August 21, 2019

The Epoch Times, a news outlet closely aligned with a spiritual community banned in China, has spent $1.5 million over the last six months to run 11,000 pro-President Trump ads on Facebook, NBC News reports.

Only the Trump campaign has spent more money on ads in support of the president, data shows. Former staffers of the New York City-based Epoch Times told NBC News the ad blitz isn't surprising, due to the leanings of the Falun Gong movement. Ben Hurley, who helped launch The Epoch Times in Australia, said the outlet is "rabidly pro-Trump" because the most devout Falun Gong followers "believe that Trump was sent by heaven to destroy the Communist Party."

The Facebook ads feature people praising Trump and talking about fake news and Deep State and QAnon conspiracies, NBC News reports. Trump's Facebook page has posted Epoch Times content, and his daughter-in-law was recently interviewed by the outlet. Data shows that between Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, Epoch Media Group videos had about three billion views in April alone, making the company 11th among all video creators, NBC News reports.

The Epoch Times was founded in 2000 by a Falun Gong practitioner named John Tang, but not much is known about its ownership, with executives refusing to give NBC News any names. The founder of Falun Gong, Li Hongzhi, called Epoch Media Group "our media," and in 2009 he pushed for The Epoch Times to become mainstream. Li argues that feminism and homosexuality are wicked and that aliens can take over human minds and bodies, and former employees said they were told they couldn't write about gay people or popular music but needed to push conservative opinions and criticism of China. The Epoch Times' publisher, Stephen Gregory, said the company has "no political agenda." Read more about the secretive news outlet and what it was like to work there at NBC News. Catherine Garcia

8:25 a.m.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk poked fun at himself during his Saturday Night Live monologue, joking about his lack of "intonational variation," his marijuana-themed appearance on Joe Rogan's podcast, the spelling of his son's name, and some of his odder tweets.

"Look, I know I sometimes say or post strange things," Musk said, seemingly addressing the controversy surrounding the show's choice to have him host. "But that's just how my brain works. To anyone I've offended, I just want to say: I re-invented electric cars and I'm sending people to Mars in a rocket ship. Did you also think I was gonna be a chill, normal dude?"

Musk also revealed he has Asperger's syndrome, reportedly marking the first time he has spoken publicly about the diagnosis. Watch the full monologue below. Tim O'Donnell

7:46 a.m.

China's Long March 5B rocket crashed back to Earth on Sunday morning, landing in the Indian Ocean just west of the Maldives, the China Manned Space Agency announced. Most of the debris from the rocket, which was launched in April, reportedly burned up when it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere.

The risk of the rocket causing significant damage was considered low, but experts were concerned because the 40,000-pound Long March was out of control and traveling at a high speed, making it very difficult to predict where it would land.

While it appears the worst was avoided (it's unclear if any debris landed on the Maldives, CNN notes), NASA Administrator Bill Nelson still expressed displeasure with Beijing. "Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations," he said. "China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris."

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who tracked the rocket, tweeted that regardless of the outcome, China was still "reckless." Read more at CNN and NBC News. Tim O'Donnell

May 8, 2021

"There is simply no democratic justification whatsoever for [U.K. Prime Minister] Boris Johnson or anyone else seeking to block the right of the people of Scotland to choose our future," Scottish National Party leader and Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Saturday in a victory speech after the SNP won its fourth straight election, while the pro-independence Greens also had a strong showing, meaning a majority of Scottish parliament would back a referendum.

If a vote is blocked Sturgeon added, it "will demonstrate conclusively that the U.K. is not a partnership of equals and astonishingly that Westminster no longer sees it as a voluntary union of nations."

While Sturgeon is expected to pressure Johnson to allow another referendum, the prime minister has said he won't, calling it "irresponsible and reckless."

As for what's happening on the ground with Scottish voters, Prof. John Curtice, whom Bloomberg notes is the U.K.'s "most prominent electoral analyst," said the country is "divided straight down the middle on the constitutional question," which was the driving force behind the highest turnout since 1999. There's no telling which way a vote would go at the moment, so a referendum would be an "enormous political gamble" for both Johnson and Sturgeon, Curtice writes. Read more at BBC and Bloomberg. Tim O'Donnell

May 8, 2021

Annie Pforzheimer, a longtime diplomat who has extensive experience working in Afghanistan, is concerned about President Biden's plan to withdraw U.S. troops from the country without any conditions from the Taliban by or before Sept. 11, 2021. In a piece for Politico published Saturday, she shares her not uncommon view that the U.S. exit will allow the Taliban an opportunity to "increase their territorial control and dictatorial rule," depriving Afghanistan of much hope for a "normal future." But, at this point, she acknowledges Biden's mind won't change, so she turned her attention to ways the U.S. can employ leverage without forces on the ground.

Pforzheimer's ideas include remaining publicly committed to Afghan security forces, retaining old and imposing new sanctions on the Taliban until they're no longer a threat to Afghanistan's stability, and refusing to recognize a Taliban government if it "denies basic human rights to its citizens." She also argues the U.S. should make sure that "Afghanistan's neighbors, particularly Pakistan and Central Asia ... prioritize their existing trade and energy linkages and press for a peace process that will contribute to regional prosperity." Additionally, she writes, "the Gulf States and other former and current Taliban patrons should understand that a peaceful outcome is a top U.S. government goal." Read Pforzheimer's full piece at Politico. Tim O'Donnell

May 8, 2021

The Colonial Pipeline, the principal transporter of gasoline and diesel fuel up and down the East Coast of the United States, was temporarily shut down on Friday after its operator, Colonial Pipeline Co., learned it was the victim of a cyberattack.

The attack reportedly involved ransomware and appeared to be limited to information systems, as opposed to operational control systems, but the investigation is still in the early stages. Subsequently, there's no clear sense of who the perpetrator was.

Analysts don't expect the stoppage to negatively affect fuel markets or cause any shortages, so long as it only lasts for a day or two, The Wall Street Journal reports. Still, Tom Kloza, the global head of energy analysis for Oil Price Information Services, told the Journal that targeting the pipeline, which carries roughly 45 percent of the fuel consumed in the United States, is a "big deal" and "could really wreak havoc."

Mike Chapple, a cybersecurity expert at the University of Notre Dame and a former National Security Agency official, added that the pipeline shutdown "sends the message that core elements of our infrastructure continue to be vulnerable to cyberattack," a threat Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorakas acknowledged as recently as Wednesday, the Journal notes. Read more at The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg. Tim O'Donnell

May 8, 2021

The National Republican Congressional Committee did not share internal polling data that showed former President Donald Trump has weak numbers in key battleground districts at a retreat for House Republicans in April, two people familiar with the presentation told The Washington Post. The NRCC staffers reportedly held back the information even when a member of Congress asked them directly about Trump's support.

The Post later obtained the full polling results, reporting that Trump's unfavorable ratings were 15 points higher than his favorable ones, and nearly twice as many voters had a strongly unfavorable view of him than those who had a strongly favorable one. In those same districts, President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were both more popular than Trump, the Post notes.

It reportedly wasn't the first time this has happened — Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) told colleagues that Republican campaign officials had also glossed over poor Trump polling during a retreat for ranking committee chairs in March, per the Post.

Cheney, you may have heard in recent weeks, is determined to move the GOP away from Trump and she'd likely point to the polling as a reason why, but she's faced a lot of criticism from her colleagues, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who think the party's short-term electoral chances are doomed without the former president leading the charge, and there's no indication their minds will change anytime soon. Read more about Cheney's efforts at The Washington Post. Tim O'Donnell

May 8, 2021

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday updated its public COVID-19 guidance to explicitly state that the coronavirus can be transmitted via aerosols — smaller respiratory particles that can float — that are inhaled at a distance greater than six feet from an infected person. The risk is higher while indoors, bringing ventilation practices to the forefront. The new language marks a change from the federal health agency's previous stance that transmission of the virus typically occurs through "close contact, not airborne transmission."

Infectious disease experts have warned that the CDC and the World Health Organization (which has also updated its guidance) were overlooking evidence of airborne transmission during the pandemic, The New York Times notes, and some have stressed the need for the CDC to strengthen its recommendations for preventing exposure to aerosolized virus, especially in indoor workplaces like meatpacking plants.

Good ventilation should be one of the primary things to focus on, Dr. David Michaels, an epidemiologist at George Washington School of Public Health and the head of the Occupation and Safety Health Administration during the Obama administration, told the Times. Dr. Linsey Marr, an aerosol expert at Virginia Tech, explained that "if you're in a poorly ventilated environment, virus is going to build up in the air, and everyone who's in that room is going to be exposed."

Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, who has long been pushing for such a change, called it "one of the most crucial scientific advancements of the pandemic" that should provide a lot of clarity about what is and isn't safe going forward. Read her Twitter thread on the issue here and learn more at The New York Times. Tim O'Donnell

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