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Turning off political ads on Facebook could have unpredictable consequences – The Verge

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Programming note: The Interface is off on Thursday. Back on Monday.

It seems hard to believe now, but there was a time when political advertising was relatively uncontroversial. Sure, individual ads regularly proved to be controversial, from the nuclear provocations of Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Daisy” to racist fear-mongering of George H.W. Bush’s “Willie Horton.” And the economics of political advertising, which depend heavily on moneyed interests pushing their agenda through opaque front groups, have been the subject of sustained and valid criticism since well before the Citizens United decision.

But the basic idea that a politician ought to be able to buy space in a media outlet and show it to a bunch of people — that was something we mostly had learned to live with. And then social networks came along, and the calculus changed.

Buy an ad in a newspaper or on a TV station and your potential reach is relatively limited, at least compared to the internet. But buy an ad on a social network and its reach is potentially infinite — and it can acquire massive scale in an incredibly short period of time.

The old thinking was, a politician ought to be able to address their constituents — and if they say horrible things, that’s something the public ought to know. The new thinking was — well, sure, but what if he says that Election Day is a week later for the other party? What if he says that members of an ethnic minority have come to the village to eat your babies? What if he tells his army to go shoot a bunch of protesters and buys an ad to brag about it?

Suddenly that combination of scale and speed feels dangerous, in a concrete way. The lie gets halfway around the world before the fact-checkers even see it, and that’s if your social network will even let them fact-check the lies to begin with.

All of that is prelude to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg writing this on Tuesday evening in an op-ed in USA Today:

By giving people a voice, registering and turning out voters, and preventing interference, I believe Facebook is supporting and strengthening our democracy in 2020 and beyond. And for those of you who’ve already made up your minds and just want the election to be over, we hear you — so we’re also introducing the ability to turn off seeing political ads. We’ll still remind you to vote.

And so starting soon, you’ll be able to remove political ads from your Facebook feed. (Most political ads, anyway: Facebook cannot perfectly identify every remotely “political” ad, and so you may see some anyway.) This approach had been announced in January, but honestly who remembers January, and anyway now it’s here. This optional feature brings Facebook’s approach a step closer to that of Twitter, which banned political ads outright in November. (Google allows political advertising but restricts the ability of advertisers to “microtarget,” or show ads to people based on fine-grained demographic or location information.)

How big a deal is all this? Perhaps not as big as Facebook’s intention, also announced in that op-ed, to register 4 million new voters over the next several months — double what the company estimates it managed to achieve during the last election. And a new voter information hub modeled on a similar module that Facebook created for COVID-19 could also be useful as an island of sanity in a News Feed full of the usual polarized provocations.

But I always think it’s worth noting when, in a democracy, a major media outlet enables the restriction of political speech — even when its intentions are good. Sure, there’s the journalist’s tendency to favor more speech in most contexts. But there’s also an awareness that placing limits on one kind of political speech can often benefit other forms of political speech. Limiting political speech in ads, for example, could favor incumbents, who have less need of advertising.

It could also change the kinds of political speech people see on Facebook. Advertising executives there have told me in the past that political ads tended to be less inflammatory than regular posts on the whole, because fewer people want to see inflammatory messages and thus they can be more expensive to distribute. But unpaid partisan engagement bait circulates widely through Facebook echo chambers. The New York Times’ Kevin Roose does a regular bit on Twitter where he posts the day’s top Facebook posts with links, and the results often skew heavily toward the conservative side. You can imagine a world where partisans disable political ads, see nothing but links to articles that flatter their worldview, and withdraw further into their echo chambers.

You can also imagine a world where politicians take the hint, and stop threatening to send in the military to trample peaceful protesters, or falsely suggest that voting by mail is illegal, or rig up a Facebook ad for a data-collection scheme to look like a link to the official US Census. Maybe, in such a world, people would be less likely to turn off political ads on Facebook. This world is admittedly harder to imagine.

Maybe the political-ad toggle will turn out to be a minor thing. Or maybe researchers will pinpoint it, a few years from now, as a decisive factor in some outcome or another. The interlocking feedback loops of Facebook, its user base, and the wider world are basically impossible to understand in real time.

What you can do, though, is watch the company continuously adjust the trade-offs it is required to make: between speech and safety, between Democrats and Republicans, between the absolutists and the people who think there ought to just be a toggle. Sometimes “giving the user more control” can be the most responsible thing to do. Other times it can represent an abdication of some larger responsibility.

Facebook is now locked in a perpetual tug-of-war between the people who think it should allow more speech, and the people who think it should allow less. Allowing everyone to disable political ads feels like Zuckerberg once more attempting to thread that needle — one whose eye is small and shrinking all the time.

Pushback

I made a mistake in yesterday’s piece about Apple and antitrust: the email app Superhuman does, in fact, offer in-app purchases. So sorry about that.

Elsewhere, I’ve been riveted by the coverage of Apple’s inconsistent enforcement. See Dieter Bohn, Ben Thompson, John Gruber, and Savannah Reising for the best commentary on the subject. I expect this story will have more dramatic turns, and soon: WWDC starts Monday.

The Ratio

Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.

Trending up: Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and his wife Patty Quillin are donating $120 million to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). It’s the largest recorded individual gift to support scholarships at the schools. (Jacob Knutson / Axios)

Trending up: Facebook wants to help register 4 million voters this year with its new Voting Information Center. While some studies have shown that Facebook posts don’t boost voter turnout, perhaps this effort will. (Nick Statt / The Verge)

Trending up: Google is committing to spending more than $175 million on racial equity initiatives with a focus on financing black-owned businesses and supporting black entrepreneurs. (Jacob Kastrenakes / The Verge)

Governing

An excerpt from a new book by former Trump administration national security adviser John Bolton says Trump asked Chinese leader Xi Jinping to help him win the 2020 election. Here’s Bolton in the Wall Street Journal:

Trump then, stunningly, turned the conversation to the coming U.S. presidential election, alluding to China’s economic capability and pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win. He stressed the importance of farmers and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome. I would print Trump’s exact words, but the government’s prepublication review process has decided otherwise.

Senate Republicans introduced a new bill that would seek to limit Section 230 protections for big tech companies. In reality, the bill would likely make it even harder to hold companies like Facebook and Twitter accountable for selectively enforcing their own terms of service. Here’s Dell Cameron at Gizmodo:

The bill, dubbed “Limiting Section 230 Immunity to Good Samaritans Act,” would effectively grant users the right to sue major internet companies that enforce their own terms of service unequally and in bad faith. As it stands, users cannot sue any website for content generated by another user (e.g., tweets, comments, posts, etc.) or for any decision by the website owner to restrict access to content that the owner finds “objectionable.”

However, the changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act proposed by Hawley do not appear to place any new restrictions on how companies define their own moderation policies—only that they stick to, and evenly apply, whatever rules they ultimately decide upon. (Any effort to regulate how internet companies moderate content beyond that which is illegal, such as child sexual abuse material, would more than likely run afoul of the First Amendment.)

The Justice Department is also working on a proposal to pare back Section 230 protections for tech platforms. The proposed changes are a direct shot at companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube that have come into the cross hairs of the Trump administration. (Cecilia Kang / The New York Times)

India’s antitrust watchdog is reviewing Facebook purchase of a 10 percent stake in Reliance Jio. The deal is meant to give Facbeook a foothold in one of the world’s fastest-growing internet markets. (Shruti Srivastava / Bloomberg)

The claim that half the accounts tweeting about COVID-19 are bots is overblown, according to disinformation experts. They say there’s little research to support the number is actually this high. (Siobhan Roberts / The New York Times)

Police departments are using their official Twitter accounts to tweet misinformation about protestors. At times, these rumors have included unsubstantiated claims about weapons and protestor violence. (Aaron Blake / The Washington Post)

Microsoft has pledged not to sell facial recognition technology to police departments until it’s been federally regulated. But documents show the company tried to sell the controversial technology to the government for years, including to the Drug Enforcement Administration in late 2017. (Ryan Mac / BuzzFeed)

Industry

Twitter started rolling out audio tweets on iOS. The feature lets users record audio snippets and attach them to tweets. Here’s how it works, according to The Verge’s Chris Welch:

If you’ve got access to it, you’ll see a new waveform icon beside the camera icon when composing a tweet. Tap that, and a red record button appears at the bottom of the screen, which you can tap to start recording your message.

“Each voice tweet captures up to 140 seconds of audio. Have more to say? Keep talking. Once you reach the time limit for a tweet, a new voice tweet starts automatically to create a thread,” Twitter said.

Audio can only be added to original tweets, according to this help page, so you can’t include them in replies or retweets with a comment. Another minor thing to note is that whatever your profile picture is when you record an audio clip will always be attached to that audio tweet. “Your current profile photo will be added as a static image on your audio attachment and will not refresh if you update your profile photo,” Twitter says.

Zoom says free users will get end-to-end encryption after all. The company had originally said the feature would be restricted to paid enterprise users. (Nick Statt / The Verge)

Apple’s head of diversity and inclusion, Christie Smith, is leaving the company. The news comes as Apple steps up its initiatives to promote equality. (Shelly Banjo and Mark Gurman / Bloomberg)

An army of public health volunteers is fighting vaccine disinformation online. Their plan is to conscript the vast but largely silent majority of Americans who support vaccines to block, hide, and report vaccine misinformation on social media. (Megan Molteni / Wired)

The features that make Facebook groups attractive — privacy and community — make them dangerous for the spread of misinformation. Often, they’re exploited by bad actors to share rumors and conspiracies. (Nina Jankowicz and Cindy Otis / Wired)

Employees at the mental health startup Crisis Text Line tried telling the board about the CEO’s racial insensitivities. When that didn’t work, they went to Twitter. (Zoe Schiffer / The Verge)

Police body cam videos can underplay officer brutality by only showing their point of view. “Body cameras show a scene from the perspective of the officer, and the image on the screen is focused on the suspect. That changes the way the incident is interpreted,” this author writes. (Nicole Wetsman / The Verge)

Video game companies have vowed to fight racism in their communities in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the ensuing mass protests. But they’ve offered few details about how. Their silence has left some in the community wondering why even basic, text-based instances of racism persist. (Noah Smith / The Washington Post)

ByteDance, the Chinese parent company of TikTok, booked around $5.64 billion in revenue for the January-March quarter. The number shows growth of more than 130 percent compared with the same period a year earlier. (Yingzhi Yang and Julie Zhu / Reuters)

People are stealing OnlyFans content and posting it for free on other adult sites. In some cases, they’re scraping subscribe-only content in bulk and then hawking it on Discord servers. (Samantha Cole and Joseph Cox / Vice)

Magic Leap is trying to stay afloat with business-focused applications built in the model of Microsoft’s HoloLens. It’s a far fall for a company that, in 2016, looked like it could change the world. (Adi Robertson / The Verge)

The Trust & Safety Professional Association is born! It will offer training and career development for people who work on content moderation and related subjects around the tech industry, and initial backers include Facebook, Google, Twitter, YouTube, and Airbnb. I spoke with Clara Tsao during the association’s development and have high hopes for the good it can do.

Things to do

Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.

Install Siri’s “I’m getting pulled over” shortcut. “It will dim your phone, pause any music being played, and start recording video from your front-facing camera. It can also send your current location and a copy of that video to an emergency contact, though you’ll need to confirm a few pop-up messages to complete these steps,” James Vincent writes.

Subscribe to a podcast focused history, literature, and current affairs from a non-white point of view. This viral Twitter thread has lots of good examples.

Try a Pride-themed Snapchat filter. These “portal lenses,” made in partnership with The Advocate, will introduce you to some of “the LGBTQ+ activists, artists, politicians, and more from each state who are changing the world for the better.”

Those good tweets

Talk to us

Send us tips, comments, questions, and your political ad preferences: casey@theverge.com and zoe@theverge.com.

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Canadians want courts, not politics, to decide the fate of Meng Wanzhou: Nanos survey – CTV News

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TORONTO —
More than half of Canadians oppose swapping Meng Wanzhou for two Canadians imprisoned in China, according to a new poll from Nanos Research on behalf of CTV News.

Additionally, the poll shows, Canadians want the federal government to be more aggressive in freeing Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor from their Chinese prisons, and believe the fate of Meng, a Huawei executive facing extradition to the United States on fraud charges, should be left to the courts.

Kovrig and Spavor were arrested separately in December 2018, days after Meng was taken into custody in British Columbia, and charged with espionage last month. Their arrests have widely been seen as political retribution by China, though the Chinese government has denied this.

The idea of a prisoner swap gained steam in late June after a spokesperson for China’s foreign embassy suggested that Canada releasing Meng could affect the fates of Kovrig and Spavor. A group of 19 prominent former politicians and diplomats wrote Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the same day, urging him to halt Meng’s extradition proceeding in order to secure the release of the two Canadians.

Trudeau emphatically ruled this out, saying that Canada should not suggest that arresting Canadians will allow other countries to get whatever they want from the Canadian government.

The new polling data suggests that Trudeau has popular support for this stance. Nanos found that 40 per cent of Canadians say they oppose a prisoner exchange, with another 16 per cent somewhat opposing it. Sixteen per cent say they support it, and 19 per cent say they somewhat support it, while nine per cent report being unsure.

Support for the prisoner swap was higher among Canadians aged 55 or older and men, and noticeably lower among Quebec residents.

The poll also reveals strong support for leaving the Meng extradition file with the courts. More than two-thirds of respondents – 68 per cent – said that is the venue where it should be decided, while 22 per cent said it should be decided by the government. Ten per cent were unsure.

Although there are arguments that the government has the legal authority to intervene in the court process, Trudeau has been advised that the specific power that allows this has never before been used for diplomatic or political reasons.

Another major finding of the poll is that when presented with a range of approaches for trying to get China to release Kovrig and Spavor, Canadians are most likely to support more aggressive government action that directly targets China, such as blocking Chinese companies from buying Canadian firms or denying entry to the country to Chinese government officials and their families.

Fifty-three per cent of respondents preferred those approaches, while 36 per cent said Canada should focus on diplomatic efforts, six per cent said Canada should ask the U.S. to intervene, and six per cent were unsure.

Residents of B.C. and the Prairies were the most likely to prefer Canada taking more aggressive measures against China, while Quebecers were the most likely to recommend a continued focus on diplomacy.

METHODOLOGY

The observations in this polling data are based on an RDD dual-frame (land- and cell-lines) hybrid telephone and online random survey of 1,049 Canadians, 18 years of age or older, between June 28 and July 2 as part of an omnibus survey. The margin of error for this survey is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 time out of 20.

The poll was commissioned by CTV News and the Globe and Mail and the research was conducted by Nanos Research.

Correction:

Backstory:

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Virus spread, not politics should guide schools, doctors say – KSTP

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KSTP’s Complete COVID-19 Coverage

Still, health experts say there are too many uncertainties and variables for back-to-school to be back-to-normal.

Where is the virus spreading rapidly? Do students live with aged grandparents? Do teachers have high-risk health conditions that would make online teaching safest? Do infected children easily spread COVID-19 to each other and to adults?

Regarding the latter, some evidence suggests they don’t, but a big government study aims to find better proof. Results won’t be available before the fall, and some schools are slated to reopen in just a few weeks.

“These are complicated issues. You can’t just charge straight ahead,” Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday during an online briefing.

Children infected with coronavirus are more likely than adults to have mild illnesses, but their risk for severe disease and death isn’t zero. While a virus-linked inflammatory condition is uncommon, most children who develop it require intensive care, and a few have died. Doctors don’t know which children are at risk. 

“The single most important thing we can do to keep our schools safe has nothing to do with what happens in school. It’s how well we control COVID-19 in the community,” Frieden said. “Right now there are places around the country where the virus is spreading explosively and it would be difficult if not impossible to operate schools safely until the virus is under better control.”

Zahrah Wattier teaches high school in Galveston, Texas, where cases and deaths have been spiking. Until the state recently said schools must reopen to in-person classes, her district had been weighing options many others are considering, including full-time online teaching or a hybrid mix.

Wattier’s school has mostly Hispanic and Black students, many from low-income families; almost 70% qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches and many have parents who work in “essential” jobs that increase potential exposure to the virus. Online education was hard for many with limited internet access, and Wattier knows in-person classes can help even the playing field.

But she’s worried.

“My school has over 2,000 students. That’s over 2,000 exposures in a day,” said Wattier, whose parents live with the family and are both high-risk. “It’s a lot to think about. It’s my job. It’s something I choose to do, it’s something I love. Now it comes at a really high risk.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics, whose guidance the Trump administration has cited to support its demands, says the goal is for all students to be physically present in school. But, it adds, districts must be flexible, consult with health authorities and be ready to pivot as virus activity waxes and wanes.

“It is not that the American Academy of Pediatrics thinks this is a done deal because we have put out guidance,” said Dr. Nicholas Beers, a member of the academy’s school health council. “But what we do know is that we need to have a more realistic dialogue about the implications of virtual learning on the future of children. We have left whole swaths of society behind, whether it’s because they have limited access to a computer, or broadband internet,” or because of other challenges that online education can’t address.

DeVos said local school officials are smart enough to know when conditions are not right.

“There’s going to be the exception to the rule, but the rule should be that kids go back to school this fall,” she told CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“And where there are little flare-ups or hot spots, that can be dealt with on a school by school or a case by case basis.”

Following CDC and academy guidelines would mean big changes for most schools. Mask-wearing would be strongly encouraged for adult staff and students except the youngest. Desks would be distanced at least 3 feet apart; the CDC recommends 6 feet. Both suggest limiting adults allowed in schools, including parents, and canceling group activities like choir and assemblies. Staggered arrival and dismissal times, outdoor classes, and keeping kids in the same classroom all day are other options.

President Trump has threatened federal funding cuts for districts that don’t fully reopen.

DeVos defended that stance, saying, “American investment in education is a promise to students and their families.”

“If schools aren’t going to reopen and not fulfill that promise, they shouldn’t get the funds, and give it to the families to decide to go to a school that is going to meet that promise,” she said on “Fox News Sunday.”

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called DeVos’ comments “malfeasance and dereliction of duty.”

“They’re messing, the president and his administration are messing with the health of our children,” the California Democrat told CNN’s “State of the Union.”

While most funding typically comes from state and local sources, experts say schools will need more federal funding, not less, to reopen safely. Masks, extra cleaning supplies or janitors, additional classroom space, and mental health support for students and staff traumatized by the pandemic are among potential costs. And with more parents out of work, more children will qualify for federally funded school lunches.

Lynn Morales, 49, teaches 8th grade English at a high-poverty public school in Bloomington, Minnesota, that is considering several options including in-person classes; a final decision is expected Aug. 1.

Some colleagues are considering not returning to the classroom because their children’s day care centers aren’t reopening. Some say they won’t come back until there’s a vaccine.

“I am concerned and it’s because of the age group,” Morales said. ”Middle school students … are lovely and I love them, but they touch, they get close, they roughhouse. It is their nature. They’re 13 years old. They are defiant.”

“If masks are required and a kid isn’t wearing a mask, is my job description going to be to chase down this kid and insist they wear a mask? And what if they don’t?”

Dr. Emily Landon, a University of Chicago infectious disease specialist, is helping the university and a campus preK-12 school decide how to reopen safely.

“Things are evolving from, ‘We can’t do it unless it’s perfectly safe’ to more of a harm reduction model, with the caveat that you can always step back” if virus activity flares, Landon said.

Single-occupancy dorms, outdoor classes, socially distanced classrooms and mask-wearing by students and faculty are on tap for the university. Face coverings will be required at the school too. Policies may change depending on virus activity.

She dismisses complaints from some parents who say masks are a loss of personal freedom.

“It’s not harmful for your child,” she said. “If you see wearing masks as a loss of personal freedom, then you have to think the same of pants.”

Dr. Tina Hartert of Vanderbilt University is leading a National Institutes of Health-funded study to determine what role children play in transmitting COVID-19. Almost 2,000 families are enrolled and self-test every two weeks. The idea is to find infected children without symptoms and see how easily disease spreads within families. Results may come by year’s end.

“If we don’t see significant transmission within households, that would be very reassuring,” Hartert said.

She noted that in other countries where schools have reopened, evidence suggests no widespread transmission from children.

In France, public schools reopened briefly before a summer break, with no sign of widespread virus transmission. Masks were only required for upper grades, but students stayed in the same classroom all day. A better test will be when the new school year starts Sept. 1.

In Norway, schools closed in March for several weeks. Nursery schools reopened first, then other grades. Children were put in smaller groups that stay together all day. Masks aren’t required. There have been only a few virus cases, said Dr. Margrethe Greve-Isdahl of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, but she noted virus activity is much lower than in the U.S.

Kati Spaniak, a realtor in Northbrook, Illinois, says her five teenage daughters have struggled to cope with pandemic fears, school closures and deficits of online learning. She strongly supports getting kids back in the classroom, and all her girls will return to some form of that in the fall.

It’s been hard for her high school senior, Kylie Ciesla. Prom, graduation and other senior rituals were canceled, and there were no good-byes. “Just to get ripped away from everything I’ve worked for 12 years, it’s really hard,” Kylie said.

At college, classes will be in person, masks mandated and a COVID-19 test required before she can move into her dorm. Kylie isn’t sure all that is needed.

“I hate that this thing has become so political. I just want the science. I want to know what we need to do to fix it,” she said.

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After 50 years in politics, Richmond councillor Harold Steves says he won't seek re-election – CTV News

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VANCOUVER —
After 50 years of serving as a Richmond city councillor or a provincial MLA, Harold Steves says he will not seek re-election in the next civic election.

The politician made the announcement on Twitter, adding that this June 30th also marked his 60th wedding anniversary with his wife Kathy, and the occasion seemed like a good time to announce his retirement.

B.C.’s next civic election takes place Oct. 15, 2022.

“I joined the CCF [Co-operative Commonwealth Federation] party to fight to save farmland in 1960 and was elected the first president of the BC NDP Youth in 1961,” Steves wrote, adding that Kathy has always “quietly shared my workload.”

The Steves family have farmed in Richmond for decades, and the couple still run the family farm and live in the 103-year-old home on the property.

Steves first got interested in politics over a fight to save the farm in the 1950s. A university student at the time, and said he came home one day to find his father saying they would have to go out of business.

That’s because the city had denied his dad a permit to build a new dairy – a requirement during that period because Canadian regulators were requiring dairies to update to modern equipment. The Steves family found out their land and the land of many other farming families had been quietly rezoned for residential use.

“No one knew how to fight city hall,” Steves told CTV News Vancouver. “The taxes were going up and nobody knew what to do about it.”

The fight to protect farmland has motivated Steves throughout his long political career. He joined the CCF, the precursor to the New Democratic Party, and pushed for the creation of a land bank for farmland, an idea that would eventually become B.C.’s Agriculture Land Reserve.

Steves was first elected as a City of Richmond alderman in 1968, a post he held until 1973. From 1973 to 1975 he served as a B.C. NDP MLA, then returned to Richmond city council in 1977. He’s served as a city councillor continuously ever since.

Steves said his wife has been the backbone of his political career, doing all his filing and also reading countless reports. They met at the University of British Columbia, where Harold was studying agriculture and Kathy was studying nuclear physics.

“She does this all behind the scenes – basically it’s been the two of us together for 60 years,” Steves said.

The couple have five children and eight grandchildren.

Steves has been a stalwart critic of the B.C. government’s decision to build the Site C dam in the Peace region, warning that with the anticipated effects of climate change, the province couldn’t afford to lose valuable farmland.

In recent years, he’s fought to bring in changes to the size of houses allowed on farmland in Richmond, arguing that the large mansions that are currently allowed have led to rising land prices.

Steves said he plans to continue with his activism work, which is centred around protecting farmland and promoting the importance of strong local food systems.

He’s looking forward to continuing work on a plan to create 300 allotment gardens on some of the Garden City lands in Richmond, and ongoing work to create community garden plots in some city parks and develop incubator farms.

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