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Facebook Profit Soars, No Sign of Impact from Russia Issue

Facebook reported better-than-expected quarterly profit and revenue on Wednesday as it pushed further into video advertising, showing no sign of financial damage from the controversy over how Russia used the social network in an attempt to sway voters in the 2016 U.S. election.

The company’s shares, which hit a record earlier in the day, initially rose in after-hours trading, but later fell into negative territory. They have gained almost 60 percent this year.

Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg condemned Russia’s attempts to influence last year’s election through Facebook posts designed to sow division, and repeated his pledge to ramp up spending significantly to increase the social network’s security, something he said on Wednesday would affect profits.

“What they did is wrong, and we are not going to stand for it,” Zuckerberg said of the Russians, on a conference call with analysts.

Facebook is at the center of a political storm in the United States for the ways it handles paid political ads and allows the spread of false news stories. U.S. lawmakers have threatened tougher regulation and fired questions at Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch in hearings this week.

Facebook, in a series of disclosures over two months, has said that people in Russia bought at least 3,000 U.S. political ads and published another 80,000 Facebook posts that were seen by as many as 126 million Americans over two years. Russia denies any meddling.

Facebook’s total advertising revenue rose 49 percent in the third quarter to $10.14 billion, about 88 percent of which came from mobile ads.

Analysts on average had expected total ad revenue of $9.71 billion, according to data and analytics firm FactSet.

Facebook in the third quarter gave advertisers for the first time the ability to run ads in standalone videos, outside the Facebook News Feed, and the company is seeing good early results, Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg told analysts on a conference call.

“Video is exploding, and mobile video advertising is a big opportunity,” Sandberg said.

More than 70 percent of ad breaks up to 15 seconds long were viewed to completion, most with the sound on, she said.

The 49 percent increase in total ad sales in the latest quarter compares with a 47 percent rise in the prior quarter and a 51 percent jump in the first quarter.

Facebook has been warning for more than a year about reaching a limit in “ad load”, or the number of ads the company can feature in users’ pages before crowding their News Feed.

Advertisers seem unfazed, though, spending heavily as the social network continues to attract users.

The nearly 50 percent jump in ad revenue “is phenomenal, especially when for the past few quarters they’ve been trying to bring that expectation way, way down. Yet it keeps going up,” Tigress Financial Partners analyst Ivan Feinseth said.

Of the Russia scandal enveloping Facebook publicly, Feinseth said: “In the bigger picture, I don’t think it’s a really big factor.”

The company’s performance was strong in comparison with smaller social media firms Snap Inc and Twitter, Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter said.

“Facebook grew revenues by $3.3 billion year-over-year for the quarter. This is more than Twitter and Snapchat generate combined for the full year,” he said.

Facebook said about 2.07 billion people were using its service monthly as of Sept. 30, up 16 percent from a year earlier.

Analysts on average had expected 2.06 billion monthly active users, according to FactSet.

Net income rose to $4.71 billion, or $1.59 per share, from $2.63 billion, or 90 cents per share.

Analysts on an average were expecting the company to earn $1.28, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Total revenue increased 47.3 percent to $10.33 billion beating analysts estimate of $9.84 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Various U.S. investigations into how Russia may have tried to sway American voters in the months before and after last year’s elections are hanging over Facebook and its competitors.

There is also proposed U.S. legislation that would extend rules governing political ads on television, radio and satellite to also cover digital advertising.

“We expect more scrutiny about Facebook’s ad system ahead,” analyst Debra Aho Williamson of research firm eMarketer said in a note. “We’re also monitoring for any signs that this investigation will have a material impact on ad revenue.”

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Trump Expected to Name Powell As New Fed Chief

President Donald Trump is expected to name Jerome Powell as the new head of the U.S. central bank.

Trump is scheduled to formally announce the pick Thursday in the White House Rose Garden.

“I think you will be extremely impressed by this person!” he teased in a Twitter post.

 

WATCH: Who Will Be the Next Fed Chief?

Sucessor to Yellen

The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed sources, reported late Wednesday that White House officials have notified Powell that he will replace Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen when her term expires early next year. Other media outlets also said Powell is Trump’s choice.

Powell is one of the Federal Reserve’s governors. Analysts say he is a Republican centrist who appears inclined to continue the Fed’s strategy of gradually raising interest rates. The Journal story cautioned that Trump, who has praised Yellen recently, might still change his mind.

Powell would be a middle-ground pick for Trump, who is also considering current Fed Chair Yellen as well as Stanford University economist John Taylor and former Fed Governor Kevin Warsh.

Powell may relax rules

While Powell is expected to continue Yellen’s cautious approach to raising interest rates, economists say he might relax some of the financial rules designed to prevent another financial crisis like the one that caused chaos in the markets during the 2007-2008 recession. Trump has complained that those rules hurt banks and economic growth. Yellen, who was selected as Fed chair by President Barack Obama, has been an outspoken advocate for the stricter financial regulations that took effect in 2010.

Many conservative members of Congress had been pushing Trump to select Taylor, rather than Powell, for Fed chairman. Taylor, one of the country’s leading academics in the area of Fed policy, would likely embrace a more “hawkish’’ approach, more inclined to raise rates to fight inflation than to keep rates low to support the job market. Taylor is the author of a widely cited policy rule that provides a mathematical formula for guiding rate decisions. By one version of that rule, rates would be at least double what they are now.

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Trump Tweets NY Attacker Had Diversity Visa

According to a tweet by President Donald Trump Wednesday morning, the Uzbek attacker who killed at people Tuesday night in Manhattan came to the United States on a diversity immigrant visa.

For would-be Americans who don’t have family in the U.S., or an employer to sponsor them, or who aren’t refugees, the diversity visa, also known as the green card lottery, is the only option. It requires a high school degree or a few years of work experience just to qualify.

The State Department noted, however, that visa information is confidential under U.S. law, and that they could not comment on any specific visa application.

Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer played an important role in drawing up legislation for the program in the 1990s. In a statement released Tuesday, he said “I have always believed and continue to believe that immigration is good for America,” proposing that Trump focus on the “real solution” of anti-terrorism funding.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. State Department announced that all entries to the lottery this year had been lost and must be resubmitted.

Earlier this year, republican senators proposed scrapping the program altogether.

If the application to the Green Card lottery is valid, your number is chosen and you pass the other requirements for immigrants, you still need the money to get to the U.S. It’s a small portion of immigration to the U.S. every year, but larger than other cornerstones of the program, like employment-based immigrant visas.

In Fiscal Year 2015, the U.S. issued 48,097 diversity visas out of 531,463 total immigrant visas.

Natives of all countries qualify except Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, China (mainland-born), Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, the Philippines, South Korea, the United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland) and its dependent territories, and Vietnam. People born in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan are eligible.

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On Climate Change, It’s Trump vs Markets

Though the Trump administration has taken steps to undo regulations aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions, experts say economic forces are helping to push down U.S. emissions anyway.

U.N. climate negotiators will meet in Bonn, Germany, November 6-17. It will be their first gathering since President Donald Trump announced the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.

Trump considers efforts to fight climate change a barrier to economic growth. Promising to dominate global energy markets and put struggling U.S. coal miners back to work, he has taken a series of steps to roll back regulations aimed at fighting climate change. They include moving to revoke the Clean Power Plan, former President Barack Obama’s primary tool for cutting carbon emissions from power plants.

Energy transition

Losing those regulations won’t stop the transition in energy sources that’s already underway, according to George Washington University Solar Institute Director Amit Ronen.

“We’re still going to meet the goals of the Clean Power Plan in most states, even if it’s withdrawn,” he said, “just because we’re substituting so much natural gas and renewables for coal.”

Coal-fired power plants — the most climate-polluting source of electricity — are shutting down across the country. More than 500 closed between 2002 and 2016, and additional plants are slated for closure, according to the Department of Energy. Electric utilities are replacing them with cheaper, cleaner natural gas.

And renewable sources, such as wind and solar, are booming. Prices have plummeted. Renewables are beginning to be cost-competitive with fossil fuels.

Solar tariffs

Though electric utilities are choosing natural gas and renewables over coal, the Trump administration may influence energy markets in other ways.

A case before the International Trade Commission will soon give the president the authority to put tariffs on imported solar panels — and nearly all of them are imported.

The case is billed as an effort to help domestic solar manufacturers. While Trump has not embraced renewable energy, he has said he wants to support U.S. manufacturing jobs.

But solar manufacturing is mostly automated. Far more people work in labor-intensive installation. The Solar Energy Industries Association has opposed measures limiting imports, saying it would cost jobs.

The International Trade Commission recommended tariffs smaller than what the plaintiffs asked for. But Trump gets the last word, expected before mid-January.

Even more severe trade restrictions would not extinguish the renewables industry, however.

“[A tariff] certainly adds cost and might stifle solar development,” said Rhodium Group analyst John Larsen. “But the overall clean energy picture doesn’t get hit too hard.”

That’s because many states and cities have policies requiring electric utilities to use renewable energy, Larsen noted. They are stepping up their efforts to cut greenhouse gases, even as the federal government is pulling back. If solar dips, wind may fill in the gap.

Subsidizing coal, nuclear

The proposal that could have a bigger impact on electricity markets comes from the Trump administration’s Department of Energy.

With so many coal plants shut down and eight nuclear plants on the brink of closure, Secretary Rick Perry said the reliability of the U.S. electric grid is in jeopardy.

Because coal and nuclear plants provide constant power and have their fuel supplies on-site, Perry suggested paying them more than other sources for their electricity.

The proposal has made unusual allies of the natural gas, solar and wind industries. They wrote joint comments opposing it. And critics across the political spectrum have blasted it.

“This has no intellectual depth. It’s unprofessional. It’s badly thought out,” said finance director Tom Sanzillo of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

Sanzillo noted that the Department of Energy study on which Perry based his recommendations does not show that grid reliability is threatened. And Perry himself rejected a similar proposal as governor of Texas, where the growing influx of wind power was pushing coal plants out of business.

Not fast enough

Ultimately, experts say, the Trump administration has limited powers to save the coal industry.

While coal’s decline is helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, however, experts say they are not falling fast enough to avoid the worst of climate change.

Under the Paris climate agreement, nations agreed to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Former President Obama pledged that the United States would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

Even the Clean Power Plan, plus other Obama-era regulations, still would have left the United States short of that goal, Larsen said.

“The current U.S. trajectory is not in line with Paris, and the U.S. commitment in Paris wasn’t necessarily on track for 2 degrees,” he said. “It was a starting point, a down payment.

“Hopefully, other countries step up to the plate to fill in some of that gap. But that’s a big if.”

The latest report from the U.N. Environment Program says pledged emission cuts worldwide add up to just one-third of what is needed to keep the planet below the 2-degree target.

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NY Mourns, Tightened Security, After Bike Path Rampage

Authorities in New York are trying to determine what led the driver of a rented pickup truck to mow down people on a busy bike path Tuesday in the deadliest terrorist incident in the city since the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001.

At least eight people were killed and 11 others injured in what New York Mayor Bill de Blasio called “a particularly cowardly act of terror aimed at innocent civilians.”

New York Police Commissioner James O’Neill said around 3:05 p.m. local time, a man driving a rented commercial pickup truck entered the bike path, striking riders and pedestrians. The truck also struck a school bus, injuring two adults and two children.  

The man then “exited the vehicle brandishing two handguns,” O’Neill said. A paintball gun and a pellet gun were later found at the scene. The suspect was shot in the abdomen by police and taken into custody.

Law enforcement officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told media outlets the suspect was a 29-year-old immigrant from Uzbekistan named Sayfullo Saipov, who entered the United States in 2010. He underwent surgery and is expected to survive.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told CNN he believes the suspect was “radicalized domestically.”  News reports indicate a note was found at the scene referencing Islamic State.

In a tweet Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump said, “The terrorist came into our country through what is called the ‘Diversity Visa Lottery Program,’ a Chuck Schumer beauty.  I want merit based.”

Tuesday night, Trump said he ordered “Homeland Security to step up our already Extreme Vetting Program. Being politically correct is fine, but not for this!”

There has been no official claim of responsibility from IS, but Greg Barton, a professor of global Islamic politics at Deakin University in Australia, said it seems as if the attacker was inspired by the terror group.

“Islamic State doesn’t claim attacks when the attacker is held in custody and so they probably won’t claim this one,” Barton told VOA.  “But there’s no question that we’ve seen many attempted attacks in New York and there will be more attempts in the future.”

WATCH: Ramon Taylor reports from the scene

Uzbek reaction

Uzbekistan’s president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, said Wednesday the attack was ruthless and cruel, and that his government stood ready to use all means to assist in the investigation.

“We express our feelings of full solidarity to the people of the United States of America,” Mirziyoyev said in a statement posted on the Uzbekistan Foreign Ministry website.

“We strongly condemn the terror truck attack on the innocent civilians in New York City. Our deepest sympathy and condolences to the families who lost their loved ones,” said the Turkistanian American Association of New York and New Jersey, on behalf of the Uzbek community, in a statement sent by email to the Voice of America.

The Cato Institute told VOA only about 40,000 Uzbeks have entered the United States as migrants in the last 20 years, and that of those, only 2 percent arrived as refugees.

David Bier, a policy analyst at the Washington-based research institution, said he believed this is the first time an Uzbek national has killed anyone on U.S. soil in a terrorist attack.

Witnesses describe chaos

For some witnesses, the chaos was reminiscent of images of deadly attacks from across Europe.

“It always seems really distant but then when it’s right next to you, obviously it’s really shocking and disturbing, and you don’t want it to happen to anybody,” said Elizabeth Chernobelsky, who witnessed the crime scene.

Others were left in disbelief. College student Jake Saunders, who barely missed a train at a crucial moment, told VOA he considers himself lucky.

 

“If I had made that train, I would be right where the shooting is, right there, because that was my destination,” Saunders said.

Police said the driver shouted “Allahu Akbar,” Arabic for “God is great,” when he got out of the truck. But when O’Neill was asked whether the suspect shouted the phrase, he replied: “Yeah. He did make a statement when he exited the vehicle,” though he declined to elaborate.

The New York Police Department said they will increase the number of officers throughout the city “out of an abundance of caution.”

Ramon Taylor in New York and Victor Beattie in Washington DC contributed to this report

 

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Malaysia Investigating Reported Leak of 46 Million Mobile Users Data

Malaysia is investigating an alleged attempt to sell the data of more than 46 million mobile phone subscribers online after a major data breach, Communications and Multimedia Minister Salleh Said Keruak said on Wednesday.

The massive data breach was first reported last month by Lowyat.net, a local technology news website, which said it had received a tip-off that someone was trying to sell huge databases of personal information on its forums.

Salleh said the country’s internet regulator, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), was looking into the matter with the police.

“We have identified several potential sources of the leak and we should be able to complete the probe soon,” Salleh told reporters at parliament.

The leaked data was being sold for an undisclosed amount of Bitcoin, a digital currency, Lowyat.net said on Monday.

It included lists of mobile phone numbers, identification card numbers, home addresses, and SIM card data of 46.2 million customers from at least 12 Malaysian mobile phone operators.

Malaysia’s population is just around 32 million, but many have several mobile numbers. The lists are also believed to include inactive numbers and temporary ones bought by visiting foreigners, local daily The Star reported.

MCMC’s chief operating officer Mazlan Ismail said on Tuesday the regulator had met with local telecommunications companies to seek their cooperation in the probe, according to state news agency Bernama.

The data also includes private information of more than 80,000 individuals leaked from the records of the Malaysian Medical Council, the Malaysian Medical Association, and the Malaysian Dental Association, Lowyat.net said.

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New Fingerprint Technology Solves Mysteries, Brings Closure to Families of Deceased

Modern forensics have come a long way with the use of DNA evidence and fingerprint databases. But it’s not always easy to match a full set of prints, especially if a corpse is stranded in the desert and scavenging animals have picked it apart. But a new FBI database aims to share as much information despite the few clues available. Arash Arabasadi reports.

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US Social Media Giants Pledge to Combat Foreign Disinformation

Attorneys for Twitter, Facebook and Google on Tuesday told U.S. lawmakers that Russian entities used their platforms to sow discord and disinformation during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, but downplayed the magnitude of those efforts.

“Foreign actors used fake accounts to place ads in Facebook and Instagram that reached millions of Americans over a two-year period,” Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch said, testifying before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee. “Many of these ads and posts are inflammatory. Some are downright offensive.”

Sean Edgett, Twitter’s acting general counsel, said the company studied all tweets posted from Sept. 1 to Nov. 15, 2016, and found that election-related content posted by automated Russian troll accounts “was comparatively small.” He said the Russian troll accounts made up “around 1/100th of a percent of total Twitter accounts” during the time studied.

“Twitter believes that any activity of that kind — regardless of magnitude — is unacceptable and we agree we must do better to prevent it,” he said.

Twitter has taken action against the suspected Russian trolls, suspending 2,752 accounts and implementing new dedicated teams “to enhance the quality of the information our users see,” Edgett said.

Facebook, meanwhile, said it would hire more people to vet and, when necessary, remove content, and verify and publish the identities of election advertisers.

Watch: Social media companies to fight disinformation

Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in the Senate requiring some of the very steps technology giants say they are implementing on their own.

“These platforms are being used by people who wish us harm and wish to undercut our way of life,” said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

“It shouldn’t be news to anyone that Russia interfered in the election,” said California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. “What is really staggering and hard to fully comprehend is how easily and successfully they turned modern technologies to their advantage.”

The social media attorneys said Russian trolling campaigns consistently sought to rile up Americans, first in a way damaging to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. After the election, they said, Russian efforts appeared aimed at sowing doubts about the legitimacy of Republican Donald Trump’s victory at the polls — a point seized upon by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa.

“Russia does not have loyalty to a political party in the United States; their goal is to divide us and discredit our democracy,” Grassley said.

Representatives from the same social media companies testify Wednesday before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. 

VOA’s Joshua Fatzick contributed to this report.

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White House: Trump Has ‘Warm Rapport’ with Philippines’ Duterte

The White House said Tuesday that President Donald Trump has developed a “warm rapport” with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte even though the Manila leader has verbally attacked the United States in profane terms.

A senior Trump administration official, talking about details of Trump’s five-nation Asia visit that starts Friday and includes a stop in Manila, said Trump and Duterte have become friendly during telephone conversations and exchanges of letters.

“I think there’s a warm rapport there and he’s very much looking forward to his first in-person meeting with President Duterte,” the official said. Their meeting is scheduled on the last stop of Trump’s 12-day trip that includes visits to Japan, South Korea, China and Vietnam.

Anti-drug campaign praised

Duterte has alleged that the U.S., despite its long-standing alliance with the Philippines, has treated it “like a dog,” and a year ago, before Trump assumed power, announced a “separation” from the U.S. The Philippine leader was angered that the administration of former President Barack Obama voiced objections to the country’s extrajudicial killings of people involved in drug transactions.

But Trump, in a May call to Duterte, praised his anti-drug campaign, saying Duterte was doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.”

The White House official said, “The amount of cooperation that’s taking place below the leader level, made possible by our long-standing relationship and alliance with the Philippines, is still very robust. And that expands to areas like counter-terror, all of the close people-to-people ties between the countries, and human rights as well. The president will have frank and friendly discussions in his first meeting with Mr. Duterte.”

Elsewhere on his trip, Trump is planning to advance efforts to force North Korea to end its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and pushing countries in the region to adhere to United Nations sanctions to limit trade with Pyongyang that it needs to fund its missile and nuclear tests.

No DMZ visit

But the White House official said Trump, unlike some other U.S. presidents, “is not going to visit the DMZ,” the heavily armed buffer zone between North and South Korea.

He said, “There’s not enough time in his schedule. It would have had to be DMZ or Camp Humphreys,” a military base south of Seoul, the South Korean capital, to highlight the military cooperation between the U.S. and South Korea.

“No president has visited Camp Humphreys, and we thought that that made more sense in terms of its messaging, in terms of a chance to address families and troops there,” the official said.

“It’s becoming a little bit of a cliche, frankly” to visit the DMZ, the official said, noting that Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson all visited the buffer zone this year.

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Exxon Promises Air Pollution Controls in Settlement with US Government

ExxonMobil has promised to upgrade pollution controls at eight of its manufacturing facilities along the U.S. Gulf Coast under an agreement it reached with federal authorities.

The petrochemical giant will spend about $300 million to install pollution controls at the plants to settle allegations that it violated U.S. environmental law by failing to properly monitor industrial flares at its petrochemical plants, resulting in illegal air pollution.

The U.S. Justice Department, in a statement, said the Exxon facilities — located in Louisiana and Texas — will operate new air pollution control and monitoring technology to reduce the harmful emissions.

“Once fully implemented, the pollution controls required by the settlement are estimated to reduce harmful air emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) by more than 7,000 tons per year,” the DOJ said in a statement. “The settlement is also expected to reduce toxic air pollutants, including benzene, by more than 1,500 tons per year.”

The Justice Department describes VOCs as key components in the formation of smog, which can irritate lungs and inflame respiratory issues like asthma. Chronic exposure can lead to leukemia and adverse reproductive effects in women, the DOJ said.

Exxon also will be required to spend $1 million on a project to plant trees in Baytown, Texas, and purchase a $1.5 million mobile air quality monitoring vehicle for use by Louisiana’s environmental protection agency.

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