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Facebook Will Pay Out $52 Million After Failing To Protect Moderators From Dangers Of Extreme Content

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TOPLINE Former Facebook moderators will receive at least $1,000 each after Facebook agreed to pay $52 million to settle a lawsuit over allegedly failing to protect moderators being exposed to harmful content online.

KEY FACTS

  • Moderators were exposed to the worst types of content online including terrorism, pedophilia and animal abuse. They were hired by Facebook through third-party firms.
  • The settlement covers more than 11,000 current and former moderators across California, Arizona, Texas and Florida. It was filed at San Mateo County Superior Court on Friday.
  • Plaintiffs who have been diagnosed with a mental illness, including PTSD, qualify for additional compensation of up to $50,000.
  • The social media giant says it will change its policies in response to the case, and introduce compulsory group counseling sessions for moderators, while third-party firms will be required to step up support for moderators’ mental health.

CRUCIAL COMMENT

Lawyer Steve Williams, representing the plaintiffs, told The Guardian: “The harm that can be suffered from this work is real and severe. So the fact that we got some real, meaningful relief going forward just feels really good.”

KEY BACKGROUND

Facebook was sued in September 2018 by former content moderator Selena Scola, who developed PTSD after nine months in the job, thanks to regular exposure to images of rape and murder. The scale of the mental toll on moderators was exposed by The Verge last year. The outlet reported that some Facebook content moderators working for IT firm Cognizant CTSH in Arizona had developed fringe views after exposure to extreme right-wing and conspiracy theorist content, while some had developed PTSD. To cope, some moderators at the firm smoked weed to numb their emotions, while being paid just $28,800 a year. A Guardian report last year found that moderators for Facebook based in Berlin were becoming addicted to extreme content, were overworked and paid little. 

Isabel Togoh, Forbes Staff, Business

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How The Billionaire Behind The Movie ‘Contagion’ Is Working To Stop This Pandemic—And The Next One

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Producer Jeff Skoll attends a special screening Q&A of 'An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power' at The Cinerama Dome on July 27, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures)

Jeff Skoll has been funding pandemic preparedness for more than a decade, even longer than Bill Gates. In recent months, he’s increased his philanthropic giving to help combat Covid-19.

Nine years ago, Jeff Skoll’s film company Participant Media partnered with Warner Brothers to put out Contagion, a movie about a global pandemic that started with a virus from a bat. An American businesswoman (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) came home from a trip to China and unknowingly spread a novel, and at times, deadly disease. While many viewed the film as pure science fiction, Skoll had ulterior motives. He hoped the movie would help build support for funding the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and also warn the world about the potential dangers of a global pandemic.

Skoll, 55, became a billionaire just over two decades ago as a result of stock he received as eBay’s first president. He left eBay in 2001 and has since co-produced more than 100 films and TV programs, all with socially relevant themes including the climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth featuring Al Gore, factory farming documentary Food Inc., the miniseries When They See Us and the 2016 Academy Award best picture winner Spotlight, about The Boston Globe’s investigations into child sexual abuse by Catholic priests. 

While his impassioned film-making pretty much ground to a halt temporarily with California’s shelter-in-place orders, his 2011 movie Contagion has become the must watch-at-home hit of the pandemic—it’s the number one selling title to date this year, according to Warner Brothers, the distributor. (It won’t disclose the number of times it’s been rented or sold.) In late March, Participant, Contagion screenwriter Scott Z. Burns and director Steven Soderbergh worked with Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne and other cast members to produce public service announcements about washing your hands and staying home.

Beyond backing a movie about a pandemic, Skoll has been funding pandemic preparedness and prevention since 2009 — six years before Bill Gates’ now well known TED talk warning about them — through the Skoll Global Threats Fund, to which he pledged $100 million. (The other threats: climate change, water scarcity, nuclear weapons and conflict in the Middle East.)

Since the start of this year, Skoll has contributed an additional $200 million to his charitable foundation—$100 million of which was announced in late April and will go toward fighting Covid-19. He put the other $100 million in earlier this year, he tells Forbes, adding that he hadn’t bothered to publicize it. “I don’t see this as a money squirt,” Skoll explains. “This is a resource allocation to an area we know well. And this is an emergency.”

Newly bulked up, the Skoll Foundation promised to quadruple its grantmaking this year to $200 million. New beneficiaries in 2020 include some of the poorest folks in Los Angeles and the contact tracing program being launched across California.“This is the rainy day we’ve all been saving for,” Skoll says of his charitable giving. “If not now, when?” 

He’s been working up to 20 hours a day in his kitchen in Beverly Hills — on a call in early June, he jokes that it’s his “command center,” equipped with a couple of iPads, a MacBook and some bluetooth devices — talking to people around the globe, taking the pulse of the pandemic and searching out individuals, organizations and companies with new ideas. “Just the science, the learnings of the virus — almost every day there’s some revelation that we didn’t know,” says Skoll.  

The pandemics research that Skoll started funding through the Skoll Global Threats Fund spun off into a nonprofit called Ending Pandemics in January 2018, with a seed grant from Skoll. “It’s all about early detection and rapid response,” says Ending Pandemics President Dr. Mark Smolinski.


Skoll has been funding pandemic preparedness and prevention since 2009 — six years before Bill Gates’ TED talk warning about them — through the Skoll Global Threats Fund, which he spun off into Ending Pandemics in 2018.


Skoll got wind of the novel coronavirus early on, back in December —where it started. “We had colleagues on the ground in Wuhan. We had an idea that a zoonotic disease had jumped to humans,” he says. By January he and his team began to be concerned about countries with trade ties to China — particularly in Africa, where some of the social entrepreneurs that the Skoll Foundation has supported are operating. 

In early February, the Skoll Foundation made its first Covid-19 related grant: $3 million to the African Field Epidemiology Network, a group working with the African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (the Africa CDC) to help coordinate African countries’ response and to boost surveillance and detection. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation donated to the same group around the same time. Beginning with those two grants, says Africa CDC Director Dr. John Nkengasong, “we were able to rally rapid responders to Addis Ababa [for training] and send them to Nigeria and Cameroon. We were able to scale up diagnostics.” Funding from others then followed, including the MasterCard foundation, Germany, Sweden, the U.K. and the U.S.  

In  March  it made a grant to the Southern African Center for Infectious Disease Surveillance Foundation (SACIDS) and a similar group in East Africa. One outcome: Mozambique, which had the infrastructure to test for Covid-19 but limited money to buy tests, got the needed funds and ramped up testing four-fold, according to Smolinski. 

The Skoll foundation’s next move was to quickly create a fund for both its current and past grantees — mostly social entrepreneurs. Sixty-four organizations were given $50,000 grants. “We figured they would need emergency funding,” Skoll explains.

Though the Skoll Foundation has traditionally supported social entrepreneurs who work in lower income countries, in the past few months it has made some donations closer to home. Because Los Angeles County has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, Skoll reached out to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to offer assistance. In late April, his foundation made a $2 million gift to the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles, which is providing cash assistance to families hit hardest by Covid-19. 

Skoll also connected with California Governor Gavin Newsom and his senior advisor on social innovation, Kathleen Kelly Janus. The Skoll Foundation is donating $8 million to support California’s response to Covid-19, starting with $4.1 million for the public awareness campaign around contact tracing, which Janus says “will be really critical to preventing a second wave of Covid-19.” 

Smolinski’s team, which had already partnered with Harvard and Boston Children’s Hospital to build a crowdsourced symptom reporting tracker called Flu Near You in 2012 to show flu trends in neighborhoods and cities, rolled out Covid Near You in early March. The app lets people anonymously report if they’re feeling healthy or not, with zip code info, as  a way to track current and potential hotspots. 


Skoll’s Ending Pandemics has partnered with governments and public health authorities in 36 countries — 11 of which have surveillance systems tracking Covid-19 and other infectious diseases.


Ending Pandemics has partnered with governments and public health authorities in 36 countries — 11 of which have surveillance systems that Smolinski says are “up to speed.” One is Cambodia, a country of 14 million people, where all four telecom companies support a free mobile app that both receives info about disease and provides information. Calls have gone from 600 a day before the pandemic to 15,000, and the vast majority of the Covid-19 cases in the country were first identified through the hotline, Smolinski says. Cambodia, the country that took in a cruise ship no one else wanted, so far has just 129 cases and no deaths, he adds.

Through the Audacious Project, a philanthropic group with about 30 members launched by TED conference curator Chris Anderson with Jeff Skoll and Richard Branson, Skoll and others are supporting Boston-based Partners in Health, which responded to the Ebola crisis in 2014. The multi-million dollar grant from the Audacious Project enables Partners in Health to share its contact tracing expertise over the coming year with roughly 19 public health departments across the U.S. “We started by helping the state of Massachusetts put together a contact tracing system, and everyone else wanted to know what we were doing,” says Joia Mukherjee, Chief Medical Officer of Partners In Health. “This funding has allowed us to expand our team. What we are hoping is that state and federal money will be forthcoming.” 

Mukherjee applauds Skoll’s approach to philanthropy. “Jeff has always been a systems thinker, and that has been transformative for Partners In Health,” she says. 

Skoll also contributed funding to an ambitious global project called the Global Infectious Disease Epidemiology Network — GIDEoN for short —being spearheaded by Columbia University epidemiologist Ian Lipkin, who directs the university’s Center for Infection and Immunity. Lipkin has lined up the equivalent of the National Institutes of Health in 12 countries including India, Brazil and China and together they’ll share information about outbreaks and disease samples. With GIDEoN,  Lipkin explains, “we’re trying to upgrade the capacity for detecting infectious agents and toxins, particularly in the developing world.” 

While Skoll has been involved in global philanthropy for nearly two decades, he now has an even more personal reason for being involved in the fight against deadly diseases. While working on Ebola in 2014, he contracted a rare tropical disease that took two years to diagnose. He took an 18 month medical leave of absence and is feeling better now.

Despite many challenges, Skoll is an optimist, even about pandemics. Yes, the number of cases will likely increase as U.S. states open back up, he says. But he’s hopeful that a treatment for Covid-19-an existing drug—can work and be scaled up for distribution sometime this summer. “I hope we can get the solutions in place in the next few months. I see a path to it,” he says.

As for future pandemics, Skoll sees a silver lining.  “There are so many zoonotic viruses that jump over from animals to humans. Most of them peter out and turn into something less lethal. I don’t think it’s likely that we’ll see any terrible new pandemic any time soon, says Skoll.  “If anything, the world is on watch now.”

Kerry A. Dolan, Forbes Staff, Billionaires

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5 Big Numbers That Show Amazon’s Explosive Growth During The Coronavirus Pandemic

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Here are five big numbers that show Amazon AMZN -3.7%’s explosive growth during the pandemic which has hurt much of the retail world.

$570 billion

That’s how much Amazon’s market capitalization has gained so far in 2020. At the start of the year, the e-commerce giant sported a valuation of around $920 billion. After the stock bounced back from the coronavirus market sell-off in March and hit new record highs, the company is now worth $1.49 trillion. That makes Amazon one of the largest companies in the world, trailing only Microsoft MSFT -4.3%, worth $1.54 trillion, and Apple AAPL -4.6%, worth $1.61 trillion.

63.3%

Amazon’s stock has increased by more than 60% this year and now trading at around $3,000 per share. It bottomed out at around $1,600 in mid-March as the stock market plunged amid widespread business shutdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic. The stock has since roared back from its March low, closing above $3,000 per share for the first time on July 6. There are several reasons to explain the stock’s “meteoric rise,” according to Morningstar MORN +0.5% analyst R. J. Hottovy. “Heightened Prime member engagement (especially for online grocery services)” and strong usage rates for its cloud business, Amazon Web Services (AWS). Morningstar assigns the stock a fair value estimate of $2,750 per share.

$178.5 billion

Bezos, who currently owns an 11.1% stake in Amazon, has seen his net worth surge by more than 50% so far in 2020. He is the world’s richest person: Forbes estimates his net worth at $178.5 billion, up from $114.7 billion at the end of 2019. The second richest person is Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, with a net worth of $113 billion.

$75 billion

That’s at least how much revenue analysts are expecting from Amazon when it reports second quarter earnings next week on July 30. But Morningstar says (as is the case with many big tech stocks today), the market has moved back to a “growth-over-profitability” mindset when it comes to Amazon. The company is expected to report at least $4 billion in coronavirus-related expenses, which could pressure the company’s operating profits, according to Hottovy. Since April, Amazon and Bezos have faced backlash over inadequate safety and working conditions amid the coronavirus which had led to worker protests. The company has since pledged to spend more money on revamping health and safety protocols in the workplace.

$3,800 per share

Analysts at investment firms Jefferies and Goldman GS -1.4% Sachs have both raised their Amazon price targets to $3,800 per share. That’s the highest estimate on the Street. Both firms cited Amazon’s booming e-commerce business—including sustained online sales growth in North America—and large potential upside from its growth in its cloud segment, AWS. According to Goldman analysts, data from Mastercard MA -1.1% indicates that Amazon’s e-commerce segment grew by 93% year-over-year in May.

Sergei Klebnikov, Forbes Staff, Markets

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How Buffett’s $10 Billion Pipeline Deal Is Doing Environmental Double Duty Helping Dominion Energy Turn Acres Of Manure Into Clean Power

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From pig-manure power to wind farms, Virginia’s Dominion Energy is transforming itself into a renewable energy powerhouse—and Berkshire Hathaway’s cash will only accelerate the process. 

“Pigs are extremely efficient,” says Kraig Westerbeek, who oversees renewable energy production for Smithfield Foods, the world’s biggest pork producer. For what farmers put into them, they get a lot out. “They eat 2.4 pounds of feed per pound of gain,” he says. “And they produce more gas per pound of live weight.”

Westerbeek is talking about greenhouse gases emitted by the millions of pigs his industrial farms produce each year. Inside his giant barns, manure and urine ooze through holes in a concrete floor before getting piped to open-air ponds called lagoons—some the size of four football fields. In these lakes of livestock waste naturally occurring bacteria—called methanogens—continue to feed and fart out more gas. All this methane ends up in the atmosphere, and that is bad news for the planet. Pound for pound, methane packs 25 times the greenhouse effect as the standard environmental villain, carbon dioxide. To make matters worse, it’s long been standard practice for farmers to spray the odoriferous lagoon waste on croplands as rich fertilizer—subjecting Smithfield and its former hog-producing subsidiary, Murphy-Brown, to environmental litigation and scathing publicity as local communities cope with the stench and health risks.

But today, Westerbeek has a better story to tell. In recent years Smithfield has been working to perfect methods of capping lagoons with heavy plastic covers that trap the methane (and much of the reek). The gas inflates the plastic domes in amounts sufficient for people to walk on—like an extremely gross air mattress. Smithfield has partnered with Richmond, Virginia-based utility giant Dominion Energy to market the gas. Under the plan, Dominion will siphon the pig gas out of these anaerobic digesters, inject it into interstate pipelines and sell it to green-minded customers looking to cut their carbon footprints. The end result is arguably the cleanest electricity in the nation, says Dominion Chief Operating Officer Diane Leopold. “It’s a win-win-win.” With renewable energy projects, she says, “it’s about how many boxes you can check. This one has an extra box.”

Over the next decade, Dominion aims to invest $650 million into agriculture-derived gas projects. Smithfield will contribute another $250 million. The expected result: 8 billion cubic feet per year of livestock gas—thus preventing the emissions equivalent of 3.5 million tons per year of carbon dioxide. That’s like taking 750,000 cars permanently off the road, or planting 60 million new trees every year. It may sound gimmicky, but replacing just 12% of fossil fuel gas with methane captured from pigs, dairy cows or landfills “can make everything net zero” on an emissions basis, says Leopold.

Helping to underwrite those investments will be the $10 billion ($4 billion cash; $6 billion assumed debt) that Berkshire Hathaway said Monday it will pay for Dominion’s 7,700 miles of long-haul gas pipelines. Dominion had to sell its pipelines to fund investment into renewables, says Hugh Wynne at SSR. And that gave Warren Buffett the opportunity to double down on Berkshire’s pipeline holdings, at a good price. “Buffett is taking advantage of their situation,” says Wynne.

For Buffett, the deal complements Berkshire Hathaway’s existing 16,000-mile pipeline network, thus supporting his bet that natural gas will put the final bullet into coal and be a mainstay of U.S. power generation for decades to come. Berkshire already owns massive wind farms that generate 6,600 megawatts across the West—so it is also knee-deep in renewable energy. And Berkshire’s money will do double environmental duty, as Dominion will use some of the cash to help build its green future. All told, Dominion expects to make some $55 billion of investments by 2035 into low-carbon energy sources—spurred on by Virginia’s aggressive new mandate for 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045.

What a departure this is from the old Dominion Energy. The utility was founded as Virginia Railway & Power Co. in 1909 by Frank Jay Gould, son of robber baron Jay Gould. Its roots are firmly planted in Appalachian coal. Even as late as 1995, when its current CEO Tom Farrell came on board as general counsel, more than half of its power came from burning coal.

Over the past 15 years, Dominion has slashed its carbon dioxide emissions by 52%, first by replacing coal-fired power plants with cheap and plentiful natural gas, and more recently by investing in solar and other renewables. In a decade the carbon intensity of Dominion’s power generation has fallen from more than 1,200 lbs. of CO2 per megawatt-hour to less than 600 pounds. This is in the lowest quartile of American electric utilities, according to consultancy MJ Bradley Group.

A big contributing factor: the changing economics of renewable power. “Solar was not affordable; five years ago we didn’t have a single panel,” Farrell says. Now Dominion, which had profits of $1.4 billion on revenues of $16.5 billion in 2019 (and whose dividend yields 5%), is the fourth-largest solar operator in the country.

Dominion is far from alone in its rush into renewables. Since 2003—when coal provided 51% of America’s electricity—the nation’s power utilities have dramatically cut back their combustion of coal in favor of renewables and cleaner-burning natural gas. Currently, coal fuels just 17% of electricity, and renewables have surpassed it for the first time ever. This trend is just getting started. With its new 2045 mandate for zero-carbon electricity, Virginia joins California, New Mexico, New York, Washington and Hawaii.

After $40 million in R&D write-offs they settled on perfecting the systems being deployed today, whereby each farm’s manure lagoons have been turned into anaerobic digesters that capture its gas and sends it via pipeline to a centralized processing plant. After about three weeks in the digester, what’s left of the manure comes out the other end as sterile, nutrient-rich organic matter used as fertilizer or even livestock bedding. The now less odoriferous water is sprayed on crop fields. The Dominion/Smithfield joint venture will deploy systems at hog operations in North Carolina, Virginia and Utah.

Dominion is also working with startup Vanguard Renewables, which deploys similar systems at dairy farms. Vanguard is backed by the foundation of eBay billionaire Jeff Skoll, among others. It already has 42 diary farms signed up. Vanguard’s president, Kevin Chase, says that even though so-called dairy digesters had been perfected in heavily subsidized Europe over the past decade, owners of natural gas pipelines were initially skeptical at letting in bovine gas. “It was guilty until proven innocent,” says Chase, whose Wellesley, Massachusetts-based company has since landed long-term contracts with Vermont Gas, Middlebury College and Polar Beverages.

Though plenty of municipal sewage systems utilize similar digesters to process human waste, these aren’t as cost-effective because of the plethora of other stuff people put down the drain. “Animal waste is cleaner and more homogenous,” says Chase, because we know that the hogs and cows are eating and what’s coming out. A solution for chicken waste remains an elusive “Holy Grail” because its high ammonia content makes it extremely caustic and tough to process.

Renewable fuels are a priority at the EPA. To ensure that refineries and utilities use the mandated volumes of green fuels, the EPA requires that they either generate or trade for compliance credits (called Renewable Identification Numbers). Thanks to its negative-carbon attributes, livestock gas qualifies for the highest-value credits—meaning that customers could pay Dominion ten times more for hog gas than for the same quantity of gas fracked out of shale formations. That could be enough to generate an additional $100 million a year in revenue.

Not everyone is impressed by the potential for renewable natural gas. “Putting it into a pipeline is better than letting it go loose,” says William McDonough, visionary architect and author of Cradle To Cradleabout the need for a circular carbon economy. “But it’s still a fugitive carbon. To say it’s the cleanest energy is not correct, if you’re considering climate change.”

McDonough favors using ever-cheaper solar and wind power to electrolyze water into hydrogen. “Green hydrogen” and other climate-friendly efforts are already in the works at Dominion. COO Leopold says they’ve successfully blended 10% hydrogen into their gas-fired power plants; “It’s expensive at the moment, but solar was expensive, too.”

In the years ahead, Dominion could well become Virginia’s biggest private landowner due to all the solar panels it expects to install. And it’s begun replacing diesel-powered school buses with electric ones statewide. Offshore in the Atlantic Ocean, Dominion this summer has installed the first two of what could be hundreds of 800-feet-tall offshore wind turbines generating 2,600 megawatts.  (Reflecting its renewable energy efforts, Dominion has been named to Forbes’ annual Just 100 list of socially responsible companies.)

Even after Dominion has transitioned from nearly all-coal to zero-carbon in a generation, it will still be looking for the next best thing. Maybe nuclear fusion? “I don’t doubt it,” says Farrell. “A sustainable company is one that adapts to challenges and weathers the storm.”

Christopher Helman, Forbes Staff, Energy

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