NEW DELHI — On Thursday, Feb. 1, at a busy street corner in West Delhi, Yashpal Saxena watched a man pull his son Ankit’s head back, while another cut his throat.
“It took three seconds,” Saxena recalled at his home a fortnight later, after the memorial service for Ankit. “In those three seconds, time seemed to slow down, but really … I’m telling you, it only takes three seconds for everything to change forever.”
Saxena remembers rushing to his son’s side, he and his wife struggling to lift the body of their 23-year-old. Both knew taking him to a hospital was futile — Ankit’s blood was everywhere. Fourteen days since his death, the couple are still struggling to understand the course of events that led to that brutal moment: Unknown to Saxena and his wife, Ankit had a lover for the past few years, an old neighbor’s daughter, Shehzadi.
Ankit was a Kayasth Hindu, and Shehzadi was Muslim — a fact that Saxena told me would not really have mattered had Ankit chosen to confide in him. As things stood, Ankit’s parents had begun to look for a suitable match for him once he started earning. For the longest time, Shehzadi’s parents had no idea that she was involved with a Hindu boy.
KIEV — Amid the opportunists, weirdos, trolls, and pawns who make up the cast of the Russian plot to interfere in American politics, Joseph Mifsud stands out.
The Maltese professor, who allegedly delivered word of Hillary Clinton’s stolen emails to Donald Trump’s campaign, is an authentically mysterious figure, his true role and ties to Russian intelligence unclear.
And while others like former Trump campaign aides George Papadopoulos and Carter Page — and their friends and girlfriends — told their stories, Mifsud went to ground. His biography disappeared from one university where he taught and he quit his job at another university. His email and cell phones went dead. And politicians, colleagues, and journalists can’t find him.
Neither can Anna, his 31-year-old Ukrainian fiancé, who says he is the father of her newborn child. And her story, snatched from the pages of a John le Carré novel, offers a glimpse at the human collateral damage of an intelligence operation in which the mysterious Mifsud was allegedly a central figure.
DUNBLANE, Scotland — It took one man around three minutes to kill 16 children and their teacher, before turning a gun on himself. The four pistols he was carrying were all legal, as was his bag full of 743 cartridges.
The horribly familiar scene didn’t happen in the US — it played out in a primary school in Dunblane, Scotland, 22 years ago today. The massacre sparked nationwide mourning and a furious debate about gun control that pitted grieving families against conservative politicians and a powerful gun lobby.
It also changed the law. Just over a year later, handguns had been banned in Britain, and restrictions on gun ownership have continued to be tightened.
There has never been another school shooting in the UK.
From an almost pitch black underground shelter mostly safe from the bombs, as kids scuffled in the background, 22-year-old Nour Adam filmed himself. “Children eat here, sleep here, and have their life here,” he said. “They don’t have any place to get out. The airstrikes are still in the sky, hitting the buildings and the towns.”
Later, as he has to do every time he wants his videos to be seen by the wider world, he braved more shells to scramble to the roof of the building to get signal and post the video to Twitter, in a process he has repeated hundreds, possibly thousands of times. He hashtagged his tweet “#IAmStillAlive.” Adam lives in Douma, Eastern Ghouta, which has been under siege for five years. As the seven-year anniversary of the Syrian civil war approaches, he is asking himself: Is anyone out there still watching?
Global interest in the conflict is waning, and analysis by BuzzFeed News shows the number of shares on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites of the most-read stories about Syria in the past two months were a 10th of what they were just over a year ago.
“When I take a photograph or a video and post it on my Twitter I really hope that someone will really help us, and really see what is happening here in Ghouta,” Adam, a journalist and activist said, speaking to BuzzFeed News from a roof in the city of Douma. “I work so hard to try and post videos, but no one cares. I don’t know what to say. They just see the article or report, and just say: ‘Oh, that’s really sad.’ And after that they turn the internet off and go and live their lives.”
SAN PEDRO TAPANATEPEC, Mexico — Taking a drag from her cigarette, a Mexican immigration agent looked out toward a caravan of migrants that grew larger with each step they took on the two-lane highway.
When the agent, who’d covered her uniform with an orange and white shawl, learned that the Central American migrants heading her way numbered more than 1,000, she took off for the restaurant across the street.
“I’m going to have a relaxing Coke,” she told BuzzFeed News.
For five days now hundreds of Central Americans — children, women, and men, most of them from Honduras — have boldly crossed immigration checkpoints, military bases, and police in a desperate, sometimes chaotic march toward the United States. Despite their being in Mexico without authorization, no one has made any effort to stop them.
DIGANA, Sri Lanka — When the Sri Lankan government temporarily blocked access to Facebook last month amid a wave of violence against Muslims, it seemed like a radical move against new technology.
But in fact, government officials saw it as a last resort. It came after Facebook ignored years of calls from both the government and civil society groups to control ethno-nationalist accounts that spread hate speech and incited violence before deadly anti-Muslim riots broke out this year, BuzzFeed News has found.
Government officials, researchers, and local NGOs say they have pleaded with Facebook representatives from as far back as 2013 to better enforce the company’s own rules against using the platform to call for violence or to target people for their ethnicity or religious affiliation. They repeatedly raised the issue with Facebook representatives in private meetings, by sharing in-depth research, and in public forums. The company, they say, did next to nothing in response.
Ethnic tensions run deep in Sri Lanka, particularly between the majority Sinhala Buddhists and minority groups, and the country has seen a troubling rise in anti-Muslim hate groups and violence since the end of its decades-long civil war in 2009. Many of those hate groups spread their messages on Facebook. The problem came to a head in March when Buddhist mobs in central Sri Lanka burned down dozens of Muslim shops, homes, and places of worship. In response, the government blocked social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, in a decision it says was made to prevent the violence from spiraling further out of control. Facebook, officials said, couldn’t be relied on to respond to posts and videos inciting violence quickly enough.
PARIS — When Salah Abdeslam, the only known surviving member of an ISIS cell that carried out deadly attacks in Paris and Brussels two years ago, refused to appear in a Brussels courtroom Monday for sentencing, his absence was no surprise to French expert witness Dr. Daniel Zagury.
A criminal psychiatrist who evaluates suspects’ competency on behalf of French courts, Zagury wasn’t sure what to expect when a French investigative magistrate assigned him to assess Abdeslam after his extradition from Belgium to France. Some terrorism suspects treated their time with Zagury with disdain. Others chattered gregariously. In some cases, the suspects are clearly mentally ill.
Abdeslam, however, simply refused to speak. Not a word over the course of the two-hour examination. That silence spoke volumes to Zagury, who took it as a sign that while there was no doubt Abdeslam was a terrorist, he was not a particularly well trained or indoctrinated one.
“The guys who are trained and indoctrinated have their own techniques” to thwart an interrogation, Zagury said over a quick lunch in a busy Paris café across the street from the courthouse weeks before Abdeslam’s Belgian trial. “I knew right away that Salah didn’t have that kind of training.”
JOS, Nigeria — Bolu and his parents sat frozen in the car. Sweat was pouring down Bolu’s back, and he knew it wasn’t just the effects of suddenly coming off the tramadol and the codeine and the booze and the Rohypnol, and all the other drugs, all at once. He was on edge at the thought of entering the building looming in front of them.
Bolu’s last hope of getting clean after three years of dealing with addiction lay inside — a government-run rehab center in the central Nigerian state of Jos that was also home to drug runners and violent gang members, and terrifyingly alien to his comfortable middle-class upbringing. Run by the NDLEA, Nigeria’s equivalent to the Drug Enforcement Agency, it was part rehab and part correctional facility, somewhere between a halfway house and a last-ditch hope.
If Bolu walked in, the building’s peeling yellow walls would be his home — and jail — for the next four months while he embarked on a cold-turkey detox program to treat his addiction to tramadol, a legal but highly addictive painkiller.
In his father’s eyes, Bolu read the same thought that was racing through his own mind: Do I really have to go in there? The thought made him even more nervous, even sweatier.
MEXICO CITY — It has been a brutal electoral season, even by Mexico’s violent standards.
At least 113 candidates, pre-candidates, and current and former politicians have been killed and 300 more have suffered some form of aggression since September, according to Etellekt, a Mexico City–based public policy consultancy. Even the government’s tally — 34, which considers only candidates — pushes this particular death toll to nearly four per month.
Astonishing as these numbers are, they only tell part of the story: There are hundreds of candidates who have backed out of their races out of fear for their safety, and many others who have curbed their campaign activities. This poses a significant challenge to Mexico’s relatively young democracy, already crippled by systemic corruption and widespread impunity.
“Violence is altering the profile of candidates,” Alejandro Hope, a security analyst, told BuzzFeed News. “Who sticks around? The reckless and those who collude [with criminals].”
RIGA, Latvia — Dr. Viktors Kalnbērzs still remembers the day in the winter of 1968 when the phone in his office rang and changed his life forever.
On the other end of the line was his friend Vladimir Demikhov, a pioneering transplantology surgeon, who told him about a potential patient named Inna.
“A woman came in who wants to change her sex,” Demikhov told him, using language and revealing attitudes about gender transition that were commonplace at the time. “She wants to become a man.” Demikhov wondered if Kalnbērzs would be interested in taking on the patient.
Kalnbērzs would risk the anger of Soviet authorities and being shunned by the medical community to carry out an unprecedented surgery that remained a state secret for decades.
HARARE, Zimbabwe — A few minutes past 6:45 a.m. on a cold July morning in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare, a small group of people wearing bright yellow signs marched into the middle of a busy intersection and began directing traffic. Calling themselves “human billboards,” the posters strapped to their shoulders boasted the name of a local candidate running in Monday’s historic election, a 32-year-old attorney and activist turned politician named Fadzayi Mahere.
Mahere joined the roadside campaign shortly after her team, her warm smile standing in sharp contrast to the biting cold. As people drove past, she waved and danced the kind of two-step people do to keep warm. Many gave chirpy honks of support as they sped down the road; some leaned out of their windows to greet her personally.
“Good morning, thank you so much,” Mahere would say, sometimes offering a similar greeting in Shona, one of the main languages spoken in Zimbabwe. But the most crucial line of her bid that day was clear.
“Don’t forget to vote on Monday!”
SIOUX FALLS, South Dakota — Long before she became a fixture at NRA conventions, and years before she allegedly attempted to set up a back channel between the Kremlin and Republican officials, Maria Butina got her foothold in the US in South Dakota.
She was invited to family dinners of buffalo steaks, shot pheasants with local hunters, and established a track record of speaking to American students about gun rights. It would eventually become the blueprint for her outreach efforts to Washington and the NRA, where the FBI says she established connections “based on common views and a system of conservative values.”
Now a growing number of people in this sparsely populated state best known as the home to Mount Rushmore are flabbergasted to find themselves in photos or Facebook friends with an alleged Russian agent. Last month, Butina was arrested and jailed as an unregistered foreign agent for carrying out a years-long campaign to infiltrate US conservative organizations, which prosecutors say was directed by a high-ranking Russian official and funded by a Russian billionaire. She has pleaded not guilty.
“I met a Russian spy 3 years before she was outed,” reads the recently edited caption of an Instagram photo posted in 2015 by Nick Johnson, now an enlisted US Marine, who posed with Butina at a Young Republicans summer camp.
NEW DELHI — “Hello, my beautiful friends,” the Instagram story began like any other. The woman on screen was K., a 21-year-old from South India with more than 12,000 followers who visited her account for stories about dick appointments, staying thicc, and eating plant-based foods, as well as beautiful photographs accompanied by frequently unrelated but inspiring captions.
But this video was different.
“This is my story of a Tinder date gone bad,” K. said with a nervous smile. “As you know, I’m a super-positive person, but this is one of the hardest stories I’ve ever had to talk about…” she said, twisting the neck of her shirt.
The Instagram story, as it turned out, wasn’t just about a bad date — it was an account of alleged rape told over 80 separate 15-second videos, screenshots, and photographs. (It’s also the reason K. cannot be identified in this story as per Indian law, which forbids identifying alleged rape victims.) According to the Instagram story, in 2015 K. had been trapped in the house of a young man whose last name she did not remember, with no way to escape, raped repeatedly, and photographed in the nude. She said she was only able to leave his house the next morning when she threatened to contact the police.
Lawmakers from the home state of Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya minority regularly posted hateful anti-Muslim content on Facebook and, in some cases, explicitly called for violence, according to an analysis by BuzzFeed News. The posts were made both before and for months after state-led violence displaced 700,000 Rohingya Muslims last year, in what the UN has described as genocide.
UN investigators published a damning report on Monday calling for a number of senior military figures, including the head of the armed forces, to be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court. Soldiers murdered, tortured, and raped members of the Rohingya minority as part of a “widespread and systematic attack on a civilian population,” according to the report.
But the UN report also took Facebook to task, describing it as a “useful instrument for those seeking to spread hate,” adding that the company’s response to concerns about its role had been “slow and ineffective.” It said that the “extent to which Facebook posts and messages have led to real-world discrimination must be independently and thoroughly investigated.”
Facebook banned 20 organizations and individuals in Myanmar on Monday, including the head of the armed forces, in an effort to stop “the spread of hate and misinformation.” The company said it was making the move in response to a disinformation campaign it had uncovered that it called “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” But many fear it is too little, too late.
WASHINGTON, DC — The Trump administration is reaching back into Cold War history as it develops an increasingly aggressive strategy against Iran — one that could destabilize the regime in Tehran or even lead to its collapse.
Current and former US officials say a new campaign often described as “maximum pressure” has been informed by the strategy of Ronald Reagan, the conservative hero who is credited by some for paving the way for the demise of the Soviet Union.
Proponents of this view who advocate a similarly aggressive approach toward Iran say that Reagan’s combative policy toward the Soviet regime amplified the problems caused by its corruption and mismanagement and pushed it over the edge to collapse. One window into that mindset is the circulation within the administration of an out-of-print book published in 1994 called Victory: The Reagan Administration’s Secret Strategy that Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union. The book was written by Peter Schweizer, a favorite author of former Trump strategist Steve Bannon whose more recent work, the book Clinton Cash and the movie of the same name, roiled the 2016 election with allegations about the Clinton Foundation and its foreign backers.
In Victory, Schweizer chronicled the efforts of Reagan and his CIA director William Casey to deploy every tool of US power short of direct military confrontation to condemn the Soviet Union to the “ash heap of history,” as Reagan outlined in a 1982 speech to the British parliament. The strategy laid out by Schweizer includes economic warfare, which the US is waging against Iran in the form of an aggressive sanctions campaign. Several chapters focus on the more secretive aspects of that effort, from supporting dissident movements in Europe to funneling cash and weapons to Afghanistan’s mujahideen, who were fighting Soviet invaders. An official at the White House said it was “no secret” that the book has had some influence on policy.
TONALÁ, Mexico — The Mexican government quietly accepted a $25.5 million payout earlier this year from oil giant BP to free the company of responsibility for polluting Mexican waters after the largest oil spill of the 21st century.
The tiny payout was part of a confidential settlement to dismiss a lawsuit relating to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, when a BP offshore drilling rig exploded on April 20, 2010, in the Gulf of Mexico. It killed 11 workers and released more than 4 million barrels of oil off the coast of Louisiana — roughly 200 miles from Mexican territory. BP and the US government immediately set about addressing the pollution in US waters, but the extent of the damage to Mexican waters is still publicly unknown.
Not a single peso has gone to an affected Mexican.
WASHINGTON — Cassandra Ford tends to stay online late into the evening and then sleep in. So when two FBI agents dispatched by special counsel Robert Mueller’s office pounded on her boyfriend’s door at 10 in the morning in April of this year, they woke her up.
She stumbled downstairs and opened the door, her jaw dropping when they handed her a subpoena telling her she had to testify before a Washington grand jury in two weeks. Ford didn’t recognize the first agent, who was tall, bearded, and gruff. “He was like, ‘If you don’t go, it’s not going to be good for you,’ kind of threatening,” she recalled.
But she knew the other agent, Scott Halper. Back in August 2016, he’d taken her out for coffee in her native Defiance, Ohio, to talk about the unusual way she was using Twitter. He was friendly enough at the time — he just wanted to chat about a Twitter account she’d registered that June with the username @Guccifer2.
She’d created the account as something between a joke and an experiment — a riff off the hacktivist persona Guccifer 2.0, who at the time was slowly releasing files stolen from the Democratic National Committee. It would be months before the US government would publicly identify Guccifer 2.0 as a front for Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency, the same group that now stands accused of hacking into the DNC and taking the emails.
MOSCOW — In the years since Maria Zakharova took over the job of communicating Russia’s intentions to the wider world, her weekly press briefing has become must-watch TV here.
Combative and aggressive, her style mimicked Russia’s increasing belligerence, both at home and abroad.
One such briefing, in late May, exemplified the approach that has made her a star.
A journalist, Erkka Mikkonen of Finnish television, had dared to ask Zakharova, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, about an anti-LGBT campaign unleashed in Chechnya by its ruthless leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, and unearthed when survivors began speaking to the press.
O’NEILL, Nebraska — On the day her life changed and the small town where she lives was divided, Angelica crouched inside a cramped compartment on the back of a truck used to transport pigs to the pork processing plant where she worked in rural Nebraska. It was a muggy August day and her job was thankless: hose down the cells and clean the feces left from the previous haul.
It was a long way from her native Guatemala, but Angelica, 30, and her husband, Walter, 31, liked the sleepiness of northern Nebraska, a place where all one sees for long stretches on the highway are pockets of yellow and purple wildflowers, acres of thick cornfields, and the occasional gigantic bale of hay. Everything had been hard in Guatemala — to be safe, to find work, merely to live — but here, in the tiny town of O’Neill, where they’d lived since 2016, they’d found some refuge. Their 7-year-old daughter went to elementary school here and they’d had another baby girl, four months earlier. Hundreds of other Latino workers had also settled here over the past decade.
Though they both had no legal immigration status, the couple had jobs on farms in northeast Nebraska, which is in a part of the country that is more reliant on the farming industry than anywhere else in the United States. They worked long days, in hopes they could find stability and put down roots. Only two years in, Nebraska had started to feel like home.
But on this day, she heard the voices of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
SÃO PAULO, Brazil — From the balcony of BuzzFeed’s São Paulo office right now, you can hear screams of “Ele Não” echoing through the city’s winding avenues. It’s the same phrase I’ve seen graffitied all over the city this month. The same one I heard chanted from restaurants and bars all afternoon. It means “not him” — him being Bolsonaro. But his victory tonight isn’t a surprise. He’s just one more product of the strange new forces that dictate the very fabric of our lives.
It’s been a decade since I first felt like something was changing about the way we interact with the internet. In 2010, as a young news intern for a now-defunct website called the Awl, one of the first pieces I ever pitched was an explainer about why 4chan trolls were trying to take the also now-defunct website Gawker off the internet via a distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack. It was a world I knew. I was a 19-year-old who spent most of my time doing what we now recognize as “shitposting.” It was the beginning of an era where our old ideas about information, privacy, politics, and culture were beginning to warp.
I’ve followed that dark evolution of internet culture ever since. I’ve had the privilege — or deeply strange curse — to chase the growth of global political warfare around the world. In the last four years, I’ve been to 22 countries, six continents, and been on the ground for close to a dozen referendums and elections. I was in London for UK’s nervous breakdown over Brexit, in Barcelona for Catalonia’s failed attempts at a secession from Spain, in Sweden as neo-Nazis tried to march on the country’s largest book fair. And now, I’m in Brazil. But this era of being surprised at what the internet can and will do to us is ending. The damage is done. I’m trying to come to terms with the fact that I’ll probably spend the rest of my career covering the consequences.
In 2010, when I pitched the 4chan story, I was sitting on a dorm room futon, clacking out a pitch email from a busted laptop. But this new darkness lives almost exclusively on our smartphones and almost always involves exploiting an American company’s platform. Roughly 70% of smartphone users have an Android phone; the remaining 30% are on Apple. There are 2 billion monthly active Facebook users, 2 billion monthly active YouTube users, and 1.5 billion monthly active WhatsApp users. And when it comes to digital media, Facebook and Google control almost 60% of the digital advertising market, with Amazon as a distant third.
George Soros has been many things: a Holocaust survivor, an immigrant, a financier, a billionaire, and a philanthropist.
But he’s been accused of much more: interfering in Russia, organizing protests against corruption in Romania and gun violence in the US, financing the current migrant caravan in Mexico.
How Soros, who received a pipe bomb in the mail last month, came to be blamed for interfering in societies from Russia to the United States, and many in between, goes back decades. In 2018 in Trump’s United States, it’s reached a fever pitch.
The story of Soros the man is, by now, well known, though perhaps not quite as well known as that of Soros the myth. He was born in 1930 in Hungary, hid out disguised as a Christian during his country’s brief Nazi occupation when he was 14 years old, and studied at the London School of Economics, where he encountered the ideas of philosopher Karl Popper, with whose The Open Society and Its Enemies he was evidently so taken that he named his foundation after it.
RIACE, Italy — Domenico Lucano just wants the world to leave him alone.
Lucano is the mayor of a tiny medieval village, near Italy’s southern tip, that he saved from extinction by welcoming hundreds of refugees. Today he’s in demand from progressives around the world, a symbol of the resistance to the global rise of the far right and anti-immigration sentiment. On Saturday, he was a star speaker at a rally of tens of thousands of people against anti-immigrant legislation in Rome.
But he’s not enjoying the attention.
“Enough! Everybody wants my attention — I might as well kill myself at this point!” Lucano shouted through a scratchy apartment building intercom when BuzzFeed News tracked him down one evening last week. “Everyone is using me… Nobody ever cared about the refugees and now, here you are. I am bitter. About everything.”