch argues that the press conference was a ploy by the district attorney to get some attention. “He was running for re-election that year. He took a look at the criminal complaint and saw an opportunity.”

It is certainly true that Weintraub didn’t shy away from the publicity it generated. He appeared on Good Morning America and The Today Show, and gave interviews to the Washington Post and the New York Times, warning that, “This is something your neighbour down the street can use, and that’s very scary.”

But anyone familiar with the technology at the time knew it would be virtually impossible for an amateur to make a convincing deepfake like the vaping video. Four days after Weintraub’s press conference, generative AI and deepfake expert Henry Ajder expressed concerns that ABC was still running the footage under the caption “DEEP FAKE VIDEO” when it clearly was not. He tweeted that “the vape pen/cloud/hand moving over the girl’s face”, “the awkward facial angles” and other aspects of the video “would likely require a huge amount of work by a deepfake expert, with editing in post”.

One of the most widely reported claims from the press conference was that Spone had taken a photo from Madi’s social media and altered it to make her appear naked. “From day one after that press conference, I demanded that the district attorney’s office send me the death threats and the nudes, and I never got them,” Birch says, drumming his finger on the table. When he was finally allowed to see the evidence against his client, in November 2021 – almost a year after she was charged – he found the image that was the basis for the “nude” claim: a screen-grabbed snap from Snapchat sent by someone called Skylar, featuring Madi in a pink bikini that had been blurred so it blended in with her flesh tone, the sort of thing someone could do using basic photo editing software on their phone with a swipe of a finger, rather than any kind of sophisticated AI digital editing. It looked like a silly joke, rather than a serious attempt to make a nude out of an image of a child. Skylar is a real person – a teenage girl in Madi’s circle of friends, Spone and Birch tell me – but the police had never contacted her to ask about the image.

Birch criticises what he calls “a complete lack of investigation” on the part of the Hilltown Township police. They didn’t ask to see Madi’s phone until a year after her mother told them she had been receiving disturbing messages, by which time Madi had got a new one and disposed of her old one. No death threats against Madi were ever recovered. Madi had also deleted several of her social media accounts, which her mother had claimed provided the source material for the manipulated images and video. The police had taken Madi at her word that images had been taken and altered to make her look as if she was drinking and vaping, but there was no way of finding the source videos and images, or seeing the supposed deepfakes that had been created out of them, apart from the video she had shared with Good Morning America.

Either a woman with no background in digital technology had made a sophisticated deepfake on her iPhone 8, or a 16-year-old had panicked and lied to her mother about vaping, or mother and daughter had decided together to explain away behaviour they knew would get Madi in trouble, with an elaborate story about digital manipulation. The police chose to believe the first explanation.

“They never understood deepfakes, and the implications of giving a press conference scaring people into thinking someone could take an image and turn it into something else so easily,” Birch says. “I don’t think they ever thought this thing would spread like wildfire and become a worldwide phenomenon.”

A small police force made a mistake that became too big to fix. “Once it blew up, the police couldn’t extricate themselves without losing face.”

When The Daily Dot, a tech news website, looked into the deepfake claims in May 2021, and asked Reiss about the methods he had used to establish that the videos had been digitally altered, he admitted he had relied on his “naked eye”, adding, “We hope Mrs Spone during the course of the preliminary hearing or trial will enlighten us as far as what her source and intent was.”

These would be the last public comments Reiss made about the case. On 26 May 2021 he was arrested on suspicion of possessing images of child sexual abuse. Two images had been uploaded to his Gmail account, and detectives had traced them to his IP address. When they raided his home and seized his electronic devices, they found more than 1,700 images and videos depicting children, including 84 of toddlers and infants. Reiss pleaded guilty in March 2022, and was later sentenced to 11 and a half to 23 months in jail. To use Weintraub’s language, if anyone was “preying on juveniles”, it was the police officer who led the investigation.

“I had death threats over every social media platform,” Spone says. “Thousands. You can’t even put a number on it.” She had some fanmail, too: from a convicted murderer in a Wisconsin prison. “A three-page letter, back and front, with a picture of himself,” she adds. “He wanted to get to know me better. That scared me – this person has my address.”

Someone maliciously reported her to child protection officers who turned up at her home to interview her daughters. “My kids had to go through this,” she says.

The man who was renting the house next to hers approached her once, after she had just parked her car. “He looked me dead in the eyes and said, ‘I’m going to kill you. You’re a disgusting paedophile.’ I didn’t know if he had a weapon on him. I thought, this is it, this is the way I’m going out.” Her husband intervened and she called the police, who she says took no further action. “I have to be aware of my surroundings 24/7. It’s taken over my life.”

Spone used to be a crisis worker in a psychiatric unit, but says she has felt unable to return to work after the story broke. Her savings have all been spent on legal fees. “I lost everything. Family, friends, people I’ve known my whole life. Nobody wanted to associate with me.” Her eyes fill with tears. “I did contemplate taking my life. It was too much, between the constant threats and knowing that’s the legacy that I leave behind.”

“You can never scrub off the internet what’s on the internet – that’s the thing,” Birch says.

In March 2022, Spone was found guilty of three counts of misdemeanour harassment for repeatedly sending anonymous messages about the three teenagers. A jury found that she had used secret phone numbers to send incriminating photos and videos. The messages – sent to the Victory Vipers and to the teenagers’ families – accused the cheerleaders of drinking, smoking and posting revealing photos on social media. The anonymous numbers used to send the messages had been sent from an IP address belonging to Spone. She appealed against her conviction, but the superior court of Pennsylvania upheld it on 14 November 2023.

“She was convicted of sending five text messages,” Birch sighs. “There wasn’t one threat in any of them. All the messages said was, ‘You should be aware of what your daughters are posting.’” He claims that a fair trial was impossible, after all the publicity his client had received, saying,“Any jury would be poisoned.”

With unfortunate timing, the trailer for a schlocky TV movie “inspired by” the story, Deadly Cheer Mom, starring Mena Suvari, was released at the same time as the trial. But neither Birch nor Spone has made any official complaint about the jury.

I ask Spone if she sent the messages she has been found guilty over. She denies it, without looking up from her phone. Her phone has been a constant presence since we sat down; she illustrates everything she tells me with evidence stored on it. She has photos of Madi she says were taken the same night as the notorious vaping video: she’s wearing the same clothes, sitting in the same spot. “There are loads of videos. When anybody says, ‘I don’t do that’ – I’ve got proof. Yes, you do! Posted on public accounts, for everyone to see.”

Spone may not manipulate videos and images, but she definitely collects them. Still, she says she never sent them. “The charges were that she directly sent messages to the minors,” Birch adds. “That never happened. That’s the point.”

But did she send messages to the gym and the parents? There is a long pause. “No,” Spone eventually says.

I’m surprised to hear her say this, given Birch told the Washington Post Spone messaged the parents out of concern for what their daughters had put online. When I point this out, there’s another long pause. “If I said that, I said it,” Birch says, with a shrug. “It is what it is.”

Even if Spone is guilty of sending the five messages, she is innocent of the claims that made her notorious. Sending anonymous and unwelcome text messages is not the same as digitally manipulating images of minors.

She was sentenced to three years’ probation and 70 hours of community service; she had to undergo a mental heath assessment and wear an ankle monitor for three months. The conditions of her probation bar her from making public statements about the three girls, so she can’t give me an account of how they all came to fall out so badly. When the news first broke, Kayla’s father, George Ratel, told the Philadelphia Inquirer he thought the problems started when he and his wife told Kayla to stop socialising with Allie “due to concerns over [Allie’s] behaviour”. Spone maintains she was never trying to get anyone kicked off the team – her daughter was the flyer, she says, and already had the most eye-catching position – but this doesn’t explain why Victory Vipers coaches were among those who received anonymised messages sent from her IP address.

Spone is now suing Weintraub, Reiss, Hilltown County police and the Himes for defamation and violating her civil rights. The lawsuit claims that, in “a continuing pattern of intentional defamation to continue to falsely paint [Spone] as a child predator”, the then district attorney’s office and the police “allowed the false accusations” of deepfakes “to continue until the day of the plaintiff’s trial in 2022, knowing that it had no evidence”.

“No amount of money can rectify what was wrong,” Spone tells me, and I believe her: she seems consumed with the details of the case, nearly four years after the events. But Birch says she could receive substantial damages: “The jury could award anything from nothing to $20m if they wanted to.” It’s a tough case, he concedes, a David and Goliath battle. “We’re suing the district attorney, who’s now a judge.”

All four girls had left Victory Vipers by the time the story became public. Madi moved to another cheer squad. Since the story broke, she has achieved the kind of fame competitive cheerleaders dream of. There have been rumours about true crime documentaries and film deals; in February 2022, Madi posted on TikTok about “when [cable channel] Lifetime sent me and my mom a script of their new movie”. She now has almost 100,000 followers and close to a billion views on her main TikTok account alone.

Allie stopped doing cheer altogether in 2020. Spone claims she had wanted her daughter to leave the Victory Vipers long before she did because she felt unhappy about the way it was run, but Allie had begged her to stay because of a tradition where seniors get to press their hands into cement on a wall in the back of the gym, leaving a permanent record. “It was monumental to her. So I went against my intuition and let her stay.” In the end, Allie never got to make her mark.

When I ask Spone how her relationship with Allie is now, there is another long pause. “She knows about this interview. She is not happy. She’s like, ‘Mom, when will this ever be over?’ She just wants to live her life – I can’t blame her, at 19. But I want the truth to be told. I will not rest until the truth is out.”

Truth?” Birch interjects. “What is truth?”

He is half joking – but only half. It’s the day the US supreme court rules Trump was wrongly removed from the Colorado ballot, and the television set on the wall above where we’ve been sitting for hours has been tuned to CNN. Every so often, Birch has pointed a finger at the screen and said, “Fake news.”

The cheerleader deepfake mom story is the ultimate fake news story. Lies can travel around the world for any number of reasons: crying deepfake is just the newest one. Both Spone and Birch tell me they never believe anything they see and hear any more. “My whole world got turned upside down,” Spone says, “so it makes me question whether anything I’m seeing is true.”

In an age of conspiracy, to assume that anything truly is as it initially appears is perhaps a little quaint or naive. The existence of deepfake technology is useful for people who want to sow doubt and have something to gain by distancing themselves from their true words and actions. Lawyers for the first 6 January Capitol rioter to go on trial claimed in 2022 that video evidence against him had been deepfaked. Last year, Tesla’s defence lawyers tried to claim that statements made by Elon Musk about the safety of the Model S and the Model X in a filmed interview might have been deepfaked. As the technology improves and becomes more widely available, more people will be crying deepfake when they are caught on camera. The cheerleader deepfake mom was a canary in the coalmine, after all.

The damage to Spone comes from going viral as the main character in a sensational but false story. “I want to correct those facts,” she repeats. “I don’t want anyone else to go through what I went through. If it can happen to me – and I’m a nobody – it can happen to you.”

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