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Exclusive: Facebook Opens Up About False News

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NEWS FEED, THE algorithm that powers the core of Facebook, resembles a giant irrigation system for the world’s information. Working properly, it nourishes all the crops that different people like to eat. Sometimes, though, it gets diverted entirely to sugar plantations while the wheat fields and almond trees die. Or it gets polluted because Russian trolls and Macedonian teens toss in LSD tablets and dead raccoons.

For years, the workings of News Feed were rather opaque. The company as a whole was shrouded in secrecy. Little about the algorithms got explained and employees were fired for speaking out of turn to the press. Now Facebook is everywhere. Mark Zuckerberg has been testifying to the European Parliament via livestream, taking hard questionsfrom reporters, and giving tech support to the Senate. Senior executives are tweeting. The company is running ads during the NBA playoffs.

In that spirit, Facebook is today making three important announcements on false news, to which WIRED got an early and exclusive look. In addition, WIRED was able to sit down for a wide-ranging conversation with eight generally press-shy product managers and engineers who work on News Feed to ask detailed questions about the workings of the canals, dams, and rivers that they manage.

The first new announcement: Facebook will soon issue a request for proposals from academics eager to study false news on the platform. Researchers who are accepted will get data and money; the public will get, ideally, elusive answers to how much false news actually exists and how much it matters. The second announcement is the launch of a public education campaign that will utilize the top of Facebook’s homepage, perhaps the most valuable real estate on the internet. Users will be taught what false news is and how they can stop its spread. Facebook knows it is at war, and it wants to teach the populace how to join its side of the fight. The third announcement—and the one the company seems most excited about—is the release of a nearly 12-minute video called “Facing Facts,” a title that suggests both the topic and the repentant tone.

The film, which is embedded at the bottom of this post, stars the product and engineering managers who are combating false news, and was directed by Morgan Neville, who won an Academy Award for 20 Feet from Stardom. That documentary was about backup singers, and this one essentially is too. It’s a rare look at the people who run News Feed: the nerds you’ve never heard of who run perhaps the most powerful algorithm in the world. In Stardom, Neville told the story through close-up interviews and B-roll of his protagonists shaking their hips on stage. This one is told through close-up interviews and B-roll of his protagonists staring pensively at their screens.

In many ways, News Feed is Facebook: It’s an algorithm comprised of thousands of factors that determines whether you see baby pictures, white papers, shitposts, or Russian agitprop. Facebook typically guards information about the way the Army guards Fort Knox. This makes any information about it valuable, which makes the film itself valuable. And right from the start, Neville signals that he’s not going to merely scoop out a bowl of peppermint propaganda. The opening music is slightly ominous, leading into the voice of John Dickerson, of CBS News, intoning about the bogus stories that flourished on the platform during the 2016 election. Critical news headlines blare, and Facebook employees, one carrying a skateboard and one a New Yorkertote, move methodically up the stairs into headquarters.

‘Is there a silver bullet? There isn’t.’

EDUARDO ARIÑO DE LA RUBIA

The message is clear: Facebook knows it screwed up, and it wants us all to know it knows it screwed up. The company is confessing and asking for redemption. “It was a really difficult and painful thing,” intones Adam Mosseri, who ran News Feed until recently, when he moved over to run product at Instagram. “But I think the scrutiny was fundamentally a helpful thing.”

After the apology, the film moves into exposition. The product and engineering teams explain the importance of fighting false news and some of the complexities of that task. Viewers are taken on a tour of Facebook’s offices, where everyone seems to work hard and where there’s a giant mural of Alan Turing made of dominos. At least nine times during the film, different employees scratch their chins.

Oddly, the most clarifying and energizing moments in “Facing Facts” involve whiteboards. There’s a spot three and a half minutes in when Eduardo Ariño de la Rubia, a data science manager for News Feed, draws a grid with X and Y axes. He’s charismatic and friendly, and he explains that posts on Facebook can be broken into four categories, based on the intent of the author and the truthfulness of the content: innocent and false; innocent and true; devious and false; devious and true. It’s the latter category—including examples of cherry-picked statistics—that might be the most vexing.

A few minutes later, Dan Zigmond—author of the book Buddha’s Diet, incidentally—explains the triptych through which troublesome posts are countered: remove, reduce, inform. Terrible things that violate Facebook’s Terms of Service are removed. Clickbait is reduced. If a story appears fishy to fact-checkers, readers are informed. Perhaps they will be shown related stories, or more information on the publisher. It’s like a parent who doesn’t take the cigarettes away but who drops down a booklet on lung cancer and then stops taking them to the drug store. Zigmond’s whiteboard philosophy is also at the core of a Hard Questions blog post Facebook published today.

The central message of the film is that Facebook really does care profoundly about false news. The company was slow to realize the pollution building up in News Feed, but now it is committed to cleaning it up. Not only does Facebook care, it’s got young, dedicated people who are on it. They’re smart, too. John Hegeman, who now runs News Feed, helped build the Vickrey-Clark-Groves auction system for Facebook advertising, which has turned it into one of the most profitable businesses of all time.

The question for Facebook, though, is no longer whether it cares. The question is whether the problem can be solved. News Feed has been tuned, for years, to maximize our attention and in many ways our outrage. The same features that incentivized publishers to create clickbait are the ones that let false news fly. News Feed has been nourishing the sugar plantations for a decade. Can it really help grow kale, or even apples?

To try to get at this question, on Monday, I visited with the nine stars of the film, who sat around a rectangular table in a Facebook conference room and explained the complexities of their work. (A transcript of the conversation can be read here.) The company has made all sorts of announcements since December 2016 about its fight against false news. It has partnered with fact-checkers, limited the ability of false news sites to make money off their schlock, and created machine-learning systems for combatting clickbait. And so I began the interview by asking what had mattered most.

The answer, it seems, is both simple and complex. The simple part is that Facebook has found that just strictly applying its rules—”blocking and tackling,” Hegeman calls it—has knocked many purveyors of false news off the platform. The people who spread malarkey also often set up fake accounts or break basic community standards. It’s like a city police force that cracks down on the drug trade by arresting people for loitering.

In the long run, though, Facebook knows that complex machine-learning systems are the best tool. To truly stop false news, you need to find false news, and you need machines to do that because there aren’t enough humans around. And so Facebook has begun integrating systems—used by Instagram in its efforts to battle meanness—based on human-curated datasets and a machine-learning product called DeepText.

Here’s how it works. Humans, perhaps hundreds of them, go through tens or hundreds of thousands of posts identifying and classifying clickbait—”Facebook left me in a room with nine engineers and you’ll never believe what happened next.” This headline is clickbait; this one is not. Eventually, Facebook unleashes its machine-learning algorithms on the data the humans have sorted. The algorithms learn the word patterns that humans consider clickbait, and they learn to analyze the social connections of the accounts that post it. Eventually, with enough data, enough training, and enough tweaking, the machine-learning system should become as accurate as the people who trained it—and a heck of a lot faster.

In addition to identifying clickbait, the company used the system to try to identify false news. This problem is harder: For one, it’s not as simple as analyzing a simple, discrete chunk of text, like a headline. Secondly, as Tessa Lyons, a product manager helping to oversee the project, explained in our interview, truth is harder to define than clickbait. So Facebook has created a database of all the stories flagged by the fact-checking organizations that it has partnered with since late 2016. It then combines this data with other signals, including reader comments, to try to train the model. The system also looks for duplication, because, as Lyons says, “the only thing cheaper than creating fake news is copying fake news.” Facebook does not, I was told in the interview, actually read the content of the article and try to verify it. That is surely a project for another day.

Interestingly, the Facebook employees explained, all clickbait and false news is treated the same, no matter the domain. Consider these three stories that have spread on the platform in the past year.

“Morgue employee cremated by mistake while taking a nap.” “President Trump orders the execution of five turkeys pardoned by Obama.” “Trump sends in the feds— Sanctuary City Leaders Arrested.”

The first is harmless; the second involves politics, but it’s mostly harmless. (In fact it’s rather funny.) The third could scare real people and bring protesters into the streets. Facebook could, theoretically, deal with each of these kinds of false news differently. But according to the News Feed employees I spoke with, it does not. All headlines pass through the same system and are evaluated the same way. In fact, all three of these examples seem to have gotten through and started to spread.

Why doesn’t Facebook give political news strict scrutiny? In part, Lyons said, because stopping the trivial stories helps the company stop the important ones. Mosseri added that weighting different categories of misinformation differently might be something that the company considers later. “But with this type of integrity work I think it’s important to get the basics done well, make real strong progress there, and then you can become more sophisticated,” he said.

Behind all this though is the larger question. Is it better to keep adding new systems on top of the core algorithm that powers News Feed? Or might it be better to radically change News Feed?

I pushed Mosseri on this question. News Feed is based on hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of factors, and as anyone who has run a public page knows, the algorithm rewards outrage. A story titled “Donald Trump is a trainwreck on artificial intelligence,” will spread on Facebook. A story titled “Donald Trump’s administration begins to study artificial intelligence” will go nowhere. Both stories could be true, and the first headline isn’t clickbait. But it pulls on our emotions. For years, News Feed—like the tabloids—has heavily rewarded this kind of story, in part because the ranking was heavily based on simple factors that correlate with outrage and immediate emotional reactions.

Now, according to Mosseri, the algorithm is starting to take into account more serious factors that correlate with a story’s quality, not just its emotional tug. In our interview, he pointed out that the algorithm now gives less value to “lighter weight interactions like clicks and likes.” In turn, it is putting more priority on “heavier weight things like how long do we think you’re going to watch a video for? Or how long do we think you’re going to read an article for? Or how informative do you think you’d say this article is if we asked you?” News Feed, in a new world, might give more value to a well-read, informative piece about Trump and artificial intelligence, instead of just a screed.

‘Two billion people around the world are counting on us to fix this.’

DAN ZIGMOND

Perhaps the most existential question for Facebook is whether the nature of its business inexorably helps the spread of false news. Facebook makes money by selling targeted ads, which means it needs to know how to target people. It gathers as much data as it can about each of its users. This data can, in turn, be used by advertisers to find and target potential fans who will be receptive to their message. That’s useful if an advertiser like Pampers wants to sell diapers only to the parents of newborns. It’s not great if the advertiser is a fake-news purveyor who wants to find gullible people who can spread his message. In a podcast with Bloomberg, Cyrus Massoumi, who created a site called Mr. Conservative, which spread all kinds of false news during the 2016 election, explained his modus operandi. “There’s a user interface facebook.com/ads/manager and you create ads and then you create an image and advert, so lets say, for example, an image of Obama. And it will say ‘Like if you think Obama is the worst president ever.’ Or, for Trump, ‘Like if you think Trump should be impeached.’ And then you pay a price for those fans, and then you retain them.”

In response to a question about this, Ariño de la Rubia noted that the company does go after any page it suspects of publishing false news. Massoumi, for example, now says he can’t make any money from the platform. “Is there a silver bullet?” Ariño de la Rubia asked. “There isn’t. It’s adversarial, and misinformation can come from any place that humans touch and humans can touch lots of places.”

Pushed on the related question of the possibility of shutting down political Groups into which users have put themselves, Mosseri noted that it would indeed stop some of the spread of false news. But, he said, “you’re also going to reduce a whole bunch of healthy civic discourse. And now you’re really destroying more value than problems that you’re avoiding.”

Should Facebook be cheered for its efforts? Of course. Transparency is good, and the scrutiny from journalists and academics (or at least most academics) will be good. But to some close analysts of the company, it’s important to note that this is all coming a little late. “We don’t applaud Jack Daniels for putting warning labels about drinking while pregnant. And we don’t cheer GM for putting seat belts and airbags in their cars,” says Ben Scott, a senior adviser to the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation. “We’re glad they do, but it goes with the territory of running those kinds of businesses.”

Ultimately, the most important question for Facebook is how well all these changes work. Do the rivers and streams get clean enough that they feel safe to swim in? Facebook knows that it has removed a lot of claptrap from the platform. But what will happen in the American elections this fall? What will happen in the Mexican elections this summer?

Most importantly, what will happen as the problem gets more complex? False news is only going to get more complicated, as it moves from text to images to video to virtual reality to, one day, maybe, computer-brain interfaces. Facebook knows this, which is why the company is working so hard on the problem and talking so much. “Two billion people around the world are counting on us to fix this,” Zigmond said.

 Source: WIRED

 

Corporate Accountability

Signs of harmful projects with financing from development institutions are spotted in Uganda…

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By Witness Radio Team.

The growth of a country is discerned by great leaders and innovators who see opportunities out of darkness and transform their areas from nothing to success. Those are great leaders whose interest is to see the developments in their countries and the well-being of their citizens.

Every single day, countries all over the world receive investors that acquire loans, grants, and donations to implement mega projects that are seemingly expected to develop host countries. countries and investors borrowing the money Often, countries and investors portray how these projects improve the livelihood of the browbeaten, au contraire, they have left many broken families, poor-dirty homesteads, and shattered dreams.

Uganda is one of those countries, whose citizens have paid a price for reckless or unsupervised and profit-led international investment. In a bid to implement its industrial policy, the country has welcomed both foreign and local investors with interests in the fields of extraction, industrial agriculture, carbon credit tree plantation, mining, infrastructural projects, and many others.

It has received billions of dollars from different financiers including commercial banks, Pension Funds, and International Development Finance Banks or institutions, among others. For instance, the World Bank has invested more than 20 Billion Dollars since 1963 and currently

Every project comes with its own chilling story. More often their stories are unheard by the World. Witness Radio – Uganda surveyed some projects in Uganda. This study revealed agony, illegal evictions, abject poverty, environmental degradation, and loss of life among others, as some of the consequences suffered by the would-be beneficiaries of these international funded projects across the country.

In the capital of Uganda, Kampala, over 1750 families were forcefully evicted from a city suburb, Naguru, for Naguru- Nakawa housing estates.  11 years down the road the project that was highly hyped is to take off on the grabbed land. Pleas from the victims of the eviction to regain their land have all fallen on deaf ears.

About 80km away from Kampala is the island district of Kalangala surrounded by the World’s second-largest lake, Victoria, and known for palm growing. When the palm-oil project was introduced to residents they were given the impression that it would improve their livelihoods and create job opportunities.  Instead, it has dumped thousands into poverty after their land was grabbed by BIDCO, a Wilmer international-funded project. People lost land and now work on plantations as casual laborers. The neighboring communities are accusing BIDCO workers of sexual and gender-based violence.

In the South-Western District of Kiryandongo, multinational companies including Agilis Partners Limited, Kiryandongo Sugar Limited, and Great Seasons SMC Limited with funding from The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), The Department for International Development (DFID) of the United Kingdom, and Common Fund for Commodities among other financiers are forcefully evicting more than 35,000 people. The eviction has been on since 2017.

Workers that worked on a World Bank Project in Soroti, in the far east of the country, are accused of sexually harassing minors. Several young girls were defiled and left pregnant. Despite the government being aware of this none of the pedophiles have been brought to book, the World Bank-funded project in the Eastern Town of Soroti left several underage girls defiled and impregnated.

In late 2020, residents of Kawaala zone II woke up to the hail of armed men and graders evicting and destroying their properties to implement a multimillion-dollar project funded by the World Bank. The project is being implemented by the Kampala Capital city Authority (KCCA) on behalf of the government of Uganda.

The above-listed and other projects, on the other hand, continue to perpetuate violence and judicial harassment against leaders of Project Affected Persons (PAPs) and community land and environmental rights defenders because of their work that resists illegal evictions and destruction of the environment among others.

Although project implementers such as government entities accuse local communities of occupying land targeted for projects illegally, in most cases victim communities have rights over these pieces of land because their settlement on the same land can be traced to have happened generations ago.

No matter how people are negatively impacted being by these harmful projects, financiers continue to release more money to the government and investors. The banks aim at profit margins other than the livelihoods of the people. In Bulebi village, Mbazi parish, Mpunge Sub County in Mukono district, Akon’s futuristic city is about to lead to the eviction of over 1000 residents whose entire lives have been built on their land.

In April last year, American rapper Aliaune Damala Badara well known for his stage name AKON visited Uganda in search of land for constructing the city. On the same business trip, he met President Museveni Yoweri Kaguta and expressed his interest in building a futuristic city with its currency. The president ordered the Ministry of Lands, housing, and urban development to look out for free land for his city.

However, on 7th Jan 2022, the Uganda Land Commission showed the Minister for Lands, Housing, and Urban Development “Hon Judith Nabakooba” land that was proposed for the Akon city. According to the Uganda land commission, the land is Freehold Volume 53 Folio 9 measuring I square mile.

This has sparked outrage amongst the affected as they were never consulted or consented to allow the project in their community. According to community members that Witness Radio interviewed, they said they heard the distressing news of Akon city through the Media.

The community said no official from the ministry has ever approached them about their land giveaway. “Our country is full of land evictions and evictors begin in that way. There has been no official coming on the ground to officially inform us about the project and neither have we heard any official communication of compensation.” Obori said.

Residing in the attractive village surrounded by freshwaters, the community asserts this has been the source of livelihood and advised the government to get alternative land for the City.

Controversies surrounding the land giveaway and ownership of the area still exist. A section of residents have protested and vowed not to surrender their land for the City. They claim to have acquired freehold titles from the Mukono lands board.

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Corporate Accountability

Breaking: over 350,000 acres of land were grabbed during Witness Radio – Uganda’s seven months ban.

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By Witness Radio Team.

As the onslaught on civil society heightens, its space continues to shrink which has bearing on the services they render to the communities. Witness Radio, was among the 54 organizations suspended by Uganda’s National Bureau for Nongovernmental Organizations on August 20th, 2021. The actions are amongst the recent forms of attack on civil societies in Uganda. Other numerous attacks include arrests of rights activists, harassment, tortures, and office- break-ins at night by security operatives who move away with valuables.

The effects of this suspension were felt by communities facing land grabs across the country. For seven months while the organization was suspended, over 300,000 people were evicted from their land and couldn’t access specialized and prompt legal assistance.

Witness Radio Uganda, globally known for its campaign against community land-grabs couldn’t assist these victims of land grab since it risked facing further sanctions from the Bureau in case it intervened. However, last week, there was some relief, when Uganda’s National Bureau for NGOs lifted suspension and certified its operation.

According to Mrs. Bulyerali Joan, the Head Legal at Witness Radio – Uganda, the organization conducted a review of the evictions that happened during the suspension. With information and assistance from some lawyers, local journalists, and community land and environmental rights defenders across the country, the evictions watchdog was able to document cases of hundreds of thousands of Ugandans that were either forcefully evicted or received threats of evictions while in its limbo.

The ban imposed on Witness Radio coupled with the disruptive impacts of COVID- 19 resulted in the surge of eviction cases, especially in areas where the organization had a presence. Throughout the ban, without access to swift and prompt legal support, the communities resorted to sharing with the world their ordeal.

She further noted that the evictions were conducted in disregard of the law on evictions. “I was shocked to see powerful people and companies take advantage of our suspension to escalate the evictions of vulnerable communities that received our assistance. The evictions did not comply with the land eviction practice directives. None of them was preceded by legal court orders.”  She noted.

According to the Land Eviction directives, issued by the former Chief Justice of Uganda, Bart Katureebe, evictions shall be preceded by valid court order, properly identifying the persons taking part in the eviction, and upon presentation of formal authorizations. The police and local authority of the area shall be notified and shall be present to witness the evictions, among others.

Based on the data gathered by the team, various communities across the country were left dispossessed by land grabbers without any form of assistance. Others have received threatening messages with intentions of dispossessing them off their land.

During the period under review, over 300,000 people across the country are believed to have been threatened with evictions, while 350,000 acres of land were either grabbed or on verge of being grabbed.

“However much, we gathered this information, we expect the cases to be higher because some evictions go unreported either due to the remoteness of the areas or other related factors.” One of the collaborators observed.

The evictions were extremely violent.  They were characterized by kidnaps, arrests and detentions, torture that often-caused unexpected grief to the communities.

Among the most affected districts include Kyankwanzi, Mubende, Kassanda, Hoima, Buikwe, Wakiso, Kikuube, and Bulambuli districts.

In some of the mentioned districts, the Lands, Housing, and Urban Development Minister toured and halted the evictions but the evictors continued unabated.

Mr. Kimazi Experito, a journalist based in Mubende, attributed the rise of evictions to the organization’s suspension which denied the evictions-affected communities access to specialized legal assistance.

He said Witness Radio has offered support to over 20 land-grab-affected communities in Mubende with legal support. “Witness radio is a game-changer that brought back lives of evicted communities to normal,” he lauded.

“Mubende is one of the fastest-growing areas because of gold and other minerals as well as factors related to fertile soils. Currently, it is one of the hotspots of evictions. Opportunists used this chance to grab land from people with full attention. Without the defenders, it’s often hard for people to get justice since local people are not much informed about land laws.” Kimazi explained.

Engineered by powerful people in public offices, multinational companies, and politicians using state machinery including the army and national police, forced evictions to continue to affect food sovereignty and threaten the role of indigenous communities to protect the environment.

During the same period, President Yoweri Museveni stopped any eviction without the approval of the Resident District Commissioners. However, legal experts warned that the move is to usurp the powers of the Judiciary. In a statement signed by Pheona Nabasa Wall, the Uganda Law Society President noted that the directive undermined the role and independence of courts in handling eviction matters.

That notwithstanding, “Occasionally, the residents are not given any opportunity to negotiate with the landlords. Even when the government obliges to pay landowners, neither does the government nor the evictor compensate for the damaged property. During evictions, properties that were made for their life end up being destroyed in seconds which causes lifetime misery.” Paul Kasoozi, a community land rights defender stated.

With different tactics aimed at alienating the poor from their land, it has been established that the police and the army continued to play a huge role in the largest forms of violent evictions through torture, arbitrary arrests, and detention and instilling fear and pressurizing the local communities to vacate their land on orders of the evictors.

Many of those community members who oppose land evictions end up being kidnapped, tortured, or arrested and detained to silence the community. It takes support from an organization defending communities’ land rights to intervene for such communities to get justice.

Days before the lifting of the suspension imposed on Witness Radio, communities neighboring the Katta Barracks in Bulambuli district, were violently evicted by the Uganda People’s Defense Forces under the alleged command of Lieutenant Colonel Mukiibi Julius without offering alternative resettlement.

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Technology

Google Internet project closes in Uganda.

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Uganda will be among the 10 African countries that will lose out as Google winds up its Internet Balloon Project. 

The closure follows an announcement in which Google said the project was “an unsustainable business model”.

In 2019, Loon LLC, a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, signed a Letter of Agreement in Kampala with officials from Uganda Civil Aviation Authority, in which high altitude solar powered Internet balloons with floating masts over Uganda’s airspace, would be established at an altitude of 500,000 feet.

The balloons would create an aerial wireless network to provide Internet and telecom network connectivity to rural and remote areas.

Dr Anna Prouse, the Loon LLC head of government relations, had said then that Google would partner with telecoms to tap into their technology to allow connectivity.

However, Alastair Westgarth, the team lead of the project, last week announced in a statement the project would be closed.

“We talk a lot about connecting the next billion users, but the reality is Loon has been chasing the hardest problem of all in connectivity – the last billion users: The communities in areas are too difficult or remote to reach, or the areas where delivering service with existing technologies is just too expensive for everyday people,” he said.

While Loon had found a number of willing partners along the way, he said, they had not found a way to get the costs low enough to build a long-term, sustainable business.

“Developing radical new technology is inherently risky. I am sad to share that Loon will be winding down,” he said.

Loon had had similar arrangements in Botswana, Nigeria, South Africa, Mauritius, Seychelles, DR Congo, Congo Brazzaville, Mozambique and Kenya, but are expected to close as well.

The Loon project was expected to be a game changer in Uganda’s telecomm sector through enhancing connectivity in remote areas, and contributing to the development of the national backbone infrastructure project.

The demand for Internet among Ugandans has grown exponentially in the recent past with Covid-19 being a serious catalyst.

Internet status  

A UCC report published recently indicated telecom and Internet service providers registered an increase in demand for data in the third quarter of 2020 with more than 20 million subscriptions – nearly 50 per cent of the population being connected.

The growth was mainly attributed to the shifting work culture driven by Covid-19, which led many businesses to adopt remote working methods.

Original Source: Daily Monitor

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