Obama brings the heat, and Harris provides the light

I thought former President Obama and Sen. Kamala Harris offered an interesting juxtaposition tonight. Obama’s unsmiling speech was stark — appropriately so, given that we really are in danger of losing our democracy.

That gave Harris the chance to take a contrasting approach and end the night with a heavy dose of inspiration and uplift. And she delivered in the midst of an empty hall. You can only imagine what the reception would have been like if she’d been speaking in a packed convention center.

I also liked her reference to “the beloved community,” a phrase associated with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that we hear in our church. It conjured images of a religious left, serving to remind viewers that the right doesn’t have a monopoly on faith.

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Biden nails it: Why Kamala Harris is both a historic first and the safest choice

As nearly every political observer has said, Kamala Harris was the “safe” choice to be Joe Biden’s running mate. And though that’s almost certainly true, it’s pretty amazing that the first Black woman named to a presidential ticket is also considered the least controversial.

That a Black, first-generation American is described that way says everything about where the Democratic Party stands in 2020,” writes Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker. “Harris wouldn’t have been the least bit safe four years ago.”

I think the reason that Harris is seen as the safe choice is that Biden had already promised to pick a woman — and, by the time he got around to making his pick, the moment had shifted in favor of a Black woman. The police killing of George Floyd and the revival of the Black Lives Matter movement combined to create an environment that was just right for Harris. Several other Black women were in the mix, but none had Harris’ stature, experience or, frankly, ideological flexibility, which sounds like a bad thing but really isn’t.

Way back when the presidential campaign was just getting under way, I thought Harris might make the strongest contender. Her trajectory, though, zig-zagged, then bottomed out. She started out well, faded, then revived her campaign with her attack on Biden at the first debate.

Then, at the second debate, she seemed unable to explain her own health-care plan. It only got worse from there. At one point Harris used her time in the post-debate spin room to demand that Elizabeth Warren join her in calling on Twitter to cancel President Trump’s account. Seriously.

But Harris is smart and charismatic. She should make a fine running mate, just as Biden did despite having two comically inept presidential campaigns on his résumé when Barack Obama chose him in 2008. I can’t wait to see her debate Mike Pence.

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Racial justice and attack ads dominate the third Markey-Kennedy Senate debate

Photo (cc) 2020 by Dan Kennedy.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Two key moments bookended Tuesday night’s U.S. Senate debate between Democratic incumbent Ed Markey and his primary challenger, U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III. We probably won’t know for a few days whether either of those moments will matter. But with early voting under way and polls showing the race to be up for grabs, any edge could make a difference.

The first moment came early, when Kennedy brought up recent reports that the parents of Danroy “DJ” Henry Jr. had accused Markey of acting indifferently — even using the term “colored” — at a meeting over the 2010 killing of their son by a white police officer.

“You did nothing,” Kennedy said. “I have stood by that family for year after year through thick and thin.”

Presumably Markey, who has apologized to the Henry family, knew the matter would come up. But he seemed flat-footed, asserting over and over that he, Kennedy and Sen. Elizabeth Warren had all worked together to draft letters demanding an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.

“When Congressman Kennedy says I did nothing, he knows it’s not true,” Markey said. “He knows it is a falsehood.”

But that merely created an opening for Kennedy, who retorted: “Let’s be very clear. It’s not my words that said you did nothing. It’s Mr. Henry’s words that said you did nothing.” Score one round for Kennedy on the crucial issue of racial justice.

The second moment came later. Markey complained that Kennedy’s twin brother, Matthew, is running a Super PAC — a campaign fund not directly affiliated with a candidate — that has been responsible for multiple attack ads against Markey.

Markey then speculated that Kennedy’s father, former congressman Joe Kennedy II, was helping to fund the Super PAC with money from fossil-fuel companies with which he’d done business.

“Is your father funding that Super PAC that is attacking me right now?” asked Markey.

“No clue, no idea,” Kennedy responded. He quickly tried to change the subject, pointing out that it was Markey who declined to sign a “People’s Pledge” keeping undisclosed outside money out of the campaign.

Markey lowered the boom: “I’m sure your father is watching right now. Tell your father right now that you don’t want his money to go into a Super PAC that runs negative ads.” As several people pointed out on Twitter, it might have been illegal for Kennedy to do as Markey had demanded, since candidates are forbidden from coordinating with Super PACs. Nevertheless, it was an effective bit of political theater.

And then Kennedy went too far, accusing Markey supporters of pushing social-media posts referencing Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who assassinated John F. Kennedy. Markey seemed genuinely offended at the accusation that toxic internet trolls were somehow tied to his campaign.

““No one affiliated with my campaign would ever say anything like that,” Markey said, dropping his voice. He added that it was “completely unacceptable.”

The debate, broadcast on WBZ-TV (Channel 4) and moderated by political analyst Jon Keller, was freewheeling, although much of it focused on small issues and even smaller differences between the two candidates.

With both candidates espousing progressive agendas, the campaign has come down to Markey’s legislative record, compiled during more than four decades in office, versus Kennedy’s contention that he would lead the fight for the values they share across the country.

“I have more than 500 laws on the books that have been signed by presidents,” Markey said. “That is what I do.”

Responded Kennedy: “The difference is: he’ll vote for it, I’ll fight for it.”

One particularly hot potato Keller dropped in their laps was a question about whether they would endorse a candidate of color next year against Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. It was an opportune moment, Keller said — not only is racial equity an issue that has risen to the top of the national agenda, but Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden had just chosen U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, a Black woman, as his running mate. But both men left the tin foil on the spud and tossed it harmlessly away.

“It’s impossible to predict the future. It just is,” Markey said. “You’re asking a hypothetical. Mayor Walsh is doing a good job.” Kennedy added, “Mayor Walsh certainly deserves a chance to make his case.”

The last day of voting (what we used to call primary day) is Tuesday, Sept. 1. Two Republicans are also seeking the Senate seat: Shiva Ayyadurai, a technology entrepreneur, and Kevin O’Connor, a lawyer. The Democratic and Republican nominees will face off to determine the winner on Nov. 3.

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Will the Globe revoke its endorsement of Jake Auchincloss?

Jake Auchincloss

Update, Aug. 7: I should note that editorial page editor Bina Venkataraman has tweeted that the Globe will stick by its endorsement of Jake Auchincloss.

***

Update, Aug. 6: In a direct shot at the editorial board, business columnist (and former interim editorial page editor) Shirley Leung has written a column endorsing one of Auchincloss’ opponents, Jesse Mermell.

***

The Boston Globe editorial board appears to be getting ready for the possibility that it might revoke its July 31 endorsement of Democratic congressional candidate Jake Auchincloss. The extremely loud hint came in the form of an announcement that editorial page editor Bina Venkataraman would sit down with Auchincloss for a Zoom one-on-one this coming Monday:

Many Globe readers have expressed concerns about the candidate’s past statements and campaign finances, some of which emerged after the editorial board’s deliberations. Readers and voters deserve to know more and hear directly from the candidate. In this conversation, Globe editorial page editor Bina Venkataraman will ask Auchincloss about his record on racial justice, free speech, and beyond.

It’s not as if concerns about Auchincloss’ track record weren’t out there. On Tuesday evening, Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber of Commerce, tweeted out a June 27 commentary in the Newton Tab by Bennett Walkes that begins with this rather devastating statement:

While growing up Black in Newton, I’ve dealt with all sorts of racial profiling and slurs. However, no individual has made me feel more unwelcomed, unvalued and unsafe in my hometown than Jake Auchincloss — now a candidate for Congress.

Walkes cites Auchincloss’ support, on free-speech grounds, for the right to fly the Confederate flag — and comparing it to a Black Lives Matter or Pride banner.

Also on Tuesday evening, the Globe published a story by Stephanie Ebbert reporting on a variety of controversies involving Auchincloss, from his remarks about the Confederate flag to his “no” vote on a city council resolution calling for the impeachment of President Donald Trump — an inconvenient fact given Auchincloss’ outspoken opposition to Trump. The editorial board is independent of the newsroom, of course; but they read the paper, and this must have come as very bad news.

Auchincloss is one of a large field of Democrats seeking to succeed U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, who’s running against U.S. Sen. Ed Markey. Maybe the editorial board will conclude that Auchincloss is still the best choice. But it sounds like they threw in with Auchincloss on the basis of incomplete information.

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The Globe’s early endorsement of Markey isn’t quite as early as it seems

It’s generally understood that when newspaper editorial boards endorse candidates, they do so as late as possible in order to avoid the perception that their news coverage will be slanted in favor of the endorsee. So I was surprised to see The Boston Globe endorse U.S. Sen. Ed Markey over his Democratic primary challenger, U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, a full five weeks before the primary.

What gives? According to the Globe’s editorial-page editor, Bina Venkataraman, it’s later than it seems: mail-in voting will begin soon, so the Sept. 1 primary date is merely the last day that people can cast ballots. I’d honestly forgotten that, even though I’ve applied to vote by mail.

In fact, as David Bernstein recently pointed out at WGBH News, the two campaigns are engaged in furious get-out-the-vote efforts already. Huge numbers of Massachusetts voters are expected to take advantage of the mail-in option in order to avoid exposure to COVID-19 at the polls.

There’s still a dilemma, though. Because Markey and Kennedy will be campaigning right up until Sept. 1, the Globe’s news reporters will have to fend of complaints of bias for more than a month. The editorial pages at a quality paper like the Globe do not affect news coverage (for example), but try explaining that to the general public.

Should newspapers endorse candidates at all, or is that an outmoded custom? I’ve found that my students are dubious about the merits of news organizations’ telling people whom to vote for. But I think it can be a valuable exercise, especially in situations where an endorsement might really make a difference.

In this case, the Globe endorsement might matter. Markey and Kennedy hold similar progressive views, and readers will sit up and take notice that the Globe isn’t endorsing a Kennedy, as they might have been expected to do — although, as a longtime Globe reader, I can’t say I was all that surprised that they went with Markey.

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Rashida Tlaib and the perils of our first-across-the-finish-line elections

Photo (cc) 2008 by H2Whoa!

I was reading a New York Times story about a serious primary challenge to U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib when I came across this sentence: “Had the 2018 primary been a head-to-head race, many believe Ms. Jones would have prevailed.” Jones is Brenda Jones, the Black president of the Detroit City Council, against whom Tlaib is running once again. I decided to look a little more deeply to find out what had happened.

Tlaib, as you no doubt know, is a member of “the squad” — four progressive women of color, all Democrats, who were elected to the House in 2018. (The others are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley.) What I didn’t know was that Tlaib’s brief political career stands out as an example of what’s wrong with our first-across-the-finish-line method of determining elections.

Tlaib first ran in a special election to replace John Conyers, who resigned following charges of sexual harassment. She came in second in a multi-candidate field. Jones, the winner of the Democratic primary, received 37.7% of the vote, becoming the acting congresswoman. (In Tlaib’s district, winning the Democratic primary is tantamount to winning the election.) Tlaib came in second with 35.9%

A few months later, another primary was held to choose a regular replacement for Conyers. This time, in a five-candidate field, Tlaib finished first, with 31.2%, and Jones came in second, with 30.2% Note that Tlaib’s support had actually dropped nearly five points since the special election. About 69% of voters cast ballots for someone other than Tlaib. But she was declared the winner, which is how it works under our system.

According to Ballotpedia, the 2020 primary, which will be held Aug. 4, will feature just two candidates, Tlaib and Jones, thus guaranteeing that the winner will receive a majority. That’s the way it should be. If no candidate receives a majority, then there ought to be a runoff election between the top two finishers or ranked-choice voting. (I wrote about ranked choice, also known as instant-runoff voting, and other election reforms for WGBH News in 2018.)

In any case, this will be an interesting primary to keep an eye on. The outspoken Tlaib, who’s Palestinian-American, is, along with Omar, one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. Jones represents a more moderate African American constituency.

At least this time, we’ll have a chance of finding out whom voters actually prefer.

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Trump was losing bigly even before COVID, economic collapse and BLM protests

Trump’s FiveThirtyEight approval/disapproval ratings.

According to a number of recent national polls, Joe Biden has moved out to a sizable lead over President Trump — so sizable that, if the election were held now, Biden would probably win the presidency by a substantial margin, since his lead is large enough to overcome Trump’s structural advantage in the Electoral College.

What I want to address here is the assumption some observers are making that Biden wouldn’t be ahead by nearly as much (or even at all) if it weren’t for COVID-19, the resultant economic catastrophe and the Black Lives Matter protests.

Yes, those would be huge challenges for any president. But with COVID, in particular, a compassionate, reasonably competent response wouldn’t have necessarily hurt Trump and might have even helped him. Look at Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, who continues to receive high marks for his response to the pandemic, according to a new Suffolk University poll.

Likewise, the reason that the Black Lives Matter protests represent such an existential threat to Trump is that he’s a stone-cold racist who’s responded by advocating violence and embracing Confederate symbols — and no one outside his base wants to hear that anymore.

The reality is that any president’s re-election campaign is a referendum on the incumbent. And Trump has been historically unpopular from his first days in office. Biden’s lead merely tracks Trump’s approval/disapproval rating. It’s currently at 41% approve/55% disapprove, according to the FiveThirtyEight averages, and that’s right in line with most of his presidency.

Biden may be uninspiring to many, but he’s a consensus figure who’s bound to attract nearly all of the voters who disapprove of Trump. It’s not like anyone is going to hold their nose and vote for Trump because Biden scares them. If you look at the FiveThirtyEight graph, you’ll see that Biden would have been far ahead of Trump at almost any point in the past three and a half years.

The triple threat of COVID, the economy and protests against racism have made Trump’s re-election that much harder. But the dynamic is the same as it ever was.

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Pandemics and White House demagogues: How Wilson and Trump made everything worse

Woodrow Wilson in 1914. Photo via the Library of Congress.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The pandemic was spread not just by germs but by politics. The virus would have killed many Americans in any case. But a demagogue occupied the White House, and measures that could have reduced the number of victims — a ban on large gatherings, for instance, as well as an honest reckoning with the public — were discouraged at the highest levels. In the end, a tragedy that was the result of natural forces was made immeasurably worse by human failure.

You may think I’m describing President Donald Trump’s response to COVID-19. In fact, I’m referring to Woodrow Wilson and the influenza pandemic of 1918. According to John M. Barry’s 2005 book “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” a considerable amount of suffering and death could have been prevented were it not for Wilson’s messianic mobilization for war.

“America had never been and would never be so informed by the will of its chief executive, not during the Civil War with the suspension of habeas corpus, not during Korea and the McCarthy period, not even during World War II,” Barry writes. “He would turn the nation into a weapon, an explosive device.
“As an unintended consequence, the nation became a tinderbox for epidemic disease as well.”

One example of how Wilson’s embrace of total war worsened the pandemic will suffice. In Philadelphia, the inept public health director, Wilmer Krusen, refused to take action even after the flu began to rip through the city — spread, as was so often the case, by troops being shipped around the country.

At the same time, Wilson’s propaganda chief, George Creel, exerted enormous pressure on Americans to buy Liberty Bonds in order to pay for the war effort — an outgrowth of Creel’s chilling mantra, “100% Americanism.” The newspapers didn’t dare question the official line, which was that the flu was no big deal. And so Philadelphia went ahead with a parade to promote Liberty Bonds, an event that turned out to be a major vector in the spread of the disease.

All told, about 20,000 people died in the Philadelphia outbreak — and, as described by Barry, death from the 1918 flu was gruesome, with victims turning deep blue as their lungs became unable to process oxygen and with blood pouring out of every orifice.

In all, about 675,000 people in the U.S. died from the 1918 flu (the equivalent of nearly 2 million today), and perhaps as many as 50 million worldwide.

By failing to level with the public, according to Barry, Wilson made a bad situation much worse. Barry writes that “as horrific as the disease itself was, public officials and the media helped create that terror — not by exaggerating the disease but by minimizing it, by trying to reassure…. In 1918 the lies of officials and of the press never allowed the terror to condense into the concrete. The public could trust nothing and so they knew nothing. Society is, ultimately, based on trust; as trust broke down, people became alienated not only from those in authority, but from each other.”

And here’s where the parallels to our current situation are especially telling. Trump wanted to minimize COVID in order to save the stock market — not, as Wilson would have it, to make the world safe for democracy. Nevertheless, both Wilson and Trump played down the seriousness of the invisible enemy that had invaded our shores. As reported by The Washington Post, Trump dithered for more than two months — a time when the threat was becoming increasingly clear, and when steps could have been taken to minimize COVID’s spread.

According to scientists at Columbia University, some 36,000 lives could have been saved in the U.S. if social-distancing had been put in place just a week earlier — on March 8 instead of March 15.

Moreover, although the press isn’t under the threat of censorship today as it was in 1918, Trump has what is essentially his own media outlet — Fox News — which has been spreading disinformation from the start of the pandemic and cheering on the mask-disdaining anti-shutdown protesters who invaded statehouses a few weeks ago. Pandemic disease has become just another manifestation of the partisan divide. The result: More than 110,000 Americans have died, one-quarter of the worldwide total.

The analogies between 1918 and 2020 aren’t perfect, of course. Despite Wilson’s many flaws, he probably couldn’t have avoided entering World War I. The response to the influenza could have been managed better, but there were limits to what could be done during wartime.

Trump, on the other hand, has been an active impediment to anti-COVID measures by spouting false information about drugs and (lest we forget) bleach, by refusing to wear a mask in public and by interfering with state efforts to obtain medical equipment and supplies.

Also unlike 1918, the media are reporting plenty of uncensored, reliable information. The problem today isn’t censorship; rather, it’s a parallel universe of right-wing media more dedicated to advancing Trump’s political prospects than to the truth.

Now we are in the midst of our darkest period in many years, as we deal not just with COVID and economic calamity but with the Black Lives Matter protest movement, a long-overdue response to racism following the police killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd, and of the deaths of numerous other Black men and women at the hands of police and racist vigilantes. As others have observed, we are simultaneously reliving the pandemic of 1918, the depression of the 1930s and the turmoil of 1968. A better, more just country may come out of this, but that doesn’t make the moment any easier to process.

One aspect of Barry’s book struck me as both unlike and yet resonant with the present crisis. At root, Barry tells a medical detective story, going into great detail about the lives of a small handful of scientists who attempted to find a vaccine and a cure for the flu. Modern medicine was in its infancy then. When a treatment for diphtheria was developed in 1891, it was the first time in history that any disease had been cured. A quarter-century later, the number of eminent scientists called to work on the 1918 influenza outbreak could be counted on two hands.

And they failed.

Today we know so much more — yet our experts have been groping for answers, too, changing their guidance on face masks and warning us that they may fall short in their frantic search for a vaccine and/or a cure.

Barry quotes one of the 1918 researchers, Victor Vaughan, as saying in disgust: “Doctors know no more about this flu than 14th-century Florentine doctors had known about the Black Death.”

It’s a lesson in humility and patience that we should keep in mind. After all, the flu pandemic eventually burned out of its own accord. COVID will, too. But coming up with solutions to racism, police brutality and economic injustice, the other unfinished business of 2020, is going to be up to all of us.

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No, The New York Times shouldn’t have published Tom Cotton’s ugly little screed

Sen. Tom Cotton. Photo (cc) 2013 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The New York Times may be rethinking its decision to publish Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton’s terrible, offensive op-ed piece endorsing the use of military force to crush the violent protests that have broken out around the country following the brutal police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Though Cotton’s essay was posted online Wednesday, it doesn’t appear in today’s print edition. And, at least at the moment, you have to scroll to the bottom of the digital opinion section in order to find it.

Should it have run? On the face of it, an op-ed by an influential Republican senator deserves consideration no matter how awful it might be. By tradition, newspaper opinion pages in the United States are ideologically diverse. Though the Times’ editorial pages are liberal, they also feature conservative columnists and, on occasion, provocative right-wing outside contributors like Cotton. Not every piece can or should cater to the views of the Times’ mostly liberal readership.

Editorial-page editor James Bennet defended his decision to run the piece. “Times Opinion owes it to our readers to show them counter-arguments, particularly those made by people in a position to set policy,” he tweeted. “We understand that many readers find Senator Cotton’s argument painful, even dangerous. We believe that is one reason it requires public scrutiny and debate.”

But not every opinion deserves to be aired. Presumably the Times would not run an op-ed by a white supremacist calling for a return to Jim Crow laws, or a communist who wants to send billionaires to forced-labor camps.

Cotton’s piece isn’t quite that bad. But here are three reasons that it shouldn’t have run.

First, by calling for government-sanctioned violence against protesters, Cotton may be endangering lives. A number of Times employees took to Twitter to blast the piece. The Washington Post reports: “Several tweeted the same message — ‘Running this puts Black @nytimes staffers in danger’ — with a screen shot of the editorial’s headline, ‘Tom Cotton: Send In The Troops.'”

Second, just two days earlier Cotton took to Twitter and demanded, “No quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters.” As The Bulwark notes, “The phrase ‘no quarter’ means killing enemy combatants rather than taking any prisoners.” Cotton, a retired Army captain, presumably knows that’s a war crime. Bennet should have told Cotton he had disqualified himself when the senator came peddling his op-ed.

Third, Cotton makes a dangerous, unsubstantiated claim in his op-ed — that “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa [are] infiltrating protest marches to exploit Floyd’s death for their own anarchic purposes.” That echoes rhetoric from President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr, but there is no evidence of it, according to The Associated Press. Again, where were Bennet and the other editors? As the oft-cited Daniel Patrick Moynihan rule would have it, you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.

I thought Bina Venkataraman, The Boston Globe’s editorial-page editor and herself a Times alum, put it well in a thread Wednesday night, writing that “there is a distinction btw a ‘provocative’ opinion that ought to be aired & a dangerous point of view like Cotton’s that already had the largest megaphone in the country: the bully pulpit occupied by the president of the United States.”

She added: “The Cotton oped neither enriches understanding nor offers new ideas — nor does it even break news; everyone paying attention already knew the senator fell in line with the president.”

 

So no, Cotton’s piece shouldn’t have been published — not because Times readers shouldn’t be exposed to views with which they disagree, but because it was an ugly little screed that failed to meet basic ethical and journalistic standards.

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Does Twitter need Trump? Not as much as you might think.

Statistic: Number of monthly active Twitter users worldwide from 1st quarter 2010 to 1st quarter 2019 (in millions) | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista.

You might think that Twitter would have a financial incentive to cave in to President Trump’s incoherent, unconstitutional threats over the platform’s decision to label some of his false tweets as, you know, false. In fact, Trump’s presence on Twitter is not as big a deal to the company as you might think.

First, we often hear that Trump has 80 million followers. But is that really the case? According to analytics from the Fake Followers Audit, 70.2% of his followers are fake, which is defined as “accounts that are unreachable and will not see the account’s tweets (either because they’re spam, bots, propaganda, etc. or because they’re no longer active on Twitter).”

That’s not especially unusual among high-profile tweeters. For instance, 43% of former President Barack Obama‘s 118 million followers are fake. But it’s important to understand that Trump has about 24 million followers, not 80 million. That’s a big difference.

Even more important, Trump’s presence on Twitter has not had a huge effect on its total audience. According to Statista, the number of worldwide active monthly users hovered between a low of 302 million and a high of 336 million between the first quarter of 2015 and the first quarter of 2019. (Zephoria reports that Twitter hasn’t released similar numbers since then.)

The bottom line is that Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey could probably afford to throw Trump off the platform for repeatedly violating its terms of service. Still, he probably wouldn’t want to risk the outrage that would ensue from MAGA Country if Trump lost his favorite outlet for smearing the memory of a dead woman with his horrendous lies about MSNBC host Joe Scarborough.

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