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Viral Disinformation Warning: Fake News Are Taking over Facebook

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Today’s news: Brad Pitt and Harrison Ford voted for Donald Trump, the Republican President-elect of the US, because the liberals want to take away their money; Melania Trump filed to divorce her husband, Donald Trump; Donald Trump himself said to People Magazine that Republicans are the dumbest group of voters; All the news above are fake, but trending on the social networks.

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Two stories from pro-Trump site newzinbox.com appeared in the Facebook news feed of some friends in the last few days. The titles are “Brad Pitt SHOCKS AMERICA: “I’m Tired Of Liberals Taking My Money. I Voted For TRUMP!” and “Harrison Ford SHOCKS AMERICA: “I’m Tired Of Liberals Taking My Money. I Voted For TRUMP!.” Not only the titles, but also the full stories are almost word-by-word identical.

The first story is taken from compatriotnews.com, the second seems “original.” Both are fake.

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If you see the trending story about Melania Trump filing to divorce her husband because she “is not prepared to be ridiculed for the next four years over her immigration status, accent and her husbands infidelities,” don’t bother to read. It’s fake news invented by clickbait fake news site Now8News. Similarly, Donald Trump never said that Republicans are the “dumbest group of voters.”

The fake news above are relatively innocuous and even hilarious. There are, however, much more disturbing examples of fake news that have been spread to support one or the other camp. I prefer not to link to those.

Earlier this year, Facebook fired its Trending News team, guilty of curating the news with a conservative bias. Facebook was accused of an editorial bias against conservative news organizations, prompting calls for a congressional inquiry against the company, The Guardian reported in an article covering leaked Facebook internal guidelines that appear to confirm the bias. “We routinely suppressed conservative news,” former Facebook news curators told Gizmodo.

After firing the human news curators, Facebook replaced them with algorithms able to choose which news you see based on many factors, including the algorithms’ own evaluation of your political preferences, and the news that your Facebook friends are sharing. But, though Facebook is making impressive advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI), the algorithms’ ability to discriminate between real news and fake news is still poor. The result is that, if one of your friends falls for a fake news item and shares it, you could see the same fake news in your Facebook feed.

Did Facebook Cause President-elect Trump’s Victory?

Donald Trump

Donald Trump

Predictably, Facebook and its buggy news selection algorithms are now accused of causing Trump’s victory on November 8. The company’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg disagrees, The Verge reports. Zuckerberg said:

“I do think there is a certain profound lack of empathy in asserting that the only reason someone could have voted the way they did is they saw some fake news.”

“If you believe that, then I don’t think you have internalized the message the Trump supporters are trying to send in this election,” added Zuckerberg.

“Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic,” said Zuckerberg in a Facebook post. “Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes. The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other.”

According to Zuckerberg, there’s a grey area between fake and real news. Some trending news are evidently fake, which could be spotted by better algorithms and/or human curators. But in other cases it’s difficult to draw a sharp line between fake news and stories that report authentic facts with biased omissions and interpretations. Zuckerberg notes that he hopes to share updates soon on Facebook’s News Feed FIY page, but warns that the problem is challenging:

“I am confident we can find ways for our community to tell us what content is most meaningful, but I believe we must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth ourselves.”

Reading between the lines, Zuckerberg could have a Reddit-like system in mind, where upvotes and downvotes determine the relevance, reliability, and visibility of a story. But, on Reddit, many users downvote – or even flag as spam – important news stories with a political bias they dislike. Many stories “express an opinion that many will disagree with and flag as incorrect even when factual,” says Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg doesn’t consider Facebook as a media company. But, according to the Pew Research Center, 66 percent of Facebook’s 156.5 million U.S. users now get the majority of their daily news from the site, which indicates that the social network is a media company de-facto, regardless of the intentions of its founder, and has a deep impact on political choices.

Perhaps the Trump campaign staff were just better at understanding and using social media. They built “a massive Facebook and data engine,” said Trump campaign CEO Stephen Bannon, former head of the conservative media site Breitbart, before the election. ““Facebook is what propelled Breitbart to a massive audience. We know its power.” Bannon is now President-elect Trump’s chief strategist and senior counselor.

In related news, Zuckerberg recently resisted witch-hunting calls to end Facebook’s association with venture capitalist Peter Thiel, “guilty” of openly supporting Trump, and the social network’s interference practices are about to be relaxed.

Images from Ksayer1/Flickr and Wikimedia Commons.

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Politics

It’s Decision Day for Catalonia’s President

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Catalonia’s President Carles Puigdemont has until 10:00 (08:00 GMT) Monday to clarify to the Spanish government whether or not he has declared independence. Depending on the decision, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajyo is prepared to begin the process of ousting the leader of the autonomous Catalonia community.

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Running Out of Options

Puigdemont quickly declared independence after Catalonia’s landslide referendum on Oct. 1, where 92% of voters backed independence. However, he later suspended secession from taking effect at a regional parliament session last week. Puigdemont now finds himself between a rock and a hard place, with both the government in Madrid and separatists upset and confused by his tactics.

For Puigdemont, the decision isn’t so simple. For starters, dozens of Catalan companies have announced they would move elsewhere in the country rather than face the legal hurdles of independence. Catalonia is one of Spain’s most prosperous regions, with a local economy worth $250 billion.

He has previously stated his government is “against aggression and against imposed rule.” Those comments put the Catalan leader no closer to clarifying his position.

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The Spanish government has repeatedly said it will not accept Catalan separatism and has, for the first time, invoked Article 155 of the constitution. This provides Madrid the leverage to suspend regional autonomy and impose direct rule.

According to Bloomberg Politics, Catalonia was a major talking point for investors on the sidelines of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) summit in Washington this weekend. The autonomous region’s 2020 bonds rose last week, driving the yield down sharply.

On Sunday, Puigdemont attended a commemoration in Barcelona in recognition of a Catalan leader who was executed during the Civil War.

Spain is one of the 19 countries that share the euro. Secession would likely undermine the single currency project and drive the euro lower against other major currencies.

Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock

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Market Overview

North Korea Just Fired Its Second Missile Over Japan, and Investors Don’t Seem to Care

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Investors are getting less excited by North Korea’s antics. The Communist state just launched its second missile over Japan in as many months, and Asian markets are shrugging it off.

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North Korea Taunts Japan with Second Missile Strike

It didn’t take long for North Korea to vent its frustration after the U.N. approved fresh sanctions targeting the hermit state. Pyongyang apparently launched a missile at 6:57 a.m. Friday that flew over the northern island of Hokkaido, according to a Japanese government spokesman. The missile landed some 2,200 km away in the Pacific Ocean.

The North Koreans launched a similar test last month in a show of defiance following a verbal war with U.S. President Donald Trump. The latest provocation comes days after the U.N. Security Council targeted Pyongyang with fresh sanctions over its aggressive nuclear program.

The sanctions were part of a U.S.-drafted resolution that intends to do the following:

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  • Limit North Korea’s oil imports
  • Ban its textile exports
  • End additional laborer contracts held overseas
  • Reduce smuggling efforts
  • Prevent Pyongyang from entering joint ventures with other nations
  • Sanction government entities

Markets Unaffected

North Korea saber-rattling has been a major source of volatility in the financial markets, but that appears to be changing. On Friday, Asian markets held their ground in the wake of the missile test. Japan’s 225-issue Nikkei rose 0.5%. Mainland China’s CSI 300 Index advanced 0.2%. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index also traded in positive territory.

The Japanese yen, a highly liquid global reserve currency, rose immediately after news of Pyongyang’s missile test. But the gains didn’t last very long. In fact, it took about three minutes for the yen to lose two-thirds of its gain. At time time of writing, the yen has moved into negative territory against its U.S. counterpart.

Japan’s currency is often seen as a gauge of global financial stress. Investors exchange other currencies for yen when they feel geopolitical unrest will impact the financial markets. Calm appear to have prevailed Friday morning.

Cryptocurrency Outlook Remains Negative

The global cryptocurrency market has shed billions this week as China expanded its assault on the asset class. Beijing has taken major steps toward closing its domestic bitcoin exchanges. Earlier this month, it announced a ban on initial coin offerings (ICOs), the breakthrough funding mechanism that has taken the world by storm.

The crash extended to all the major cryptocurrencies, including bitcoin and ethereum. The total market cap for the crypto asset class has plunged 35% over the past two weeks. As the following chart illustrates, the sky hasn’t stopped falling since Tuesday.

China’s position on cryptocurrency diverges sharply from that of neighboring Japan. The Japanese government has taken major steps toward recognizing bitcoin and regulating its use.

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Commodities

How have various asset classes performed during previous wars

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North Korea, the dictator ruled nation has been threatening the US and its allies with a possible missile attack, which may also have a nuclear warhead on it. The experts are divided on the actual capability of North Korea to undertake the attacks, however, its leader, Kim Jong-un leaves no opportunity to provoke the US and its allies.

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Key points

  1. Stocks perform better than average when the conflict starts
  2. Gold rallies before the start of the conflict
  3. Bonds have underperformed stocks during previous wars
  4. The US dollar has fallen on few occasions during a conflict
  5. The current war, if it starts, can severely impact electronic goods
  6. The US national debt is likely to balloon if US involves itself in South Korea’s reconstruction after the war ends

Though North Korea’s military prowess is nothing great to write home about, it can still cause extensive damage to millions of civilian lives and the economy of its neighbor South Korea, to some extent Japan and the US territory of Guam. However, in this article, we shall restrict ourselves to the impact of the war on various asset classes and the world economy. We shall use the historical evidence to arrive at our conclusion.

How does the US stock market perform during wars?

The US has fought several wars since 1960 as shown above. While a few ended quickly, others have been a long-drawn affair. Notwithstanding, Barron’s has outlined the effect of the following seven major hostilities on the Dow Jones Industrial Average since early 1980s.

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Serial No War Year
01 The US invasion of Grenada 1983
02 The US invasion of Panama 1989
03 The first Gulf War 1991
04 The US bombing of Kosovo 1999
05 The US War of Afghanistan 2001
06 The second Gulf War 2003
07 The US bombing of Libya 2011

Source: Barron’s

The markets hate uncertainty; a proof of this is the average 0.6% drop in the Dow a month prior to the start of the conflict.

However, once the conflict commenced, the Dow quickly turned direction, rising 4% in the first month. The rally did not stop there. Over the next three months, the Dow rose an average 6.7%, and the gains swelled to 7.2% after six months of the start of the conflict.

Therefore, if history repeats itself, a war between the US and North Korea – if it were to happen – will not start the next bear market.

How does gold perform during wars?

Gold is considered as a safe haven during times of uncertainty. Therefore, the yellow metal has rallied from about $1260/toz to about $1360/toz levels, as tensions escalated between North Korea and the US.

But, will gold continue its rally if the war starts?

Economists at Capital Economics have analyzed gold’s performance since 1985, during military conflicts, acts of terror and political tension.

They established that “over the past forty odd years, the price of gold has on average risen by 4.1% in the six months prior to a conflict turning into a full-blown war. However, it barely moved in the months following the event. This makes sense as gold thrives in periods of elevated uncertainty and the start of an armed conflict partly erases that.”

Performance of long-term bonds during wars

Though bonds are also considered as a safe haven investment, their performance has lagged their historical average during wars, according to a study by the CFA Institute. The possible reasons are an increase in inflation during war times and the second is the higher borrowing by the government to fund the war. Due to these two, bond prices fall. Therefore, selling out of stocks and buying bonds fearing a conflict might not prove to be a good strategy. The only aberration was during the gulf war when bonds beat stocks, albeit marginally.

How does the war affect the US dollar?

The evidence of the past three decades shows that the US dollar weakens during war, according to Kathy Lien, Managing Director of FX Strategy for BK Asset Management. The US dollar fell 5% when the Libyan war started and fell 9% during the first three months of the second gulf war. The dollar was weak even during the first gulf war.

However, this time, the situation is more complex and a lot of currency movements will depend on whether China actively involves itself in the war or remains neutral. The Australian dollar, the New Zealand dollar, and the Japanese Yen will see large moves if China supports North Korea directly during the war, else the movement in the currencies is likely to be comparatively subdued.

“As the tensions grow the dollar will suffer and the actual announcement of war could take USD/JPY to 105 but if it’s a swift victory the pair would also recover quickly,” said Kathy.

Though historical evidence gives us some idea about the possibilities, every new war is different because it involves different nations and affects different asset classes.

What sectors will be affected if a war with North Korea takes place?

Commodities

North Korea, in itself, can’t impact commodity prices. However, it is surrounded by nations that are major consumers of commodities. China is one of the major consumers of commodities, however, it is unlikely that the war will impact China’s consumption materially.

South Korea is a major importer of coal and exporter of steel. Both these commodities will be majorly impacted because South Korea will be severely affected if a war breaks out. Similarly, liquified natural gas prices will be affected, as Japan is its largest importer in the world.

The seaborne trade will also be severely affected because China, South Korea, and Japan receive about one-third of the global seaborne crude supplies. Similarly, 84% of the world’s iron ore and 47% of the metallurgical coal reaches the shores of these three nations through the seaborne route.

The agricultural commodities will also be affected because China is a major importer of rice and soybeans while Japan is of corn.

Economic costs of the war

War has both a direct and an indirect impact on the economy. South Korea is a hub for manufacturing liquid crystal displays, semiconductors, and cars. A war will impact these activities, leading to a shortage across the globe. The alternative suppliers can’t bridge the gap in such a short span of time.  Therefore, prices of various electronic products are likely to rise significantly, which will impact the developed economies, including the US.

“U.S. spending on electronic items, including smart phones, cameras, tablets and computers accounts for roughly 1 percent of the consumer price inflation basket. If a war in Korea caused prices of these items to double, it would add 1 percentage point to U.S. inflation,” a report by the research consultancy Capital Economics warned, reports CNBC.

If inflation rises sharply, the Central Banks will be forced to raise interest rates, jeopardizing the fledgling global economic recovery.

Additionally, if South Korea’s gross domestic product (GDP) falls by about 50% due to war, it will reduce the global GDP by 1 percentage point, according to the report.

Once the war ends, South Korea will need huge capital to rebuild its infrastructure. If the US involves itself and ends up spending the same amount as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan, then the federal debt will reach 105% of GDP, the economists at Capital Economics warned.

Conclusion

Though historical evidence suggests that the equity market returns are better than average during a war, the situation might be different this time because of the nations involved. Any jolt to the weak economic recovery across the globe will dent the confidence of the investors. Therefore, we don’t expect the stock markets to rise substantially during the war.

Gold’s performance is somewhat neutral and it can be used to protect the value of the portfolio. Therefore, selling some overvalued stocks and buying gold might be a good strategy if a war seems imminent.

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