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Revealed: rightwing firm posed as leftist group on Facebook to divide Democrats | Facebook

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A digital marketing firm closely linked to the pro-Trump youth group Turning Point USA was responsible for a series of deceptive Facebook ads promoting Green party candidates during the 2018 US midterm elections, the Guardian can reveal.

In an apparent attempt to split the Democratic vote in a number of close races, the ads purported to come from an organization called America Progress Now (APN) and used socialist memes and rhetoric to urge leftwing voters to support Green party candidates.

Facebook was aware of the true identity of the advertiser – the conservative marketing firm Rally Forge – and the deceptive nature of the ads, documents seen by the Guardian show, but the company determined that they did not violate its policies.

Rally Forge would go on to set up a pro-Trump domestic “troll farm” for Turning Point Action, a “sister” organization of Turning Point USA, in 2020, earning a permanent ban from Facebook.

“There were no policies at Facebook against pretending to be a group that did not exist, an abuse vector that has also been used by the governments of Honduras and Azerbaijan,” said Sophie Zhang, a former Facebook employee and whistleblower who played a small role in the investigation of the Green party ads.

She added: “The fact that Rally Forge later went on to conduct coordinated inauthentic behavior with troll farms reminiscent of Russia should be taken as an indication that Facebook’s leniency led to more risk-taking behavior.”

ads show AOC and Drake meme
Some of the Facebook ads from America Progress Now. Composite: Facebook

Devon Kearns, a spokesperson for Facebook, said: “We removed Rally Forge from our platforms for violating our policy against coordinated inauthentic behavior. Since the 2018 midterms, we have strengthened our policies related to election interference and political ad transparency. We continue working to make political advertising more transparent on our platform and we welcome updated regulations and help from policymakers as we evolve our policies in this space.”

The revelation that the ads were linked to a rightwing organization raises questions about the Federal Election Commission’s enforcement of campaign finance laws. APN and its ads appeared to violate federal laws that require independent expenditures to be filed with the FEC and include proper disclosures on advertisements, as ProPublica and Vice News first reported in 2018.

The non-partisan campaign finance watchdog group Campaign Legal Center (CLC) filed a complaint against APN and subsequently sued the agency in an attempt to force it to investigate the group. But in July 2020, the FEC voted to dismiss allegations that America Progress Now had violated federal law, after an individual, Evan Muhlstein, took responsibility for the ads and attributed the lack of proper disclosures and filings to his “inexperience”.

It is illegal to knowingly make false or fraudulent statements to federal agencies, and the FEC appears to have taken Muhlstein at his word that the ads were a sincere but novice attempt to support Green party candidates.

The former FEC commissioner Ann Ravel, who reviewed the case at the request of the Guardian, said that were she still on the FEC, she would now refer this “stunning” case to the justice department for investigation.

“It seems as if it’s a clear fraud,” Ravel said, noting that the FEC general counsel’s office appeared to have been “misled” by Muhlstein. “The requirement for the justice department to take on an electoral matter is that it be serious and willful, and clearly in this case it was willful, in my opinion.”

Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at CLC, said: “This is an example of why disclosure is so important in elections: swing state voters who saw ‘America Progress Now’ ads promoting Green party candidates would’ve had no idea that they were the handiwork of Republican political operatives. The FEC’s job is to enforce the transparency laws and protect voters’ right to know who is trying to influence them, but the agency here failed to conduct even a minimal investigation.”

‘A crystal clear example of astroturfing’

On 27 October 2018 – just days before the 6 November election – America Progress Now began running a series of ads that used leftist motifs, such as the red rose emoji and images of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to rail against the “corporate, two-party oligarchy” and the “corporate, capitalist wage system”. Some of the ads urged voters to choose a third party, but others endorsed Green party candidates by name – triggering FEC rules for independent expenditures.

Following the 5 November publication of a ProPublica/Vice News report on the “mysterious” group behind the ads, Facebook launched a “hi-pri[ority]” escalation to investigate whether they constituted “coordinated inauthentic behavior” (CIB) – the name Facebook gives to the kind of deceptive tactics that a Russian influence operation used during the 2016 election.

The investigation was straightforward since Facebook has access to information that regular users do not: the names of the people who control Facebook Pages. Investigators quickly realized that America Progress Now was administered by three individuals – Jake Hoffman, Connor Clegg and Colton Duncan – who also served as Facebook Page administrators for Turning Point USA, the rightwing college group founded by Charlie Kirk in 2012. Hoffman and Clegg were also administrators for Kirk’s Facebook Page.

Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, left, with Donald Trump Jr and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, at a summit in 2019.
Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, left, with Donald Trump Jr and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, at a summit in 2019. Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters

“These admins are connected to Turning Point USA,” one staffer from the civic integrity team said, according to internal task management documents seen by the Guardian. “This is very inauthentic. I don’t know what the policy here is but this seems very sketchy.” Another staffer named Rally Forge as being responsible for the ads. APN had spent nearly $5,000 to have the ads shown to users nearly 300,000 times, a third staffer noted.

A rightwing political marketing firm that ran a $350,000 pro-Trump Super Pac in the 2016 election, Rally Forge was founded and run by Hoffman, an Arizona Republican who was at the time a member of the town council in Queen Creek, Arizona. In November 2020 Hoffman was elected to serve in the Arizona state legislature.

Clegg and Duncan were alumni of Texas State University, where they had been elected student body president and vice-president respectively in 2017. Clegg was impeached and removed from office shortly before his term would have ended in 2018. Duncan resigned from his post in 2017; he appears to have been hired directly by Turning Point USA in 2019.

Since 2017, Rally Forge has been Turning Point USA’s highest-compensated independent contractor, paid more than $1.1m over two years, according to the non-profit’s public filings. Turning Point Action, an affiliated organization also founded by Kirk, paid Rally Forge $700,000 for work supporting Trump and opposing Biden during the 2020 presidential campaign, and an additional $400,000 for work on the US Senate runoff races in Georgia.

Andrew Kolvet, a spokesperson for Turning Point USA, said that neither Turning Point USA nor Turning Point Action had “any involvement” with America Progress Now or its Facebook ads.

In addition to America Progress Now and Turning Point USA, Hoffman, Clegg and Duncan all also served as administrators for a number of other rightwing Facebook Pages. The trio each maintained two accounts to administer their Facebook Pages, one using their full names and one using their first and middle initials – a violation of the company’s policy that each user can only have one Facebook account. One of each of the three men’s accounts had been authorized by Facebook to run political ads, a process that required submitting a government ID to Facebook for verification.

One of Hoffman’s accounts had spent approximately $650,000 to run Facebook ads on behalf of 40 Pages, including the official Page of Donald Trump Jr.

Hoffman declined to answer detailed questions from the Guardian, including about the nature of Rally Forge’s relationship with Muhlstein. “The premise of your questions is either ill-informed or intentionally misleading,” he said in a statement. “Rally Forge is a marketing agency, not a compliance company. Furthermore, it is my understanding that the small handful of ads, totaling less than 2,500 dollars, which qualified as independent expenditures, have been fully disclosed by the responsible organization in coordination with the FEC.”

Duncan said that he had never heard of America Progress Now before the Guardian’s inquiries and had “zero knowledge or insight into the group”. When asked about the CG Duncan account, which had passed Facebook’s verification process and was an administrator of the APN page, he responded: “I urge you to reach out to JM [Hoffman]. Let me know what you find out, I’m as curious as you are.”

Clegg did not respond to multiple attempts to contact him.

Despite possessing clear evidence of inauthenticity, Facebook staffers determined the Green party ads did not violate existing company policies related to political ads or CIB. They decided to deactivate the three men’s extra accounts, but after the election and only after providing them with advance notice.

The episode inspired some disquiet among Facebook staff.

“What I find very problematic is that the intention here is clearly to mislead users,” said the civic integrity staffer. “The users in question clearly created a new FB page to hide their identity, which would be grounds for removal on most surfaces,” she added, referring to Facebook’s rules requiring people to use their real names on their accounts.

One product manager produced an internal postmortem of the incident in which she described it as “a crystal clear example of astroturfing” – deceptive campaign tactics designed to appear as grassroots actions – “… as well as playing both sides … and political ad opacity, since users cannot see who they are. Furthermore, I could see making a case for voter suppression.”

facebook logo on phone
‘The users in question clearly created a new FB page to hide their identity,’ said a Facebook civic integrity staffer. Photograph: Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

“Unfortunately, it turned out there was nothing we could do against these ads,” she added. “We ended up only aiming to remove a few [duplicate] accounts under the fake account policy, but only after proper notice – and I believe we have not removed them yet.”

“Can we strengthen our ads transparency policies so that political ads are indeed transparent to the user?” she asked.

A Facebook spokesperson said that the company had indeed removed the duplicate accounts following the midterms, and that Rally Forge’s network of Pages and accounts had gone dormant after November 2018. The company made a number of updates to its policies on political ads before the 2020 elections, including requiring advertisers to provide more information about their organizations before being authorized to run ads. It also introduced a new policy to encourage more transparency regarding who runs networks of Facebook Pages.

Rally Forge reactivated its network of Pages and accounts in June 2020, according to Facebook. It established what the Washington Post described as a domestic “troll farm” in Phoenix, Arizona, that employed teenagers to churn out pro-Trump social media posts, some of which cast doubt on the integrity of the US election system or falsely charged Democrats with attempting to steal the election.

Facebook said that it had detected the operation when Rally Forge began making fake accounts, which were detected by the company’s automated systems, and “thinly veiled personas” to carry out deceptive campaigning. In October 2020, the platform permanently banned Rally Forge and Hoffman for violating its policy against CIB, work that Facebook said the firm had undertaken “on behalf of Turning Point USA” and another client.

A spokesman for Turning Point USA disputed the characterization of the operation as a “troll farm” and noted that it was a project of Turning Point Action, which is a separate entity.

Facebook did not take any enforcement action against Turning Point USA, Turning Point Action or Kirk with regard to the Phoenix operation. Facebook also did not disclose Rally Forge’s connection to America Progress Now and the deceptive Green Party ads.

A forestalled investigation

In September 2019, CLC filed a complaint alleging that APN’s failure to register with the FEC violated federal law. The FEC responded by sending a letter to an inaccurate address that America Progress Now had listed on its Facebook Page, but it does not appear to have taken further action, prompting CLC to sue it in February 2020.

“If nothing is done, the FEC will instead be sending a message that anonymous or fake entities like America Progress Now can pop into existence just prior to an election, exploit lax registration and reporting requirements by digital platforms, spend unlimited sums of money, and then disappear into thin air once an election is over,” the group said at the time.

In April 2020, the FEC wrote again, this time to the address listed on an Arizona state business filing for America Progress Now.

On 15 April 2020, Evan Muhlstein responded to the FEC by email. Muhlstein described the lack of filing as an “error”, writing, “I believe that it is important for the commission to understand that any potential failure on either of those items is based entirely on my inexperience to the process.” He wrote that he had “assumed that Facebook’s ‘political disclaimer/disclosure’ was all that was necessary”, said his expenditures totaled “only $2,467.54”, and expressed surprised that “a spend as small as this would require any type of reporting”.

Donald Trump speaks at a Turning Point USA summit in 2019.
Donald Trump speaks at a Turning Point USA summit in 2019. Photograph: SMG/Rex/Shutterstock

“I again offer my sincerest apology for any potential errors in failing to disclose,” Muhlstein wrote. “Given the apparent obstacles and unknowns of participating in the election process in this manner (of which I am learning some of now), it is highly unlikely I will ever participate in it again. I feel terrible for having been so ignorant to the process.”

Muhlstein also expressed his desire to come into compliance “correctly and quickly”. At no point in the communication did Muhlstein disclose that the advertisements had been handled by a major political marketing firm.

“Muhlstein’s statement to the FEC is extremely misleading and might warrant a criminal investigation,” said Fischer, of the CLC.

Muhlstein did not respond to multiple attempts to make contact with him. His connection to Rally Forge is not known. He is a resident of Queen Creek, Arizona, the town where Hoffman also lives.

The FEC has the power to issue subpoenas and carry out serious investigations, but only after a vote of four of its five commissioners.

In a report dated 4 May, the FEC’s general counsel argued that, while it appeared that Muhlstein had violated federal law, the small amount of money involved and Muhlstein’s statement that he was unlikely to engage in further political spending led it to recommend that the FEC exercise prosecutorial discretion and dismiss the allegations with a warning.

In July, the FEC voted to follow the general counsel’s recommendation and dismiss the case, forestalling any actual investigation.

Commissioner James “Trey” Trainor went further, lambasting the CLC in a statement of reasons. “Contrary to CLC’s wild speculation, this case wasn’t about a ‘fake political group … exploit[ing] Facebook rules … and hid[ing] spending from the FEC,’” he wrote. “In fact, APN was established by an unsophisticated individual trying to show his support for several third-party candidates, but he got tripped by the myriad regulations governing online political speech.”

Trainor asserted that “there was no evidence to contradict” Muhlstein’s statement to the FEC “and no evidence to support CLC’s salacious theories about the ‘unknown person or persons’ behind APN”.

It would not be until 23 December 2020 – six months after the FEC had voted not to pursue the allegations of law violations and more than two years after the election – that Muhlstein would provide the FEC with that evidence, when he finally registered APN with the FEC and disclosed that the independent expenditure had been made through Rally Forge.

The FEC did not respond to questions from the Guardian, citing a policy not to comment on enforcement matters. Trainor did not respond to a request for comment. Fischer said: “It looks like we were right.”

Daniel Hernandez contributed reporting

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Agtech start-up tackling emissions gets backing from Bill Gates’ fund

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Iron Ox aims to reduce the carbon footprint of farming using robotics and AI.

Silicon Valley agtech start-up Iron Ox has secured $53m in Series C funding led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures.

Founded in 2015, Iron Ox has now raised $98m to date for its autonomous farming technologies.

The ultimate goal for Iron Ox is to rebuild the agricultural model so that fruit and veg can be produced locally and sustainably with a lower carbon footprint. Using robotics and AI to support a data-driven approach to farming, Iron Ox claims to create 30 times more produce per acre using 90pc less water than conventional field farms.

Food from its farms in northern California can be purchased in stores across the San Francisco Bay area, and the company expects to further its reach later this year after breaking ground on a new 535,000 sq ft indoor farm in Texas.

Existing investors in Iron Ox include Crosslink Capital, R7 Partners, Amplify Partners and Y Combinator. This is a first round of investment from Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a fund established by Bill Gates and a coalition of private investors in 2015.

With more than $2bn in committed capital, Breakthrough Energy targets its investments at companies and innovations that can help reach a goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. This week, it was announced that the fund had secured investments from Microsoft, BlackRock, General Motors, American Airlines, Boston Consulting Group, Bank of America and ArcelorMittal.

Emissions from agriculture have been shown to be a significant contributor to the climate crisis. According to global research non-profit World Resources Institute, without intervention, greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production could increase by 58pc by 2050.

The recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that unless there are immediate and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement, will be “beyond reach”.

“World-class investors know that humanity’s most important pursuit is to reverse climate change,” said Iron Ox CEO and co-founder Brandon Alexander. “To get there, we can’t settle for incrementally more sustainable crops – and we can’t ask consumers to compromise on taste, convenience or value.”

Iron Ox’s technology sets out to minimise the amount of land, water and energy needed for everyday produce. “The team at Iron Ox will not stop until we achieve our long-term mission of making the produce sector carbon negative,” said Alexander.

The start-up will use this Series C round to expand its retail presence and accelerate hiring. In particular, it’s seeking plant scientists, engineers, roboticists and greenhouse operators to join the team. The company also plans to boost its R&D programmes, accelerate its manufacturing scale-up and expand its operations across the US.

Carmichael Roberts from Breakthrough Energy Ventures said that this investment aligns with the fund’s aim to accelerate innovations that can reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

“Iron Ox is uniquely positioned to accelerate the shift towards climate-friendly agriculture, while increasing the accessibility and quality of fresh produce,” he said.

“It’s the type of solution that’s designed to scale quickly and has the potential to get us one big step closer to net zero.”

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Henry Stone: the 10 funniest things I have ever seen (on the internet) | Comedy

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I write comedy and I direct comedy, and all of the money I make is from making comedy. However not all of the comedy I make is for making money. I like making things that are borne of nothing other than my fancy being tickled. I’m biased because I’m me and me is a perfect boy, but I’m pretty sure that this is the exactly correct way to approach your craft; one for you, one for them.

Ira Glass likes to talk about the taste gap and I like to talk about Ira Glass talking about the taste gap. It’s the mental chasm you find yourself in when you’re really into your chosen creative pursuit but you haven’t flexed your own muscle enough yet and you KNOW IT and it hurts cos you know you suck. I want to half-hijack my own funniest things list to celebrate the taste-gap-closing creative phase because I feel like its necessity is slowly being ignored.

This is a list of the funniest things on the internet that I know have been made only for the love of the process. No budgets or institutional support – simply really funny ideas explored to what appears to be the limit of the creators’ resources and abilities at the time. Has anyone laboured the ideology behind a selection criteria for a funny videos listicle as much as this? Probably not, but I’m trying to close up my opinion-piece-writing taste gap cos I’m thinking about starting a locky-d newsletter so like, forgive me?

1. Tiny Fuppets

Wow the Tiny Fuppets are AMAZE! I STAN TINY FUPPETS! If you don’t know about the Tiny Fuppets well they are simply just some Fuppets who are tiny teehee. This series started in 2011 and not too long after the creators became Conan writers.

2. Aunty Donna – GPS tries to kill man

Feels like you’re legally required to have an Aunty Donna video in your Guardian 10 funniest things list – they themselves had a list populated almost entirely with their own videos (due to the law I guess). Here we find the Donnas in 2012 being very funny and dumb and now we find them everywhere being funny and dumb cos they closed up their gap noice and toight.

3. F the Internet

A public-access-aping sketch that breaks out of the confines of its well-trodden framing with a confidently silly central performance and a clear willingness in the film-making to find the comedy on the day. This is 2015. Three years later star/writer/director Elizabeth Zephyrine McDonough started working for Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.

4. The New Pet Detectives

2013, my best friends Sam and Greg form the dream team of them, Tom Ward and Jonathan Schuster, to make a sketch for our shared YouTube. They’re in Melbourne and I’ve only just moved to Sydney so I wasn’t involved at all and therefore don’t feel grotty about putting it on my list. Eight years later, The New Pet Detectives makes me laugh every time and even though it ends with literally an apology for how shit they thought it was, all of them have closed up their gaps enough to continue to make comedy on bigger and crazier world stages.

5. Redfern Electrical

This one’s some red-hot 2021 business. John Cruckshank, beyond being a man of the people, is achingly funny and along with his film-making collaborator Luke Smith has the storytelling prowess to make this work of autofiction both hilarious moment-to-moment as well as structurally watertight. Together they’ve got more chops than Sam Kekovich and when viewed as a local sitcom it’s hard to argue that there’s anything better being made on Australia TV by people getting paid to do it. Off the back of this the Shank got tapped to be in the Big Lez Show as well as some other upcoming US animation stuff. If you’re sleeping on him, cut it out.

6. Just 2 Guyz

I don’t think it’s that necessary to go deep into why the Lonely Island are good. Just 2 Guyz was a standalone 2004 video that wound up in their failed 2005 sketch show pilot. Later that year they were all hired into Saturday Night Live. Two years after that, Hot Rod, my favourite comedy movie, comes out. I did toy with including the Stolen Footage: Jorm Dances video series in this list but those were made during SNL which disqualified them from being “for free” in my staunch opinion.

7. Laura’s Shock Attack

Sam (see: The New Pet Detectives) showed this to me and I commend its makers for at once nodding to the past with their use of French New Wave jump cuts while also being forward thinking by experimenting with unusual aspect ratios before your A24 johnny-come-lately’s like Jonah Hill and Robert Eggers ever did. Though it’s rudimentary you gotta crawl before you can walk oddly down steps (see: 40s mark).

8. This @jjjhack tweet

Half a decade late admin reveal: @jjjhack was run by Sophie Braham, Tom Cashman and myself. When we started it, Crikey wrote an article about the account’s follower rise without ever checking to see whether the followers were all eggs, which they were because I paid $60 to get 70,000 fake ones so that we aesthetically mirrored the real @triplejhack Twitter account as closely as possible. We made a pact with ourselves to only ever reply to any emails or tweets with a photo of George Rose from the Dragons which we just kind of plucked from the ether for no real reason. Highlights of the @jjjhack era were sending George Rose to Tom Tilley when he thanked us for the lols and duping Malcolm Turnbull into tagging us instead of the real account.

Again, I don’t feel grimy about sharing something I was involved in because this specific tweet was written by Tom or Soph as I quit writing on it long before they did. The three of us now do other things for fun I guess because we actually did age out of parodying the national youth broadcaster.

9. Side of Smooth

Nathan Fielder and Chris Locke in 2008, five years prior to Nathan For You.

10. Obedience

Fine, I’ll include my own proper one. I made this with Aaron Chen in 2017, it has very little sheen because the entire budget was me paying for lunch. It was knocked back by Tropfest – though I think that’s reasonable because I made it before the year’s theme of “Pineapple” was announced and then I pretended like having pine cones at the start and an apple at the end was an intentionally bookended approach to that theme, but they’d been duped one too many times.

To conclude this list in full earnestness, I wrote this sketch during one of my first ever bouts of depression, a time when I was deeply uncertain of my craft and incredibly distrustful of the local industry and the alleged experts working within it. Aaron, being the perpetually supportive friend he is, agreed to do the role and we got our friend Toby to bring his dog for Aaron to spit on. I think the sketch is pretty funny and is certainly helped to its feet through Chen being one of the most daftly captivating and to-the-core hilarious people this side of the River Murray. Through some twists and turns that reinvigorated my trust in the industry it fell into the laps of the people at Adult Swim and helped get our foot (feet?) in the door to make our short film for them last year. So yeah, it’s in the list because of how clearly it epitomises the cause-and-effect power of making your own stuff.

Remember to try to close up your gap, appreciate it when other people try to close up theirs and always revel in creating for creation’s sake!

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New X.Org Server release candidate appears after long delay • The Register

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More than three years after X.Org Server 1.20, released in May 2018, a release candidate for 21.1.0 has been posted.

The Linux display server remains widely used despite the introduction of Wayland, first released in 2012 and intended to replace X.

The future of the software, in terms of significant new releases, was in doubt when project owner Adam Jackson declared the project “abandoned” last year, but Lithuanian developer Povilas Kanapickas (who formerly worked on the Unity game engine) stepped up and said:

“There are new features in the Xorg DDX that I would like to see released, so I’m volunteering to do the releasing work.”

XWayland, a compatibility piece that enabled X clients for Wayland display servers, is part of the X.Org project but in December maintainer Michel Dänzer proposed that “there are new Xwayland features that we’d like to ship to users. Since there’s currently no clear plan for a new major release of xserver as a whole, I’m volunteering to make releases of Xwayland only instead.”

This was met with approval, and in March there was a standalone release of XWayland 21.1.0. Kanapickas considered this separation “good practice” and therefore the new release candidate is X.Org-only.

Work is proceeding on the 21.1 release of X.Org Server

Work is proceeding on the 21.1 release of X.Org Server

Wayland use is increasing and it is the default in popular distributions including Fedora, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and Debian. Ubuntu switched to Wayland as the default in version 21.04, a second attempt since it was default in 17.10 but reverted to X.Org for 18.04, which means that the current LTS edition, 20.04, remains on X for most users.

The same applies to distributions such as Linux Mint, based on Ubuntu LTS. Even where Wayland is the default, some users prefer to run X for compatibility or performance reasons.

The new release candidate includes variable refresh rate support, support for AMD GLAMOR acceleration in the Xvfb (X virtual framebuffer), touchpad gesture support, and correct reporting of display DPI “in more cases that may affect rendering of client applications on hi-DPI screens.” There is also full support for the Meson build system and the older autotools support will be dropped in future releases. Kanapickas has also helpfully listed all the fixes since version 1.20.0 which is a long list.

While many users will welcome a new X Server release, Jackson observed last year: “I’m of the opinion that keeping xfree86 alive as a viable alternative since Wayland started getting real traction in 2010ish is part of the reason those are still issues.” ®

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