Hoaxes are a phenomenon as old as humanity. But, in the internet age, with the dominance of social media, they can be multiplied on a massive scale.
Andrea Grignolio Corsini teaches History of Medicine and Bioethics at Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Milan. He had addressed the subject of hoaxes at the largest European conference on neuroscience, the FENS Forum:
“Fake news tends to create exclusion dynamics between different social groups… it consists of information manipulated with something real or of manufactured origin, created for political purposes.”
Grignolio says that this has been going on for a long time. He recounts how the Donation of Constantine – a forged Roman imperial decree, by which Constantine the Great supposedly transferred authority over Rome and the western part of the Roman Empire to the Pope – was revealed as nothing more than a falsehood in 1440. The Italian philosopher Lorenzo Valla showed that the text used terms, expressions and grammar that did not exist in the Latin used at the time of the alleged drafting of the decree.
Since then, there have been manipulated texts against racial minorities, discoveries of life on the Moon (published by The Sun in 1845) and dozens of other examples of fake news well before the emergence of the internet. The new, digital version of this phenomenon has been a part of key events, such as the 2016 American presidential election, the Brexit referendum and the COVID-19 pandemic.
A research paper published last month in the journal Science explores the fierce fighting that took place between false and scientific information regarding vaccines at the height of the pandemic. Following a study of 1,365 Facebook pages, the researchers from George Washington University concluded that “the battle to get the best scientific guidance from Facebook users was lost to misinformation early in the pandemic, because some [parties] acted as dominant sources of guidance, while others were mostly recipients of it. When the acceptance of vaccines became essential, many parents – who were responsible for the health decisions of their young children and elderly relatives – had already reached out to anti-vaccine communities on social media,” explains Lucia Illari, co-author of the paper.
Another recent study carried out by the Communications Department at Carlos III University of Madrid has analyzed whether students between the ages of 11 and 16 are capable of distinguishing a hoax from real information:
“58.8% of the students [believed] a false headline about COVID, while 51.8% considered a headline containing a falsehood about immigration to be true,” says Eva Herrero, one of the study’s authors. The research also indicates that the majority of adolescents surveyed inform themselves through social media (55.5%), television (29.1%) and their family and friends groups (7.9%)… well ahead of online newspapers (6.5%) or radio (1%).
This last poll is very relevant. According to Grignolio, the vast new dimension of hoaxes is due to “a new social media ecosystem,” where falsehoods are generated by groups of like-minded users. In his opinion, the key elements of a virtually-circulated hoax are the “novelty or surprise” in its approach, the generation of “moral disgust,” polarization – which allows group feeling to be reinforced – and the appeal to emotions.
These elements subsequently reach the brain, where areas related to dopamine – which regulates emotion – and glutamate – the main excitatory neurotransmitter – are activated, explains Maria Antonieta de Luca, a professor of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Cagliary, Italy. Once the brain activity related to satisfaction is generated, the consequences are produced.
Ciara Greene, Director of the Attention & Memory Lab at University College Dublin, details how one of the main effects of disinformation is the formation of false memories:
“When people see fabricated news stories – or even doctored photos of events that never took place – they may not only come to believe that those events did indeed happen… they may also form a detailed memory of actually experiencing those events. This effect is more likely if the content of the fabricated material is consistent with your biases.”
“Memories,” she explains, “are stored and distributed throughout the brain. Every time we remember something, we actually reconstruct that memory. [Memories] are like Lego blocks.”
Research from the University of Texas has shown that sharing news articles with friends and followers on social media can prompt people to think you know more about a topic than you really do. Thus, false memory is exacerbated by the erroneous perception of knowledge.
“When people feel that they are more informed, they are more likely to make riskier decisions,” warns Adrian Ward, who participated in the research. Susan M. Broniarczyk – lead author of the paper on new articles – adds: “If people feel more informed about a topic, they also feel that they may not need to read or learn additional information about it.”
Is there a solution to all of this? A group of researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Bristol, in collaboration with Jigsaw – a unit within Google – think there is, especially after conducting an experiment titled “Inoculation Science.” The project consists of the creation of 90-second-long clips that familiarize viewers with manipulation techniques, so that they can better identify falsehoods regardless of the topic at hand.
Sander van der Linden, one of the researchers from Cambridge, says: “[This project] provides the necessary proof that psychological inoculation can easily be scaled to hundreds of millions of users worldwide.” Almost like a vaccine!
The videos improved the ability of people, from all walks of life, to spot misinformation. They also improved decision-making about whether or not to share harmful content.
“The inoculation effect was consistent between liberals and conservatives. It worked for people with different levels of education and different personality types. This is the basis for a general inoculation campaign against disinformation,” adds Jon Roozenbeek, lead author of the research from Cambridge.
Google has announced that Jigsaw will launch an immunization campaign on various social media platforms in Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, to preemptively halt emerging misinformation related to Ukrainian refugees. The campaign is designed to build resilience against harmful anti-refugee narratives, in partnership with local NGOs, fact-checkers, academics and disinformation experts.
The team argues that the inoculation method may be more effective than verifying each falsehood after it spreads. “Propaganda and lies are almost always created from the same pattern… fact-checkers can only refute a fraction of the falsehoods circulating online. We need to teach people to recognize patterns of misinformation, so they understand when they are being misled,” says Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol.
The researchers believe that the benefits of “vaccines” against disinformation would be greater if they were incorporated across all social media platforms. The estimated cost for each view is a mere 0.05 cents.
‘Dracula’ in your inbox: Newsletters for reading the classics | Technology
Since the beginning of May, 33-year-old Rafa Baena’s inbox has included an email with the subject line “Dracula Daily: [date email received].” Inside, he finds an extract of Bram Stoker’s original text, which corresponds to that day in the novel. Dracula is an epistolary work, made up of letters, diary entries and newspaper clippings, all of which are dated. Because the action takes place between May and November, there is the option of reading it as the Dracula Daily newsletter suggests, resisting the urge to devour the book and reading only what corresponds to the day you are on.
Like Baena, 265,000 others around the world receive the emails sent out by web designer Matt Kirkland, who came up with the idea for the newsletter while reading Dracula in the summer of 2020. “My daughter would always ask me ‘what happened today?’ She meant whatever I had read that day, but I realized that the dates were very close to the time we were in, and it occurred to me that it could be read in real time,” he explains. That is, on July 24, you read what the novel says about that date and nothing else. In addition to a change in the usual reading rhythm, that also means altering the order of the original work, which does not always follow the calendar. “I thought it would be fun to read it in chronological order and that an easy way to do this could be a newsletter, someone sending you what to read on the day indicated. Once I had the idea, I saw that it was an easy thing to do and decided to do it,” he relates. In May 2021, he started what he now calls the first “season” of collectively reading Dracula. He had about 1,500 subscribers, which he thought was a great success. In 2022, he decided to do it again, and the newsletter took off: he surpassed 200,000 subscribers.
One of the effects of this mass reading of Dracula in 2022 was the creation of many other similar newsletters. The elements are simple: a work that is already in the public domain and an account with an electronic newsletter service. Not all works lend themselves as well to such a date-specific division, but that is not essential. Some of these literary newsletters simply divide them into parts that can be easily read in an e-mail and set a regular period for delivery; others choose novels where the action takes place over a few months and try to deliver the installments to coincide with it, more or less. For example, the Whale Weekly newsletter began sending out the text of Moby Dick in November 2022 and will continue to do so for two years. They have done some research work beforehand to try to match the timing of the action as closely as possible. Melville doesn’t give exact dates, but it is possible to guess roughly when everything happens from other clues.
Kirkland says that he has lost count of the literary newsletters that have been popping up, but he estimates that there are now over a hundred of them: Les Miserables, Pride and Prejudice, the Sherlock Holmes novels, Dangerous Liaisons, Samuel Pepys’s diaries, Edgar Allan Poe’s works, Frankenstein, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall… They are done in the work’s original language or in English.
But why this interest in reading classics in small bites via email? “Serials or serialized stories have already worked at other times in our history and everything comes back around,” explains Elisa Yuste, a consultant who specializes in reading. Moreover, this type of reading “adapts very well to the content consumption habits of the digital era,” she adds. For her part, Dr. Ana Cuquerella, an expert in electronic literature and computational creativity and professor at the University of Villanueva in Spain, points out that “real-time delivery is a mechanism widely used in digital literature,” since it gives “a sense of reality, of updates.” As an example, she cites a 2008 blog, WW1: Experiences of an English Soldier, as the first work she saw that used this style. “It was a blog created by the grandson of a WWI British soldier. The format is epistolary. The entries respect the chronological order in which the original letters were written. A family story becomes the followers’ story; there were thousands of them, eagerly awaiting news from Private Lamin and commenting on what happened with other followers, experiencing it as if it were happening, crying when they sense[d] the tragedy,” Cuquerella says.
Reading via email, commenting on social media
That collective commentary after reading each installment — the same thing that happens with television shows — is a fundamental component of the format’s success. Matt Kirkland is clear about the fact that his Dracula Daily postings exploded in popularity thanks to the activity that emerged on social media, especially Tumblr, where a visit to the hashtag #DraculaDaily (warning: there may be spoilers) shows the full breadth of the content created following each installment: memes, illustrations, linguistic and historical commentary, theories about what is actually happening….
“When readers are immersed in a story they like, a personal bond is created with the narrative elements, and it generates a sense of belonging to the community of fans who share the same passion. Commenting, analyzing and sharing content on social media allows them to express their enthusiasm, connect with other fans and become part of a community that shares similar interests,” says Dr. María José Establés Heras, a professor and researcher in the Department of Applied Communication Sciences in the School of Information Sciences at the Complutense University of Madrid, a specialist in fan studies and transmedia literacy. “This is how fandoms (a neologism created from fan and kingdom, i.e., the realm of fans) of a given cultural product — in this case, Bram Stoker’s novel — are created,” she explains.
Dracula Daily’s success on Tumblr was such that there were even users like Inés, 33, who followed the novel through memes, without ever signing up for the newsletter (she had read Dracula some time ago). “What I liked about the experience was the communal reading, which is how a lot of books used to be read (especially from that era and earlier). On Tumblr, people would comment on everything from silly jokes about a scene to brainy literary analysis and historical context about minutiae. Suddenly, all the characters were alive in their historical moment, and they weren’t doing things for the sake of doing them, it was just that in that era they had to be done that way, it was the expected or necessary thing to do. Or not, and they were breaking the mold. And many of the things that I had observed during my individual reading were things that were clearly there, that everyone could see,” she says of her own experience. This year she started listening to Re:Dracula, a radio version that also publishes its contents according to the dates of the novel. The creator of Dracula Daily is amazed to say that he was asked for permission; he has not been able to follow it regularly. Baena had to leave the reading halfway through “for academic reasons,” although he hopes to complete it in the 2024 edition. “I owe it to the Count, or he will unleash his evil influence on me…,” he says.
Approaching classics in a different way
Inés subscribed to the Dangerous Liaisons newsletters in both the original French and in English. “I’d been wanting to read it for a long time, but it was impossible for me to read such a huge book on my own, and [it’s] from the 18th century, to boot. So, I took advantage of this format,” she says. “I loved it because it’s as if they were writing the letters to me, you get the gossip little by little in real time. It’s fascinating.”
Like Inés, many people are somewhat intimidated by certain classics for reasons that can range from length to language, form or lack of custom, so projects like these can help give new life to these texts for a new audience. “I’ve seen quite a few fans say, ‘I never thought I’d be able to read this book,’” Matt Kirkland notes. A regular reader of Victorian literature, he had not considered that his newsletter could have this effect, but experts in electronic and transmedia literature are not surprised. Ana Cuquerella explains that these types of projects are “alternative ways of getting into the original.” She gives the example of something she does in class. “In every course, I show my students the feeling of rootlessness and hopelessness with a rap by El Piezas… it’s about [Federico Garcia] Lorca’s Romance del emplazado. They don’t know that, but when they listen to it, without exception, they are all able to decipher the underlying message. Then, seeing that this rapper translates it into their language and that they can understand it, they approach Lorca in a totally different way, actively trying to discover what he has to say to them today,” he says.
Literary newsletters do not represent such a dramatic change, but they do bring the text closer to the reader through activity on social media. “I don’t know if you appreciate the details more because of this format [being forced to read little by little] but having thousands of people commenting on each sentence and noticing different things does,” Inés reflects.
Can you say that you have read a classic if you have done so through these bulletins? “If the only thing being done to a work is fragmentation, I personally would say that you are enjoying the original,” says Elisa Yuste. Changing the order, as in the case of Dracula Daily, is another matter. What often happens, Matt Kirkland admits, is that people start with the newsletter and end up going to the book. “Sometimes users who have just unsubscribed from the newsletter write me to explain that it’s not because of anything bad. They just couldn’t wait; they bought the book and have already devoured it,” he says.
Will there be more “seasons” of Dracula Daily? “It doesn’t take too much work, so I guess as long as there’s interest, I’ll keep doing it,” he says. For the moment, the project has already made the leap back to paper: a few weeks ago, Kirkland published a book with the text in chronological order with many of the memes, illustrations and comments that have appeared under the hashtag over these past three years.
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Bill Watterson’s return after ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ adds mystery to his legend | Culture
Writing 43 sentences doesn’t seem like the most loquacious way to break almost 30 years of silence. But you never know with Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, one of the most beloved newspaper comic strips in history. The cartoonist just published The Mysteries, a laconic black-and-white “adult” fable based on Watterson’s story with drawings done in collaboration with John Kascht, known for his elongated caricatures of celebrities.
The Mysteries is the story of a medieval kingdom in crisis, with airplanes flying over newspaper stands and highways, where life is shaped by “the mysteries” alluded to in the comic’s title. “No one had ever seen them, but they seemed to be everywhere. And people lived in suspicion and fear,” the fable begins. Printed on the odd pages of the hardcover book, the drawings are intriguing, a mix of charcoal backgrounds and what looks like photographs of clay models. The 43 sentences construct a morality tale that is open to interpretation. Is The Mysteries a reflection on climate change? Or is it about immigration? Does it talk about the lies of power? Or the dark side of technology? With Watterson, you never know.
Watterson, 65, was born in Washington but soon moved with his parents to Chagrin Falls, a small town near Cleveland, Ohio. The area’s wooded charm served as the setting for the comics he began publishing in 1985. His characters were a bold, imaginative and intelligent six-year-old boy named Calvin and his inseparable conspiratorial friend Hobbes, an extremely sharp animal or a stuffed tiger, depending on how you look at it.
In 1995, Watterson published the last comic strip, in which Calvin uttered one of the most famous lines in the history of comics: “It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy… Let’s go exploring!” Since then, the cartoonist has devoted himself to his own pursuits: cultivating his passion for music, spending time with his family, sabotaging his bank account by refusing time and again to turn his characters into merchandising fodder, and avoiding the spotlight. Like a comic yeti, the same photo of him is almost always in circulation; in it, a smiling Watterson looks up from his worktable. (In recent weeks, some critics have wondered whether the new work might not be a cryptic account of his retirement).
Watterson hasn’t been completely silent in the nearly 28 years since he left Calvin behind. While he declined to appear in a documentary about him (Dear Mr. Watterson, 2013, available free on YouTube), he has given at least three interviews: one to his hometown paper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, in 2010, in which he stated that he has never regretted the decision to retire his characters; another to the curiosity website Mental Floss, in 2013; and his most in-depth interview, done on the occasion of the publication of a catalog for an exhibition on his work in 2015. He drew the poster for a documentary on the evolution of newspaper comic strips (Stripped, 2014) and, eight years ago, he also created the poster for the Angoulême festival, which awarded him the Grand Prix for his entire career. In addition, he left his refuge to honor another master American cartoonist, Richard Thompson (1957-2016), the creator of the unforgettable Cul de Sac, and somewhat unexpectedly collaborated with the Pearls Before Swine comic strip.
Thompson was the one who introduced Watterson and Kascht. The Mysteries is the fruit of a decade of collaboration between the two. The February announcement of the project’s existence caused a great stir. After the book’s publication, Watterson made an exception to his silence by releasing a 15-minute promotional video in which the two authors take turns describing the half-finished work in a voice-over.
Watterson wrote the book’s story, which he says he had kept in a drawer for a long time. They imposed a rule on each other: “Neither of us would have the last word. Neither could veto anything or cancel the project. We would only go ahead with what we agreed on,” the creator of Calvin and Hobbes says in the video. As he speaks, images of hands — apparently his own — working on one of the comic’s backgrounds appear on screen. Watterson adds that he “wasn’t looking for an assistant. I didn’t want to be the boss. I wanted a sparring partner, someone whose ideas and skills challenged my own.”
Both describe the struggle between a perfectionist who needs to know where he’s headed at all times (Kascht) and someone who loves improvisation (Watterson). “It would be hard to overstate the incompatibility of our creative approaches,” the former explains in the video. “Now I understand why [rock] bands break up in the recording studio. Our collaboration wasn’t so much a matter of compromise as it was a matter of clashes. It didn’t end up being very smart: we created tons of waste. The truly remarkable thing is that we never got personally angry. We worked from a point of difference in pursuit of a common purpose, which is almost an act of defiance these days.”
Watterson recounts that by the end of the first year they hadn’t been able to produce anything together. “So, we started over,” he adds. Kascht created a bunch of clay models of faces of inhabitants of that medieval world and sent them to his partner. They did something akin to casting the models. Nevertheless, the story had a happy ending for Watterson, who concludes in the video: “Collaboration creates friction, but it also creates energy, and sometimes the combination of talents is greater than the sum of its parts.”
The result of that partnership is a strange artifact, which has been received as a disconcerting event in the world of American comics. It has done well on bestseller lists because of the legendary comic strip that was published every week in over two thousand newspapers around the world, including EL PAÍS, but it has disappointed those who expected some trace of the joy and lightness of Calvin and Hobbes.
In a 2010 interview with the Plain Dealer, 15 years after the end of Calvin and Hobbes, Watterson stated, “It’s always better to leave the party early. If I had followed the strip’s popularity and repeated myself for another five, 10 or 20 years, the people who are now mourning Calvin and Hobbes would be wishing me dead and cursing newspapers for publishing tedious, old strips like mine instead of bringing in fresher, livelier talent. And I would have to agree.” Watterson also left another party — paper newspapers — early (or at the right time), although some like The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times continue the tradition of publishing an offprint on Sundays with comic strips on top of each other, a format that is difficult to translate to a webpage.
To return to the imaginative universe of the boy named after a certain reformist theologian and the tiger inspired by Thomas Hobbes, one must go to the Billy Ireland Comic Book Museum and Library at Ohio State University in Columbus, which houses “the world’s largest collection of cartoons, graphic novels and comic-related materials.” That includes 3,000 originals of the famous comic strip, which Watterson deposited there. In addition to the exhibits, visitors are welcome in the reading room, where they can consult materials from the library’s inexhaustible holdings.
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What’s Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2023? Hint: Be true to yourself | Culture
In an age of deepfakes and post-truth, as artificial intelligence rose and Elon Musk turned Twitter into X, the Merriam-Webster word of the year for 2023 is “authentic.”
Authentic cuisine. Authentic voice. Authentic self. Authenticity as artifice. Lookups for the word are routinely heavy on the dictionary company’s site but were boosted to new heights throughout the year, editor at large Peter Sokolowski told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview.
“We see in 2023 a kind of crisis of authenticity,” he said ahead of Monday’s announcement of this year’s word. “What we realize is that when we question authenticity, we value it even more.”
Sokolowski and his team don’t delve into the reasons people head for dictionaries and websites in search of specific words. Rather, they chase the data on lookup spikes and world events that correlate. This time around, there was no particularly huge boost at any given time but a constancy to the increased interest in “authentic.”
This was the year of artificial intelligence, for sure, but also a moment when ChatGPT-maker OpenAI suffered a leadership crisis. Taylor Swift and Prince Harry chased after authenticity in their words and deeds. Musk himself, at February’s World Government Summit in Dubai, urged the heads of companies, politicians, ministers and other leaders to “speak authentically” on social media by running their own accounts.
“Can we trust whether a student wrote this paper? Can we trust whether a politician made this statement? We don’t always trust what we see anymore,” Sokolowski said. “We sometimes don’t believe our own eyes or our own ears. We are now recognizing that authenticity is a performance itself.”
Merriam-Webster’s entry for “authentic” is busy with meaning. There’s “not false or imitation: real, actual,” as in an authentic cockney accent. There’s “true to one’s own personality, spirit or character.” There’s “worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact.” There’s “made or done the same way as an original.” And, perhaps the most telling, there’s “conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features.”
“Authentic” follows 2022′s choice of “gaslighting.” And 2023 marks Merriam-Webster’s 20th anniversary choosing a top word.
The company’s data crunchers filter out evergreen words like “love” and “affect” vs. “effect” that are always high in lookups among the 500,000 words it defines online. This year, the wordsmiths also filtered out numerous five-letter words because Wordle and Quordle players clearly use the company’s site in search of them as they play the daily games, Sokolowski said.
Sokolowski, a lexicologist, and his colleagues have a bevy of runners-up for word of the year that also attracted unusual traffic. They include “X” (lookups spiked in July after Musk’s rebranding of Twitter), “EGOT” (there was a boost in February when Viola Davis achieved that rare quadruple-award status with a Grammy) and “Elemental,” the title of a new Pixar film that had lookups jumping in June.
Rounding out the company’s top words of 2023, in no particular order:
RIZZ: It’s slang for “romantic appeal or charm” and seemingly short for charisma. Merriam-Webster added the word to its online dictionary in September and it’s been among the top lookups since, Sokolowski said.
KIBBUTZ: There was a massive spike in lookups for “a communal farm or settlement in Israel” after Hamas militants attacked several near the Gaza Strip on Oct. 7. The first kibbutz was founded circa 1909 in what is today Israel.
IMPLODE: The June 18 implosion of the Titan submersible on a commercial expedition to explore the Titanic wreckage sent lookups soaring for this word, meaning “to burst inward.” “It was a story that completely occupied the world,” Sokolowski said.
DEADNAME: Interest was high in what Merriam-Webster defines as “the name that a transgender person was given at birth and no longer uses upon transitioning.” Lookups followed an onslaught of legislation aimed at curtailing LGBTQ+ rights around the country.
DOPPELGANGER: Sokolowski calls this “a word lover’s word.” Merriam-Webster defines it as a “double,” an “alter ego” or a “ghostly counterpart.” It derives from German folklore. Interest in the word surrounded Naomi Klein’s latest book, “Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World,” released this year. She uses her own experience of often being confused with feminist author and conspiracy theorist Naomi Wolf as a springboard into a broader narrative on the crazy times we’re all living in.
CORONATION: King Charles III had one on May 6, sending lookups for the word soaring 15,681% over the year before, Sokolowski said. Merriam-Webster defines it as “the act or occasion of crowning.”
DEEPFAKE: The dictionary company’s definition is “an image or recording that has been convincingly altered and manipulated to misrepresent someone as doing or saying something that was not actually done or said.” Interest spiked after Musk’s lawyers in a Tesla lawsuit said he is often the subject of deepfake videos and again after the likeness of Ryan Reynolds appeared in a fake, AI-generated Tesla ad.
DYSTOPIAN: Climate chaos brought on interest in the word. So did books, movies and TV fare intended to entertain. “It’s unusual to me to see a word that is used in both contexts,” Sokolowski said.
COVENANT: Lookups for the word meaning “a usually formal, solemn, and binding agreement” swelled on March 27, after a deadly mass shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee. The shooter was a former student killed by police after killing three students and three adults.
Interest also spiked with this year’s release of “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” and Abraham Verghese’s long-awaited new novel, “The Covenant of Water,” which Oprah Winfrey chose as a book club pick.
More recently, soon after U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson ascended to House speaker, a 2022 interview with the Louisiana congressman recirculated. He discussed how his teen son was then his “accountability partner” on Covenant Eyes, software that tracks browser history and sends reports to each partner when porn or other potentially objectionable sites are viewed.
INDICT: Former President Donald Trump has been indicted on felony charges in four criminal cases in New York, Florida, Georgia and Washington, D.C., in addition to fighting a lawsuit that threatens his real estate empire.
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