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Welcome to the Australian Island That Spawned America’s Opioid Crisis

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It was May 2003 and farmers Bruce and Kathryn Goss had just won a new Jaguar X-Type. For about a decade they’d been planting rotations of opium poppies on their 50-hectare property and having some success. But that season’s rain came at the right time and the Gosses pulled in the most opioid-laden crop in Tasmania, winning them a luxury car.

“We’ve never had a passenger car before,” Bruce Goss told the local newspaper in an article covering the awards night. “We’ve got an old farm four wheel drive but it will be nice to have a nice car that is comfortable to drive.”

Reading this article now, it feels like a story from a parallel universe. Even on the Australian island of Tasmania, a world away from the opioid-ravaged communities of West Virginia, it would now be inconceivable for a pharmaceutical company to goad poppy farmers with luxury cars. But this was 2003. The phrase “opioid epidemic” was at least a decade away, and everyone involved in its genesis was making money. Including the farmers.

For nearly 25 years, Tasmanian farms have produced some 50 percent of the world’s legal opioids. It was here that hardworking, salt-of-the-earth men and women grew the crops that produced the alkaloids that were transformed into oxycodone and sold to Americans as OxyContin. These farmers were incentivised with luxury cars—BMWs, Mercedes, Jaguars—to grow bigger crops with higher yields. And now, in 2020, these farmers are reckoning with their own participation in the crisis. Or in many cases, not.

“The first time I heard the phrase [opioid epidemic] would have been around 2017,” says AG Morrison, a poppy farmer in Tasmania’s north central town of Cressy. “Honestly, I just ignored it. It’s something I’ve got no control over. The situation in the US doesn’t interest me one bit.”

Like many Tasmanian farmers, Morrison argues that poppies were and still are just a small part of his operation, thereby reducing his accountability. He and his brother also grow wheat, barley, and peas and he estimates that poppies make up just 15 percent of his total business. But more importantly, he says the issue in the US was never one of supply, but over-prescription.

“It’s their government, it’s their laws that are to be blamed, it’s nothing to do with us. It’s like blaming tobacco farmers for people getting lung cancer or something. They’re two different matters.”

Morrison’s argument is not without merit. Like so many others, he was contracted to grow a legal crop heavily regulated by the Australian Government, which in turn was heavily monitored by the United Nations. So at a glance, Tasmania’s farmers can claim plausible deniability.

Except that the truth isn’t so black and white. The reality is that it was a Tasmanian innovation that produced enough poppies to spawn an epidemic.

Tasmania is about the same size of Switzerland. It’s an Australian island, thrust from the mainland into the Southern Ocean towards Antarctica. Much of the state is mountainous, or covered in temperate rainforest, except for a north-central band which is used for agriculture. And it’s from here that much of the world’s painkillers originate.

Tasmanians first started experimenting with poppy crops in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that the UN approved Tasmania to start cultivating the plants on a commercial scale. In 1977, for the first time ever, exports of Tasmanian poppy seed to the United States exceeded imports from the Netherlands. By 1985, the island was supplying around 13 percent of the world’s opioids and the industry was expanding. But in the mid 1990s everything changed.

A state-run subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson called Tasmanian Alkaloids bankrolled research by the Australian Government scientific agency CSIRO to see if poppy yields could be improved via genetic modification. And it turned out they could.

In ordinary poppies, Papaver somniferum, the plant generates a precursor known as thebaine, which eventually matures into morphine and codeine. But researchers identified a number of genes that blocked the biosynthesis of these opioids, allowing the plant to preserve large amounts of thebaine.

For pharmaceutical companies, this was a bit like developing a grape that synthesized its own wine. Usually, chemists synthesize thebaine out of morphine in order to create such drugs as oxycodone and hydrocodone. But growing a plant that produces only thebaine removes a costly step in the manufacturing process. And suddenly the Australian Government owned the genetic code for a plant that could produce vast quantities of thebaine on the cheap. They called it the “top1” poppy, and later the Norman because it produced “no morphine.”

The next quietly disastrous step came in 2000, when, after years of lobbying by Tasmanian Alkaloids, GlaxoSmithKline, and the Australian Government, the US government announced it would change their importation rules on “narcotic raw materials.” For years the US had dictated that 80 percent of imports should come from Turkey and India, leaving Australia and a few other producers to scramble over the remaining 20 percent. But in 2000 US officials announced that since Tasmanian farmers weren’t producing morphine or codeine, but thebaine, their exports were exempt from the rules.

From there, America’s floodgates opened to cheap and plentiful Tasmanian thebaine, and the state’s poppy industry boomed.

Max McKenna lives in the town of Ulverstone, where his family has been farming since 1903. He’s a master of understatement who describes the boom period as “nice,” but says the giveaway cars simply hedged a farmer’s bets against losing on some other crop.

“There’s a fine line between some of the crops,” he says over the phone. “There’s often not much difference in returns, and you put a Mercedes or whatever car on top, it was a big boost to get something like that.”

McKenna never won a car, nor knew anyone who did, but he says he knew farmers who went on overseas holidays bankrolled by pharmaceutical companies.

“One company, for a while, had overseas travelling and they would give you money. People were encouraged to travel to countries where they might see something [related to] agriculture. Although I don’t think you specifically had to do that.”

There was another unexpected development, though. As the price of opioids rose, more and more farmers began putting in poppies, turning more and more of Tasmania’s midlands a light pink as the plants bloomed in December. And with that came an increasing number of thefts as local drug addicts began stealing poppy heads.

According to the Tasmanian Justice Department’s Annual Report, a total of 4,700 poppy capsules were stolen in the 2009/2010 financial year, compared with 2,200 the year before. And with this trend came another worrying phenomenon: accidental poisonings.

While the sap from traditional morphine poppies can be ingested in low doses, the genetically modified thebaine poppies are far more toxic. This was a security benefit spruiked by the inventors of the Norman Poppy, who didn’t anticipate that people would eat them regardless.

In 2011 a 50-year-old man from Launceston died after drinking tea brewed from stolen poppies. Then a 17-year-old boy died from another tea in 2012, followed by a 26-year-old Danish backpacker named Jonas Pedersen in 2014.

In this latter case, the coroner’s report offered a particularly tragic account of a young man who boiled some poppy heads into a goopy drink, then went to bed feeling sick and didn’t wake up.

“Mr Pedersen informed [his friend] Mr Kaiser that he felt unwell and possibly had too much ‘tea’. Mr Kaiser realised this was credible as Mr Pedersen did not look well. He had the impression that Mr Pedersen was scared.”

The 2015 report ended by suggesting that Pedersen’s death “served as a warning against engaging in this activity,” before stating the case was inadequate grounds for upgrading Tasmania’s security measures.

However, on the other side of the world, a different kind of alarm was sounding. For the first time in modern history, life expectancy in the United States entered a period of steady decline. According to the World Bank Group, the country’s average life expectancy had fallen from 78.8 years in 2014 to 78.7 years in 2015. The following year, in 2016, it fell again to 78.5 years and plateaued at this low level into 2017.

The culprit was opioid-based pharmaceuticals.

Years of unfettered overprescription of heavy-duty pain medication had created an epidemic of dependency. From Baltimore to Oklahoma City, people were overdosing in their thousands.

In 2017, the Drug Enforcement Administration responded by slashing quotas of opioid medications able to be manufactured in the United States by 25 percent, immediately lowering global demand for raw plant material. In Tasmania the effect was sudden and dramatic. In that same year, just 7,500 hectares of poppies were harvested in Tasmania, according to Deloitte, which was a quarter of the peak harvest of 2013.

Farmer AG Morrison remembers it well: “The worst of it was probably around 2017… when the poppy companies cut their areas by probably 50 percent [and] people just moved on and did other things.”

Morrison says he put in a lot more wheat that year, just like many others in the region. “In all honesty, a lot of people reckon it did them a favour,” he says of the abandonment of poppies. “People were sick of having issues with the industry and stuff. And now they’ve got no desire to come back.”

Today, the American companies behind the epidemic are facing a storm of litigation. The most infamous of these players, Purdue Pharma, filed for bankruptcy protection in September 2019. The next-most infamous brand, Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, filed for bankruptcy last week.

And now, as the Australian summer of 2020 approaches, the Tasmanian countryside looks like a very different place. There are more fields of wheat and cattle and far less poppies.

The business structure has changed too. After an onslaught of negative press in 2016, the Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, Tasmanian Alkaloids, was sold to a private-equity firm SK Capital. They’d stopped giving farmers luxury cars about a decade earlier, and the company now maintains a far more muted presence in the island’s economy. They also claim no liability.

In a statement provided to VICE News they wrote: “Tasmanian Alkaloids is a raw material supplier, which does not manufacture, sell, or market finished pharmaceutical products. Moreover, the type and amount of raw materials that Tasmanian Alkaloids sells, as well as the recipients of its products, are tightly regulated by government agencies. Any suggestion that Tasmanian Alkaloids engaged in any improper conduct is baseless.”

Max McKenna is a little more empathetic, but he too denies any guilt.

“People need pain relief and if it’s used properly it’s very good,” he says. “But nobody is forcing people to take drugs. People are making decisions themselves. The governments are trying to do the best they can with it, but I don’t know how they can completely control it.

“As a grower we’ve got no control or any input,” he says. “To me it’s just the regulations and laws in those countries.”

Follow Julian on Instagram and Twitter. With additional reporting by Dylan Raffaele

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All the products we found to be the best during our testing this year

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(CNN) —  

Throughout the year, CNN Underscored is constantly testing products — be it coffee makers or headphones — to find the absolute best in each respective category.

Our testing process is rigorous, consisting of hours of research (consulting experts, reading editorial reviews and perusing user ratings) to find the top products in each category. Once we settle on a testing pool, we spend weeks — if not months — testing and retesting each product multiple times in real-world settings. All this in an effort to settle on the absolute best products.

So, as we enter peak gifting season, if you’re on the hunt for the perfect gift, we know you’ll find something on this list that they (or you!) will absolutely love.

Coffee

Best burr coffee grinder: Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder With Digital Timer Display ($249; amazon.com or walmart.com)

Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder
Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder

Beginner baristas and coffee connoisseurs alike will be pleased with the Baratza Virtuoso+, a conical burr grinder with 40 settings for grind size, from super fine (espresso) to super coarse (French press). The best coffee grinder we tested, this sleek look and simple, intuitive controls, including a digital timer, allow for a consistent grind every time — as well as optimal convenience.

Read more from our testing of coffee grinders here.

Best drip coffee maker: Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker ($79.95; amazon.com)

Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker
Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker

During our testing of drip coffee makers, we found the Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker made a consistently delicious, hot cup of coffee, brewed efficiently and cleanly, from sleek, relatively compact hardware that is turnkey to operate, and all for a reasonable price.

Read more from our testing of drip coffee makers here.

Best single-serve coffee maker: Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus ($165; originally $179.95; amazon.com)

Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus
Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus

Among all single-serve coffee makers we tested, the Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus, which uses pods that deliver both espresso and “regular” coffee, could simply not be beat for its convenience. Intuitive and a snap to use right out of the box, it looks sleek on the counter, contains a detached 60-ounce water reservoir so you don’t have to refill it with each use and delivers perfectly hot, delicious coffee with a simple tap of a lever and press of a button.

Read more from our testing of single-serve coffee makers here.

Best coffee subscription: Blue Bottle (starting at $11 per shipment; bluebottlecoffee.com)

Blue Bottle coffee subscription
Blue Bottle coffee subscription

Blue Bottle’s coffee subscription won us over with its balance of variety, customizability and, most importantly, taste. We sampled both the single-origin and blend assortments and loved the flavor of nearly every single cup we made. The flavors are complex and bold but unmistakably delicious. Beyond its coffee, Blue Bottle’s subscription is simple and easy to use, with tons of options to tailor to your caffeine needs.

Read more from our testing of coffee subscriptions here.

Best cold brewer coffee maker: Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot ($25; amazon.com)

Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot
Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot

This sleek, sophisticated and streamlined carafe produces 1 liter (about 4 1/4 cups) of rich, robust brew in just eight hours. It was among the simplest to assemble, it executed an exemplary brew in about the shortest time span, and it looked snazzy doing it. Plus, it rang up as the second-most affordable of our inventory.

Read more from our testing of cold brew makers here.

Kitchen essentials

Best nonstick pan: T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid ($39.97; amazon.com)

T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid
T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid

If you’re a minimalist and prefer to have just a single pan in your kitchen, you’d be set with the T-fal E76597. This pan’s depth gives it multipurpose functionality: It cooks standard frying-pan foods like eggs and meats, and its 2 1/2-inch sides are tall enough to prepare recipes you’d usually reserve for pots, like rices and stews. It’s a high-quality and affordable pan that outperformed some of the more expensive ones in our testing field.

Read more from our testing of nonstick pans here.

Best blender: Breville Super Q ($499.95; breville.com)

Breville Super Q
Breville Super Q

With 1,800 watts of motor power, the Breville Super Q features a slew of preset buttons, comes in multiple colors, includes key accessories and is touted for being quieter than other models. At $500, it does carry a steep price tag, but for those who can’t imagine a smoothie-less morning, what breaks down to about $1.30 a day over a year seems like a bargain.

Read more from our testing of blenders here.

Best knife set: Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set ($119.74; amazon.com)

Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set
Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set

The Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set sets you up to easily take on almost any cutting job and is a heck of a steal at just $119.97. Not only did the core knives included (chef’s, paring, utility and serrated) perform admirably, but the set included a bevy of extras, including a full set of steak knives. We were blown away by their solid construction and reliable execution for such an incredible value. The knives stayed sharp through our multitude of tests, and we were big fans of the cushion-grip handles that kept them from slipping, as well as the classic look of the chestnut-stained wood block. If you’re looking for a complete knife set you’ll be proud of at a price that won’t put a dent in your savings account, this is the clear winner.

Read more from our testing of knife sets here.

Audio

Best true wireless earbuds: AirPods Pro ($199, originally $249; amazon.com)

Apple AirPods Pro
Apple AirPods Pro

Apple’s AirPods Pro hit all the marks. They deliver a wide soundstage, thanks to on-the-fly equalizing tech that produces playback that seemingly brings you inside the studio with the artist. They have the best noise-canceling ability of all the earbuds we tested, which, aside from stiff-arming distractions, creates a truly immersive experience. To sum it up, you’re getting a comfortable design, a wide soundstage, easy connectivity and long battery life.

Read more from our testing of true wireless earbuds here.

Best noise-canceling headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4 ($278, originally $349.99; amazon.com)

Sony WH-1000XM4
Sony WH-1000XM4

Not only do the WH-1000XM4s boast class-leading sound, but phenomenal noise-canceling ability. So much so that they ousted our former top overall pick, the Beats Solo Pros, in terms of ANC quality, as the over-ear XM4s better seal the ear from outside noise. Whether it was a noise from a dryer, loud neighbors down the hall or high-pitched sirens, the XM4s proved impenetrable. This is a feat that other headphones, notably the Solo Pros, could not compete with — which is to be expected considering their $348 price tag.

Read more from our testing of noise-canceling headphones here.

Best on-ear headphones: Beats Solo 3 ($119.95, originally $199.95; amazon.com)

Beats Solo 3
Beats Solo 3

The Beats Solo 3s are a phenomenal pair of on-ear headphones. Their sound quality was among the top of those we tested, pumping out particularly clear vocals and instrumentals alike. We enjoyed the control scheme too, taking the form of buttons in a circular configuration that blend seamlessly into the left ear cup design. They are also light, comfortable and are no slouch in the looks department — more than you’d expect given their reasonable $199.95 price tag.

Read more from our testing of on-ear headphones here.

Beauty

Best matte lipstick: Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick ($11, originally $22; amazon.com or $22; nordstrom.com and stilacosmetics.com)

Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick
Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick

The Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick has thousands of 5-star ratings across the internet, and it’s easy to see why. True to its name, this product clings to your lips for hours upon hours, burritos and messy breakfast sandwiches be damned. It’s also surprisingly moisturizing for such a superior stay-put formula, a combo that’s rare to come by.

Read more from our testing of matte lipsticks here.

Best everyday liquid liner: Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner ($22; stilacosmetics.com or macys.com)

Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner
Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner

The Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner is a longtime customer favorite — hence its nearly 7,500 5-star reviews on Sephora — and for good reason. We found it requires little to no effort to create a precise wing, the liner has superior staying power and it didn’t irritate those of us with sensitive skin after full days of wear. As an added bonus, it’s available in a whopping 12 shades.

Read more from our testing of liquid eyeliners here.

Work-from-home essentials

Best office chair: Steelcase Series 1 (starting at $381.60; amazon.com or $415, wayfair.com)

Steelcase Series 1
Steelcase Series 1

The Steelcase Series 1 scored among the highest overall, standing out as one of the most customizable, high-quality, comfortable office chairs on the market. At $415, the Steelcase Series 1 beat out most of its pricier competitors across testing categories, scoring less than a single point lower than our highest-rated chair, the $1,036 Steelcase Leap, easily making it the best bang for the buck and a clear winner for our best office chair overall.

Read more from our testing of office chairs here.

Best ergonomic keyboard: Logitech Ergo K860 ($129.99; logitech.com)

Logitech Ergo K860
Logitech Ergo K860

We found the Logitech Ergo K860 to be a phenomenally comfortable keyboard. Its build, featuring a split keyboard (meaning there’s a triangular gap down the middle) coupled with a wave-like curvature across the body, allows both your shoulders and hands to rest in a more natural position that eases the tension that can often accompany hours spent in front of a regular keyboard. Add the cozy palm rest along the bottom edge and you’ll find yourself sitting pretty comfortably.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic keyboards here.

Best ergonomic mouse: Logitech MX Master 3 ($99.99; logitech.com)

Logitech MX Master 3
Logitech MX Master 3

The Logitech MX Master 3 is an unequivocally comfortable mouse. It’s shaped to perfection, with special attention to the fingers that do the clicking. Using it felt like our fingers were lounging — with a sculpted ergonomic groove for nearly every finger.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic mice here.

Best ring light: Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light ($25.99; amazon.com)

Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light
Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light

The Emart 10-Inch Standing Ring Light comes with a tripod that’s fully adjustable — from 19 inches to 50 inches — making it a great option whether you’re setting it atop your desk for video calls or need some overhead lighting so no weird shadows creep into your photos. Its three light modes (warm, cool and a nice mix of the two), along with 11 brightness levels (among the most settings on any of the lights we tested), ensure you’re always framed in the right light. And at a relatively cheap $35.40, this light combines usability and affordability better than any of the other options we tested.

Read more from our testing of ring lights here.

Home

Best linen sheets: Parachute Linen Sheet Set (starting at $149; parachute.com)

Parachute Linen Sheets
Parachute Linen Sheets

Well made, luxurious to the touch and with the most versatile shopping options (six sizes, nine colors and the ability to order individual sheets), the linen sheets from Parachute were, by a narrow margin, our favorite set. From the satisfying unboxing to a sumptuous sleep, with a la carte availability, Parachute set the gold standard in linen luxury.

Read more from our testing of linen sheets here.

Best shower head: Kohler Forte Shower Head (starting at $74.44; amazon.com)

Kohler Forte Shower Head
Kohler Forte Shower Head

Hands down, the Kohler Forte Shower Head provides the best overall shower experience, offering three distinct settings. Backstory: Lots of shower heads out there feature myriad “settings” that, when tested, are pretty much indecipherable. The Forte’s three sprays, however, are each incredibly different and equally successful. There’s the drenching, full-coverage rain shower, the pulsating massage and the “silk spray” setting that is basically a super-dense mist. The Forte manages to achieve all of this while using only 1.75 gallons per minute (GPM), making it a great option for those looking to conserve water.

Read more from our testing of shower heads here.

Best humidifier: TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier (starting at $49.99; amazon.com)

TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier
TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier

The TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier ramped up the humidity in a room in about an hour, which was quicker than most of the options we tested. More importantly, though, it sustained those humidity levels over the longest period of time — 24 hours, to be exact. The levels were easy to check with the built-in reader (and we cross-checked that reading with an external reader to confirm accuracy). We also loved how easy this humidifier was to clean, and the nighttime mode for the LED reader eliminated any bright lights in the bedroom.

Read more from our testing of humidifiers here.

Video

Best TV: TCL 6-Series (starting at $579.99; bestbuy.com)

TCL 6-Series
TCL 6-Series

With models starting at $599.99 for a 55-inch, the TCL 6-Series might give you reverse sticker shock considering everything you get for that relatively small price tag. But can a 4K smart TV with so many specification standards really deliver a good picture for $500? The short answer: a resounding yes. The TCL 6-Series produces a vibrant picture with flexible customization options and handles both HDR and Dolby Vision, optimization standards that improve the content you’re watching by adding depth to details and expanding the color spectrum.

Read more from our testing of TVs here.

Best streaming device: Roku Ultra ($99.99; amazon.com)

Roku Ultra
Roku Ultra

Roku recently updated its Ultra streaming box and the 2020 version is faster, thanks to a new quad-core processor. The newest Ultra retains all of the features we loved and enjoyed about the 2019 model, like almost zero lag time between waking it up and streaming content, leading to a hiccup-free streaming experience. On top of that, the Roku Ultra can upscale content to deliver the best picture possible on your TV — even on older-model TVs that don’t offer the latest and greatest picture quality — and supports everything from HD to 4K.

Read more from our testing of streaming devices here.

Travel

Best carry-on luggage: Away Carry-On ($225; away.com)

Away Carry-On
Away Carry-On

The Away Carry-On scored high marks across all our tests and has the best combination of features for the average traveler. Compared with higher-end brands like Rimowa, which retail for hundreds more, you’re getting the same durable materials, an excellent internal compression system and eye-catching style. Add in smart charging capabilities and a lifetime warranty, and this was the bag to beat.

Read more from our testing of carry-on luggage here.

Best portable charger: Anker PowerCore 13000 (starting at $31.99; amazon.com)

Anker PowerCore 13000
Anker PowerCore 13000

The Anker PowerCore 13000 shone most was in terms of charging capacity. It boasts 13,000 mAh (maH is a measure of how much power a device puts out over time), which is enough to fully charge an iPhone 11 two and a half times. Plus, it has two fast-charging USB Type-A ports so you can juice a pair of devices simultaneously. While not at the peak in terms of charging capacity, at just $31.99, it’s a serious bargain for so many mAhs.

Read more from our testing of portable chargers here.

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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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Open Sourced logo

Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.


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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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