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Fake Profiles And Anonymous Posts: How Social Media Is Upending College Life During The Israel-Gaza War
Kathleen Margaret Connelly has inflammatory thoughts about the Israel-Gaza war. She’d been sharing them regularly with her more than 2,000 Facebook “friends” since Hamas violently massacred 1,400 people in Israel, and kidnapped hundreds more, on October 7, prompting Israel to launch a deadly offensive aimed at decimating Hamas in Gaza. As an apparent employee at the University of Pennsylvania—with a PhD from Penn, a master’s from Georgetown and a bachelor’s degree from Fordham, according to her Facebook—Kathleen’s voice, and anti-Israel diatribes, held weight. But Kathleen Margaret Connelly isn’t real. There is no record of her ever attending, graduating from or working at any of these schools, they all confirmed to Forbes. And the striking green-eyed, red-haired woman who appeared in Kathleen’s Facebook profile picture is, in fact, a young actress in Dublin who told Forbes she was not aware the account had been using photos of her face for well over a year. As the Israel-Gaza war crosses the one-month mark, college campuses across the United States are facing an ideological reckoning and have become ground zero for protests, counter protests and debates over hate speech and freedom of expression. But mainstream social media platforms, as well as those geared toward college students, are increasingly becoming vehicles to spread threats, stir up fear and sow division at American universities, including by agitators who may not even be part of the school community. Anonymous emails are similarly being weaponized. In an email obtained by Forbes, the director of the Penn Museum—where Kathleen purported to be employed as a “cultural anthropologist”—wrote to the Museum Board and other leaders about the fake account. He described its “disturbing social media posts… that contain hate-filled messages and antisemitic content” and said the school believed it to be “an AI-created fake account designed to sow discord.”
Penn did not respond to multiple requests for comment about whether it has identified other fake social media accounts like Kathleen’s—impersonating students, staffers or alums—posting content seemingly intended to inflame student conversations about the war. But this week, Penn president Liz Magill said the FBI and Penn Police were investigating a potential hate crime on campus after an unknown sender emailed threats against the school’s Jewish community, and specific buildings, to several Penn staffers. The Daily Pennsylvanian reported that “undisclosed individuals” have also used social media and email to threaten people at Penn who’ve voiced support for Palestinians. And last week, following an FBI investigation into anonymous threats that targeted Jewish students at Cornell, a 21-year-old student was arrested on a federal criminal complaint and charged with “posting threats to kill or injure another using interstate communications.” (Disclosure: I graduated from Penn over a decade ago.)
The Cornell threats were shared on top college-focused site Greekrank—where users can post anonymously about life on campus without needing school credentials—and similar problems are playing out on rivals like Sidechat and Yik Yak. (Those two require a school email to sign up, but Forbes was able to register and post using a .edu address that is more than a decade old. Neither responded to a request for comment.) Across a range of platforms, the easy masking of individuals’ identities is intensifying discord and outrage between Gen Z supporters and critics in all corners of the conflict.
“Social media is only escalating an already emotionally charged and tragic conflict,” said Penn junior Allison Santa-Cruz, who recently penned an op-ed in the student newspaper about the effect of tech platforms on the Penn community.
“It is extremely dangerous for fake social media accounts to pose as students, faculty, or administrators and post inflammatory, divisive material and misinformation online,” she added. “Especially now when people are routinely punished for what they say online and in the era of cancel culture, these poser [social] accounts are more dangerous than ever.”
An old problem in a new frontier
It’s not unusual to see suspicious, potentially dangerous social media activity aimed at shifting public opinion or inflaming discourse during high stakes national and global events. In recent years, for example, Meta—the parent company of Facebook and Instagram—has uncovered so-called influence operations and taken down networks of accounts and pages working in tandem to mislead or deceive people using its platforms. (A number of these have originated from China, Russia and Iran, and some targeted the U.S. during recent presidential and midterm elections.) But now, in the midst of a war with no end in sight, some experts fear that American colleges are an easy target for individuals and groups, inside or outside the student body, looking to stoke discord and wreak havoc.
“[These] accounts don’t necessarily try to change anyone’s mind; they try to heighten polarization by encouraging Americans to go for each other’s jugular.”
“Why university campuses? Because they are hotspots in the debate about the Palestinians, Hamas and Israel,” said misinformation researcher Paul Barrett, who is deputy director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights. “College and grad students are already passionately divided over who is to blame for the strife in the Middle East,” and fake or anonymous social media accounts “[appear] to be egging them on, trying to get both sides more riled up.”
Adversaries have long “specialized in trying to exacerbate division within U.S. society,” Barrett added, citing Russia as a key example. “Russian accounts don’t necessarily try to change anyone’s mind; they try to heighten polarization by encouraging Americans to go for each other’s jugular.”
The Facebook account purporting to be Ivy League grad and current Penn Museum employee Kathleen Margaret Connelly wasn’t new, either. Before the Israel-Gaza war began, the account was fomenting anger around the Ukraine-Russia war—promoting Russia, attacking Ukraine and going so far as to suggest that Ukrainians are Nazis. Other posts championed China and cast doubt on vaccines.
But Kathleen shifted her focus at the start of the war in the Middle East to attack Israel. She called for “the end for Israel,” accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing” and spread misinformation about the conflict—including false claims about the now well-documented horrors at the music festival where Hamas brutally murdered at least 260 people, and kidnapped others, on October 7. “No one was killed at the concert; witnesses say Hamas treated people with kindness,” Kathleen shared in a photo on October 14. The U.S. government has designated Hamas as a terrorist organization and several of its members as terrorists.
“On a college campus… individuals are retreating to dangerous ideology and doing the dirty work of terrorist regimes.”
“Each person who spreads information [through social media] has the responsibility to make sure it is not misinformation, promotes violence, or signals a message that is not aligned with morality,” said Penn senior Eyal Yakoby, who is focused on political science and modern Middle East studies. “On a college campus, where you would think these principles are being upheld and emphasized most, individuals are retreating to dangerous ideology and doing the dirty work of terrorist regimes.”
It remains unclear who is behind Kathleen’s account.
“The account strikes me as a very generic ‘American woman’ which could just signal that it was made to boost engagement, or was an anonymous account of someone who didn’t want to be known for their political beliefs,” said disinformation expert Joan Donovan, author of Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles Upending Democracy in America. “Both are terms of service violations.”
When Forbes inquired about the account, Meta removed it for violating its policies. And though Meta did not say who was responsible for Kathleen’s persona, where it originated from or what their motives may have been, Barrett said “most telling is that the account began salting in anti-Ukraine content and then switched over to the Gaza/Israel conflict.” A number of Kathleen’s “friends” sometimes appeared to be sharing or reposting the same divisive content around the same time. But Meta said that “for now” it has not seen evidence of her account being part of a larger, coordinated network.
Online chaos spills on campus
College students across the U.S. have been vocal about what’s unfolding in Israel and Gaza.
At Harvard, shortly after the conflict began, a letter from a coalition of student groups blaming Israel for the Hamas atrocities prompted backlash from some of the school’s most prominent alums, who’ve pledged not to hire people who signed onto the missive. At Penn, where Jewish students have been assaulted, buildings have been vandalized and large anti-Israel protests have taken place, megadonors from Apollo CEO Mark Rowan to former U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman have pledged to close their wallets to the university; many more have called for its leaders to resign over their handling of antisemitism on campus. Similar tensions are playing out at Stanford, UC Berkeley, NYU and beyond as students and locals protest the actions of the Israeli government and military, the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the rising civilian death toll there. The Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry says some 10,500 Palestinians have been killed since Israeli air strikes began in October.
But some of the organizing across higher education has boiled over into antisemitic and islamophobic hate speech and incitement to violence against Jews and Muslims on campus. The Anti-Defamation League and the Council on American Islamic Relationshave reported surges in hate crimes, threats or harassment against both groups. FBI Director Christopher Wray had a similar message in Senate testimony last week, warning lawmakers about domestic violent extremism targeting Jewish and Muslim communities across the country.
For example, anonymous antisemitic and islamophobic posts that surfaced recently on a Cornell discussion forum on Greekrank (which is not affiliated with the university) threw the campus into chaos. The viral posts included violent hate speech and racism against Jewish and Muslim students, as well as threats to kill or commit other illegal acts against them.
Some took to Greekrank to complain that anonymous commenters were “fueling hatred on our campus” and criticized the website for allowing anyone, including people who may not be associated with Cornell, to broadcast harmful messages. “Any idiot can post whatever they want here … Greekrank needs to add user verification, like, yesterday,” one person said. Another noted that “this site is toxic and the anonymity makes everything worse.” When someone else lamented that “there are no safeguards to prevent threats or hate speech” in this wide-open, easily accessible forum, they were met with more hate speech and a reply declaring: “Free speech is free speech. Go suk ur moms c0ck.”
Greekrank said in a statement that “we unequivocally condemn any form of hate speech and have taken swift action to remove the offensive content as soon as we were made aware of it.” It also emphasized that “we have been working closely with law enforcement to provide any information that can aid in their investigation.” It added that Greekrank is taking steps to “review and strengthen our platform’s moderation processes” and that it is “dedicated to preventing the recurrence of such unacceptable incidents.”
Last week, following an FBI investigation, the Cornell junior charged with posting some of the threats made his first appearance before a federal court in upstate New York. Shortly after, he’d already become the subject of several new threads on Greekrank. One was quick to recognize that while the 21-year-old student had allegedly posted some of the threats, others targeting Cornell had come from individuals who are still unknown.
“Yeah, he posted at least some of them,” one Greekrank post said. “Play stupid games, win stupid prizes. I can’t believe someone is grinding a Cornell engineering degree just to ruin it over being an insufferable troll.”
November 2023, CICO writer Staff Reporter Alexandra S.Levine
European regulators dealt a blow to TikTok over its handling of children’s data, the largest fine the company has faced to date.
TikTok’s lead regulator in the European Union is slapping the company with a €345 million fine for violating Europe’s landmark privacy law, the General Data Protection Regulation.
The nearly $370 million penalty announced today by the Irish Data Protection Commission is related to TikTok’s handling of sensitive data from children, ages 13 to 17, who’ve used the app—as well as from kids under 13 whose personal data TikTok has processed as part of determining whether they were old enough to be on the platform. (Users must be at least 13 to be on TikTok). The privacy watchdog, which opened the investigation in 2021, looked in particular at TikTok’s public-by-default settings and “Family Pairing” tool, as well as its age verification process for individuals signing up for an account. It also scrutinized whether TikTok had been adequately transparent with young users about their privacy settings. The body found that TikTok violated several parts of GDPR in 2020, including articles pertaining to the processing of young users’ data and to so-called “dark patterns,” design decisions that deceive or manipulate users into taking certain actions in an app. In addition to the hefty fines in the hundreds of millions, the commission is requiring TikTok to make its data processing compliant by the end of the year.
This all but concludes one of two major investigations that the regulator in Ireland, home to TikTok’s European headquarters, has launched into the company and whether it has complied with GDPR. The other probe is examining whether TikTok—owned by Beijing-based parent ByteDance—has unlawfully transferred European users’ personal data from the EU to China, and whether it was sufficiently transparent with users about how it was handling their information. (The Commission recently told Forbes it expects a public update on that inquiry around now).
This is TikTok’s largest ding from regulators to date, but it’s not the first time the social media giant has been punished for children’s privacy and safety missteps; earlier this year, Britain’s data watchdog issued TikTok a €12.7 million fine (almost $16 million) for breaking British data protection laws in its processing of kids’ information. In 2021, Dutch authorities issued a €750,000 fine (almost $1 million) for similar violations. And back in 2019, the Federal Trade Commission reached a $5.7 million settlement with TikTok (then Musical.ly) along the same lines. (Still, ByteDance posted $80 billion in revenue in 2022).
“TikTok is a platform for users aged 13 and over,” a spokesperson said in response to the recent U.K.-issued fine, which the company disagreed with. “We invest heavily to help keep under-13s off the platform and our 40,000-strong safety team works around the clock to help keep the platform safe for our community.” Weeks before that fine was handed down, TikTok also launched Project Clover—a counterpart to Project Texas in the U.S.—in an effort to better protect European TikTok users and their data and address concerns about access to that information in China.
In the first quarter of 2023, TikTok removed nearly 17 million accounts thought to be younger than 13, and 91 million videos that broke its rules, according to its most recent enforcement report. More than a quarter of those posts were pulled down for policy violations related to minor safety.
TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
September 2023, CICO writer Staff Reporter Alexandra S. Levine
Innovation and sustainability: coral reefs
Vriko Yu launched a startup on the back of her Ph.D. studies in biological sciences. Now she’s the CEO of Archireef, a climate tech venture that’s working to restore fragile marine ecosystems by using 3D printing technology and some good old-fashioned terracotta.
Coral reefs, the delicate breeding grounds for marine life, take years to fully form. That’s why Vriko Yu was deeply alarmed when, in 2014, she saw a coral reef community in Hong Kong die in just two months. “That was shocking,” says Yu, a 30-year-old doctoral student in biological sciences at the University of Hong Kong. “I’ve always known about climate change, but I did not know that it is happening at a pace where I can witness [the death of coral reefs] in such a short period of time.” Working alongside David Baker, a marine biology professor, and other researchers at the University of Hong Kong, they tried a variety of different ways to restore the fragile marine ecosystem, such as planting coral fragments onto metal grids and concrete blocks. Yet, they found the baby corals would often become detached and die. As frustrations mounted, the team finally came up with a solution: tiles made out of terracotta using 3D printers with carefully crafted designs that incorporate folds and crevices, enabling coral fragments to become attached to the seabed so that they can survive and grow. Yu says the coral seeded to their terracotta tiles have been able to achieve a survival rate of up to 98%.
With their prototypes in hand and driven by the urgent need for funding to scale up their operation, Yu and Baker decided to spin off a startup from the University of Hong Kong. The pair cofounded Archireef in 2020 as a climate solutions provider. With Yu serving as the startup’s chief executive, Archireef, which made the Forbes Asia 100 to Watch list last year, is working to rebuild the marine ecosystems degraded by climate change to achieve carbon neutrality. “When it comes to climate tech, most people are focusing on reducing carbon emission,” says Yu in an interview from Archireef’s office in Hong Kong Science Park. “However, I would also like to emphasize that while tackling the root cause is critical and essential, it is also as important to do active restoration because nature recovery by itself is very slow and it’s not going to catch up with climate change.”
Coral reefs only cover 0.2% of the seafloor, but provide outsized benefits to the environment. About a quarter of the ocean’s fish depend on coral reefs for their food and shelter at some point in their life cycles, helping to provide a food source and livelihood for hundreds of millions of people worldwide. It’s estimated that coral reefs support $2.7 trillion a year in goods and services, including $36 billion in tourism.
However, coral reefs are extremely sensitive to warming waters. Corals can lose the algae that provides them with food when sea temperatures are abnormally high—a process known as bleaching because it’s the algae that gives them their bright colors. According to a report released by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network last year, the world had already lost 14% of its coral reefs between 2009 and 2018. Another report published in 2018 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the global scientific authority on climate change, shows that “virtually all” (more than 99%) of the world’s coral reefs would be lost if temperatures rise by 2 degrees Celsius.
Archireef operates on a subscription model, where corporate clients and government agencies pay regular fees to cover the maintenance and monitoring costs of its coral restoration projects for at least three years. In return, Archireef provides them with a report detailing the ecological impact of their investment that they can use for their ESG reports and marketing materials.
It’s estimated that coral reefs support $2.7 trillion a year in goods and services, including $36 billion in tourism.
Yu says Archireef is already profitable and its clients include Hong Kong companies like jewelry chain Chow Sang Sang and real estate company Sino Group, which is run by Singapore billionaire Robert Ng.
“We are very sustainability-minded,” says Melanie Kwok, assistant general manager of sustainability at Sino Group, in an interview at the company’s The Fullerton Ocean Park Hotel Hong Kong. “We have played a role to actually protect the ocean.”
The Fullerton Ocean Park Hotel is one of the six hotel properties owned by Sino Land, the group’s property company listed in Hong Kong. Opened in July 2022, all of its 425 rooms and suites have sea views. “As you can see, all our rooms are facing the ocean,” says Kwok. “That’s why we have a role to play. We have a role to educate our customers and stakeholders of the importance of preserving the ocean so that we can all see and view this beautiful ocean together.”
Archireef’s terracotta tiles have so far been scattered across roughly 100 square meters of Hong Kong’s waters. After laying the foundations for growth in the city, Yu now has her sights on overseas expansion—and she’s starting with Abu Dhabi, the oil-rich capital of the United Arab Emirates, which has been trying to diversify its economy before the fossil-fuel era ends.
The startup said it’s working with sovereign wealth fund ADQ to restore an area of 40 square meters of waters near the United Arab Emirates capital, which will become the nurturing ground of around 1,200 coral fragments. Last year, Archireef also established a 400 square-meter facility in Abu Dhabi, after receiving an undisclosed amount of funding from ADQ. The facility will certainly boost the company’s international expansion by allowing it to mass produce its reef tiles.
The Abu Dhabi government announced in 2021 that the United Arab Emirates aims to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, making the emirate the first in the region to set such a target. It was Abu Dhabi’s commitment to sustainability that convinced Yu to set up Archireef’s first overseas operations in the United Arab Emirates, which is hosting this year’s COP28 climate summit.
“When we were thinking about our expansion outside of Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates really came up to be one of the strongest markets, not only because of the financial performance, but also the push for sustainability,” she says.
Archireef’s ambition doesn’t limit to just restoring coral reefs. The startup is busy expanding its product line so that it can also help regrow species that create the natural habitats for other organisms. These species include mangroves and oysters, says Yu.
Meanwhile, Yu is in a hurry to expand Archireef and deploy its reef tiles around the world, including in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans. She’s racing against the clock to safeguard coral reefs. “We have already lost 50% of the world’s coral reefs since 1950. And if nothing changes, we will lose up to 90% by 2050,” she says. “So if I can deliver one message here today, it’s: Please take the time to grab our last opportunity to reverse climate damage.”
July 2023, CICO writer Staff Reporter Zinnia Lee
Social Media Update
ver the past several years, thousands of TikTok creators and businesses around the world have given the company sensitive financial information—including their social security numbers and tax IDs—so that they can be paid by the platform.
But unbeknownst to many of them, TikTok has stored that personal financial information on servers in China that are accessible by employees there, Forbes has learned.
TikTok uses various internal tools and databases from its Beijing-based parent ByteDance to manage payments to creators who earn money through the app, including many of its biggest stars in the United States and Europe. The same tools are used to pay outside vendors and small businesses working with TikTok. But a trove of records obtained by Forbes from multiple sources across different parts of the company reveals that highly sensitive financial and personal information about those prized users and third parties has been stored in China. The discovery also raises questions about whether employees who are not authorized to access that data have been able to. It draws on internal communications, audio recordings, videos, screenshots, documents marked “Privileged and Confidential,” and several people familiar with the matter.
In testimony before Congress earlier this year, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew claimed U.S. user data has been stored on physical servers outside China. “American data has always been stored in Virginia and Singapore in the past, and access of this is on an as-required basis by our engineers globally,” he said under oath at a House hearing in March.
TikTok spokesperson Alex Haurek said in a statement that “we remain confident in the accuracy of Shou’s testimony.” ByteDance did not respond to a detailed request for comment. At publication time, neither company had answered basic questions about whether sensitive tax information of U.S. citizens is stored and accessible in China.
Over the last year, TikTok has been touting its plans to cordon off Americans’ data from China in a $1.5 billion undertaking called Project Texas. That initiative has been central to negotiations with the Biden administration on a deal that would allow the wildly popular app to continue operating in the U.S., despite longstanding national security concerns about its Chinese ownership and the potential for the platform to be used to surveil or influence the 150 million Americans using it. But since those talks hit a snag late last year, with both FBI Director Christopher Wray and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen speaking out about national security issues with the app, the Biden administration (through the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S.) has demanded that TikTok split from its Chinese parent company or face a possible ban.
“There’s ongoing litigation over TikTok that is not yet resolved,” Yellen, whose department leads CFIUS, said at a hearing in March. And many in Congress have cast doubt on Project Texas altogether: “I don’t believe that it is technically possible to accomplish what TikTok says it will accomplish through Project Texas,” California Republican Jay Obernolte told the TikTok CEO at the March hearing. “There are too many backdoors.”
“Even if TikTok was not a subsidiary of a Chinese company, this would be pretty alarming IT security malpractice.”
Identity theft using stolen social security numbers is not uncommon in the U.S., and the Chinese government has been accused of stealing personal financial information from Americans before. One expert told Forbes this is precisely why TikTok’s mishandling of such information is troubling.
“Even if TikTok was not a subsidiary of a Chinese company, this would be pretty alarming IT security malpractice,” Bryan Cunningham, a former national security lawyer for the White House and CIA, told Forbes. He described tax records as some of the most sensitive data there is.
“It could be just bad IT practice, it could be they felt like they had a legitimate business need,” Cunningham said of TikTok. “But whatever the nuance of that turns out to be… if you store information in the PRC, you better assume that the intelligence services can have it if they want it. They may not target you, but boy, on the face of it, it’s highly questionable.” TikTok and ByteDance did not respond to questions about how many people at the companies can access creators’ financial information, where those employees are located and whether there has been unauthorized access to this data. They also did not respond to queries about how long TikTok users and vendors’ payment data had been stored in China and whether it still is today.
Raising regulatory alarms on both sides of the Atlantic
TikTok or ByteDance employees in China having access to American users and businesses’ sensitive financial records is potentially problematic for geopolitical reasons, particularly against the backdrop of intense regulatory scrutiny in the U.S.
Though there is no national privacy law in the U.S. to protect against the mishandling or misuse of personally identifiable information, one top contender introduced last Congress would require companies to clearly disclose in their privacy policies whether data they collect “is transferred to, processed in, stored in, or otherwise accessible to the People’s Republic of China” and other adversaries. And though a past Federal Trade Commission settlement with TikTok (then Musical.ly) dealt with a markedly separate set of issues—children’s privacy violations—the agency could take that order into consideration when evaluating the company’s conduct today.
TikTok’s policies suggest that it takes appropriate steps to protect its users’ data. Creators who join TikTok’s Creator Fund agree to “all” TikTok policies, including privacy terms stating that “certain entities within our corporate group… are given limited remote access to information we collect” if it’s necessary for the platform’s operations. They also emphasize that “we use reasonable measures to help protect information from… unauthorized access.” (It does say TikTok may transmit user data to servers outside the U.S. for storage or processing, and that no data storage or transmission is guaranteed to be secure.) Rich, the former federal regulator, said that if any company claims to be locking down access to information but then making it available to employees around the world who do not need it, the FTC could see that as a deceptive statement and grounds for a potential data security complaint. She also said that the agency generally views financial information and social security numbers as more sensitive than email addresses or phone numbers, and that it may scrutinize those data-sharing cases more aggressively.
“I would like everything to stay in the U.S.—like, I wouldn’t see why it would ever need to be stored on a China database.”
TikTok’s storage of European creators’ bank information in China could also be problematic under Europe’s privacy law, the General Data Protection Regulation.
Even as TikTok launched Project Clover—a Project Texas counterpart across the Atlantic—to safeguard the data of its European users, the Irish Data Protection Commission (TikTok’s lead regulator in the European Union) is already conducting two investigations into whether the company has complied with GDPR. One of those probes is looking specifically at whether TikTok has unlawfully transferred European users’ personal data from the EU to China, and whether it was adequately transparent with users about how it was handling their information. Gabriela Zanfir-Fortuna, vice president for global privacy at the Future of Privacy Forum, said ByteDance tools storing European creators’ data on servers in China could be problematic for that reason.
“This is the sort of thing that would confirm there are transfers [of personal data] to China happening, so I’m sure they would be interested in knowing this,” she said of Ireland’s privacy watchdog. (Just last week, the body issued a record $1.3 billion fine to Facebook parent Meta, one of TikTok’s biggest rivals, over its own data transfer issues.) GDPR also requires companies to restrict access to sensitive user data on a need-to-know basis, Zanfir-Fortuna added, raising questions about how broad access to these payment tools has been and whether it was necessary.
The Commission would not comment on its ongoing inquiry into TikTok except to say it expects a public update after this summer. TikTok’s policies for Europe say “certain entities in our Corporate Group, located outside your country of residence (see here), are given limited remote access to this information” and that this access is “secure and only granted where necessary under strict security controls.” The link included (“here”) lands on a 404 error page.
June 2023, CICO writer Staff Reporter Alexandra S. Levine
ChatGPT and freelancers
Shea has not posted a job on Upwork since she discovered ChatGPT (though she still has five freelancers working for her). After it was released in November 2022, ChatGPT amassed more than 100 million users, sparked an AI arms race at companies like Microsoft, Google and Amazon and has given rise to a flurry of AI startups. And for small businesses looking to trim costs, the free tool can automate swaths of their operations, providing a cheaper alternative to freelance workers. Built on recent advances in generative AI, ChatGPT and its image-based sibling DALL-E 2 can carry out work that spans most of the freelancing spectrum, from writing articles and compiling research to designing graphics, coding and decrypting financial documents.
Now, freelancers who are less experienced and don’t offer specialized skills stand to lose their gigs, according to five clients Forbes interviewed. But rather than steering clear of the AI tool that could make them obsolete, more and more freelancers are relying on ChatGPT to do some if not all their work for them. Clients on job marketplaces like Upwork and Fiverr are being flooded with nearly identical project proposals written by ChatGPT. A bitter side effect: it’s making clients dubious of the authenticity of work turned in by freelancers and causing transactional disputes and mistrust in the freelancing community.
Upwork, which booked roughly $620 million in revenue in 2022, disclosed in its SEC filings that increased use of AI would be a threat to its business. “Any use of generative artificial intelligence by users of our work marketplace may lead to additional claims of intellectual property infringement,” Upwork’s annual report reads. The company declined to comment on how ChatGPT has affected the rate of transactional disputes or its bottom line during a Forbes interview.
“We want our clients and our talent to be doing all of their diligence to make sure that their work is secure and that things are trusted,” says Margaret Lilani, vice president of talent solutions at Upwork.
Buried in ChatGPT proposals
In early April, business consultant Sean O’Dowd uploaded two job postings on Upwork and within 24 hours he received close to 300 applications from freelancers explaining why they should be hired. Of the 300 proposals, he suspects more than 200 were done by ChatGPT, he says. Upwork doesn’t have an AI detection tool embedded into the platform and so he used enterprise-focused AI startup Writer’s detection software to evaluate proposals.
O’Dowd, who says that over the past decade he’s hired “close to 100 people who do work that ChatGPT could replace,” says he won’t hire freelancers who pass off ChatGPT’s work as their own because he wouldn’t be able to trust them, and it would indicate a lack of effort. “If I just wanted the basic ChatGPT-level answer, I would have just done that myself. When I’m hiring somebody, I’m looking for more detail, more depth and more thinking than ChatGPT.”
Evan Fisher, who is both a client and a freelancer on Upwork, ran into the same issue: low quality content written by ChatGPT. “The real problem on Upwork is the sheer volume of proposals. We’re talking pre-contracts where a client is just inundated with kind of generic, bland, no-thought-involved proposals,” Fisher, who has hired 80 freelancers on Upwork, tells Forbes.
As a response, clients on Upwork have started including disclaimers from the get-go. One job post begins with, “If you use AI for this job, you will not get paid.” Anotherreads: “I do not want ChatGPT or AI spun content. I will validate and make sure, so anyone who wants to use AI, please do not even apply.” Despite these efforts, some freelancers use AI tools without disclosing it. O’Dowd says he once received work he suspected was done by ChatGPT because the work only included information up till 2021 (ChatGPT’s cut off point) and missed some newer details that would have been easy for a human to find through a simple search. He never hired that freelancer again.
“When I’m hiring somebody, I’m looking for more detail, more depth and more thinking than ChatGPT.”
Georgia Austin, who made $2 million in two years copywriting for brands like Nike on freelancing platform Fiverr, says the overuse and over-dependency on the tool by some freelancers has given “a bad name to all freelancers,” even those who may not secretly use AI. In late February a freelancer posted on Upwork’s community forum that a client was accusing him of using ChatGPT to do the job and was demanding their money back. The contention resulted in a transactional dispute filed with Upwork. Upwork declined to comment on the dispute.
“Our platform is based on trusted relationships between freelancers, our independent talent, and our clients,” Lilani from Upwork says. “AI cannot replace these meaningful and personable connections.”
Freelancers say otherwise.
“Clients are much more wary than before. It creates an advantage for people with big accounts on Upwork as opposed to the newbies because they (newbies) will be suspected of using AI for their work,” says Orezi Mena, a Nigerian graphic design freelancer who uses ChatGPT to help him ideate.
All eyes on Google
For companies that are using freelancers to create content and increase traffic on their websites, it all comes down to how Google ranks ChatGPT-written content. In February, Google announced that it will prioritize high-quality original content in its search results even if it is written by AI and demote spam content. “Google has many years of experience dealing with automation being used in an attempt to game search results,” a blog post reads.
“If Google is somehow detecting that the AI-written piece is like less valuable and is de-ranking it then it defeats the point of what you’re paying for,” says Adelle Archer, a client on Upwork who hires 20 freelancers for various tasks of her memorial diamond startup Eterneva.
That’s why some freelancers aren’t worried AI could put them out of work.
“At the end of the day, 95% of my buyers who are buying blogs and articles from me, they’re using that for SEO on their website. They’re aware that a ChatGPT generated blog isn’t going to necessarily do them any favors with ranking on Google,” says Alex Fasulo, who has been freelancing for the past nine years on Fiverr and claims to be making a six-figure salary each year. “So they’re still happy to pay me and work with me to get a human generated one.”
“If you use AI for this job, you will not get paid.”
ChatGPT is also creating new jobs, albeit at lower prices. Most people looking to hire freelancers want to get their work done fast and at minimal costs, says Jacobo Lumbreras, a former product manager at Upwork. Some clients are encouraging freelancers to use ChatGPT if that means they are able to be more productive and efficient. Freelancers on Upwork and Fiverr are selling their ability to use ChatGPT to create content and edit it for search engine optimization for as low as $5 an hour. Fasulo, who has 13 different freelancing gigs, just started a new one. “I actually opened up a service called, ‘I will edit and clean up your ChatGPT-generated content,’” she says.
The low price also reflects the quality of output generated by ChatGPT, says freelancer Austin. As the founder of a content marketing agency, she says she’s seen an influx of unhappy clients who have received AI-generated copy that is generic and drab. “In the world of AI specifically, there’s a lot of crappy content that’s coming to the surface.”
The proliferated use of AI is beckoning freelancers to upskill themselves by stepping beyond writing to editing or becoming a domain expert. Upwork offers freelancers coaching on how to find jobs and negotiate with clients and an invitation-based program to help them certify their software development and creative design skills. “Upskilling is going to continue to be the name of the game as tech continues to develop,” Lilani says.
“I actually opened up a service called, ‘I will edit and clean up your ChatGPT-generated content.’”
Fiverr, meanwhile, is embracing AI: In January 2023, the platform created a separate vertical dedicated to freelancers offering AI services, such as DALL-E 2 and Midjourney artists and freelancers using AI to make music videos or for content editing. Yoav Hornung, head of verticals and innovation at Fiverr, says the company has seen an increase in searches for AI-based services. While there is no AI detection tool embedded into the system to help clients weed out AI-written content, the Israel-based company offers clients an online logo maker and a voiceover tool for artists. As for ChatGPT-written content, the onus to check and verify work currently falls on the sellers and buyers of services.
“We do communicate to our sellers that they must have, you know, the legal rights to use any elements that they use in their work,” Hornung says.
With freelancers in panic of losing their jobs and clients frustrated with AI-written work, ChatGPT has thrust the freelance world into disarray, and companies like UpWork and Fiverr stand to lose a lot. Fewer job postings for freelance workers could potentially mean less revenue for the platforms as well because they take about 10% to 20% cut from freelancers’ earnings, O’Dowd points out. “If I was them (Upwork or Fiverr), I would be scared shitless right now,” he says.
May 2023, CICO writer Staff Reporter Rashi Shrivastava
Full-Time Remote Work Is Falling—But Still Five Times Pre-Pandemic Levels, Survey Finds
Amid countless layoffs, calls from corporate chieftains to return to the office and the pendulum of power swinging back to employers, it may feel like the work-from-home era is coming to an end. But while the practice is shrinking, it’s also showing resilience, with about a third of workers in jobs that can be done remotely saying in one new survey they’re still working from home full-time.
A new analysis from Pew Research Center, which was released as a companion to a broader new report on how U.S. workers view their jobs, finds that some 35% of workers with jobs that can be done remotely say they are working from home all of the time. While that’s down from 43% in January 2022 and 55% in October 2020, it still far exceeds the 7% of workers who have told Pew they worked from home full-time before the pandemic.
“It does seem like there has been a shift that could be permanent in how people with telework-able jobs think about where they work,” says Juliana Horowitz, Pew’s associate director of social and demographic trends research. “A third is a sizable share working from home all of the time.”
The decrease in people with jobs that can be done remotely who are working from home full-time came close to matching a corresponding rise in the percentage of them working a hybrid schedule. Those who reported working some or most of their time at home in Pew’s survey, which surveyed 5,775 U.S. adults who work full- or part-time from its American Trends Panel, grew from 35% in January 2022 to 41% in February 2023. Workers with jobs that can be done remotely who said they rarely or never work from home grew only slightly, from 11% to 12% in each group.
“It’s interesting to see the extent to which hybrid work has really stuck with workers,” Horowitz says. Some level of remote or hybrid work “really seems to be becoming more of the norm.”
The survey comes amid headlines that appear conflicting about trends in remote and hybrid work. Researchers that include Stanford University’s Nicholas Bloom, who has been studying trends on remote work since before the pandemic started, found that despite calls for office returns, the number of job postings for remote-work roles is actually growing, Bloomberg reported recently. From 2019 to early 2023, the share of job postings that say employees can work remotely at least some days of the week grew more than three-fold in the U.S., the study found, though trends vary widely by city and region.
Meanwhile, other media outlets reported on a new U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report in which 72.5% of business said employees “teleworked” rarely or not at all last year. Yet that data stems from a question that appears to be problematic, Bloom said in a post on LinkedIn, pointing to one that’s “worded so WFH includes just one employee doing work email once for just 10 minutes at home,” which differs from the way remote work is typically defined.
Whatever the actual figure, what’s clear is that workers’ appetite for work-from-home remains strong, and a smaller but not insignificant group of people appear to be keeping those arrangements, some even on a full-time basis. Pew’s survey found that many hybrid workers would prefer to work from home more than they do. Among those who work from home “some of the time,” for instance, half said they’d like to do so all (18%) or most (32%) of the time.
Pew’s survey also asked workers whether they feel working from home inhibits their career advancement or opportunities, and the majority said they did not think it did. Some 77% of those who work from home at least some of the time said they don’t believe it either helps or hurts their access to important assignments, for example.
More do see an impact when it comes to mentoring, however. While a little more than half said it has no impact, 36% said they perceive working from home hurts their access to mentoring opportunities, while just 10% said it helps.
Pew released the work-from-home survey to accompany a broader, more extensive report that asked about worker satisfaction on a range of issues, from the benefits people receive to the hours they work, the perceived safety of their workplaces and their experiences with discrimination.
The report found that about 51% of U.S. workers are highly satisfied with their job overall, with the lowest share saying they are extremely or very satisfied with how much they are paid (just 34%) and their opportunities for promotion (33%). Older workers and those with higher incomes were most likely to be satisfied with their jobs. The report also showed many are struggling to balance work and personal time. Nearly 30% of workers said they answer work-related messages or emails outside of regular hours often or extremely often—a figure that is higher among those with postgraduate degrees—and nearly half (46%) of workers who have access to paid time off said they don’t take all the time their employer offers.
March 2023, CICO writer Staff Reporter Jena McGregor
12 Ways CEOs And Companies Fail Chief Diversity Officers
Chief diversity officers (CDOs) are set up to fail in many companies. These talented DEI professionals often experience tremendous disappointment and depart with really negative feelings. An alarming number of corporate CDOs stay less than two years. Given how essential DEI is to the success of today’s businesses, CEOs really need CDOs to stay and succeed.
I’ve worked extensively with CDOs over the past two decades; many have expressed their frustrations to me. I’ve also been able to make my own determinations about why they weren’t achieving the DEI results their organizations were pursuing. Additionally, over the past 18 months, I’ve learned a lot in forums with corporate CDOs spanning just about every industry—including panels and conversations about their leadership challenges. These leaders worked in public and private sectors, and in organizations of all sizes that are mostly headquartered in the U.S. I also interviewed more than two dozen CDOs specifically for this article. Here are 12 ways CDOs consistently say CEOs and companies fail them:
1. CDOs Are Chiefs And Vice Presidents In Name Only
CDOs rarely have seats at the table with other C-Suite executives. On many dimensions, one of these VPs isn’t like the others. They don’t have the same decision-making authority. Compared to other VPs, CDOs say their budgets and staffs are much smaller. Also, their compensation packages are reportedly much lower than counterparts within the company who have similar titles. Everyday reminders of these inequities are paradoxical and understandably frustrating to the person whose job it is to be the company’s top equity officer.
2. CEOs Rarely Talk To CDOs
In recruitment conversations, CEOs often tell prospective CDOs how much they personally value DEI, yet they don’t get to spend much time with CDOs after they accept the positions. The CDO doesn’t have the same access to the CEO as do other VPs. One told me he’d talked with the CEO a total of 30 minutes over a two-year period; 20 of those were during their one-on-one when he was interviewing for the job.
3. CDOs Don’t Report To The CEO
Despite the position supposedly being responsible for the integration of DEI into every aspect of the business, the CDO’s boss in many places is the chief human resources officer (CHRO). It’s worse in some instances: despite having chief and VP titles themselves, CDOs report to someone who reports to the CHRO. This makes them two layers removed from the CEO. Some were told they’d be reporting dually to the CEO and HR Chief – they say it’s a terrible arrangement because substantive engagement with the CEO is relatively lower, oftentimes nonexistent.
4. CDOs Are Hired Into Haphazardly-Conceived Jobs
In too many businesses, CEOs jumped on the ‘everybody else is doing it bandwagon’ and created CDO positions without being entirely clear about what the role was really supposed to be and do. In the weeks after George Floyd’s murder, lots of businesses abruptly created CDO positions. Many DEI professionals who took those jobs less than three years ago have already left. To be sure, executives were hastily creating these positions long before summer 2020, sometimes under intense pressure from their diverse employees to do something in response to specific internal DEI crises.
5. CDO Roles Are Lopsidedly HR-Focused
Like financial operations, communications, human resources, marketing, and legal affairs, DEI should be a cross-business function. In many places it’s isolated to one area of the company: HR. Some DEI professionals ascend to the CDO job through diversity recruiting roles, but this isn’t the case for all. Regardless of their paths to the CDO position, many understand the job they accepted to be multidimensional, all encompassing. They recognize that their company’s DEI needs, challenges, vulnerabilities, and possibilities, include, but expand far beyond HR-related responsibilities. “They pay people to do HR; I should be partnering with them, not doing the HR team’s diversity work entirely for them,” a former tech industry CDO told me.
6. Execs Attempt To Solve DEI Problems Without CDOs
Weirdly, when there’s a crisis that involves racial or gender discrimination, the CDO is too often left out of the conversation. Instead, legal and communications teams work on making the crisis go away as quickly, quietly, and inexpensively as possible. They too often mishandle these situations in ways that disappoint women and employees of color within the company, as well as invite criticism from diverse customers and others on social media. CDOs say certain missteps could’ve been avoided had their cultural intelligence and expertise on diverse communities been invited to the crisis response table. It isn’t just about being invited – they also want their expertise to be as valued as the expertise colleagues from legal and communications bring.
7. What CDOs Say About Racial Problems Gets Discredited
The CDO tells the CEO the company has a serious racial problem. It’s based on what they’ve experienced firsthand or observed, or it’s credibly informed by what employees of color have reported to them. The CEO ignores this; tells the CDO all the reasons why they’re wrong; lists a few things the company has recently done for people of color (thereby making it incapable of racism); seeks out a handful of other execs (sometimes, but not always people of color) who say there isn’t a problem; and then ultimately rejects the CDO’s advice on what the company should do. Versions of this occur far too often, mostly to CDOs of color and most especially to women of color.
8. DEI Work Isn’t Deeply Connected To The Business Strategy
It’s painfully apparent to many CDOs that the work they lead isn’t nearly as connected as it should be to other parts of the business. With the exception of demographic representation numbers, the CEO and executive leadership team usually don’t have the same expectations for KPIs; the same shared, enterprise-wide accountability standards; and the same strategic concern for DEI as they do other things. Most CDOs strongly believe that good business strategy has DEI deeply, measurably, and sustainably imbedded into its every dimension.
9. What CDOs Do Isn’t Viewed As High Stakes
Many CDOs pursued and accepted their jobs because they care deeply about DEI. They want to help companies enact their espoused values and improve on longstanding failures. The work feels urgent to them, but oftentimes not to other executives at their level and above. CDOs report that something else is almost always seemingly more urgent than DEI, despite the looming threat of one massive discrimination or harassment lawsuit potentially costing the company millions of dollars and tarnishing its brand.
10. CDOs’ Professional Reputations Are Put At Risk
When the company fails to address workplace homophobia, a gay or lesbian CDO can lose credibility with queer colleagues. Similarly, when businesses are in the news for racial discrimination, CDOs of color could be viewed as incompetent, which might disqualify them from future leadership roles elsewhere. “To be fair, this is the occupational hazard that any executive takes on when they accept a position on the executive leadership team,” a CDO in the financial sector told me. “The problem is that we aren’t really executives, we aren’t on those leadership teams where people get paid enough money to assume this level of what can easily become long-term damage to our professional reputations.”
11. Nothing (Or Very Little) Is Done To Retain CDOs
As previously noted, too many talented professionals transition in and out of CDO roles within two years. Many say the executives to whom they were reporting did very little (in some instances, nothing) to retain them. Usually, no offer is made to fix the cultural, structural, and systemic issues that compel frustrated CDOs to leave. Some executives convince themselves that the CDO is simply moving on to an opportunity that’s a better fit. “They wouldn’t let a great CFO leave after 18 months without trying to negotiate a different set of arrangements that satisfy that person’s expectations,” one healthcare CDO said in an interview. “But there’s no negotiating with us; they’re unwilling to bend on fixing a structure that we keep telling them is fucked up.”
12. Nothing Changes From One CDO To The Next
A CDO leaves and execs swiftly hire someone else without doing an autopsy of what went wrong. They don’t make significant structural revisions to the role. The new CDO is therefore set up to fail.
A company’s DEI effectiveness depends greatly on its CDO being positioned for success. Having a seat at the table alongside other C-Suite executives is essential. Making them report to someone other than the CEO strongly and offensively conveys to these DEI leaders that they aren’t real executives. Also, CEOs have to pay CDOs like they pay other executives (the same level salaries, bonuses, stock options, and all); empower them with the same level of authority and autonomy; and give them budgets and staffing structures that are appropriate for an enterprise-wide function.
Moreover, CDOs have to be treated like the experts they are. CEOs ought to rely on them heavily for advice, avoid attempting to resolve DEI crises without their significant input, and believe them when they say the company has a serious DEI problem that places it at reputational and financial risk. What the CDO does has to be treated as consequentially as what the chief technology officer does (like if the business was expected to function without email for a month, for example). Situating the CDO’s work entirely or even primarily in HR denies a company the infrastructure that’s required to fully execute a comprehensive, integrated DEI business strategy.
CDOs need CEOs and other C-Suite peers to partner with them on creating and sustaining cultures, structures, and systems that hold every employee (including themselves) accountable for actualizing the company’s DEI commitments. Lastly, CEOs really must stop letting extremely talented CDOs walk out the door without investing considerably more effort into retaining them.
March 2023, CICO writer Shaun Harper Staff Reporter
How South Africa’s Christo Wiese Sued His Way Back Into The Billionaire Ranks
hristoffel “Christo” Wiese exudes an air of calm that betrays no hint of the chaos that turned his world turned upside down for more than four years. In December 2017, the then-76-year-old South African billionaire was informed about serious accounting fraud at retailer Steinhoff International, where he was both chairman and the largest shareholder. Those irregularities turned out to total $7.4 billion in falsified transactions over a span of nine years from 2009 to 2017, a PwC investigation found–making the Steinhoff affair the South African equivalent of the 2001 Enron debacle.
Steinhoff International had acquired Wiese’s discount clothing retailer, Pepkor, in 2015 for $5.7 billion in stock and cash; and he became its chairman a year later in May 2016. Wiese stepped down as chairman in mid-December 2017, soon after the accounting fraud was made public. While it was eventually proven that Weise had no role in the fraud, the 90% drop in the share price of Steinhoff–by far Wiese’s most valuable asset–pummelled his fortune, from an estimated $5.6 billion in March 2017 to $1.1 billion on the 2018 Forbes list of Africa’s billionaires and then off the ranks altogether by the time Forbes’ World Billionaires list came out a few months later that year.
Now, following a multi-year legal battle that ended in a $500 million settlement consisting of cash and stock, Wiese is back on Forbes’ newly released 2023 list of Africa’s billionaires, tied at No. 18 with an estimated net worth of $1.1 billion.
Asked about his ordeal last week, Wiese described his initial reaction–and what he’s grateful for. “It came as a huge shock to discover that this [Steinhoff] fraud was in the core of the business,” Wiese recalled in a Teams video call from his office in Cape Town, South Africa. The other shock? “That the people who were committing the fraud managed to get through all the gatekeepers,” he added, ticking them off: internal auditors, external auditor Deloitte, the South African Reserve Bank, international banks that were lending Steinhoff billions of rand, the South African and Frankfurt, Germany stock exchanges (where the company’s shares trade) and the ratings agencies.
Read More: The Full List Of Africa’s Richest People
What did Wiese know? Nothing, he insists. “People said, ‘But Christo, you were the chairman.’ And I said I chaired four board meetings in the entire time,” Wiese explained. “I am supposed to know what all the other gatekeepers missed?”
Despite his comments, Wiese–and the investment community–had been alerted to concerns about Steinhoff as early as a decade before the furniture seller admitted its problems. In 2007, Sean Holmes, a South Africa-based analyst for JP Morgan, published a critical 56-page report that questioned Steinhoff’s earnings and pointed to poor financial disclosure and a lack of transparency, according to the 2018 book Steinheist: Markus Jooste, Steinhoff & SA’s Biggest Corporate Fraud. The book also recounts a 2009 meeting Wiese had with an analyst at a different firm who shared 40 slides that delved into concerns such as Steinhoff’s inflated assets and its “suspiciously low tax rate.” (That was years before he sold his company to Steinhoff). Then in 2015, right before Steinhoff shifted its primary stock listing to Frankfurt, a German tax authority raised concerns about the company’s accounting. Wiese said a forensic accounting firm the board hired shortly afterward failed to find any issues.
In fact, Wiese had demonstrated supreme confidence in Steinhoff as a business (or took a huge risk, depending on your perspective). In September 2016, he borrowed $1.8 billion from banks to finance the purchase of more shares in Steinhoff, lifting his ownership stake from nearly 20% to 25%. To guarantee the loans, Wiese pledged the vast majority of his Steinhoff shares as collateral. When Steinhoff stock tanked at the end of 2017, the banks took control of his shares. The loan transaction was ring fenced around the Steinhoff shares, so that in case of default, the banks could not go after Wiese’s other assets, a spokesperson for Wiese said.
Markus Jooste, a South African and the former CEO of Steinhoff International–who ran the company during the years of the accounting fraud, will be tried in Germany in April, South African media reported on Friday. In the spring of 2021, German prosecutors were reported to have charged Jooste and three colleagues with balance sheet fraud. Jooste, who has denied the allegations in the past, could not be reached for comment.
Altogether, Wiese claimed he was defrauded out of $5 billion (59 billion Rand) and sued Steinhoff for that amount in 2018. It took until late January 2022 for Steinhoff to get South African and Dutch courts (Steinhoff is headquartered in Amsterdam) to sign off on its settlement for shareholders–Wiese and thousands of others–and creditors.
Wiese’s roughly $500 million (8 billion Rand) settlement came in the form of cash plus a 5% stake in listed retailer Pepkor Holdings (which is now 51% owned by Steinhoff International). Wiese says he accepted far less than he initially sought, partly to put a halt to the negotiations, which kept dragging on. Steinhoff funded the settlement with Pepkor shares and cash raised from selling off assets–though it still owns 50% of U.S. company MattressFirm and a few other holdings.
Wiese was never in danger of losing his fortune entirely. Besides his Steinhoff stake, he owns more than 10% of listed supermarket chain Shoprite Holdings, Africa’s largest retailer–a kind of South African Walmart, with a hard focus on low prices. It had $10.7 billion revenues in the most recent fiscal year, 145,000 employees and nearly 3,000 stores across southern Africa. In the wake of the Steinhoff accounting nightmare, Wiese sold off hundreds of millions of dollars worth of his Shoprite shares, lowering his stake from 18% in 2017.
Other Wiese holdings include industrial investing firm Invicta Holdings, listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, which has investments in China, Singapore, the U.K. and a small business in the U.S. Via another firm, Tradehold Ltd., he owns industrial businesses in South Africa and commercial property in the U.K. And through Luxembourg-listed firm Brait PLC, Wiese owns stakes in Virgin Active health clubs and two South African firms: a fashion label and a consumer goods business.
“Christo has been a massive risk taker his whole life,” Syd Vianello, a retail analyst in Johannesburg, told Forbes for a March 2016 profile of Wiese. “Africa is not a place for sissies.” Wiese, who calls himself an incurable optimist, agrees. “I’ve been in business for 55 years,” he says. “I just accept that the world is always difficult.”
Wiese’s journey to become Africa’s biggest retail tycoon took a meandering path. After attending Stellenbosch University, he started working for his cousin’s husband’s discount firm PEP in 1970. Four years later he decided he wasn’t good at working for someone else, and wanted a job that required less hours so he could start a family. Following a detour that included buying, running and then selling a diamond mine, Wiese went back to his cousin, who’d grown PEP and added Shoprite, a grocery chain, and offered to buy him out. The cousin accepted.
He focused on maintaining low prices and serving poor customers of all races–at a time of apartheid. In 1986, Wiese spun off Shoprite and PEP (now called Pepkor) into separate public companies, maintaining control of both. By 2014, Wiese says he controlled the two largest retail businesses in South Africa, and there was really no way to grow more domestically due to antitrust concerns.
That is when he turned to Steinhoff, which did business in Europe and South Africa. “I came to the conclusion that here was a business with a very strong balance sheet, strong cash flows, experienced management and international operations,” he recalled. It didn’t turn out that way.
Now 81, Wiese said he has no plans to retire. “I nearly died in 2021 with Covid, so I’ve come to realize that I’m not necessarily destined to live forever. But my problem is I don’t play golf or do stuff like that. For me, my business is my pleasure.”
Plus he certainly has no desire for Steinhoff to be his final chapter.
“I was not going to let this almost unbelievable disaster spoil my life,” Weise reflected on the Steinhoff matter. “I have a lot to be grateful for. I love my country, I’ve got a wonderful family, wonderful friends. I just decided to carry on with my life.”
February 2023, CICO writer Staff Reporter Kerry A. Dolan
TikTok and its Ethics
Legislators in Washington reacted with outrage to admissions by TikTok and its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, that they improperly used the video-sharing app to spy on reporters covering the company. Forbes first reported the existence of the surveillance scheme, which targeted three Forbes reporters, in October. At the time, TikTok did not deny the report, but tweetedthat the app had “never been used to ‘target’ any members of the U.S. government, activists, public figures or journalists.” TikTok and ByteDance now admit that this was false. After the October report, Republican members of Congress James Comer and Cathy McMorris Rodgers requested documentation from TikTok and ByteDance regarding the targets and purpose of the surveillance. On Thursday, McMorris Rodgers tweeted, “TikTok has placed the safety and privacy of Americans in jeopardy. They have gone on record numerous times claiming that they do not share Americans’ data with China. We know that is a lie, and we now know the list has grown to include U.S. journalists. Accountability is coming.” In a statement to Forbes, Senator Ron Wyden (D-WA) endorsed those concerns: “Using customer data to spy on journalists and employees is a scandal that casts doubt on every promise TikTok has made about protecting personal information. Sadly, it’s not the first time a tech company has abused the massive store of information it holds about its customers. As long as corporations have access to detailed data about their users’ movements, personal contacts and interests, companies and governments will be tempted to misuse it.”
This scandal could not have come at a worse time for TikTok, which is currently negotiating a national security contract with the multi-agency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to address national security concerns raised by the app. Although TikTok was reportedly close to a deal with CFIUS this past summer, national security agencies and the DOJ have expressed increasing concern about a deal that would allow ByteDance to continue to own TikTok. Meanwhile, legislators have begun moving forward with their own sanctions of TikTok, including a unanimously passed Senate bill to ban the app on government devices, and a bipartisan, bicameral proposal that would ban the app for all users in the United States. (Disclosure: In a previous life, I held policy positions at Facebook and Spotify.)
Many of the concerns raised by lawmakers and government leaders about TikTok have focused specifically on its potential use as a surveillance tool. FBI Director Christopher Wray spoke earlier this month about how the PRC government interrogated the parents of a Chinese student in the U.S. who posted a TikTok critical of the Chinese government, and Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) told Forbes that our October report on surveillance contributed to his decision to co-sponsor a bill to ban the app.
In response to TikTok’s and ByteDance’s admissions yesterday, Krishnamoorthi said, “It’s deeply disturbing to learn that ByteDance weaponized TikTok to track journalists who were investigating the company, confirming some of our fears of how the app could be misused.”
Mike Gallagher (R-WI), Krishnamoorthi’s co-sponsor on the ban bill, issued a statement calling the conduct egregious, saying: “TikTok has repeatedly told Congress and the American public that it does not share U.S. user data with its Chinese owner ByteDance and specifically claimed it has never targeted individual Americans. But reports out just today reveal that this was a lie and that ByteDance employees accessed the location data of U.S. journalists who wrote critical stories about TikTok.”
Both Congressmen called on their colleagues to join across the aisle in an effort to ban the app —calls that were echoed by bipartisan leadership in the senate. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) said, “This new development reinforces serious concerns” about the TikTok. “The DoJ has also been promising for over a year that they are looking into ways to protect U.S. user data from Bytedance and the CCP — it’s time to come forward with that solution or Congress could soon be forced to step in,” he continued.
Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn), who was the lead author of a letter to TikTok in June about concerns over the company’s relationship with China, told Forbes TikTok “cannot be trusted.” “It’s clear they are desperate to get their hands on any U.S. user data they can and deposit it directly into the hands of the Chinese Communist Party,” she said in a statement. “The Biden administration has the authority to crack down on this violation of privacy and national security threat – and they must take action immediately.”
Marco Rubio (R-FL), who co-chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee with Warner and is a Senate sponsor of the Gallagher-Krishnamoorthi bill, also spoke up about the spying incident. “No one should be surprised or fooled by ByteDance’s public apology,” he said. “Every day it becomes more clear that we need to ban TikTok.”
January 2023, CICO writer Staff Reporter Emily Baker-White
The Untold Story Behind Emax, The Cryptocurrency Kim Kardashian Got Busted For Hyping
In June 2021, at the height of the cryptocurrency craze, Kim Kardashian posted an Instagram story promoting Ethereum Max, a brand-new token. The reality TV star wasn’t giving “financial advice,” but she was eager to share with her 225 million followers “what [her] friends just told her about the Ethereum Max token” – namely that they were reducing supply to give “back to the entire E-Max community.”
Turns out some of those “friends” had paid the professional celebrity $250,000 to promote Ethereum Max, and even though Kardashian had labeled her Instagram post as an “ad” it wasn’t enough to satisfy regulators. Last month the Feds fined her $1.3 million for hyping the cryptocurrency. SEC Chair Gary Gensler described the charges as “a reminder to celebrities” that they must disclose such payments. Kardashian declined to comment.
Kardashian was not the only famous personality to endorse the obscure token, which sported a market cap of nearly $250 million in May 2021 but is currently virtually worthless. Other paid Emax boosters included boxing legend Floyd Mayweather, NBA Hall of Famer Paul Pierce, and NFL wide receiver Antonio Brown. But the token’s famous promoters were merely the outward manifestation of more widespread disease. An exclusive Forbes investigation has uncovered that behind Emax’s rapid rise–and even faster fall–are two guys from the small coastal city of Milford, Connecticut: Russ Davis, a crypto promoter and marketer, and Justin Maher, one of Emax’s cofounders and Davis’ brother-in-law. Over the last 18 months, Davis and Maher have shilled dozens of dubious tokens.
Many of those tokens are so small and obscure that there is little available data, but Forbes was able to find historical prices for 18 of the cryptocurrencies endorsed by Davis and Maher. On average, each token is down more than 90% from its all-time high. That compares to the broader cryptocurrency market which is down 70% since peaking last November, according to CoinMarketCap. At least eight coins promoted by Davis and Maher (with names like Rocket Bunny and Boom Baby) have plunged over 99% from their peaks. Davis and Maher’s role behind Emax has not previously been reported. In an apparent web3 twist on the classic “pump n dump,” Davis and Maher pitched Emax as a long-term investment to Davis’ thousands of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook followers during the token’s launch last May, while simultaneously cashing out their own holdings through secret wallets. According to allegations in a class action lawsuit and individuals who spoke with Forbes, the duo pocketed millions of dollars in profits.
Davis, 41, runs InRussWeTrust, a paid newsletter and private Facebook group of 24,000 crypto enthusiasts. Maher, 37, is a crypto promoter and was a financial advisor at NorthwesternNWE -1.4% Mutual from 2013 until October 2021 when he resigned “while under internal review for allegations that [he] was involved in a cryptocurrency shilling scam,” according to an SEC disclosure. A spokesperson for Northwestern Mutual confirmed that Maher no longer works there “due to not following firm policies and procedures.” Maher has not been charged with a crime.
For his part, Davis denies the lawsuit’s allegations and said he’s never participated in any pump and dump schemes. Davis alleges that Giovanni Perone, one of Emax’s cofounders and a defendant in the class action lawsuit, was the one doing the pumping and dumping: “Gio was the kingpin of the whole Emax scandal, 100%.”
In a series of text messages with Forbes Maher also blamed “Perone and his crew.” Maher insists that most of the lawsuit’s claims are “based on hearsay or conjecture, or just straight up conspiracy theories.”
Perone, 38, was an executive at private equity shop Cerberus Capital Management before cofounding Emax. Perone, like Davis and Maher, offloaded Emax tokens “onto unsuspecting investors” for “substantial profits” during the token’s fist six weeks, according to allegations in the lawsuit. Perone and his lawyers did not respond torepeated requests for comment.
Not everyone is mad at Davis and Maher. Some Emax investors sold early and scored profits. Others made peace with their losses, chalking it up to the realities of the crypto market where fortunes can vanish as quickly as they’re made.
To the less forgiving though, InRussWeTrust sabotaged its own followers.
“A lot of people followed Russ,” says Tony Russo, 34, a Florida-based crypto investor and former InRussWeTrust member. “He gained trust and then started screwing his own people over.”
November 2022, CICO writer Staff Reporter John Hyatt
Inflation in the eurozone just hit a fresh record high of 9.1%—and economists say ‘the worst is yet to come’
Inflation isn’t just an issue in the U.S.—it’s wreaking havoc on consumers worldwide. And while there are signs domestic price increases may have peaked in June, an ongoing energy crisis is creating a nightmare situation for Europeans.
Inflation in the eurozone surged 9.1% from a year ago last month, the EU’s statistics agency, Eurostat, revealed on Wednesday. The rise marked the ninth straight month of record consumer price increases for the 19-nation currency bloc. And “the worst is yet to come,” Anna Titareva, a UBS economist, warned in a Wednesday research note. A 38.3% year-over-year jump in energy prices was the main driver of European inflation in August. Energy prices have soared in Europe this year as the Ukraine war and subsequent sanctions by the West have lifted natural gas prices four times as high as they were a year ago.
A 10.6% annual jump in food, alcohol, and tobacco prices also helped exacerbate inflation in the eurozone last month. But even core inflation, which excludes more volatile food and energy prices, hit an all-time high of 4.3% in August, more than double EU officials’ 2% target rate. Titareva noted that this was a “stronger than expected” rise in core prices. Three EU nations also saw inflation rates of over 20% last month, while nine saw double-digit price increases, according to Eurostat data. Italian government officials said on Thursday they are planning a new multibillion euro package to help families cope with surging energy and food prices. The move came after Carlo Bonomi, president of Italian employers’ association Confindustria, said the country is facing an “economic earthquake” as a result of inflation in a radio interview this week, Reuters first reported.
European nations have spent billions on energy subsidies and even direct payments to residents in order to help with surging consumer prices since the war in Ukraine began in late February. Even Germany, which typically has much lower inflation rates than the rest of Europe, is dealing with record levels of inflation amid surging energy costs. Consumer prices in the country rose at a 7.9% annual rate last month, according to the country’s national statistics office. And Jörg Krämer, chief economist at Germany’s Commerzbank, told Reuters he expects the situation to get worse from here as government fuel rebates and public transportation subsidies expire.
“The gas levy and the end of the fuel rebate and the €9 ticket are likely to push inflation to 10% by the end of the year,” he said. Krämer isn’t the only economist arguing inflation in Europe will increase through the end of the year either.
Where will eurozone inflation go from here?
Investment banks are worried that consumer prices will continue to rise across the EU over the coming months, forcing the European Central Bank (ECB) to raise interest rates more aggressively, thereby increasing the odds of a recession. The ECB only recently abandoned its negative interest rate policy, raising rates for the first time in 11 years in July. Some ECB officials have argued for an outsize 75 basis-point rate increase this month to combat inflation as well, but so far Europe’s central bank has been far more dovish than the Federal Reserve as the eurozone’s economy continues to struggle. A UBS team, led by economist Arend Kapteyn, said in a Thursday research note that eurozone inflation will continue to rise until it hits 9.6% in September, noting that it could “stay uncomfortably high for another few quarters” after that as well.
“We now forecast a recession in Europe,” Kapteyn added. “Central banks appear to have collectively decided a mild recession is acceptable to anchor inflation expectations.”
Goldman Sachs economists are even more pessimistic on the inflation front. In an Aug. 25 research note, a Goldman team, led by senior global economist Daan Struyven, said eurozone inflation won’t peak until the end of the year, when it hits a year-over-year growth rate of “above 10%.” Struyven warned that there is also “upside risk” to this forecast, and that he expects Europe could experience a “prolonged recession.”
September 2022, CICO writer Staff Reporter Will Daniel
5 ways your website can create an emotional bond with your customer
Numerous studies have shown that emotions and instinct, rather than rational thought, are more often the driving forces behind consumer behavior and purchasing decisions. When customers feel a deep emotional bond with a brand, it is known as ‘brand intimacy’.
Brand Intimacy agency MBLM’s annual study of US consumers’ emotional connections with the brands that they use confirms that the brands that create the most brand intimacy are also the fastest growing brands. This means that all companies and brands can benefit from marketing that creates emotional bonds with their customers, in turn, ideally, to create a sense of brand intimacy. Here are five strategies companies can draw on to achieve this.
1 – Humanize your brand
It’s much easier to feel an emotional connection with a person than with a concept, so it’s always worth humanizing your brand by showcasing the people behind the brand on your website. This is true for large businesses just as much as for startups (if not more so). The way Apple marketed Steve Jobs as the personality that encapsulated the brand ethos in the years when they first launched their revolutionary iPod, Iphone, and iPad products is a good example of this in a larger company. For smaller companies, showcasing the founder(s) on the website, and potentially the whole team (or the executive team, or those team members who interact with customers, depending on each company) is always going to be helpful in terms of cultivating an emotional bond. Equally important is the information that you provide about your team. Rather than their qualifications, it’s preferable to humanize them by including details about their lives or interests. For example, you can provide a ‘Meet the Team’ page.
2 – Build trust through authenticity
Trust is integral to all emotional relationships, including between consumers and brands. For a customer to trust a brand, it’s important that they feel that it is authentic and trustworthy. There are several ways to help achieve this. Providing real customer reviews (including videos) is a great way to help new customers to trust a brand. It can also be helpful to provide a glimpse of ‘behind the scenes’, perhaps by creating a ‘meet the team’ video, or a video of a manufacturing process, or a tour of a workshop or company premises, including who does what and a bit about them. Engaging with customers is another way to build trust, such as by providing quick, accurate responses to customer queries. Lastly, making sure that you ‘walk the walk’, by consistently providing what you promise to, is crucial to building brand trust and so meaningful, lasting emotional bonds with your customers.
3 – Develop two-way empathy
Two-way empathy is an important aspect of every emotional relationship, and the onus is on the brand to develop it. Start by gaining a clear and detailed understanding of your customers’ characteristics, needs, and frustrations. With this understanding, you can communicate with them in a way that they can relate to, so using a language and communication style that they’re familiar and comfortable with, and by letting them feel that you understand them, and that you are like them. It can also be helpful to cultivate communities of like-minded people that your customers can join, whether in-person or online. Finally, build and nurture relationships with your customers. Keep records of their communication preferences and purchase history so you can communicate with them appropriately. Depending on your business type, this might include additional meaningful communications that address their needs and interests, or you might go the extra mile and keep records of and reference their family details when you speak to them, or send them a happy birthday message. You should personalize your customer relationships as much as possible, too. As an example, Netflix has created an algorithm that personalizes viewing recommendations rather than using demographic profiles or location.
4 – Employ emotional triggers
Utilizing emotional triggers in your website messaging can be a powerful way to develop an emotional bond and drive sales. Consumer psychologists have identified hundreds of emotional triggers that drive purchasing decisions, depending on the particular brand and product. Some of the most common, compelling emotional triggers are:
– Fear. A good example of this is when marketing insurance. Or, it might be fear of missing out on an offer or opportunity. Be careful before playing on negative emotions though when seeking to develop positive feelings about your brand.
– Guilt. Many people feel guilty about the impact our lifestyles have on the environment, or charities sometimes employ challenging images to invoke guilt to incentivize donations.
– Belonging. The feeling of wanting to belong to a particular movement or social group can be powerful. It might be Mac owners, or a particular car brand drivers, or young or healthy people, for example.
– Aspiration. This often relates to aspiring to a better or type of lifestyle, which buying a certain product or brand can allude to.
– Instant gratification. Chocolate, alcohol, and lottery tickets are among the many products and services that tempt consumer with the allure of instant gratification.
– Liberation, or well-being. These are some of the more positive emotions marketers can appeal to.
The key to employing emotional triggers is to let your understanding of your customers’ buying motivations inform which trigger you use, and then customize your messaging and images (or videos) accordingly and effectively.
5 – Storytelling
Storytelling has facilitated human bonding since time immemorial, and telling stories with an emotional aspect can allow firms or brands to draw consumers in and create an emotional bond. This might mean telling the brand story, or the founder story or team members’ stories, or customer success stories, or creating a video that tells a story that illustrates the lifestyle associated with your brand, for example. Incorporating emotional triggers into brand storytelling can create a particularly compelling purchase motivation and emotional bond.
August 2022, CICO writerStaff Reporter Hugo Lesser