VICE feed for https://www.vice.comenFri, 16 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000<![CDATA[Instead of Giving Billions to Amazon, We Could Just Cancel Student Debt]]>, 16 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000On Tuesday, Amazon confirmed it would build new offices in Long Island City, Queens, and a suburb of Washington, DC, called Crystal City, ending a massive bidding war that saw the leaders of almost 250 cities prostrate themselves at the feet of the world's richest man.

Thirsty officials mailed Amazon a giant cactus and lit up local landmarks in "Amazon orange" in hopes of hosting what was billed as the retail giant's "second HQ," despite the fact that it is definitionally impossible for there to be more than one headquarters of anything. Somehow more humiliatingly, Governor Andrew Cuomo said he'd literally change his name to "Amazon" for the privilege of helping gift the mega company at least a billion in tax subsidies. All of this would have been sort-of hilarious if it didn't throw CEO Jeff Bezos's power over the country's ostensible leaders into such terrifying relief. What's more, it's depressing that so much effort went into making something happen that probably would have happened regardless, and will likely just cause rents to rise in a city that already struggles with housing costs.

"This was a company that was going to grow and almost certainly going to expand to these regions," Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, an economic think-tank that has researched the pernicious social and economic effects of Amazon's dangerous monopoly, told me. "They don't need a subsidy at all. And it's ridiculous and shocking that Bill de Blasio, who ran on a platform of fixing economic inequality, worked so hard to bring in a project that's going to cause a lot of hardship for working-class New Yorkers."

But right after the announcement about the so-called HQ2 came down, New York State Assembly Member Ron Kim made an announcement of his own: he'd be introducing legislation to take the money Cuomo and other officials promised and use it to cancel some of the over $80 billion in debt bogging down the state's student borrowers.

"Giving Jeff Bezos hundreds of millions of dollars is an immoral waste of taxpayers money when it's more than clear that the money would create more jobs and more economic growth when it is used to relieve student debt," Kim said in an emailed press release. "Giving Amazon this type of corporate welfare is no different, if not worse, than Donald Trump giving trillions in corporate tax breaks at the federal level. There's no correlation between healthy, sustainable job creation and corporate giveaways. If we used this money to cancel distressed student debt instead, there would be immediate positive GDP growth, job creation, and impactful social-economic returns."

Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance agreed there were a litany of ways in which that money could be put to better use, like providing property tax rebates to local businesses and addressing the shortage of capital available to would-be business owners. Kim, for his part, pointed to a recent study from Bard College that suggested canceling student debt might produce a significant increase in real GDP, could add between $86 billion and $108 billion per year to the economy on average, and would lead to the all-important holy grail of job creation.

The idea that the government could help regular people and boost the economy by wiping out debt isn't a brand new one. After the 2008 financial crisis, a Cornell Law professor named Robert Hockett advocated for municipalities to help borrowers by using their powers of eminent domain to buy up and restructure underwater mortgages. A number of cities including Richmond, California, latched onto the idea, but the plan to implement it was paused after Deutsche Bank, Wells Fargo, and other major financial players challenged it in court. By the time that suit was dismissed, the novel scheme had started to lose momentum.

Still, Hockett told me the same general concept could be applied to student debt. Each state would have to pass laws to make sure debt was clearly considered property—that is, something the government can claim domain over—if it wasn't already. Then they would have to create an agency or state-backed entity to take care of buying up and canceling the debts. Foundations and other benevolent organizations would help foot the cost to the cities.

"I think the case is fairly strong here," he said. "Not quite as strong in the case of the mortgage crisis, but it's pretty close. We have the data to show that when we have lots of young folk entering the workforce underwater, they tend to delay house-buying and family formation and starting their own business and seeking employment that will be more remunerative in the long run because they're just trying to say afloat. When the people who are affected are more concentrated in a specific area code, a strong argument can be made to purchase the debt and write it down, or lower the interest rate and lower the level of burden.

Of course, the apparent economic benefits of the student-loan scheme will only matter if the powers that be are ready to be rational. This may not be the case. After all, there's a growing consensus that wooing big businesses is not the best way to bolster a local economy, and Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance said New York's Amazon pitch had less to do with the company's massive propaganda arm than the way politicians' psychology had evolved in recent decades to think their jobs were about encouraging development at all costs.

But given the number of options available to New Yorkers who want to resist development, the Amazon deal is far from set in stone. Just hours after it was announced, a New York state senator and city council member began mobilizing a rally at the proposed site. And Hockett told me he was working with Kim, the local lawmaker, to hammer out the details on how New York State could take that Amazon money and use it to help normal people live their lives.

"We've been planning this since well before the Amazon announcement, but now that that's been made, we're [going to] point to that, too, because it shows the state is able to help some people out," Hockett said. "So why not the people who are actually hurting because of debt burdens?"

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<![CDATA[The 13 Most Bizarre Things Donald Trump Apparently Believes]]>, 15 Nov 2018 23:32:13 +0000If you've been conscious between 2015 and today, chances are you're aware that Donald Trump, the president, has pretty unorthodox beliefs. I'm not talking about the blatant racism and overt corruption that has marked his administration—I'm talking about the straight-up weird parts of Trump's worldview. Like how he hates sharks because they are "disgusting creatures" and once said, according to Stormy Daniels, "I'll donate to just about anything, but the only shark charity I would donate to is one that promised to kill all the sharks."

Becoming the most powerful person in the world hasn't altered his deeply odd perceptions. In an interview on Wednesday, Trump claimed, “If you buy a box of cereal—you have a voter ID.” Trump's apparent unfamiliarity with buying groceries falls in line with the sad fact that the wealthy and famous are often out of touch with the world of us plebeians—Trump's good friend Tom Brady tried his first strawberry at the age of 40, Hillary Clinton hasn't driven a car since 1996, and multiple celebrities legitimately believe the earth is flat.

Still, despite our already incredibly low expectations for Trump, he is the president, and thinking about what he believes is a genuinely frightening exercise. So let's take a journey through the most fucked-up, dumb things the commander-in-chief of the world's most powerful military legit believes:

1. You need ID to buy cereal

In an interview with the Daily Caller, Trump harped on one of his favorite issues: voter fraud. “If you buy a box of cereal—you have a voter ID,” the president said. “They try to shame everybody by calling them racist, or calling them something, anything they can think of, when you say you want voter ID. But voter ID is a very important thing.”

A regular person who visits a grocery store on a weekly basis could tell you the thing about cereal is not true. But how would Trump know otherwise? He grew up rich, which makes you wonder whether he's ever visited a grocery store at all.

2. Exercise uses up your body's finite energy

"He considers exercise misguided, arguing that a person, like a battery, is born with a finite amount of energy," the New Yorker reported in 2017. And a biography of the president asserts:

After college, after Trump mostly gave up his personal athletic interests, he came to view time spent playing sports as time wasted. Trump believed the human body was like a battery, with a finite amount of energy, which exercise only depleted.

Do I even have to debunk this?

3. Young people pay $12 a year for health insurance

Despite his promises of healthcare for everyone throughout his campaign, Trump has only made insurance more expensive for the average person during his time in office. Maybe that's because he never understood how much healthcare costs the average American—in a 2017 New York Times interview, the president said, "You’re 21 years old, you start working and you’re paying $12 a year for insurance, and by the time you’re 70, you get a nice plan." Actually, insurance costs young people at least $100 a month.

4. Asbestos could have saved the World Trade Center

I shit you not, in 2012, Trump tweeted, “If we didn't remove incredibly powerful fire retardant asbestos & replace it with junk that doesn’t work, the World Trade Center would never have burned down.”

5. And the mob is the reason we think asbestos is bad

Per Politico, Trump asserts the following in his book, The Art of the Comeback:

I believe that the movement against asbestos was led by the mob, because it was often mob-related companies that would do the asbestos removal. Great pressure was put on politicians, and as usual, the politicians relented.

6. Environmentally friendly lightbulbs cause cancer

7. Sleeping is bad

Trump has often bragged about only sleeping four hours a night, and honestly, it shows. “Don’t sleep any more than you have to,” he said in his 2004 book, Think Like a Billionaire. "I usually sleep about four hours per night... and it gives me a competitive edge. I have friends who are successful who sleep ten hours a night, and I ask them, 'How can you compete against people like me if I only sleep four hours?' It can rarely be done."

8. "Email is for wimps."

In Think Like a Billionaire, Trump also warns against the evils of technology, foreshadowing one of his main 2016 platforms, "but her emails."

"Don't depend on technology," Trump advises. "If you have something important to say, look the person in the eye and say it. And if you can't get there, pick up the phone and make sure they hear the sincerity in your voice. E-mail is for wimps."

Next time Trump tweets, I hope he thinks about that.

9. Vaccines cause autism

In a 2015 GOP debate, Trump said, “I am totally in favor of vaccines," but nevertheless asserted the following misinformation about them:

"You take this little beautiful baby, and you pump—I mean, it looks just like it is meant for a horse, not for a child, and we had so many instances, people that work for me, just the other day, 2 years old, beautiful child went to have the vaccine and came back and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic."

10. Wind power is bad because it kills birds

As he's established, Trump is not a fan of environmentally friendly energy. Just look at his musings on wind turbines:

Unlike some of Trump's other beliefs, this is at least a myth in wide circulation, but it's still a myth—bird deaths due to turbines are relatively rare.

11. Shaking hands is evil

A notorious germaphobe, Trump has said "the simple act of shaking hands" is "barbaric" and a "curse of American society."

12. He apparently hates dogs

Calling others dogs is one of Trump's go-to insults, and according to the Washington Post, it's because he "has an aversion to dogs and other pets," and thus "considers canine comparisons to be among his most devastating put-downs."

13. He's more popular than Abraham Lincoln

In a July, Trump cited an imaginary poll that found he was a more popular Republican president than Abraham Lincoln. “You know, a poll just came out that I am the most popular person in the history of the Republican Party—92 per cent. Beating Lincoln. I beat our Honest Abe," Trump said.

14. The F-35 stealth fighter is literally invisible

As an exhaustive Task & Purpose rundown of Trump's comments showed, the president lavished the expensive stealth plane with praise to the point where he implied that the fighter isn't just hidden on radar but literally impossible to see. "It wins every time because the enemy cannot see it. Even if it’s right next to it, it can’t see it," Trump said last year. Say what you will about the world he lives in, it's not a boring place.

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<![CDATA[What Will Amazon's HQ2 Mean for Transit in Queens?]]>, 15 Nov 2018 21:57:42 +0000 In early 2019, the L train in New York City will shut down for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and policy proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here.

On Tunnel Vision, VICE has dedicated a substantial amount of space to western Queens.

The underlying theme has been the fragility of its transit: the subway system, with its lackluster performance, can barely keep up with demand right now, let alone when thousands of new high-rise units come online. Long Island City, the neighborhood that’s contributing the most to this growth, is currently seeing the highest rate of construction in America. And if that’s not problematic, Court Square, its central crammed hub, will have to somehow make space for hordes of rerouted passengers when the L train goes offline in April 2019, as VICE reported in March.

As a western Queens resident myself, I was worried. Each morning, when my subway pulls up to Court Square, it’s already packed with populations from eastern and central parts of the borough; Long Island City, for context, is the last neighborhood before entering Manhattan, meaning by that point, the train has picked up a lot of passengers. And Court Square’s platform seems to get busier with each passing week. Thousands of new residents and the impending L train shutdown seemed practically unfathomable for this infrastructure.

This was my feeling way before the news was made official on Tuesday that Amazon had chosen Long Island City as its co-location for HQ2, promising to add at least 25,000 jobs (and commutes) to this very spot, not counting the thousands of other jobs (and commutes) that will spring from one of the world’s largest companies being here. It’s unprecedented for New York City, in terms of sheer numbers. And now the sentiment surrounding transit in western Queens—shared by a growing Greek chorus of residents and politicians—has gone from unfathomable to impossible.

Let’s put aside the other outstanding questions about HQ2—namely: What does this mean for the residents who live here? How will this benefit the country’s largest public housing project next door? And did Amazon really need at least $1.7 billion in tax breaks and a helipad?—and focus specifically on transit. Not only because that’s what Tunnel Vision is all about, but also because transit was a crucial reason as to why Amazon chose New York City for this. When Amazon representatives visited New York, officials even reportedly rode ferries and CitiBikes with them as selling points.

“Long Island City has some of the best transit access in New York City,” writes the company in the official announcement, “with 8 subway lines, 13 bus lines, commuter rail, a bike-sharing service, and ferries serving the area, and LaGuardia and JFK airports are in close proximity.”

We’ll start first with the eight subway lines. In particular, the two issues facing these subways, as demonstrated, are performance and overcrowding. New York’s subway system has the worst on-time performance rates of any major city metro in the world, meaning that trains are delayed, and often. There is, however, hope that things are turning around; in October, the trains hit a 70 percent on-time rate for the first time in years. But still, getting to a sustainable level of service with the system’s outdated infrastructure and mountain of needs will take years, and billions of dollars.

The 7 train, which crosses right through Amazon’s planned site, is expected to be upgraded to a new signal system by the end of this year, which will increase the number of trains at peak hours, and their reliability. But the rest of the local lines in question—the E, F, M, and R—are still waiting on funding for the upgraded signal system; once procured, that could take years to complete, given how long the 7 and L took. Until the L train comes back online, in late 2020, the G train will face intense capacity issues. (The 7, M, and G will see more trains during the shutdown, but whether that service will stay around post-shutdown, when Amazon actually arrives, is unclear.)

Not surprisingly, Amazon has already promised to invest millions of dollars “in infrastructure improvements and new green spaces.” That’ll happen through a PILOT, or Payment in Lieu of Taxes, where the state will siphon half of what Amazon would normally pay in property taxes specifically to an infrastructure fund. The only issue there is that a portion of money will not be available for 15 years, the state has said, and will go to the city, not the state, which ultimately oversees the subways.

In regards to the subways, a question that my colleague Matt Taylor confronted on Tuesday is worth repeating here: what does it mean when private companies like Amazon are influencing public policy and investment?

Of course, this blurs the line of corporate and public interest, but this is America, and not without precedent. Especially in New York. As VICE has explained, the subway system was built by two private companies, bolstered by governmental contracts, and, later, authority. The only reason why Astoria, where I live, has two seperate train lines—the N/W, and the M/R—is because the owners of the Steinway piano factory, then a titan of industry in the area, wanted more service for their workers. (Their influence also paved the way for the 7 train tunnel.) Those stations helped build the local ecosystem here, so much so that when one of the subway stations closed last year, the small business community took a beating.

Read: How the L Train Shutdown Will Impact the Environment

At a press conference this week with Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio—who put their tenuous relationship on hold for a day to announce the news together—the two were predictably peppered with questions about the subways. And although vague on details about the infrastructure fund, they basically confirmed that, yes, Amazon’s presence would ultimately lead to more money for mass transit. “I think we have short-term and long-term answers, but will the additional revenue help us with the stressed budget, no doubt,” said Cuomo.

A few weeks before the Amazon announcement, the city announced a major infusion of money into Long Island City’s infrastructure, perhaps foreboding of what was to come. The investments were undoubtedly needed; you’d be hard pressed to find a New Yorker who doesn’t think the growth of the area is far outpacing the street-level infrastructure. Yet most of the proposals in the ‘transportation’ section of the strategy were not new, and those that were—like building a new Long Island Rail Road station at the Amtrak depot in Sunnyside Yards, and funding new subway station upgrades—would take years and billions to complete.

In his comments on Tuesday, de Blasio touted the transit projects that could come to the area. Shuttle buses could buttress ferry service, he said, which the city is looking to expand. A Queens-wide bus route redesign, as part of the city’s larger bus system overhaul, will be completed by 2021 deadline. And also, what about Brooklyn-Queens Connector, or BQX, the light-rail project that would cut right through LIC, yet will cost $4 billion and take 10 years to build? (Its supporters, including the mayor, are hoping HQ2 fast-tracks it.)

“We’ll look at every kind of option, because this is something that community residents have raised. It’s absolutely valid,” said the mayor. “By the way, Amazon or no Amazon, this is something we have to address in the long haul, certainly I’ve heard that from the local representatives many times.”

This, it seems, is the main issue right now: the “long haul.” Amazon’s incremental arrival over the next few years will likely not be met by the transit it needs in time, either because of lengthy construction timelines (the signal system as one example); lack of funding (the subway’s Fast Forward plan still hasn’t been paid for); or tangled politics (the Times is reporting that Amazon demanded that Cuomo and de Blasio get along). And some of the proposals that Amazon prided its decision on, like the ferries and CitiBike, can service a small sliver of New Yorkers, but are not realistic transit options for the mini-economy Amazon is about to spawn.

And finally, the “local representatives” that the mayor mentioned actually have serious concerns about the project, and its impact on transit. Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents the area just north of Long Island City, made mention of the subways in her tweet lambasting the decision. State Senator Michael Gianaris and City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, both of whom represent the district, are at odds with the tax breaks, but tellingly mentioned “our subways are crumbling” as the first issue at hand.

“Too much is at stake to accept this without a fight,” they said in a statement. “We will continue to stand up against what can only be described as a bad deal for New York and for Long Island City.”

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<![CDATA[Secret $1.5 Billion Mega Millions Winner Is Blowing It, 'Lotto Lawyer' Says]]>, 15 Nov 2018 21:50:48 +0000It's been almost a month since numbers were drawn for a historically massive Mega Millions game, and the owner of the over $1.5 billion winning ticket had not, at least as of Wednesday, claimed their prize. Meanwhile, a local CBS affiliate reported Monday state lottery officials in South Carolina were urging the mystery person to seek counsel from a financial advisor, sign the ticket, and stash it safely.

Technically, the ticket holder has until April 21 to become a newly minted billionaire, but it's hard to imagine anyone keeping a such a big secret for anywhere near that long. Plus, I nearly faint with anxiety when I have to hold onto a paper boarding pass at the airport, and that's something you can just ask for another copy of if worst comes to worst. Holding onto an irreplaceable piece of paper—one that's worth enough to buy you a private island—for longer than is absolutely necessary? No thanks.

To get a sense of what might be going on here, I called up Jason Kurland. He's a guy who dubs himself the Lottery Lawyer and has spoken to me before about what you're supposed to do if you win the jackpot. This time, I was curious to hear if the answer was ever simply "nothing." Everyone's heard a story about someone whose life was ruined after they became instantly rich, and maybe there is a point at which a prize is simply too big to claim if you want any sense of a normal existence afterward. He broke down that scenario for me—and other nightmarish possibilities that might be giving the Mega Millions winner pause.

VICE: Most people strategically delay claiming their prize, right?
Jason Kurland: Yeah, and there are a lot of reasons for that. It hasn't been that long. Winners want to make sure everything is taken care of before they go claim. They want estate planning set up. They want a financial plan set up. Sometimes people don't even know that they're the winner the next day. I mean this is a big one, but I've had some big winners who didn't even know for a couple of weeks that they've won, and then they've gone back to check their ticket. But the longer it goes, you do get nervous that someone threw it out or doesn't know.

What about for three weeks? Normal?
It's not been long enough that I'm nervous, but I would say it's getting up there. I've had winners call me that night, and then probably a month later at the longest. But then we don't claim it right away. So they may call me three or four weeks in, and then we may take another three weeks to get everything ready. You don't know. And if it's a large group of people, maybe they're trying to figure out how to do it.

Is there any reason that not coming forward right away might be a mistake?
I will tell you that this is so much money that—I'll do the quick math—even very conservative investments, you're talking about $65,000 a day of interest you're giving up every day you don't claim it. It's an insane amount of money.

What happens if no one claims the money?
Let me tell you, six months is a very hard rule. If you miss it by one day, it's gone. If you do it the right way, educate yourself, understand that you want to protect yourself in the right way, it should definitely not ruin your life. It should be a blessing. There's so much good you could do for yourself, your friends, your loved ones, charity, society. It opens up so many opportunities that you wouldn't have had that the initial stress.

But, as everyone knows, there's so much bad that can happen to you when everyone knows you're loaded.
In South Carolina you can remain anonymous. The lottery commission there will do their own background check on the winner and make sure that it's not somebody who works for the lottery or who owes child support or other state funds, and then they just won't disclose it to the public. Every state is different. Some will require a press conference. Others will release your name. Others will let you claim in a trust and will still release your name. Some will let you claim through an attorney, and then others will let you be purely anonymous, like South Carolina.

Does anyone ever come to you in panic, wondering if they even want to claim it? Is it possible the sheer amount of money being offered here has the winner terrified?
Yes, many people are panicked [when they win], but no one to the extent of not taking the money. Having $500 million in your account, or whatever, outweighs the stress.

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<![CDATA[I Followed Teen Instagrammers’ Advice for a Week]]>, 15 Nov 2018 21:15:00 +0000This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

We’ve all been told that millennials and Gen-Zers are completely different. Millennials, roughly born between 1981 and 1996, and Gen-Zers, obviously born after that, are constantly analyzed for their apparent differences because of factors like technology, social media, and world events. And as someone who was born very close to that millennial cut off, I often wonder where I actually stand on the generational scale.

There’s an unspoken rule for older generations to hate on those who come after them (I’m looking at you, boomers), but as much as I want to shit on Gen-Z, I’m not sure that the two-year age gap separating us can account for much.

I mean, there are tiny differences like how they catch on to new technology a bit faster, look about ten times better than I did in high school, and seemingly all have more Instagram followers than the rest of the world—but, are they inherently cooler or smarter than us? Will their understanding of social media and smartphones make them better or worse off than millennials; i.e., their poor, house-less, and deeply-fucked elders? I decided to look into it by immersing myself in Gen-Z culture—and of course, that meant Instagram. Enter: thread accounts.

Essentially, thread accounts are the lovechild of Ask Reddit and Tumblr. Living on Instagram (and originating from Twitter), it’s where teens provide advice on run-of-the-mill topics, like how to lose weight, things to talk about on a date, or what it’s like to lose your virginity. They’re called thread accounts because the posts are screenshots of Twitter threads that teens have written themselves.

This mimics the commentaries once found in the J-14s and Tiger Beats of older generations, but without the credible sources, fact-checking, and often spell-checking at times... so not exactly foolproof.

But because I’m mildly obsessed with the niche cavities of social media, and because part of me still wishes I could’ve been cool in high school, I decided that I’m going to follow as many Instagram threads in a week that I can.

Yes, I took this in my shower.

After I see the photos, I think I look foolish and never want to make those poses ever again—but ultimately, I got the results I wanted, despite not actually posting them to Instagram ‘cause #offbrand.

Looking back on this week, I come to the seemingly opposing conclusions that Gen-Z is both obsessed with appearances and way more put together than humanly possible. It’s tiring and unrealistic, but it didn’t exactly stray far from the corny-ass advice I sought when I was a teenager. For now, I’ll just make fun of Gen-Zers for the fact that they’re putting avocado in their hair and not on their toast.

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<![CDATA[Meet Brad, the Guy Keeping Your Vibrator Safe from Hackers]]>, 15 Nov 2018 20:50:31 +0000Over the last few years, the world has started waking up to the disconcerting vulnerabilities of internet enabled sex toys. Information security (infosec) experts and white hat hackers have shown, often through eye-catching stunts, that thanks to apparent security oversights, it is possible for malicious actors to access data on certain toys’ users, muck with toys’ operations, and even take control of them. Back end monkeying could shut down toys until a user or manufacturer pays a ransom. Stolen data on things concerning usage time, location, device pairing, account names, emails, or IP addresses, or a user’s sexual orientation—not to mention pilfered chat logs, images, audio, or videos connected to a toy—could be used for humiliation, extortion, or even physical stalking. Hijacked devices could be used to commit long-distance assault, a type of sex crime our legal system is clearly not yet equipped to handle. And that’s just scratching the surface of mischief bad actors could get up to by hacking toys.

As the sex toy industry continues to boom, smart toys grow more common and cheaper, and toy makers develop rigs capable of monitoring and recording more intimate data, the risks associated with these vulnerabilities grow more real and potent. The infosec community, though, does not seem to be tackling this threat full force. They’ve conducted an illustrative hack and reported a vulnerability here and there. But their reports sometimes take a juvenile tone, seemingly trivializing the adult industry and the security challenges toy makers and consumers face. And, as sex tech industry observer Jenna Owsianik sees it, most of their efforts are apparently piecemeal or one-off stunts, performed “to get their names in the headlines and thus more attention and likely work to their businesses that operate outside of sex tech.”

A lack of dedicated infosec attention to sex toys puts the onus on users to educate themselves about how their devices work, and on manufacturers to catch every possible security flaw. But that isn't practical. Few users will jump through the hoops necessary to guarantee their digital security. And few manufacturers, especially small outfits accustomed to making “dumb” toys, will have the resources or expertise necessary to spot every risk.

Fortunately, at least one hacker, Brad Haines, a Canadian with almost two decades of infosec experience who goes by “RenderMan,” has been running a project for almost two years now aimed squarely at this issue: the Internet of Dongs (or IoD, a play on a term for smart devices writ large, the Internet of Things, or IoT). Originally conceived as an archive for his own hacks and vulnerability reports, Render has turned the IoD into a sex toy security information and advocacy hub. The project aims to help sex toy makers learn about best security practices, infosec researchers and white hat hackers communicate their findings to the industry, and consumers know how to interpret news stories or industry claims about toy security.

“I am attempting,” Render tells me, “to bridge between the infosec world’s collective knowledge and the connected sex toy vendors to create a safer world of smart masturbation for all."

Render, like a few other hackers out there, has actually been thinking about the risks associated with smart sex toys for over a decade, “ever since the first Bluetooth vibrator— The Toy, now defunct—came on the market.” But he only decided to start seriously exploring the field around the start of 2016, as the smart sex toy market began to heat up. He started to test some toys on the market at the time, donated by The Traveling Tickle Trunk, a sex shop in his home of Edmonton, Alberta. He claims he applied to speak on his findings at that year’s DEF CON hacker convention, including on flaws in major sex toy We-Vibe’s privacy policy language (which technically omitted information about their app’s data collection), as well as other potential vulnerabilities. However New Zealand hackers g0ldfisk and follower wound up speaking at the conference about their own research on We-Vibe, which Render claims “matched mine perfectly.” This overlap, he claims, was a wake-up call.

“It was nice to know that, one, I was not the only one crazy enough to look at these issues,” he says, “and, two, that the issues I found were now independently verified.” When, after the talk, a consumer hit We-Vibe with a lawsuit that later ended in a highly publicized (but little understood) $3.75 million settlement over that policy snafu, Render adds, “I put my plans for launching the [IoD] into overdrive in order to ride the wave” of newfound public awareness. The Internet of Dongs officially came into being at a conference in November 2016.

From the outside, Render’s project seems simple. He parses toys with an expert eye, looking for any tiny flaw or concern; to date, he has dissected toys from at least eight companies.

But some companies can get suspicious of external hackers reporting flaws in their systems. That is likely especially true when those hackers are reporting highly technical and seemingly obscure security bugs to an industry with little experience with white hat reporting. “Most companies, when I first engage them,” says Render, “their reaction is pretty universal, like, ‘OK, you want something, you’re going to hold us ransom, or whatever.’”

“They’re suspicious,” he adds, “because this is weird.”

Sometimes, that suspicion and an unwillingness to engage can be to a company's own detriment. Render claims he tried to report his findings to Standard Innovation, We-Vibe's parent company, before they got sued, but never heard back. And Ken Munro of the British infosec firm Pen Test Partners claims that, pre-IoD, when they tried to report vulnerabilities in Lovense’s Nora vibrator, they “were completely ignored by the vendor.” Later research into Svakom’s Siime Eye, a dildo with an endoscopic camera on the end which Pen Test found could easily be hacked, conducted around the same time Render was getting the IoD up and running, “also resulted in a brick wall from the vendor,” says Munro.

Fortunately, Render had a connection at another firm he reached out to in late September 2016: Lovense. According to Lovense spokesman Joris Guisado, the company had talked to other hackers in the past, including someone who reached out in January 2016 for information on their toys for a personal project. That individual, he says, later made a proper intro between Lovense and Render, who pointed out some potential flaws in their user email privacy. By the end of 2016, Lovense had enough faith in the project to partner with the IoD moving forward.

Render also got some valuable early support and credibility when he, early in the IoD’s history, sent an apparently drunken email to Pornhub after learning about their (iffy) charitable ventures, asking if they might want to support his work. They responded almost immediately, becoming a sponsor soon after his launch and supplying him with cash to acquire new toys. “Our involvement with this project,” explains Pornhub VP Corey Price of the streaming giant’s rapid backing for Render, “demonstrated our continued commitment to a holistic approach to sexual wellness, security, and privacy.” Not bad values to try to align one’s brand with, for an unclear but likely relatively low investment, given all the ethical criticisms Pornhub faces in the adult world.

Timing the project’s rollout to the We-Vibe lawsuit was a solid move, too. Sure, We-Vibe wasn’t actually hacked. But the lawsuit was a huge wake-up for developers about the potential costs of stumbling into a security or privacy flaw. It also, says Veronique Verreault, founder of techy toy company Miss VV’s Mystery, led customers to ask more security-minded questions. Verreault acknowledges that for small companies and start-ups, the imperative to move fast is strong, and the cost of a deep investment in security, can be daunting. But, she says, “there is no way for us not to collaborate” with the IoD and similar ventures, “because that will make us look bad.”

Early in 2017, Render did report some vulnerabilities to Miss VV’s Mystery, which they moved to fix with his help. Verreault says the changes they had to make did wind up costing her a few customers, but concludes that the guarantee of safety for consumers was worth it.

It doesn’t hurt that Render has established himself as a moderate, skeptical voice on toy security issues. He used his platform to debunk a story that circulated last year, claiming that there was a major security flaw in a Lovense product allowing it to record and store user audio. (“Media outlets picked up that Reddit thread, started by a person who admitted they weren’t tech savvy,” says Owsianik. “I assume for the salacious clickbait headlines about sex, security, and so-called secret and unauthorized sex session recordings.”) He has even criticized Pen Test, a brother in arms of sorts, for the sensationalist tone of some of their past vulnerability reporting. And he’s downplayed the threat of controlling someone’s vibrator or butt plug via short-range Bluetooth hacking, a major source of media scares. “If you’re worried about someone hacking your vibrator from within six feet of you,” he says, “you’ve got a bigger problem. The call is coming from within the house.”

“It’s always good to have a serious project giving an informed opinion,” says Lovense’s Guisado.

Throughout 2017, Render established relationships with, and secured open support from, not only Lovense and Miss VV’s Mystery, but also major sex tech companies like OhMiBod, Kiiroo, Mystery Vibe, and Vibease. He has been working with these companies to identify any security bugs in their toys, and help them develop vulnerability reporting pathways and protocols. Render says he’s been heartened by how many companies have recognized the need to step up their game as soon as he’s approached them, sometimes going so far as to look into regular third party security auditing, bug bounties for white hat hackers, and hiring staff privacy specialists. And, says Munro, since the IoD got up and running, it has been easier to report vulnerabilities to the companies they've worked with. “So we strongly support its work,” he says of IoD.

But the project is still very much in its infancy, and Render acknowledges he slacked on the project for much of 2018, thanks to his full-time job and general life getting in the way—he says he receives no compensation for his IoD efforts, and runs a Patreon to try to cover web hosting and other operational costs.

Thankfully, the IoD is not alone in the connected sex toy security advocacy space anymore. Standard Innovation’s Alexander notes that a number of researchers, hacker groups, and industry collectives are starting to do dedicated work on these issues. And Pornhub’s Price says the company is always eager to support similar initiatives. As these parallel projects gain steam, working on their own or in conjunction with the IoD, they may be able to build on the foundation Render has built.

No matter where the IoD and other projects go, though, they’re already doing a great service to toy users and developers. Render and his ilk are helping us confront a new, precarious reality of potential sexual insecurity. As Render often calls it, a “brave new world with such dongs in it.”

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<![CDATA[People Don't Understand Serena Williams's Controversial 'GQ' Cover]]>, 15 Nov 2018 19:42:24 +0000Serena Williams’ cover of GQ Magazine was meant to be a celebration. That’s generally why you put someone on the cover of a lifestyle magazine: to celebrate them. Particularly when you give them a lofty title like Woman of the Year. But Williams’ latest cover kicked off a stream of criticism, calling the intention of the legacy men’s publication into question over a set of quotation marks that, depending on the context in which you view them, come as a part of a established creative practice, or as a part of a longstanding critique of Williams’ womanhood.

As one of four covers, the image features Williams in a long-sleeved black bodysuit by Alix, vintage Chanel belt, and David Webb jewelry. Around her sit the requisite cover lines, including her designation as “The Champion.” But the line in question reads, in all caps, MAN OF THE YEAR. In what’s designed to look like handwritten black sharpie, the word “MAN” is crossed out with “WOMAN” scrawled above it—quotations included—courtesy of designer, DJ, and all around creative Virgil Abloh.

The brunt of the criticism boils down to the use of the use of the quotation marks which, according to detractors, nods to insults Serena has faced for the majority of her career. The athlete has gone on the record about those attacks, particularly in 2017 when she wrote a letter to her mother on Reddit saying “I've been called man because I appeared outwardly strong. It has been said that that I use drugs (No, I have always had far too much integrity to behave dishonestly in order to gain an advantage). It has been said I don't belong in Women's sports—that I belong in Men's—because I look stronger than many other women do. (No, I just work hard and I was born with this badass body and proud of it).” While some have surfaced concerns that attacks surrounding the athlete’s body and gender border the line of transphobic, as Williams is not trans, that criticism seems ill-fit.

While transphobia does seek to deny trans women and trans men their identity as men and women, it is not the only way in which people are dehumanized and ridiculed. Black women endure misogynoir, a mixture of racism and misogyny that has seen them routinely written out of what it means to be a woman. These attacks are just one example of that. And though it may look similar, these are two separate and distinct ways of marginalization and should be discussed as such.

“Objectively, I can understand how the optics of this decision to have the quotes around ‘woman’ appear misogynistic and racist, especially after years of attack on Williams’s body,” fashion historian and curator Darnell Lisby told VICE in a statement about the cover. “Black women and their bodies in the US have always been demonized in mainstream culture through being interpreted as over-sexualized or viewed as intimidating, thus I think this outcry [around] the cover delineates the progression of culture to appreciate and celebrate Black Women’s bodies.”

While the criticism against the quotations seem sound considering this assertion, it negates the context of Virgil Abloh, a designer of clothing (his own label, Off-White, as well as Louis Vuitton men’s), furniture, and other objects (this oeuvre will be put on display in his first major solo museum exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago come 2019).

Abloh’s work via Off-White contains very few connective design threads. One hallmark that often appears in his designs is a word related to the piece written in all uppercase letters, set in quotation marks. The detail has appeared on boots, wallets, and scarves, some labeled for what they are (“WALLET”) while others are labeled for what they are meant for (“FOR WALKING”). Abloh himself has taken a Sharpie to sneakers at talks, labeling them before giving the styles away. He has said in the past that he employs that design signature to invoke an idea of irony, and has done so in collaboration with Williams before, as he designed her tennis dress and shoes for the most recent US Open.

Abloh’s history and inclusion can not be negated here. As the cover story was a collaboration with him, it would make sense that the actual cover include a design signature of his. In addition, as the cover story, it’s highly likely that this finalized image came with the explicit and express approval of Williams herself as the current status of magazines routinely undergo talent approval for someone of her stature.

The issue is, of course, knowing this additional context. Though many may know of Abloh, considering he was a high profile creative partner of Kanye West’s for years, their knowledge may not go deeper than surface level.

“Though fashion historians, like myself, may easily understand Virgil’s design history and the cover, most people don’t have the patience to break the nuances down,” Lisby said. “Delivery matters despite the intent in fashion. In this era, fashion magazines are not bubbles separated from politics and society like back in the 1950s during the fanciful days of Dior and Balenciaga; they have become a central facet to mainstream culture and politics.”

A confluence of events including social media, the corporatization of fashion brands, and the progression of digital media have lead to a democratization of fashion and a variety of related creative communities. It has brought with it a reckoning as people have demanded that what were once insular industry events, like fashion weeks, now pose as representation for a global audience. Along with it, details that may have once been understood, now become divorced from the context they were meant for and applied to larger cultural conversations, nuance be damned, and the industry gets called to task for these new implications. It is in this way that a set of quotation marks, meant to pose as a creative’s fingerprints become a smoking gun.

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<![CDATA[The Strange, Centuries-Long History of Satanic Pedophile Panics]]>, 15 Nov 2018 19:25:12 +0000This summer, Americans got a crash course in “QAnon,” a pro-Trump conspiracy theory (or possible anti-Trump prank) that has been percolating online for about a year. QAnon’s claims are hard to track, in part because its believers believe so many different things. Conspiracy theory academic Joseph Uscinski noted in an interview that its adherents can basically connect its threads to any number of other conspiracies or beliefs. But most iterations claim that a top government operative nicknamed Q is leaking “breadcrumbs” that show that Donald Trump is secretly working with Special Counsel Robert Mueller to expose Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and other high-level Democrats’ involvement in a murderous, Satanic pedophile ring. Not many people actually seem to believe in this QAnon stuff, Uscinski pointed out. But even though the theory has largely been out of the news for a couple months, QAnon groups are still active online, and supporters have manifested at Trump rallies.

Naturally, many have drawn a connection between QAnon and Pizzagate, a conspiracy theory that blossomed in 2016 and centered around the belief that Democrats ran a ritualistic pedophile ring out of a basement at Comet Ping Pong, a DC pizzeria that doesn't even have a basement. That theory metastasized in late 2016, leading to a December shooting at the pizzeria by a self-proclaimed investigator and sex slave liberator. Even after former Pizzagate promoters like Alex Jones backed off of the theory, it still has proponents. Some observers have slatted these conspiracies into a wider trend on the modern far right of crying pedophile, often using flimsy evidence, against high-profile liberals.

Pedophilia is a real threat. Officials have caught large-scale pedophile rings far more often than one might think, and some of them have involved famous individuals and cover-ups. To many, it is a uniquely evil crime; someone who sexually abuses a child seems capable of anything. But fear of pedophiles can be weaponized and used to whip up mobs that don’t want to wait for solid evidence of wrongdoings to emerge, lest unspeakable horrors go unchecked. In many ways, it is an ideal tool for mobilizing small but highly vocal pockets of opposition against one’s enemies, as it can co-opt some people with genuine fears about child trafficking into perpetuating smear and harassment campaigns. It also offers those who are already predisposed to believing terrible things about the accused more license to hate. Accusations of pedophilia are often taken extremely seriously by law enforcement as well: In 2014, for instance, British police launched a multimillion-dollar investigation into a number of individuals, some of them national politicians, based on one man’s accusations, which turned out to be utterly baseless.

But Pizzagate, QAnon, and other related conspiracies floating around don’t just fit into a long tradition of accusations of pedophilia. As others have noted, the flourishes of these theories—Satanic rituals performed on child victims by depraved cabals, cryptic symbols signaling dark intent or links to the occult, and secret tunnels under ordinary businesses used to abet villainy—actually connect them to a discrete, centuries-old lineage of satanic, or occultic, panics. Most notably, they bear striking similarities to the American “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s. Pizzagate, QAnon, and their modern ilk are “not as Satanic as the stuff in the 80s was,” said Margaret Peacock, an expert on propaganda and conspiracies involving children, but added there are clear “similarities in language and materiality between them.”

According to Rickard Sjöberg, a neuropsychologist who has studied the long history of allegations of Satanic child abuse and pedophilia rings, these sorts of accusations may stretch back at least as far as the 14th century, when stories of ritualistic child abuse by the Knights Templar crusader order were in active circulation. But the first definite link in this conspiratorial chain goes back to 1428 and the valley of Valais, in what is now Switzerland. Locals there started circulating accusations that members of their community had entered into a pact with the devil, who told them to avoid religious services. Rumors and coerced confessions spread the idea that these occult rings met in cellars to hear Satanic preachings, flew around in enchanted chairs, put curses on their neighbors, and abused, murdered, and even ate children. These tales had horrific consequences, as at least hundreds of accused witches were killed over the course of several years, while many more were imprisoned and tortured.

The same things that inspire conspiracies today likely fueled these early occult panics. Mary deYoung, a social psychologist and expert on moral panics, says the roots are often anxieties about social change or strains, and especially the potential loss of power by an in-group. These worries are then projected on “folk devils” who embody that stress. “Usually, but not always, folk devils are already marginalized people,” she said, “so inflammatory rhetoric about the evils they pose to the social and moral fabric of society is easily accepted.” Self-proclaimed “moral experts” pick up these claims and spread them, and people try to rise up against their folk devils.

“You have a flow of rumor that compounds over and over on itself until it creates a critical mass that legitimizes itself,” said Peacock, “if a listener hears it enough.”

Early occult panics, Sjöberg noted, coincided with social changes linked to the transition away from Medieval social structures and norms. (They have been, he said, “described as the dark side of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution.”) Informed by the demonological literature of the day, they used a Christian framework to tar (often, but not exclusively) women as witches, who would supposedly “manifest their dedication to turning normality upside down by eating with their necks, dancing back to back,” and so on. They were accused of abducting and abusing children as part of their self-indulgent effort to distort the social order for their benefit, thus corrupting them. These accusations led, over the course of numerous panics across Europe, to the imprisonment, torture, coercion of confessions, and eventual execution of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of individuals.

Similar panics bounced around Europe well into the late 1800s, Sjöberg notes, often in “naïve” communities that had not yet dealt with them before. Each community and era, conspiracy theory wonk Robert Blaskiewicz said in an interview, made adjustments to the targets of the panic, reflecting the stresses of the area and age. Jewish populations, for instance, were on-and-off targets, accused of trafficking children for blood rituals from the medieval era well into the early 1900s. Details changed as people came to realize certain things weren’t physically possible. “The belief that witches are able to fly on cattle, sleeping humans, or sometimes broomsticks,” Sjöberg pointed out, “has become inconsistent with modern thought and disappeared.”

Peggy McMartin Buckey and her son Ray Buckey on trial in 1987.
Peggy McMartin Buckey and her son Ray Buckey during their trial in 1987. They were accused of satanic child abuse but eventually acquitted in what became the most expensive criminal trial in US history. Photo via Getty

The American Satanic Panic of the 1980s fits this lineage perfectly. As US families transitioned from depending on one parent’s income to expecting both parents to work, children increasingly spent their days with childcare professionals. This social change led to widespread suspicion of daycare workers, among others. (Rampant homophobia and rising awareness of the ubiquity of queerness also played a role in these suspicions.) Innocuous but odd remarks made by children or bizarre claims drawn out of kids and adults via bullshit recovered memory techniques got sifted through the same cultural prism that inspired other occult panics through history. Unfamiliar with the details of earlier European panics, most Americans approached increasingly wild claims with an unnerving degree of credulous naivete, said Sjöberg.

Rumors circulated, first in-person within communities, then in the press. They then coalesced into a common narrative about daycare operators forcing children into rituals involving physical mutilation and animal slaughter, among other horrors. These tales of Satanic child abuse and sacrifices in secret tunnels marked by occult symbols, while pegged clearly to that era’s culture and fears, harkened back to older panics.

“The ability of this myth to survive over more than 550 years in considerable detail,” marveled Sjöberg, “is remarkable.”

The American Satanic panic faded by the early 1990s, as investigations into its horrific narratives failed to pan out, and critical reporters debunked their sources. But even though naive societies are more prone to these panics, Sjöberg stressed, this doesn't mean one experience inoculates a community against experiencing variations of them again.

No one is entirely sure how this conspiracy spreads, or gets recycled within a culture over time. One explanation is that there have always been conspiratorial people predisposed to explore all manner of eccentric theories. It is also likely that even after an occult panic fizzles out, low-level belief in it persists in pockets of these conspiratorial circles. At least one major modern conspiracy theorist, for example, was still investigating a long debunked and widely abandoned 1980s ritualistic abuse claim centered on a childcare facility run by the US military when he died in 2016. So it is possible that themes or motifs of these theories bleed into new general conspiracy believer groups over time, who don’t critically engage with them but rather adapt them to their needs.

Peacock added that it is also not clear whether this bleed is intentional, with people grabbing what they think will be an effective tool to demonize their enemies, or organic. Either way, it makes sense that conspiratorial people would glom onto the old chestnut of Satanic child abuse, even in modern America. Like all good theories, it takes a plausible core—pedophile rings really exist—and details which are easy to spin out of ambiguous evidence but hard to disprove. Blaskiewicz said it also speaks to an attack on “the identity, morality, and cosmic order of Christendom, which some people use as shorthand for the West.” That element is likely less attractive in modern Europe, argued Peacock, which is now highly secularized. This may be why occult inflected pedophile panics don’t seem to strike there as often now. But, she said, “we are kidding ourselves if we think we are free from that [preoccupation] in the United States.”

“'Satanic baby rapist' is like the ultimate thought-stopping epithet for the worst possible person,” said Blaskiewicz, “combining all of the most hair-triggering fears of parents with the actual worship of evil personified.” So it’s no wonder that the same tropes burble up over and over.

Pizzagate and QAnon, may have strayed from older panics’ primary focus on Satanism, but they carry forward similar language, structure, and certain motifs, all of which are still potent.

These theories seem to draw on other long-standing conspiracy theory lineages as well, like deep-state conspiracies, which have been circulating for much of the last century by groups on the left and right. (Uscinski argued that this lineage actually is the primary focus for many QAnon adherents.)

So how do you fight a seemingly immortal conspiracy? Some research has indicated that persistent debunking, and even ridicule, can sour people on a belief, perhaps breaking it as a social force over time. But diehards, experts always note, will almost never give up on a theory. And even after a conspiracy fades from the public eye, it may simmer in conspiratorial circles just out of mainstream view, and so a related occult-inflected pedophile ring theory may just resurface with new vigor decades later. “Maybe there is no solving it,” mused Peacock. “Maybe we are cursed, like we are cursed to violence, as humans. Maybe there is nothing to be done but try to survive it.”

“Every moral panic is time limited,” noted deYoung. “As the social strains from which they emerge lose their salience over time, their power to generate social anxiety and fuel the relentless pursuit of folk devils” fades as well.

Thankfully, Pizzagate, QAnon, and similar conspiracy theories in the air now and to come down the line will likely not do nearly as much damage as their predecessors.

Social media makes it easier for conspiracy believers to find each other and spread their ideas. The fact Trump and elements of his administration seemingly endorse conspiracy theories, including QAnon, is not reassuring either. Nor is the fact that unlike earlier occult panics, which depended on the (dubious) testimonies of “actual” child victims as anchors, these theories just make claims without identifying clear victims. “When the kids are unidentified,” Blaskiewicz said, “hell, you can imagine whatever extravagant travesty meets your worldview’s need for a villain.” It also frees believers up to constantly adjust their targets and details, reiterating the theory over and over without losing potency or momentum.

However, previous occult-inflected pedophile panics were even more mainstream. They led to the murder of tens of thousands of people, if not more, in the early modern era. Even in the 1980s, they had the buy-in of major media outlets and law enforcement agencies, which actually jailed a number of people on totally bogus charges for years on end. QAnon and its modern kin remain far on the political fringe.

“Mobilization may be today’s conspiracy theories’ biggest challenge,” said deYoung. “We sadly live in an increasingly fragmented and divided society. To build steam and turn into a full-fledged moral panic, such claims and claim-makers would have to bridge these divides. And I don’t think that can happen. So we will not likely experience a moral panic a la the Satanic ritual abuse moral panic. But more likely a series of smaller, evanescent moral crusades.”

That may seem like cold comfort, as Pizzagate already led one armed man to storm a pizzeria. Fears always swirl about future acts of violence. But these panics are no longer sweeping up entire regions or recruiting serious media figures. As ugly as they still are, their destructive power has lessened over time. Even if Satanic pedophile ring conspiracies are immortal, they are hopefully increasingly impotent as well.

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<![CDATA['A Star Is Bored,' Today's Comic by Roberta Vázquez]]>, 15 Nov 2018 19:19:16 +00001542308978349-9

Check out more of Roberta's work on her website and Instagram.

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<![CDATA[The Viral Homeless Vet GoFundMe That Raised $400K Was Allegedly a Scam]]>, 15 Nov 2018 18:15:19 +0000If you needed another example of how our world is a dark and depressing place where all good things are secretly awful, here you go: According to a new report from NBC Philadelphia, the viral GoFundMe campaign that raised over $400,000 to get a homeless vet back on his feet was allegedly just a scam to steal money from nice people.

Last year, a woman named Kate McClure claimed she was stranded on a Philadelphia roadway when a homeless man spent "his last $20" to buy her gas and help her out. McClure and her boyfriend, Mark D'Amico, started a GoFundMe to help repay the guy, who turned out to be a veteran named Johnny Bobbitt.

"Truly believe that all Johnny needs is one little break," McClure wrote on the GoFundMe page. "Hopefully with your help I can be the one to give it to him."

The story of Bobbitt's sweet, selfless act naturally struck a chord with people, and soon the GoFundMe page went viral, raising nearly half a million bucks. The whole thing seemed like one of those rare, straightforward tales of nice people doing nice things for each another, but then, uh, shit started getting weird.

In August, Bobbitt came forward to accuse McClure and D'Amico of refusing to give him almost $200,000 from the GoFundMe earnings. The couple said they were withholding the money until Bobbitt got clean—he'd apparently started using drugs—and then the police got involved, along with GoFundMe, which launched an investigation into the fundraiser. Now, according to NBC Philadelphia, McClure, D'Amico, and Bobbitt himself are accused of making the whole thing up.

In a criminal complaint, which made it into the hands of NBC Philadelphia, prosecutors say the trio faked the entire story about Bobbitt saving McClure in order to scam people on GoFundMe. A source told the NBC affiliate all three of them will now face charges of theft by deception and conspiracy, among others. McClure and D'Amico reportedly turned themselves in to prosecutors on Wednesday, and Bobbitt has been taken into custody as well, according to Details about how and why the trio conspired to pull off the elaborate ruse are still scarce, but it's likely we'll learn more as the charges are filed over the next few days.

If the accusations turn out to be true, it's easy to just write this whole mess off as another awful, messed up thing in a sea of awful, messed up things, but this fact still remains: tens of thousands of people came together to donate money and support Bobbitt out of the kindness of their hearts, scam or otherwise. That has to count for at least something, right?

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