The Senate Snowflake Grievance Committee Quizzes Tech CEOs On Tweets & Employee Viewpoints

from the this-is-not-how-any-of-this-works dept

On Wednesday morning the Senate Commerce Committee held a nearly four hour long hearing ostensibly about Section 230 with three internet CEOs: Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook, Sundar Pichai from Google, and Jack Dorsey from Twitter. The hearing went about as expected: meaning it was mostly ridiculous nonsense. You had multiple Republican Senators demanding that these CEOs explain why they had taken actions on certain content, with some silly “whataboutism” on other kinds of content where action wasn’t taken. Then you had multiple Democratic Senators demanding these CEOs explain why they hadn’t taken faster action on pretty much the same content that Republicans had complained some action had been taken on.

The shorter summary was that Republicans were demanding that their own lies and propaganda should be left alone, while Democrats demanded that lies and propaganda should be removed faster. Both of these positions are an anathema to the 1st Amendment, and the people advocating for them on both sides should be embarrassed. While each platform has the right, under the 1st Amendment, to host or not host whatever speech they want, based on whatever policies they set, Congress cannot and should not, be in the position of either telling companies what content they need to host or what content they must take down. And yet, we saw examples of both during the hearing. On the Democratic side, Senators Markey and Baldwin, among a few others, pushed the companies to take down more content. This is extremely troubling on 1st Amendment grounds. On the Republican side, many, many Senators demanded that certain content should be unblocked — in particular the NY Post’s Twitter account.

And there were a few (very limited) good points from both sides of the aisle. Senator Brian Schatz noted that the entire hearing was being done in bad faith by Senate Republicans to try to bully the companies into not removing disinformation in the final week of the election. He noted that, while he had many questions for the three CEOs, he would not participate in this “sham” by asking questions during this particular hearing. Kudos to him. On the Republican side, Senator Jerry Moran noted that changes to Section 230 were the kinds of things that the three companies before the Committee could handle, but which would hamstring smaller competitors (to be fair, Jack Dorsey made this point in his opening testimony as well).

But I wanted to focus on some specific grandstanding by a few key Senators who made particularly ridiculous statements. And, I will point out upfront that these all came from Republicans. I’m not pointing that out because I’m “biased” against them, but because of the simple objective fact that it was these Republican Senators who made the most ridiculous statements of the day. The key theme between them was a ridiculous sense of grievance, and a false belief that the company’s moderation practices unfairly targeted “conservatives.” Except nearly all of them assumed that because more Republicans were moderated, that was proof of bias — and not the idea that, perhaps, Republicans do more things that violate the policies of these companies. In the same manner that I’m picking on mostly Republican Senators here, that has more to do with their own actions, than any personal “bias.”

What was most frightening, however, in the comments from these Senators is how at home they would have been in the days of Joseph McCarthy. Multiple Senators demanded to know about the personal ideological viewpoints of people who worked for these companies. Both Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg correctly pointed out that they do not ask their employees about their political leanings (Pichai stated that they hire from all over, implying that there was a diverse ideological pool within their workforce).

It is stunning and dangerous for Senators to be demanding to know the political leanings of employees at any particular company. Senators Mike Lee, Ron Johnson and Marsha Blackburn all asked questions along these lines. Lee, who historically has been aligned with libertarian viewpoints, completely misrepresented the content moderation policies of these companies and insisted that they disproportionately target conservatives. They do not. If conservatives are violating their policies more than others, then that’s on those people violating the policies, and not on the policies themselves. Lee also fell into the ridiculous myth that Google’s policies directly targeted conservatives in demonetizing The Federalist. As we’ve discussed multiple times, that’s utter bullshit. We received identical treatment to The Federalist. So did Slate and Buzzfeed. Lee, ridiculously, argued that the companies saying — accurately — that they do not target moderation decisions based on ideology perhaps violated laws against “unfair or deceptive trade practices.” Basically because Lee falsely believes these companies target conservative speech (because he’s so deep in his own filter bubble he doesn’t even know it hits others as well), that they’re engaging in deceptive practices.

Lee demanded that each company list “left leaning” accounts that had received similar treatment, and the various CEOs promised to get back to him, but this was a nonsense argument.

However the most ridiculous part of Lee’s grandstanding was his disingenuous framing of content moderation. He started asking about how these companies “censor” content. In the past, we’ve discussed how moderation and censorship differ, but Lee stretched the definition to insane levels:

I think the trend is clear, you almost always censor — meaning…. uh… when I use the word censor here I mean block content, fact check or label content, or demonetize websites.

In what fucking world does Senator Lee live in that fact checking is censorship? This is utter nonsense. Indeed, when Sundar Pichai actually pushed back and said “we don’t censor,” Lee jumped in obnoxiously to say that “I used the word censor as a term of art there and I defined that word.” That’s not how it works. You can’t redefine a term to mean the literal opposite of what it means “as a term of art” and then demand that everyone agrees that they “censored” when your own definition includes fact checking or responding to a statement with more speech.

Senator Ron Johnson’s time was particularly egregious. He read the following tweet into the record.

It’s a tweet from a “Mary T. Hagan” saying:

Sen Ron Johnson is my neighbor and strangled our dog, Buttons, right in front of my 4 yr old son and 3 yr old daughter. The police refuse to investigate. This is a complete lie but important to retweet and note that there are more of my lies to come.

Yes, he read that whole thing into the record, and then whined directly to Jack Dorsey that this should not have been left up, and that people might not go to the polls and vote for him if they read it. It’s hard to know where to begin on this one. Especially since it came right after Johnson was mad about other moderation choices Twitter had made to takedown content. But the most incredible bit was that the obvious point of this tweet (which seemed to fly right over Johnson’s head) is to make fun of Johnson’s own willingness over the past few months to push Russian-originated propaganda talking points, and then whine that the media won’t do anything about it and that law enforcement won’t investigate.

So, a simple question for Johnson to answer would be: if he wants this tweet removed, how about removing his own efforts at pushing unverified propagandistic nonsense about Joe Biden?

But, really, this was par for the course for so much of the hearing. Senators (both Democrats and Republicans) showing a vast misunderstanding of how content moderation works, would call up a single example of a content moderation choice and demand an explanation — often ignoring the explanations from Dorsey and Zuckerberg who would calmly explain what their policy was, why a certain piece of content did or did not violate that policy — and then scream louder as if they had found some sort of “gotcha” moment.

But honestly, the most insane moment of the hearing most likely involved Senator Marsha Blackburn from Tennessee. Blackburn has a long history of saying the complete opposite argument depending on which way the wind blows at any particular time. For example, during the net neutrality fight she screamed about how it was an example of government interference with innovation and that if we had net neutrality it would destroy “Facebook, YouTube, Twitter” (literally those three companies). Yet a few years later, she supported a bill to regulate the internet in the form of PIPA, a pro-censorship copyright bill.

Then, four years ago, she insisted that internet services had an obligation to delete “fake news.” Yet, in the hearing on Wednesday, she flipped out at the companies for trying to moderate any news at all.

And then she took it one step further, and demanded to know if a Google engineer who made fun of her was still employed at the company.

Blackburn (R-Tenn.) asked CEO Sundar Pichai whether Blake Lemoine, a senior software engineer and artificial intelligence researcher, still has a job at Google.

?He has had very unkind things to say about me and I was just wondering if you all had still kept him working there,? Blackburn said during the hearing, where she and other GOP lawmakers accused tech companies of squelching free speech.

Pichai said he did not know Lemoine?s employment status.

Breitbart News reported in 2018 that Lemoine had criticized Blackburn?s legislative record in excerpts of internal company messages and said Google should not ?acquiesce to the theatrical demands of a legislator.?

?I?m not big on negotiation with terrorists,? Lemoine said, according to Breitbart.

Having a sitting US Senator specifically call out an employee for criticizing her, and asking to know his employment status is fundamentally terrifying. It is, again, reminiscent of the McCarthy hearings, and having elected officials targeting people for their political viewpoints. If people were serious about calling out “cancel culture,” they’d be screaming about how dangerous it is that Blackburn was saying something like this.

The end result of the hearing was a lot more nonsense grandstanding that demonstrated that too many Senators simply do not understand the nature of content moderation, and because they personally disagree with certain policies, or the implementation of certain policies, it means that the companies are somehow doing it wrong. But this is the very nature of content moderation. No single human being will agree with every decision. To immediately leap to the assumption of bad intent (or bad policies) because you disagree with a small sample set of decisions is intellectually lazy and dishonest.

Oh, and Ted Cruz also did some theatrical bullshit, that was mostly performative idiocy, but since he only did it to get a few social media snippets and headlines, we’re not going to play that game, and just say simply that Senator Cruz came off like a total disingenuous jackass, who wanted to make the hearing about himself, rather than anything even remotely substantive.

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Companies: facebook, google, twitter

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Comments on “The Senate Snowflake Grievance Committee Quizzes Tech CEOs On Tweets & Employee Viewpoints”

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59 Comments
That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: 'Either publicly support that content or shut up'

Oh I’m sure they do privately(the people being moderated are Very Fine People after all), however at this point they should be forced outright to do so publicly, even if it would mean making public some despicable stuff.

‘You claim that we have it out for ‘conservatives’? Alright, lemme read and describe a sampling of that content, and you tell me which of that was improperly removed with the assumption that anything you don’t object to you support.’

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"…then ask themselves if they want to associate themselves and their political ideology with that speech."

In private? Absolutely.

But to publicly confess that they think of brown people as lesser races who need to be kept in their "proper" place is probably a bit rich for the average republican politician right now.

If anything I’d be rather surprised that they had the guts to push the issue that bigots and racists being tossed out of twitter and FB represents the sort of "right-leaning" accounts being punished that they would willingly associate themselves with.

I’d be surprised, that is, if it hadn’t been made so abundantly clear these last few years that racism and bigotry has become such an inherent part of US "conservative values" a GOP politician can’t afford to step visibly away from it lest he alienate the people his base now consists of.

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john Katos (profile) says:

Ted Cruz

I realize you didn’t say it, but I will. Cruz asked Dorsey "Mr. Dorsey, who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear, and why do you persist in behaving as a Democratic super PAC silencing views to the contrary of your political beliefs?"
Dorsey danced, he should have said, The Twitter board of directors elected me CEO of a private company, what fucking law am I breaking you fucking ass hat.

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PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Ted Cruz

""Mr. Dorsey, who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear"

The answer should have been simply – nobody. Who put Twitter in charge of the media, and who is stopping them from accessing people through the hundreds of other methods they have outside of Twitter?

I mean, I know that modern journalism has devolved to the point where they think that writing about trending Twitter topics is "news", but nobody’s stopping people from getting their news outside of Twitter. In fact, millions access news every day without ever having opened a Twitter account..

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PaulT (profile) says:

"it was these Republican Senators who made the most ridiculous statements of the day"

I missed the joy of watching them myself, but did they get the basic facts of who they were questioning right for once? IIRC, previous sessions have had them demanding that Zuckerberg account for something that happened on Twitter, or Dorsey explain a Facebook decision and so on. It doesn’t speak well of your attention to detail on the larger issues if you literally don’t know the identity of the person you’re grilling for information.

"In what fucking world does Senator Lee live in that fact checking is censorship?"

The world where they believe that actions do not have consequences. Which, again, doesn’t seem to speak well of competence in this particular role.

"Oh, and Ted Cruz also did some theatrical bullshit, that was mostly performative idiocy"

Zodiac always did have a flair for the theatrical.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The world where they believe that actions do not have consequences. Which, again, doesn’t seem to speak well of competence in this particular role.

Oh it’s even worse and more hypocritical than that, as they seem to think that their real actions shouldn’t have consequences, but that anything done or possibly done by those that aren’t on their team should have lots of consequences.

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Bloof (profile) says:

Facebook is notorious for it’s liberal bias, what with lifelong democrats like Joel Kaplan setting the agenda. Sure he may be a republican, may have served in the bush admin, may have been a participant in the Brooks brothers riots, been a clerk for Antonin Scalia and may be actively working to sabotage left leaning news outlets and kneecap any and all attempts to fight disinformation, but something, something left wing bias!

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Referring to the bill of rights

Hasn’t it pretty much been established that the bill of rights only applies when officials want it to? We seem to have very little of the fourth and fifth amendments left, and non-whites who insist on second amendment rights get summarily perforated by law enforcement.

It’s why the GOP was so keep to get another Federalist Society zombie on SCOTUS, to assure that our civil rights won’t stand in the way of their coup.

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Koby (profile) says:

Re: Techdirt getting political

I liked the part where Dorsey was confronted with the antisemitic conspiracy theories from Iran’s Ayatollah. Dorsey pretty much had to admit that they were making up the rules as they go along. It just goes to show that the big tech companies really are editors and publishers. When the Ayatollah is given greater free speech protection than Americans, then it’s time to get rid of section 230.

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Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re: Techdirt getting political

Dorsey pretty much had to admit that they were making up the rules as they go along

This did not happen.

It just goes to show that the big tech companies really are editors and publishers.

No. You are making shit up. Again.

When the Ayatollah is given greater free speech protection than Americans, then it’s time to get rid of section 230.

He was not given greater free speech protections. Dorsey noted, accurately, that certain specific tweets did not violate their policies.

Also, getting rid of 230 would lead to more taking down of content, not less.

Why do you get this wrong over and over again when this has been explained to you?

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Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Why do you get this wrong over and over again when this has been explained to you?

Because his position requires him to believe the government should have every right to control what speech a service like Twitter can or cannot host, and changing his position to fit reality would force him to rethink that underlying belief, and I don’t think he can do that without melting his brain worse than ol’ Brainy Smurf has in the past ten years.

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Koby (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Techdirt getting political

He was not given greater free speech protections. Dorsey noted, accurately, that certain specific tweets did not violate their policies.

This is specifically how the bias occurs. When leftists complain about conservative speech on social media, the tech companies immediately craft new policies to use as a weapon. Ban first, policy soon to arrive. When someone complains about antisemitic conspiracies, they shrug, and say "ooops after all this time I guess we never thought about that". And then they won’t lift a finger. One set of rules for me, and another set of rules for thee.

Leftists don’t actually oppose "hate speech" or "misinformation" as long as it’s something that they agree with.

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Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2

When leftists complain about conservative speech on social media, the tech companies immediately craft new policies to use as a weapon.

Citation. Motherfucking. Needed.

And even if this did happen — which I don’t concede it does — so fucking what? If Parler and Gab can have a blatant political bias, why can’t Twitter or Facebook? What, aside from the difference in size between the services, should make Parler/Gab legally free to show a political bias and Twitter/Facebook legally unable to show any kind of political bias?

When someone complains about antisemitic conspiracies, they shrug, and say "ooops after all this time I guess we never thought about that".

Gee, it’s almost as if people who want to violate the TOS so they can spew hateful bullshit will find new ways to spew their bullshit that fall in line with the TOS and the service admins will need to adjust their moderation policies as a result~. Imagine that~.

One set of rules for me, and another set of rules for thee.

A Twitter account that parrots the exact words of the current sitting president of the United States can be, and has been, banned for posting exactly what the president posts without punishment. Who gets the special treatment in that situation? Because it sure as shit ain’t the side you think gets all the special treatment.

Leftists don’t actually oppose "hate speech" or "misinformation" as long as it’s something that they agree with.

Prove it.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Techdirt getting political

When leftists complain about conservative speech on social media, the tech companies immediately craft new policies to use as a weapon.

When righties complain that their freeze peach is being suppressed on Twitter, I immediately question why they continue to give Twitter free advertising instead of fucking off to Parler.

Someday you’ll actually answer that question, won’t you Koby? But that’d take something other than the same planned script you’ve been writing, won’t it?

Grow a set! Stick it to Twitter and leave! Seems like the whole lot of you are all talk, and no balls.

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Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Techdirt getting political

This is specifically how the bias occurs. When leftists complain about conservative speech on social media, the tech companies immediately craft new policies to use as a weapon. Ban first, policy soon to arrive.

This is literally the opposite of what happens. This is why Twitter, alone, left Alex Jones on their site way longer than others. They waited until he ACTUALLY violated their policies. You are lying. Again.

Meanwhile, it’s the idiot ignorant Trumpists who do the exact opposite. They ignore the ACTUAL policy reasons for the removals, and fall down crying about "bias" despite no actual evidence to support it.

You are lying.

You are a liar.

When someone complains about antisemitic conspiracies, they shrug, and say "ooops after all this time I guess we never thought about that".

This is not what happened. This is not what happens.

You are lying.

You are a liar.

Leftists don’t actually oppose "hate speech" or "misinformation" as long as it’s something that they agree with.

Why do you always lie Koby?

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Techdirt getting political

"When leftists complain about conservative speech on social media, the tech companies immediately craft new policies to use as a weapon."

The policies are right there to read before entering. Koby, you are right now being that guy who walks past the large sign about the rules of the bar, and then stands on the dancefloor screaming that while you were in there they made up new rules about not shitting on the floor. It’s not a good look.

So first of all the "policies" are clearly outlined to every comer, on every platform, and secondly, if all of Big Tech is leftist then that means the right has no future. End of story.

So either build some right-wing platforms with rules of their own…oh, wait, you guys actually did that, and yet you still want to invade facebook and twitter? Why? Parler and Gab not any fun with only right-wingers around?

"One set of rules for me, and another set of rules for thee."

No matter how much you’d like to make that the case the whole reason you keep lying your ass off around these forums is because what you can’t stomach is that when the rule specifies "No assholes, left or right" it may mean a few leftist assholes get banned but almost everyone from the US right-wing.

And here you are, standing up and identifying with the Very Fine People of the KKK and the Proud Boys in the attempt to make it look like "anti-conservatism" when private property owners see fit to show the racist trash the door.

"Leftists don’t actually oppose "hate speech" or "misinformation" as long as it’s something that they agree with."

You know how we can tell you’re alt-right trash, Bro? I’ll give you a hint, it’s when you tried to turn everyone not being a raging racist into a "leftist".

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Techdirt getting political

He was not given greater free speech protections. Dorsey noted, accurately, that certain specific tweets did not violate their policies.

Misinformation and denialism of the Holocaust not being against Twitter’s policies is particularly egregious. I can’t wait for them to get around to finally making it against their rules in half a year.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Techdirt getting political

When the Ayatollah is given greater free speech protection than Americans

WTHFH does that even mean? I mean seriously Koby, why can you not understand one simple thing? You don’t get to have free speech rights when you are on somebody else’s property that doesn’t belong to the government!

IF YOU DON’T LIKE TWITTER’S MODERATION PRACTICES, THEN DON’T FUCKING USE TWITTER. Problem solved.

I hear there is a freeze peach bastion of a site called Parlor. Go there and quit fucking complaining about what companies do on their own property.

Also, try walking into the grocery store with no clothes on and see how far you get.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Techdirt getting political

It’s not as simple. This performative farce of a "hearing" could have been carried out by a few alt-right republicans propping a strawman up and hanging a smartphone running a prerecorded session of rhetorical strawman questions, false premise and wild accusations from its nose.

You could train a turkey to hold that session.

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Anonymous Coward says:

To me is sounds more like they are whining because they do not have the power to control what FB, Twitter, YT do on their own playground.

Since they do not have that power, they whine that they should, because after all, they are mother fucking senators and what they say becomes law and they are more powerful than us mere peasants.

When their power is questioned, brushed aside or just plain ignored, all rightfully so, they feel that their power over the populace has been weakened and have to do one of these dog and pony shows just to show the country how powerful they are.

So, what it come down to is power, and it’s especially the right that doesn’t want to give any up and are always pushing for more.

I mean think about it, if you are a senator and you posted a big f’ing lie of an article on Twitter (ie russian disinfo) and it’s blocked, you would feel that your power over the populace has been diminished and that you need to do something about it.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Redefine on the fly

Honestly even among politics the gross and blatant dishonesty in that tactic was stunning. ‘In order to say that you do X I’m going to redefine it to something that it doesn’t actually mean, just so I can say that you’re guilt of it.’

Put in that position I would have been wicked tempted to return the favor just to show him how dishonest he was being. ‘If that’s the game you want to play I’m going to redefine ‘beating your wife’ as waking up from sleep, and with that said when’s the last time you beat your wife Senator Lee?’

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Uriel-238 (profile) says:

So, a simple question for Johnson to answer would be: if he wants this tweet [the Mary T. Hagan tweet] removed, how about removing his own efforts at pushing unverified propagandistic nonsense about Joe Biden?

Because in Washington, double standards are the norm. They are aristocrats who don’t have to follow laws for the little people.

And rule of law (as in I think society is best served with rule of law) now means to send stormtroopers / LGMs to rough up citizens without stating purpose or cause.

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That One Guy says:

'Since you don't plan on listening to us anyway...'

At this point any time these whining babies demand that the companies answer for their ‘crimes’ they should just send in straw stuffed scarecrows with pictures of the respective CEO’s attached to their heads to the hearings, and then when challenged point out that if the senators are going to be attacking strawmen then they might as well be literally doing so so the CEO’s or any company staff don’t have to waste their time dealing with entitled brats throwing tantrums that there are consequences for their actions.

Sounds like the entire thing was a performative joke, but damn were those some telling performances. Flat out admitting that fact checking someone should be considered censorship, all but demanding that anyone who says means things about a politician be fired and the by now usual idea that companies shouldn’t be allowed control over their own property… for people from a supposedly ‘small government’ party they sure are eager to not just govern but rule, acting more like petty dictators than representatives of the public.

Owen says:

Re: 'Since you don't plan on listening to us anyway...'

Are there any penalties applicable if the tech CEO’s simply say to these assclowns, ‘Nah, fam, not gonna turn up for this kind of ridiculous BS’. Then, not turn up and let the senators bluster and blither and look like complete asshats (that they actually are)?

What penalties? Contempt of congress? I assume Zuck, Dorsey at. al. could pay the fines from pocket change…would almost be worth it to see the faces of the senators when they hold a hearing and nobody shows up. 🙂

William Tells it. says:

Towards Blackburn, thats not McCarthy-Level stuff, it’s Gessler-Level stuff (see Schiller for more).

With the Red Scare, they at least at the excuse of dealing with a hostile power and the fear that the Soviets would do the same the US did in other countries.

This is "This subject doesn’t show proper respect to me and has to be punished!".

And we are talking about a fictional character here, which was made out to be the big bad of the story with no nuance given (Gessler that this).

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