Back in 2014, Martin Gurri, an unknown global media analyst for the CIA, wrote a book called The Revolt of the Public. It was published by a small press with very little fanfare. In his book, Gurri argues that the digital revolution would, by transforming the information space, enable the public to participate more and more in politics. He also makes the case that this would create a perpetual impulse to revolt against the dominant institutions of society — government, media, the academy — and the elites who run them.
Gurri’s book reads like prophecy. If every American had read it, the country might look very different today. Gurri, now a private geopolitical analyst, is our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Some of the topics he talks about include:
- The American public’s relentless desire to destroy the established order without any clue about what comes next
- How the rising tsunami of information is tied directly to increasing levels of social and political turbulence
- How the 20th century was comfortable with structure and why the 21st century is not
- How Industrial Age democracy was not all that democratic
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Full Text Transcript:
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|Jeff Schechtman:||Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.
Given the speed at which the world moves today and how easy it is to break things, the ability to see around corners is perhaps the greatest gift and it’s always fascinating how some people are so good at it. For example, in 1934, TS Eliot gave us a peek into today when he wrote, “Endless invention, endless experiment brings us knowledge of motion but not stillness, knowledge of speech but not of silence. All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance. Where is the life we have lost in living,” he wrote in The Rock. “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” It’s a pretty good description of where we are today from 86 years ago.
|Jeff Schechtman:||My guest today, Martin Gurri, is also a seer, a former CIA analyst of global media. Back in 2014, he published a book entitled The Revolt of the Public which accurately and presciently defines exactly where we are today. I think it’s safe to say that if everyone had read Martin’s book back in 2014, the US might be a very different place at the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century. Today, Martin Gurri is a geopolitical analyst and a student of new media and information. His blog, The Fifth Wave, should be a regular stop for all of us and his book, The Revolt of the Public, has recently been republished. It is my pleasure to welcome Martin Gurri to the WhoWhatWhy podcast.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Martin, thanks so much for joining us.|
|Martin Gurri:||Well, thank you, Jeff.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Talk a little bit about your work as an analyst of global media at the CIA, something you’ve described as not a very glamorous job, but it gave you a particular insight into what was happening in the world.|
|Martin Gurri:||Correct. It was, as I always say only half-jokingly alas, probably the least glamorous job inside CIA. Turned out to be the most far-seeing perch to understand the structural changes that were about to hit the world. Basically, I was there when the early part of the late 20th century where you had a very industrial, very top-down information world, a very limited amount of information. I was there when essentially this world got blown away by what I call a tsunami of digital information. What was fascinating sitting there at that perch at CIA was first the volume. It’s unprecedented.|
|Martin Gurri:||I mean I always toss out this statistic. The year 2001, according to the people who measure these things, produced more information than the entire previous history of the human race back to the cave paintings. Okay? So it was unprecedented. If you were an analyst, you were just kind of slack-jawed watching the tsunami come at you. But what was really interesting behind that was this tremendous social and political turbulence that you could see happening behind that tsunami. You could tell that the information wasn’t just a lot of stuff. It had powerful, powerful social and political effects.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Why was it so important? Why was the information so important? What was it that you understood that the extension of this information into so many hands created this kind of turbulence?|
|Martin Gurri:||Well, I mean that was the basic question that I asked myself. Once I woke up from my daze over just the volume of it, as an analyst, you think of information as stuff you want to get, things you want to know, but in fact what became clear to me is that the institutions that govern the western world, the world in fact, the modern government for example … Here in the US, we tend to think of it as something that was created in the 18th century by the founders, and that is to a certain extent true, but in reality, the shape of our government today was given during the industrial age. It is top-down. It is very, very … Believe me. I worked at it. Very respectful, if not worshipful, of rank. It is very contemptuous of the amateur. It has an almost religious faith in what it thinks is science, what it thinks is expertise.|
|Martin Gurri:||To maintain that system, the institutions of government, all institutions but particularly those of government, had to have a semi-monopoly over the information in their own domains. So government in the 20th century, I’m not a young man so I lived through part of the 20th century, had a control over political information that, when you look at it today, seems almost amazing. What happens to these structures of power when that semi-monopoly is swept away by the tsunami? They have lapsed into crisis. Everything about government that is a failure, that is an error, that is a lie, that is a mockery, that is … And there are, in the course of the most successful governments, lot of these things, but those are the things that the information tsunami tosses out. So whereas before the government set the information agenda, now the failure of the government sets the information agenda. These institutions are just what I call a crisis of authority.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Right. And it was the volume of information that you talk about that was really destructive to authority.|
|Martin Gurri:||Right. I mean, let me make it clear. It’s not just the digital world. That obviously was the great earthquake that generated the tsunami, but it is the entire package. I talk about the information sphere. The important thing about that information sphere is that it is outside the range of any government to control unless you want to go to the North Korean or Cuban extreme, and even the Cubans are kind of giving up on that. Unless you want to be North Korea and completely shut down information at your borders and have a dismal, poor country that has famines every five years, you’re now swamped in information and the government cannot control it.|
|Martin Gurri:||The famous example of that was Hosni Mubarak, this 80-some-year-old man, shutting down the internet during the protests in Tahrir Square thinking somehow or another that he was going to take away the voice of the public. Well, I mean nothing like that happened. There was still many, many redundant sources of information for the public to communicate with and for the story of the public to make it outside to the world. So the size of that tsunami, the important thing about it is governments can’t control it anymore unless they want to go full North Korea.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||The net result of it was this battle that emerged between what you call the publics and the elites. Talk about that.|
|Martin Gurri:||Right. Basically, the public, as I define it, is the ordinary people. It’s not the people in the sense of “We the people.” That’s political philosophy. It’s not reality. It’s not the masses. That’s a 20th century kind of obsolete idea. I say it’s not even the crowd on the street even though there is a very intimate relationship between the public and the crowd. The way I put it is there used to be a mass audience. I was a part of it in the 20th century. The mass audience was like this gigantic mirror where we all saw ourselves reflected. I saw myself there. The entirety of the United States of America, we were all there looking at each other in that mirror. That was the mass audience.|
|Martin Gurri:||That mirror has toppled over and it has shattered. The public now inhabits all the broken pieces. It has all this information, all this idea about the government being a failure, all this idea about interpreting failure not as incompetence but as corruption and self-serving. In other words, they think the people who run the government, it’s not that they are trying and failing because they’re not competent enough. It’s because they are feathering their own nest. That seems to be almost universally the interpretation that is given to government failure. You have these broken shards of the public mostly disliking one another and fighting one another. The only way they can unify, the only way they can mobilize and become a political actor as the public has, is by being against. There’s no positive proposals. There is no program that they’re advocating. There are no organizations. There are no leaders. There isn’t even an ideology. Ideologies are frowned upon. There is just this feeling of loathing of the status quo, of the way things are. Established order needs to be bashed at.|
|Martin Gurri:||So we have this fractured public unifying every once in a while around some events that seems somewhat disproportionate. In fact if I can give an example, I mean in Chile which is a prosperous and un-corrupt democracy so far as I know, the government raised the cost of mass transit by 4% and nothing has been the same since. That was the spark that ignited this enormous eruption of events across the political spectrum. The people in the street burning buses. I mean, so there is a sense of what I call negation in the public. They just stand against the forms of modern government which is, they believe rightly, a very distant and undemocratic, hierarchical, and maybe more debatably, that are the source of misery and inequality and certain other things.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||How did the tribalism that we see today emerge from this kind of almost nihilistic attitude?|
|Martin Gurri:||Yeah, I mean you talk about nihilism, when you are against and you have no positive proposals, there comes a moment where just destroying the established structures that you hate so much without any alternatives starts to seem like progress. Just destruction for its own sake to me is nihilism. Tribalism is a word, I don’t use it much. I use fractured. We’re very fractured. When you’re fractured, you tend to act like the people in your little slice of the mirror. Right? So if you’re a Tea Party person, you kind of communicate and you have now, as you would not have had 50 years ago, the means of communication, WhatsApp or MeetUp, where you can all get together either virtually or really and get to know each other and get to be more like each other.|
|Martin Gurri:||So I guess that’s a form of tribalism. You could say the same thing with feminists. There are these fractured pieces of the public that unify only in their loathing of the established order that become more and more themselves. Now, everybody says there is an element in the algorithms of social media that pushes that process. There’s probably some element of truth in that, but I think it would happen either way.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||One of the things that it does is it breaks down any kind of trust either in society or trust in any of the institutions of society.|
|Martin Gurri:||Well that’s where it all begins, right? I mean basically, I always say back in the JFK, John F. Kennedy era, trust in government hovered between 70% and 80%. John F. Kennedy, for those who don’t know history, had this big disaster called the Bay of Pigs that happened. He acknowledged that it was a disaster, and his popularity went up. Okay? Trust in government went up. Now today, trust in government hovers between 20% and 30%. Whereas John F. Kennedy, by virtue of being president, had the trust of the public, today anybody who gets elected president immediately is distrusted by huge numbers. Majority, I would think. That was true of Obama. It’s true of Trump.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Is there a role for leaders, be they grassroots leaders or charismatic leaders, in this kind of fractured environment?|
|Martin Gurri:||There is in presidential politics. I don’t know if this is a role, but certainly there is a function. The only source of cohesion right now, we have these bands, these war bands of the public fighting each other. You talk about the Republican Party and the Democratic Party and the Independents. I mean that in a sense is gone with the wind. So if you just look at those war bands, then individual leaders each assemble a coalition of war bands that will give you a win in the Electoral College. That’s what Obama did. It was nontransferable. It was him. He lost pretty severely at every midterm and he couldn’t transfer his coalition to Hillary Clinton. Same thing happened with Trump. No way Trump is passing his coalition to Pence. It’s a personal thing. He also lost somewhat in the midterms.|
|Martin Gurri:||So now, if you’re asking more normatively are there leaders that could bring us together, I mean I keep waiting for that. I think part of the distrust that occurs is that old industrial mindset in which essentially politics was looked as almost a mathematical way. There were problems that had to be solved, and I, as a politician, I’m offering this solution for it. Well when you’re talking about employment, you’re talking about inequality, these are not problems. These are tremendously deep historical conditions that have their own very arbitrary way of behaving. So a lot of the people who pretended to solve problems, a lot of our politicians in fact are exposed by this new tide of information as just frauds. They don’t really know. It’s not mathematical. They’re guessing and they’re using big words, but in fact they don’t really know.|
|Martin Gurri:||So when you get back to leadership, what is leadership in this modern age of mistrust? I think it’s honesty. Saying for example, I think we can go this way and we want to improve our lot in some aspect of life, say the economy or whichever that we want to improve. This is how we’re going to try it. If we succeed, we’ll go on. If we fail, then we will adjust. It’s trial and error. It’s the only human process that has ever moved us forward and it entails a lot of humility from the elite class that I don’t see anywhere honestly.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||It’s interesting. We’ve been talking about it in the context of politics, but we could just as easily be talking about it with respect to popular culture.|
|Martin Gurri:||Everything. Every institution is in the same boat here. Every institution that we have inherited from the 20th century required that semi-monopoly of information for all the claims that they made about themselves. Once that tsunami swept over, you see, right, popular culture, the newspaper business, everything is exposed in a much more negative light.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||I mean in many ways, this was the long tail that some people envisioned even in the earliest days of the internet.|
|Martin Gurri:||Yeah. I mean I was a big fan of the long tail when that book was written. I’m a lot less certain of what that actually explains. I think for a fact you have kind of a very, very mass-oriented spike in attention that The New York Times and television basically have a hold of. Then before, you had a very short little drip and then there was nothing. Now, you have an almost infinite tail of information that sometimes spikes up. That’s what happens, right? I mean because the long tail is only important if it can climb up that power curve to the top. Sometimes you have things that get put on the internet and suddenly, they make news on television because they are exposing some political problem or political misdeed or just are crazy like the Trumpian style of saying something that is very attention-getting in a crazy sort of way and it makes it immediately to the top of the power curve. So the long tail is important only in that it generates a lot of what makes it to the top which has never happened before.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||It’s interesting. On Wall Street, four of the scariest words people ever say is, “This time it’s different.” Usually, it’s not. In many ways as we look at this, it does seem that this time it’s different. So many people say, “Oh, we’ve been through problems before. We’ve been through troubled times. We’ve been through civil wars, et cetera.” But there does seem to be something fundamentally different this time.|
|Martin Gurri:||Well I mean everything has parallels in history. I get thrown a lot, “Well what about 1968. The late ’60s were kind of like this.” I myself think a better parallel is probably 1848 where the whole of Europe erupted in revolution. You can make a case that even when you talk about information, the printing press was a far more revolutionary change than the internet, at least so far. I have a friend who makes the following historical analysis. He says if you had gone to the 30 Years War where people … I mean it was a horrible war. Millions died. The population of Germany took several generations to replenish itself, and they were all killing each other over religion and all the religious hostilities had to do with these books that were being published, each of which had like five different words they were fighting over, right? If you had gone to the 30 Years War and asked people, “Well what do you think of the printing press,” they would have said, “That’s the most horrible conflict-inducing technology that has ever been invented. Take it away.”|
|Martin Gurri:||Well we now know that the printing press was by far the most liberating technology that has ever been invented. So we are in the very early stages of this vast migration out of the industrial age to somewhere parts unknown, some place that doesn’t have a name yet. So it seems very conflictive. This seems very painful and it certainly in many ways is, but it’s early. It’s early.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||And of course the other overlay to all of this is that it is happening everywhere, that this is a global phenomenon, not just in the US with Trump or with Brexit in the UK, but it’s happening everywhere.|
|Martin Gurri:||Yeah, that’s totally true. I mean it seems to come in two varieties, these eruptions from below that I was mentioning before, the Arab Spring and what’s happening today in Chile, what’s happening in Sudan. I mean like you say, all over the world. The other flavor is populism and a fair question is whether the populists are the cause of this hostility of the public to the established order or are they in fact an effect of it. I tend to lean very heavily on the fact that people like Trump, Bolsinaro in Brazil, and so forth, Brexit another example, they are effects of the public’s temper, its impulse to negation. They are not manipulating the public into anything. The public basically has seized people like Trump as a club in their hands so they can smash at the established order.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||One of the problems with that impulse towards negation is that it makes it very hard to have any sense of what progress or what the future looks like.|
|Martin Gurri:||I mean the very word progress in scholarly circles or in educated circles, you get laughed at. I mean progress entails an idea that we understand which is the right way to move ahead. We have absolutely no consensus or even a belief that it’s possible. Describing the present, what is America like today? What is the world like today? And you get 50 different war bands giving you radically different definitions and assessments of that. Yeah, I think part of each … There is a conflict between the public and the elites. Each seems to have a fatal weakness which can be overcome, but has not yet.|
|Martin Gurri:||The public will not take yes for an answer. I mean in many of these revolts, they get given what they’re asking for. I mean the Chilean revolt that was upset over the 4% hike, that was taken away almost immediately. Okay? The yellow vests had taxes on fuel that they revolted. That was taken away almost immediately, but they did not take yes for an answer. They stayed angry. Right? On the other hand, they have nothing to propose. There is no way that the government can negotiate with them because they refuse to make positive proposals. That’s the public.|
|Martin Gurri:||The elites, their, I would say, weakness is that they’re stuck in reactionary mode. I mean they look back at the 20th century and thought, “Man, that was comfortable.” They want to go back. They want to go back to the 20th century. So if you are an authoritarian, say you start creating an intranet. You kind of build a wall around your internet so you can control it. If you’re in a democratic country like ours, then you start thinking about it like, “How can I tax, fine, and regulate all the big platforms into just basically acting like old newspapers and mediating information in a sense that I find comfortable with?” So right now, the two contending parts are very far apart and not particularly productive in their behavior.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Where does economics have a place in all of this? All of this is happening in a world that is arguably awash in money, awash in pretty decent economic times. Talk a little bit about that.|
|Martin Gurri:||Yeah. That’s a really good question actually because when you are like me and you research these uprisings, these revolts, a lot of what you have to get past in my opinion is the elites putting their spin on what’s happening and try to get to the voices of the people who are actually in the street which is kind of hard. But if you look at what the elites are saying, a lot of it is economic. The elites are convinced that economics is 90% of politics and they talk about economic inequality. They talk about globalization. They talk about neoliberalism. Sometimes there’s some truth to that. I think the yellow vests are probably people who are not particularly affluent, but I mean compared to somebody, the average person in Bolivia, they are massively affluent, massively educated. They all have cars. They all have laptops. They all have cellphones. They all have high school, at least, diplomas.|
|Martin Gurri:||So I think the economics plays a part in the elite interpretation of the revolt of the public. I am way less sure when you look at what the people themselves say. They’re angry at the elites for very different reasons. They’re angry because the elites are too distant, they’re too far away. It’s supposed to be a democracy and they’re too distant, and there’s some truth to that. I mean ask yourself how many layers are there between you and the President of the United States. Hundreds. Hundreds. So it doesn’t feel very democratic when you do that. Then when you interact with the government, you get some functionary who tells you, “This is what you have to do,” and it doesn’t feel like they’re your servant. They feel like they’re your boss, right?|
|Martin Gurri:||So I think that is more a factor than the economics. You look at where the revolts have happened. They have happened in poor countries, but they have happened in very affluent countries. I mean to go back to Chile, Chile has had 30 years of economic growth. It has gone from being a kind of poor-ish country to being a middle-class country and the most affluent country in Latin America. During that time, that is a period that the street rebels in Chile are angry about and all that time was democratic. So the negation has a number of elements to it. I don’t pretend to understand them all. That’s part of what makes my job as a researcher fun. There’s depths there that we don’t understand, but for a fact, no question, economics are a piece of it. I don’t think they’re a particularly important one.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||How much is the psychological fear of change? Certainly with all the change that’s taking place, the speed of change, all the things that we’ve been talking about, it creates a certain amount of fear and unease in people. Psychologists would argue that a lot of that fear is what’s translated into so much of this random anger.|
|Martin Gurri:||That might be, except a lot of the people who seem to take to the streets are young people. So for them, it’s not necessarily change. This is just the way the world is, right? But actually you touch on something that I think is … Again, we’re talking about the depths underneath the reasons for all that negation. Speculatively, I can’t prove it because this is a hard thing to prove, but I want to research it more. I would say there’s an existential element to it. I think when your structures that give meaning to your life like your church, like your community, like your family, well they’re all kind of being blown out and warped and changed and some of them nonexistent, you turn to politics for that. You turn to politics for existential meaning.|
|Martin Gurri:||When you look at the yellow vests, it was pretty clear to me that they just refused to give up. They’re slowing petering out, but they refused to stop. When you look at what they’re doing, you have the feeling that these are people who felt like, “I’m nobody.” Suddenly, there was something. Everybody was paying attention to them. The cameras were there looking at them. Everybody was looking up their YouTube videos. So there’s existential meaning that people try to extract from politics in a very utopian way. I am of course one who believes that you are not going to get that from politics. That’s not what politics is about. So part of the anger is fed by the fact that I’m asking for the government to give meaning to my life, and I mean how is that going to happen?|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Talk a little about the elites and how they’re reacting to this and how the decisions they make as this continues to play out could have a pretty profound effect on what happens next.|
|Martin Gurri:||Yeah. The elites, I mean I always say you have to sort of look at the reality of the case, the reality of contemporary life. You can’t run a modern society without some sort of hierarchies. Therefore, you’re going to need elites to run those hierarchies. So we’re going to need elites. To be honest, the pyramid can be flatter and I think it’s going to have to be in the future, but you’re going to have to have some kind of pyramid. I think their reaction to what has happened has been universal and you see it in the media, you see it in politics, you see it almost everywhere. It’s this, “No, you’re not allowed to speak. What is your authority? You have no expertise. I’m scientific. I’m rational. You’re crazy. You live in a bubble. You’re somebody who’s talking that shouldn’t be allowed to talk.”|
|Martin Gurri:||I have gone to conferences. Oh, my gosh. I have gone to conferences that have driven me crazy. I mean they talked about five different things and then they complain about the public being in an information bubble. Right? So I’m listening to this conference where a couple thousand people are and thinking the bubble is right here. The elite bubble is far tinier than any that the public puts itself in. So essentially if it’s true that we need elites and it is true that our current elite class seems stuck in reactionary mode, I think we’re going to need new elites. That could be had without violence, I think.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Well it’s funny you say that because that was my next question to you, whether or not it has to come to violence in order to get out of where we are now.|
|Martin Gurri:||No, no. I mean there’s a Spanish philosopher called Jose Ortega y Gasset. I actually cribbed his title, The Revolt of the Masses, for my title. He provides a very interesting sort of structure for how he thinks elites and public interact. He says in a sense, there’s a mutual sense of selection, a mutual selection. In other words, people are elites because, well, we elect them, we look at them on television, we buy their movies, we buy their products, and all of that is the public selecting their elites. We tend to separate a lot of what I’ve been talking about, the fact that these people are very reactionary, and we tend to focus on, “Well are they pro-immigration? Are they anti-immigration?” And all the hot buttons that make the war bands jump up and down, but what we really need is elites that understand this sense of distance and start to work basically reforming our democracy to make it flatter and to make our different elite rhetoric.|
|Martin Gurri:||In other words, part of what people are driven crazy by is the fact that they stand up there and they say, “Well there’s a problem and I’ve got a solution.” There’s a lot of pretense, a lot of fraud, a lot of thinking that they can do what is now obvious, given all the information they cannot. We need elites that are more humble. We need elites that are more modest and that are more courageous, that feel comfortable being among the public. Right now, the internet can be seen as bringing the public and the elites into kind of an unbearable proximity, and the reaction of the public has been anger, and the reaction of the elites has been to fly as high up into the top of the pyramid to escape. I mean that’s where they are right now. So you need people who have the courage.|
|Martin Gurri:||I live in Washington and I can tell you the number of motorcades in this town and the number of metal-detecting machines in this town and the number of bodyguards in this town is not what you might expect in a democracy honestly. I mean I could tell you just personally when I was a young man, I could walk. I had a little contract with the State Department. I could walk into the State Department and at that time, I mean I give away my age, I felt like I could walk up to the seventh floor, open Henry Kissinger’s door, and say, “Hi, Henry,” and then just leave. I mean there was nobody to stop me. Today, when I was working for CIA with clearances that were far tighter than anybody in State Department had, I was stopped outside the building twice before I was allowed in. Then I got to go through the metal-detecting machine and all the forms and stuff.|
|Martin Gurri:||So if you’re a member of the public, you feel like, “Well this is like a fortress. Am I the enemy here?” So you need elites that are courageous. It takes some courage in the age of terrorism to say, “Well I’ll take that chance. I don’t need …” When the president attends a baseball game, you’re told, “Come two hours early,” and you’re going, “What? That doesn’t make any sense.” You can’t command the public to come two hours early because you’re going to show up, right? So for security reasons, that’s what they do. So I think we need more courage, more honesty, more humility. I think there’s no reason why we shouldn’t get it.|
|Martin Gurri:||I think in part, it’s going to be generational. I think when you look at our politics today, it’s remarkable how the baby boomers are clinging to life. I am one and I’ve never been much of a fan of my generation, but you got to give us credit for longevity. I mean by the next presidential election, I’ll be amazed. Probably no baby boomer will be there. So in part, this will be generational; in part, you just need the people to understand what is needed. It’s not a set of policies. It’s a structural reform.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Martin Gurri, he’s the author of The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium; his blog: The Fifth Wave. Martin, thanks so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.|
|Martin Gurri:||Hey, Jeff. It’s been fun.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.|
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