Smitten by neutrality

Recently, Youtube had been suggesting a video how American news used to be less biased, made by Youtuber Ryan Chapman.

Inexplicably, I was hesitant to click despite my interest in such topic; for some reasons, I had a bad feeling about the video. But, after a few days, I set aside my judgement and clicked.

He elaborated on how olden days American journalists tried their best to be unbiased by avoiding emotionally-charged language and speaking tone. He also acknowledged that, while the practice was almost universally upheld, there were rare exceptions.

At a glance, it sounds like a flawless content. He methodically and neutrally explained the situation while also acknowledging the nuances. But, it becomes infuriating when his conclusion is that neutral presentation is the only thing it takes to be unbiased.

Yes, restraining our presentation style does encourage us taking heed of our own beliefs. But, before we make the reports, we still have to choose which stories to cover and which angles to use. In case you don’t notice, this process is even more prone to human biases.

Correct me if I am wrong. But, there is no formula for choosing the stories and the angles; we have to be reliant on our own judgements. And we know damn well that even the most intelligent and well-intentioned individuals can still have a lapse in judgements.

He also claims that neutral presentation means the audience won’t know what your and/or your bosses’ stances are. It is true…. to an extent. If they only observe your reports individually, no one would be able to guess. But, if they start compiling your works side by side, observant people would start noticing what kind of stories and angles you prefer to cover; the patterns would emerge.

For the sake of the argument, let’s assume there is an Indonesia-based international news outlet, filled with Indonesian-Muslim journalists, owned by an Indonesian-Muslim (I am one myself, for your information). Now, imagine it extensively covers many cases of bigotry – especially anti-Muslim one – which occur in western countries. They interview only the victims, never interview the anti-bigotry white Christian westerners

Meanwhile, it barely reports cases of Islamic extremism and racism in Indonesia. When it does, it only reports ones that attract international attention and, instead of interviewing the victims, it interviews the anti-bigotry Indonesian Muslims of indigenous lineage.

No matter how neutral the journalists’ language and speaking tone are, it is still obvious what kind of biases they and/or their bosses possess. They want to portray the west as a hotbed of bigotry, where virtually every white Christian is hateful, neo-nazi-wannabe. They want to portray Indonesia as a place where bigotry is nothing but a handful of isolated incidents which we shouldn’t be obsessed about.

We need to realise that the cultural aspects of human lives are fundamentally intangible. Less about the physicality of the objects, more about what they represent and how they affect our grasp of reality. Less about the explicit messages, more about the implicit ones.

How can you truly understand the “artefacts” when you take things at face value and refuse to read between the lines?

I studied media and communication for my BA. I took a variety of courses. Apart from the theories, I also learned practical skills, like the basics of PR, marketing, advertising, press release writing and, of course, journalism.

Those practical skills teach me how to broadcast self-serving messages without lying through my teeth; all I need is to find the right angles and be meticulous or creative with my “language”. Even though it was far less explicit with journalism, it is also up to my judgment to determine which details to omit and which angles to use.

In essence, the practical skills corroborate the theories.

I have yet to watch his other videos. But, I am disappointed that he bungles potentially good content with skin-deep analysis.

Oh, and he forgets one thing: people have abused the term “neutrality”.

Some people – like him and I – champion neutral presentation because we want the integrity of fact-reporting institution to stay intact. Others champion it because they don’t like being challenged; they love neutrality because they want their beliefs to be seen as valid as any other, regardless of how factually-incorrect, unreasonable or hateful they are. .

From what I observe, Chapman does not attract that kind of audience, thankfully. But, I still think their existence is worth mentioning.

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Believe it or not, fake news is not the media’s biggest problem

Contrary to popular belief, fake news is mostly confined to fringe and alternative media outlets, which are ironically trusted by those who love screaming “fake news!”.

For people with basic media literacy, fake news can be easy to detect. Unprofessional languages , excessive or absolute reliance on stock footage and photos, absolute reliance on hearsay, anything which compensates for the absence of corroboration.

Most of the time, the news in mainstream media outlets are not… you know…. fake. Even though it does employ questionable languages at times, it also uses actual footages and photos of the stories in question and the journalists interview people on the ground, things which alternative and fringe media often forgoes.

The reports are technically factual. But, that does not mean they are trustworthy.

For one, they can present the facts using dishonest angles, which they often do.

You can report on problems caused by marginalised minorities. But, hyper-fixation on them means you depict those politically powerless people as the biggest trouble-makers and ignoring the system which puts them in their current situations.

You can grill individuals who hate the establishments. But, let’s not depict the powerful establishments as some kind of powerless and angelic underdogs who deserve our sympathy.

You can interview bigots, extremists and snake oil salesmen. But, let’s not pretend all opinions are scientifically, factually and morally equal.

You can report religious extremism. But, if you focus only on the extremists and detractors of the associated religion while ignoring the peaceful believers, you will inevitably depict an entire religious group with the same brush.

You can report problematic behaviours of some activists. But, don’t use their SJW-esque behaviours to ignore the sincere grievances other activists have.

They are technically factual. But, there are false balance, biases and omission of certain details which can provide us the full contexts.

They compel us to lionise, demonise and be dismissive towards undeserving individuals and groups. They compel us to perceive certain situations as more complicated or simplistic than they really are.

The title of this blog seems to insinuate that dishonesty is a bigger threat than fake news. Well, that’s because it is.

It is not to say fake news in fringe media and the people who consume it are not dangerous. They certainly are; from time to time, we have witnessed extremists – like it or not, fake news embracers often have extreme views – inflicting widespread harm upon their respective societies.

But, as I have said before, fake news is – more of than not – brazen; for anyone who possess the most basic media literacy, it is extremely easy to detect it.

Extremists are also easy to spot, as long as you dissect their beliefs and acknowledge there are such things as bad opinions. You don’t even need to wait for the violence.

But, dishonesty of mainstream media is trickier. Not only refuting deceitful viewpoints is significantly a lot more difficult than debunking on-the-nose misinformation, you also have to convince the average media consumers that statements of facts can still misguide them and there is something to read between the lines.

I personally can attest how difficult it is to persuade people – even the smarter than average ones – into acknowledging the abstract. For them, people like me are nothing but conspiracy “theorist” who see non-existing patterns and should learn to take anything at face value.

Do I have a solution for this?

As someone whose university major is media and communication, I do believe the answer is a yes… a reluctant yes.

While the practical skilled I learned (e.g. creating PR plans and writing press releases) did drastically decrease my gullibility, they never gave me different lenses to observe media content with; they were given to me in social science and humanities classes.

I also have this observation about other people: the less they are educated in social sciences and humanities, the more likely they take media content (or anything, really) at face value. Either they are not used to thinking abstractly (thanks, education systems!) or they hate questioning the conventional narratives because it feels like questioning their normal reality.

In fact, I am certain the latter is the reason why many people hate liberal arts. They want to learn what and how things work, they don’t want to question whether we should do them or not.

I know this sounds anecdotal. But, surely, we can agree that recognising subtle deceit like the one of mainstream media requires the ability to read between the line, grasp the intangible and even question our own perceptions of reality.

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Those positive Muslim stories no longer entice me

In fact, as a Muslim, I find them nauseating nowadays.

I used to relish on them. I used to believe those feelgood stories would help tackling anti-Muslim bigotry; even if they didn’t, they would give the bigots the finger.

But, slowly, I started to feel uneasy about such stories. Then, I realise they can be problematic for two reasons.

Reason one: they exacerbate some Muslims’ denialism

There are some Muslims (focus on the word SOME) who genuinely believe the Muslim world is inherently problem-free. Consequentially, those particular Muslims dismiss Islamic extremism a conspiracy by the CIA and/or Mossad. Either that or they see it as harmless expressions of faith, hated only by “fake Muslims” and “Islam-hating infidels”.

The more they encounter those saccharine stories, the more they feel entitled to praises just for doing the bare minimum.

Reason two: they are infantilising

Oh, a group of Muslims behave like decent human beings? So fucking what? How is people doing the fucking bare minimum worth the news?

If our decent behaviours are worth the news, it means you are still surprised by our ability to be virtuous. Therefore, regardless of how “woke” you claim to be, you still see us as mere stereotypes. You still expect the worst from us.

So, should we keep the negative media coverage, then?

Well, yes…. with a big but.

On one hand, we have to keep making a big deal out of Islamic extremism. We have to keep reminding everyone -especially Muslims- that it is not something to be tolerated, let alone embraced.

It is also something which does not feed on attention-seeking. Its growth will continue regardless of our (in)attention. Unless you are one of the Muslims who care more about our image than our moral integrity, you would want the negative coverage to continue.

But, on the other hand, many western media outlets (which are unfortunately globally influential) seem incapable of reporting extremism without pigeonholing the Muslim world. They don’t always interview Muslims. When they do, they interview extremists and present them as good representatives. When they do interview peaceful Muslims, they often treat the peacefulness as a bombshell; worse, they also accuse those peaceful Muslims of being complicit to extremism, simply for sharing a religious label with the extremists.

Obviously, journalists must suppress their preconceived beliefs. Unfortunately, we are talking about humans here; it is easy to succumb to prejudice. Even if they try their best, they have prejudiced higher-ups to bow down to.

But, regardless, those saccharine narratives are still the wrong way to go. As mentioned earlier, they belittle our ability to be dignified human beings and they encourage some Muslims to exaggerate the goodness of the Muslim world, discourage them from acknowledging the problems.

Whether we like it or not, the negative coverage must go on. Because feeling good all the time benefits no one.

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Dear fans of Cuties…

What the fuck is wrong with you?

I keep seeing comments by you accusing us, the film’s detractors, of being unable to accept the harshness of our reality.

Now, I am not going to deny that. I know for a fact that some humans think it is problematic to call out problems. My fellow Indonesian Muslims think I am being divisive simply because I call out the divisiveness of the Indonesian society.

But, that’s not the really the case with us, is it?

If you even bother to listen and read our words, you would know we hate the film NOT because it acknowledges the existence children’s exploitation, but because it perpetrates it! We hate the film NOT for exposing the problem. but for being the problem!

If anything, you are the ones who should be interrogated here.

How the fuck can you watch a film featuring actual pre-pubescent girls twerking on camera and don’t see anything wrong with it? How the fuck can you watch blatant children’s exploitation and think it is a great commentary against it?

I don’t know what kind of world you live in. But, in the real world, condemning something means you don’t do that something. I mean, it is just common sense; you can’t commit murder and expect us to believe you are against it.

And the worse part is, I know damn well that many of you are not fucktards.

I know Youtubers whose commentaries I consider to be thoughtful. So, it surprises me that some of them praise the film for supposedly being anti-child exploitation.

I don’t know why you are like that. Maybe I overestimated your thoughtfulness. Maybe I am being reminded about the fallibility of my fellow human beings: just because you have many thoughtful moments, that does not mean you are immune from idiotic ones.

Maybe you are easily smitten by good intentions. You don’t care about the methods and the results. It is the thought that counts, you naively believe.

Whatever causes it, it is genuinely unnerving. Not as much as people who are aroused by the content. But, unnerving nonetheless.

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Punching sideways

In general, I despise jokes and satires which punch down.

Punching down can give the impression that marginalised groups create the most number of problems in their societies, despite their lack of political power and smaller population sizes.

I have made a blog post about it. But, it seems I forgot to talk about punching sideways.

Another issue with punching down is the punchers are often ignorant about the problems within marginalised communities. The punches are either full of oversimplifications or inaccurate stereotypes. Do you know who can provide nuanced and accurate information about said communities? Their own members!

Admittedly, I don’t believe you understand a community just because you grew up in it. Fanaticism and cultural cringe can cloud your judgement, compelling you to whitewash and exaggerate the problems among your people, respectively.

But still, if you want to truly understand a community, wouldn’t it make sense to listen people who have lived the life?

I wouldn’t think about this if it wasn’t for a video titled The Darkness by Youtuber Natalie Wynn AKA Contrapoints, in which she asserted that telling funny trans jokes requires knowledge to actual trans experiences. And yes, she has made lots of funny trans jokes.

Disclaimer: I am cis. I certainly don’t know what kind of trans jokes trans people like. But, I have yet to see her any significant backlashes from the trans community regarding her trans jokes.

This also reminds me of Muslim American webcomic artist Huda Fahmy, known for her work Yes, I am hot in this. While she does not create crude content, she constantly makes fun of her fellow American Muslims and, to a lesser extent, the entire Muslim world.

And the fact that she is a hijabi reveals a previously-hidden complexity about Muslims.

When you think of a hijabi, you think of someone who supports shaming of non-hijabis and takes hijab too seriously. That’s what anti-Muslim bigots, liberal Muslims, ex-Muslims and even some moderate Muslims (the old school Indonesian ones, at least) believe.

Huda Fahmy isn’t like that.

For one, she believes in giving women the freedom to wear anything they desire. She despises the idea of shaming them for dressing “immodestly”. In a satirical tone, she offers new dehumanising pro-hijab metaphors which do not involve ants and candies. She even acknowledges that modesty does not prevent sexual harassment.

She also makes jokes about hijabs, including one which she jokes how women become hijabis after bitten by hijampire, who has snaggle pins as fangs.

Never mind non-Muslims. As someone who grew up Muslim in the biggest Muslim-majority country and attended two Islamic schools, I have yet to met a hijabi who makes such jokes. She showcases an aspect of the Muslim world which is hidden even from many Muslims.

Basically, unless your intention is to dehumanise them even further and make them even more prone to discrimination, you have to learn about intricacies of the lives of marginalised peoples before you make fun of the them.

And no, stereotypes are not good enough. They are beliefs about our fellow human beings which are never 100% accurate, but shamelessly waiting to be affirmed.

Apart from the power imbalance, the absence of nuanced perspectives is another reason why punching down is problematic.

Yes, black and white thinking is problematic. It is just a few steps away from misinformation.

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I like quarantine Colbert better

Stephen Colbert Steve Carell Peabody Awards 2021 Late Show Win – The  Hollywood Reporter

On the official Facebook group, I kept seeing fans who were genuinely angry that the show was in “quarantine mode” for too long. They acted as if the deadly and still-ongoing pandemic was just a lame excuse for Colbert’s supposed laziness.

Obviously, anyone whose heads are not deep inside their own unwashed rear ends know how idiotic the claim is.

It also does not help that some also complain about Colbert’s more casual attire and him shooting in his office, even though the second quarantine set was obviously in a studio. Their thinking is as deep as a ditch clogged with dead rats and they have the media literacy of prehistoric toddlers.

It is not to say I don’t like non-quarantine Colbert. He seems energised by the presence of live audience and I do love his banter with Jon Batiste. But, the quarantine mode has a more wholesome and organic charm… thanks to the absence of live audience.

I do think their excitement can be infectious. But, it rarely happens. I despise how unnecessarily exuberant they are most of the time. Why do they have to cheer almost every few seconds? It feels like they are cheering just for the sake of it. If it wasn’t for them, the excitement would have felt more sincere.

Compare that to the quarantine mode. His wife Evie and the minuscule crew members did not laugh at every joke. But, when they did, they released wholehearted cackles.

The thing about the sound of laughter -whether they are live or canned- is they can make jokes sound funnier than they really are. Evie and the crew members’ selective laughters reveal which jokes are so-so or unfunny and which are truly hilarious.

The angry monologues are also untainted by the sound of approving audience. While I understand their frustration with their country’s politics, their noise hinder us from truly feel Colbert’s anger.

Basically, quarantine Colbert was more emotionally sincere.

The sincerity is also amplified by the more personal and cosier setup. It feels less like watching a TV show and more like chilling out with Colbert, Evie and the crew. Dreadful for party addicts who don’t know pleasure beyond partying, wonderful for my introverted homebody, party-hating self.

As you can see, I prefer quarantine Colbert over the live stage one. But, unfortunately, it is also reminder of the still ongoing pandemic. Traditional media people are unlike Youtubers: when they work remotely, then there is something wrong.

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What I hate and love about the social media…

… Is the fact that it allows virtually everyone to create content. And I mean, everyone.

The resulting content fulfils a wide range of interests. You can find content not unlike the one in traditional media, which appeals to older internet users and fans of Youtubers who still fall for the prestige of traditional media. But, you can also find content which is criminally almost absent from most traditional media outlets, e.g. urban planning and fringe arts.

Social media allow bigots, conspiracists and extremists to spread their dangerous beliefs and empower their fellow ideologues. But, at the same time, social media also allow people of marginalised communities -who are usually voiceless in traditional mainstream media and are often represented by tokens- to publicly and proudly find their voices, consequentially empowering themselves and anyone just like them.

Social media allow their users lower their collective moral standards; when we thought we couldn’t get any lower with Logan Paul and JayStation, we get Stas Reefleyy. But, at the same time, they also allow their users to raise the moral standards; nowadays, it becomes harder for the audience to tolerate Youtubers’ problematic remarks and behaviours, especially with the abundance of commentators.*

I hate and love social media because they are both boringly-conventional and refreshingly-niche at the same time.

I hate and love social media because they empower both people who shouldn’t be empowered in the first and people who are deserving of the empowerment which the traditional mainstream media deprive them of.

I hate and love social media because they compel the masses to lower and raise their moral standards at the same time.

I hate and love social media because they do things that I hate and love the most. It is an annoying paradox.

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*Yes yes, cancel culture. I know. I do acknowledge that public figures can be unfairly targeted simply for having unpopular opinions or having their words and actions misconstrued.

But, at the same time, I hate how the anti-cancel culture crowd ignore that not all of the targets are innocent. Some of them are being cancelled because their opinions and actions empower anyone who will definitely cause harm to their fellow human beings.

Oh, and your hypocrisy also warrants the backlashes against you. If you spend your entire career preaching about love and acceptance in your own books, you don’t have the right to complain when people condemn you for not practicing what you preach.

I also have to admit Youtube commentators’ sanctimonious attitude can be off-putting to behold; in the case of James Charles, they can also be impressionable morons who partake in the witch hunt.

But, whether you like them or not, they are among the first to call out problematic behaviours of big name creators, making sure we take heed of the sins being committed and commit them to memory.

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Youtube, better than TV

I have made a few blogs arguing against the belief that traditional celebrities are inherently more talented than Youtubers. I mean, considering Youtubers started their careers by doing everything by themselves and they had to wait years for their efforts to pay off (assuming they will ever pay off), the belief is as preposterous as the so-called flat earth “theory”.

But, somehow, I didn’t think of one aspect of Youtube: how the content is presented to us, the consumers.

On TV, you cannot simply watch anything you want. The TV bosses are the ones who dictate on which shows to green-light, continue and cancel, which episodes to repeat or not repeat, which time the shows should air and which scenes to cut. Customers are not kings.

Admittedly, they are not kings on Youtube either. The trending pages are rigged and there are still content restrictions; in unfortunate circumstances, videos and even entire channels can be wrongfully taken down.

But, Youtube videos won’t be taken down simply for being unprofitable or niche. Considering literally everyone has the right to create content, almost every type of content imaginable is almost certainly present on the website. If you have niche interests or if you are a member of a marginalised community, you can definitely find videos which entertain or empower you.

Oh, and don’t forget you can actually pause, rewind and restart the videos and you don’t have to watch them immediately once they are up! Once they are there, you can watch them literally at any time you want… assuming they won’t be taken down, of course.

Even if you can attest to the inherent superiority of traditional celebrities, you have to acknowledge the temporal flexibility of digital platforms like Youtube; our pesky lists of obligations will never ruin our viewing experiences.

I know I am stating the obvious here. But, sadly, it is not obvious enough for everyone.

I still encounter (admittedly older) people who cannot comprehend that pausing and rewinding are a thing. They genuinely think TV and Youtube work the same way.

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Great Big Story

To summarise the content: it is a set of mini documentaries showcasing “trivial” facts about human lives from all over the world.

In theory, I should hate the videos, being a cynical adult that I am. In actuality, it has the complete opposite effect on me.

I don’t know how they did it. But, every video successfully reminds me how the world we live in is inherently worth exploring. Every video successfully convinces me how even the most “useless” facts can enrich our lives.

No, it has nothing to do with the visual artistry. If anything, I find “shallow” videos with beautiful packaging infuriating; it is a pathetic attempt of overcompensating which only flimsy minds fall for.

So, why do I love GBS videos when they are beautifully-packaged and “shallow”?

If I want to apply Occam’s Razor to this, maybe deep down I don’t see those “useless” facts as useless. Maybe I am one of those nerds who believe everything is worth learning about.

But, that does not make any sense. Similar content is abundant online and most fail to inspire me. With that in mind, it is hard to believe I am one of those people.

I have a more abstract hypothesis: maybe it has something to do with the personalities behind the scenes.

When other media outlets make similar videos, the results feel less like mini documentaries and more like miscellaneous news reports. It seems they treat trivia as mere “fun facts” instead of things that can potentially broaden our horizons.

It is either the people behind the scenes perceive their audiences as shallow OR they themselves are shallow. It is the complete opposite with GBS, who assumed their audience are as inquisitive as they were.

Their inquisitiveness also makes me feel nostalgic. At one point as a young boy, I was genuinely curious about literally everything! I mean, my idea of fun involved reading encyclopaedia sets, watching science shows on TV and fantasising myself as a genius scientist/explorer who master every discipline imaginable!

In a way, I am being reminded that I should relive my childhood sense of curiosity and quit being picky about what I should and shouldn’t learn.

It is a shame GBS shuts down for good. Frankly, I wish it happens to CNN instead; I am sure the world would be just fine without CNN, if not better.

Oh, and one more rambling: the fact that GBS focuses on human stories also reminds me how exploration is an inherently human endeavour. Not only it is normal to be curious, it is also abnormal to not be curious.

I know that is a big stretch. But, that’s how my dumb mind works.

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Another thing I learned from this ongoing pandemic…

… Was I was among the people who were right about how ‘traditional’ celebrities are not inherently more talented than Youtubers.

I have said this a few times before: unlike celebrities, Youtubers are jacks-of-all-trades who need to be their own hosts, script writers, directors, editors, cinematographers, PR officers and social media managers. They have been self-reliant with their content creation since the very beginning. They delegate the duties if they have friends who are willing to work for free OR once they can financially afford to; even then, they are very particular about the delegation, making sure they hire those who compliment their styles.

Compare that to ‘traditional’ celebrities. As everything in the film and TV industry is a collaborative effort, they are not compelled to learn more than one skills. Why should they when the producers can pay others to do the duties they cannot do?

And the ongoing pandemic has exposed how professionally feeble they are.

Mind you that the current situation does not force those talk show hosts to do everything by themselves. They still have others writing, editing and researching for them. Heck, I think some of them have one or two crew members visiting their houses. But, the resulting works still come off as half-assed.

I don’t know the exact reason why. But, I assume it has something to do with the drastically decreased human contacts they have on their temporary ‘sets’. Maybe they don’t know how to be more proactive outside their usual duties. Maybe they are already used to getting direct energy boost from their live audiences.

Stephen Colbert, one of my favourite entertainers ever, does not do well in the current format. He keeps making pauses, as if he still expects receiving live laughter between each joke. It is weird.

So far, Trevor Noah is the best at this semi-Youtube life. It feels like he secretly has made solo Youtube videos before. Maybe he has his shares of Youtube viewings and he learns from those Youtubers. Maybe it is the editors whom I should credit.

But, sadly, I doubt this phenomenon will decrease the sneering against Youtubers.

Every time I encounter people those Youtube detractors, I always tell them about the multitasking aspect. Ideally, this should be enough to change their minds. But, somehow, they still insist ‘traditional’ celebrities are inherently more talented than Youtubers.

Maybe they suffer from cognitive dissonance and somehow think multitasking and not joining the ranks are signs of ineptitude. Maybe they are those who still fall for the prestige of ‘traditional’ media, not knowing prestige is arbitrary and manufactured by the establishment.

Either way, one thing for sure: even before the advent of Youtube, people already believed that NOT all celebrities were talented.

If Youtube detractors can ignore that fact, they can certainly ignore how celebrities are struggling to maintain their prestige during this ongoing pandemic.

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