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Kim visited the Command of Large Combined Unit 526 on Tuesday to mark the day his father became supreme commander [EPA]
|North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has warned war could break out “without any prior notice” and urged his military to bolster its combat readiness, state media reported.The call on Wednesday comes one day after a US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University report said that satellite imagery suggested that the North might have begun producing fuel rods for its recently restarted nuclear reactor.
There has been heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula following the execution of Kim’s uncle and former mentor in an unusually public purge.
Seoul and Washington have warned of possible provocative acts by the nuclear-armed North following the execution of Jang Song-Thaek, a senior leader who was also the uncle and former political mentor of the younger leader.
Kim visited the Command of Large Combined Unit 526 on Christmas Eve, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said.
“He instructed the unit to put utmost spurs on rounding off its combat readiness… always bearing in mind that a war breaks out without any prior notice,” it said.
The unit is based in the North’s western port city of Nampo, according to the South’s Yonhap news agency.
The Johns Hopkins University report said that satellite imagery had identified facilities at the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Centre that might produce fuel for North Korea’s recently restarted plutonium production reactor and the Experimental Light Water Reactor still under construction.
“The identification of these facilities indicates a more wide-ranging, extensive effort by North Korea to modernise and restart the Yongbyon complex dating back to 2009 than previously understood,” the report said.
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye called for “watertight security readiness” during her trip on Tuesday to a frontline guard post, as she described the situation over the border as “ominous”.
“We should react sternly and mercilessly to any provocations by North Korea,” she said.
The reclusive state’s propaganda mill has gone into overdrive in recent days, describing Jang as a traitor while extolling Kim’s leadership.
Tens of thousands of troops pledged loyalty to him in a mass rally on the death anniversary of his father last Tuesday.
The Kim dynasty has ruled the impoverished but nuclear-armed state since 1948 with an iron fist and pervasive personality cult.
Critics using BP America’s Facebook page allege they have been harassed [Erika Blumenfeld/Al Jazeera]
|New Orleans, United States – BP has been accused of hiring internet “trolls” to purposefully attack, harass, and sometimes threaten people who have been critical of how the oil giant has handled its disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
The oil firm hired the international PR company Ogilvy & Mather to run the BP America Facebook page during the oil disaster, which released at least 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf in what is to date the single largest environmental disaster in US history.
The page was meant to encourage interaction with BP, but when people posted comments that were critical of how BP was handling the crisis, they were often attacked, bullied, and sometimes directly threatened.
“Marie” was deeply concerned by the oil spill, and began posting comments on the BP America Facebook page. Today, she asks that she remain anonymous out of what she described to Al Jazeera as “fear for my personal safety should the BP trolls find out that I am the whistleblower in this case”.
In internet slang, a troll is someone who sows online discord by starting arguments or upsetting people, often posting inflammatory messages in an online community, or even issuing physical threats.
Marie sought assistance from the Government Accountability Project (GAP), a non-profit group in Washington DC, and has produced boxes of documents and well-researched information that may show that the people harassing BP’s critics online worked for BP or Ogilvy.
“We’d been hearing of this kind of harassment by BP when we were working on our health project [in the Gulf of Mexico], so it sparked our interest,” GAP investigator Shanna Devine told Al Jazeera. “We saw Marie’s documentation of more serious threats made on the BP page, and decided to investigate.”
According to both Marie and Devine, some of the threats began on the page, but then escalated off the page.
Threats included identifying where somebody lived, an internet troll making reference to having a shotgun and making use of it, and “others just being more derogatory”, according to Devine. “We’ve seen all this documentation and that’s why we thought it was worth bringing to the ombudsman’s office of BP, and we told them we thought some of it even warranted calling the police about.”
“We have thousands of documents regarding communications posted through various Facebook websites,” said certified legal investigator Steve Lockman of Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Rafferty & Proctor. “In addtion, we are in possession of communications between the federal government and the ombudsman’s office of BP regarding the internet communications, and the federal government requesting BP to control the harassment through their Facebook page and their interactions.”
“The harassment communications are not something that BP and their people are not aware of,” Lockman told Al Jazeera. “It’s not a hidden secret that the personal attacks, broadcast abuse, and type-written harassment were happening and continue to go on.”
Marie provided the firm and Al Jazeera with files of complaint letters, computer screenshots of the abuse, and a list of Facebook profiles used by the people who harassed her and others.
“I was called a lot of names,” Marie added. “I was called a streetwalker and a lot of things like that, and eventually had gun threats.”
According to Marie, the harassment didn’t remain on the BP page. Trolls often followed users to their personal Facebook pages and continued to harass them there.
“They resorted to very demeaning methods of abuse,” Marie said. “They were racist, sexist, and threatened me and others with legal action and violence. They’ve insinuated that some commenters are ‘child molesters’, and have often used the tactic of mass reporting with the goal of having their targets completely removed from Facebook.”
One troll using the name “Griffin” makes several allusions to gun violence, while another, named “Ken Smith” also harassed and threatened users, even going so far as to edit a photo of a BP critic’s pet bird into the crosshairs of a gunsight, before posting the photo online – along with photos of an arsenal of semi-automatic weapons.
Another instance occurred involving “Griffin” and an environmentalist who posted a picture of a rendition of Mother Earth saying “Mother Earth Has Been Waiting for Her Day in Court, BP”. “Griffin” posted a comment to the picture that read, “A few rounds from a .50 cal will stop that b**ch”.
According to Marie, Lockman and GAP, BP’s “astroturfing” efforts and use of “trolls” have been reported as pursuing users’ personal information, then tracking and posting IP addresses of users, contacting their employers, threatening to contact family members, and using photos of critics’ family members to create false Facebook profiles, and even threatening to affect the potential outcome of individual compensation claims against BP.
Marie, along with several other targets of harassment, wrote and sent two letters to BP America, asking the company to respond to the allegations and deal with the matter. Neither letter received a response, which is why Marie decided to contact GAP, as well as the law firm.
While Marie’s evidence appears to tie Ogilvy and BP together via the trolls, the law firm Lockman works for is investigating further, in order to conclusively determine the extent of BP’s involvement.
Spinning the disaster
Stephen Marino worked for Ogilvy during the BP disaster. BP had been a client of Ogilvy for five years before the spill, and when the disaster occurred, “we were responsible for all the social media for BP during the spill”,Marino said during a lecture he gave at the University of Texas, Austin, on April 19, 2012.
His team, which he called the “digital influence team”, was “responsible for the crisis response”. Marino told the audience that his job during the BP disaster was to run a ” reputation management campaign ” and gave this specific example of the depths to which Ogilvy worked to maintain a positive appearance for BP:
“We were putting out ads, if you guys remember those ads that came out where it would be Iris in the Gulf of Mexico and she’d be talking about how she grew up there and she wasn’t going to go away,” he explained . “The way we were working with the strategy on that was we would cut the ads one day, we would edit them overnight, we’d air them on Tuesday let’s say, and then we’d look at social media to see what the response was to the ads – and based upon the feedback we were getting on social media, the advertising agency would then go back and re-cut the ads to fix the message to make it resonate more with what the constituents wanted… that was the first key strategy.”
Chris Paulos, an attorney with the firm investigating Marie’s case, believes this is a perfect example of “subversive attempts by corporations to put forward their ideology of what we should think about them, and doing it in a way that is not decipherable to the average person”.
According to Paulos, the public should be concerned about this because we can no longer tell if people online are truly who they say they are, “or are working for a corporation and talking their script to control the dialogue about whatever issue they are addressing”.
“We are in unprecedented times with technology, and [in] the disparity between the power of corporations and autonomous consumers,” Paulos told Al Jazeera. ” Citizens United has basically emboldened corporations with their ability to speak as individuals with First Amendment rights. Ever since that decision, corporations have been outspoken and vigorously protecting themselves while doing it.”
Billie Garde, BP’s deputy ombudsman, in a letter to the Government Accountability Project dated December 18, 2012, stated clearly that “BP America contracts management of its Facebook page to Ogilvy Public Relations” and added, “Ogilvy manages all of BP America’s social media matters”.
“According to BP America, Ogilvy has a group of 10 individuals in different time zones that perform comment screening of the page,” wrote Garde.
Interestingly, Garde’s letter addressed the fact that, at that time, according to Ogilvy’s data, 91 percent of all the comments on BP’s Facebook page were considered to be “unsupportive” of BP, while only nine percent were considered “supportive”. She added that “i n previous years, the number of comments that were ‘unsupportive ‘ of BP was larger than the present 91 per cent “.
Her letter stated that Ogilvy follows a “three strike” policy for all comments, “meaning if they find a comment to be in violation of the commenting policy, they delete the comment and record a ‘strike’ against the user, and three strikes means a user is no longer able to comment on the page. It is also noted that Ogilvy will delete offending comments and send a note to the user indicating the comment was inappropriate”.
Garde added: “BP America has informed our office that Ogilvy strictly adheres to the Commenting Policy as stated on the BP America Facebook page. This policy serves as the guidelines that Ogilvy follows when evaluating the appropriateness of comments. Ogilvy does not evaluate a comment with respect to it being a positive or negative statement towards BP. Likewise, they do not delete any comments based on either of these qualifiers.”
According to Garde, BP America’s Director of Employee Concerns Oversight, Mike Wilson, was apprised of the situation. Wilson was provided examples of harassment and was asked if the examples were reviewed by Ogilvy. “The discussion is ongoing, and Mr Wilson is addressing these specific concerns internally,” Garde added.
A BP spokesman provided the following statement for Al Jazeera: “The BP America Facebook page, and its moderators, do not endorse or dictate any user activity. All users’ comments and actions are their own. BP created the BP America Facebook page to engage the public in an informative conversation about our ongoing commitment to America and to facilitate constructive dialogue for any and all who wish to participate. No users are compensated for participating in the Facebook community. More information on our commenting policy can be found here .”
Marie, however, staunchly believes that BP is responsible for the pro-BP Facebook trolls.
“I have no doubt that they are, and I’ve found the links between the trolls and their friends who work for BP,” she told Al Jazeera. “The Government Accountability Project, through the inquiry they’re conducting for me, is still trying to find out. But we are being stonewalled on the other end, as far as BP doing some type of an internal investigation into these connections that I’ve uncovered.”
According to Marie, the harassment “almost ceased completely at around the same time GAP received Garde’s letter. I say ‘almost’ because at least two of the people who were involved in the prior harassment are still allowed to comment on BP’s page to this day, and [one of those] was still checking on people’s profiles to obtain their state of residence, and would use this against them on the page.”
Lockman’s investigation continues, as do the efforts of recovering additional documentation and sifting through information on hand that links the trolls to both BP and Ogilvy as well as to other subcontracted companies used by BP as creative storytellers.
“The information we possess regarding Marie’s claims, printed out, fills two file boxes, and that does not include all the DVDs which are currently being duplicated at this time,” Lockman said. “It is an unbelievable amount of documentation that has been developed. This documentation, support materials, and information is coming from several different sources. It is like a spider web and we just got started.”
Al Jazeera asked the firm Lockman works for what the possible legal ramifications would be for the alleged actions of BP and Ogilvy.
“What these guys are doing is bordering on illegal,” said Paulos the attorney. “Marie’s allegations are that these guys have made overt acts beyond what they did online, and it does sound like people who’ve been the victims of these actions believe they are in imminent danger of bodily harm, and that can become the basis for a claim of assault.”
Paulos went on to say that if people who had pending claims against BP were being targeted “it can become a claim of extortion or fraud, depending on how the money is being used”. The same applies in cases where money or other benefits are offered in exchange for ceasing the harrassment.
Yet these are not the worst possible crimes.
“They [BP/Ogilvy] are obviously trying to silence folks who are opposed or critical of what they are doing,” Paulos claimed. “But it appears as though it has moved into threats that can be considered terroristic threats depending on the intent behind them, so there are a lot of laws they can be treading on, including stalking, and tortious interference with someone’s businesses. I understand they’ve called the workplaces of people on the websites, and depending on what’s being said that may become actionable under US civil law. So there are a lot of ways they could be breaching the law based on the intent of their communication and how that has been received.”
Paulos believes Marie’s case is an example of how corporations such as BP use their money and power to take advantage of a lack of adequate legal regulations over the use of internet trolls and vigorous PR campaigns, and that this should give the general public pause.
“Marie’s story shows that corporations do not refrain from cyber-bullying, and they are doing it in a very aggressive fashion.”
Linda Hooper Bui, an associate professor of entomology at Louisiana State University, experienced a different form of harassment from BP while working on a study about the impact of the oil disaster on spiders and insects.
“BP was desperately trying to control the science, and that was what I ran into,” Bui told Al Jazeera. According to her, BP’s chief science officer “tried to intimidate me”, and the harassment included BP “bullying my people” who were working in the field with her on her study that revealed how “insects and spiders in the oiled areas were completely decimated”.
While collecting data for the study, Bui and her colleagues regularly ran into problems with BP, she said.
“Local sheriffs working under the auspices of BP, as well as personnel with Wildlife and Fisheries, the US Coast Guard – all of these folks working under BP were preventing us from doing our job,” Bui explained. “We were barred from going into areas to collect data where we had previous data.”
Bui said personnel from the USCG, Fish and Wildlife, and even local sheriffs departments, always accompanied by BP staff, worked to prevent her from entering areas to collect data, confiscated her samples, and “if I’d refused to oblige they would have arrested me” – despite her having state permits to carry out her work.
Bui has also been harassed online, by what she thinks was “a BP troll”, but she remained primarily concerned about what BP was doing to block her science. Her frustration about this prompted her to write an opinion article for The New York Times , titled A Gulf Science Blackout .
That is when she received a call from BP.
“August 24, 2010, at 7:15am the morning my op-ed was published, I received a call from BP’s chief science officer who tried to get me to be quiet,” Bui said. “He said he’d solve my problem, and asked me how much money I needed.”
Bui explained to him she was only interested in being allowed to conduct her studies, and was not interested in working with BP, “that I was publishing science and it involved the entire scientific community”, and she never heard back from him.
She believes her method of dealing with the overall situation was a success. “When somebody starts to mess with me, I publicise it and say: ‘Don’t f**k with me,'” she concluded. “And if you do, I’m going to go very public with it, and that’s what I did.”
BP did not respond to Al Jazeera for comment regarding her specific allegation.
GAP’s Shanna Devine told Al Jazeera she believes the onus is on BP to investigate the possibility that there is a connection between the harassment and Ogilvy and BP employees.
“But so far they’ve taken a very hands-off approach,” she explained. “They’ve not taken responsibility and they are not willing to share information with us.”
Follow Dahr Jamail on Twitter: @DahrJamail
|Venezuela’s National Assembly has granted President Nicolas Maduro wide-ranging special powers to rule by decree for one year so that he can fix the economy.
Tuesday’s vote over the Enabling Law is the latest move by the elected Venezuelan leader, a protégé of the late President Hugo Chavez, to strengthen his hand as he faces an important political test in municipal elections next month.
The decree will essentially allow Maduro to create laws without parliamentary approval.
He says he needs greater personal power to stamp out opponents who are waging “economic warfare against his government” as the country struggles with soaring inflation and shortages of basic goods.
“Maduro has to tackle an economy in free fall,” Al Jazeera’s Andy Gallacher, reporting from the Venezuelan capital Caracas, said.
“People are really struggling to buy normal household goods.”
Over the weekend, Maduro used his existing authority to make retail appliance stores slash prices, sending troops to keep order among the crowds that quickly formed.
The Venezuelan unit of General Motors was fined the equivalent of $85,000 on Tuesdsay for allegedly overcharging and practising “usury” in the sale of car parts to local concessionaires.
The government also asked Twitter to take down accounts of users posting the illegal black market exchange rate for the country’s bolivar currency, which is trading at about one-tenth of the official value.
These measures have rallied Maduro’s working-class base and even won approval from some government opponents who have joined the long lines outside appliance stores nationwide for the past 10 days in search of deep discounts on TV sets and refrigerators.
The deep discounts of as much as 60 percent – which Maduro has said would be extended to toys, cars and clothing – come as workers cash their year-end pay bonuses, allowing them to make purchases that might otherwise have been out of reach.
The country has been repeatedly battered by a 54 percent inflation rate, a shortage of hard currency and basic goods.
Critics, however, blame Venezuela’s economic hardship on the government-imposed fixed exchange rate and price controls which they say have led to a shortage of basic goods such as rice and meat.
The vote to approve the so-called Enabling Law had been widely expected after Maduro garnered the two-thirds support he needed, or 99 votes, during a preliminary debate last week.
The move added to the opposition’s speculation that this was a thinly veiled power grab.
After Tuesday’s vote, Diosdado Cabello, the National Assembly president, led a march of more than 2,000 supporters from the legislature to the presidential palace to deliver the text of the decree law to Maduro.
Addressing a crowd smaller than the ones Chavez was accustomed to drawing, Maduro reiterated a pledge to use his expanded powers to keep prices low across industries and limit profit margins to 30 percent.
He also pledgegd to start 2014 with a frontal attack on corruption.
“They underestimated me; they said Maduro was an amateur,” he told the crowd. But “what you’ve seen is little compared to what we’re going to do”.
The legislative process leading up to Tuesday’s vote was marred by controversy after an opposition congresswoman was stripped of her immunity from prosecution over corruption charges, allowing for her substitution by a pro-government legislator who gave Maduro the crucial 99th vote needed to prevail.
The city of Washington, Illinois, was hit hard by a “large and extremely dangerous” tornado [Reuters]
|Severe storms and violent tornadoes have killed at least two people and injured about 40 and flattening large parts of the city of Washington, Illinois, as they battered the US Midwest on Sunday, officials said.
The storm created tornadoes in Bone Gap and Miller City, Illinois, in Mount Carmel, Noblesville and Vincennes in Indiana, and in Paducah, Kentucky, the National Weather Service said on Sunday.
The storm system is threatening up to 53 million people across the Midwest.
The storm also forced the Chicago Bears to halt their game against the Baltimore Ravens and encourage fans at Soldier Field to seek shelter as the storm roared in.
Chicago’s two major airports also briefly stopped traffic with the metropolitan area was under a tornado watch.
The city of Washington, Illinois, was hit hard by what the National Weather Service called a “large and extremely dangerous” tornado.
Thirty-one people injured by the storm that hit Washington were being treated at St Francis Medical Center, one of the main hospitals in nearby Peoria, according to hospital spokeswoman Amy Paul. Eight had traumatic injuries.
Two people were killed in Washington County, Illinois, about 320km south of Peoria, said Illinois Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Patti Thompson.
The agency estimated that at least 70 homes were destroyed across the state.
Stephen Wilson, a spokesman for Peoria’s Proctor Hospital, said six or seven patients were being treated with minor injuries. “Mostly cuts, bruises, some broken bones,” he said.
Photos from Washington, Illinois, showed buildings reduced to rubble and homes torn in half in the city of 15,000 people about 233km southwest of Chicago.
“We have reports of homes being flattened, roofs being torn off,” Sara Sparkman, a spokeswoman for the health department of Tazewell County, Illinois, where Washington is located, said in a telephone interview.
Many of the injuries appeared to have been caused by collapsing structures.
The Illinois National Guard sent a 10-person fire-fighting and search-and-rescue team to Washington to help with the recovery effort.
Illinois State Police spokeswoman Monique Bond said mobile homes were toppled, roofs torn from homes, and trees uprooted.
She said officials believe some people may be trapped in their basements under debris.
The American Red Cross worked with emergency management officials to set up shelters and provide assistance to displaced residents, even as rescue workers searched for more people who might have been caught and trapped in the storm’s path.
Tornado warnings were in effect for parts of Indiana and Kentucky. Weather officials urged residents of areas with tornado warnings in place to take cover in interior, low-floor rooms of study buildings.
The NWS’s Storm Prediction Center said the storm moved dangerously fast, tracking eastward at 97 kilometre per hour.
|French President Francois Hollande has warned that the “future of a generation is at stake” as European leaders face up to the crisis of youth unemployment.
Hollande was hosting a summit in Paris where leaders met for the fourth time in six months to hammer out how to reverse the upward trend.
Germany has described youth unemployment as the “most pressing problem facing the continent,” and Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that the continent risked creating a “lost generation.”
Economists maintain this is a consequence of the financial crisis, that young people always suffer in recessions, employers stop hiring them, and new recruits are easy to let go.
On average, one in four young people is without a job, and in the worst affected countries it is more than half.
More than 5,5 million people under 25 are out of work, that represents almost a quarter of all young people.
Greece has the highest rate, running at 57.3 percent; it is followed by Spain at 56.5 percent, while Italy’s young jobless rate is 40 percent. That is in sharp contrast to Germany, where less than eight percent of young people are unemployed.
European leaders have been discussing a range of measures to bring these figures down, including the Youth Employment Initiative, which was approved at an EU summit in Brussels in June.
This requires that all young people up to the age of 25 receive an offer of employment, continued education, an apprenticeship or a traineeship within four months of leaving school or becoming unemployed.
The initial budget has been set at $8bn with the project due to start in January and it will be rolled out in countries where youth unemployment is above 25 percent.
But is there the will, or the sufficient resources to find work for millions of young people? And will the Youth Employment Initiative succeed?
Inside Story, with presenter Sue Turton, is joined by guests: Jonathan Todd, the European Commission spokesman; Evgenia Bosmi, a student from Greece, who has been looking for a job for the past two years; Joe Haslam, an associate professor at the IE business school, and executive director of the owners and entrepreneurs management programme; and Albert Tucker, a trustee of Common Purpose, an organisation that helps prepare young people for the workplace.