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Facebook woes: 2019 already shaping up as a rough one for Mark Zuckerberg and co.

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: Facebook's latest challenges; Scott Brison's surprise announcement that he's stepping down has immediate consequences for the Prime Minister; Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro sworn in for new presidential term today.

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc., listens during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on April 11, 2018. The new year is already presenting the company with new challenges. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Welcome to The National Today newsletter, which takes a closer look at what's happening around some of the day's most notable stories. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.


  • Facebook had an awful 2018, and the new year is already off to a rough start for the social media giant.
  • Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro starts his new presidential term today, but the question is whether he'll hang on to power for its duration.
  • Liberal cabinet minister Scott Brison's surprise announcement that he's stepping down has immediate consequences for the Prime Minister.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.

More trouble for Facebook

By any measure, Facebook had an awful 2018. Multiple scandals over the sharing and selling of user data contributed to an almost 40 per cent drop in its stock price, shaving more than $250 billion US off its market capitalization.

And so far, 2019 isn't shaping up any better for Mark Zuckerberg and company.

This week, two new studies are raising questions about whether the value of the world's largest social media platform might be outweighed by its misuse and dangers.

One, by neuroscientists from Michigan State University, tested heavy Facebook users. The study found that their decision-making process was similar to that of drug addicts, with people failing to learn from mistakes and persisting in their patterns of behaviour despite clear negative consequences.

A Michigan State University neuroscience study links heavy use of social media with risky decision-making processes. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

The other, from researchers at Princeton and New York University, scoured Facebook user profiles for evidence of fake news sharing during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. It found that people over the age of 65 were seven times more likely to spread lies and propaganda than 18- to 29-year-olds.

The sample size was relatively small — and the number of people who actually shared links, let alone ones to fake news, was even smaller — but the political scientists were struck by the fact that age was a much better predictor of gullibility than sex, race, education, income, or even party affiliation. Which suggests that there might be no quick fix for the problem.

"It is possible that an entire cohort of Americans, now in their 60s and beyond, lacks the level of digital media literacy necessary to reliably determine the trustworthiness of news encountered online," the authors posit.

(Grandpa and Grandma could still have an impact on democracy: a survey taken in the immediate aftermath of the election found that 64 per cent of Americans said that made-up stories caused a "great deal of confusion" during the campaign, and that 23 per cent of respondents admitted that they themselves had passed on fake news.)

In real news, Facebook is now in trouble with authorities in Vietnam, accused of violating the country's new law on cybersecurity by not responding to a government demand that it delete all anti-regime pages and comments from the platform.

Facebook is facing ongoing public and government concern over its data collection and sharing practices. (Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Cambodia, a court invoked a similar law yesterday to sentence a man to three years in prison for Facebook posts that were deemed to have insulted King Norodom Sihamoni.

The California tech giant is also dealing with consumer blowback over the realization that its pre-installed app can't be deleted, only disabled, on several newer Samsung phone models.

Facebook says that the turned-off app won't collect data or send any information back to the company, but such assurances aren't calming fears. Perhaps understandably, given revelations last month that the firm had been giving some of its commercial partners far more access to users' private information than had previously been acknowledged, including allowing them to read messages and browse the names of "friends."

And all of this bad publicity is having an effect on worker morale at Facebook. In the course of the past year, the company went from being rated the best place to work in Silicon Valley, to the seventh, as job satisfaction plummeted and complaints about its "cult-like" atmosphere proliferated.

As of midday today, Facebook stock was trading at around $144 US a share — up from its December nadir of $123, but well off the July peak of $218.62.

A campaigner from a political pressure group protests as founder and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg failed to attend a meeting on fake news held by the U.K. government's Digital, Culture Media and Sport committee in London on Nov. 27, 2018. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

And at least one market analyst is predicting that the tech leader will end up trading closer to the $115 range before 2019 is over, citing its lengthy list of PR problems, including "complicity in [the Rohingya] genocide, enabling social and political instability in different countries around the world … and antagonized legislators in the U.S., the U.K., Europe and beyond."

Canadians might get a front row seat for the company's next political battle.

Yesterday, Conservative MP Bob Zimmer, chair of the House of Commons privacy committee, said he's planning a meeting of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and "Fake News" in Ottawa in late May. The group brought legislators from the U.K., Canada, France, Argentina, Brazil and four other countries together for its first set of hearings in London last November, and more nations are expected to join in the spring session.

Mark Zuckerberg has already been invited to appear.

Maduro's big day

Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro starts his new presidential term today, but the question is whether he'll hang on to power for its duration, writes  The National co-host Adrienne Arsenault.

Nicolas Maduro was sworn in today for a second six-year term as president of Venezuela. That's a sentence the opposition forces would likely prefer to end with an "*" — asterisked the way athletes who cheat have their times amended.

The election is widely seen as a sham. Popular opponents were blocked from running.

Others were jailed or are in exile.

Canada is among 13 nations urging Maduro to hand over power until fairer elections are held, but don't hold your breath.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro flashes the victory sign after being sworn in at the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) in Caracas on Thursday for his second term. (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images)

Curious about how international declarations like that are resonating with Venezuelans, The National worked with a local journalist who boldly and bravely went out to gauge opinion. We'd love to name her, to give her the credit she's due, but that would be beyond dangerous. Dissent is often squashed in Venezuela, so journalists are routinely forced to work in the shadows.

A young man she spoke with is not optimistic that the world will do something: "I think what will happen is we will get left behind … I think it'll just be a news story, it'll be a trending topic on Twitter and nothing else."

What if words came with international action? He wasn't thrilled about that prospect either.

"I read somewhere that 80 per cent of Venezuelan people, in an unofficial survey, are in support of an external intervention, but I don't think this is the best solution. We've seen for comparison's sake, in the case of Panama with Noriega, how political interventions simply — either for ideological or religious reasons — have left the society in a bigger catastrophe."

To get that comment from that young man on tape and transmit it from Venezuela was a bit of a nightmare for our colleague. Even though Venezuela has had extraordinary internet service over the years, now it's a disaster. She told us people have been cutting the cables and selling them. They've been cutting electrical lines too, as well as stealing equipment from the grid to sell. Companies don't have the cash to replace or repair.

Comprehending the scale of the cash crisis is hard. Out of curiosity, I asked her the current exchange rate. She said that at the beginning of the month it was about 618 bolivars per U.S. dollar. Monday it was 1,100. Wednesday afternoon it was 1,600.

This, after Maduro had already lopped off five zeros off the nation's depreciating currency in August last year, devaluing it by around 96 per cent.

A kilogram of tomatoes is pictured next to 5,000,000 bolivars at a market in a low-income neighbourhood of Caracas, Venezuela, on Aug. 16, 2018. That was the going price that day (the equivalent of about 76 cents US), illustrating the impact of hyperinflation on Venezuela's currency. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

Trying to estimate the rate of hyperinflation hurts. What hurts more is the realization that a flu shot costs more than a month's wages — that is, if you can find one in Venezuela, where medicines have been in short supply.

The exodus continues, the decline continues, the complaining of the outside world continues. How does it end?

One of the markers to watch for is high-level defections. Already a supreme court justice who was once loyal to Maduro has fled the country and offered to talk.

That's a big deal, but not as significant as the prospect of generals defecting. If that happens, if Maduro loses the support of the military, his days may be numbered.

Venezuelan Defence Minister general Vladimir Padrino Lopez, centre, speaks during a press conference at Fort Tiuna in Caracas on Aug. 14, 2017. Media reports Wednesday said he urged Maduro to step down last month. (Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images)

Is that an "if" or a "when"? So far, our journalist colleague tells us the soldiers are still receiving their salaries. Should that stop, all might change.

But … and there's always a but …. despite the conditions in Venezuela, Maduro hangs on still. And the complaints from neighbours and other nations like Canada don't seem likely to change that at all.

- Adrienne Arsenault

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At Issue

There's big political news for At Issue to get its teeth into tonight, writes The National co-host Rosemary Barton.

At Issue is back in action! We've been on through the holidays with taped versions of our smartest commentary, but tonight we are back in person and able to react to news — and big political news is happening.

Liberal cabinet minister Scott Brison made a surprise announcement today that he is not going to run again, and is stepping down from his position as President of the Treasury Board.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison stands during question period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Oct. 15, 2018. He announced Thursday that he is leaving politics. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Brison has been a fixture on the Canadian political landscape since 1997, first as a Progressive Conservative and then as a Liberal when he crossed the floor in 2003. He leaves saying he is proud of the Liberal government, but needs a change and wants to spend more time with his family.

His decision has immediate consequences for the Prime Minister, namely a cabinet mini-shuffle on Monday. That will also offer Justin Trudeau the opportunity to deal with some ministers who may not be performing as strongly as he had hoped.

Besides the Brison news and pending mini-shuffle, the Prime Minister has finally called three byelections that could give us some insight into the next federal election.

Perhaps more importantly, one of those byelections will be the leadership test for New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh, who is running in the riding of Burnaby-South.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh addresses his NDP staff at their annual Staff Forum in Ottawa on Dec. 4, 2018. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

All that to say, it's a good thing we are back. Tonight, Andrew Coyne, Shachi Kurl and Andray Domise will be with us for At Issue.

See you all later. Can't wait!

- Rosemary Barton

    A few words on ... 

    A different sort of justice.

    Quote of the moment

    "If this doesn't work out, I'll probably will do it, maybe definitely."

    - U.S. President Donald Trump on the prospect of declaring a "national emergency" in order to get his border wall built, before leaving for a visit to Texas today.

    U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the media Thursday before departing on Marine One from the White House for a trip to McAllen, Texas, where he will visit the U.S.-Mexico border. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

    What The National is reading

    • Seafood giant Clearwater convicted of 'gross violation' in lobster fishery (CBC)
    • Steel U.S. border wall prototype can be sawed through (NBC News)
    • Exploding drone attack kills Yemeni soldiers (BBC)
    • France, Belgium cast doubts on DR Congo election results (Al Jazeera)
    • Quebec court rules against forcible amputation of homeless man's legs (Montreal Gazette)
    • Four on trial over theft of huge Canadian gold coin from Berlin museum (CBC)
    • Spanish police arrest 28 tennis pros in match-fixing investigation (Independent)
    • 'Fireball' over New Zealand was a falling satellite, Russia confirms (Guardian)
    • Denver could become first American city to decriminalize magic mushrooms (CNN)

    Today in history

    This Weekend report makes Toronto's first "dating bar" sound downright scandalous: women, in a drinking establishment without escorts, for the purpose of meeting men. The patrons don't seem to have quite as many hang-ups about the mechanics of "20th century romance" as the reporter. But what's really fascinating is watching all the creepy, early-70s Bay Street types putting the moves on 21-year-old secretaries.

    Singles scene heats up at the Coal Bin

    52 years ago
    Duration 4:36
    In 1971, a Toronto "dating bar" offers a place for young women and men to mix in a friendly atmosphere.

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    Jonathon Gatehouse

    CBC Investigative Journalist

    Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.