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By Thomas Baekdal - March 2016

The Increasing Problem With the Misinformed

When discussing the future of newspapers, we have a tendency to focus only on the publishing side. We talk about the changes in formats, the new reader behaviors, the platforms, the devices, and the strange new world of distributed digital distribution, which are not just forcing us to do things in new ways, but also atomizes the very core of the newspaper.

But while the publishing side of things is undergoing tremendous changes, so is the journalistic and editorial side. The old concept of creating a package of news was designed for a public that we assumed was uninformed by default, but this is no longer the case.

The public is no longer uninformed. They are misinformed, and that requires an entirely different editorial focus. When writing for the uninformed, your focus is to report the news, which is what every newspaper is doing today. But when focusing on the misinformed, just reporting the news doesn't actually solve the public's needs. Now your focus must be on explaining the news instead.

So, in this article, we will talk about the rise of the misinformed using some really interesting data, as well as the threat to freedom of the press. And we will talk about how these two things are directly impacting your ability to succeed as a news company.

Things are hard

If we look at the trends, we see that the newspaper is the form of media that is struggling the most. It is the format that is facing the largest shift, the largest change in consumer behavior, the biggest changes in formats (to the point where we are format agnostic), and the biggest transformations in terms of the purpose for its existence.

The old concept of a newspaper, being a package of everything, has been decimated and atomized by the relentless new platform of the digital world. As such, newspapers have been reduced from being the entryway to information of every kind, to just... news.

Arguably, news is incredibly important, but it's also a very hard sell. Why would you buy a newspaper to read that '3 men were arrested for selling drugs', which was the latest news article published by one of our national newspapers as I wrote this?

Getting people to subscribe to news has become incredibly difficult, and so is getting advertisers to buy ad space, mostly because newspapers are no longer that platform to which everyone turns to be inspired.

It makes a ton of sense for an advertiser to advertise in a newspaper if people are reading the lifestyle section. It makes no sense if the newspaper is mostly about low-relevant stories about crime and politics. That's not material that fits well with the intent to buy something from a brand.

The result is that the newspaper is stuck in an existential crisis from which there are really only two ways out. One is to stop being a newspaper and start being something else. This is, in fact, what all the digital natives do. They would never start a newspaper defined in the traditional way.

The other way is to focus intently on just the news. Forget about the paper part (the package of random content). Just be a really amazing source of the news itself. A source so good that that people turn to you by choice.

Doing this, however, presents you with a number of problems.

The first problem is that you have to get rid of your average news for average people mentality that exists with every newspaper today. We now live in a world of abundance, so as long as you are focusing on average news, you will never be able to stand out or to create distinction. You have to be much more than just average news. You have to be a source of amazing news and unique news (which is much easier said than done).

Secondly, we have a growing problem everywhere in the world around the freedom of press. It's actually getting quite scary. And it's not just happening in obvious places like Turkey, Israel, Iran or Saudi Arabia. It's happening at home as well.

Think about what happened at Ferguson, where two journalists were arrested because the police felt they wanted to clear a local McDonald's restaurant even though there was nothing going on at that place.

Look at how we have seen an increase in cases where people are administratively detained (aka arrested by the police without having committed a crime), including journalists. In my country (Denmark), the number of people arrested for administrative reasons (like the police wanting to clear an area like in Ferguson) has gone up by 500% in the past five years alone.

Look at how politicians are strengthening surveillance laws and curtailing people's rights in the name of 'national security', while at the same putting legislation into law that protects the government from public scrutiny.

Look at how politicians, in the guise of protecting the public, are trying to put into law that they can assume control of the media in case of emergencies. This used to be something we only heard about from distant dictatorships, but is now also happening in democratic countries in Europe.

Look at the many examples we have seen where politicians are attacking the press for personal gains. Attacks that sometimes put journalists' lives at risk because they make other people feel that they can attack the press too.

Here is an example of what happened to Fox presenter Megyn Kelly's Twitter account after Trump called her a bitch and a bimbo.

Last week we also saw how a photojournalist was put in a strangle hold and manhandled to the ground by a secret service officer. His offence? He had stepped one foot outside of the the press area and had said 'f*** off' to the officer trying to keep him 'contained' inside press area.

But what's worse about this is how people reacted to it. Here is one example:

Seriously? Since when is saying something to a officer justification for such a violent response? This photojournalist was assaulted... and mind you, the place where this happened was actually inside the press area. We can see that quite clearly on the many videos of the event.

This is ridiculous. What kind of world are we living in? A police state?

I could go on and on about this and it's quite scary to see where things are heading. But the most scary part of it all is the sentiment that is growing in the public that you can apparently 'slam' anyone you don't like or who doesn't do what you want them to do. And the press is now part of that group being targeted.

While freedom of the press (and indeed freedom of the people), as well as the increasing problem with polarization of our society, is a huge problem, there is one other problem that is even bigger threat to the future of the newspapers.

It's the rise of the misinformed.

The misinformed trend

Throughout our history, we have always had a problem with the misinformed, but it has never been as widespread as it is today. And unlike the problem with freedom of the press, which is hard to do anything about individually, we can do something about the misinformed.

The reason is that the rise of the misinformed is partly our own fault. We, the press, have allowed it to happen by focusing more on pageviews than actually positioning ourselves as the source of true information.

The rise of the misinformed is now the largest obstacle for success for journalists today (outside the concerns that relate to publishing). If people don't trust the news, you don't have a news business.

The press has largely failed to maintain their influence, and that's why things are as bad as they are today. People's trust in the media is at an all time low, and it's still dropping. Not only that, but it's now so low that politicians are winning votes by saying that the press is lying about them.

Mind you, politicians have always claimed the press was lying, but in the past, people trusted the press more than the politicians. That has now changed for a substantial part of the public. They now trust the press less than the politicians, even when we can clearly point to data proving that we are right.

The public has become the misinformed.

But let's not talk about the theory. Let's talk about data. How bad is it really?

I want show you where we are today, and why we need to change. And we are going to do this with data. Specifically with data from PolitiFact.

As you may know, PolitiFact is one of top sites for fact-checking politics (in the US), and it has done a tremendous job over the years. They have fact-checked a total of 2,990 people across 10,794 statements. That's a serious amount of work.

They have several ranking systems, but the most important one is the Truth-O-Meter. It has five levels:

And then they also have a 6th level for statements where a politician is not just making a false statement, but is so out there that it seems to be intentionally misleading. They call it:

It's a great system, and you can look at any US politician and see how each has performed. Here, for instance, are Hillary Clinton's results.

But as an analyst, I'm not content with merely looking at individual politicians or presidential candidates. I want to see how things are overall. So, I went to PolitiFact and I went to every person's page to get data for each so that we could get the bigger picture. And the result is absolutely fascinating.

So let's look at the result.

The first problem with any fact-checking site is that they don't have unlimited resources. This means that fact-checkers always have to pick and choose what statement to check.

The result is that, even though they have checked 2990 people overall, most of them have only been fact-checked once or twice. When mapping out how many times each has been checked, we get this weird looking graph.

Note: This shows all 2990 people, but the labels only show 1/80 of them.

Obama is the most fact-checked person, with 575 fact-checks. Hillary Clinton is in 6th place with 163 fact-checks. Marco Rubio is in 7th place with 138 fact-checks and at 10th place is Donald Trump with 100 fact-checks.

Yes, I'm sorry Trump supporters. Trump isn't the most fact-checked person, that's just you being misinformed... again.

However, as you can see, the graph quickly drops to just one check per person. This is a bit of a problem, because we cannot judge a person based on only one fact-check. We need a certain level of data before we can trust the results.

So, for this analysis, I have decided to only look at the personalities with 15 or more fact-checks, which leaves us with a total of 108 personalities across the US political spectrum, including both Democrats, Republicans, political organizations and individuals.

The next challenge is: how can we visualize this? This was a discussion I had over at G+, and I came up with two different ways that both illustrate this data really well.

One way is to simply map all the data on a graph, centered on 'half true' being the minimum amount of truth we can expect a politician to make (remember the Truth-O-Meter description above). The 'false' scores are mapped on the negative axis, with all the 'true' scores on the positive axis.

The result looks like this:

As you can see, there is quite a big difference between politicians. The worst politician isn't Donald Trump. His truth rank is bad, but the 'Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee' is even worse. In fact, there are several personalities that are worse than Trump.

The best politician is Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat from Texas.

But there is a problem with this graph.

By ranking the data like this, we don't take into account the severity of the lies a person makes. A person who made 10 small lies will be ranked the same as a person who made 10 big lies. Both are obviously bad, but we should really punish people in relation to the severity of their lies.

So, I came up with another system. It's based on a logarithmic scale which works like this:

Sound reasonable?

The result of this is a much clearer graph that looks like this.

Now, when 'scored' based on how bad their lies were (or how good their truths were), Alex Sink, a Democrat from Florida is the most trustworthy politician, while the Democratic Party of Wisconsin takes the honor of being the worst liars of all.

But let's look at this in more detail.

First, let's look at the Democrats.

Here are the unscored and the scored graphs of all the Democrats who have been fact-checked 15 or more times:

As you can see, they range from very truthful (Alex Sink/Lloyd Doggett) to hopeless liars (Harry Reid/Terry McAuliffe).

I have also marked some of the top people, like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, and Bill Clinton. And as you can see, they are in the middle of the pack.

I was surprised, though, that Bernie Sanders scores worse than Hillary Clinton (although not by much). Also notice that Hillary Clinton is slightly more truthful than Bill Clinton. Specifically in the 'Pants on Fire' category... :)

Now let's look at the Republicans.

Here we see the graphs but only for the Republicans with 15 or more fact-checks:

Again we see the same pattern. The best politician is Rob Portman, a United States Senator from Ohio, while the worst is... well, it depends. If we look at the unscored graph, Ben Carson is the person who has the largest share of lies, followed by Donald Trump. And overall, the Republicans generally lie slightly more than the Democrats.

If we instead look at the scored graph (where we rank the severity of the lies), Michele Bachmann takes the 'win' of being the biggest liar, again followed by Donald Trump (and Ted Cruz is not far behind as the 5th biggest liar).

But do you notice something else?

While the Democratic presidential candidates are all very close together, the Republicans candidates are all over the place. This should come as no surprise to anyone watching the primary debates, but it's still fascinating to see with data.

Jeb Bush is the 5th most truthful republican politician, with Chris Christie not far behind. I find this to be fascinating. So it's a bit sad that both have now dropped out of the race.

Mind you, these graphs also illustrate how impartial PolitiFact is. One of the common arguments I hear from people on Twitter is this:

But look at the above graphs. If PolitiFact was clearly biased, they wouldn't be as wide ranging as this.

Do you want to know who is truly biased? Let me show you.

Below is the same graphs but this time looking at the political parties, associations or committees. These are groups who have a very clear interest in a certain political outcome and, as such, the result is scary.

Just look at this. Only one of these (The Democratic National Committee) is telling the truth more than they lie. But look also at the type of lies. They have a much larger share of very bad lies, as in 'Pant on fire' lies.

The worst ones, as I mentioned before, are the Democratic Party of Wisconsin followed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. They are so untrustworthy that it's outright crazy.

But there is another outside group that we need to look at as well, and that is the people that are used by the press as 'experts', or are themselves media personalities. And here are 12 people who have 15 or more fact-checks in this category.

As you will notice, I have added one more person to this list, which is Donald Trump. The reason is that his background is largely that of a media personality, so he has more in common with this group than other politicians.

Again, you will notice a rather disturbing result. In this group there are only two people with a positive truth ranking. These are Paul Krugman, Professor of Economics of CUNY and columnist for the New York Times (good job picking him NYT), and David Axelrod, Senior Adviser to Barack Obama.

Everyone else has a more questionable view on telling the truth, with people like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Herman Cain all being radio hosts as well as being super-pundits.

Most of these don't come close to telling the truth. But not only that. The lies they tell are often of the worst kind (directly false or pants on fire).

The result of all of this, if we were to look at it as an average, is this (remember, 100% equals nothing but the truth, 0% equals half-truths and -100% equals totally false):

The Democrats are +15%, so slightly above half-truth. Republicans are -15%, so slightly below half-truth. The political organizations, associations and committees are lying sleazeballs with a staggering score of -40%, and 'other', being the media personalities, are -20%.

This is just one of many ways I can illustrate how news media is losing the truth game. Granted, most of these media personalities are known for cable news channels, which we know sucks, but think about what's happening here.

The 'experts' used by the media are less truthful than the politicians. And you are giving them a voice? No wonder people don't trust the news anymore.

But it actually goes much deeper than this, and I want to illustrate this by looking at the process of how people get the news.

The news cycle

As we all know, news starts by having journalists report whatever it is that our politicians are doing. For years, journalists have insisted that they are neutral and unbiased, partly because of the concept of working 'behind a mask'. As Jay Rosen puts it:

I agree with this on principle. Journalists shouldn't be opinionists. But what's missing here is the analysis. Journalist are being so disconnected from the stories that they are letting the stories control their voices.

This 'behind the mask' thinking isn't working. It's not building trust. It's not making you neutral, and we see this very clearly when we look at the data.

Here, for instance, is the change in how people feel about politicians, TV news channels and newspapers over the past 15 years.

In the start of the 2000s, only about 20% of the public felt negative towards any of them. Today, 35% feel negative towards newspapers, 40% towards TV news channels and a staggering 50%+ feel negative towards politicians.

If journalists were truly neutral, if 'just reporting the news from behind a mask' actually worked, this wouldn't be the case. You are not distinguishing yourself from topics you cover. You have become part of the problem.

And before you say that 35% isn't that bad because that still means 65% trust the news, that's not what happening either.

If we instead look at the people who feel positive towards the news, that group is in decline as well. Only about 20% feel positive towards newspapers today, again following the decline in trust in our politicians.

This is absolutely terrible.

You can't just report the news and think that people will trust you. If the people you cover aren't trustworthy, you have to step up and do more. You have to show people what's true and false. You are being dragged down exactly because you don't question the news before reporting it.

Of course part of the problem here is also how news companies are defined around generating exposure for advertisers. As Les Moonves, CBS chairman and CEO recently said about his network's coverage of Donald Trump:

It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS.

Man, who would have expected the ride we're all having right now? The money's rolling in and this is fun. I've never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It's a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.

And he then went on and "called the campaign for president a 'circus' full of 'bomb throwing,' and he hopes it continues."

This is what's called a Trump-gasm.

But think about what's happening here. First of all, because it's the election season and because it's such a circus, CBS gets a ton of traffic. That's nice, but it also causes a decline in trust in the network.

More to the point, it causes the audience to become polarized, leading to sentiments like this:

Mind you, while this person now hates CBS all the Trump supporters love it, and that's exactly the problem. CBS may think it's neutral, but its editorial focus is causing its audience to split. Soon CBS will be dominated by people with only a certain political agenda. It is no longer neutral, because its audience isn't neutral.

So what do you think happens in November? Will he win?

It seems like this is what CBS is betting on, because if he doesn't win, it is in a really bad place.

Imagine if Trump loses, where will CBS be then? Its audience has been split. Its focus is leaning towards people who like Trump, but now that he has lost and is no longer in the spotlight all the time, CBS is stuck trying to please a crowd that has lost all their energy.

And, of course, this is not just the case with CBS, this applies to all news companies. Where will you be after November when the person you were betting on to generate all your pageviews suddenly becomes a loser?

But more to the point, by merely 'covering' the politicians, you are actually helping people to become misinformed. Instead of focusing on the actual facts, you are just reporting on different people's opinions.

It's no wonder that so many then decide whose opinion they like the most, and then stick with that.

As the media, you might say that this isn't your fault. But it is your problem, because it's killing your future.

Again, look at the data!

Lack of consistency

Of course, this doesn't just apply to politicians and political news. We see the same rise of the misinformed when we look at regular news topics as well.

Let me give you an example from Germany.

As you may have heard, several women were sexually assaulted on New Year's Eve by men reported as being from being from the Middle East/Africa (with some newspapers labelling them as refugees). The press was all over it with hundreds of articles about it, and it was all very scary.

The result of all of these stories was that many people made 'assumptions' that weren't really based on facts. Then, after the initial press frenzy (which lasted weeks), journalists finally started questioning the data. And what they found was that most of the 'assumptions' weren't true.

The numbers were lower. Most of the assaults weren't actual assaults. And, when they looked at the data, they found that "the refugees were no more criminal than Germans." But, at this point, people had already made up their minds. They had read hundreds of articles about how bad things supposedly were and thus a single counter-article wouldn't sway them.

They had become a misinformed public.

The result is stories like this one from The Spiegel: "Lying Press? Germans Lose Faith in the Fourth Estate."

Here we can read that:

In voicing these sentiments, the SPIEGEL reader joined the ranks of a movement that seems to have gained momentum in recent weeks - one that, to varying degrees, is claiming that journalists are no longer capable of being independent and unbiased.

It is a phenomenon that defies simple description. According to polls, 40 percent of Germans believe the media are not credible. And the loudest of them all, people like Tatjana Festerling, an organizer with the anti-immigrant, Islamophobic PEGIDA movement, have even taken to calling on the public to get out the pitchforks to chase journalists out of newspaper offices.!

But the scariest part of this isn't just that 40% believe the press is untrustworthy, it's why they think they are untrustworthy. And the Spiegel illustrates this well with an example from one of these misinformed people.

They tell the story about Isolde Beck.

She, like so many others, has been bombarded by scary and poorly researched stories about all those other women and 'foreign looking men', and because of that has formed an opinion that she now considers to be true.

It was so soon after the Cologne sexual assaults and she was furious with the perpetrators and the press, which she believes took too long to report on the incidents. Several days did indeed pass before the mainstream media in Germany began reporting heavily on the events of New Year's Eve.

Think about what she is saying here. She believes that the problem is even bigger than press is describing it, and is angry at the press for not making a bigger scandal out of it.

Then, after a journalist actually took time to fact-check the crime rate of immigrants, her response was even more anger:

Beck felt vindicated in a suspicion she had had for months: that the media had long concealed the extent of crimes committed by refugees and migrants. As early as the end of last year, she says, she was surprised to read reports that refugees were no more criminal than Germans. 'How could the media have known this at the time?' Beck asks. As far as she is concerned, it's clear that 'the media manipulated their reporting to reassure people'.

You see what's happening here. She is so misinformed that she is discarding reports because the fact-checked result doesn't align with what she feels should be the truth.

She feels 'vindicated' in her delusion by saying that the fact-checked stories are lies and manipulations by the press.

This is unbelievably scary. And it's the same we see with the Trump supporters. They mistrust the news unless they are reporting only what they want to hear. They are not uninformed anymore. They are misinformed in an extreme way.

As Nate Silver puts it:

American citizens with incorrect information can be divided into two groups, the misinformed and the uninformed. The difference between the two is stark. Uninformed citizens don't have any information at all, while those who are misinformed have information that conflicts with the best evidence and expert opinion.

But the reason this is happening is largely that the media is so inconsistent with its relationship with the truth.

You cannot first create a frenzy and exploit people's fears and superstitions, and then do a fact-check article telling people that it wasn't really true. Nor can you hint at something bad in the headline, and then clarify that there really isn't anything to worry about in the article.

Take the New York Times, where we can find a story with this headline:

You then click on the article and you read this:

'What we know for sure is that it will not collide,' said Sean Marshall, a Cornell University doctoral candidate who observes near-Earth asteroids. 'So don't panic.'

It's not like the headline is directly lying to people, but this is part of why people don't trust the news and become misinformed. New York Times took a very specific statement and added a hint of doubt to it.

This is the opposite of fact-checking.

Try comparing this headline with the PolitiFact ranking system. Where would you put this?

If you are generous, you would say that it's 'Mostly True', but it's closer to being 'Half True', isn't it?

Of course, the New York Times is a saint compared to many other newspapers. Here is how The Sun presented the same story:

Here is another example, from one of the largest news sites in Denmark.

The Google Car didn't slam into anything. It hardly touched it. Most of the damage was not caused by the impact, but by the movement of the bus as it drove by. The actual accident happened at less than 2 MPH.

How can we trust a news site if they have this inconsistent a relationship with the truth? They are no better than the politicians.

This led me to ask this question over at Twitter:

Just think about this. How would you score?

And remember, you have to include everything you write. If you merely report a story from someone who is lying, you can't say that it's not your fault and that you are merely the bringer of news. It is your fault, and the data clearly shows that it has a huge impact on how people feel about the news.

We can't just stand by anymore. We don't live in a world of the uninformed anymore where being the bringers of news was all that was needed. Today we increasingly live in the world of the misinformed and being the mere bringers of news doesn't work.

It makes it worse.

The future of news

This brings us back to what I started with. The future of news is very different from the past. We have become format and device agnostic. We have new behaviors, and we no longer have a scarcity of news.

To stand out and be distinct, you need to stop and adopt an entirely different editorial strategy.

First, you need to stop trying to create a package of random news for random people. That's a product for the old world of scarcity, back when the public was uninformed.

Secondly, you need to stop chasing pageviews and clicks. As a real news company, that's never going to be the winning strategy. Articles about Disney princesses will always beat you with about a million or so views. If you want a ton of views, real news is not the strategy to aim for. But real news is the strategy to aim for if you are monetized in other ways.

Thirdly, you can't just be a reporter of news. The data clearly shows that newspapers today are losing their relevance exactly because they are 'just reporting'. You have to be the voice of reason, the voice of real insights, the voice of truth with every single article.

Fourthly, you have to stop using and reporting on people who have proven to be unreliable. We kind of have to cover the politicians because they are our elected representatives (regardless of how much they lie). But you don't have to cover the political associations or pundits.

Stop relying on experts and start positioning the newspaper and journalists as the ones people turn to directly. It's not about having an opinion, it's about doing analysis and being known as someone who knows what they are talking about.

You, the newspaper and the journalists, have to be the experts.

In fact, covering the news is only relevant in the old world of scarcity. In the new world of abundance, it's far more important to explain the news. And if you don't understand how this is done, I will point you to sites like VOX, The Atlantic, or FiveThirtyEight as good examples of news sites that aren't covering the news as much as they are explaining it.

These sites don't waste their time telling you what someone said. They instead focus on explaining why what someone said is important (or misleading) and they try to put it into context.

This is the real future of news in a world where we are all connected.

Granted, some journalists will look at this and say that they don't like this because it means 'taking off their mask'. They are afraid that doing analysis of the people they cover will make them biased.

But it doesn't!

This is a problem I often come across when discussing the future with journalists. They are so focused on just reporting and interviewing people for their opinions that they don't understand what real analysis is all about.

Real analysis is completely objective and unbiased by default.

And if you struggle with this thought, there is a very simple way to do analysis in a completely unbiased way. It's like this:

Imagine that we want to evaluate the truthfulness of the presidential candidates in the US, but we want to make sure that our personal political bias doesn't influence the result.

The simplest way to do that is to get the data and then hide the labels before you start to do any analysis. The result is RAW data like this:

Now you start to do your analysis. You work the numbers, make your calculations, define the graphs and all the other things you need to in order to understand what's happening here.

We end up with a graph like this (which is the scored outcome I explained how I did earlier). But we still don't know who is where. We might have some personal assumptions, but we can't be sure because there are no labels.

Then, you add back the labels, and suddenly you see the real result:

Depending on your personal biases, this might come as a surprise to you. For instance, I thought Sanders was more truthful than Clinton. I has also assumed that Rubio was as bad as Cruz. But, as you can see, my personal assumptions were wrong.

This is what real analysis is about, and this is what journalists need to do as well. You are not unbiased and objective because you are hidden behind a mask and disconnected from the stories you report. You are unbiased because you are analysing the data before you look at who the data is about.

This is what we need from future news sites and future journalists. We don't need journalists who are just reporting what someone else said. That's the old world. Today, we need someone who can analyse, explain and put it into perspective... using unbiased analysis.

We need journalists and newspapers who can can stop this destructive rise of the misinformed before it starts. Not just because of the future of our society and the role of the fourth estate, but also because this is what will make you 'worth paying for' as a subscription-based news media.

We no longer live in the world of the uninformed. We live in a world of the misinformed.

We need a new news product to meet this market head on, and we need it now!


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
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