The state of digital activism

The state of digital activism

An interview with Asteris Masouras

With global news curator Asteris Masouras, I debate what online activism is getting right -- and how it could improve. Among other topics, we discuss: Twitter’s value as a platform for activism, when to call a fascist a fascist, and deplatforming and censorship as political weapons.

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About the guest

Asteris Masouras has been curating global breaking news on Twitter since 2007, where he follows stories ranging from the protests of social justice movements worldwide, to mainstream politics and conflicts around the globe. He was included in the Independent’s 2011 list of “The most influential non-celebrity users of Twitter”, and was an editor at Reportedly, a real-time news experiment sponsored by Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media.

Asteris is also an editor for Global Voices Online, and a co-founder and editor of Global Voices in Greek.


A primer on global news curation

ASTERIS: I’m Asteris Masouras. I’m an online journalist and occasionally activist. But mostly I’m a global news curator and amplifier. That’s been my métier for the past decade.

MEHRAN: Global news curator… could you take me through the process of how you curate global news? So you’re following specific sources on Twitter and retweeting those sources…?

ASTERIS: It’s been evolved enough now to have a name. It’s called Open Source Intelligence or OSINT. You’re following public sources and informing the public, with them by filtering and amplifying. The main issue for that work is… how do you know what’s happening on the ground, if you’ve not been there?

Verifying sources

MEHRAN: Can you take me through, how do you verify sources? Do you have a policy for making sure that what you’re reading on Twitter, that people are posting is legit.

ASTERIS: It’s an organic process. It takes time. You could conceivably jump into a new sphere of news that you’re not familiar with.

But you carry your own preconceptions and prejudice as we all do. And it takes time to listen to what’s going on on the ground. Preferably to have an empathic connection with the people at large

MEHRAN: It sounds like what you’re saying is you develop a nose for it.

ASTERIS: Yeah you develop a nose for it, but it’s also how journalists trust their sources, and find people that are credible enough to carry the general sense of what’s going on on the ground. And at the same time, always filtering out biases.

First, you have to filter the biases from your own side. It’s part of your job to be, not a contrarian per se, but distrustful of authoritarian narratives. The narratives of power.

And professional journalists know that. Whether they take it into account and practice it or not, they know that.

MEHRAN: Can you give examples? What are some shining lights of good, thorough, clear journalism today?

ASTERIS: The foreign corps working in Syria has been excellent. The journalists who’ve repeatedly visited the conflict, on the ground, and became attached to the people and the region. They’re good journalists. A lot of them are women, which does play a part.

They have an activist side to their reporting. Because they feel that the conflict in Syria has been under-engaged with. Not necessarily under-reported… there was a swath of coverage in the first years of the conflict. But then the world just tuned it out. Just like they did with the Iraq conflict previously.

They’ve been trying their best to convey what’s happening on the ground to people, and not advocating for specific solutions. But advocating for people to care.

Twitter’s value as an activism platform

MEHRAN: If I look at Twitter, for example. There’s been a shift in Twitter in the last four or five years. I used to feel that it could be a platform where the things that you’re describing could happen, that there could be awareness, that it could help people to care more.

Now I see a lot of angry people, split into tribes and lobbing at each other and everyone’s watching different movies. So from an input point of view, from an influence point of view, it’s changed. Do you feel the same or would you challenge that?

ASTERIS: I do, but it’s a lazy assumption to make. I berate myself for making that assumption. Because in the heyday of Twitter in the early days, like the first five years, which coincided with the Arab spring and the Indignants’ movement and all the wonderful stuff happening around the world…

Wonderful things still are happening, [but] people aren’t even interested, in the main about, for instance, what’s happening in Lebanon.

What’s happening there is a continuation, not of the Arab spring, but of the same collective spirit of positive change. And yet the same audiences, aren’t interested.

So there has been a marginalization of the winds of change on Twitter, but they’re not out of the picture completely.

The platform is ideally suited to toxicity and negativity. But the platform is part of the public commons. It’s one thing, if you decide for yourself, I can’t waste the energy to do this anymore here.

But if you just capitulate to the toxicity, it doesn’t help the public.

Protest in Tripoli, Lebanon (November 2019). Source: Wikipedia

MEHRAN: Point well-taken. You cited Lebanon and what’s happened in Lebanon. Before we jump into those issues that you mentioned, with regard to extremism and the public commons, I would like to understand what for you are recent examples of good work, where Twitter has come into its own as an activist tool. And has helped to instigate change.

ASTERIS: Lebanon is one it’s exemplary because Lebanon has a large English-speaking public sphere. The Lebanese are well versed in online activism and representation of public issues. They seem to have evolved the model of both Occupy and the Arab Spring, without being an iteration of either of these things. It’s a new thing.

They’ve also iterated another shining example, which was the Sudanese revolution. In an even more fraught region of the world.

MEHRAN: The amplification of news from Lebanon, how has that shifted things for the country in the last couple of months?

ASTERIS: Maybe this is a misconception or naive, but I think the more we’re monitoring things and engaging, we can help protect these movements from the crackdowns.

The other aspect of engaging from abroad is to put pressure on our own governments. To not cooperate with authoritarians and corrupt figures.

I think also, being there for these people validates their need not to be alone. It’s not a Western thing. You can be from anywhere in the world… people want to want to feel that that cause is not indifferent to other people. It’s a human need.

The other side is what you’re doing as an intermediary. That you can inject a sense of the public discussions and the evolution of public policy into your domestic audience.

MEHRAN: To try to push the focus back on the issues that matter rather than every twist and turn of the impeachment process, or…

ASTERIS: Yes exactly. And the political processes in the Commons. Because the minute you have people starting to peacefully occupy a square, within two days we’re going to have vibrant discussions about: What is a public space? What is politics? The essence of nationhood. All these things.

These things are natural tendencies of the human species. We sit together in the same square and start talking with each other. That’s why you see many of these revolutions starting with reclaiming public space.

Imagine being a Lebanese, where all the formerly public spaces are owned by private companies. It was a core part of the whole revolution movement to reclaim our spaces and not just defeat corruption, but to take back what is ours.

MEHRAN: And yet, the stories about Lebanon, are nowhere in the media outlets that I’m reading.

ASTERIS: My point exactly.

MEHRAN: It’s really off the radar. And this brings me to the idea of impact. Even though you wouldn’t give yourself that ‘activist’ label in the bulk of the work you’re doing, it’s change that you want to see, isn’t it?

ASTERIS: Of course, of course.

Is online grassroots activism making a difference?

MEHRAN: And therefore it comes back to: How do you know when your work is making a difference? Have you got any examples of where you could map, ‘we did this, and thanks to that, this happened on the ground’?

ASTERIS: Like the earliest examples would be for instance, here in Thesaloniki, local bloggers stopped the municipality from at least two disastrous development projects. And we had several victories in the European parliament over digital rights.

But I think the biggest impact was the intertwining of activist journalism and the citizenry during the Indignants’ anti-austerity movement.

MEHRAN: That was in 2011, and we were eight and a half years on now. Why do you think there hasn’t been more of a systemic shift that would facilitate more impact coming from this type of work?

Challenges for climate change activism

ASTERIS: Because that’s how humanity operates. It’s obvious on the environmental [activism] side of things.

We’re at a point where a 16-year-old school student is going on strikes, influencing people around the world and even being hosted by the UN — because, Secretary General Gutierrez is on board with Greta Thunberg’s protest.

But although the world is aware, and the world is espousing the viewpoints of the activists,… there’s no shift in practices. And we have seen that for decades. And now we’re at the brink of irreversible change the ecosystem — the planet is fine, the people are fucked — but there’s still no traction, no change.

So why? It has to do with humans. Humanity is embroiled into this day-to-day struggle. And it’s incapable of taking larger action. Even to safeguard its own existence.

MEHRAN: I’m not an expert on the climate topic at all, but what I see as an observer are the same issues communicated in the same alarming way.

Source: Andre Anita/iStock Photo

And the link to the broader quality of life narrative like traffic jams, congestion, pollution, even economic competitiveness… that link is rarely made. [The problem] always feels like something far away, both in terms of time and in terms of distance.

ASTERIS: I know where you’re coming from and I don’t disagree. And I’m also critical of NGOs that have whales in the room [for PR purposes].

It’s also a larger problem with human mentality, that has to be changed through education. And social education is what we’re doing.

Deplatforming and censorship

MEHRAN: That brings me to de-platforming and censorship, for ideas that are deemed too dangerous.

There is a view that bad ideas should be confronted rather than censored. Where do you stand on that?

ASTERIS: I’m in touch with both schools of thought on this, and I have friends on both sides of the equation. It’s a core issue of our time.

I’m a fervent believer in freedom of speech. But I’m not a blind libertarian; I do realise that speech can harm.

So it’s hard. And what we’re seeing now, primarily on Facebook but also on Twitter, is a growing contention between people who use speech to harm and they claim speech rights. And people who are routinely de-platformed because of reporting campaigns by the first group. And that’s unsettling,

MEHRAN: So it’s a fine line and a fine balance, and it’s a case-by-case thing? Are there any first principles that you could fall back on in order to discern what should be de-platformed and what should be let through?

ASTERIS: First, the platforms need to change their architecture and mentality. It’s inevitable that we will have hate speech laws in some sense. Even though I’m cautious about their propagation. Because I see a pattern of litigating authoritarianism, even in Western societies.

Like for instance, in Greece, the blasphemy laws. It’s ridiculous. Why would Greece have blasphemy laws? And they have been used as political weapons against dissent.

MEHRAN: If I look for example at last year, when Steve Bannon was invited to the New Yorker festival. They invited him; there was an outcry; they disinvited him.

And that was the worst possible outcome, because it first gave his crowd the oxygen of being invited. And then it gave them the right to cry ‘he was de-platformed! They’re trying to censor his ideas!’ What was your take on that?

ASTERIS: There’s a fine line between, examining and challenging extremist ideals and amplifying them. And it’s true that several institutions have crossed it.

MEHRAN: But at the New Yorker festival, had Bannon been there, they would have sat him down with the New Yorker editor David Remnick. Who presumably would have challenged his ideas before a crowd of people, OK, people agreeing with David Remnick.

But at least it would have been on camera and viewers would understand the light and the shadow in the guy’s ideas. Isn’t there a value to that? To holding these things up and saying ‘what does this person believe’?

Because however we look at it — and I know this doesn’t apply to everybody who’s been de-platformed; I know there are people who are just toxic and ranting, and again that’s perhaps a difficult call to make. But Steve Bannon is a hugely influential figure. He’s responsible for the situation that we’re in today.

ASTERIS: Yeah, Steve Bannon is the Rasputin of the entire extremosphere.

Protest against Steve Bannon at Oxford University. Source: Oxford Union

MEHRAN: Right.

So if I’m approaching this from progressive side, I’m thinking: ‘What are his talking points? What are the holes in his arguments? Where are these people coming from? And what is he actually doing?’

He’s running The Movement, a collaboration between all the right wing authoritarian governments and wannabe governments in Europe. He’s facilitating this network, and he’s very quiet about that. I want to understand what he’s up to.

ASTERIS: You want a [David] Frost interrogating him?

MEHRAN: Yes. I don’t want to give him a microphone and hear a speech. I want a debate where his ideas are being held up and criticised. And I want to hear how he reacts.

ASTERIS: You disagree then with protesters in Oxford when Bannon was invited. He’s insinuating himself into high profile platforms and gaining new audiences.

When to call a fascist a fascist

There was a wave of normalising … let’s call them fascists. I do at least. The alt-right. There was a wave of legitimising the alt-right, a year before Trump came into office. This was before the hate wave in the US. And Charlottesville and all of these, extremist attacks on places of worship.

Before all that happened, there was this trend by mainstream outlets, including the New York times to normalise the Nazi next door. Now I don’t know how you view this, but I viewed it as complicity.

MEHRAN: I’m hesitant to use that term ‘fascist’. And it’s not because I don’t like calling things what they are. It’s because I’m aware of how it makes people feel when they’re labeled ‘deplorables’, ‘racists’, etc. And how it rallies them around something that maybe they were not believing that firmly in before, but now that those elite Ivy leaguers in the establishment media are calling us this, now they’re going to vote for Trump. Now they’re going to go to that rally.

ASTERIS: You mean we made them gel together?

MEHRAN: I’m not saying that, but we facilitate it [by labelling them as such].

ASTERIS: But if you don’t oppose it, it will happen anyway. How does it facilitate it?

MEHRAN: This was from the On The Media podcast: “The most powerful identities are the ones whose status is being threatened”. Insulted, disparaged, anything like that.

So what we’re doing, in this time of identities and tribes, by drawing a line around people and saying ‘you’re racist’, ‘you’re fascist’…. we’re just solidifying that group. And that’s human nature. We are hardwired for this. We can’t avoid it.

ASTERIS: I agree that using simplified vernacular doesn’t help. And it’s also part of the journalism profession to distinguish. On my own outlet, I insisted that if some grouping was demonstrably espousing a set of values, that they would be called with that name.

For instance, the Golden Dawn group. It is Nazi. It walks like a Nazi, it talks like a Nazi. And it beats people up like a Nazi.

It doesn’t matter if they deny it — they’re a Nazi group. I’m not saying that all groups in that ecosphere are Nazi. Some are white supremacists, some are nationalists, some are ultranationalist.

But at least, most of these groups are white supremacists. And that means an existential hatred of other races.

MEHRAN: Right. But take Golden Dawn, which you mentioned. The majority of the support that they have is from everyday people. People who are confused or uneducated perhaps, feeling weak, feeling a loss of dignity. I’m not sympathising with their choice to support Golden Dawn…

ASTERIS: But they’re good Germans, nevertheless.

MEHRAN: But when we say Golden Dawn supporters are ‘fascists’ or ‘neo-Nazi’, are we only talking about the people that are bashing immigrants and wrecking market stalls?

ASTERIS: OK, there’s room for distinction there. I’m not saying that all Golden Dawn’s sympathisers are Nazis. But they’re being put on trial for being a criminal organisation. Not for criminal acts by specific people. There is something called a criminal organisation, and being a part of that means that at least you’re being an accomplice.

It doesn’t mean that I would like to see everyone persecuted who supported them or voted for them. Voting is an especially touchy subject. But — and there’s a ’but’ here — if these people, their supporters, are engaging in the public activities that are helping them commit crimes against other people, particularly the vulnerable, then they’re complicit,

MEHRAN: But then would they warrant the label ’nazi’ or ‘fascist’ in your mind?

ASTERIS: My view is that the core group and the people who participated in the pogroms are Nazis used and they know it. They believe in the cultist militant fantasy of the Nazi party.

Now, everyone else outside the central group, can fall into shades of the spectrum. But to the extent that they’re helping them attack, uh, vulnerable populations…. it’s problematic, wouldn’t you agree?

MEHRAN: Absolutely. It’s a good distinction. At a personal level, I would agree with you in terms of how to label the core of that group.

But generally, for the purpose of the debate, and for activism, these are unhelpful terms because they’re always used as a negative.

When I hear labels like ‘fascist’ but also ’populist’, for example, in mainstream discourse…

ASTERIS: Populist doesn’t mean anything!

MEHRAN: Exactly. ‘Populist’ is what the Establishment calls you when it doesn’t like what you’re saying. So how is it useful?

There’s this guy Cass Mudde. I don’t know if you’ve read his work…

ASTERIS: I know of him.

MEHRAN: He writes the same article all the time and changes the words. About how this is populism, that government is populist and that person is populist. It’s meaningless; it’s not good for the debate.

I’m not legitimising the actions of anyone he’s labeling populist. I’m saying let’s retire the term, because no-one is going to think a populist is ever a good thing.

ASTERIS: Here’s where I disagree with everyone. I disagree with the strict centrists liberals, like Mudde, on using the term populist. And I disagree with the leftists and the anarchists in the generalised use of the term ‘fascist’ because as you say, it engages people negatively and makes them own the label.

For instance, the villages that marched to the refugee relocation camps around Greece this last month. Were they all fascist? I don’t know.

They were obviously racist. Racist is inherent in every human. You have to fight it all the time. Nobody’s non-racist. Everyone has a racist tendency because racism springs from the need to classify things, so you can reflexively react. It’s an animistic impulse. But if you start getting to know people for who they are, you can’t treat them anymore as part of a genetic group that you despise or suspect. You treat them as human beings, individuals. So for us not to be racist, we would have to be on a first name basis with every human on Earth. You push back racism in yourself all the time, assuming that you want to.

Greek migrants attacked on the island of Lesvos by far right groups. Source: AFP

But I wouldn’t characterise all these people protesting the refugee relocations as ‘fascist’. I don’t do that. I reserve this term for people who have a political platform, to exploit other people.

MEHRAN: You take a lot more care than the average person. It’s good, because words are all we have, especially online.

I hear people being characterised as racist because they supported Brexit, or voted for Trump. And look at what happened with Hillary when she made that comment about ‘the deplorables’.

So the left always scores an own goal when they’re loose with these kinds of words and labeling the opposite side.

ASTERIS: It’s true. But it’s not just the left. If you look at the far right spectrum, they’re doing the same thing with their own nomenclature. Like ‘social justice warriors’ and all that. I see that vernacular everywhere.

But I agree that it’s you’ll more frequently hear people calling other people racists, than social justice warriors. [The right] is winning the narrative right now, or being the side of [having its speech suppressed]. They’re gaining ground by presenting themselves as being sidelined by the dominant progressive narrative. Which is not true because politics [today] are conservative.

MEHRAN: That’s also why progressives need to be careful with de-platforming as a weapon. Because as we talked about before, that helps the opposing group rally more support around them.

Two sides watching different movies

That brings me to something else, a more recent thing. You’ll recall, I think yesterday, a NATO summit where Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron were caught on a hot mic bitching about Donald Trump.

ASTERIS: Yeah. And even Boris Johnson was laughing, don’t forget.

MEHRAN: Right. And I just saw that the Joe Biden campaign has now turned this into a video.

But this exemplifies a problem that I’m seeing on social media, which is this: that hot mic incident is shared by lots of people on my timeline with ridicule. “Look at this, how ridiculous” or “[other world leaders don’t take him seriously, “how can we get rid of this ridiculous orange creature?” This kind of thing.

And then I delved into the comments from people from the right. Their reaction [to the incident] was: “Good; this is exactly the person we want to shake up these stuffy meetings in NATO, and these cowards can’t even complain to his face about him”.

I see these two different movies being played, and it’s so frustrating because there’s no common ground on which these two sides could come together and discuss this video and have their views changed in any way.

ASTERIS: That’s been a problem for me as well. And I think that for politics to be closer to people, it has to do away with all the artifice on some level. That’s one thing.

And the way the Trump campaign is weaponising this, it’s like they’re trying to make it appear as if Trump is the only honest person in the room. Which is not the case.

MEHRAN: But things like that video could solidify more support for Trump.

ASTERIS: I understand. But you can’t do anything about it. There’s always going to an intent, a method, to weaponise these things in favor of the autocrat.

MEHRAN: Yes, and I would criticise the leftists on my timeline for sharing it.

Firstly, they’re ridiculing it, so you have the problem that they’re actually making the other group feel more cohesive and stronger. But second, the fact that they’re sharing it and amplifying it, without packaging it in a way that could neutralise it…

ASTERIS: But how do you do that? That’s the thing. Trump successful deluged the public sphere with this stupidity effect, to the point that stupid is now the new normal. And you can’t even react to it.

I understand what you’re saying, and I agree to an extent, but on the other hand, how do you defang it?

Lakoff's “Truth Sandwich” approach

MEHRAN: One of the proposed approaches to this — and I’m not saying it’s the best way — but, you know the linguist George Lakoff?

ASTERIS: I’ve heard of him, yeah. I haven’t read his stuff.

MEHRAN: This relates to fact-checking Trump, which was a big thing for the election and continues to be. And Lakoff’s argument, as many people also say, is that by checking the facts you’re amplifying the lie.

What Lakoff proposes is doing something called a Truth Sandwich, where you tell the truth first. Then you point out what the lie is and how that lie diverges from the truth. And then you repeat the truth, and tell the consequences of the difference between the truth and the lie.

ASTERIS: But that’s a technique. You know [journalist] Daniel Dale?

MEHRAN: Yes. But he’s only pointing out the gap.

ASTERIS: What, what Daniel Dale is doing is a service to everyone, to every other journalist who doesn’t have the time to do that stuff on their own.

MEHRAN: You’re right. Dale is providing fantastic raw data. But in terms of the type of communication that doesn’t help Trump advance his own agenda, we need [to do] more than that.

We need to take that content from someone like Daniel Dale and package it in a way which the other side cannot use.

ASTERIS: I don’t think that’s doable. It’s impossible to inoculate your message from being repackaged. Because it’s in the nature of a message…

You’ve seen that in oppo campaigns in politics, right? Everything you say can and will be used against you by the other side. What you’re proposing are tactics of re-using the core elements of messages so audiences better understand them. But you have to start with the audiences.

Audiences tend to tune out what is not in their immediate interest. They tend to act as tribes, coalescing around authority figures. You have to go door-to-door, mouth-to-ear, talk to your own people.

We have overlooked this. On Facebook, you see ‘debate’ where people are just throwing arguments and characterisations at each other. They’re not talking to each other.

MEHRAN: I agree. And work needs to be done at all levels of the stack. But [Lakoff’s Truth Sandwich] is something that could be implemented. I’m not saying it’s the best way, but it’s one way I’ve read about which hasn’t gained any traction.

And Lakoff has been [proposing this model] for a few years. He has been railing against the fact that Trump is able to manipulate the media because of this dynamic.

Grassroots protest as a model for change

ASTERIS: That’s why I’m inspired by the work that’s being done by public movements. Commonly called ‘revolutions’ nowadays. They’re not revolutions in the way that people knew them in the past; not killing people or anything. There’s revolutions against normative politics, which are basically corrosive.

It’s about getting people on the street and sitting across from each other and talking to each other. And I’ve seen that work. In the Indignants [protest], it was amazing. People listened to each other from different political regiments. You have to have people co-exist in the square.

MEHRAN: In 2011.

ASTERIS: Yeah, and 2013, and during that time, and it worked. And it’s still working now in Lebanon and in Sudan. That’s why I believe in the streets.

In Egypt, one of the things that made an impression on me was the young revolutionaries, who were internet savvy and westernised, they went to their folks at home and explained to them why Mubarak had to go.

And I’m not being a Luddite now, you know me…. I spend all my time on Twitter.

It’s amazing, in Lebanon. You know what their main slogan is? “All means all”. All of them must fall, the entire system.

And I can’t even be begin to grasp how they managed to put together an anti-sectarian political movement, because that’s what it is.

There are people from all sects, of politics, coexisting, and being revolutionaries first, in the current timeline. That’s amazing. How did this happen? In the street.

MEHRAN: And if it sustains itself…

ASTERIS: Yeah, that’s the main issue. How do you scale and how do you sustain? But it’s a worthwhile political project.

And even if you don’t [bring about] change — this is what I’ve been hearing from the Lebanese — at least you can co-exist with your people for a time. And get a new understanding of how you can talk to each other.

MEHRAN: Yes. And the networking element, which I found incredibly beneficial in 2011 [Indignants’ protests].

ASTERIS: Oh yeah.

MEHRAN: The fact that you meet people offline. Like I met you, and lots of other people. And after all the observers went home and stayed home, those people [we met] endured, they stayed [together].

ASTERIS: You’re still friends… maybe in an idle way that you don’t talk each other, but you’re like family of citizens from across political lines.


ASTERIS: Now imagine that happening in an entire country, in the world. That’s the ideal: How do we escalate the potential of this coexistence and engagement and communication and participation? And, you’re right, as long as we keep obsessing about political figures…

That’s what I’m saying to my mother. She comes from another age and she’s like, “we need politicians”. I say “no, we need people”. You can’t expect a strongman to come and fix these things for you. The body politic, the citizens, will fix it.

Book recommendations

MEHRAN: That’s a nice note to come to a close. I wondered if you could recommend two or three books related to the kinds of topics that we’re discussing.

ASTERIS: You’re going to laugh but one of them is about the open source movement. It’s called “Open Source 2.0” and it’s a series of essays about the practices and mentalities behind the open source movement and how they germinated across the technology sphere. It doesn’t go into politics per se, but it’s interesting.

Dan Gillmor’s first book about citizen journalists, “We The Media” was also formative for me. In the sense that I was aware of what he was describing because I was doing it, but I hadn’t realised how it ties to the need of local communities to be informed.

And I don’t have a third book, but there are tons of science fiction dealing with these issues. Science fiction was my, was my political playground, starting with Ursula Leguin, whose entire work is focused politics and community activism.

MEHRAN: That’s been really great. I’ve really expanded my mind talking to you and, great. Thanks for your time.

ASTERIS: Thank you for the opportunity.

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